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How Trump changed Facebook
Former President Donald Trump repeatedly tested Facebook’s policies on harmful speech during his term in office. | Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images Land of the Giants looks at how Facebook has grappled with its political power. At one point in time, Facebook’s relationship with politicians was relatively uncontroversial. But after the 2016 US elections, everything changed. Early in the campaign, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump tested the limits of Facebook’s rules against hateful speech, at the same time that the company became a vehicle of political exploitation by foreign actors. Facebook’s first test: dealing with a 2015 Facebook post from Trump calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the US. While some inside the company saw a strong argument that Trump’s comments violated Facebook’s rules against religious hate speech, the company decided to keep the post up. Until then, most Facebook employees had never before grappled with the possibility that their platform could be used to stoke such division by a political candidate for the highest position of office. “What do you do when the leading candidate for president posts an attack … on [one of the] the biggest religion[s] in the world?” former Facebook employee and Democratic lobbyist Crystal Patterson told us. And it wasn’t just national politicians Facebook had to worry about, but foreign adversaries, too. Despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s initial post-election comments dismissing the “pretty crazy idea” that fake news on the platform could have influenced the elections, it soon became clear that propaganda from Russian Facebook accounts had reached millions of American voters — causing an unprecedented backlash and forcing the company to reckon with its culpability in influencing global politics. Over time, Zuckerberg would acknowledge Facebook’s role as what he called “the Fifth Estate” — an entity as powerful as the government and media in shaping the public agenda — while at the same time trying to minimize the company’s role dictating the acceptable terms of political speech. To offload the burden of political responsibility going forward, Facebook formed the Oversight Board in 2018, a Supreme Court-like body it set up to weigh in on controversial content decisions — including how to deal with Trump’s account. But the board is new, and we’re still learning how much power it has over Facebook. How much responsibility does Facebook still have to dictate the terms of its own platform? And can the board go far enough to change the social media platform’s underlying engine: its recommendation algorithms? We explore these questions about Facebook’s role in moderating political speech in our fourth episode of Land of the Giants, Vox Media Podcast Network’s award-winning narrative podcast series about the most influential tech companies of our time. This season, Recode and The Verge have teamed up over the course of seven episodes to tell the story of Facebook’s journey to becoming Meta, featuring interviews with current and former executives. Listen to the fourth episode of Land of the Giants: The Facebook/Meta Disruption, and catch the first two episodes on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
vox.com
The search for an AC that doesn’t destroy the planet
A growing number of startups are tinkering with the science behind cooling. | Hildegarde/Getty Images The AC is about a century old. What comes next? Amid a growing number of heat waves, air conditioners have become a lifeline. Because these appliances are critical to keeping people cool — and protecting them from dangerously hot weather — the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that there may be more than 5 billion air conditioners across the planet by 2050. The problem is that while air conditioners do keep people safe, they’re also a major contributor to climate change. So why not rethink the AC entirely? The basic science of air conditioners hasn’t changed much since they were first invented about a century ago, but these appliances have become a bigger and bigger threat to life on Earth. Most modern air conditioners consume a massive amount of energy, strain the electrical grid during sweltering summer days, and use harmful chemicals, called refrigerants, that trap heat in the atmosphere. That’s why, along with a vast number of other structural changes the world will need to make to fight climate change, some experts say it’s time to change how we cool our homes. “We need to design our buildings in a way that consumes less energy. We need to insulate them better. We need to ventilate them better,” explained Ankit Kalanki, a manager at Third Derivative, a climate tech accelerator co-founded by the sustainability research organization RMI. “These strategies are very important. We can reduce the air conditioning demand in the first place, but we cannot eliminate that.” The race to redesign the AC is already on. The IEA predicts that within the next three decades, two-thirds of the world’s homes could have air conditioners. About half of these units will be installed in just three countries: India, China, and Indonesia. The extent to which these new air conditioners will exacerbate climate change hinges on replacing the cooling tech we currently use with something better. Right now, ideas range from retrofitting our windows to more far-out concepts, like rooftop panels that reflect sunlight and emit heat into space. To succeed, however, the world will need to boost the efficiency of the appliances we already have — as quickly as possible — and invest in new tech that could avoid some of AC’s primary problems. The AC’s noxious environmental impact stems from its core technology: vapor compression. This tech involves several components, but it generally works by converting a refrigerant that’s stored inside an AC from a liquid to a gas, which allows it to absorb heat, removing it from a room. Vapor compression uses an immense amount of electricity on the hottest days, and there are growing concerns that the technology might eventually overwhelm the grid’s capacity to provide power. And hydrofluorocarbons, the chemical refrigerants that many ACs use to soak up heat, are greenhouse gases that trap lots of heat in our atmosphere when leaked into the air. The challenge is that, for now, vapor compression ACs are still a critical tool during deadly heat waves, especially for high-risk populations, young children, older adults, and people with certain health conditions. Technology to build cleaner, more efficient air conditioners does exist. Two major AC manufacturers, Daikin and Gree Electric Appliances, shared the top award at last year’s Global Cooling Prize, an international competition focused on designing climate-friendly AC tech. Both companies created ACs with higher internal performance that used less environmentally damaging refrigerants; the new units could reduce their impact on the climate by five times. These models aren’t yet on the market — Gree plans to start selling its prototype in 2025, and Daikin told Recode that it hopes to use the new technology in future products — but the IEA estimates that using more efficient ACs could cut cooling’s environmental impact by half. Another strategy is to double down on heat pumps, which are air conditioners that also work in reverse, using vapor compression to absorb and move heat into a home, instead of releasing it outside. Heat pumps usually cost several thousand dollars, though the Inflation Reduction Act includes a proposal for a significant heat pump rebate, and President Joe Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to ramp up production. Experts have argued installing heat pumps is critical to another important climate goal: transitioning away from fossil fuel-powered furnaces, which are an even bigger source of emissions than cooling. The holy grail of HVAC would be a heat pump that could provide both heating and cooling but isn’t dependent on vapor compression. “Heat pumps are a critical technology in reducing our energy consumption, enhancing grid reliability and the utilization of renewable power, reducing emissions, reducing our reliance on foreign sources of energy, and lowering utility bills for US families and businesses,” Antonio Bouza, a technology manager at the Department of Energy, told Recode. The next step, he said, is reducing emissions even further by designing heat pumps that don’t rely on refrigerants, as current vapor compression systems do. Another challenge, though, is that heat pumps are not the easiest appliance to install, especially for renters, who don’t necessarily have the money or ability to invest in bulky HVAC systems. To address this problem, a company called Gradient has designed a heat pump that easily slides over a windowsill — it doesn’t block light — and currently uses a refrigerant called R32, which is supposed to have a (comparatively) low global warming potential. Gradient recently won a contract to install its units in New York City public housing. A fleet of new companies want to make even bigger changes to how we cool our homes. One of these startups is Blue Frontier, which is backed by Bill Gates’s investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and plans to start selling its futuristic AC units in 2025. The company’s technology uses a specialized salt solution that can release water into the air — or draw it out — which allows the AC to control its temperature. This approach, Blue Frontier claims, can save up to 90 percent of the energy used by a traditional AC and avoids draining electricity from the grid during peak hours. “By eliminating air conditioning that’s a problem for the grid, it allows the grid to actually reduce the costs of power production [and] utilize renewable energies in a more effective manner,” Daniel Betts, the CEO of the company, told Recode. “So not only do we save energy, but we are saving energy at the moments that are most critical.” Scientists and startups are playing with other concepts, too. One path, which the company Transaera is taking, is to develop new materials that efficiently soak up moisture from the air, almost like a sponge, so that air conditioners can work more efficiently. A similar concept is to take advantage of solid-state technology. This idea would use solid materials to absorb heat, and some research on it has support from the US Department of Energy. The British firm Barocal is developing a type of plastic crystal that could do this and also help control temperature. One company, Phononic, has developed a solid-state core that could be integrated into existing HVAC systems. The company says its first commercial installation will be next year. While many of these technological breakthroughs are promising, the movement to revolutionize air conditioning still faces some major challenges. Right now, AC manufacturers primarily focus on meeting minimum performance standards, rather than competing for higher levels of efficiency. Consumers also tend to buy air conditioners based on their sticker price, not an AC’s overall impact on their energy bills. And even though there are a growing number of AC-focused startups, the industry is still dominated by a small handful of large companies, all of which primarily focus on far-from-ideal vapor compression tech. “We don’t install more efficient technologies unless we really need to, or it’s mandated by a government or another organization,” said Eli Goldstein, the co-founder and CEO of SkyCool, a startup developing tech that could be used to send heat from buildings and ACs into space. “Ultimately, the key is going to be dollar investments from both private and public enterprises to deploy the technologies.” Other changes, like better insulating our homes and installing batteries throughout the grid, are still critical in the fight against climate change. However, all signs indicate that humans will continue to buy air conditioners, not just to feel comfortable but to survive increasingly devastating weather brought on by climate change. This is especially true as temperatures and incomes rise in some of the world’s largest countries and fastest-growing economies. In India alone, demand for cooling tech was already growing between 15 and 20 percent every year, as of 2020. This surging demand creates a promising, but incredibly risky, situation. There’s the possibility that the growing need for cooling spurs a race to build the best AC technology and, ideally, tech that could also displace fossil fuel-based heating. But if better, more affordable AC doesn’t come to market fast enough — especially for the vast number of people in developing countries who will buy these appliances in the coming decades — significantly worse air conditioners will take their place, warming the planet even faster. This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!
vox.com
It’s Bama Rush season already?
