CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA | CORRUPTING THE CENSUS | RUSSIA AND THE NRA
May + June 2018
HOW TRUMP COULD RIG OUR ELECTIONS FOR YEARS TO COME
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22 Cloak and Data BY A N DY K R O L L
The story behind Cambridge Analytica’s rise and fall plus: Weapons of Mass Disruption BY T E R R E L L J E R M A I N E S TA R R
From Russia, With Love for the nra BY D E N I S E C L I F TO N A N D MARK FOLLMAN
36 Hidden Figures BY A R I B E R M A N
The 2020 census is underfunded, behind schedule, and increasingly politicized. Millions of Americans likely won’t be counted—and many of them are afraid to be.
44 Bottled Up
DEPARTMENTS 5 to our readers 7 outfront
BY S T E P H A N I E M E N C I M E R
Drinking may have given me cancer. The alcohol industry worked hard to downplay the risk.
54 The Best Viral News You’ll Ever Read BY M A RY N M c K E N N A
Antibiotic resistance is one of the scariest threats today—but a forgotten remedy may save us yet.
C O V E R : D O U G C H AY K A ; A B O V E : E D M O N D E H A R O
Run everywhere. Trial by Skype Private prisons get a Trump bump. Will Stacey Abrams be America’s ﬁrst black female governor? Unfare
61 mixed media
Dribble and shout. Raising hell with the US poet laureate
May + June 2018
VOLUME 43 NUMBER 3
The urban voice of Native lit The art of war 70 food + health
Modern Family law How a trendy altmilk could save Iowa
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stephanie mencimer has covered the courts and domestic policy for Mother Jones for the last 10 years. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2017 and soon set out to learn why she never knew alcohol was such a risk factor. Her story on how the booze industry has tried to convince people that drinking is good for them (“Bottled Up,” page 44) is published as she marks her ﬁrst year as a cancer survivor.
Atlanta-based science journalist maryn mckenna has written about epidemics, disasters, and superbugs around the world: polio eradication in India, a ﬁeld hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and, for this issue, a lost Soviet antibiotic alternative called bacteriophages (“The Best Viral News You’ll Ever Read,” page 54). Big Chicken, her second book on antibiotics, was published in 2017.
espn senior writer howard bryant has had his columns on race and social issues in sports twice nominated for National Magazine Awards. His new book, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism (Beacon), chronicles the rise, fall, and post-Ferguson return of the politically engaged black athlete, from Jackie Robinson to Colin Kaepernick (“Holding Court,” page 61).
The age of Trump has been a boom time for illustrators, as artists compete to come up with more ambitious designs for the endless stream of news. That raises the bar for designers like adam vieyra, who joined MoJo as the digital art director in 2017 after years at San Diego newspapers. His photo illustrations and graphic designs (pages 11, 31, and 32 to 35) for this issue were fueled by lots of coﬀee and basketball podcasts.
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YOU’VE BEEN HACKED We’re only beginning to understand how our democracy was rigged—and what we can do about it. BY MONIKA BAUERLEIN AND CLARA JEFFERY
one of the most important pieces of political
CEO M O N I K A B AU E R L E I N
E D I TO R- I N - C H I E F C L A R A J E F F E RY
prognosis of the past decade appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 4, 2010. It was a look ahead at that year’s midterm elections, the ﬁrst chance for voters to render a verdict on a new president whom many Americans disliked to the point of considering him illegitimate. The author was Karl Rove. (Yeah, remember Turd Blossom?) The bland headline: “The gop Targets State Legislatures.” The piece dispassionately noted that while Washington was “ﬁxated” on whether the election would deliver a rebuke to President Barack Obama, the most signiﬁcant votes were being cast way down the ballot. That was because 2010 was a census year, meaning that over the following two years, legislatures in dozens of states would redraw electoral districts. If Republicans could pick oﬀ just 107 legislative seats in key states, they would be able to deny Democrats a majority in the House for a decade to come. Consider Texas, Rove went on: “Democrats had a 17-13 edge in the state’s congressional delegation after the 2000 elections. Republicans won control of the Texas House in 2002 and redrew the state’s congressional map. As a result, the gop now controls 20 congressional seats in Texas while Democrats control 12.” (Rove was being coy: That redistricting was a signature endeavor of a Texas ally, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, ﬁnanced with boatloads of dark money to create a Republican “permanent majority.”) The strategy worked. Republicans—buoyed by the tea party and Rove-iﬁed campaigns staked on racial and cultural dog whistles—took over statehouses and redrew the maps. And before long, states where a majority of voters had chosen Democrats nonetheless ended up with mostly gop lawmakers. (In 2012, Republican candidates in Wisconsin garnered less than 49 percent of the vote but won 61 percent of seats in the state Assembly.)
O U R
R E A D E R S
This is how you hack elections when you can’t persuade enough voters to actually choose your ideas. It may be legal (and has been practiced, at some point or another, by both parties), but it’s also a perversion of the core tenets of democracy. We’re living in Rove’s world now—a world where a majority of voters have chosen one party but the other party governs. It’s because of the district lines that Rove’s compatriots drew that President Donald Trump has no counterweight in Congress. And it’s this mercenary approach—if you can’t win on the merits, hack the system—that we now see playing out across the board. This is the spirit behind the mendacious, manipulative messages Trump’s campaign and its allies at Cambridge Analytica served up to Facebook users. It’s the spirit behind the National Riﬂe Association’s decision to go all in on anger and fear while coddling the Kremlin. And it’s the driving impulse behind the White House’s push to hack another vital piece of democratic infrastructure: the census. On that last issue, as Ari Berman shows in this magazine, nearly every decision the administration and its allies in Congress have made has served a single goal: a tally that inﬂates the share of white people in the population and undercounts communities of color. A whiter census will skew the allocation of congressional seats and even aﬀect the makeup of Electoral College votes (which are divvied up via the same population math). It will also shift trillions in federal funding. Make America White Again, you might say—a last-ditch eﬀort to deny the nation’s true diversity and vigor. Which takes us back to Karl Rove. Eight years ago—it feels more like 80—it was hard to tell exactly how far the hacking of our democracy would go. We didn’t know that a demagogue would show up prepared to cozy up to Nazis and Klansmen and make common cause with a foreign adversary. We didn’t know that a major US company would bury evidence that its users’ data was stolen and used to manipulate voting. We didn’t know that antidemocratic redistricting would give us a Congress unwilling to exercise the most basic oversight. But we do now. And we also know there are a lot more dots to connect, more rocks to turn over. That’s what we do here at Mother Jones. You can see it in this issue—from Ari’s census story and Andy Kroll’s deep dive on Cambridge Analytica to our timeline on the nra-Russia dalliance and our investigation of how much further Russian attacks could go. We can do this because support from our readers (especially folks like you holding this magazine who subscribe or donate) gives us independence from advertisers and platform behemoths (including, yes, Facebook). And that’s never been more important. Thank you. Q M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
WAV E T H E O R Y
OUT OF THE BLUE This year, a surge of Democratic candidates is challenging Republicans in places—and races—where progressives usually fear to tread. BY TIM MURPHY
before she could talk about her campaign for the
Texas House of Representatives, Lisa Seger needed to check on her goats. Seger, who lives with her husband and 30 goats on a farm outside Houston, had a doe in the maternity stall that was due any minute. “Spring is kidding season,” she explained. If elected, the 47-year-old Seger, a sustainableagriculture proponent who got into farming after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, would likely be the only member of the Legislature with her own brand of yogurt. Her crimson-dyed
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID PLUNKERT
hair and ﬂoppy-eared companions notwithstanding, Seger’s political origin story is unexceptional in 2018. After President Donald Trump announced his “Muslim ban” early last year, she drove to George Bush Intercontinental Airport to protest. A week later, she was back in Houston demonstrating outside the Super Bowl. She joined a local chapter of the progressive grassroots group Indivisible and kept going. “I’ve become the cliché,” she says. But what makes Seger really stand out in the state’s 3rd District is her party ailiation—she is M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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the ﬁrst Democrat to run for the seat since 2010. The incumbent, Cecil Bell Jr., received 100 percent of the vote in 2012 and 2016. Seger’s Republican state senator also ran unopposed in her last election. “I couldn’t remember the last time I was even able to vote for a Democrat in one of our elections here,” Seger says. Meanwhile, 500 miles away in West Texas, two millennial friends, 26-year-old Armando Gamboa and 24-year-old Spencer Bounds, are running for neighboring state House districts where Democrats had gone awol. No one has contested Gamboa’s district in Odessa since 2004; Bounds’ opponent in Midland is a 50-year incumbent who last faced a Democrat in 2008. Seger, Gamboa, and Bounds are part of a trend. Call it the “Virginia Eﬀect”: A little more than a year after Trump’s inauguration, Democrats in deep-red districts are running for oice at a historic clip, determined to ﬁnd and turn out progressive voters in places where no one has competed in years. It’s a sign the enthusiasm that swept progressive activists in the ﬁrst year of the Trump administration and led the party to big gains in Virginia and elsewhere is still burning as the midterm elections approach. These local races, mostly ﬂying under Democratic bigwigs’ radar, could also give a "The lesson party struggling for relevance in large swaths from Virginia of the country a quiet boost this fall. is that parties In Texas, Democrats are running in 132 of should try to 150 state House districts, a nearly 50 percent run candidates increase since 2016 and the highest ﬁgure everywhere." since at least the early ’90s. Democrats also have candidates in all 36 of the state’s congressional districts, the ﬁrst time they’ve put up a full slate since 1984, back when Rick Perry won his ﬁrst oice—as a Democrat. (That number is still tentative, pending the outcome of a lawsuit in Dallas County, where Republicans are trying to get about 80 Democrats running for state and local races thrown oﬀ the ballot because the party chair didn’t personally sign their ballot applications.) The trend holds across the country. As of mid-March the Democratic Party had enlisted candidates in all but eight Republican-held congressional districts; in 2016, it failed to run candidates in 28 districts. In March, Conor Lamb defeated a Republican in a special election for a Pennsylvania seat that hadn’t seen a Democratic challenger since 2012. Alabama Democrats, buoyed by Sen. Doug Jones’ stunning special election victory, have candidates in all seven congressional districts for the ﬁrst time since 1996. Kentucky Democrats haven’t contested this many Statehouse races—93 out of 100—since the middle of the Reagan administration. Democrats in Indiana are contesting 84 of 100 state House seats. That Trump has been good for Democratic candidate recruitment is now canon among progressive organizers. Party organs such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and allied groups such as Emily’s List, the incubator for pro-choice women candidates, have had little trouble lining up elected oicials, veterans, and former Obama staﬀers to run 8
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in all but a handful of the 101 races the dccc views as pickup opportunities. But another metric for Democratic enthusiasm may be the number of Democrats contesting seats at the state and local levels that aren’t on the party’s target list at all. While national attention is focused on the congressional midterms, statehouses present an increasingly enticing opportunity for Democrats, in part because after conservative waves in 2010 and 2014, the party has nowhere to go but up. Republicans may be susceptible to reversals in Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina—swing states with overwhelmingly Republican legislatures where Democrats have left a lot of seats on the table in recent years. Already, Democrats have ﬂipped 20 formerly Republican-held seats in special elections since November 2016, some in districts that on the surface look about as competitive as Seger’s (read: not very). The candidate surge was a major storyline in last November’s elections in Virginia. Democrats ﬁelded candidates in 88 of 100 House of Delegates districts—up from 56 the previous election cycle, and their biggest slate in 36 years. They picked up 15 delegates’ seats and came within 2 seats of a majority, buoyed by an inﬂux of ﬁrst-time candidates. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a high school civics teacher, was only the third Democrat to contest his Henrico County district in at least 21 years—now he’s a delegate. In Virginia, Democrats were quick to boast of a “reverse coattails” eﬀect, in which the glut of down-ballot candidates actually boosted the party’s performance at the top of the ticket. One data cruncher found that in deep-red precincts where a Democratic delegate candidate was on the ballot, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam picked up 17 percent more votes than his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Terry McAuliﬀe. Northam saw a mere 4 percent improvement in similar precincts where the Republican delegate was unopposed. Historically, big statewide races have always driven turnout for small down-ballot races, not the other way around. Going over the numbers in January, Geoﬀrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, found that this was likely the case with Northam too. Nonetheless, he said the candidate surge had made a landslide more likely. “The lesson from Virginia is that parties should try to run candidates everywhere— ideally strong candidates—and especially if a wave favoring their party is a possibility,” Skelley says. “That way, a party can maximize the payoﬀ of a wave. If turnout is disproportionately favorable to one side, as can certainly happen in a midterm environment, that rising tide can lift all of a party’s boats.” Put simply: More candidates mean more opportunities, especially when things are going awry for the other side. No Alabama Democrat ran against Sen. Jeﬀ Sessions in 2014; the party wisely avoided that scenario against Roy Moore. Grassroots movements and more established institutions are both fueling the candidate boom. Consider Donielle Lovell, a 39-year-old Western Kentucky University sociologist who’s the ﬁrst Democrat to contest the state’s 18th House District since 2004. A progressive who had never been particularly politically active, Lovell got involved in local Democratic groups after the presidential election. She demonstrated outside an event held by Sen. Mitch
Taking back the Texas Legislature—or for that matter, picking up another US House seat in Alabama—is still a project best measured in geologic time. No one recruited Seger to run for oice, and her district isn’t on anyone’s watch list. With no primary to worry about, her campaign was getting oﬀ to a slow start. Her ﬁrst stop on the trail would come just a few days after we spoke, when she would steer her bright red tractor down Main Street in the Go Texan Parade. Seger is realistic about her chances but says, “If it’s ever going to happen, this is probably the year it’ll happen.” “People don’t ever want to run a race they might lose,” she adds. “I just don’t care. If I lose, I’ll continue farming. If I win, I will be a representative and continue farming.”
McConnell and helped set up workshops on nuts-and-bolts tactics like organizing a precinct. She was mulling a run for a local oice like magistrate but decided to aim higher with some prodding from the state party. “I always saw myself as the person who does that research that allows policymakers to make evidence-based decisions,” Lovell says, explaining why she decided to mount a bid. “And I started to see less evidence in a lot of the decisions being made. So that started to concern me.” Now she keeps in touch with other ﬁrst-time candidates in Kentucky on a private Facebook group for educators like herself and another for women running with the support of Emerge Kentucky, an organization that helps Democratic women seeking oice.
A REMOTE CHANCE As more immigration hearings are held via teleconference, thousands of detainees never get their day in court.
tess feldman stood in an empty San
Francisco courtroom, facing a three-footwide television screen. “Good morning!” she shouted toward a camera connected to the TV. “Can you hear me?” A stunned-looking man in an orange prison jumpsuit appeared on screen. An inmate at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersﬁeld, California, nearly 300 miles away, he was facing deportation and weighing his legal options. His father had been murdered back in Oaxaca, Mexico, he told Feldman, and he was afraid to return. That made
him a potential candidate for asylum, but he worried he would sit in a cell for months as his case wended through the courts. “That takes a long time, right?” he asked. “Yes,” Feldman said. She checked her phone for the time. “I’m so sorry, but we only have one minute left to talk.” “I’ll think about it,” he said, and walked oﬀscreen, shoulders slumped. Twice a month, Feldman, a senior immigration attorney for a Bay Area legal nonprofit, serves as the counsel of the day for detainees at Mesa Verde and other M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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facilities. She has two hours to interview approximately 18 inmates—six minutes each. Because Mesa Verde is a ﬁve-hour drive from San Francisco, home to one of the nearest major immigration courts, almost all these detainees will never actually go in person, but will instead appear before judges—and meet their pro bono lawyers—via video teleconference. To detainees and their attorneys, video teleconference, or vtc, is an ad hoc solution and a valuable timesaving measure. As of 2015, nearly onethird of detained immigrants in the United States appeared in deportation hearings via televideo. In 2017, there were 114,000 hearings that used vtc, a 185 percent increase since 2007. As vtc becomes increasingly entrenched Detainees in the detention proappearing cess, advocates and imvia video give migration oicials have up more to weigh its efficiency at expediting court proquickly ceedings against the and resign pressures it puts on themselves asylum-seekers. A study to selfpublished in the Northdeportation. western University Law Review found that “detained televideo litigants were more likely than detained in-person litigants to be deported.” The reason? Judges don’t necessarily adjudicate their cases diﬀerently; rather, detainees appearing via video give up more quickly and resign themselves to socalled self-deportation. For the ﬁrst six months of Donald Trump’s presidency, 7,086 people opted to go home before seeing a judge—58 percent more than during the same time period the year before under President Barack Obama. “Detention itself is a litigation strategy to demoralize people and creates an easier deportation process,” says Graeme Crews of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The rise of trial by screen is a result of two factors: a massive spike in the number of immigrants in detention, begun under Obama and ramped up 10
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by Trump, and the increasingly remote locations of the facilities that house them. Today, 34,000 immigrants are detained at any one time nationwide, and within the ﬁrst month of Trump’s presidency, his administration promised to “take all necessary action and allocate all available resources” to expand detention facilities. In April 2017, a confidential Department of Homeland Security “Progress Report to the President” stated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had identiﬁed “27 potential locations capable of providing 21,000 additional bed spaces,” and suggested reopening two 500-bed centers in the Texas hinterlands. On October 12, dhs issued a public request for information to identify possible detention sites for immigrants within 180 miles of Chicago, Detroit, Salt Lake City, or St. Paul, Minnesota— up to three hours away from the nearest immigration courts and most pro bono lawyers. Working by video presents practical challenges for immigrant advocates. Preparing asylum cases often requires probing clients’ most horriﬁc life experiences in detail—rape, police brutality, death threats—in order to gather evidence to bolster their claims. Take Josue, one of Feldman’s clients, who came from El Salvador three years ago. I met him in a small, overly air- conditioned conference room at Mesa Verde. The facility, a massive concrete structure on the outskirts of Bakersﬁeld, is a renovated former prison that houses up to 400 inmates awaiting deportation hearings. (Mesa Verde’s contract requires the government to keep 320 beds occupied at all times.) It took me nearly a full workday to drive there from San Francisco, where Josue’s asylum eligibility hearing was set to take place in a few days. Josue would conference in to the hearing by video. “I’d prefer to go in person,” he told me. Josue had been diagnosed with schizophrenia by a doctor at Mesa Verde. He’d explained to Feldman, who’d only been able to visit him twice, that he was the victim of several brutal beatings by the gang MS-13 in El Salvador, and that his wife, who lives in
the Bay Area and has a child with a current MS-13 leader, had received threats since taking up with Josue. Legally speaking, his case was made all the more complicated by the fact that he had a criminal record, including an assault conviction. Feldman thought that a recent federal court ruling might allow Josue to seek a hearing in person due to his mental-health diagnosis. However, the petition process would have taken months. He was desperate to get out, so he opted to go ahead via video teleconferencing. As we spoke, he had trouble keeping track of dates and speciﬁc events, a tendency that signaled to Feldman early on that he might have cognitive challenges. He couldn’t always remember the details of his three assaults by MS-13, and in the attempt to recall them he became agitated. The circumstances of his detention put him on edge, too. “You never know if they are gangsters or not,” he said of his fellow inmates. “So it’s best just to keep quiet.” Two days later, in the courtroom in San Francisco, the picture on the screen came into focus and Josue appeared, nervous, clad in red, hair combed back. Feldman leaned forward to wave to the camera. Josue meekly waved back. Over the next 30 minutes, as Feldman had feared, Josue had trouble recalling the exact dates of the MS-13 attacks. Key points of discussion between the judge and lawyers went untranslated, and as the morning wore on, Josue appeared more and more skittish. The case didn’t seem to be going well, and he felt it. It was easy to see why he might choose voluntary deportation. Ultimately, the hearing was reset for another day; the judge wanted to see more evidence from Josue’s wife regarding previous threats back in El Salvador. For Josue, this was a good sign. But it meant more time in detention, far from his family. He would have to hold out a little longer. A few weeks after Josue’s hearing, I received an email from Feldman. Josue’s case, she wrote, was denied. He’d never once been inside a courthouse, never spoken to a judge except by video camera. “He will be returning on the next ﬂight.” —Lauren Markham
GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR, YOUR PER DIEM The Trump administration’s immigration crackdown is shaping up as a boom time for the private prison industry.
The Department of Homeland Security expects to hold 35 percent more detainees in 2018 than it did last year, at a total cost of
BY MADISON PAULY
In the past 15 years, immigration-related apprehensions have gone down. Yet detaining immigrants is on the rise—and a big increase is expected this year.
IMMIGRATION DETENTION POPULATION
More than 300,000 people are put into immigration detention annually. Nearly three-fourths are held in privately run facilities. (Just 9 percent of state and federal prisoners are held in for-proﬁt facilities.)
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act ramps up immigration detention capacity by 32,000 beds.
Congress sets a quota for the number of immigration detention beds.
geo Group, the nation’s largest prison company, hires a senior executive who was previously assistant director of enforcement and removal for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
58% of detainees have no criminal record.
Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic) says its new South Texas Family Residential Center will provide 14 percent of total company revenue. Immigrant advocates brand it a “baby jail.”
For every 100 immigration detainees in the United States 32 are in geo Group facilities
President Bill Clinton signs legislation expanding mandatory immigration detention.
21 are in CoreCivic facilities
After the Obama Justice Department says it will cease contracting with private prisons, a Department of Homeland Security council votes to stop using private facilities to detain immigrants.
CLINTON PHOTO: RON EDMONDS/AP; TRUMP PHOTO: CAROLYN KASTER/AP; SILHOUETTES: RAWPIXEL/GETTY
2016 74 are in privately run facilities
21 are in other private facilities
A geo Group subsidiary gives $225,000 to a pro-Trump super-pac. geo Group and CoreCivic each donate $250,000 to President Donald Trump’s inauguration fund. The Trump administration says it will continue to work with private prisons.
geo Group and CoreCivic spend $2.6 million on federal lobbying.
26 are in public jails
The immigration court backlog swells to more than 650,000 cases before 292 judges.