How TikTok — and the rest of the internet — breaks down the calendar. A couple weeks ago, I saw a video of a bunch of matching women in a meticulously organized formation singing Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” except instead of the lyrics to “All Star,” they were singing about the Tri Delta sorority at Baylor University. I am not a student at Baylor University nor have I ever had the patience or the hair extensions for Greek life at a Southern college, but I knew this video was for me because it is the special time of year when seemingly every TikTok user is thrust into the world of sorority recruitment whether they asked to be or not. In the year since Bama Rush took over the internet last August, it’s become clear that TikTok works on a set calendar, except it’s slightly different from the regular calendar. For instance, there is no “April,” but there is a period of roughly eight weeks in which TikTok decides to serve you videos of beautiful people frolicking in bucolic settings and you consequently start looking up cottage prices on Zillow. Instead of “September,” “October,” or “November,” we have a section of time that can be divided between “Happy Fall” and “Sad Fall,” which are similar aesthetically but have very different emotional tenors. Anyway, the Gregorian calendar is in its flop era. Here is the new framework with which we will be organizing the concept of time. New Year Rebrand If you scroll through your TikTok feed during this time of year, you might wonder, “Hm, why does everyone have the exact same new year’s resolutions, and why do they all believe they can Amazon shop their way into a new personality?” That’s because theconcept of the “New Year Rebrand” almost always idealizes a hyperachieving, beautiful, thin person who devotes all of her waking hours to self-improvement. Fast-forward to a few months later, and she’ll inevitably realize that most of what Americans consider “self-improvement” is silly and mostly futile, leading her to … Winter Madness Depending on where you live, the period from late winter to early spring is ruthlessly miserable: It’s too cold to be outside for longer than you have to be, nor is the outside very pretty to look at from the relative warmth of your home. Which means there are even more miserable people spending even more time online. Beware: This is the internet at its most vulnerable, and is often when we get our most circular, pointless discourses, such as whetherliking Lolita renders you suspect or whether bimbos can be feminist. But eventually, the sun will rise again, welcoming us to … View this post on Instagram A post shared by Paola Salvaire (@mycambridgefairytale) What If I Lived In the Countryside? The flower buds are blooming, the birds are chirping, and you’re wearing a square-cut puff-sleeve dress and fantasizing about owning a little cottage upstate, maybe with some baby goats. Even if you never accomplish this kind of achievement, you can live vicariously through the people who are filming themselves doing it and then posting it online (which sort of negates the whole aesthetic, but let’s not focus on that right now). After watching too many of these kinds of videos, though, you wonder whether those people are posting so much because they’re by themselves all the time and living a life that ultimately seems pretty lonely, bringing us to … [X] Girl Summer Staying home is out, and going out is in, baby! It’s Pride month, it’s time for short shorts and halter tops, and just like at the beginning of every year, each summer you get to become someone else. Obviously, Megan Thee Stallion deserves the credit for coining the term “Hot Girl Summer,” but since its debut in 2019, others have iterated on it with fill-in-the-blank versions like “feral girl summer,” “thigh guy summer,” or, really, any kind of summer you want. TikTok’s favorite summer aesthetic this year was “coastal grandma,” a mix between Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give and Ina Garten every day of her life. But before the leaves begin to change, there’s still one more late-summer tradition we must cross together … Bama Rush Since it blew up on TikTok last year, the incoming pledges of the University of Alabama’s sorority system are once again on everyone’s For You pages. We now get to shake the cobwebs off all the useless knowledge we shoved deep in the attics of our brains, such as the fashion establishment known as “the Pants Store,” Kendra Scott jewelry, and acronyms like PNM (Potential New Member) and ZLAM (Zeta Love and Mine). Phenomena like Bama Rush happen all the time on TikTok — niche, novel, and drama-filled events that go super-viral and are forgotten about within a matter of weeks — but Bama Rush is one of the few that happens like clockwork at the same exact time each year. Ultimately, however, it’s just a short stop, a fun distraction on the way to … Happy Fall The internet has come up with plenty of terms to describe the particular joy of the first signs of fall —Christian Girl Autumn, Meg Ryan fall, PSL season — but for the most part, they fall under the same category, which is: Fall is fun, fall is cute, fall is when we get to wear plaid shirts and drink delicious orange sludge at Starbucks and embrace our own basicness. Because honestly, who cares if it’s cheesy to go apple-picking when the air smells so crisp? At a certain point, though, you realize that the good smell is actually from dying flora, which results in … View this post on Instagram A post shared by Nora Ephron Interiors (@noraephroninteriors) Sad Fall The shift from Happy Fall to Sad Fall occurs around the same time it starts getting pitch-dark at 4 pm and you remember that the sun is going to be on hiatus for the next six months. In Vermont, we have a term for when the leaves are gone but there’s no snow yet — stick season — a term that actually wentviral on TikTok recently when the Vermont artist Noah Kahan released a song of the same name. But there are more aesthetically pleasing ways to experience Sad Fall; consider “cabincore,” which is autumn’s answer to spring’s cottagecore, or “spooky szn,” in which you can pretend like you’re “entering your villain era” (even if it means you just put on a black corset and a cat-eye). Prepare to get back in the holiday spirit in a few weeks, though, because soon it’s time for … Home for the Holidays The holiday season offers the rare gift of seeing people on the internet spending time with their families, whether it’s teaching their grandparents a silly TikTok dance or getting progressively drunker whilst avoiding the “So how’s your dating life going?” questions from nosy relatives. It is also, crucially, when you can finally receive confirmation that that one kid you had a feeling was super rich is indeed super rich, based only on the crown molding in his parent’s historic home. When you’re overwhelmed by the parties and the people, TikTok offers a precious little escape from the less enjoyable parts of the season, which will soon give way to … The Week Between Christmas and New Year When Time Stands Absolutely Still There’s literally nothing going on in the world, so naturally it’s time to revisit everything that happened on the internet this year and make our predictions on what will happen in the next one. TikTok trends might be literally meaningless and trendwatching is dead, but that’s never stopped us from attempting to squeeze even more content out of these already deadened, soulless viral phenomena. Happy new year! In conclusion: Throw out your calendar and replace it with this one. By next year, it’ll be the only one that matters. This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.
vox.com
Some heat waves have names now. That could save lives.
A construction worker pours water on his head as he tries to cool off during a heat wave in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 4, 2022. | Mark Makela/Getty Images Treating heat waves more like hurricanes could help us take them more seriously. We talk about heat waves in a weird way. Natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires are (rightly) accompanied by warnings of their danger. They bring a visible, elemental fury that’s hard to ignore. Heat, on the other hand, is invisible and insidious. We feel it on our skin, radiating from the sun or bouncing off asphalt and concrete, but we don’t see it the way we see, say, floodwaters carrying cars down the street. That makes heat waves easy to dismiss as quirky summer weather. “Heat is an interesting hazard because it can kind of creep up on you,” said Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “It tends to affect millions of people at a time, and a lot of people don’t realize the danger.” But heat is the deadliest weather phenomenon in a typical year in the United States, killing an average of 158 people annually in the 30 years from 1992 to 2021, and climate change is only going to make heat waves more common. We already categorize tornadoes, and we name wildfires. Hurricanes get both. Would extending those ideas to heat waves help? “Naming hurricanes has been really effective,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), which studies climate resiliency. Hurricane-prone communities tend to have what McLeod called “a culture of preparedness and prevention,” where residents know how to prepare for storms of varying intensity. Residents who decide to ride out a weaker storm at home, for example, might board up their windows and store a few days’ worth of water. “Heat waves need that branding, that identity,” McLeod said. To figure out how that branding might work, scientists at Arsht-Rock are running pilot projects in six cities — Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, and Kansas City in the United States, along with Seville, Spain, and Athens, Greece — to test-drive a heat wave categorization system they developed. In July, Seville became the first city in the world to give a heat wave a name: Zoe. Spanish authorities ranked the heat wave at Category 3, indicating the highest level of risk. Categorizing heat waves isn’t easy. “The same heat wave can create very different impacts depending upon when and where it occurs,” said Larry Kalkstein, Arsht-Rock’s chief heat science adviser and president of Applied Climatologists, Inc, a climatology lab that studies the effects of extreme weather on human health. “You can have two cities with almost identical weather, and you’ll still need two different categories.” New York City and Philadelphia, for example, are close enough to each other that they tend to experience similar weather conditions on most days, but local conditions make a difference to how the residents of each city experience heat. That means heat waves can’t simply be categorized by temperature. The National Weather Service uses a metric called the Heat Index that combines relative humidity with air temperature to give an idea of how heat actually feels, and an accompanying chart provides an idea of what effect that heat will have on the body. But while the heat index provides a better understanding of how heat might feel, it’s essentially an enhancement of the temperatures we already know. That means it runs the risk of being just as easy to ignore or underestimate. Kalkstein and his colleagues instead developed a system that looks at historical weather and mortality data from past heat waves to determine what combination of weather conditions — heat, humidity, overnight temperatures, cloud cover, and more — leads to the most excess deaths in a particular region. From there, they developed an algorithm that compares the conditions of an incoming heat wave against that data, determines its likelihood of causing excess deaths, and then issues a category based on expected mortality. The categories come with recommendations for steps cities and their citizens should take to safeguard from the heat. This is a notably different approach from most weather warning systems. Meteorological agencies usually issue warnings based on weather conditions alone. Hurricanes, for example, are solely classified according to wind speed. “We’re suggesting an approach that is linking health and weather together,” said McLeod. “So there’s going to be obvious discomfort for meteorological agencies because they’re not health agencies. That’s a big change.” Courtesy Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center A mockup of the heat wave categorization system used by Athens, Greece. The idea is already getting some pushback. In July, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a UN agency that coordinates weather data and planning across the world, released a statement saying it had no plans to name heat waves. “What has been established for tropical cyclone events may not necessarily translate easily across to heatwaves,” the agency said. “Caution should be exercised when comparing or applying lessons or protocols from one hazard type to another, due to the important differences in the physical nature and impacts of storms and heatwaves.” A 2017 study showed that naming winter storms — as the Weather Channel started doing in the US in the 2010s despite pushback from the National Weather Service — didn’t necessarily raise awareness of the storms, though that study’s sample size was limited to a few hundred college students. But pushing ahead with names and categories risks undermining the WMO and country-level agencies like the National Weather Service, according to Kristie Ebi, founding director of the University of Washington’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. The system for naming and categorizing hurricanes is overseen by the WMO, which allows for cross-border coordination. Ebi said a system like Arsht-Rock’s, which is collaborating with some national meteorological offices but not with the WMO, raises questions of who people should listen to in case of extreme weather. “Are we not supposed to listen to the National Weather Service in cities that are doing something different?” Ebi asked. There’s also a risk that giving heat waves names could prove counterproductive in the face of every other climate disaster we’re bound to experience. We already name fires and hurricanes, Marlon pointed out, and giving names to every natural disaster could create a confusing jumble of names that risk being blown out of proportion by an attention-hungry media. For the climatologists at Arsht-Rock, the best-case scenario is to avoid that problem by simply having organizations like the WMO adopt their system. The idea is that their pilot program would collect evidence about whether the names and categories do or do not work. More than anything else, said McLeod, they see the categories as a system of communication that will help people understand when they’re in danger and what kind of precautions they need to take. “Institutions change slowly,” said McLeod. “We think that the conditions and the death tolls push us to accelerate what we’re doing to save lives as soon as we can.” If their pilot shows naming heat waves isn’t very effective, the climatologists will drop that part of their plans. But if naming doesprove to be effective and organizations like the WMO still decide not to adopt them, McLeod said, they’ll continue working with whatever governments do want to use the system — exactly what Ebi and the WMO are afraid of. Whatever happens, it’s clear we need to change how we talk about heat waves. ”I think there’s lots of creative ways to start raising awareness,” Ebi said. “We have to try to get people to really understand those risks. Nobody needs to die in a heat wave.”
vox.com
How Republicans rigged Texas’s federal courts against Biden
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, second from left, and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, right, walk out of the US Supreme Court after arguments in their case about the “Remain in Mexico” immigration policy on April 26. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images It’s easy to secure court orders blocking major policies when you can choose your own judges. One of the biggest impediments to President Joe Biden’s ability to govern is a small crew of Republican-appointed federal trial judges, all of whom sit in Texas. In August of 2021, for example, a Trump-appointed judge named Matthew Kacsmaryk ordered the Biden administration to reinstate a Trump-era immigration policy, known as “Remain in Mexico,” which forced many migrants to live in awful conditions on the Mexican side of the US/Mexico border. Although the Supreme Court eventually determined that Kacsmaryk egregiously misread federal immigration law, it left his order in place for nearly a year — and the Court’s most recent decision concerning Remain in Mexico makes it very easy for Kacsmaryk to seize control of federal border policy once again. Indeed, the status of this case, known as Texas v. Biden in Kacsmaryk’s court, is changing almost by the hour. On Monday, Kacsmaryk lifted his original order requiring the Biden administration to implement Trump’s policy — something he had to do given the Supreme Court’s decision — and the administration swiftly announced that it would wind down the program. But almost as soon as Kacsmaryk lifted his original order, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a new motion asking Kacsmaryk to seize control of federal border policy once again. This one Trump judge’s ability to override an elected president’s policies and assume the powers of a Cabinet secretary is just one aspect of a much larger problem. With the Supreme Court’s tacit blessing, Texas officials and other right-wing litigants can handpick the trial judge who will hear their challenges to Biden administration policies. And when those handpicked judges overreach in ways that even this Supreme Court deems unacceptable, decisions by men like Kacsmaryk can remain in place for as much as a year — effectively replacing governance by an elected presidential administration with rule by unelected Republican judges. In another, similar case, the Supreme Court allowed a Trump judge named Drew Tipton to temporarily strip Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of much of his authority over Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is the same Drew Tipton who issued a legally dubious order six days after Biden took office, which blocked the Biden administration's call for a 100-day pause on deportations while the new administration was figuring out its immigration policies. And then there’s Judge Reed O’Connor, the Fort Worth, Texas, judge known for rubber stamping nearly any legal outcome requested by Republicans. O’Connor is best known for his order in Texas v. United States, holding that Obamacare must be repealed in its entirety. That decision was so poorly reasoned that seven justices — including four Republican appointees — eventually ruled that no federal judge had any business hearing Texas’s anti-Obamacare lawsuit in the first place. But that experience did nothing to humble the Rubber Stamp of Fort Worth. In January, O’Connor forced the US Navy to deploy personnel that it deemed unfit for deployment because they are not vaccinated for Covid-19. The Supreme Court blocked most of O’Connor’s ruling in March, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh writing that the highly partisan judge “in effect inserted [himself] into the Navy’s chain of command, overriding military commanders’ professional military judgments.” Meanwhile, O’Connor is widely expected to strike down the Affordable Care Act’s provisions requiring health insurers to cover a wide range of vaccinations and preventive care in a pending case called Kelley v. Becerra. The fact that all these cases — and this is just a sample of the many policy-setting lawsuits being shunted to a handful of the most conservative judges in Texas — are winding up before a few GOP-appointed judges is not a coincidence. It is a deliberate strategy, made possible by procedural rules that effectively allow litigants to select which judge will hear their lawsuits, and by all appearances, intentionally pursued by the Texas attorney general’s office. These Texas federal judges’ orders, moreover, appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, almost certainly the most conservative federal appeals court in the country, which tends to regard those orders with the same level of partisanship that is a feature in Kacsmaryk, Tipton, and O’Connor’s courtrooms. So the Biden administration’s policies are routinely blocked, not because an impartial judge gives those policies a fair hearing and determines them to be illegal, but because Republican litigants can ensure that lawsuits seeking to undermine President Biden are heard by some of the most partisan judges in the country. Why Texas gets to choose which judges hear its lawsuits Chance normally plays a big role in