Share of company revenue coming from immigration detention, 2007 vs. 2017 25% CoreCivic 23% geo Group 13% 10%
$148 $100 PER DAY
Maximum cost of holding an immigration detainee in a for-proﬁt adult facility
Cost of holding an immigration detainee in a local jail
Cost of putting someone awaiting an immigration hearing in an alternativeto-detention program
Wage paid to detainees in for-proﬁt facilities who do work such as cleaning and cooking
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GEORGIA ON HER MIND
on a warm Friday evening in late February, Stacey Abrams held a fundraiser at Old Lady Gang, a popular Atlanta soul food restaurant owned by Kandi Burruss, the star of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Abrams is running for governor of Georgia. If she wins, she won’t just be the state’s ﬁrst black female governor, but the nation’s. Every detail of this evening had been strategically planned to play up Abrams’ appeal to black women. Nearly all of the hundred or so donors had just come from Power Rising, a conference about black women in politics. The celebrity host was Erika Alexander, 12
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an actress and producer best known for her role in the ’90s sitcom Living Single. A who’s who of black women Democratic oiceholders had shown up to support Abrams: Rep. Frederica Wilson, the bedazzled-cowboy-hat-wearing Florida congresswoman who chastised President Donald Trump for allegedly telling the widow of a dead soldier that “he knew what he signed up for”; Rep. Gwen Moore, Wisconsin’s ﬁrst black representative; and Rep. Alma Adams, a veteran lawmaker from North Carolina known for her collection of more than 1,100 church hats.
Abrams is a tall, sturdy woman with a warm, gap-toothed smile. Taking the stage in a deep purple dress, the 44-yearold dived into a story about the time she was chosen to represent her home state of Mississippi at the Girl Scouts’ national conference in the mid-’80s. “But there were some folks in our Girl Scout troop who were unhappy with me”—a black girl—“being selected,” she said. When she got to the airport, she found out that someone had changed her reservation. “They thought if they left me behind, I’d stay gone.” Instead, she got on her ﬁrst ﬂight ever and traveled by herself to Arizona. “There are gonna be a lot of people who try to stop you from getting on that plane,” she told the rapt audience. “There are a lot of people organizing themselves to make sure I land at the wrong destination. There are folks who don’t think it’s time for a black woman to be governor of any state, let alone a state in the Deep South. But there’s no wrong time for a black woman to be in charge.” A prolific author who penned romantic thrillers before she entered politics, Abrams excels at telling stories—particularly tales in which a protagonist encounters an evil, resists the urge to give up, and charges into the unknown. “Faith is diicult,” she says. “That’s why the Bible talks about it so much.” Abrams’ quest to become the ﬁrst black woman governor is a leap of political faith. While she needs her peers’ support, she also needs to build a coalition of young people, immigrants, and whites—including Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump’s ﬂirtation with white nationalism. Some have dubbed this the “new Southern strategy.” But to make such an approach work, Abrams must appeal to people who usually don’t vote for candidates who look like her. Born in 1973, the second of six children, Abrams grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi. Her mother was a school librarian and her father was a ship-
Stacey Abrams wants to be America’s first black woman governor. First, she has to build a delicate coalition.
yard worker. “Mississippi had perfected soul-crushing poverty wrapped in gentility,” she would later write in her memoir and self-help book, Minority Leader. When Abrams was in high school, her family moved to Atlanta so her parents could attend divinity school to become Methodist ministers. After graduating as her class valedictorian, she went to Spelman College, the premier historically black college for women. At Spelman, she struggled to ﬁnd her footing among the school’s “daughters of accomplishment.” Then, in April 1992, when she was a sophomore, the Rodney King verdict sparked violent protests in black communities across the country, including Atlanta’s West End, home to Spelman, Morehouse, and two other historically black colleges. As the Atlanta police moved in with tear gas against the students and residents of nearby public housing projects, Abrams grew furious at the media’s characterization of the young people in the streets as “angry vandals, rather than complex human beings who had seen in a single verdict an indictment of our humanity,” as she later wrote. She began calling up local TV stations to complain about their coverage. When they kept hanging up on her, she enlisted her dormmates to make calls. A local TV producer took notice and invited her to participate in a town hall meeting with Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s ﬁrst black mayor. At the event, Jackson criticized the young people he said had wreaked havoc on the city. Abrams asked Jackson what he had done for dispossessed youth—a question that challenged the mayor but also impressed him. A few months later, Abrams began work as a research assistant for the mayor’s oice of youth services. Abrams would earn a master’s degree from the University of Texas and a law degree from Yale before returning to Atlanta as a tax attorney. In 2003, at just 29 years old, she was appointed Atlanta’s deputy city attorney. She was elected to the state Assembly in 2006 and became Georgia’s House minority leader in 2010—the ﬁrst African American to do so. Abrams is tapping into a moment when Democrats are ﬁnally realizing how much they owe to the black women who have long been intensely loyal to
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the party. In 2012, black women voted at higher rates nationally than any other demographic group. In 2016, 94 percent of them voted for Hillary Clinton. (Less than half of white women did.) And in a fiercely contested special election in Alabama in December 2017, black women supported the Democratic winner, Doug Jones, by a 98-2 margin. After Jones’ slim victory, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez tweeted, “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
MOVING VIOLATIONS How does Chicago make more than $200 million a year on traic and parking tickets? By bankrupting thousands of drivers. INFRACTIONS More than 3 million tickets are issued annually in Chicago. Tickets brought in more than $260 million in 2016—about 7 percent of the city’s operating budget. Chicagoans owe $1.45 billion in ticket debt. Eight majority-black zip codes account for 40 percent of the city’s ticket debt but only 22 percent of tickets issued.
RESOLUTION Pay now: If you can aford $200 for not having a city sticker on your car. If not, sign up for a pricey city payment plan. Don’t pay: And risk having your ﬁne doubled, car booted and impounded, state tax refunds garnished, and license suspended. Go for broke: Many ticket debtors ﬁle for bankruptcy, often with help from law ﬁrms that charge hefty fees. Last year, there were more than 10,000 Chapter 13 cases involving debt to the city of Chicago. The typical ﬁler owed $3,900.
Read ProPublica Illinois’ full investigation at motherjones.com/parking.
But black women’s clout at the ballot box has not translated into representation. Nationwide, only 12 black women have ever been elected to statewide executive positions such as attorney general or lieutenant governor. Research shows that women candidates have to work harder than men to raise money, and black women who run for oice face the additional burden of representing areas with less money to pull from. Some feel their fundraising is unfairly scrutinized because they are seen as not raising enough cash—or raising too much. Sarah Bryner, the research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, says black women candidates “face the same kinds of intersectional problems that they face in all sorts of areas— they have diiculty raising money because they’re women and because they’re black.” On the one hand, Abrams is quick to tout the signiﬁcance of being a black woman seeking higher oice. But she’s also aware she has to beat her main opponent in the May 22 Democratic primary, Stacey Evans, a white state Assembly member. To do that, she’ll need white voters, and white women in particular, to rally to her side. “I do not disparage anyone based on race. I do not isolate any community based on religion. I want everybody,” Abrams says. “But I am going to focus on progressive voters who run the cross section of racial and economic and regional geography but who share core values that I have.” Georgia is changing, and Abrams’ campaign is a bet on the future. Yet it’s not clear if the rainbow coalition she hopes to assemble is in place yet. People of color are predicted to be a minority of Georgia’s eligible voting population until 2036. Trump won the state by 5 percentage points in 2016, and it has been nearly two decades since a Democrat has been elected governor there. So far, however, Abrams’ burgeoning national profile has helped get her fundraising oﬀ to
a good start. By mid-March, she had brought in $2.3 million, about the same as Evans. A Democratic donor in San Francisco has said she’ll raise another $2.5 million for Abrams. Yet Abrams has already burned through $1.8 million opening ﬁeld oices and building her get-out-the-vote operation. “Any businessperson will tell you it’s not who has the biggest bank account when you start a business, it’s who gets the most customers,” she says at her campaign headquarters. Whoever wins the primary will likely face Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican who made headlines when he got the state to revoke a tax beneﬁt for Delta Air Lines, a major employer, after it announced it would cancel its discounts for National Riﬂe Association members. He has already raised $6.7 million. Back at Old Lady Gang, Abrams told the room of supportive black women another war story. In 2014, she recalled, 800,000 eligible Georgians weren’t registered to vote—a group equal to the population of South Dakota. Three-fourths were black. Abrams took action, registering 200,000 people of color in less than three years through her $7 million New Georgia Project. “But I’ll tell you a dirty little secret: Some of the folks who fought against me looked like the folks in this room,” she said, seeming to refer to the former Atlanta mayor and other black politicians who questioned the need for her project and challenged her ﬁnancial transparency. But she persevered. Abrams then pulled back to make her broader pitch. After traveling to 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties and talking to voters who don’t look anything like her—“my hair’s a little diﬀerent and I’m a little taller”—Abrams said she is more certain than ever that her job is not politics, but service. “I grew up working poor in Mississippi. And I’ll tell you this: I’ve never met a poor person who hates rich people. We hate being poor.” The crowd erupted in cheers as Abrams explained that Georgia needs a governor who understands the diﬀerence. “It’s not about begrudging anyone else. It’s about wanting something for yourself, and being willing to work for it if the systems will work with you and not against you.” —Jamilah King
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1. “I CAN’T STAND LYING TO YOU EVERY DAY”
AND Inside the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica by andy kroll
ILLUSTRATIONS BY DOUG CHAYKA
In the late summer of 2015, Chris Wilson, the director of research, analytics, and digital strategy for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, had a conversation with a contractor that left him furious. A widely respected pollster who had taken leave from his ﬁrm to work full time for Cruz, Wilson oversaw a team of more than 40 data scientists, developers, and digital marketers, one of the largest departments inside Cruz’s Houston-based operation. The Iowa caucuses were fast approaching, and the Cruz campaign had poured nearly $13 million into winning the opening contest of the primary season. As the campaign laid the groundwork for Iowa, a sizable chunk of its spending—$4.4 million and counting—ﬂowed to a secretive company with British roots named Cambridge Analytica. A relative newcomer to American politics, the ﬁrm sold itself as the latest, greatest entrant into the burgeoning ﬁeld of political technology. It claimed to possess detailed proﬁles on 230 million American voters based on up to 5,000 data points, everything from where you live to whether you own a car, your shopping habits and voting record, the medications you take, your religious ailiation, and the TV shows you watch. This data is available to anyone with deep pockets. But Cambridge professed to bring a unique approach to the microtargeting techniques that have become de rigueur in politics. It promised to couple consumer information with psychological data, harvested from social-media platforms and its own in-house survey research, to group voters by personality type, pegging them as agreeable or neurotic, confrontational or conciliatory, leaders or followers. It would then target these groups with specially tailored images and messages, delivered via Facebook ads, glossy mailers, or in-person interactions. The company’s ceo, a polo-playing Eton graduate named Alexander Nix, called it “our secret sauce.” As a rule, Nix said his ﬁrm generally steered clear of working in British politics to avoid controversy in its own backyard. But it had no qualms applying its mind-bending techniques to a foreign electorate. “It’s someone else’s political system,” explains one former Cambridge employee, a British citizen. “It’s not ours. None of us would ever consider doing what we were doing here.” M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
C L O A K
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Brought to Cruz by two of the campaign’s biggest backers, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, Cambridge Analytica was put in charge of the entire data and digital operation, embedding 12 of its employees in Houston. The company, largely owned by Robert Mercer, said it had something special for Cruz. According to marketing materials obtained by Mother Jones, it pitched a “revolutionary” piece of software called Ripon, an all-inone tool that let a campaign manage its voter database, microtargeting eﬀorts, door-to-door canvassing, low-dollar fundraising, and surveys. Ripon, Cambridge vowed, was “the future of campaigning.” (The name is a clever bit of marketing: Ripon is the small town in Wisconsin where the Republican Party was born.) The Cruz campaign believed Ripon might give it an edge in a crowded ﬁeld of Republican hopefuls. But the software wasn’t ready right away. According to former Cruz staﬀers, Wilson inquired about Ripon’s status daily. It was almost ﬁnished, he was repeatedly told. Weeks passed, then months. Finally, in August 2015, one of the Cambridge consultants in Houston came clean. Ripon “doesn’t exist,” he told Wilson, according to several former Cruz staﬀers. “It’ll “They’re just never exist. I’ve just resigned because I full of shit, can’t stand lying to you every day anyright?” Paul more.” The campaign had hired Cambridge in the belief it could use Ripon Manafort to help win Cruz the nomination; inasked. “I don’t stead, it was paying millions of dolwant ’em lars to build the Ripon technology. “It anywhere near was like an internal Ponzi scheme,” a the campaign.” former Cruz campaign oicial told me. The Cruz campaign couldn’t ﬁre Cambridge outright. The Mercers wouldn’t be happy, and the campaign was too far along to ax a signiﬁcant part of its digital staﬀ. Still, Cruz oicials steadily reduced Cambridge’s role. Even though the campaign used Cambridge’s psychological data in Iowa, Cruz’s victory there in February 2016 did nothing to quell the growing distrust campaign oicials felt toward the company. The Cruz team wasn’t alone in its doubts about the ﬁrm. Cambridge was also working, albeit in a more limited role, for rival Ben Carson’s campaign, whose experience with the company was similarly frustrating. Cambridge, for instance, sold itself as an expert in TV advertising yet failed to grasp basic facts about buying ads. Carson staﬀers came away feeling like Cambridge was at best in over its head and at worst a sham. After Carson and Cruz dropped out and Trump all but clinched the nomination, Doug Watts, a senior staﬀer on the Carson campaign, got a call from Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman. “What do you know about Cambridge Analytica?” Manafort asked. Watts replied that he didn’t think much of the ﬁrm. “They’re just full of shit, right?” Manafort said, according to Watts. “I don’t want ’em anywhere near the campaign.” 24
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
a few months later, on September 19, 2016, Alexander
Nix strode onstage at the Concordia Annual Summit in Manhattan, a highbrow ted-meets-Davos confab. He was a featured speaker alongside Madeleine Albright, Warren Buffett, David Petraeus, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Wired magazine had recently named him one of its “25 Geniuses Who Are Creating the Future of Business.” In a dark tailored suit and designer glasses, wearing a signet ring on his left pinkie, Nix regaled the audience with the story of how Cambridge Analytica had turned Ted Cruz from an obscure and reviled US senator into “the only credible threat to the phenomenon Donald Trump.” Using Cambridge’s methods, the Cruz campaign had sliced and diced Iowa caucus-goers into hyperspeciﬁc groups based on their personality traits and the issues they cared about, such as the Second Amendment. As Nix clicked through his slides, he showed how it was possible to use so-called psychographics—a fancy term for measuring attitudes and interests of individuals—to narrow the universe of Iowans from the tens of thousands down to a single persuadable voter. In this case, Nix’s slide listed a man named Jeﬀrey Jay Ruest, a registered Republican born in 1963. He was “very low in neuroticism, quite low in openness, and slightly conscientious”—and would likely be receptive to a gun rights message. “Clearly the Cruz campaign is over now,” he said as he ﬁnished his presentation, “but what I can tell you is that of the two candidates left in this election, one of them is using these technologies, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how they impact the next seven weeks.” That candidate was Donald Trump. After Cruz dropped out in May 2016, the Mercers had quickly shifted their alliance to Trump, and his campaign hired their data ﬁrm over Manafort’s apparent objections. “Obviously he didn’t bargain for Rebekah Mercer being their big advocate,” Watts says. “So I presume he just capitulated.” Soon Trump jettisoned Manafort and installed in his place the Mercers’ political Svengali, Steve Bannon, who was also a board member, vice president, and part-owner of Cambridge Analytica. Come November 9, 2016, Cambridge wasted no time touting itself as a visionary that had seen Trump’s path to the White House when no one else did. Nix took an international victory lap to drum up new political business in Australia, India, Brazil, and Germany. Another Cambridge director gushed that the ﬁrm was receiving so much client interest that “it’s like drinking from a ﬁre hose.” Actually, the 2016 election was the high-water mark for Cambridge Analytica. Since then, the ﬁrm has all but vanished from the US political scene. According to Nix, this was by design. Late last year, he said his company had ceased pursuing new US political business. But recently, an extraordinary series of developments unfolded that led to Nix’s suspension as ceo and left the company’s future uncertain. A whistleblower went public with allegations, since cited in a class-action lawsuit, that the company had used unethical methods to obtain a massive trove of Facebook data to fuel its psychographic tactics. “We ex-
ploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s proﬁles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons,” Chris Wylie, who helped launch the company, told the British Observer. “That was the basis the entire company was built on.” Next came the release of an undercover investigation by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4, which captured video of Nix and other Cambridge executives explaining how they could covertly inject propaganda “into the bloodstream to the internet.” They also described how their services could include bribing a politician and recording undercover video or sending “very beautiful” Ukrainian “girls” to entrap a candidate. The fallout was swift. Facebook, already under ﬁre for facilitating the spread of disinformation, suspended Cambridge from its platform. British oicials sought a warrant to search the company’s oice. Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic demanded answers. “They should be barred from any US election or government work until a full investigation can be conducted,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted. The story of Cambridge Analytica’s rise—and its rapid fall—in some ways parallels the ascendance of the candidate it claims it helped elevate to the presidency. It reached the apex of American politics through a mix of bluing, luck, failing upward, and—yes—psychological manipulation. Sound familiar? Like Trump, Nix was a master of hype who peddled a story that people wanted to believe. Take Jeﬀrey Ruest, the voter Nix identiﬁed at the Concordia Summit, down to the latitude and longitude of his home, to illustrate the ﬁrm’s psychographic prowess in Iowa. The message was that Cambridge had the ability to peer into the minds of—and to persuade— voters on the most granular level. Ruest wouldn’t have been useful to Cruz or any of his gop rivals in Iowa, though. He lives a thousand miles away in North Carolina. But why let inconvenient details interfere with the perfect pitch?
2. “WE CALLED HIM MR. BOND” “We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler,” the consultant said. “We appeal to people on an emotional level to get them to agree on a functional level.” The year was 1992. The consultant was Nigel Oakes, a former Monte Carlo TV producer and ad man for Saatchi & Saatchi, and he was speaking to the trade magazine Marketing. Oakes was then running the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, a “research facility for understanding group behaviour” and for harnessing the power of psychology to craft messages that change hearts and minds. But in reality, Oakes’ institute was a stalking horse for the company he would launch the year after the interview. Strategic Communication Laboratories, the public affairs company that would later spawn Cambridge Analytica, began small, applying its behavioral-science-minded approach to public inﬂuence campaigns in the United Kingdom, including one that, it boasts, rescued Lloyd’s of London by convincing Britons to invest another $1.5 billion
in the ailing insurance market. But scl soon branched into politics. Oakes says he advised Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress on how to prevent violence during the 1994 elections, as well as politicians in Asia, South America, and Europe. In 2000, the government of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was struggling to contain the violence and upheaval in his country, hired Oakes to burnish his image, which involved building an elaborate media command center in Jakarta for monitoring and shaping public sentiment. “We called him Mr. Bond because he is English,” one of Oakes’ Indonesian employees told the Independent, “and because he is such a mystery.” In 2005, scl expanded into military and defense, pitching the use of “psychological operations” and “soft power” in the war on terror. The ﬁrm began picking up major clients, including the Pentagon and the UK Ministry of Defense, advising them on which Afghan leaders to target with counterinsurgency messages or how to dissuade teenage boys from joining Al Qaeda. The company had meanwhile hired Nix, a former ﬁnancial analyst, to grow its nondefense business. Former colleagues say he was just the man for the job. “Nix the salesman is an artist, to be honest,” one told me. Another referred to him as a “chancer,” the British term for a consummate opportunist. “He’ll always be like, ‘Can I give it a go?’” the colleague said. “‘Can I sell this to you and work out the details afterward?’” Nix had an eye on the United States, where the courts were stripping away restrictions on political spending and M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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empowering a new class of individual megadonors. He traveled here in 2010 to get the lay of the land but came away discouraged. Political consultants picked sides in America, he learned. A British outﬁt that worked with both left- and right-of-center clients might struggle to break into the market. Then, on Election Day in November 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney watched as his campaign’s voter-turnout app, code-named Project orca, crashed. It was humiliating but indicative of a larger dynamic: Democrats, powered by President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 runs, had gained a huge advantage over their Republican counterparts in the realms of data and technology. The gop’s 2012 postmortem report called for a cultural shift inside the party to embrace new tools and methodologies to win. “We have to be the Party that is
QUID PRO MERCER
open and ready to rebuild our entire playbook,” it read, “and we must take advice from outside our comfort zone.” Nix saw his opening. scl had recently rebranded itself as an expert in data analytics, the sifting and distilling of vast amounts of information from diﬀerent sources into actionable outcomes. That skill set, combined with scl’s previous work in microtargeting and psy-ops, made it an ideal candidate to ﬁnd an audience in the world of Republican politics. “The Republicans had been left behind,” Nix later said. “By the time Romney lost in 2012, there was a vacuum. And so that was the commercial opportunity.” Nix was soon introduced to Chris Wylie, then a twentysomething Canadian technologist. Wylie had worked under Obama’s director of targeting and consulted for Canada’s Liberal Party. Nix hired him and put him to work building a company that could attract clients in the hypercompetitive US political market. Wylie, for his part, had an idea about how his new employer, scl, might gain an edge.
How the megadonors have leveraged their political spending into profits for their data firm —Olivia Exstrum Candidate
2014 Republican US Senate candidate in North Carolina
2014 Republican US Senate candidate in Arkansas
2014 Republican US House candidate in Oregon
Super-pac that supported Tillis and Cotton
2016 presidential campaign
$133,000 (Cruz super-pac Jobs, Freedom, and Security)
John Bolton Super-pac
$217,000 (Mercer-funded Cruz super-pac Make America Number 1)
$5.8 million (Cruz for President) 2016 presidential campaign
$1.3 million super-pac Make America Number 1) $5.9 million (Trump for President)
in 2007, david stillwell, then a Ph.D. student
in psychology, stumbled onto a digital gold mine. He’d always wondered about his personality and how he would score in the ﬁve-factor model, a test that measures openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Known as ocean, this model is widely used by psychologists. But one challenge they encountered when applying it to diﬀerent areas—marketing, relationships, politics—was gathering suicient data. People naturally hesitate to give personal information about their fears, desires, and motivations. Stillwell knew a little code, so he pulled certain Big Five questionnaires oﬀ the internet, stuck them in a quiz format, and uploaded an app to Facebook called myPersonality. It quickly went viral. Millions of people took the quiz, and with their permission, Stillwell went on to accumulate data on personality traits and Facebook habits for 4 million of them. Using this data, Stillwell, now working at the University of Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre, and two other researchers published a paper in 2013 in which they showed how you could predict an individual’s skin color or sexuality based on her Facebook “likes.” They found a correlation between high intelligence and likes of “thunderstorms,” “The Colbert Report,” and “curly fries,” while users who liked the Hello Kitty brand tended to be high on openness and lower on conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Stillwell told me that as an afterthought, he and his co-authors threw in some language at the end about the commercial possibilities of their ﬁndings. The paper attracted the atten-
TILLIS: US SENATE; COTTON: US SENATE; ROBINSON: US HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES; BOLTON: GAGE SKIDMORE/WIKIMEDIA; CRUZ: US SENATE; TRUMP: WHITE HOUSE
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3. “MARKETING MATERIALS AREN’T GIVEN UNDER OATH” One day in 2013, a knockabout Republican political consultant named Mark Block and his colleague boarded a ﬂight from Los Angeles to New York. As the plane took oﬀ, they got to talking with the man seated next to them, an ex-military oicer who mentioned he worked as a subcontractor for a company seeking US political clients. “They do cyberwarfare for elections,” the subcontractor said. Block dozed oﬀ as his colleague and her seatmate continued to chat. When they landed, his colleague told him excitedly that they needed to talk to a guy named Alexander Nix.