federal litigation. When a plaintiff files a lawsuit, that suit is typically assigned to a district judge at random from among the federal trial judges who sit in the same geographic region. On appeal, the overwhelming majority of cases are heard by three-judge panels selected at random from among an appeals court’s judges. Only at the Supreme Court level, where a fixed panel of nine justices hears all cases, are litigants normally sure which judges will hear their case. In Texas, however, things work a little differently. Texas is divided into four large geographic regions known as “districts,” each overseen by a federal district court. These districts are further subdivided into smaller “divisions.” Anti-Obamacare Judge O’Connor, for example, sits in the Fort Worth Division of the Northern District of Texas. A problem arises, however, because federal law permits each federal district court to determine how cases are divided among the court’s judges, and Texas’s district courts divide their work in ways that make it easy for plaintiffs challenging a federal policy to choose which judge will hear their case. When a plaintiff files a lawsuit in a division of one of Texas’s federal district courts, their case will typically be heard by one of the judges in that division. Some divisions, however, are fairly small and may have a single judge who hears all or nearly all of the cases. In the Amarillo Division of the Northern District of Texas, for example, 95 percent of all civil cases are assigned to Kacsmaryk. In the Victoria Division of Texas’s Southern District, Tipton hears virtually all civil cases. To be clear, it’s unlikely that these geographic case assignment rules arose from an intentional effort to let litigants choose their own judges — they are most likely a response to the fact that Texas is very large, and litigants don’t want to travel hundreds of miles to a federal courthouse in a distant part of the state every day for a lawsuit — but they’ve certainly had that effect. While the Texas case assignment rules would be benign in a world where federal judges can be trusted to be fair and impartial, they take on a much more sinister cast in a world where judges like O’Connor exist. It’s the combination of well-known judges who act as rubber stamps for a political party, and local court rules that frequently allow plaintiffs to select which judge will hear their case, that effectively rigs Texas’s federal court system for the GOP. Many normal litigants still file at their closest federal courthouse. But if you are a plaintiff determined to undermine Biden, why would you file a lawsuit in Austin or Dallas when you can drive a few hours to a courthouse presided over by a Kacsmaryk or a Tipton? The Texas attorney general’s office is particularly ruthless in doing just that, manipulating the rules to ensure that its lawsuits will be heard by the GOP’s allies on the bench. As Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, documented in a recent amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court, “the Texas Attorney General appears to have filed 19 cases in the Texas district courts” against the Biden administration. Of these 19 cases, “judges appointed during Republican presidencies are presiding in all but one.” Texas achieved this feat by being very selective about where it files lawsuits. As Vladeck writes, Texas filed 12 of its 19 lawsuits against the Biden administration “in divisions where judges appointed during Republican presidencies preside over 100 percent of newly filed civil cases.” The remaining seven “were filed in divisions where judges appointed during Republican presidencies preside over 95 percent of new civil cases.” Notably, the Texas AG’s office has not filed a single case in Austin — the city where that office is actually located — a choice that most likely can be explained by the fact that half of all federal cases filed in Austin are heard by Judge Robert Pitman, an Obama appointee. The Supreme Court has largely encouraged this behavior Although the Supreme Court has, at times, disagreed with the judges Texas’s Republican leaders selected to hear their lawsuits, it’s done nothing to discourage the Texas AG’s judge-shopping. Indeed, if anything, it’s encouraged it. Recall, for example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Biden v. Texas, which determined that Judge Kacsmaryk mangled federal immigration law when he ordered the Biden administration to reinstate the Remain in Mexico program. While that was a victory, both for Biden and for the rule of law, it was an exceedingly narrow one. Ten months before the justices handed down their decision rebuking Kacsmaryk, the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to block his order while the case was making its way through the appeals process. But the Court refused to do so, with only its three Democratic appointees registering their dissent. That meant that Kacsmaryk wielded much of DHS Secretary Mayorkas’s policymaking authority for nearly an entire year. Then, even when the Court did rule against Kacsmaryk in its Biden decision, it explicitly left open several legal questions which Kacsmaryk could easily latch onto to seize control of federal border policy once again. Texas has already asked Kacsmaryk to do so. Just a few weeks after its decision in Biden, moreover, the Court issued a similar order to the one allowing Kacsmaryk to set border policy for 10 months. In this case, Judge Tipton effectively placed himself in charge of ICE’s decisions about which immigrants to target for enforcement actions by striking down a memo from Mayorkas that set enforcement priorities for the agency. Tipton’s order is egregiously wrong — among other things, a federal statute explicitly gives Mayorkas the power to establish “national immigration enforcement policies and priorities.” Nevertheless, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to leave that order in place, at least until the justices can fully consider the case later this year. Even if the Court does correct Tipton’s error in this case, it could feasibly not hand down its decision until June of 2023 — leaving Tipton as the de facto head of ICE for nearly a full year. Notably, the Court was far quicker to intervene when lower court judges blocked Trump administration policies. In early 2020, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned that her GOP-appointed colleagues were “putting a thumb on the scale in favor of” the Trump administration in cases asking the Court to temporarily block lower court decisions while a case was still on appeal. Around the same time, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch complained about a system where any one of the “more than 1,000 active and senior district court judges, sitting across 94 judicial districts” could block one of the Trump administration’s policies. Although liberal litigants typically did not engage in judge-shopping to the same degree that Texas now does, litigants suing the Trump administration would often file lawsuits in left-leaning districts such as the Northern District of California. In any event, Gorsuch appears to have lost interest in solving the problem of judge-shopping and nationwide injunctions after a Democrat moved into the White House. So what can be done? Every year Chief Justice John Roberts releases a “year-end report on the federal judiciary.” The document is normally quite brief; his 2021 report was only nine pages long, and three of those pages were charts and statistics describing the workload of the federal courts. And yet, Roberts devoted a considerable amount of that report to what he described as “an arcane but important matter of judicial administration.” Patent litigators throughout the country were taking advantage of the same judge-shopping rules that Texas uses to its advantage in order to shunt a high percentage of patent infringement suits to a single federal trial judge in Texas (not one we’ve discussed here). And Roberts announced that he’d asked one of the federal judiciary’s internal governing bodies to look into this problem of judge-shopping in patent litigation. In what was likely a response to Roberts’s rebuke, the Western District of Texas recently announced that it would randomly assign patent cases to one of 12 judges, thus ending this one judge’s monopoly over so many of these cases. But Texas’s federal courts have not taken similar action to stop Texas Republicans from shopping around for sympathetic judges. And Roberts has not urged them to do so. If the courts want to solve the problem of judge-shopping, it would not be hard for them to do so. One solution is to apply the same rule to Texas’s anti-Biden litigation as the Western District of Texas now applies to patent litigation — if a party seeks an order blocking a federal policy, that case will be randomly assigned to any judge within the entire district court where it is filed, not just one in the smaller division. Alternatively, a court could assign lawsuits seeking a nationwide injunction against a federal policy to a panel of three judges. That’s the solution Fifth Circuit Judge Gregg Costa proposed in a 2018 piece published by the Harvard Law Review’s blog. In any event, the details of such a solution don’t matter all that much. The important thing is that litigants who are actively trying to sabotage the United States government should not be allowed to handpick judges who share their agenda. For the moment, however, the courts seem to lack the will to address this problem. Texas Republicans can shop around for the judges they want, and that seems to suit a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees just fine.
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3 winners and 1 loser from the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Connecticut primaries
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes campaigns in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in early August 2022. | Scott Olson/Getty Images Donald Trump reasserted his influence, progressives pushed through, and election deniers thrived. Primary elections continued on Tuesday. In Vermont, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, progressives — as incumbents and in open races — had a solid night, either clearing the field before primary day or beating back challengers. Republicans in Wisconsin and Connecticut, the fourth state to hold primaries Tuesday, split between supporting establishment-backed candidates and Trump-boosted challengers to take on Democratic incumbents in the governor’s office (Wisconsin) and the US Senate (Connecticut). Still, just one day after the FBI raided his residence in Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s influence over the party remained certain, with successful endorsements in both states — and a concession by an incumbent Republican who voted to impeach the then-president. Here are three winners and one loser from the day’s races. Winner: Progressives Progressives cruised to victory in their primaries in Vermont and Wisconsin; in Minnesota, Squad member Rep. Ilhan Omar had a close primary, however, just eking out a win. It was a surprising turn of events given the advantage incumbents typically enjoy. In most cases, all the progressives who won their races did so in deep blue territory and are widely expected to go on to win their seats. Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, who was backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and a slate of other progressive leaders, prevailed over Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in the state’s first wide-open US House race since 2006. Gray has earned endorsements from moderates — including former Govs. Madeline Kunin and Howard Dean as well as retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy — and was portrayed by Balint as a “corporatist and a catastrophe for the left.” The seat is rated “solid Democrat” by the Cook Political Report, meaning that Balint will likely become the first woman and first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Congress. Rep. Peter Welch, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who was also backed by Sanders, cleared the field early in his bid to replace Leahy in the Senate after 15 years serving as Vermont’s only House member. His Democratic opponents, Dr. Niki Thran and Isaac Evans-Franz, never came within striking distance. He’s also heading into November as the clear favorite and would be only the second Democrat ever elected to the US Senate from Vermont. Leahy, the first, has served since 1975; the state’s other senator, Bernie Sanders, caucuses with the Democrats, but is an independent. In Minnesota’s Fifth District, which is also rated “solid Democrat,” progressive Squad member Rep. Ilhan Omar narrowly fended off a challenger from her right, Don Samuels, leading by just over 2 percentage points as of Tuesday night. She faced a similar challenge in 2020, and won by a nearly 20 percentage point margin. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) attends a July rally in support of abortion access at the US Capitol. Samuels, a former Minneapolis City Council member, promised to be a more moderate representative, and ran heavily on public safety. He helped defeat a proposed ballot measure to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety after a city police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020. Omar, a proponent of the progressive movement to “defund the police,” had supported the proposal. Clearly, Samuels’s message resonated in the district, and his near-win will likely encourage future challenges to Omar. Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s neighboring Fourth District, successfully defended her progressive record against Amane Badhasso, who came to the US as a refugee from Ethiopia and sought to portray herself as a new generation of progressive. It’s also considered a safe Democratic seat. Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes effectively won the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Sen. Ron Johnson before Election Day even began. The Democratic primary was initially crowded, but Barnes’s three main rivals — Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, Wisconsin state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson — dropped out of the race weeks ahead of the primary to coalesce behind him, hoping that doing so would boost Democrats’ chances of winning what is shaping up to be one of 2022’s most competitive Senate races. —Nicole Narea Loser: Jaime Herrera Beutler The Washington state Republican, one of 10 GOP House members who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 Capitol attack, didn’t have her primary on Tuesday. But she did concede defeat Tuesday night after a Trump-backed challenger solidified a narrow lead in last week’s primary. Herrera Beutler was starting a sixth term as a member of Congress when she voted to impeach Trump, inciting the former president’s fury and a primary challenge from Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed former Army Green Beret. He will now be the GOP’s candidate in the state’s Third Congressional District, just north of Portland, Oregon. With her primary loss, only one Republican who voted to impeach Trump appears likely to return to Congress, Rep. Dan Newhouse, of Washington’s Fourth Congressional District. Four decided not to run for reelection; four others, including Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer last Tuesday, lost their primaries. —Christian Paz Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) confers with Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI) on the steps of the US Capitol in November 2021. Winner: Donald Trump Just a day after the FBI raided his Florida home, Donald Trump’s bets in an array of primary contests Tuesday night seem to have paid off. Unlike on other primary days, the former president’s picks weren’t necessarily clear winners — this time, Trump took some risks in order to pursue grudges and boost candidates who more fully embraced his election lies. His pick in Wisconsin’s Republican primary for governor, the businessman and political outsider Tim Michels, was on track to defeat the establishment-backed former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch — whom former Vice President Mike Pence endorsed. That win follows a similar one for Trump in Arizona, where his gubernatorial candidate, Kari Lake, defeated Pence’s pick, Karrin Taylor Robson (as well as a Pence victory over Trump in Georgia back in May). At the state government level, Robin Vos, the powerful Republican speaker of the Wisconsin assembly and perennial antagonist to the state’s Democratic governor, came out less that 2 percentage points ahead ofAdam Steen, a Trump-endorsed challenger,on Tuesday night. Steen lost, but he did surprisingly well for a political newcomer with a small operationwhom Trump seemed to back out of spite for Vos not trying harder to overturn the state’s 2020 election results. Trump-backed candidates in another Wisconsin state assembly race and a US House race, Janel Brandtjen and Derrick Van Orden respectively, both ran uncontested. In Connecticut’s GOP Senate race, Leora Levy, a Republican fundraiser whom Trump endorsed just last week, beat the party’s former state House leader, Themis Klarides, who until recently was seen as the moderate frontrunner in the race. —CP Winner: Election lies Herrera Buetler’s loss was one of several signals Tuesday night that the GOP has gone all-in on Trump’s 2020 election lies. In the Republican primary for governor in Wisconsin, the Trump-endorsed victor, businessman Tim Michels, has said that he agrees with Trump that there was election fraud in 2020 and that, as governor, he would consider signing a bill that would decertify the 2020 election results, even though there is no legal mechanism to do so. He has also said that he supports dismantling the Wisconsin Elections Commission, a bipartisan organization that presides over elections in the state. His rival, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, took similar stances. Scott Olson/Getty Images Businessman Tim Michels’s supporters await the election night results in Waukesha, Wisconsin. In Connecticut, Dominic Rapini, the former board chair of a group that has advanced claims of voter fraud, won the GOP nomination for secretary of state. He has said that his first act in office would be to eliminate the position of Connecticut’s elections misinformation officer, who will be hired this year to monitor the internet and defend against foreign and domestic interference in elections conducted in the state. Trump-backed Adam Steen, who ran on a platform of decertifying the 2020 election results in Wisconsin, quickly came within striking distance of incumbent Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has been in the assembly since 2005. As of Tuesday night, Steen lost by less than 2 percentage points — a much smaller margin than anticipated, given his lack of a large campaign. Other GOP candidates who prevailed on Tuesday, including Levy in Connecticut, have gestured more broadly at the importance of “election integrity” in the wake of 2020 and accused Democrats of making elections less secure. It wasn’t just Trump’s election lies that saw success Tuesday, but his penchant for downplaying Covid-19 as well. Scott Jensen, a physician and former Minnesota state senator, won the Republican primary for governor after falsely claiming that Covid-19 death tolls were inflated. He argued that they were “skewed” because they accounted for elderly people who would have died within a few years anyway, and has also criticized incumbent Democratic Gov. Tim Walz’s vaccine mandates. —NN
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Trading Brittney Griner for the “Merchant of Death”
WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was detained at a Moscow airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, leaves the courtroom after the court’s verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images The WNBA superstar has been sentenced to nearly a decade in a Russian penal colony for drug possession. But a prisoner swap might mean she’s free much sooner. “I never meant to hurt anybody,” Brittney Griner told a Russian judge during her sentencing hearing last week. “I made an honest mistake. And I hope that, in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.” Griner’s been in the custody of Russian authorities since February 17 when she was detained at a Moscow airport by customs officials who say she was in possession of vape cartridges containing less than a gram of cannabis oil. Griner pleaded guilty in the hope of garnering a milder penalty. And she told the judge that the oil was for her personal medical use. Despite Griner’s hopes for mercy, the WNBA All-Star, former WNBA champion, and three-time Russian Premier League champion was handed down a harsh nine-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Now, many are speculating that the United States Department of State engaged in negotiations to trade one of the most notorious arms dealers in history — a Russian named Viktor Bout — for Griner and former security consultant Paul Whelan — who the US says are “wrongfully detained.” “We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a press conference. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution.” Bout — a 55-year-old former Soviet military translator who became an international weapons trafficker after the fall of the Soviet Union — is currently serving a 25-year sentence at a medium-security prison in Illinois for selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and plotting to kill US nationals. “[Bout’s] ability to supply weapons to some of the worst warlords on the planet was, I think, transformational for” wars in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, says journalist and security consultant Douglas Farah. Farah is an expert on Bout’s exploits, and he’s the co-author of the definitive book about Viktor Bout: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible. It came out a few years after Lord of War, a moviein which a Viktor Bout-type arms dealer is played by Nicolas Cage. But just in case you’ve never seen the movie or haven’t yet read Farah’s book, Today, Explained podcast host Sean Rameswaram asked Farah to break down who exactly Viktor Bout is and to weigh in on whether or not this seemingly lopsided prisoner swap is worthwhile. A partial transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. SeanRameswaram Let’s just get right out the gate with this question. Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner. Fair trade? DouglasFarah I don’t think it’s a fair trade, but I think it’s a necessary trade. I think that Viktor has actual blood on his hands for many conflicts and has done horrendous things, or empowered people to do horrendous things for the years he was trafficking in weapons to Charles Taylor in Liberia, the RUF in Sierra Leone, Laurent Kabila in Democratic Republic of Congo, the Northern Alliance and then the Taliban in Afghanistan. So there’s nothing fair about it in terms of absolute justice. But I do think that he is not in a position to wreak a lot more havoc in his life. And I think Brittney Griner is in significant danger in Russia because of her sexual orientation, because of who she is, and because of the prize that the Russians have in her. That is worth the trade at this point to bring her back. Sean Rameswaram Who is Viktor Bout? Where did he come from? Douglas Farah Viktor Bout came out of the Soviet intelligence structures. He was working in Africa as a young man, late 20s, early 30s, when the wall goes down. And he has this incredible bolt of lightning moment, road to Damascus moment, where he realizes that there are all of these aircraft sitting around the former Soviet Union, that no one’s flying because no one has money for fuel. And there are all of these weapons depots where there are massive amounts of weapons, where the guards aren’t being paid, where you can buy, you know, boatloads of AK-47s or light anti-tank weapons or rocket-propelled grenades, essentially for a song. So he began flying the aircraft to the United Arab Emirates, from the United Arab Emirates, set up a distribution hub where he could fly to get the weapons, bring them back, and then start distributing around to all the wars that were breaking out in Africa at this point is where he initially got started. Sean Rameswaram So when did he get started? Douglas Farah Bout began in the late 1990s: ’96, ’97, ’98. It could have started earlier. No one knew who he was for a long time. I was hearing as a reporter the name “Viktor” delivering weapons. The Brits, the UN, other people had picked up that there was somebody supplying these weapons. But I don’t think anybody really knew until the British parliamentarians stood up in the British parliament and called him the “Merchant of Death” and publicly identified him. That was the first sort of coming out of Viktor Bout as a public figure at that point. Sean Rameswaram What makes him the “Merchant of Death”? It’s such an incredible, powerful, and horrifying title. Was he wildly successful in comparison to other arms dealers around the world? Douglas Farah Oh, without question. Many people could sell you lots of AK-47s across Africa. I was living there in the times of the war and covering the wars. It wasn’t hard to acquire crappy old Soviet weapons. It wasn’t hard to acquire a few hand grenades. But what Viktor Bout brought to the table was the ability to deliver attack helicopters, deliver anti-tank weapons that could be fired through entire villages and burn a village down with one shot. And the fact that you could bring in high-caliber machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, no one else could do that. And so as he built his reputation, both sides of the same conflict would hire him on numerous occasions. So in what was then Zaire, you had Mobutu, the dictator [who] had been there a long time, being chased out of office by Laurent Kabila’s forces sweeping across the DRC. And Viktor was selling weapons to both sides. And while Kabila’s forces were trying to kill Mobutu, literally