Not long after, they met with Nix in a conference room in the Willard InterContinental hotel, a stone’s throw from the White House. The meeting lasted more than six hours, Block recalls, as Nix described how they could use personality data and psychographics in American campaigns. “By the time he was done, I’m going like, ‘Holy shit,’” Block told me. “I had been aware of what Obama had done…But this seemed to be light-years ahead.” At a subsequent meeting Block attended, Nix was introduced to Rebekah Mercer, who was quickly becoming one of the biggest donors in Republican politics. Bekah, as she’s known to friends, is the middle daughter of Robert Mercer, a billionaire computer scientist who pioneered the use of algorithms in investing at the Long Island-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. Bekah is the political animal of the Mercer family, and in the late 2000s and early 2010s she plowed $35 million from her family foundation into conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, and the Heartland Institute. The Mercers also invested a reported $10 million in Breitbart News in 2011. They’ve donated millions to Republican candidates and super-pacs, from Mitt Romney and Herman Cain to a congressional candidate in Oregon named Arthur Robinson, who caught Robert Mercer’s attention with a pseudoscientiﬁc newsletter in which he argued that small doses of nuclear radiation have health beneﬁts. The Mercers had attended the semiannual donor retreats organized by Charles and David Koch and, according to a source familiar with their political work, invested in the Kochs’ data venture, Themis (named for the Greek goddess of wisdom and order), which was supposed to close the gap with Democrats in the data arms race. But after Romney’s loss in 2012, the Mercers were fed up. Bekah Mercer turned heads at a 2012 postmortem event at the University Club in Manhattan when she excoriated the Romney campaign for its lackluster data operation. According to people familiar with the Mercers’ thinking, Bekah and her father set out to ﬁnd their own data geniuses. Over lunch in Manhattan, Bekah listened intently as Nix gave his pitch. When he ﬁnished, she said, “I really want you to tell this to my dad.” She gave him an address with instructions to meet later that day. At the appointed time, Nix and Block arrived at a grungy sports bar on the Hudson River, north of the city. “We’re going like, ‘What the fuck?’” Block says. Bekah texted to say she and her father would soon arrive. Moments later, Sea Owl, the Mercer family’s 203-foot superyacht, pulled up to the dock behind the sports bar. Aboard the yacht, Nix took a seat next to Robert Mercer, opened his Mac, and launched into his spiel again. Bekah sat next to her father on the couch. Behind them stood Steve Bannon, the investment banker turned Hollywood producer and conservative activist who took over Breitbart News after the death of Andrew Breitbart. Whatever Nix told the Mercers that day in 2013, it worked: They agreed to invest a reported $15 million in a new company that would be the face of scl’s American political work. Bannon was M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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given a seat on the board and a stake in the new company to help, as Nix later said, the ﬁrm navigate the US political scene. Nix installed himself in Mercerworld, presenting himself as Bekah Mercer’s political guru and taking meetings at the Breitbart Embassy, the Capitol Hill row house that served as the conservative website’s oices and Bannon’s crash pad. The company was incorporated in Delaware on December 31, 2013. The name was a mix of old and new: Cambridge Analytica. But if the Mercers had paid closer attention to a test run of Nix’s venture in the 2013 Virginia governor’s race, they might have reconsidered going into business with scl. A political action committee called the Middle Resolution had paid Nix’s company several hundred thousand dollars that year for a list of persuadable voters to help elect Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who was running for governor. Months passed, and the list never arrived. When the group’s chairman, Bob Bailie, demanded the list, Nix asked for more money and Bailie cut bait. Another Virginia-based group, Americans for Limited Government, then paid scl $100,000 to create a list of suburban female voters who traditionally supported Democrats but might be swayed to vote for Cuccinelli if shown “Alexander the right message. Late in the race, the was always group’s canvassers took Nix’s list into entertaining,” the ﬁeld and returned with a perplexing result: The people on it were already a former Cuccinelli supporters. The higher-ups colleague says. at Americans for Limited Government “In the end, he asked another ﬁrm to analyze the list. will always It turned out scl had handed them a hang himself.” roster of die-hard Republicans. Despite these early missteps, Cambridge Analytica quickly signed on a host of new clients thanks to the Mercers, who leveraged their position as megadonors to eﬀectively strong-arm politicians into using their new ﬁrm. “It was the Mercers that made people work with us,” an early Cambridge employee told me. Cambridge boasted eight clients at the federal level in 2013 and 2014, and members of the Mercer family have supplied ﬁnancial backing to each of them, including to ﬁve during that election cycle. One was former Ambassador John Bolton’s super-pac, a potential vehicle for a presidential run. During the 2014 midterms, Robert Mercer gave $1 million to the group, which soon paid Cambridge more than $340,000 to develop Cambridge’s personality-based targeting on the issue of national security. It was an odd arrangement: Recipients of Mercer money would turn around and pay a vendor partly owned by the Mercers. (Rebekah Mercer did not respond to requests for comment.) Cambridge Analytica’s work in the 2014 midterms received mixed reviews. A consultant for Thom Tillis’ US Senate race in North Carolina singled out for praise a Cambridge contractor who had embedded with the campaign. But in other instances, the ﬁrm’s seemingly weak grasp of American politics turned oﬀ operatives. Once, a Cambridge employee appeared unaware what a precinct 28
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was. In another case, according to a prominent Republican consultant, Cambridge proposed inﬂuencing Republican voters living overseas by creating a model that targeted all absentee voters, suggesting that the ﬁrm didn’t realize that people who live in the United States can also vote absentee. The most common criticism I heard about Nix was that he habitually overpromised and underdelivered. According to a person who worked with him, Nix had a saying: “Marketing materials aren’t given under oath.” (Nix, Cambridge, and scl did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story.) But Nix and his company used their work helping to elect Tillis and another Mercer-backed candidate, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, as a steppingstone. Cambridge explored new corporate clients, pitching the Colorado-based dish Network. (“dish does not have, nor has it ever had, a business relationship with Cambridge Analytica,” a spokesman said.) Perhaps inspired by Bannon, whom Wylie described to the Washington Post as “Nix’s boss,” the company began testing messages designed to tap into immigration fears, anti-government sentiment, and an ainity for strongmen—“build the wall,” “drain the swamp,” and “race realism” (a euphemism for rolling back civil rights protections). It also surveyed opinions about Russian President Vladimir Putin. It seemed as if Cambridge was getting ready for a presidential campaign—but which one?
4. “THEY’VE GOTTEN THE WOOL PULLED OVER THEIR EYES” At 8:05 p.m. on March 22, 2015, Ted Cruz’s personal Twitter account posted a message: “Tonight around midnight there will be some news you won’t want to miss. Stay tuned…” There wasn’t much suspense—Cruz had eﬀectively launched his presidential bid the day he arrived in the Senate two years earlier, but now he would make it oicial. At midnight, the senator’s team in Houston would turn on the campaign website built by Cambridge Analytica. Then, at 12:01 a.m.…nothing. “We couldn’t even get the website up,” one former Cruz staﬀer told me. Eight excruciating minutes passed before Cruz simply sent another tweet: “I’m running for President and I hope to earn your support!” It was a harbinger of things to come. Interviews with eight people who worked on the Cruz campaign reveal a litany of disputes with Nix. As the campaign’s frustrations mounted, it winnowed the number of Cambridge staﬀers in Houston from 12 to 3. Cruz’s campaign did, however, employ Cambridge’s psychographic models, especially in the run-up to Iowa. According to internal Cambridge memos, the ﬁrm devised four personality types of possible Cruz voters—“timid traditionalists,” “stoic traditionalists,” “temperamental” people, and “relaxed leaders.” The memos laid out how the campaign should talk to each group about Cruz’s marquee issues, such as abolishing the irs or stopping the Iran nuclear deal. A timid traditionalist, the memo said, was someone who was “highly emotional” but valued “order and structure in their lives.” For this kind of person, an “Abolish the irs” message should be presented as something that “will bring more/restore order to the system.” Recommended images included
“a family having a nice moment together, with a smaller image representing Washington oﬀ to the side—representing that a small state makes for better private moments.” But for a temperamental type, the suggested image was a “young man tossing away a tax return and taking the key of his motorbike to head out for a ride.” Almost two months before the Iowa caucus, the Guardian reported that Cambridge and the Cruz campaign were using unauthorized Facebook data—an early indication of what Chris Wylie would later reveal in full. In response, Facebook told Cambridge to delete any Facebook data it held. Wylie says that while he deleted the data in his possession, he merely ﬁlled out a form and sent it back to Facebook certifying that he’d done so. Facebook, he adds, never veriﬁed whether he actually had. A former Cruz staﬀer told me that well after the Guardian report, he could still use Cambridge’s Facebook data to build voter models. The Cruz campaign eked out a victory in Iowa, and Nix was quick to take credit during an interview on Fox News. Whether Cambridge’s psychographics played any part in Cruz’s win is debatable: When the ﬁrm began using these techniques on December 1, two months before the caucus, Cruz was polling at 28 percentage points in Iowa. From there to caucus day, his numbers ﬂuctuated between 23 and 32 percent. Contrary to Nix’s claim that Cruz was languishing in the single digits until Cambridge came along, the candidate was already well on his way to winning when Cambridge’s secret sauce kicked in. “If we weren’t using the personality stuﬀ until that point in time,” a former Cruz oicial says, “then Nix can’t credibly make the argument that it mattered, right?” Adding to suspicions about whether Cambridge’s personality proﬁling worked as claimed was the fact that the company refused to share any of its underlying models. Cambridge advised the campaign on how best to deliver Cruz’s message to “stoic traditionalists” and “relaxed leaders,” but it wouldn’t divulge how it came up with those personality types in the ﬁrst place. “They’re the least transparent company in the business,” a former Cruz staﬀer told me. Nor did Cambridge seem to understand the fundamentals of how a presidential campaign operated: Two weeks out from the South Carolina primary, Cruz’s data team discovered that the company hadn’t updated the voter database feeding its models in seven months. The result: In a primary where the victory margin could be in the low thousands, there were 70,000 people Cruz wasn’t targeting because his data was stale. “How fucked up is that?” the former Cruz staﬀer told me. “That’s political malpractice.” Cruz ﬁnished third in South Carolina. After the opening four states, he stopped using Cambridge’s personality-proﬁling models. The company’s lackluster performance on the Cruz cam-
paign didn’t stop Nix from walking onstage at the Concordia Summit and taking credit for Cruz’s second-place ﬁnish in the nomination ﬁght. Word of his speech spread in Cruz circles, and campaign alums watched the video of Nix and scoﬀed. “Most of that’s bullshit or things we designed on the campaign,” one senior Cruz staﬀer told me. “Everybody has respect for the Mercers. But they’ve gotten the wool pulled over their eyes.”
5. “THE PHENOMENON DONALD TRUMP” The Cruz campaign was still in the process of unwinding when Cambridge, following the lead of its investors, the Mercers, oﬀered its services to the Trump campaign. Cambridge had previously reached out to Trump’s team, but his advisers didn’t want to hire the ﬁrm if it was also working for his rivals. Now, this was no longer an issue. Nix sent three employees to Texas to meet with Brad Parscale, Trump’s head of digital operations, who had no political experience and had gotten to know the Trump family while building websites for their company. (Parscale was recently named Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.) As Nix courted the Trump campaign, he came up with an idea to boost the gop nominee-in-waiting—one that M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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was more in line with the political dirty tricks he and his colleagues would later discuss with Channel 4’s undercover reporter. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange had recently told a British TV station that he had come into possession of internal emails belonging to senior Clinton campaign oicials—the result of a cyberattack later revealed to be the work of Russian hackers. Nix reached out to Assange via his speaking agency, seeking a meeting. Nix reportedly hoped to get access to the emails and help Assange share them with the public—that is, he wanted to weaponize the information. According to both Nix and Assange, the WikiLeaks founder passed on his oﬀer. Nevertheless, by late June Nix had landed a contract with the Trump team. At ﬁrst, a handful of Cambridge employees set up shop in San Antonio, where Parscale was running Trump’s digital operation out of his marketing ﬁrm’s oices. But Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge’s head of product, was eventually put in charge of the San Antonio oice after Parscale relocated to campaign headquarters in Trump Tower. What exactly Cambridge Analytica did for Trump remains murky, though in the days after the election, Nix’s ﬁrm blasted out one press release after another touting the “integral” and “pivotal” role it played in Trump’s shocking upset. Nix later told Channel 4’s undercover reporter that Cambridge deserved much of the credit for Trump’s win. “We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting. We ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy,” he said. Another Cambridge executive suggested the ﬁrm had delivered Trump victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—states crucial to his ultimate win. “When you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million votes but won the Electoral College vote, that’s down to the data and the research.” Cambridge helped run an anti-Hillary Clinton online ad campaign for a Mercer-funded super-pac that paid the company $1.2 million. The ads stated that Clinton “might be the ﬁrst president to go to jail” and echoed conspiracy theories about her health. But according to multiple Republican sources familiar with Cambridge’s work for Trump, the ﬁrm played at best a minor role in Trump’s victory. Parscale has said that $5 million of the $5.9 million the Trump campaign paid Cambridge was for a large TV ad buy. When Cambridge bungled that—some of the ads wound up running in the District of Columbia, a total waste of money—the ﬁrm was not used for future ad buys. During an interview with 60 Minutes last fall, Parscale dismissed the company’s psychographic methods: “I just don’t think it works.” Trump’s secret strategy, he said, wasn’t secret at all: The campaign went all-in on Facebook, making full use of the platform’s advertising tools. “Donald Trump won,” Parscale said, “but I think Facebook was the method.” Nix, however, seemed determined to capitalize on Trump’s victory. Cambridge opened a new oice a few blocks from the White House, where Bannon would soon take on his new role as Trump’s chief political strategist. (Bannon retained his stake in the ﬁrm, valued between 30
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$1 million and $5 million, until April 2017, months after Trump took oice.) scl, its UK-based ailiate, eventually relocated its global headquarters from London to Arlington, Virginia, and began chasing government work, quickly landing a $500,000 State Department contract to monitor the impact of foreign propaganda. scl brieﬂy signed on Lt. General Michael Flynn as an adviser and later hired a former Flynn associate to run its DC oice. But even as Nix jetted around the globe and Cambridge opened new oices in Brazil and Malaysia, the company found itself with few allies in the United States. Trump campaign alums and Republican Party staﬀers distanced themselves from the company—especially after news broke last October that Nix had communicated with Assange. “We were proud to have worked with the rnc and its data experts and relied on them as our main source for data analytics,” Michael Glassner, the Trump campaign’s executive director, said in a statement released in response to these reports. “Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false.” By late 2017, after giving every indication that Cambridge Analytica intended to be a major player in American politics, Nix told Forbes the ﬁrm was no longer “chasing any US political business,” a decision he framed as a strategic move. “There’s going to be literally dozens and dozens of political ﬁrms [working in 2018], and we thought that’s a lot of mouths to feed and very little food on the table.” This seemed dubious—working on a winning presidential race is a golden ticket that most consultants would dine out on for years. In reality, Cambridge Analytica’s reputation for spotty work had circulated widely among Democratic and Republican operatives, who were also put oﬀ by Nix’s grandstanding and self-promotion. Mark Jablonowski, a partner at the ﬁrm DSPolitical, told me that there was “basically a de facto blacklist” of the ﬁrm and “a consensus Cambridge Analytica had overhyped their supposed accomplishments.” Perhaps even worse for a company that had relied on its billionaire patrons to open doors to new clients, the Mercers ceased “ﬂogging for” Cambridge, according to Doug Watts, the former Ben Carson staﬀer. For any upstart company, this would have constituted a crisis. But being shunned from the American political scene, it turned out, was just the start of Cambridge’s problems.
6. “I AM AWARE HOW THIS LOOKS” Nix was near his London oice when a Channel 4 correspondent confronted him. “Have you ever used entrapment in the past?” the reporter asked, thrusting a microphone in Nix’s face. “Is it time for you to abandon your political work?” Captured on tape musing about entrapment and spreading untraceable propaganda, accused of misappropriating Facebook data to meddle with the minds of American voters—by March 20, scandal had reached Nix’s doorstep. He brushed past the reporter and into his building. “I am aware how this looks,” Nix said in a statement. He explained that the explosive comments he and his colleagues had made to an undercover reporter (continued on page 68)
When it comes to Russian cyberattacks, we’ve seen nothing yet. by t e r r e l l j e r m a i n e s ta r r
oleh derevianko was on the road to his
parents’ village in Ukraine on a bright June day in 2017 when he got a call from the ceo of a telecommunications company. Computer systems were failing at Oschadbank, one of the largest banks in Ukraine, and the ceo suspected a cyberattack. Could Derevianko’s digital security ﬁrm investigate? Derevianko told his response team to look into it and kept driving. Then his phone buzzed again. And again. Something big was happening. Across Ukraine that day, cash registers suddenly shut down. People trying to withdraw money saw demands for ransom
Security experts fear that Trump’s refusal to challenge Putin will leave America exposed to attacks even more devastating than what happened in 2016.
appear on atm screens. Lawmakers in the country’s parliament could not access their laptops. Turnstiles in Kiev’s subway stopped working, and departure boards at the airport went down. Technicians at Chernobyl, the site of the deadly nuclear disaster in 1986, had to manually check radiation levels after their computers failed. It became clear to Derevianko that this was no random malware. It was an act of cyberwar—the latest digital attack from Russia. The Kremlin had previously targeted Ukraine with information warfare, using social platforms to spread propaganda that exploited ethnic divisions. It had also launched cyberattacks on election systems and the power grid. But this attack was the biggest one yet—designed to simultaneously bring down multiple systems to create maximum chaos. If that progression sounds ominous, it should. Ukraine, many cybersecurity experts believe, showed the evolution of Russia’s digital-disruption arsenal. And while the debate over Moscow’s interference in
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ADAM VIEYRA; ZOCHA_K/GETTY; MLADN61/GETTY
WEAPONS OF MASS DISRUPTION
the United States has focused on disinformation and email hacking, other cyberweapons could be even more destructive. “Any type of attack,” Derevianko told me as we sat in his ﬁrm’s glass-walled conference room in the capital, Kiev, “can be launched against the United States.” I first visited Ukraine in 2008, when I took a twoand-a-half-hour flight from Tbilisi, Georgia. That summer, Russia invaded Georgia and launched cyberattacks against its government, and there were plenty of worries that Ukraine was next. And indeed, in February 2014, Russian special forces ﬂooded Crimea, and Russian troops soon started showing up in eastern Ukraine to ﬁght alongside ethnic separatists. I’ve visited Ukraine at least three times a year ever since, and each year the disruption from cyberattacks has grown. In 2015, hackers went after the electrical grid and shut oﬀ power to 225,000 Ukrainians. Another attack, in 2016, blacked out one-ﬁfth of Kiev. And last year came the multipronged oﬀensive that would eventually be known as NotPetya (after the Petya ransomware that it partially mimicked). Jessica Robinson is the ceo of the cybersecurity company PurePoint International. Like many digital security professionals I interviewed for this story, she is convinced Ukraine is “ground zero from the standpoint of being hacked and attacked by Russia. There’s so much that could be learned there.” There is plenty of indication that Moscow has at least tested the possibility of similar attacks in the United States. As far back as 2014, Russian hackers compromised 500 million Yahoo accounts. In 2016, Russia-backed actors attempted to breach electoral systems in 21 states, according to the Department of Homeland Security. (So far, the administration has refused to publicly conﬁrm which ones.) And in March, fbi and Homeland (continued on page 69)
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FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE FOR THE NRA Are Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina just a couple of Russian activists who love guns and Donald Trump—or something shadier?
MAKING CONTACT 2011: Alexander Torshin, then a Russian senator, is introduced to nra President David Keene through Kline Preston IV, an American lawyer who had been doing business in Russia for years. Preston later tells the Washington Post, “The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.” Maria Butina, then in her early 20s, creates a group called Right to Bear Arms, trying to seed a gun rights movement in Russia. US gun manufacturer Arsenal sells $5,000 limited-edition AK-74s signed by Russian gun designer Mikhail Kalashnikov—a friend of Torshin’s. Proceeds go to the nra’s political arm.
for more than a year, reports have
trickled out about the ties between the National Riﬂe Association, conservative Republicans, Russian gun rights activists—and the Trump campaign. Many of the stories center around a middle-aged Russian central bank oicial and a young gun activist from Siberia whose social-media accounts document their shared interests: posing with assault riﬂes, attending nra conventions, and making connections with Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates. Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator and longtime ally of Vladimir Putin, has been accused of having ties to the Russian mob (which he denies). His protégée and former assistant, Maria Butina, founded a Russian gun rights group and has reportedly bragged about her connections to the Trump campaign. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, the two tried to connect with the Trump campaign and its allies. In 2015, Butina publicly asked Donald Trump what he would do about the “damaging” US sanc32
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tions against Russia. Torshin reportedly made overtures to Trump and met with Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 nra convention. A day after Trump was elected, Torshin tweeted, “Today in nra (usa) I know only 2 people from the Russian Federation with the status of ‘Life Member’: Maria Butina and I.” In recent months, the House Intelligence Committee has heard sworn testimony about possible Kremlin “inﬁltration” of the nra and other conservative groups before the 2016 election. And the fbi reportedly is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the nra to support its unprecedented $30 million eﬀort to elect Trump. Do this duo’s tweets and travels represent anything more than a charm oﬀensive by well-connected Russian gun enthusiasts? Torshin, Butina, the nra, and the Trump administration did not respond to requests for comment, but a close examination of the movements and intersections of the various players over the last seven years raises intriguing questions. —Denise Clifton and Mark Follman
2012: The fbi warns Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher—a cold warrior turned Russia apologist who claimed to have once lost a drunken arm-wrestling match to Vladimir Putin—that the Kremlin aims to recruit him as a source. April 15, 2012: Torshin tweets about returning from the nra convention to a rally in Moscow for Right to Bear Arms. He notes how “similar,” “good-looking,” and “conﬁdent” the supporters of both groups are. July 24, 2012: Butina and Torshin lobby the Russian senate to expand gun rights. May 2013: After attending the nra’s annual convention in Houston, Torshin writes, “Kalashnikov couldn’t join me, though we have both been ‘life members’ of the nra for years,” adding that “dozens of AK-47 clones” displayed at the event represented one of “our country’s greatest accomplishments.” November 2013: Torshin and Butina invite Keene to Moscow for a Right to Bear Arms meeting that draws 200 people and features a fashion show that includes attire designed for carrying concealed weapons. At Keene’s request, future Trump national security adviser John Bolton appears in a video talking up gun rights in Russia. npr later reports that Right to Bear Arms used it in its lobbying.
SHALGIN ALEXANDER/TASS/ZUMA; ANTON NOVODEREZHKIN/TASS/ZUMA; BILL CLARK/CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY/ZUMA
December 2011: Preston serves as an international observer of Russia’s legislative elections, calling them free and fair despite mass protests and European observers reporting fraudulent activity.
A Moscow fashion show put on by Right to Bear Arms
politics of sanctions that are damaging on both economy?” Trump responds, “I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin…I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well.” July 13, 2015: Butina posts photos from an event where Gov. Scott Walker announces his presidential candidacy.
“WE WOULD LIKE TO BE FRIENDS WITH NRA” January 2014: Following the death of Kalashnikov at age 94, the Washington Times publishes an appreciation written by Torshin. Former nra President Keene is the paper’s op-ed editor at the time.
ED ANDRIESKI/AP; RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS/INSTAGRAM; MARIA BUTINA/INSTAGRAM; MARK REINSTEIN/ZUMA
April 2014: Torshin and Butina attend the nra convention in Indianapolis, where Butina joins Keene for meetings. She explains, “We would like to be friends with nra.” September 2014: Paul Erickson—an nra member and longtime Republican operative from South Dakota—attends a Right to Bear Arms meeting in Moscow with Butina.
also present, later tells Bloomberg that he had a “jovial exchange” with the future president.
August 29, 2015: Preston tweets a picture of Trump speaking to the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, writing in Russian, “Donald Trump today in Nashville. He is a friend of Russia.”
April 16, 2015: Butina gives a talk at the University of South Dakota. She says Right to Bear Arms now has 10,000 members and 76 oices “all over Russia.” June 2015: Four days before Trump announces his campaign, Butina writes in the conservative National Interest, urging friendship between “the bear and the elephant”: “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
December 8-13, 2015: Erickson, Keene, future nra President Pete Brownell, and Milwaukee Sherif David Clarke meet with Kremlin oicials in Moscow, where they enjoy lavish meals and visit a gun manufacturer. Clarke, an outspoken Trump supporter, later ﬁles an ethics report showing that Right to Bear Arms paid $6,000 for his expenses.
July 11, 2015: At a questionand-answer session at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas, Butina asks Trump, “What will be your foreign politics…and do you want to continue the
November 18, 2014: Russia changes its laws to allow citizens to carry guns in public for self-defense.
December 10, 2015: Future Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn attends a gala for the Kremlin-controlled RT media network in Moscow. Flynn, who sits next to Putin and across from future Green Party candidate Jill Stein, is paid $45,000 to give a speech—which he fails to report on his White House ﬁnancial disclosure forms.
January 2015: Torshin is appointed deputy governor of Russia’s central bank. March 2015: Butina announces on Facebook that she will attend the nra’s upcoming convention in Nashville. She notes the importance of “paying attention to the politicians that we have more similarities than diferences [with].” April 2015: Butina posts about 200 pictures from Nashville, including one with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who she says greeted her in Russian. She notes he’s “one of the possible future nominees for the post of US President” and ponders the “beginning of a new dialogue between Russia and the US.” Donald Trump also attends, telling the crowd, “I promise you one thing, if I run for president and if I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.” Torshin,
September 25, 2015: Right to Bear Arms posts a meme on Facebook, attributing a quote to Trump in Russian: “Nobody can encroach on the citizenry’s right to store and carry ﬁrearms. Period.”
“ACTIVELY SEEKING A DIALOGUE”
January 21, 2016: Trump speaks at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual shot Show in Las Vegas. Don Jr. and Eric Trump also attend, posing with representatives from Sig Sauer, whose “Black Mamba” mcx assault riﬂe would soon be used in the Orlando, Florida, nightclub massacre. Ten days after the speech, at an event at an Iowa gun shop, Don Jr. and Eric Trump shoot assault riﬂes and brag about their
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concealed-carry permits. “I shoot all the time,” Don Jr. tells the Telegraph. “Every weekend.”
Donald Trump says his son Don Jr. “loves the riﬂe stuff.”
February 13, 2016: Torshin tweets, “Maria Butina is currently in the usa. She writes to me that D. Trump (an nra member) really is for cooperation with Russia.” February 2016: Butina and Erickson form a South Dakota-based company called Bridges llc. Erickson later tells McClatchy that they created the ﬁrm so Butina could get ﬁnancial assistance for her graduate studies at American University in Washington, DC, where she would enroll that fall—“an unusual way to use an llc,” as the reporters dryly note.
March 3, 2016: In a primary debate, Trump is reminded that in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he supported a ban on assault weapons. His response: “I don’t support it anymore.” May 2016: In an email to Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” Erickson says Russia is “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and proposes using the upcoming nra convention to set up “ﬁrst contact” with the Trump team. According to a New York Times report, Erickson writes that he’s in a position to “slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.” The email doesn’t name Torshin but appears to mention him as “Putin’s emissary” who planned to attend a dinner hosted by conservative Christian activist Rick Clay. Meanwhile, Clay sends an email to Dearborn with the subject line “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” seeking a meeting between Trump and Torshin. Dearborn forwards Clay’s email to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who reportedly nixes the proposal.
Amendment is to vote for a person that you all know named Donald Trump.” Torshin poses for photos wearing an nra “Ring of Freedom” ID badge. June 15, 2016: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tells fellow gop leaders in a private conversation, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump. Swear to God.” House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately shuts down the conversation and tells those present to stay quiet. When a recording of the conversation later becomes public, McCarthy says he was just joking. August 2016: Hours after Trump appears to threaten Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally by invoking “Second Amendment people” who might “do something” to stop her, Politico reports that the nra has bought a $3 million spot attacking Clinton, its most expensive pro-Trump campaign ad yet. October 2016: A wave of nra-sponsored TV political ads targets voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. In four months, the group airs more than 10,000 ads criticizing Clinton or extolling Trump. Trump goes on to win all three states. Early November 2016: Pro-gun messages feature prominently in “junk news” spread by Russian trolls and others on Twitter, particularly in key battleground states.
May 19, 2016: Torshin meets Don Jr. at a private dinner the night before his father speaks at the nra convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Don Jr.’s lawyer later says the exchange “was all gun-related small talk.” May 20, 2016: The nra endorses Trump at its convention. Trump tells the crowd, “The only way to save our Second
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November 8, 2016: Donald Trump is elected president— boosted by $30 million in spending by the nra. November 12, 2016: Butina hosts a costume party in DC for her th 28 birthday, attended by Erickson and Trump campaign aides. Erickson dresses as Russian mystic Rasputin, and Butina dresses as the czarina Alexandra. Two guests tell the Daily Beast that Butina bragged about being part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia.
“CONSERVATIVES’ FAVORITE RUSSIAN” January 20, 2017: Butina and Erickson make an appearance at the Freedom Ball, one of the three oicial inaugural balls Trump attends. January 31, 2017: Torshin, Erickson, Rohrabacher, and former Kremlin stafer Andrey Kolyadin attend a private event on Capitol Hill hosted by George O’Neill Jr., a longtime conservative activist. February 2, 2017: Torshin and Butina accompany a delegation of more than a dozen Russian oicials and academics to the National Prayer Breakfast, where Trump is speaking. Kolyadin posts a photo with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, commenting that he “treats Russia pretty well, by the way.” Kolyadin later brags about his “direct access to leadership,” noting, “We sat very close to each other and just smiled.” Torshin is scheduled to meet with Trump, but the meeting is canceled when a national security aide points out that Torshin reportedly is under
MANISH SWARUP/AP; KIICHIRO SATO/AP; SILENCERCO/YOUTUBE; ALEXANDER TORSHIN; DENNIS VAN TINE/STAR MAX/ZUMA
February 23, 2016: After winning the Nevada primary, Trump gives a victory speech hailing his sons’ gun rights bona ﬁdes: “[Don Jr.] loves the riﬂe stuf…This is serious nra, both of them, both of them. We love the Second Amendment, folks. Nobody loves it more than us, so just remember that.”
investigation by Spanish authorities for his alleged “godfather” role in Russian organized crime and money laundering. Rohrabacher tells Yahoo News that Torshin is “sort of the conservatives’ favorite Russian.” February 24, 2017: “For years, the media couldn’t have cared less about Vladimir Putin or Russia,” nra leader Wayne LaPierre says in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, voicing a “deep state” conspiracy theory on Trump’s behalf: “But now, barely a month into Trump’s presidency, they’re ‘horriﬁed’ and all a-fret over the ‘Russian-American equation.’ Even more alarming is that they’ve apparently found willing co-conspirators among some in the US intelligence community.” April 28, 2017: Having recently reversed an Obama-era rule that made it more diicult for mentally ill people to buy guns, Trump addresses the nra annual convention: “You came through for me,” he says, “and I am going to come through for you.”
OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/AP; FACE TO FACE/ZUMA; KASTER/AP; NOMA BAR
August 15, 2017: After Rohrabacher meets with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange in London, he claims he has evidence to share with the White House that the Russians did not hack the Democratic National Committee. But Trump’s chief of staf John Kelly rebufs him. Rohrabacher later tells the Intercept, “What is preventing me from talking to Trump about this is the existence of a special prosecutor. Not only Kelly, but others are worried if I say one word to Trump about Russia, that it would appear to out-of-control prosecutors that that is where the collusion is.” October and November 2017: Russialinked online trolls spread conspiracy theories following mass shootings on the Las Vegas Strip and at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. November 14, 2017: “It appears the Russians…inﬁltrated the nra,” Glenn Simpson, founder of the opposition
research ﬁrm Fusion gps, testiﬁes to the House Intelligence Committee. “They targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted efort to get in with the nra.” Referencing Torshin and Butina, he adds, “The most absurd [thing] about this is that, you know, Vladimir Putin is not in favor of universal gun ownership for Russians. And so it’s all a big charade, basically.”
“THE BOGUS RUSSIA INVESTIGATION” January 18, 2018: McClatchy reports the fbi is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the Trump campaign through the nra. (The fbi would “neither conﬁrm nor deny” the investigation to Mother Jones.) January 29, 2018: Democratic Rep. Adam Schif, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, tells npr that the committee’s probe of the nra-Russia angle has been stymied by its Republican majority. February 2, 2018: Sen. Ron Wyden sends letters to the nra and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin demanding any documents showing ﬁnancial ties between the nra and Russia: “I am speciﬁcally troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections.” The nra’s general counsel responds, “The nra and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections.”
Trump meets with survivors of the Parkland school shooting.
survivors at the White House, Trump endorses nra talking points to end “gun-free zones” and arm teachers to “harden” schools. February 22, 2018: Trump hails the leaders of the nra on Twitter: “Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Echoing Trump, nra spokeswoman Dana Loesch blames the fbi’s Russia investigation for the failure to prevent the Parkland shooting: “Maybe if you politicized your agency less and did your job more, we wouldn’t have these problems.” February 28, 2018: Referring to the nra, Trump tells lawmakers, “They have great power over you people. They have less power over me.” March 2018: In an nra magazine, LaPierre blasts media bias against Trump, calling out coverage of “the bogus Russia investigation.”
February 14, 2018: Following the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, Kremlinlinked trolls immediately go into action on Twitter, stirring both sides of the gun debate.
March 1, 2018: Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet in the Oval Oice with nra Executive Director Chris Cox. Trump calls the meeting “great.” Cox later announces, “potus & vpotus support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control. #nra #maga.”
February 21, 2018: During a televised “listening session” with Parkland
Additional reporting and translations from Russian by Hannah Levintova.
EXPLORE THE RUSSIAN CONNECTION Mother Jones has been digging into the Trump-Russia connection since 2016. Go to motherjones.com/topics /russia to see projects including our investigative timeline of Trump’s ties to Russia since the 1980s; our series documenting the Kremlin’s social-media attacks on US politics; and excerpts from Russian Roulette, the scoop-filled new book co-authored by Washington bureau chief David Corn. To sign up for our Russian Connection newsletter, go to motherjones.com/about/free-trump-email-newsletter-editorial-letter.
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HIDDEN FIGURES The 2020 census will shape the future of our democracy. The Trump administration is working to make that future whiter and more conservative. b y a r i b e r m a n p h o t o g r a p h s b y p r e s t o n g a n n away
pulled back a chain-link fence, and Cindy Quezada squeezed through the gap. They stepped over two rotting mattresses and an old tire and peered into a backyard. The neighbors eyed them suspiciously. “You guys with ice?” one teenager asked. Quezada laughed and shook her head. It was a sunny January afternoon, and she and Sanjuan had spent the past three hours crisscrossing the alleys of a Fresno, California, neighborhood with small one-story bungalows and Mexican restaurants, looking for sheds, garages, and trailers serving as makeshift homes. They weren’t out to harass the immigrants living there; they were there to count them. Quezada and Sanjuan were working with the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, a network of organizations embarking on a pilot program to identify “low-visibility housing” in Fresno in preparation for the 2020 census. The Constitution requires the executive branch to tally “the whole number of persons in each state.” But every 10 years, the census counts some people more than once—such as wealthy Americans who own multiple homes—and
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others not at all, particularly those who are poorer, move often, or fear the government. The 2010 census, the most accurate to date, overcounted white residents by nearly 1 percent while failing to count 1.5 million people of color, including 1.5 percent of Hispanics, 2.1 percent of blacks, and 4.9 percent of Native Americans on reservations, the Census Bureau later concluded. Mexican immigrants were especially undercounted because the bureau didn’t know where they lived or because multiple families lived in one household. That’s why Quezada and Sanjuan were in Fresno, where 70 percent of residents are people of color, 20 percent are immigrants, and one-third live in poverty, making it one of the hardest places in the country to count. Only 73 percent of residents in the east Fresno neighborhood they were canvassing mailed back their census forms in 2010—if they ever received them in the ﬁrst place. Quezada and Sanjuan are both immigrants, but with very diﬀerent backgrounds. Quezada, who is in her late 30s, ﬂed war-torn El Salvador with her family in the 1980s after her father got a university research job in California. She has a doctorate in biology from the California Insti-
tute of Technology and worked for the State Department in Washington and the US Agency for International Development in Egypt before returning home and eventually taking a job with the collaborative. She wore a stylish tweed blazer and skinny jeans as she roamed the alleys and enthusiastically took photos of everything she saw, including a dead rat. Sanjuan, 43, came from Mexico when he was 17, and since then he’s barely left California and hasn’t attended school, apart from English-language classes. He wore a black “CA” baseball cap and a blue T-shirt. Having remodeled many unconventional structures as a construction worker, he was an expert at spotting hidden housing. Quezada compiled the data. A rooster darted from roof to roof. A canine symphony arose from behind the fences. “There should be a census for dogs,” Quezada remarked. Behind a Sanjuan and yellow one-story house with a Quezada search for faded wood fence, they spotted makeshift a small garage next to an orange housing in tree. It had two pipes for runFresno. ning water, which Sanjuan said meant it had been converted into a dwelling. Immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, often live in such clandestine housing because they don’t have the credit to rent a conventional home or apartment. The house next door also had a converted garage in the backyard. Quezada marked the residences on her phone and sent the information through Facebook Messenger to the Census Outreach, an intermediary that would verify the data and eventually pass it along to the Census Bureau, which was cooperating with the pilot project in an eﬀort to update addresses in advance of the 2020 census. “You have to go the extra mile to count people,” she said. “The average census worker isn’t going to go into the alleys like we do.” The census is America’s largest civic event, the only one that involves everyone in the country, young and old, citizen and noncitizen, rich and poor—or at least it’s supposed to. It’s been conducted every 10 years since 1790, when US Marshals ﬁrst swore an oath to undertake “a just and perfect enumeration” of the population. The census determines how $675 billion in federal funding is allocated to states and localities each year for things like health care, schools, public housing, and roads; how many congressio-
“They’re afraid. They tell you, ‘They’re not going to count me. They only count people with documents.’”
nal seats and electoral votes each state receives; and how states will redraw local and federal voting districts. Virtually every major institution in America relies on census data, from businesses looking for new markets to the US military tracking the needs of veterans. The census lays the groundwork for the core infrastructure of our democracy, bringing a measure of transparency and fairness to how representation and resources are allocated across the country. But with the Trump administration in charge, voting rights advocates fear the undercount could be ampliﬁed, shifting economic resources and political power toward rural, white, and Republican communities. The census is scheduled to begin on April 1, 2020, in the middle of the presidential election season. Of all the ways democracy is threatened under President Donald Trump—a blind eye to Russian meddling in elections, a rollback of voting rights, a disregard for checks and balances—an unfair and inaccurate census could have the most dramatic long-term impact. “It’s one of those issues that’s often the least sexy, least discussed in certain corners, and yet the ramiﬁcations for communities of color and vulnerable communities are so high in terms of what’s at stake for economic power and political power,” says Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama and now directs the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. A “perfect storm” is threatening the 2020 census, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staﬀ director for the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. Budget cuts enacted by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress forced the bureau to cancel crucial ﬁeld tests in 2017 and 2018. The bureau’s director resigned last June, and the administration has yet to name a full-time director or deputy director. The next census will also be the ﬁrst to rely on the internet. The Census Bureau will mail households a postcard with instructions on how to ﬁll out the form online; if they don’t respond, it will send ﬁeld-workers, known as enumerators, to knock on their doors. But in an eﬀort to save money, there will be 200,000 fewer enumerators than in 2010, increasing the likelihood that households without reliable internet access will go uncounted. Enumerators will carry tablets instead of paper forms, and the reliance on technology raises cybersecurity fears in the wake of high-proﬁle hacks and foreign election interference. “They’re putting together the census under a pall of uncertainty,” says Kenneth Prewitt, who directed the 2000 census. “How much money, who’s going to be in charge, what are we going to do on the core questionnaire itself? To do that under such a level of uncertainty is literally unprecedented.” M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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In places like Fresno, there’s another giant concern: that the census, despite conﬁdentiality rules barring the bureau from sharing personal information with other government agencies, will be used by the Trump administration to deport undocumented immigrants. In December, the Justice Department requested that the bureau include a question about US citizenship on the census form for the ﬁrst time since 1950. The bureau had a March 31 deadline to decide whether to comply with that request. When this story went to print, it had not yet announced its decision, and it did not respond to requests for comment. But even if the question is left oﬀ the census, it’s too late to undo the fear it has caused in immigrant communities. Sanjuan has been in the United States for 26 years and
RACE TO THE BOTTOM The census has never been a perfect enumeration of the US population, but it has disproportionately undercounted minority groups, including African Americans and Hispanics (a category that was not included as an option on the census before 1980). —Eli Day Percentage of the population under- and overcounted 2 1
-1 -2 -3 -4
QWhite QBlack QHispanic
in his first state of the Union address, Trump returned
-7 -8 Source: Census Bureau
States expected to gain and lose congressional seats based on a fairly conducted 2020 census QPotential gain in seats QPotential loss in seats
-1 -1 -1 -1
-1 -1 -1 +1 +1 +1 -1 +3 +2
Source: Election Data Services
has a 12-year-old son who is a US citizen. He ﬁlled out the census for the ﬁrst time in 2010, in part to ensure that his state and local governments received their share of federal funding for social programs. (California’s ﬁnance oice estimates the state will lose $1,900 annually for each uncounted resident in 2020.) “The beneﬁts weren’t really for me because I never ask for anything, but there are beneﬁts that can help my son,” he told me at La Luna, a Mexican bakery in a working-class Latino neighborhood near the Yosemite Freeway, after a long afternoon canvassing Fresno’s alleys. In the run-up to the 2010 census, he helped conduct research on low-visibility housing in the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural region that runs from Stockton in the north to Bakersﬁeld in the south, with Fresno in the middle. He met farmworkers sleeping under trees near irrigation canals and urged them to respond to the census so they could receive better housing. “I’ve always said that they don’t have anything to fear because if [the government] really wanted to get rid of you, they would have done it a long time ago,” he said. But now undocumented immigrants are “much more fearful that they’re going to deport everyone,” he said. “They’ve arrested people in stores, at work, on buses.” He showed me a video posted to Facebook that day of Border Patrol agents searching for farmworkers in a ﬁeld near the Mexican border. That week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided 77 businesses in Northern California, then the largest sweep since Trump became president. “California better hold on tight,” ice Acting Director Thomas Homan told Fox News. “They’re about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation oicers.” Sanjuan said it would be easier to persuade fellow immigrants to respond to the census if not for Trump. “I believe it’s going to be diicult to convince people now,” he told me.