as he was fleeing the country, he flew out of the country on Viktor Bout’s aircraft. So he had armed the people who were trying to shoot down his own airplane and the president. And that’s what made him so incredibly successful, was that he could do all of that. Sean Rameswaram Who was his supplier this whole time? Is it just Russia? Douglas Farah It was the entire former Soviet bloc where all of these arsenals had been abandoned. So if someone showed up and paid the commander $1,000 and said, “I’ll take this load of weapons out, thank you very much.” Fine. In most of the Soviet era, major arsenals had airstrips built into their facilities so he could land there, load up, and fly out. And it was, you know, apparently a relatively easy process. Sean Rameswaram It sounds like he did a lot of dirty deeds, especially on the continent of Africa. Does his involvement in them play a central role in accelerating the conflict or accelerating the end of the conflict? How important a player is he in these conflicts? Douglas Farah His ability to supply weapons to some of the worst warlords on the planet was, I think, transformational for those wars. When these wars started, most people had hunting rifles and machetes, and they were nasty and they were hellacious. But when you add AK-47s and light anti-tank weapons and RPGs, obviously the human toll escalates dramatically. Sean Rameswaram Okay. We’re talking about Africa and the Middle East primarily. But I think a fact that is sometimes overlooked is that he was also, at various points, something of an ally to the United States? Douglas Farah Well, this is one of the reasons why I think the trade should be considered, apart from whether it’s just or not. In fact, during the Iraq conflict, when hardly anyone would fly supplies to US troops on the ground, Viktor Bout flew hundreds of missions for US and British and other forces into a war zone that was very important to us. And as my co-author, Steve Braun, documented in the book, American officers who were making those decisions understood who Viktor Bout was. In fact, they publicly acknowledged that at one point. But their trade-off in their conversations with us was, do we let our people on the ground die from lack of ammunition and food because this guy is a criminal? Or do we deal with the criminal and get the people on the ground what they need? Sean Rameswaram Has Russia ever made any stink about his imprisonment in the US? Douglas Farah Constantly, yes. From the very beginning, they have had their Congress, their Duma has issued numerous declarations asking for his release. Every time a US person has been arrested, they’ve always raised the possibility of an exchange for Viktor. So, yes, this is certainly not the first time that they have raised the issue of trading for Viktor. Sean Rameswaram But this is the first time they might actually get him back? Douglas Farah It’s the first time we know that the US has actually considered doing anything like that, yes. I think it’s the first time one could say that he may actually go back. Sean Rameswaram How are we supposed to wrap our heads around how insanely lopsided this is? It’s estimated Viktor Bout may be responsible for the deaths of maybe tens of thousands of brown people around the world. And Brittney Griner maybe smokes some weed once in a while. Douglas Farah I don’t think it’s a fair trade. I have gone out of my way in talking about this and in our book and the other things to point out how absolutely horrific what Viktor Bout did, what he enabled people to do over a period of years. And you talked about, you know, the tens of thousands of deaths, but there are an equal number more of rapes. There are that many burned villages. There are that many children who were kidnapped, often forced to kill their own parents, burn their own villages, and become child soldiers. So I have no illusions about who Viktor Bout was. My main point is that he could be up for parole in a couple of years anyway. He’s no longer, I don’t think, going to be able to function in the world he helped create at that time. And Brittney, as a gay woman, well-identified, being held in a society where at least the upper echelons are extremely anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ community. So that’s a significant risk, and if you can get her out without causing the rest of the world significant damage, it should be considered. I don’t think it’s that Viktor Bout did anything like Brittney did. She clearly has done nothing remotely comparable. Sean Rameswaram Is there a chance that if this trade happens, that it’s Griner for Bout, that a country like, I don’t know, Iran or China or even Russia who facilitates the trade, says, “Oh, this is great, we should do this the next time LeBron James visits or the next time, you know, who knows, Nic Cage is in town.” Douglas Farah I think that’s a very real concern. And I do not minimize that. My basic premise with Russia is that they are so far off the rails in regard to international law and human rights … they’re going to grab whoever they’re going to grab, whether there’s a trade or not. They’re operating now in their own logic, which is why they invaded Ukraine and have done all these things. I do think the question about other countries, particularly China, because they’re a big country and can do it, may give this pause. And I think that that is something that has to be considered and it has to be considered by people who want to travel to these areas as well. I mean, I don’t think anybody in their right mind right now would want to travel to Russia as a basketball player or a tourist because the risk is too high. I don’t think that will change if they give Brittney back. I don’t think that that basic equation will change. Sean Rameswaram Do you think there’s something that these sort of international prisoner swaps teaches us about how the world works? Douglas Farah Well, I think it shows that every country has specific interests that it wants to protect and defend. And I think one of the things I would like to think about with the United States in this particular case is we are willing to show compassion and a level of mercy that Russia would never be able to share in a similar situation. I don’t think it makes us necessarily morally superior or anything like that. But I think that being able to show compassion, especially when a sentence has been served, Viktor Bout’s been in for 11 years, he was actually held since 2008 in really crappy conditions in Thailand. He has those three years added on to it. So I think that the sum of what he has paid, if he stays in prison here and gets out in two years, if we can just do it now and get Brittney back and save her life, in a way. And I think to me, that is an act of mercy for Viktor and an act of compassion for Brittney.
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Why Hollywood keeps getting abortion wrong
Jenny Slate in Obvious Child, a rare depiction of abortion that matches many Americans’ reality. | A24 This researcher interviewed dozens of writers, creators, and showrunners about onscreen abortion. Here’s what she learned. We’re a screen-soaked culture, and that means that what we see on TV and in movies often serves as a framework to look at the world around us. That’s certainly true for abortion. It’s still rare to see an abortion depicted, and even more rare to see it in a situation that matches the circumstances of most abortions in America; research has found that the most common abortion patient is a low-income, unmarried young mother, without a college degree, who is seeking her first abortion. The majority of abortion patients in America are non-white. Yet that’s not the average depiction. And this affects not just what people think about abortion, but how viewers treat people who seek abortions, as well as how they think about public policy. Steph Herold is an analyst with the Abortion Onscreen initiative at UC San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health research group. She’s been speaking with people from across the job spectrum in Hollywood — writers, showrunners, directors, and many more — about their experiences depicting abortion onscreen. Herold spoke by phone about her findings, the truth about Hollywood’s leanings on abortion, and why it matters that its depiction more closely matches reality. Our conversation has been edited for clarity. You’ve talked to a lot of people who work in the industry — tell me about your findings. My colleagues and I study how abortion is portrayed on TV and film. We do a lot of thinking about popular culture and abortion, and what these portrayals tell us about how Americans understand abortion, what messages we receive, where we receive them from, what impact these portrayals have on our beliefs, on our attitudes, on the way that we think about abortion. There’s this general sense that there aren’t depictions of abortion on television and film, but really that’s not true. Hollywood has always found ways to depict abortion — ways that reflect the politics of the time, going back to the early 20th-century silent films to today’s TV streaming dramas, and movies, and comedies. What’s been problematic is not the absence, but about how abortion has been portrayed. That’s where a lot of our research comes in. Abortion is one of the safest outpatient procedures in the US. Less than a quarter of 1 percent of abortions result in any kind of major complication. If you compare that to a similar outpatient procedure, like a tonsillectomy, that has a 9 percent complication rate. Abortion’s extremely safe. On TV, about 18 percent of abortions result in some major complication, or result in the person being infertile, or even dying sometimes. It’s more than 70 times the actual complication rate. That really suggests that abortion is dangerous or risky, in ways that it isn’t in reality. A lot of people hear that and say, “Well, we don’t expect TV to be an exact representation of reality.” Which of course is true. But because abortion is so stigmatized, and such a polarizing issue in our society, people don’t have that common reference point, where they see something on TV and can recognize it’s an exaggerated depiction. If someone gets in a car accident on TV, you don’t think, “Wow, everyone gets in car accidents.” People have the experience of driving and know how it could be safe. But they don’t have the same thing with abortion, a common reference point. You’d have to imagine one reason for this is that an ordinary outpatient procedure with no complications doesn’t inherently make for great television. Are there any other reasons, like ideological ones? We really wanted to understand why all these different kinds of problematic tropes kept emerging. We found that most of the TV characters who get abortions are white, young, wealthy, and not parenting. Compare that to actual abortion patients, who tend to be women of color, parenting, and struggling to make ends meet. We wanted to investigate why showrunners, producers, and writers keep telling this story about a certain patient. [The typical onscreen patient] also often has a surgical abortion, not a medication abortion, when now we know that the majority of abortions in the US are medication abortions. We did 46 in-depth interviews with showrunners, producers, writers, executive producers, and story editors who’ve all been involved in writing or producing plots about abortion over the last 20 years or so. We asked, “What motivated you to include abortion in your story?” We were trying to get behind some of it — is this for drama, or is there some political reason? What barriers did you face in getting abortion from the page to the screen? What did you hope the audience would take away? Their answers were really fascinating. Part of what we found is that, at least among the people that we talked to, there was this real desire to counter the stigmatizing narratives that we’ve found in our research. A lot of the writers we talked to have the sense that abortion is often portrayed as a tragedy, as a decision that’s made out of desperation. They have this sense that they wanted to write something new, where abortion is just a certain routine medical procedure. Some people really wanted to represent more characters of color. One person even pointed out that where you see abortion stories, they’re about a pretty rich white girl getting pregnant. I was like, “Oh, okay, so people are really noticing these things that we’re finding, too.” They talked about having to argue in their writers’ rooms and with their producers, about finding alternative sources for drama and conflict, taking the emotion out of the medical procedure itself, and putting the emotion on getting access to the abortion, or figuring out who to tell about the abortion. Some also talked about abortion as a plot device — not wanting to do an abortion plot line for political reasons, per se, but using it as a way to bring characters closer together, or to cause conflict between characters, or to showcase something about a relationship or a marriage. People kept talking about a particular challenge between men