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to familiar themes from his presidential campaign, decrying “open borders [that] have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities.” Immigrants, he said, had stolen jobs from native-born Americans and “caused the loss of many innocent lives.” He highlighted the stories of families who’d lost children to the MS-13 gangs, and of the cops who’d battled them. The next morning, 25 Latina women gathered for a monthly support group at the Fresno Center for New Americans, located in a strip mall next to a Family Dollar and an El Pollo Loco restaurant. They sat at a long U-shaped table beneath a mural of verdant farmland scenes that celebrated Fresno as “the best little city in the usa.” Quezada was there to give a presentation on the census. “I am an immigrant,” she said in Spanish, and she described how her family had escaped the civil war in El Salvador after the American-backed military regime falsely accused her father of being a communist. “When I was little, all I knew was war,” she said. Quezada showed a slide of an ice agent knocking on the door of a terriﬁed woman. “You have the right to say nothing and also to ask to speak with your lawyer,” Quezada said.
DOWN FOR THE COUNT Security experts warn that an online census will leave us more vulnerable than ever. “This is [true] if you have documents or do not have documents.” The census, too, she said, “is a right that one should exercise. And in 2016, Australia tried to run a more the census. They could launch an attack it is a right that we all have as immigrants and eicient national census by conducting like the one in Australia to overwhelm the as human beings.” it online. Things went badly from the system and undermine conﬁdence in it. She asked how many of the women had start. On the day the survey was posted, They could ﬂood the portal with phony participated in the census before. Only a few hackers launched a denial-of-service data to manipulate the results. Or they raised their hands. Maria, a farmworker who’d could breach the system and leak people’s attack that brought down the system been in the United States for 37 years, said personal information. Any of these would for 40 hours. The census was eventushe’d ﬁlled out the form in 2010 but couldn’t ally taken, but the government sufered take substantial time and money to ﬁx. convince her neighbors to do so. “They’re massive embarrassment. “It’s asymmetric warfare,” Williams afraid,” she said. “They tell you, ‘They’re not Now the United States is planning its says. “If I can spend $1 and force you to going to count me. They only count people ﬁrst census that will be conducted prispend $10, that’s the Cold War all over with documents. We thought we were going marily online. And with ongoing hacking again. That’s how we won.” to be investigated.’” Her friends who received of US political and government data by Already, problems have cropped up. the form threw it in the trash, she added. foreign powers, it’s no surprise security The bureau’s compressed timeline preAdela, who came to Fresno 10 years ago, experts are warning that things could vented it from conducting reliable tests had never ﬁlled out a census form either. go very wrong. to detect holes in the computer sys“You come not knowing the laws,” she “We know that certain foreign inteltem’s security. In tests it did conduct, said. “People say, ‘Oh, don’t ﬁll it out beligence services like to mess with US indata collected by census workers could cause you don’t have insurance. You’re not stitutions and to try and cause distrust not be transmitted and in some cases here legally. As a result, you can’t ﬁll it out. in the system, right?” says Patrick Gray, was deleted completely. It doesn’t count. Even if you ﬁll it out, it a leading cybersecurity journalist based A lack of confidence in the internet doesn’t count.’” She also recalled seeing 2010 in Australia who was the first to piece census could be self-fulﬁlling. In Australia census forms in trash cans in Fresno. in 2016, people opted to leave some pertogether what happened there in 2016. Quezada explained that California resonal information blank on their forms “Messing with the census would be a ceived $77 billion annually from the fedgood way to do that.” after civil liberties groups warned that eral government, allocated according to The US Census Bureau tested an intertheir data might not be properly secured. census data, for programs that many people net survey in 2000 and scrapped it in 2010 Kenneth Prewitt, who led the Census in the room used, like Head Start, Englishbecause of concerns over data collection Bureau from 1998 to 2001, says a breach language classes, and Medi-Cal public efectiveness and security. Now, despite of the basic information people submit health insurance. If these 25 women were cost overruns, underfunding, understafto the census probably wouldn’t lead counted, she said, then over 10 years they ing, and tight deadlines, it’s back for 2020. to identity theft but could erode trust would attract funding on the order of “half Jake Williams, a former National in government. “It wouldn’t amount to a million dollars, in this little room.” She much because there’s not much to learn,” Security Agency hacker, says there are added, “I hope you see the magnitude of the he says. “But the optics of it would be several ways state-sponsored or politiconsequence of not participating.” cally motivated hackers could undermine devastating.” —AJ Vicens Francesca, a mother of four from Guerrero, Mexico, who had lived in Fresno for 18 years, raised her hand. She wanted to know why, despite staying at the same address in Fresno for 11 years, she didn’t receive a census form in 2010. “Almost everyone I know has never ﬁlled out a after the 2010 census failed to count 1.5 million US form,” she said. She wondered if that was one reason there residents of color, the government might have been exweren’t enough teachers at her children’s schools and the pected to devote more resources to ensure an accurate classes were too large. (Census data helps school districts count. Instead, in 2012 Congress told the Census Bureau, decide where to build new schools and hire teachers.) over the Obama White House’s objections, to spend less Twenty percent of Californians live in hard-to-count areas money on the 2020 census than it had in 2010, despite like Fresno, where more than a quarter of all households inﬂation and the fact that the population was projected to grow by 25 million. After Trump took oice, Congress failed to mail back their 2010 census forms, including a third cut the bureau’s budget by another 10 percent and gave of Latinos and African Americans, Quezada told the group. She pulled up a map showing that California contains 10 it no additional funding for 2018, even though the census of the 50 counties in the country with the lowest census typically receives a major cash infusion at this juncture to prepare for the decennial count. response rates. Those 10 counties are home to 8.4 million people; 38 states have smaller populations. The bureau’s director, John Thompson, testified on “There I am,” Francesca said, pointing at the map. Capitol Hill in May 2017 that the budget cuts would “Yes,” Quezada responded. “There you are.” force “diicult decisions.” A week later, he announced his M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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resignation. The bureau canceled ﬁeld tests last year in Puerto Rico and on Native American reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington state that were designed to help the census reach hard-to-count communities. It then eliminated two of three “dress rehearsals” planned for April 2018, leaving Providence, Rhode Island, as the only site to test the bureau’s new technology before the 2020 census begins. (Rhode Island’s secretary of state says she’s received almost no communication from the bureau about the test.) Prewitt, the census director in 2000, compared the situation to the Air Force putting a new ﬁghter plane into battle without testing it ﬁrst. “You would never do that to the military,” he said, “but they’re doing that to the census.” The Census Bureau has half as many regional centers and ﬁeld oices today as it did in 2010. The Denver oice oversees a region that stretches from Canada to Mexico. With the Boston oice closed, the New York oice covers all of New England. There are only two census outreach workers for all of the New York City metro area, according to Jeﬀ
Of all the ways democracy is threatened under President Donald Trump, an unfair census could have the most dramatic long-term impact.
Wice, a census expert at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York. The ﬁrst digital census may make the process more convenient for some people, but 36 percent of African Americans and 30 percent of Hispanics have neither a computer nor broadband internet at home, and a Pew Research Center survey published last year found that more than a third of Americans making less than $30,000 a year lack smartphones. In California’s Central Valley, “people aren’t just sitting around in a beaten-down trailer or an old motel on their laptop waiting to ﬁll out their census form,” says Ilene Jacobs, director of litigation, advocacy, and training for California Rural Legal Assistance. (The Census Bureau will partially mitigate this issue by mailing paper questionnaires to the 20 percent of American households that have poor internet access.) Quezada and Sanjuan identiﬁed more than 600 unconventional structures in Fresno that could be sent census notices in 2020, increasing the number of housing units in the Census Bureau’s database by 6.3 percent in the areas they canvassed. But there will be fewer people dispatched by the bureau to count their occupants in person if they fail to respond, with the number of enumerators nationally dropping from more than 500,000 in 2010 to about 300,000 in 2020. The technological shortcomings of the census are becoming apparent. Last year, the Government Accountability 42
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Oice labeled it a “high risk” program and warned that the census website’s scheduled launch in April 2020 could resemble the disastrous HealthCare.gov rollout in 2010. The gao found that only 4 of the bureau’s 40 technology systems had cleared testing, and none were ready to be used in the ﬁeld. Cybersecurity is also a major concern. Thompson says the bureau receives a “large number of attacks” every day. An internal review in January listed cybersecurity and public skepticism of the bureau’s ability to handle conﬁdential data as the top two “major concerns that could aﬀect the design or the successful implementation of the 2020 census.” The gao has warned that “cyber criminals may attempt to steal personal information collected during and for the 2020 Decennial Census.” Hackers, including from Russia, could even seek to manipulate the overall count by breaking into the bureau’s databases. strong leadership could remedy some of these deﬁ-
ciencies, but there’s essentially no one steering the ship. Thompson announced his resignation on May 9, 2017, the same day fbi Director James Comey was ﬁred. Thompson’s deputy, Nancy Potok, had already left to become the country’s chief statistician. The administration still hasn’t nominated anyone to replace them. In November, Politico reported that Thomas Brunell, a professor of political science at the University of TexasDallas, would become the bureau’s deputy director, the position in charge of running the decennial census. Unlike past deputy directors, who were nonpartisan career civil servants with extensive census experience, Brunell had never worked in government. He had, however, written a 2008 book called Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America, which provocatively argued that segregating voters by party ailiation in ultrasafe electoral districts oﬀered them better representation than spreading them across competitive ones. He’d also been hired by Republicans in more than a dozen states as an expert witness in redistricting cases, defending some gop-drawn maps that were later struck down by federal courts for racial gerrymandering. The reports about Brunell sparked furious pushback from civil rights advocates. “It’s breathtaking to think they’re going to make that person responsible for the census,” former Attorney General Eric Holder told me. “It’s a sign of what the Trump administration intends to do with the census, which is not to take a constitutional responsibility with the degree of seriousness that they should. It would raise great fears that you would have a very partisan census.” In February, Brunell withdrew from consideration. Yet the bureau has already become politicized. Last year, Trump installed Kevin Quinley, the former research director at Kellyanne Conway’s Republican polling ﬁrm, whose clients included Breitbart News, as a special adviser to the bureau. Quinley reports to the Oice of White House Liaison at the Commerce Department, which reports to the White House, according to a former department oicial. “If some-
thing like that happened to me as a director, I would feel intimidated by it,” says Prewitt. In March, the bureau chose as its head of congressional aﬀairs a top aide to former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who repeatedly introduced legislation to add a question about US citizenship to the census form. In December, when the Justice Department took up that call and requested the citizenship question, it said it needed the information to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Gupta, the former head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, says that’s “plainly a ruse to collect that data and ultimately to sabotage the census.” Five former directors of the bureau who served under Republican and Democratic presidents wrote a letter opposing the citizenship question. “It would be a horrendous problem for the Census Bureau and create all kind of controversies,” says Steve Murdock, who led the census from 2008 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. When I asked immigrants in the Fresno area whether they would respond to the census if it included a question about citizenship, virtually all of them said no. Prominent anti-immigration hardliners, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the former vice chair of Trump’s election integrity commission, are hoping to use citizenship data from the census to further reduce immigrants’ political inﬂuence. They have issued a radical proposal to draw legislative maps based on the number of citizens in a district rather than the total population, which would signiﬁcantly diminish political representation for areas with large numbers of noncitizens. Even before the Justice Department proposed the citizenship question, ﬁeld surveys and focus groups conducted by the bureau in ﬁve states in 2017 found that “fears, particularly among immigrant respondents, have increased markedly.” Interviewees “intentionally provided incomplete or incorrect information about household members due to concerns regarding conﬁdentiality, particularly relating to perceived negative attitudes toward immigrants,” according to a memo from the Center for Survey Measurement, a division of the bureau. One Spanish-speaking ﬁeld representative told the bureau that a family moved away from a trailer park to avoid being interviewed: “There was a cluster of mobile homes, all Hispanic. I went to one and I left the information on the door. I could hear them inside. I did two more interviews, and when I came back they were moving...It’s because they were afraid of being deported.” Such fear has precedent. During World War II, the Census Bureau gave the names and addresses of Japanese Americans to the Secret Service, which used the information to round up people and send them to internment camps. That abuse led to strict conﬁdentiality standards for the bureau. But many immigrants will never trust the Trump administration with their personal information. “Immigrants and their families all feel under attack, under siege, by the federal government,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Oicials Educational Fund, who serves on a Census Bureau advisory committee. “And then we have to turn around and tell these same people, ‘Trust
Latino tenants at a lowincome housing complex in Huron, California, discuss the census at a community meeting in February.
the federal government when they come to count you.’” The Commerce Department now estimates that only 55 percent of Americans will initially ﬁll out the census in 2020 after receiving a postcard in the mail, down from 63 percent who sent back the ﬁrst form in 2010. The need to reach out to the remainder of the population will drive up expenses and could result in further cutbacks. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who worked as an enumerator while attending Harvard Business School, told Congress in October that the census would cost $3 billion more than initially projected. Already, the bureau’s outreach is lagging. For the 2010 census, it ran a $340 million promotional ad campaign featuring Winter Olympians, nascar drivers, and Dora the Explorer. “Everyone counts on the census form!” Dora said in one ad. The popular Telemundo telenovela Más Sabe el Diablo (“The Devil Knows Best”) even featured a storyline where the character Perla got a job working for the Census Bureau in New York City. So far, the bureau has only 40 employees working with local governments and community groups on outreach, far short of the 120 at this point 10 years ago. The bureau is focusing its limited budget on perfecting the new technology it will use in 2020, shortchanging the advertising and local partnerships it typically uses to (continued on page 67) M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
DRINKING MAY HAVE GIVEN ME CANCER. THE ALCOHOL INDUSTRY WORKED HARD TO DOWNPLAY THE RISK. BY STEPHANIE MENCIMER ILLUSTRATIONS BY EDMON DE HARO
i thought i’d done everything right: breastfeed-
ing my children, a careful diet, plenty of exercise. I wasn’t overweight and didn’t have a family history. I bought bpa-free bottles for my ﬁltered water. But on a visit to the radiology department last spring, a pair of red brackets highlighted something worrisome on the ultrasound monitor. Invasive lobular carcinoma—a malignant breast tumor. This spidery little beast measuring nearly three centimeters meant I had stage 2 cancer. At 47, I was a decade and a half younger than the median age for breast cancer diagnosis in the United States. Was this just bad luck? Maybe, but the journalist in me was still curious to know: Why me? So I dug into the literature on risk factors to see where I might have ﬁt in. It’s an impossible question to answer deﬁnitively for an individual, like trying to prove that a single weather event was caused by climate change. As one doctor told me, “You know who’s at risk for getting breast cancer? People with breasts!” Still, most of the broad indicators didn’t seem to apply to me. The biggest one is age: The median diagnosis in the United States is at 62, and the highest breast cancer rates are in women older than 70. Another is taking hormone replacement therapy after menopause, but I’m premenopausal and haven’t taken it. Obesity raises risk, but I’ve never been overweight. Then I saw one that gave me pause: alcohol consumption. I’m not a heavy drinker, but like most women I know, I have consumed a lot of alcohol in my lifetime. While doctors have frequently admonished me for putting cream in my coﬀee lest it clog my arteries—a
correlation that’s been pretty thoroughly debunked— not once has any doctor suggested I might face a higher cancer risk if I didn’t cut back on drinking. I’d ﬁlled out dozens of medical forms over the years asking how much I drank every week, but no one ever followed up other than to say with nodding approval, “So you drink socially.” I quickly discovered that way back in 1988, the World Health Organization declared alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that it’s been proved to cause cancer. There is no known safe dosage in humans, according to the who. Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, but it kills more women from breast cancer than from any other. The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that for every drink consumed daily, the risk of breast cancer goes up 7 percent. The research linking alcohol to breast cancer is deadly solid. There’s no controversy here. Alcohol, regardless of whether it’s in Everclear or a vintage Bordeaux, is carcinogenic. More than 100 studies over several decades have reairmed the link with consistent results. The National Cancer Institute says alcohol raises breast cancer risk even at low levels. I’m a pretty voracious reader of health news, and all of this came as a shock. I’d been told red wine was supposed to defend against heart disease, not give you cancer. And working at Mother Jones, I thought I’d written or read articles on everything that could maybe possibly cause cancer: sugar, plastic, milk, pesticides, shampoo, the wrong sunscreen, tap water…You name it, we’ve reported on the odds that it might give you cancer. As I schlepped back and forth to the hospital M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
for surgery and radiation treatments, I started to wonder how I could know about the risk associated with all these other things but not alcohol. It turns out there was a good reason for my ignorance. i was born and raised in Utah, and after my cancer diag-
nosis, I wondered what would have happened if I’d stayed put. My home state has one of the lowest rates of breast cancer in the country. Observant Mormon women don’t drink, and like other populations that abstain, they have signiﬁcantly lower rates of breast cancer than drinkers. In Utah, Mormon women’s breast cancer rates are more than 24 percent lower than the national average. (Mormon men have lower rates of colon cancer, which alcohol can also cause.) Researchers suspect the low overall rate of breast cancer in Utah has to do with the lds church’s strict control over state alcohol policy. Gentiles, as we non-Mormons are called, grouse mightily over the watery 3.2 percent beer sold in Utah supermarkets, the high price of vodka sold exclusively in state-run liquor stores, and the infamous “Zion Curtain,” a barrier that restaurants were until recently required to install to shield kids from seeing drinks poured. Yet all those restrictions on booze seem to make people in Utah healthier, Mormon or not, especially when it comes to breast cancer. Epidemiologists first recognized the connection between cancer and alcohol consumption in the 1970s. Scientists have since found biological RESEARCHERS explanations for why alcohol is carESTIMATE THAT cinogenic, particularly in breast tissue. ALCOHOL ACCOUNTS When you take a drink, enzymes in your mouth convert even small FOR 15 PERCENT OF amounts of alcohol into high levels US BREAST CANCER of acetaldehyde, a carcinogen. People who consume more than three drinks CASES AND DEATHS. a day are two to three times likelier to contract oral cavity cancer than those who don’t. Alcohol also damages the cells in the mouth, priming the pump for other carcinogens: Studies have found that drinking and smoking together pose a much higher risk of throat, mouth, and esophageal cancer than either does on its own. Alcohol continues its trail of cellular damage as enzymes from the esophagus to the colon convert it into acetaldehyde. The liver serves as the body’s detox center, but alcohol is toxic to liver cells and can scar the organ tissue, leading over time to cirrhosis, which raises the risk of liver cancer. As acetaldehyde courses through the body, it can bind to dna, causing mutations that can lead to cancer, particularly in the colon. Alcohol is suspected of inﬂicting a double whammy on breast tissue because it also increases the level of estrogen in a woman’s body. High levels of estrogen prompt faster cell division in the breast, which can lead to mutations and ultimately tumors. Researchers estimate that alcohol accounts for 15 percent of US breast cancer cases and deaths—about 35,000 46
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and 6,600 a year, respectively. That’s about three times more than the number of breast cancer cases caused by a mutation of the brca genes, which prompted Angelina Jolie, who carries one of the abnormal genes, to have both her healthy breasts removed in 2013. The breast cancer risk from alcohol isn’t nearly as high as the lung cancer risk from smoking. But alcohol-related breast cancer kills more than twice as many American women as drunk drivers do. And alcohol is one of the few breast cancer risk factors women can control. Others, like starting menstrual periods before the age of 12 and entering menopause after 55, are baked in. Overall, American women have about a 12 percent lifetime risk of getting breast cancer. Walter Willett, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has conducted studies on alcohol and breast cancer, says a woman who consumes two to three drinks a day has a lifetime risk of about 15 percent—a 25 percent increase over teetotalers. By comparison, mammography reduces the death rate from breast cancer by about 25 percent. “Alcohol can undo all of that at about two drinks a day,” Willett says. when the evidence of alcohol’s cancer risks emerged,
public health advocates sought to spread the word. In 1988, California added alcohol to its list of cancer-causing chemicals that required a warning label. The next year, when Congress ﬁrst mandated nationwide warning labels on alcohol, advocates tried to include cancer on them. Battered by activism around drunk driving and fetal alcohol syndrome, the booze industry was already in a slump, with alcohol consumption per capita on a steep slide since its 1981 peak. Fearing health advocates would do to alcohol what they had done to tobacco, the industry fought back with an audacious marketing campaign. Alcohol companies worked to rebrand booze as a staple of a healthy lifestyle, like salads and jogging. The wine industry led, with vintner Robert Mondavi taking rabbis and doctors on educational tours about the alleged health beneﬁts of moderate drinking. He told the New York Times in 1988 that wine “has been praised for centuries by rulers, philosophers, physicians, priests, and poets for life, health, and happiness.’’ The industry’s attempt to transform its products into health tonics might never have succeeded without the help of Morley Safer. In 1991, Safer hosted a 60 Minutes segment about the “French paradox,” the idea that the French eat heaps of red meat, cheese, and cream but have lower heart disease rates than Americans, who were many years into a low-fat dieting craze. On the show, he held up a glass of red wine and declared, “The answer to the riddle, the explanation of the paradox, may lie in this inviting glass.” New research, he said, showed red wine might ﬂush out fatty deposits on artery walls and counteract the eﬀects of the heavy French diet. That TV episode, which according to the International Wine & Food Society was viewed by more than 20 million people, created a media sensation and caused a spike in red wine sales nationwide. Researchers soon debunked
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the idea that wine was helping French heart health, and France’s heart disease rate turned out to be higher than advertised. Meanwhile, all the wine the French consumed was killing large numbers of them. The same year as the 60 Minutes episode, France passed some of the world’s strictest regulations of alcohol advertising to combat prevalent liver cirrhosis. Even so, the US wine industry lobbied to include a positive health message about alcohol in the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans published by the Department of Agriculture. The new guidelines removed language indicating that alcohol had “no net health beneﬁt” and stated that for some people, moderate alcohol consumption might reduce the risk of heart disease. At a conference of beer wholesalers in 1996, the Miller Brewing Co.’s vice president of corporate relations touted the success of the 60 Minutes episode and the subsequent changes in government health messages as progress in the industry’s eﬀort to brand its products as healthy. She urged attendees to open every meeting with an elected oicial by saying, “Alcohol can be part of a healthy diet.” Over the past two decades, the alcohol industry has gone all out to tie its products to an active lifestyle. Peter Cressy, the former ceo of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (discus), the liquor lobby, explained in 2000, “discus is working to ensure cultural acceptance of alcohol beverages by ‘normalizing’ them in the minds of consumers as a healthy part of a normal lifestyle.” Alcohol companies, long sponsors of football games and nascar events, now sponsor 5K races and triathlons. During last year’s Super Bowl, a Michelob Ultra ad featured extremely ﬁt people working out and then grabbing a beer to quench their thirst. (Drinking alcohol after exercise causes dehydration and impedes muscle recovery.) Hard liquor companies concocted products like Devotion Spirits
vodka, which supposedly contained a protein that would help build muscle while preventing hangovers. (In 2012, Devotion Spirits withdrew many of its health claims after the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation.) Indeed, the supposed health upside of moderate drinking is one of the industry’s go-to talking points. When Mother Jones reached out to the leading beer and liquor companies and the major industry groups, those that responded acknowledged the connection between alcohol and cancer, but some argued the risk belongs mostly or entirely to heavy drinkers. Sarah Longwell, the managing director of the American Beverage Institute, said in a statement that “a substantial number of well-conducted studies reveal no correlation between cancer and moderate to light alcohol consumption.” Moderate drinking, she noted, has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, among other beneﬁts. “There has been a concerted eﬀort by some researchers to reverse that knowledge,” she said in an earlier conversation. “I think it is ﬂying in the face of good science.” Marketing alcohol as a health product should be a tough sell. Cancer is only one of the many ways it can kill you. Drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, injuries, domestic violence, liver disease—alcohol is responsible for the deaths of nearly 90,000 Americans every year, more than double the estimated 40,000 US opioid deaths in 2015. To overcome this hurdle, the industry needed to give its PR campaign scientiﬁc backing. The strategy came straight from the tobacco playbook, which wasn’t a surprise: Sometimes the companies were one and the same. The tobacco giant Philip Morris, which bought Miller in 1970, later became Altria, which today has a big stake in Anheuser-Busch. Big Tobacco had set up research centers to dispute science tying smoking to lung cancer and funded research designed to show beneﬁts from smoking, like stress reduction, to help fend oﬀ stricter regulation. The alcohol
POP CULTURE In the early 2000s, the alcohol industry sought to attract new drinkers—often young and female— with “alcopops,” sweetened drinks in bright childlike colors. The industry has also tried to brand alcohol as healthy with ads featuring athletes and with sponsorship of major sporting events.
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industry took a similar tack, aided by research it had been funding since the late 1960s. In a 1993 book called Forward Together: Industry and Academia, Thomas Turner, the former dean of the Johns Hopkins University medical school, explained how, starting in 1969, he had worked with the heads of the world’s biggest beer companies to create the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation (now called the Foundation for Alcohol Research). The foundation took academics to exotic destinations for conferences and gave grants to scientists. Between 1972 and 1993, Turner bragged, the beer foundation and its precursor funded more than 500 studies on alcohol and distributed grants to dozens of researchers and universities. One was Dr. Arthur Klatsky of Kaiser Permanente. In the early 1970s, Klatsky had access to extensive data through Kaiser’s health system that included information about patients’ alcohol intake. In 1974, he published one of the ﬁrst papers suggesting that light drinkers
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had lower rates of heart disease than abstainers. Soon after, the beer foundation started funding Klatsky’s data collection at Kaiser, a relationship that continued for decades. Between 1975 and 1991, according to Turner’s book, the foundation contributed $1.7 million to Klatsky’s research on alcohol and health. The industry widely promoted his work suggesting health beneﬁts from drinking, and Klatsky is still quoted regularly in the media, often without any disclosure of his relationship with the industry. Klatsky says industry funding has never compromised the objectivity of his research. He notes that the ﬁrst study he did with beer foundation money showed that drinkers had an elevated risk of high blood pressure. He also published an early study on the link between alcohol and breast cancer. “I think that most people who know me and know my work think I’m unbiased,” he told me. “I see both sides of the alcohol issue. It’s a double-edged sword.” The industry has also funded researchers who cast doubt on studies that pose problems for it. For example, the Distilled Spirits Council paid for a 1994 study by Dr. H. Daniel Roth, who was then helping Philip Morris reach a settlement with lung cancer victims, that disputed the link between alcohol and breast cancer. “You’re looking at industries that are adept at creating doubt when it comes to protecting their proﬁts,” says Robert S. Pezzolesi, the founding director of the public health group New York Alcohol Policy Alliance. In the early 1990s, the beer foundation funded research by George Koob, who served as a foundation adviser between 1999 and 2003. In 2014, he became director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (niaaa), the only federal agency devoted exclusively to alcohol research. Washington’s revolving door sends people in both directions. At least a half-dozen government oicials working on alcohol policy have left for gigs with the industry over the past 20 years. Among the most prominent is Dr. Samir Zakhari, the former director of the Division of Metabolism and Health Eﬀects at the niaaa. In 2012, the Distilled Spirits Council hired him to head its science oice. The niaaa has long recognized that alcohol increases breast cancer risk, and literature on the Distilled Spirits Council’s website acknowledges this, too. But in 2015, Zakhari published a scientiﬁc journal article asserting that “there is no solid evidence associating moderate alcohol consumption with an increased incidence of breast cancer.” He advised women worried about cancer to consult a doctor because “moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with potential health beneﬁts, including decreased risk of coronary artery disease and overall mortality,
protection against congestive heart failure, decreased risk of ischemic stroke, and protection against type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.” An industry group recently cited the paper to try to fend oﬀ restrictive government recommendations about alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom. Zakhari keeps in touch with his old colleagues at the niaaa, according to emails Mother Jones obtained through a public records request. In 2014, the Baltimore Sun ran an op-ed by the industry-supported Competitive Enterprise Institute that complained tax dollars were paying for “antialcohol advocacy” and cited an niaaa-funded study about industry marketing to underage drinkers that had been conducted by David Jernigan, the director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. An email circulated among niaaa employees alerting them to the article. Koob, the niaaa director, forwarded the email thread to Zakhari and wrote, “Sam: For the record. This will NOT happen again. I will NOT be funding this kind of work under my tenure.” Zakhari responded that some researchers advocated these types of studies “out of shear [sic] ignorance or because they are sympathetic,” but that he was conﬁdent Koob would “spend research money on real science.” Zakhari takes issue with the idea that he is emblematic of Washington’s revolving door and says the 2015 paper “reﬂects my personal scientiﬁc opinion.” In a statement to Mother Jones, he said, “I came to the Council, after my retirement from nih, because I share their commitment to responsible alcohol consumption. My dedication to evidence-based research remains the same regardless of where I am employed.” my discovery that alcohol consumption was a risk factor
for my breast cancer contradicted everything I thought I knew about drinking. Like 76 percent of Americans surveyed by the American Heart Association in 2011, I believed a little wine was good for the ticker. The fact is, people want to believe that drinking is good for them, and the science in this ﬁeld is easy to manipulate to convince them. Scientists have long known that heavy drinking causes high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks. That’s why early studies investigating drinking and heart disease started with the logical supposition that people who abstain from alcohol should have low rates of heart disease compared with moderate or heavy drinkers. As it turned out, they didn’t. When plotted on a curve, drinkers fell into a J-shaped pattern: Abstainers in the studies had rates of cardiovascular disease similar to those of heavy drinkers. But this J-curve is deceptive. Not all the nondrinkers in these studies were teetotalers like the ones I grew up with in Utah. The British epidemiologist A. Gerald Shaper began a wide-ranging men’s heart health study in the late 1970s, and when he examined the data, he found that 71 percent of nondrinkers in the study were actually former drinkers who had quit. Some of these ex-drinking men were as likely to smoke as heavy drinkers. They had the highest rate of heart disease of any group and elevated rates of high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, diabetes, gallbladder disease, and even bronchitis. Shaper concluded that ex-drinkers were often
sicker than heavy drinkers who hadn’t ALCOHOL-RELATED quit, making them a poor control group. BREAST CANCER Yet for decades, researchers continued to include them and consequently KILLS MORE found an implausible number of THAN TWICE AS health beneﬁts to moderate drinking, MANY AMERICAN including lower rates of deafness and liver cirrhosis. The industry has helped WOMEN AS DRUNK promote these studies to doctors. DRIVERS DO. That’s one reason why, until recently, alcohol’s heart health beneﬁts have been treated as incontrovertible science. But in the mid-2000s, Kaye Middleton Fillmore, a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco, decided to study Shaper’s ex-drinkers. When no one in the United States would fund her work, she persuaded Tim Stockwell, then the director of Australia’s National Drug Research Institute, to help her secure Australian government funding. Stockwell and Fillmore analyzed decades’ worth of studies on alcohol and heart disease. Once they excluded studies with ex-drinkers—which was most of them—the heart beneﬁts of alcohol largely disappeared. Since then, a host of other studies have found that drinking does not provide any heart beneﬁts. (Some studies have found that drinking small amounts of alcohol—sometimes less than one drink per day—can be beneﬁcial for certain people at risk of heart disease.) Robert Brewer, who runs an alcohol program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says, “Studies do not support that there are beneﬁts of moderate drinking.” The Agriculture Department removed language suggesting that alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease in the most recent US Dietary Guidelines. Yet the debate rages on, in part because the industry continues to fund and promote studies indicating that alcohol helps the heart. The niaaa is currently embarking on another one with $100 million in funding, most of which was solicited directly from the industry, according to the New York Times. The study was planned in consultation with industry leaders and pitched as a way to prove that moderate drinking can be healthy. It is being billed as the most deﬁnitive study on moderate drinking to date, but it will likely understate the risks, partly because it won’t run long enough to track any increases in cancer rates. At least ﬁve researchers on the project are past recipients of industry money. Public health experts say that even if there is a small heart beneﬁt from alcohol, it will never outweigh the risks. Alcohol “would never be approved as a medicine,” says Jennie Connor, a preventive- and social-medicine professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand who wrote one of the landmark papers linking alcohol to cancer. “It’s addictive, like opioids. If you give medication to people that could aﬀect their unborn child or make them aggressive and hit their wife, what kind of medicine is that? From a public health standpoint, using alcohol for heart disease is utterly wrong. It goes against everything medical people do.” M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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“From a pure scientiﬁc perspective, what is the point of this [pro-alcohol] research?” asks Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. “How is it going to change policy or practice? It’s not. Even if it turns out that there are true beneﬁts, we’re not going to start recommending that people who have never had alcohol before start drinking.” There are far safer ways than drinking to reduce the risk of heart disease—walking, for instance—that also won’t give you cancer. That’s why the American Heart Association strongly warns people not to start drinking if they don’t already. i drank my first beer when I was 13. My dad and I had
been out pheasant hunting on a cold day. After we bagged our birds, we got into the Jeep to warm up, and my dad handed me a Mickey’s Big Mouth. It was nasty, but I drank it to prove my worthiness of the adult gesture. When I was done, he said, “You wanna drive?” That was Utah in the ’80s, at least if you weren’t Mormon. Later, I went to a Catholic high school, where we distinguished ourselves from the future missionaries in the public schools with excessive drinking. Even in Utah, booze was easy to come by. There was Doug at Metro Mart, who sold us beer from the drive-thru window. When he wasn’t around, we stole it from our parents, siphoning oﬀ small amounts of bourbon, rum, gin, and vodka and then dumping the whole awful mix into a cola-ﬂavored Slurpee and sucking it down through a straw. I went off to the University of Oregon, where Animal House had been ﬁlmed 10 years earlier. During MARKETING ALCOHOL my time there, the university decided AS A HEALTH PRODUCT to crack down on underage drinking SHOULD BE A TOUGH on campus. Riots broke out, and the local police had to deploy tear gas. SELL. CANCER IS ONLY I’ve never drunk as heavily as I did ONE OF THE MANY before I could legally buy a drink. My experience isn’t unusual. Ninety perWAYS IT CAN KILL YOU. cent of alcohol consumption by underage Americans is binge drinking, deﬁned as four or more drinks on one occasion, according to the cdc. I’ll never know for sure, but all the drinking I did in my adolescence may have helped pave the way for the cancer I got at 47. Human breast tissue doesn’t fully mature until a woman becomes pregnant. Before then, and particularly during puberty, breast cells proliferate rapidly, which may make them especially vulnerable to carcinogens. That’s one reason why never getting pregnant is itself a risk factor for breast cancer. Scientists have understood this for nearly 40 years, thanks to studies of women in Nagasaki exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb. Japanese women who’d been exposed before age 20 had the highest rates of breast cancer. Other studies suggest that the risk of premenopausal breast cancer goes up 34 percent for every daily drink consumed before the age of 30. And the longer 50
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women go between their ﬁrst period and their ﬁrst baby, the riskier drinking becomes. With a ﬁrst pregnancy at 33, I had a good 20 years of drinking to damage my breasts, and my adolescent binge drinking may have been especially devastating. Dr. Graham Colditz, a cancer prevention specialist and epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in the British medical journal Women’s Health in 2015 that “women who report seven drinks on the weekend but no alcohol consumption on the weekdays may have higher risk of breast cancer as compared with those who consistently have one drink every day.” One study Colditz cited found a nearly 50 percent increase in breast cancer risk among women who consumed 10 to 15 drinks over a typical weekend compared with those who had no more than three. Colditz says cancer prevention eﬀorts haven’t kept up with demographic trends. As women across the globe have delayed childbearing, he says, “We’ve really extended this period of life when the breast is most susceptible, and we haven’t mounted a prevention strategy to counter the marketing of alcohol.” In fact, just as the evidence was becoming clear that women are disproportionately vulnerable to alcohol’s cancer risks, the industry mounted a campaign to get them to drink even more. “Women all over the world are underperforming consumers,” explains Jernigan, the Johns Hopkins researcher who is now a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. The distilled spirits industry, facing ﬂagging sales, created “alcopops”— sweetened alcoholic beverages such as Zima, Smirnoﬀ Ice, and Skyy Blue that are packaged in childlike bright colors. Marlene Coulis, director of new products at AnheuserBusch, explained in 2002, “The beauty of this category is that it brings in new drinkers, people who really don’t like the taste of beer.” Just who were those “new drinkers” who didn’t like beer? Federal data shows the median age for the ﬁrst consumption of alcohol is about 14, and Jernigan says the people who don’t like the taste of beer tend to be young women. The alcopop-makers managed to convince state and federal regulators that the products were “ﬂavored malt beverages” like beer, even though the main ingredient was distilled spirits. The designation allowed companies to sell these products in convenience stores that also sold beer, at a much lower tax rate than hard liquor required, making them more accessible to underage drinkers. The liquor companies then blasted the youth market with ads for the new products. The distilled spirits industry had voluntarily given up advertising on the radio back in 1936 and on TV in 1948 to avoid regulation by Congress, but it jettisoned those pledges in 1996. Still, TV liquor ads didn’t fully take oﬀ until the advent of alcopops. In 2001, says Jernigan, there were fewer than 2,000 ads for spirits on cable TV. In 2009, that ﬁgure had jumped to more than 60,000, and many ads targeted TV audiences with large numbers of viewers too young to drink legally. (In 2012, all the major TV broadcast networks also abandoned their ban on liquor ads.) In an
email to Mother Jones, Coulis said the idea that alcopops were intended to appeal to underage drinkers is a “gross mischaracterization and absolute falsehood.” Traditionally, young people in the United States have been beer drinkers, but in the early 2000s, surveys showed that women were increasingly turning to harder stuﬀ, and they’ve remained there. Ads and products now push alcohol as a salve for the highly stressed American woman. There are wines called Mother’s Little Helper, Happy Bitch, Mad Housewife, and Relax. Her Spirit vodka comes with swag emblazoned with girl-power slogans like “Drink responsibly. Dream recklessly.” Johnnie Walker recently came out with Jane Walker scotch, to market a liquor “seen as particularly intimidating by women,” according to the company. (Johnnie Walker is owned by Diageo, a multinational alcohol conglomerate. One of Mother Jones’ board members is also an executive at Diageo.) Booze-makers have also “pinkwashed” products targeted at women, literally draping the ads in pink ribbons, with promises to donate some proceeds to breast cancer charities. In 2015, Alcohol Justice, a California-based policy advocacy group, found 17 brands of pinkwashed booze. “They’re marketing a carcinogen,” says the New York Alcohol Policy Alliance’s Pezzolesi. “Can you imagine if Philip Morris did a pink tobacco pack? People would be up in arms.” The campaigns seem to have worked. An niaaa study found that drinking by women jumped 16 percent between 2001 and 2013, more than twice the increase among men. The change is greatest among white women, 71 percent of whom drink today, compared with 64 percent in 1997, according to a Washington Post analysis. The alcohol-related death rate for white women more than doubled between 1999 and 2015. the ad is graphic: A glass of red wine spills onto a white
tablecloth and starts to form the image of a woman. “Alcohol is carcinogenic,” the narrator says. “Once absorbed into the bloodstream, it travels through the body. With every drink, the risk of cell mutations in the breast, liver, bowel, and throat increases. These cell mutations are also known as cancer.” The wine pools around the woman like blood, and the narrator advises limiting cancer risk by not having more than two drinks on any day. The ad campaign aired in 2010 in Western Australia. In England in 2013, a public health charity broadcast an ad campaign featuring a man drinking a beer with a tumor at the bottom of the glass, which he ultimately swallows as the narrator explains, “The World Health Organization classiﬁes alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen. Like tobacco and asbestos, it can cause cancer.” Other countries have begun to take heed of alcohol’s cancer risks. For the ﬁrst time, in 2010, the World Health Organization issued a global strategy for reducing the harms of alcohol. It recognized cancer as one of those harms and called on countries to implement measures to lower consumption. Many have done so. South Korea has tightened its recommended alcohol limits, and new Dutch guidelines urge people not to drink at all, but if they do, to consume
no more than one drink a day. In December, Ireland’s upper house of parliament approved a cancer warning label for alcohol that is now being debated in the lower house. Even the Russians raised their alcohol taxes. (Canada recently launched an experiment to test cancer warning labels on alcohol in the Yukon but stopped the project a month later amid intense pressure from alcohol companies.) In 2016, Britain reduced its recommended alcohol consumption limit for men to the same level as for women, about six pints of beer a week. Sally Davies, the chief Alcohol industry medical oicer for England, spending on lobbying told the bbc, “If you take $30m 1,000 women, 110 will get breast cancer without drinking. Drink up to these guide$25m lines and an extra 20 women will get cancer because of $20m that drinking. Double the guideline limit and an extra $15m 50 women per 1,000 will get cancer…That’s not scaremongering. That’s fact.” $10m It’s not the kind of straight ’99 ’02 ’05 ’08 ’11 ’14 ’17 talk you’re likely to hear in Source: OpenSecrets the United States, where the industry is ﬁghting to prevent cancer fears from hurting its bottom line. In spring 2016, the American Beverage Institute’s Longwell told a brewers’ conference that public health oicials “want to tell you that alcohol causes cancer,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Such public health activism, she suggested, was a threat to the industry’s “health halo.” At another 2016 conference, Jim McGreevy, president of the Beer Institute, an industry lobbying group, said of public health advocates, “We can’t let them gain traction.” He did not respond to a request for comment. For more than a decade, the alcohol industry has bulldozed long-standing public health regulations designed to reduce harmful consumption. It has mounted successful campaigns to allow the sale of liquor in supermarkets and on Sundays and to loosen restrictions on the hours liquor can be served in restaurants and bars. Not surprisingly, alcohol consumption per capita in the United States, which hit a 34-year low in 1997, has shot up to levels not seen in two decades. Alcohol companies are enormous multinational corporations. AB InBev controls nearly 50 percent of the US beer market, including the all-American brand Budweiser. Jernigan analyzed Nielsen data and estimated that the industry spent $2.1 billion on advertising in 2016, a ﬁgure that doesn’t include online ads or those in stores. It also spent $30.5 million last year to lobby Congress. The Distilled Spirits Council, which alone spent $5.6 million on federal lobbying last year, holds whiskey tastings on Capitol Hill attended by Democrats and Republicans alike. “Alcohol is the drug of choice of the people who make the laws,” observes Jernigan. M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
While other countries are considering World Health Organization recommendations to impose steeper alcohol taxes, the tax law President Donald Trump signed in December further slashed US alcohol excise taxes, which, thanks to inﬂation, were already down as much as 80 percent since the 1950s. Koob, the niaaa director, has attended events at the Distilled Spirits Council and met with its representatives, according to documents obtained through a public records request. He gets holiday party invites from the Beer Institute and meets with its ceo. In 2015, Koob and the niaaa’s director of global alcohol research appeared in a promotional video for AB InBev’s “global smart drinking goals,” ﬁlmed at an AB InBev Global Advisory Council meeting. “We went through the normal procedures here at nih for approval, and we were given approval to do it,” says Koob. “Under no circumstances are we promoting alcohol beverages or any product. That’s not our nature. But if people want to help prevent alcohol misuse, we’re all for it.” Boston University’s Siegel counters, “The whole idea [behind the campaign] is that if you drink properly, not to excess, it’s okay. That’s not true. If you drink moderately, you’re increasing your risk of cancer, and that’s the part of it they don’t want people to know.” after i had surgery to remove my tumor, my oncologist
sent me to see the cancer dietitian last June. The dietitian outlined a joyless regimen so complex it required a spreadsheet for compliance. Along with more ﬁsh and ﬂaxseed, she recommended ﬁve weekly servings of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, as well as loads of beans for additional ﬁber. She put the kibosh on bacon and sausage—processed meats are considered carcinogenic. She instructed me to eat natural soy like tofu at least three times a week but not processed soy like that found in garden burgers because it can boost cancer-causing estrogen levels. And she sternly admonished me to lay oﬀ the cream in my coﬀee. Not once did the subject of alcohol come up. “There’s
more data for counseling you to decrease alcohol than to eat broccoli or tofu,” says Noelle K. LoConte, an oncologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin. But she says the message about alcohol and cancer hasn’t gotten out, even to cancer doctors, which may be one reason not a single one of my doctors raised the issue with me before or after I was diagnosed. To address this problem, in November LoConte coauthored a statement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology that oicially declared alcohol a cancer risk. (The society also commissioned a poll, which found that 70 percent of Americans had no idea alcohol can cause cancer.) In its statement, the group called for policy measures to reduce alcohol consumption and prevent cancer, the same ones recommended by the US surgeon general, the federal Community Preventive Health Task Force, and the World Health Organization. They’re similar to strategies that brought down smoking rates: higher excise taxes, limits on the number of outlets selling alcohol in a particular area, stricter enforcement of underage drinking laws, and caps on the numbers of days and hours when alcohol can be sold. There’s a huge body of research supporting the eﬀectiveness of these policies, yet there is not a single public health group in Washington lobbying for any of them. The few groups that once battled with the alcohol industry have abandoned the eﬀort in recent years. The American Medical Association, which used to focus on alcohol-related harm and campus binge drinking, stopped working on alcohol policy in 2005. The Ralph Nader-linked Center for Science in the Public Interest stopped during a budget crunch in 2009. That same year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which for decades had been one of the biggest funders of eﬀorts to reduce underage drinking, largely pulled out of the ﬁeld. “It’s astounding that one of the leading causes of premature death and illness is ignored by almost every foundation that works in the health area,” says Richard Yoast, who ran the ama’s alcohol programs until they ended in 2005. Government funding for alcohol harm reduction has
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also dried up. In 2009, the Justice Department budget for grants to states to enforce underage drinking laws was $25 million. By 2015, it was zero. At the request of the Obama White House, Congress also eliminated an Education Department program that combated underage drinking, among other initiatives. Without independent funding for public health work on alcohol policy, the industry has ﬁlled the void, creating nonproﬁts to promote “responsible” drinking. Industry groups have used these to respond to the news about alcohol and cancer. When I asked the Beer Institute to comment for this story, a spokesman sent me a link to a report from the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, a nonproﬁt funded by the world’s largest alcohol companies, and quoted one line from the report: “The most clear association of cancer risk is with heavy drinking, particularly regular heavy drinking over extended periods of time.” Mark Petticrew, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, recently published a study ﬁnding that many alcohol industry websites and nonproﬁts have actively misled the public about the link between alcohol and cancer. They suggest that only problem drinkers have an elevated risk of cancer and present long lists of other risk factors to confuse readers, particularly when it comes to breast cancer. “Female consumers are more health conscious than male consumers,” Petticrew explains. “The female consumer is seen as part of the alcohol market that needs to be marketed to more. The female drinker is the last person you want to be a fully informed consumer.” Over the past 30 years, breast cancer survivors have become a powerful political force in their own right, raising millions of dollars for research and education. But wine tastings are a staple of breast cancer fundraising events. The Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University has been holding a “women and wine” fundraiser annually for breast cancer research for more than a decade. “Brews for Breast Cancer” events have proliferated. In October, the American Cancer Society threw
Alcohol companies have tried to persuade consumers they can help fight breast cancer by purchasing “pinkwashed” products that benefit cancer charities, obscuring alcohol’s proven breast cancer risk.