and women. That’s what I often heard about [happening] in writers’ rooms, or between women writers and male showrunners. One person said, “Once a male showrunner decides the direction of an abortion plot line, it’s hard to get him to change his mind, even if he had the details about the abortion wrong.” Another said, “You can hire as many women as you want, but if the people in power don’t listen to them, it doesn’t matter.” “You can hire as many women as you want, but if the people in power don’t listen to them, it doesn’t matter” There was a sense that male colleagues would tamper with an abortion plot line or would make it more dramatic for the sake of drama. They felt they had to explain over and over why it’s important to have a normal, simple abortion portrayed on TV, saying, “Okay, yes, we can put the drama somewhere else. We can have the conflict be somewhere else.” Class and racial disparities in Hollywood had something to do with this too, I’m sure. It has a lot to do with it. Class, race, and gender all play a really big role in which stories get written, which stories get approved, and what eventually makes it to the screen. From what I heard, it sounds like you have to have a really supportive showrunner who then is willing to go to bat for this plot line and for these characters and stories with the networks, with the executives who may be a little more fearful about any blowback from audiences or from advertisers. It seems like the people who want to write these stories tend to be people who’ve had personal experiences with abortion, or have friends who do, or the writers that are just getting started, who want to share these different stories than we’ve seen on TV before. That of course tends to be the writers of color, the writers coming from different types of class backgrounds, the women in the room. It’s all of these issues coming to a head. Have there been trends in how abortion is portrayed over time? Good question. I talked to writers who have been working in the industry for over 20 years. The majority of people we talked to had an average of about 10 years of being in Hollywood. Some people have been working for even longer, since the ’80s and from the ’90s. Those folks said to me, “It was impossible. There was no way you were going to get an abortion plot line on TV.” The best that you could do would be to have a character consider it. Then that character would either change their mind, or have a miscarriage on the way to the clinic. If you had a character even talk about it, that was huge. Networks were just not interested at all. Showrunners would say, “Okay, this character needs to suffer a little bit more after she has her abortion.” It seems like that has changed quite a bit. Now, people say networks are more supportive, although it seems like there’s a certain kind of story that they’re willing to tell and risks that they’re willing to take. A character who has an abortion seems okay. An entire series about abortion, not okay. It’s still risk-averse — doing what someone has already done, maybe with a slight twist, instead of taking a risk on a bigger, bolder kind of show. One person said they had a really big producer on board for their series that was all about abortion, focused on an abortion clinic and its staff. They had a couple of big-name actors and producers on board, and they took it from network to network. No one wanted to touch it. They asked why, and got the same feedback that the writing was great. The setup that they had was great. But the topic — they would never touch that topic. They would never have a show that focused entirely on abortion, that it was too sad, that it was a downer, that it was a bummer. There was this sense that audiences would never tune in for something like that. A character who has an abortion seems okay. An entire series about abortion, not okay. To me, that really conveys this fundamental misunderstanding of American attitudes about abortion, a misunderstanding on the part of networks and executives. The majority of people have some experience with abortion, whether it’s having one themselves, or holding someone’s hand having an abortion, driving them to the clinic. Most people are supportive of abortion, and want to see these kinds of stories told on TV. Studio and network executives in general, I find, don’t really have a great idea of who’s actually in the audience and what their experiences are! And this is a strange assertion when a show like Law and Order: SVU, which is literally about victims of assault, is a huge hit. Then again, I also find that most people consider Hollywood to be this liberal, progressive paradise, and the reality is that the only real ideology in Hollywood is money. Exactly. Right. I’m curious, because now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, I know that there are show writers, and producers, and folks in all kinds of roles who really feel called to tell bigger and bolder stories right now. The question is if networks will give them the resources to do it, and if they will be willing to take on whatever risk they think it is to their business, to advertisers and audiences. Can they give them the same resources that they would give other shows? Can we see billboards about them? Can we see commercials about them? I think you said it: At the end of the day, these networks are businesses. From what I understand, anyway, it’s mostly about: is this going to sell, or is this going to turn people off? And I know a lot of the streaming networks also have other things that they sell. You can imagine Amazon, Disney, Apple: Are people going to protest at Apple stores? Will they not buy their diapers on Amazon anymore? Will they not go to Disney parks? Are there films and TV shows that have managed to break through these institutional barriers? One that comes to mind is HBO’s Unpregnant, which is very similar on paper to the film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in which a young white girl from a rural town needs to travel to get her abortion. The movies themselves couldn’t be more different. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is very solemn, almost a horror movie. Unpregnant is a hilarious buddy comedy with lots of hijinks. The director Rachel Lee Goldenberg has talked in interviews about wanting to see her own abortion experience represented on screen. In another movie, Saint Frances, the producer and writer talked about having a medication abortion and wanting to see that portrayed on screen. That is also a funny, but very poignant movie where there’s a medication abortion. And Obvious Child comes to mind — really the first rom-com in which a character had an abortion. It was also poignant, funny, and touching. Grandma is also a road trip abortion story. A lot of times, what we’re seeing is a white character who wants an abortion, and ultimately, she’s able to get it. In all of the movies I mentioned, the characters talk about money and they have to travel, so barriers are being portrayed more than they have been in the past. A trend we’ve seen over the last decade is that barriers to abortion are often underportrayed, compared to reality. But some movies and shows are starting to portray the barriers that real people face. What do you think will turn the tide? Mostly it’s if people watch the abortion content. It shows that there is an audience for this, that there are people who want to watch these types of stories, that get excited about these types of stories. A lot of writers do scroll on Twitter and other social media to see the reaction to a TV episode. If you see an abortion plot line that you really liked, talk about it publicly. Say what you liked about it. Tag the writers or tag the producers, so they can see what you’re saying. For the people in charge, seeing that there is no blowback is good, but also seeing that there is actually excitement and enthusiasm would go a long way, too.
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How are floods and droughts happening at the same time?
Homes and other buildings in Jackson, Kentucky, surrounded by floodwaters from the Kentucky River on July 28. Flooding in the state has killed at least 35 people and hundreds are still missing. | Leandro Lozada/AFP via Getty Images Water — and the lack of it — is devastating the country. On Monday, President Joe Biden flew to eastern Kentucky to visit families affected by historic flooding that struck the Midwest in late July and early August, leaving at least 35 dead and hundreds missing. “It’s going to take a while to get through this, but I promise you we’re not leaving,” Biden said. “As long as it takes, we’re going to be here.” About 2,000 miles away, the water in Lake Mead — the largest reservoir in the country, and a crucial water source for millions of people in the West — sat at a historic low, exacerbating a drought now in its third year. One part of the country has too much water; another has too little. These two things are related. They were also expected. “This has been a slow-motion crisis for two decades now,” said Michael Crimmins, a climatologist at the University of Arizona. “It’s just converging at this moment.” The short answer for why these seemingly opposite things are happening at once is that climate change is making our atmosphere thirstier. Or, in more scientific terms, as the Earth warms, its atmosphere can hold more water vapor. This happens at an exponential rate: The back-of-the-napkin math is that the atmosphere can store about 7 percent more water per degree Celsius of warming, and we’re currently at about 1.2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. The result is an atmosphere that takes longer to get saturated with water, which means fewer rainstorms, but when they do occur, those storms dump more water at once, resulting in floods. Paradoxically, our changing atmosphere is also a perfect recipe for drought. Higher temperatures mean water evaporates faster, and when it falls, it’s less likely to fall as the snow that has historically fed many of the American West’s rivers and streams. The rain isn’t very helpful either, since lifting a drought requires a combination of snowfall and long, sustained rainy seasons instead of short, extreme bursts. “Water infrastructure in the West is built around snowpack,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University. “It doesn’t need to be stored in a reservoir if it’s being stored in the snowpack.” Reservoirs have limited capacity, Diffenbaugh pointed out, so if an extreme rainstorm filled a reservoir beyond capacity, that water — which otherwise might have fallen as snow, or over a longer period of time — would have to be released. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images Water levels in Lake Mead, shown on July 23, are at the lowest level since the reservoir was filled for the first time in April 1937. Instead, we see a vicious cycle: As the soil and vegetation in drought-prone regions dry up, they become prone to wildfires and less able to retain water, so when extreme rainstorms roll in, they trigger floods and erosion. The heat makes the water dry up before it has any particular impact on the drought, and the erosion makes the soil even less able to retain water, so the next flood becomes ever so slightly worse. We saw this kind of mid-drought flooding just a week before the floods in the Midwest, when monsoon rains swept through Flagstaff, Arizona. “There’s a real strong negative feedback loop here,” said Bill Gutowski, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University. “Suddenly you get these compounding effects that come into play.” As climate change intensifies, we’ll see more extreme rainfall events across the country and the world. We’ll also see more intense droughts. In short, said Crimmins, “dry places will tend to get drier, and wet places will tend to get wetter.” Those places won’t be able to help each other out, either. The water from the West isn’t being dumped on the Midwest, and the Midwest floodwaters won’t rejuvenate the Colorado River. Instead, the same weather patterns that might have once made those places appealing to move to — the Midwest’s precipitation has, historically, been great for agriculture — is being amplified in ways that we simply weren’t prepared for. Our built world has historically been designed around a predictable climate, and that era is over. As Vox’s Umair Irfan explained in 2018, once rare “1,000-year” weather events are becoming more and more common. “The real question is, what will it take to design and build infrastructure to protect against flooding in a changing climate?” Diffenbaugh said. “Our assumptions are obsolete.” The answer won’t lie in infrastructure alone. The Earth will outpace us if we do not make reductions in the emissions that brought us here to begin with, wiping out any gains we might make through engineering. On this front, there is some rare good news: The Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the Senate this week, is a monumental step in the right direction. We are making our bed, rather than completely setting it on fire. Now we must learn to adapt to it.