its 40th annual Wine and Spirits In“ALCOHOL IS THE DRUG dustry Gala in New York City “to supOF CHOICE OF THE port the Society’s mission of eliminating cancer as a major health problem.” PEOPLE WHO MAKE In response to questions from Mother THE LAWS,” OBSERVES Jones, Dr. Richard Wender, the chief cancer control oicer for the American ONE PUBLIC HEALTH Cancer Society, says alcohol is much EXPERT. less risky than tobacco. “Our goal is to ﬁnd the right balance that allows companies to engage with us, while staying true to our values and our public health mission,” he says. The more I looked into the conﬂicts of interest among those responsible for informing the public of alcohol’s health risks, the more I began to recognize my own industry’s entanglement. The press, which starting with Morley Safer has ﬂooded readers with stories declaring that drinking is good for your health, has repeatedly accepted alcohol companies’ largesse. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal sponsored a party with the Distilled Spirits Council at the Republican National Convention. In April 2017, the council and the Beer Institute helped pay for a “Toast to the First Amendment” party with RealClearPolitics. In 2016, the president of the Distilled Spirits Council, Kraig Naasz, wrote in an email newsletter that the group had recently treated writers from a wide range of publications to cocktails at a New York bar during a lunch brieﬁng on alcohol and health. On hand to chat up the journalists was Zakhari, the former niaaa scientist. “The presenters underscored that moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into a healthy adult diet,” Naasz reported. The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, funded by companies such as Bacardi and Diageo, paid for journalists to attend workshops last year held by the Poynter Institute, the self-appointed watchdog of journalism ethics. “The conﬂict of interest is so big it makes me gasp,” New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle told Health News Review when it broke the story on Poynter. “The alcohol industry wants journalists to extol the (purported) health beneﬁts of drinking alcohol and to minimize the risks.” Kelly McBride, Poynter’s vice president, says the foundation’s involvement did not aﬀect the content of the workshops and the institute may collaborate with the foundation again. “They are a non-proﬁt foundation that promotes responsible consumption of alcohol,” she said in an email. “They funded workshops where we taught journalists to apply the skills of fact-checking to scientiﬁc research. That seems like a consistent overlap of purpose.” susan sontag once wrote that telling people about your
cancer diagnosis tends to ﬁll them with mortal dread. But when I’ve disclosed my illness to friends and told them that alcohol can cause breast cancer, I’ve never invoked enough mortal dread to deter anyone from ordering a second drink. Most women have no idea drinking causes breast cancer, and they really (continued on page 69) M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
oday ance is one of the t s Antibiotic resist scariest threat n e r t e t m o ed y forg may save us yet. a t u b — n McKenna | Illustra Mary t By
steffanie strathdee hunched over her
laptop, fretting. She barely noticed the kittens asleep next to her or the serene Buddha figure across the living room, anchored next to the glass doors that looked toward the gleaming Paciﬁc. Her mind was 20 miles away in the intensive care unit of the University of CaliforniaSan Diego’s medical center, where her husband, Tom Patterson, lay in a coma. Patterson was 68; Strathdee was 49. They had been married 11 years, after meeting in a grant review group convened by the National Institutes of Health. He was a psychologist and she was an infectious-disease epidemiologist; when they fell in love, they also formed a powerhouse research team, studying the eﬀect of the aids virus on vulnerable people in Tijuana, Mexico. But it was a bacterium, not a virus, that was bedeviling them now. Three months earlier, on the last night of a Thanksgiving vacation in Egypt, Patterson had suddenly fallen ill, so severely that he had to be medevaced to Germany and then to ucsd. There were several things wrong—a gallstone, an abscess in his pancreas—but the core of the problem was an infection with a superbug, a bacterium named Acinetobacter baumannii that was resistant to every antibiotic his medical team tried to treat it with. Patterson had been a burly man, 6-foot-5 and more than 300 pounds, but now he was wasted, his cheekbones jutting through his skin. Intravenous lines snaked into his arms and neck, and tubes to carry away seepage pierced his abdomen. He was delirious and his blood pressure was falling, and the medical staﬀ had sedated him and intubated him to make sure he got the oxygen he needed. He was dying. Strathdee’s friends knew she was desperately searching for solutions, and one told her about an acquaintance with an intractable infection who had traveled to Eastern Europe to seek out a century-old cure. Strathdee spent days reading whatever she could ﬁnd about it, and now she
ions by Ery Burns
was composing a last-ditch email to the hospital’s head of infectious diseases, the person who would rule on whether they could use it to help her spouse. “We are running out of options to save Tom,” she wrote. “What do you think about phage therapy?” Strathdee didn’t realize it at the time, but her attempt to save her husband’s life would test the bounds of the American medical system—and throw its limitations into stark relief. the treatment Strathdee had ﬁxed on
as a last-ditch hope is almost never used in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration has not licensed phage therapy, keeping it out of pharmacies and hospitals. Few physicians have used it even experimentally, and most civilians have never heard of it. But phages are a natural phenomenon, frequently deployed in the former Soviet Union. When used properly, they can save lives. To understand how phage therapy works, it helps to know a little biology, starting with the distinction between bacteria and viruses. Most of the drug-resistant superbugs that cause medical havoc are bacteria, microscopic single-celled organisms that do most of the things that other living things do: seek nutrition, metabolize it into energy, produce oﬀspring. Viruses, which are much smaller than bacteria, exist only to reproduce: They attach to a cell, hijack its reproductive machinery to make fresh viruses, and then, in most cases, explode the cell to let viral copies ﬂoat free. Phages are viruses. In the wild, they are the cleanup crew that keeps bacteria from taking over the world. Bacteria reproduce relentlessly, a new generation every 20 minutes or so, and phages kill them just as rapidly, preventing the burgeoning bacterial biomass from swamping the planet like a B-movie slime monster. But phages do not kill indiscriminately: Though there are trillions in the world, each is tuned evolution-
arily to destroy only particular bacteria. In 1917, a self-taught microbiologist named Félix d’Herelle recognized phages’ talent for targeted killing. He imagined that if he could ﬁnd the correct phages, he could use them to cure deadly bacterial infections. That was a gleaming hope, because at the time, nothing else could. (Sir Alexander Fleming wouldn’t ﬁnd the mold that makes penicillin, the ﬁrst antibiotic, until 1928.) Treatments were primitive: aspirin and ice baths to knock down fever, injections of crude immunotherapy extracted from the blood of horses and sheep, and amputation when a scratch or cut let infection burgeon in a limb and threaten the rest of the body with sepsis. Phages—whose full name, bacteriophages (or “bacteria eaters”), was given by d’Herelle in 1916—did something that medicine had never before been able to accomplish: They vanquished the infections for which they were administered without otherwise harming patients. A medical sensation and a cultural phenomenon, they provided the key plot device in the novel Arrowsmith, about an idealistic doctor, that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, and they saved the life of the Hollywood cowboy actor Tom Mix, a 1930s superstar. D’Herelle was a restless researcher who seems to have felt undervalued despite being awarded jobs in Paris and Vietnam and at Yale. That insecurity made him vulnerable to an oﬀer he received in 1933 to relocate to Tbilisi in Georgia, home territory of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. With a protégé, Georgi Eliava, d’Herelle co-founded the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Microbiology and Virology. Stalin showered the institute with attention and money because it oﬀered something he badly wanted: a scientiﬁc achievement that he could portray as a pure product of communism. Antibiotics became the basis of infectious-disease medicine in the West, but behind the Iron Curtain, phages took their place. Eliava was murdered in a political purge M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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in 1937, and d’Herelle died in 1949. Their institute dwindled, but it survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Georgian civil war the following year. When the former ussr opened up to the West, physicians in the United States and Europe learned the Eliava Institute was one of the few places in the world where researchers were still studying and administering phages. That was fortunate timing, because antibiotics in the West were losing their power under the onslaught of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics began as natural compounds, the chemical weapons that bacteria aim against each other to compete for living space and food. For millennia before humans arrived, bacteria countered those attacks with mutations—and when humans turned those natural weapons into medicine, by taking them into laboratories to synthesize and perfect them, bacteria
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routinely added to livestock feed, they permeate the food supply. In 2015, for instance, an fda project discovered that 47 percent of salmonella bacteria samples found in retail chicken were resistant to tetracycline, as were 76 percent of the E. coli found in ground turkey. Phages’ vast biological diversity helps them against the mutations that make up disease organisms’ resistance defenses. Plus, because phages kill only specific strains of bacteria, they can quell infections without inducing a terrible diarrheal disease from Clostridium difficile (usually known as C. diﬀ) that occurs when the balance of bacteria in the gut is disrupted by antibiotics wiping out good bugs along with the bad. The cdc estimates that in 2011 there were more than 450,000 cases of C. diﬀ infections in the United States, leading to more than 15,000 deaths. It’s
“I always thought viruses were the bad guys. Now I see that viruses may actually be used for good, too.” kept on adapting. The mutations they produced in response to antibiotics are what we call antibiotic resistance. Penicillin-resistant staph infections swept the world not long after penicillin came into use during World War II. Methicillin-resistant staph (mrsa) immediately followed the 1960 debut of methicillin, designed to replace some of penicillin’s lost ﬁrepower. Over the decades, as each new antibiotic arrived, resistant infections have arisen to undermine them. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2013 that at least 23,000 people die each year from resistant infections, and that 2 million are made sick enough to go to a doctor’s oice or hospital. Worldwide, the death toll is estimated at 700,000 people a year. And because resistance is accelerating ahead of production of new drugs to counter it, the death toll is expected to rise to 10 million per year and cost the world as much as $100 trillion in lost economic activity by 2050. Superbugs pervade health care, causing grave infections after surgeries and in intensive care units, and because antibiotics are 56
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possible that using phage therapy instead of antibiotics could prevent some of them. But for phage therapy to be deployed routinely in the United States, phages would have to be approved as drugs by the fda. To treat an American patient with them now requires emergency compassionate-use authorization—eﬀectively an acknowledgment that nothing with an fda license can save the patient’s life. And Strathdee was about to learn that because phages have no such approval, awareness of them is scarce and unevenly distributed, and ﬁnding the right researchers and physicians requires extraordinary luck. strathdee directs ucsd’s Global Health
Institute and like her husband is a professor in the medical school. Decades earlier, she had tinkered with phages in lab science classes, using them as a tool to differentiate bacteria. Before her husband got sick, she had never heard they could be used as treatments. The physician whom she’d emailed—Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, at the time ucsd’s chief of infectious diseases, and an old
friend—knew a little more. Anyone who works in infectious diseases is aware of the peril of drug resistance, and the wish for reliable alternatives to antibiotics is a constant companion to that work. But phages had no direct relevance for him because his personal expertise is disease-causing viruses—hiv and hepatitis—that phages would not aﬀect. He knew the next step to take, though. The fda maintains a hotline that lets physicians ask permission to use an unapproved treatment on a single patient if every other hope has been exhausted. The fda’s reviewer agreed to let the pair attempt phages. Time was short, and the odds were against Strathdee. She needed to ﬁnd someone who was conducting phage research, who had already isolated phages that worked against Acinetobacter, and who would be willing to test those phages on Patterson’s infection to see if there was a match. She cast a wide net, sending about 10 emails to labs around the world, including the Eliava Institute. Two and a half hours later, she got a message from one of the few phage research groups in the United States, the Center for Phage Technology at Texas A&M University, run by a biologist named Ryland Young. Strathdee called Young and talked at him for more than an hour. “She has persuasive power,” Young recalled. “And she has made herself probably the most knowledgeable civilian in the world on the use of phage therapy. She got us mobilized.” What happened next illustrates how time-consuming it can be to try to use an unapproved treatment. Young’s lab has been isolating and testing phages since 2010 and has several hundred individual viruses in its collection, but when Strathdee called fewer than 10 of them were known to work against Acinetobacter. Young put out a call to the small worldwide network of phage researchers, asking for contributions, and was sent some 35 new viruses. He and his lab tested all of them on a sample from Patterson’s infection, sent by Schooley. None of Young’s phages made a dent. One virus, sent by a company called AmpliPhi, did kill cells from the infection. They would need more to make a diﬀerence, so Young and his team embarked on what he drawlingly calls “a good old-fashioned phage hunt.” To ﬁnd a phage that worked against Acinetobacter, Young reasoned, he would
have to go look for Acinetobacter in the wild. So he sent his students hunting for environmental samples, dipping into eluent from sewage-treatment plants, pulling water from ponds, and taking swabs of pigs on ranches near the university. Among the 126 samples obtained during the expedition, the Texas lab identified three phages that worked against Patterson’s strain of Acinetobacter. Now they had individual viruses that might do the trick—but they needed to grow enough of them to make up a treatment. They let the bacteria from Patterson’s infection reproduce under lab conditions and then unleashed the phages on them. The viruses worked the way they had evolved to: They attached to the bacteria, inserted their dna, copied themselves, and exploded the pathogens. The team fed the phages more and more Acinetobacter. In 10 days, they had trillions of copies. Young shipped them in a refrigerated box to Schooley, who meanwhile had been explaining to the university’s biohazard-safety committee why letting a minimally tested living virus into an icu full of very sick people would not be a risk. (If the phage escaped, it would aﬀect only patients who happened to have the exact same infection as Patterson, and no one else there did.) Schooley had also found another source of phages, in a lab maintained by the US Navy. In tests, four of the Navy phages killed the bacterium from Patterson’s infection as well. The Texas phages arrived in San Diego ﬁrst, all four of them combined into a cocktail to increase the odds of success. They had to be scrubbed of cellular toxins and debris from the bacteria they had been grown on, because those contaminants could have sent Patterson into shock. Schooley and his team infused the clean solution into the drains that pierced Patterson’s abdomen, hoping to sterilize the cavities where the infection was lurking. That was on a Tuesday. Patterson didn’t get better, but he also didn’t get worse— encouraging, given how rapidly he had been slipping away. Two days later, the Navy phages arrived, and the ucsd team took a gamble and gave them to him intravenously, to chase the bacteria that had found homes in his lungs and bladder and blood. That was on a Thursday. On Saturday night, Patterson awoke from his coma
and recognized his daughter. The phages had done their work. He was not yet cured, not by a long shot. His infection surged and he crashed back into septic shock the next week, only to be brought out of it with more phages. The same thing happened again a month later, and this time the Navy lab analyzed his infection and tinkered with the phage cocktail. The whole treatment process was a scramble. “We had two people working literally 24/7 for six weeks to ﬁnd and supply phages to the clinical team at ucsd,” Young said. “That is not sustainable.” The eﬀort was such an emergency, Young added, that his group did not have time to fully analyze the phages they sent. Later they discovered that almost all the viruses used in the ﬁrst round of Patterson’s treatment, both from Texas A&M and from the Navy, targeted the same single attachment point on the outside of the bacterium. It was as if they were all the same drug, instead of eight diﬀerent ones. That meant the bacterium had to make just one small mutational change to defend itself against them, producing phage resistance—a problem that appears in only a small number of scientiﬁc papers about phages and that medicine has not yet had to develop strategies against, because phages have not been a treatment in most of the world. “If we had been able to do genetic and molecular analysis of the phages, we could have avoided that,” Young said. “The ideal thing would be to have a walk-in cooler of thousands of phages, each of which you know everything about.” actually, two decades ago, someone attempted to do just that. Alexander Sulakvelidze, who holds a doctorate in microbiology, is a native of Tbilisi, the home of the Eliava Institute. Sulakvelidze grew up experiencing phage treatments as a routine part of medical care, oﬀ-the-shelf products that doctors would prescribe like Western physicians prescribe antibiotics. Then he came to the United States to serve a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. One day during his fellowship, his supervisor, Dr. J. Glenn Morris, announced that a patient was gravely ill with a resistant bug called vre and would likely die. “I asked him, ‘Why can’t bacteriophages get rid of the vre?’” Sulakvelidze recalls. “I
Phages are viruses capable of inﬁltrating and exploding bacterial cells that can cause dangerous infection.
Step 1 The phage attaches to the host bacterial cell.
Step 2 The phage sends its dna into the bacterial cell.
Step 3 The phage dna replicates. New proteins are made.
Step 4 New phages are formed inside the bacterial cell.
Step 5 The newly made phages burst out of the bacterial cell, killing it. The process repeats.
thought it was a naive question.” But later, after the patient died, Sulakvelidze says he realized, “Something very strange is going on. Somebody just died in the most developed country in the world, from something that could probably be very easily cured in a country like Georgia.” Out of that realization, Sulakvelidze and Morris and a handful of other researchers formed a company, Intralytix, in 1998. They set out to license phage treatments for vre, considered at the time the most dangerous of the superbugs. It did not go as planned. “The investors had no idea what the risks are, the patentability, the return on investment,” he said. “The regulatory agencies M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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had no idea how to regulate this. It was a huge uncertainty.” This was only a few years after the opening of the ussr. Most of the research written about phages had never been published in English and never evaluated by Western scientists. To make a case for phages in American medicine, clinical trials such as the ones that prove antibiotics’ eicacy would have to be conducted. But here was the problem. To be approved, an antibiotic must at least reliably kill the common strains and subtypes of the bacteria that cause a particular infection; the broadest-spectrum antibiotics, which doctors usually reach for ﬁrst, kill multiple species in several groups. But phages do not work against entire groups or even against species. They are weirdly speciﬁc and attack bacteria (or not) based on minute genetic diﬀerences. Clinical trials of antibiotics—which progress through three phases before approval and in the third phase can include thousands of patients—are constructed to prove a compound is safe and eﬀective and causes a cure, no matter what minor genetic diﬀerences exist from one infection to another. Phages cannot pass that test, because any one phage will only work on a subset of patients. After hitting a roadblock with the fda, Sulakvelidze and Intralytix canceled the plan to try to get phages approved as drugs. But they had discovered another opportunity: Food safety is regulated by a diﬀerent fda division than drugs are. The company pivoted to isolating phages that would kill the most important foodborne-illness organisms— listeria, salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli. Between 2012 and 2016, the fda’s food safety arm granted “generally recognized as safe” status—a much lower bar than a new drug approval—to phage cocktails targeting three of the food safety bugs. Sulakvelidze thinks the fda’s comfort with phages for food is an opening. He is on track to begin trials of a new human product this year.
Phages brought Tom Patterson back from the brink of death—three times.