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Where in the world are Russians going to avoid sanctions?
A yacht belonging to Russian businessman Vladimir Potanin is docked at the al-Rashid port in Dubai on June 27, 2022. | AFP/Getty Images Follow the money to the United Arab Emirates. The West has shut Russia out of many American and European banks in response to the invasion of Ukraine. One way wealthy and middle-class Russians, and businessmen close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, have circumvented the unprecedented sanctions Russia faces has been to send their money to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the uberwealthy federation of seven semiautonomous, autocratic petro-states in the Persian Gulf that has chosen not to participate in US-led sanctions. For years, sanctioned businessmen close to Putin have been investing big in the UAE’s luxury real estate, per leaked databases. In recent months, it has become a yacht sanctuary. More Russian private jets than ever are flying from Moscow to the UAE, according to the New York Times, and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich parked his Dreamliner in Dubai. The Emirati national airlines, meanwhile, is one of the few that continues direct service from Russia. (The Emirates is also a longtime Russian mob hub and a longtime Russian tourist hub.) “We can see where their yachts go, we can see where their aircraft are going, and it’s all going there,” said Jodi Vittori, an anti-corruption expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That’s just a one-stop shop for illicit finance.” Dirty money from Putin’s inner circle has also flowed in London’s luxury real estate market and into the United Kingdom’s offshore economy, among other less-regulated global cities and markets, like art and cryptocurrency, that provide the shield of anonymity. But this is dark money going into a dirty money hub. Though watchdog groups have tried to track the dollar amounts being sequestered in the Emirates, the secretive nature of transfers and that some are from lesser-known Russians who are not on sanctions lists makes the shape and scale of it difficult to map. “The UAE is a big hole in the bucket,” Karen Greenaway, a former FBI agent, explained. “The movement of money — and we can’t see it — allows Russia to continue to run its economy and its war economy.” Two former Treasury officials with experience working in the Middle East told me that’s a major problem. It’s among the reasons why, in March, the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental standard-setting body based in Paris, gray-listed the UAE. That global watch list identifies countries with known money laundering and illicit financing. Now, international financial institutions that operate there need to monitor transactions more carefully. Those risks could bruise the UAE’s robust economy. In response, experts told me that the UAE is trying to implement reforms, to get off the gray list and to improve its standing. A spokesperson for the UAE’s anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism financing office said in a statement, “The UAE has already adopted a series of tangible measures to expand engagement with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and enact effective national reforms.” But as Russians flee to the UAE and send their money there, the Biden administration is only drawing the Emirati leadership closer to Washington. During his Middle East trip in July, President Joe Biden invited Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to the Oval Office. So how is it that the UAE is able to get away with being a destination of choice for Russian cash while maintaining such a tight relationship with the US? How the Emirati system allows this to happen The Emirates is a global financial center that is built on freewheeling regulations. “Dubai basically started out as a pirate cove,” Sarah Chayes, author of the book Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, said. Several dozen financial free zones and free trade zones provide havens for foreign money to avoid taxes, and the country’s loose regulations make it a particularly fruitful place for expats and foreign companies. There is no income tax; value-added tax was only introduced in 2018; and its first corporate tax regime is set for 2023. Dubai has become home to illicit finance and other valuables like gold, art, and, more recently, crypto. Chayes recalled seeing what appeared to be heavy suitcases full of cash arriving in the UAE’s airport from Afghanistan when she was working as an adviser to the Pentagon, and later learned that millions in cash was coming into the UAE from Afghanistan per year. It’s a center for American and international companies, often their base and port of call for Middle East business. There’s also the golden visa program, where luxury property buyers can get extended Emirati residence permits (which are short of impossible for international laborers to receive). Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images A residential villa under construction in the Al Mamzar beach district of Dubai, on March 23, 2022. A former Treasury official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained that the UAE being a conduit for sanctions evasion is nothing new. “The laissez-faire attitude has benefited them economically,” they said. “It’s something that’s pretty openly notorious.” It’s a known risk that strategic consultants advise clients on. And there are indicators that UAE officials are ignoring corruption. US financial officials file millions of suspicious activity reports annually as they monitor money flows within banking institutions, for example. But Lakshmi Kumar of Global Financial Integrity has noted that the UAE’s free zones, for example, post a suspiciously low number of such reports. She thinks the UAE is not monitoring suspicious activity in a comparable way to similarly sized economies. “The lack of numbers can tell an evocative and effective story,” she told me. “The reason [the Emirati economy is] allowed to have that freedom and comfort to operate is because there is no stick on the other end.” The enforcement issue may have to do with leadership. The UAE doesn’t have democratic institutions or independent agencies, and many courts, law enforcement, and executive agencies are run by members of the royal family. “I think that ultimately one other reason why the Emirates really aren’t interested in doing anything about Russian oligarchs is because they have their own oligarchs,” Greenaway said. Dissent is not tolerated, prison sentences are harsh, and high-tech surveillance is widespread. As Vittori told me, “This is one of the world’s most significant surveillance states as far as we can tell.” Despite the apparent corruption and the UAE’s implicit support to one of the US’s chief adversaries, the Emirates holds a prominent position in Washington. Experts told me what the UAE brings to bear — in terms of cooperation on counterterrorism and its 2020 accord with Israel after decades without diplomatic relations — is just too important for US policymakers to prioritize accountability on other issues. “The US has helped bring the UAE and Israel and its neighbors together, but we want to make sure that the US stays at the table,” Michael Greenwald, a former senior Treasury official, told me. It’s also worth noting that it took more than a decade for the UAE to deal with terrorist financing. That suggests that, even absent the political will needed, it could take time to build up an infrastructure to monitor Russian dark money. “The entire architecture built up against ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorists was not going to be successful in going after Russian oligarchs,” a former senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me. “We built a door to stop horses from escaping, but now we have different animals altogether.” What could the US do about Russian dirty money in the UAE? The urgent need to stop corruption was a central tenet of a speech that senior Treasury official Elizabeth Rosenberg delivered to Arab bankers in February this year. “Nearly every act of corruption flows through the formal financial system, the system we are all a part of, which means all of us have the ability — and the responsibility — to stop it,” she said. Much as the US clamped down on terrorist financing internationally after the September 11, 2001, attacks, she explained, the US would now focus on corruption. But two weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine — and since then, the messaging has shifted. UAE Presidential Court/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images President Joe Biden meets UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 16. When Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo visited the United Arab Emirates and met with bankers in June, the word “corruption” was absent from his remarks. He did tell an Emirati newspaper, however, that he had raised the issue of Russians using the UAE financial sector in his meetings. “I’m here today to thank those who have cooperated in this effort and to underscore the need for your vigilance and proactive action in combatting Russian sanctions evasion, including in the UAE,” Adeyemo told bankers. (An Emirati delegation visited Washington in early July to discuss cooperation.) Nothing as strongly worded came out following President Joe Biden’s meeting with the UAE president during his recent Middle East trip. Russia did not appear in a US-UAE joint statement that came out of that conversation, but the document says, “President Biden recognized the UAE’s efforts to strengthen its policies and enforcement mechanisms in the fight against financial crimes and illicit money flows.” Earlier that day, a senior Biden administration official evaded a question on the UAE as a haven for Russian money and emphasized that the UAE voted on the right side of a United Nations General Assembly vote against Russia. But the Biden administration recognizes that the UAE has become an alternate financial hub for sanctions-busters. As Barbara Leaf, the State Department’s top Middle East diplomat who served as ambassador to the UAE from 2015 to 2017, put it in a recent congressional hearing, “As far as the UAE, I am not happy, I am not happy at all with the record at this point, and I plan to make this a priority, to drive to a better alignment, shall we say, of effort.” The question then becomes: What would making it a priority look like? After being gray-listed, the UAE’s Executive Office of Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Finance promised to initiate new inspections of institutions, “with the aim of achieving full compliance with Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s international standards.” The gray-listing was a wake-up call, and Emirati financial authorities are more carefully monitoring daily financial transactions, according to a business consultant based in the Emirates, who would only speak anonymously. “The central bank is really cracking down,” they told me, “because senior financial officials here are actually worried about the reputation.” “The UAE is actively building on the significant progress made to date,” the spokesperson for the anti-money laundering office said. “Looking ahead, the UAE will continue to develop its ability to detect, investigate and understand money laundering and terrorist financing, and advance financial crime compliance frameworks within the country and around the world.” This is a start, but anticorruption experts seek a more systemic reckoning. The lack of political will on the Emirati side is the unanimous answer for why so little has been done to reform. And the lack of appetite on the US side helps explain why the US has not put pressure on the Emiratis. Few countries in the Washington ecosystem have as influential boosters as the Emirates. On the UAE embassy’s social media, for example, former general and Trump administration Defense Secretary James Mattis touts how great the country is. “The US will probably not take any serious steps to punish the UAE for this,” says Giorgio Cafiero of the consulting firm Gulf State Analytics. “Because the country has a very liberal veneer, and a narrative of being a tolerant country. It also is a country that does a lot of lobbying in Washington, for many reasons, the UAE escapes criticism in the US.” In fact, the United Arab Emirates was the honored guest of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this year on Washington’s National Mall. The country is so good at wins, while flouting the rules.
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