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Sulakvelidze will be successful, because the fda says federal law prohibits it from talking about the process of possibly licensing phages for medical purposes. The agency seems to take the position that since it might someday be required to rule on drug licensing for phages, it can’t give any information now about why
DAVID WALTER BANKS
it’s impossible to know whether
there have been so few licensing attempts. It won’t even comment on how many licensing attempts there have been, though the ClinicalTrials.gov database maintained by the National Institutes of Health shows that in the United States over the past two decades, 15 studies have used phages: Just two applied phages as a treatment and got through phase one—which uses a small group of people to test safety but doesn’t test eicacy—and those studies did not proceed. The fda declined to make any of its scientists available for an interview. A spokeswoman, Megan McSeveney, said in a statement that the agency “stands willing to work with bacteriophage developers to provide scientiﬁc guidance and clarify regulatory and data requirements necessary to move these products forward in development as quickly as possible.” The nih, which focuses purely on research and isn’t responsible for drug licensure, was a little more forthcoming. “Given the problems that we have with antibiotic resistance in this country and throughout the world, it certainly behooves us to explore alternative means of controlling and ﬁghting and countering bacterial infections,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the nih’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told me. “Certainly phage therapy is one of those.” In 2016, Fauci said, the nih wrote about $5 million in grants to medical research centers to gather data on antibiotic alternatives, including phage therapy’s potential against “a variety of recalcitrant infections.” (The US medical establishment isn’t alone in struggling with phage research; the ﬁrst major EU-backed clinical trial, called Phagoburn, did not proceed beyond phase two.) Elsewhere in the nih, Randall Kincaid, a pharmacologist and the senior scientiﬁc oicer in what’s called the concept acceleration program, explained that launching new categories of treatments isn’t as simple as working out the right structure for a clinical trial. The research has to be worth the end result, he said—which means knowing that physicians will use the treatments when the compounds enter the market, and also that pharmacy managers will buy them. “You have spectacular life-and-death stories, and everyone wishes to see this pushed forward as concerns about antimicrobial resistance increase, yet you have the real dilemma of demonstrating that these are
in fact reliable,” he said. And commercially viable: Since phages are hyperspeciﬁc and can’t be pulled oﬀ a pharmacy shelf as an antibiotic can, physicians may be deterred from seeking them out, he added—and that would make the trouble and expense of clinical trials pointless. A set of treatments that the fda recently accepted might show a path forward for testing and approving phages. Personalized cancer treatments known as car-t (for “chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy”) involve extracting immune system cells from a patient’s blood so they can be genetically modiﬁed in a lab and then reinfused into the patient. In 2017, the fda gave licenses to two car-t treatments, Kymriah for advanced leukemia and Yescarta for a type of lymphoma. Like phages, car-t treatments are tuned to an individual patient. But here’s a key
some of the 2 million who seek a doctor’s help or hospital care. There are applications: Phages could coat artiﬁcial joints and heart valves to prevent pathogenic bacteria from developing sticky drugresistant mats called bioﬁlms. Phage solutions could be infused into the raw surfaces of diabetic foot ulcers, which are hard to treat because they have a thick, ﬁbrous backing that prevents intravenous drugs from penetrating; that is partly why diabetic patients were among the ﬁrst victims of vrsa, a staph resistant to even the last-resort antibiotic vancomycin. Intralytix has proposed using phages to kill disease bacteria that are picked up from food and water and live quiescently in the gut for unpredictable periods of time—the superbugs ndm and mcr, which originated in India and China, spread around the world that way. The process of clearing out bad
Strathdee posted a desperate plea on Twitter asking for phages. At the last minute, two came in that looked like a match. difference that made drug developers think car-t was worth pursuing for two decades: If it goes into widespread use, it will make manufacturers tons of money. The cost of a single dose of Kymriah is projected to be a breathtaking $475,000. But antibiotics have never been priced anywhere near as high as cancer drugs, and it seems unlikely that prices would rise for the phages that might supplant them. Those low prices have historically been one reason it has been hard to get drug companies to develop new antibiotics. Consider: In contrast to Kymriah, the antibiotic Avycaz, hailed as a major advance when it was approved in 2015 for hospitalized cases of grave drug-resistant pneumonia, costs as little as $3,500 on price lists and rarely rises above $15,000—and that’s for 10 doses. For phages to justify investment, developers will have to make a case for using them not just to save the 23,000 people who die of resistant infections in the United States each year, but also to treat
bacteria that aren’t currently causing an infection is called decolonization, and it’s diicult to accomplish with antibiotics, which kill good cells along with bad ones. Phages could be more targeted. A handful of companies still believe in the possibility of phages, enough to invest in research while the fda works out its issues. One is AmpliPhi Biosciences, which conducted one of those phaseone treatment trials in the nih database. AmpliPhi sits north of the ucsd medical center where Patterson was treated, and its phages were among those that became part of his treatment after Young at Texas A&M launched his worldwide plea for phages that might help. Paul Grint, AmpliPhi’s ceo, is a physician who was a successful antibiotic developer earlier in his career and understands from the inside the Catch-22 of the federal research bureaucracy. The company’s phase-one trial investigated the safety (but not the eﬀectiveness) of a cocktail of three phages that (continued on page 66) M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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HOLDING COURT The return of the political athlete BY HOWARD BRYANT for all the clichés about sudden death and
there being no tomorrow, sports were always supposed to be a substitute for reality, a place where Americans could fight for three hours and hug it out afterward. The newspapers used to call the sports pages the “toy department” for a reason. It was, after all, only a game. But sports were always more than that for the black athlete. Sports was the place, at least idealistically, that fit the American Dream, where the scoreboard guaranteed fairness. Even that was an ILLUSTRATION BY JOE MORSE
exaggeration, for when black athletes used their wealth and fame to exercise their full citizenship— as rich people do across the world—they were inevitably told to stick to sports. A recent example came in February, when LeBron James appeared in a video discussing President Donald Trump on his multimedia site, Uninterrupted. James, long the best basketball player in the world and increasingly an unflinching critic of Trump, said the president’s frequent, harmful comments were “laughable” and “scary.” Shortly after the M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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segment went online, the demagogic Fox News host Laura Ingraham told James to “shut up and dribble.” Her response, so harsh and absolute—reminiscent of Trump saying football owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field” for kneeling during the national anthem— was a reminder: In theory, sports were where athletes were seen as most American, but in reality, the minute a black player spoke about the American condition with even a hint of dissidence, the white public believed it could revoke his license to speak up. Of all the black employees in the history of the United States, it was the ballplayers who were the most influential and most important, the ones who made the money. The black thinkers—the doctors, lawyers, scientists, and intellectuals—were roadblocked by segregation. Playing ball was the first occupation that allowed black Americans passage in the mainstream, permission to attend white universities and integrate white neighborhoods—a chance to be American without the asterisk. Black entertainers, for all their prominence, were never proof that America was fair, because John Coltrane didn’t have a scoreboard, a final
buzzer that told you coldly and definitively who won. America liked that. Ballplayers were the Ones Who Made It. And being the Ones Who Made It soon came with the responsibility to speak for the people who had not made it, for whom the road was still blocked. The responsibility became a tradition so ingrained that it hung over every player. The tradition became the black athlete’s coat of arms, and the players who upheld it—Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos—would one day be taught in the schools. The ones who did not—the commercial superstars who followed, like O.J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods—could never escape the criticism that they shrank from their larger duty to the people. The tradition was so strong that it even had an informal nickname: the Heritage. Before his disgrace, Simpson was America’s first commercially viable black athlete, creating pathways perfected by Jordan and Woods, who enjoyed so much access to the good life that the sacrifices of Ali and the old guard seemed quaint and unnecessary. The Heritage is now back, with a difference: The player with the biggest number of zeros on his
paycheck has grown to realize that being insulated from the fight by his money is no longer a compliment—or a victory. LeBron James is the first black athlete since Ali to be both the best, most recognizable player in American professional sports and one who makes unequivocal support for black America inseparable from his public persona. Unlike Colin Kaepernick, who wasn’t a good enough player to protect himself from severe retribution by fans, media, and ultimately his league, James’ once-in-a-generation ability shields him, allows him to be himself. James does not hide from his liberal politics, publicly supporting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He loudly rejects Trump and his policies, and unlike Jordan, who kept himself at a corporate remove from social issues, James wrote a check and showed his face, unafraid of offending the white mainstream. He spoke up for Trayvon Martin after the teen’s killing in 2012, wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt following Eric Garner’s killing by police in 2014, and has done what Jordan would not: give cover to the athletes without his talent and bank account to be more vocal politically. His leadership sent the
THE GHOST WRITER Tracy K. Smith stirs up America’s demons, if only to bring us a little peace. back in 2012, Princeton professor Tracy K. Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for the poetry collection Life on Mars. But her highest distinction came last year, when Smith, 46, was named US poet laureate. Wade in the Water, her latest book, deftly covers 250 years of the American experience, from the refugee’s plight to a company’s toxic spill to the complications of black motherhood. The slim, potent volume includes “found” poems drawn directly from letters between slave owners and from black Civil War soldiers seeking redress—
Smith visits these hauntings on her readers without ever sounding didactic or preachy. In conversation, she reveals herself as a soulful teacher intent on using her stature to mend the nation’s oldest divisions.
mother jones: As America’s poet laureate, what’s your responsibility to the people? tracy k. smith: I see it as saying this thing, poetry— language being applied as fearlessly as possible in pursuit of many-faceted emotional truths that we live with—is humanizing. This voice
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message: Being a politically active black athlete should no longer be considered radical, but commonplace. But even James didn’t venture easily into the hard space of activism. He was shaped by the times when being an advocate for African Americans meant sometimes wandering into the unwelcome space that once belonged to the Heritage but was purchased at auction by Shut Up and Play. For when Tamir Rice was killed, James did not show up in Cleveland and walk arm in arm with the people, as Carmelo Anthony had done in Baltimore after police killed Freddie Gray. It would have polarized the city and altered the energy of his return to the hometown Cavaliers after his years with the Miami Heat. Like the rest of the modern incarnation of the Heritage, James was stuck facilitating “conversation,” being the bridge, ironically, to nowhere. Then, in July 2016, James and his fellow nba superstars Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade took the stage in Los Angeles at the espys, espn’s annual glitterati and glamourfest award show, and oicially announced joining the Heritage. Days before the show, James’ representatives contacted
that made a stab at naming something that maybe you have felt, too, makes the world more real and makes us more capable of recognizing each other. mj: How has your own writing played that kind of role? ts: I’m working on an opera drawing from the history of land ownership in the South, so I was visiting coastal Georgia with the historian Erskine Clarke. He read my memoir before we met, and he said, “Seeing how you’re stirring the cheese into the grits, I know that!” And somehow, all the distances between us—age, culture, gender—suddenly got really small. That can happen as often as we’re willing to let it. It’s really exciting when somebody says, “You’re black, I’m white. You’re from one place, I’m
espn on behalf of the foursome with a request: They wanted to use the espys to make a statement to America after a week of violence between black communities and police so gruesome that even Michael Jordan, now part of the ruling class as owner of the Charlotte Hornets, eventually released a statement. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 37-yearold Alton Sterling was killed by police after they confronted him for selling compact discs on a sidewalk. Then, in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, another black man, 32-year-old public school cafeteria worker Philando Castile, was shot seven times and killed by a police oicer after being stopped for a broken taillight. The next night, Army veteran Micah Johnson ambushed and killed ﬁve police oicers in Dallas in alleged retaliation. Anthony, Paul, Wade, and James stood together on the espn stage, each dressed in a black suit. James went last: “It’s not about being a role model. It’s not about our responsibility to the tradition of activism. I know tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali, the goat [Greatest of All Time], but to do his legacy any justice, let’s use
from another. I don’t know your mother. And yet your mother in this poem is my mother.” mj: Tell me about your parents. ts: My mom was deeply faithful and believed that instilling in our family a sense of duty and trust in God would do a lot to counteract all those forces telling me, “You’re small, you don’t matter—because you’re black.” My dad was an engineer, a meticulous man who was fascinated by how things were made, how systems operated. So there was this beautiful sense of curiosity and wonder that brought to our home an order. mj: Does that factor in when you craft a poem? ts: Maybe. He loved making things—he used to make furniture. So maybe you’re working
this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes.” The negotiations beBeing a tween espn and the playpolitically ers had been intense. The active black network had tweaked athlete should and edited comments no longer be from the players that sounded anti-police, considered while the players worked radical. with their teams and sponsors to ensure they were not harming their business partners. The editing of the statements continued right up until the show began. The message was powerful, but it was the result of compromise, concession. If the original goal of the Heritage, as Tommie Smith described it, was to support oppressed people around the world, the black athlete today resembled a privileged, corporate bridge between the races whose job wasn’t to advocate for black people—but to advocate for everybody. It was to be a peacemaker. That meant being caught in the middle during a time when there is no middle. “The racial proﬁling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has
through feelings and questions in the ﬁrst draft, and then you’ve got to start sanding down the edges and make sure everything’s squared off. mj: Was it hard for you, writing this book, to relinquish the spotlight to the voices of others? ts: It was sort of involuntary. I hadn’t written many poems after Life on Mars, and I was invited to write one about the Civil War for the National Portrait Gallery. I had to find material that was interesting to me. Most antebellum history has to do with white stakeholders. There are very few even names of the enslaved. In Dwelling Place, Clarke’s book, there are all these letters from the Colcock Jones family about how much they love to bid on slaves and how much a chore they are to
maintain, and “What are we going to do with these people?” Reading these letters, there’s another story. I wanted to find what’s between these lines. mj: Your poem “The Greatest Personal Privation” made me physically angry. How do you keep your wits about you when you’re working with such intense, emotional material? ts: I have to ﬁnd a way of letting the language guide me to understand that I am as complicit in what is wrong as I am certain of what is right. If a poem can’t do that, then it doesn’t feel honest. If I use my moral convictions like a crutch to point out, “This is bad,” then the poem is doing nothing more than just being, I don’t know, what I might say at a dinner party. —Chinaka Hodge
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to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop,” Wade said. Then, he added a negotiated, balancing qualiﬁer, necessary to appease the corporate entities involved. “But also the retaliation has to stop. The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas—not to mention Orlando— it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough. Now, as athletes, it’s on us to challenge each other to do even more than what we already do in our own communities. And the conversation cannot stop as our schedules get busy again.” Wade’s words underscored the corporate mineﬁeld today’s players tread. Wade’s inclusion of the “endless gun violence in places like Chicago” was personal— it is his hometown—but was also seen as a negotiated appeasement to the “What about black-on-black crime?” sect. It was always a bizarre and illogical leap, a derivative of “shut up and play”: Black people kill one another, so why should anyone complain when the good guys kill them too? Still, what James and the others said the night of the espys should have been a call to action for all athletes. But just as in the 1960s, few white players have accepted the challenge. The police unions reacted to player protests by threatening to withhold services to events where criticism was expected to be on display. Black players found themselves where they had always been whenever they sought white support: pleading to be seen as full Americans to a public that only saw ﬂag over grievance, authority over justice. It was about the most important black employees in America reclaiming a voice and responsibility from an American public that didn’t think they had ever earned the right to speak at all. And it was why many whites hated Kaepernick so. He did not negotiate. He was not a peacemaker. So when James confronted Trumpism two years later with public deﬁance, Ingraham responded with an old weapon: an attempt to deny his voice—“Must they run their mouths like that?”—and, indeed, his citizenship. James and others shot back with I will not shut up and dribble, and Ingraham ultimately outed herself as a fraud, inviting James to appear on her show in a weak attempt to spin her condescending, racist attack into chummy celebrity banter. She failed, naturally, but her attitudes succeeded in reminding players, despite their millions and after all these years, why the Heritage endures: Even when African Americans think they’ve made it, they haven’t. Q 64
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NATIVE SON Novelist Tommy Orange highlights a group of urbanites we seldom hear about. in 1935, when gertrude stein returned to Oakland, California,
for the ﬁrst time in decades, she stopped by her childhood home to ﬁnd the big house and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge she remembered all gone. “There is no there there,” she later wrote in Everybody’s Autobiography, a phrase for which she (and, unfairly, Oakland itself) would long be remembered. Author Tommy Orange uses Stein’s words to evoke a diﬀerent sort of erasure in There There, his debut novel, out in June. The book’s 12 main characters, like its 36-year-old author, are Native American—their ancestral land, one reminisces, buried in “glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory.” Their stories, which become ever more tightly braided as the book moves toward its explosive ﬁnale (at a powwow in a football stadium), are those of contemporary Oaklanders—postal workers and custodians and high schoolers who are ﬁghting “to be a present-tense people.” Some 70 percent of the country’s roughly 5 million Native Americans are now city dwellers. Yet the urban Native experience had never been portrayed in literature, “as far as I could tell,” Orange says as we walk around Oakland’s Lake Merritt. That, coupled with his “raw virtuosic talent” (as novelist Claire Vaye Watkins puts it in her cover blurb), sparked a bidding war among publishers who hoped to end the drought of major books from Native American writers. Sherman Alexie, who ﬁrst made waves with his 1993 story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, lamented
BOTTOM: ELENA SEIBERT; TOP: MOLLY CRABAPPLE
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THE ART OF WAR
It’s hard to convince Americans to care about war in a faraway land, which is what makes Brothers of the Gun so remarkable. Out May 15, this brave, honest memoir by Marwan Hisham, who comes of age as his Syrian homeland descends into chaos, is made all the more relatable by collaborator Molly Crabapple, whose ink illustrations imbue Hisham’s story with a deeper sense of urgency—and heartbreak.
this “fallow period” during a Fresh Air interview last year. After reading one chapter of Orange’s book, he emailed his writer friends to say, “It’s here. That book I’ve been waiting for.” Orange, who calls himself a “timid, shy guy,” has deep brown eyes and a smattering of freckles. His white mother comes from a longtime Bay Area family. His father, raised in Oklahoma, is a member of the state’s Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Dad is a “walking stereotype,” Orange says. He has long hair, and when they were growing up he made his children listen to “peyote tapes”—recordings of Native American Church songs Orange only later came to love. Orange remembers “a lot of ﬁghting at home” as his parents’ marriage dissolved, and brawling in high school with kids who called him Chinese. After getting a college degree in sound engineering, he couldn’t ﬁnd relevant work, so he took a gig at a used bookstore in San Leandro. That’s when “I fell head over heels” for literature, he says, starting with Franz Kaka and Jorge Luis Borges. “I always felt like I was playing catch-up, so I got obsessive about how much reading and writing I was doing.” It was around the same time that Orange began opening his eyes to his heritage. He spent eight years working on and oﬀ at Oakland’s Native American Health Center, eventually creating a media lab there. When his dad was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma and decided to treat it with traditional Native healing methods, Orange joined him in New Mexico for the ceremonies. “That was the turning point for me,” Orange says. “I learned about who I am and what I come from.” (His father, he adds, is alive and cancer-free.) The concept for There There came along in 2010, as Orange was driving down to Los Angeles for a concert. He’d just learned his wife was pregnant, and he was thinking it was time to get serious with his writing. And then “the thing just popped into my head; the whole thing felt right there,” he recalls, curling his wide hand into a ﬁst. “It was somehow getting everybody to this powwow.” He spent the next six years honing his characters, including
Thomas Frank, a bumbling janitor whose “one thousand percent Indian” father was modeled on Orange’s dad, and Orvil Red Feather, who secretly dons his grandmother’s tribal regalia to practice TV dance moves in the mirror. In 2014, Orange enrolled in an mfa program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a ﬁrst-of-its-kind writing course whose instructors are mostly of indigenous descent; he teaches there now. His thesis reader, Pam Houston, author of the story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness, describes Orange as “more than a good student—he’s a deeply soulful man who makes everyone around him want to try harder, do better, without him seeming to say or do anything at all.” Classmates included Terese Mailhot, whose lauded 2018 memoir, Heart Berries, sold within weeks of There There. After a stop for lunch near the lake, Orange leads me to an old haunt, the Intertribal Friendship House, one of the ﬁrst community centers geared toward urban Native Americans. We’re greeted by 22-year-old program manager Javier Patty, who, with Orange’s mentoring, edited a ﬁlm about relocation. Patty, a member of the Muscogee Creek and Seminole tribes, tells me he dreams of working at Google as he shows me a greenhouse where the nonproﬁt grows onions and cabbage used for food events, such as an upcoming “precolonial” dinner. Orange sits down with the center’s director, Carol Wahpepah, with whom he keeps in touch. She asks for photos of his six-year-old son. He then presents her with an early UK edition of There There, whose cover depicts a painted feather surrounded by a pattern of droplets. “Carol, let me tell you what they tried to get on here—a headdress!” Orange says. “Oh, no!” she says. They shake their heads and laugh. “It was really sweet to be able to hand-deliver my book to Carol,” Orange tells me as we make our way back toward the lake. There There is ﬁction, but he sees it as ﬁlling a blank in the historical ledger. “I’m super happy I can at least be one voice saying, ‘No, but wait—there’s this, too.’” —Maddie Oatman M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
THE BEST VIRAL NEWS YOU’LL EVER READ
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work against drug-resistant staph bacteria by applying the solution to the forearm skin of healthy volunteers. With that box checked, AmpliPhi has been strategizing how to move to the next step, which requires using the cocktail in patients who are experiencing staph infections. The fda’s emergency exemptions only allow for treating one patient at a time. But in research, one case is an anecdote. To demonstrate to the fda that a phase-two trial would be safe, the developers need more data than a single case can give them. Grint’s solution is to patiently assemble an array of single cases, by contributing his company’s phages to cases such as Patterson’s. “We’ve set a goal of, say, 10 by the end of this year, and 10 to 15 in the early part of next year,” he told me in 2017. “We will then have a data set that allows us to better design a phase-two study and answer some of the questions that regulators have.” but while companies and the fda ne-
gotiate, patients need saving now. In October last year, a 25-year-old woman
in Pittsburgh named Mallory Smith, who had cystic ﬁbrosis and had received a lung transplant, developed an infection in her new lungs with a stubborn bacterium named Burkholderia cepacia, to which CF patients are more susceptible. The infection was resistant to every antibiotic her physicians treated it with. Her father, who had heard of Patterson’s ordeal, turned to Strathdee for help. On November 7, Strathdee posted a plea on Twitter, asking scientists for any phages that might have a hope of matching: “#Phage researchers! I am working with a team to get Burkholderia cepacia phages to treat a 25 y old woman with CF whose infection has failed all #antibiotics. We need…phage URGENTLY to find suitable phage matches.” Of the several hundred phages from around the world that Strathdee was oﬀered, Smith’s father recalls that at the last minute two looked like a match. They were rushed to Smith’s hospital and administered, but it was too late. Mallory Smith died November 15. Patterson, however, made it. He left the hospital in mid-August 2016—gaunt and weak, having lost most of his muscle mass but having beaten the superbug
using phages. He was the ﬁrst person in the United States to have been successfully treated intravenously. He is still frail; the last-resort antibiotics he was given before the phage treatment temporarily harmed his kidneys. On the day I met him in their home in Carlsbad, California, he had just taken a nap, and he talked to me from a recliner, with a blanket and a cat stretched across his lap. “I’ve studied aids for many, many years, since the beginning of the epidemic, and I always thought viruses were the bad guys, evil,” he said. “Now that I’ve gone through what I have, I can see that viruses may actually be used for good, too.” Strathdee, who is working on a book with Patterson about their experience, says she hopes to see phages become a routine option for serious infections, available to substitute for antibiotics or to be administered alongside them, given early in treatment and not as a desperate last resort when nothing else may work well. “It certainly seems to me a lot less risky than antibiotics,” she said. “They’re self-limiting: When the bacteria they attack are gone, they’re gone. That’s a pretty good designer drug, and nature gave it to us.”Q
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M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
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reach hard-to-count communities. (More than 30 private foundations—including the Oakland, California-based wkf Fund, which sponsored the outreach eﬀort in Fresno— are attempting to fill the void and have raised $17 million to support community groups working on the census.) “They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to convince people it’s okay to be counted,” says Thompson. If the money isn’t there, “you’re not going to count everyone.” after the 1990 census failed to count 4
million people—including 4.6 percent of African Americans, 5 percent of Hispanics, and 12 percent of Native Americans— the bureau issued a proposal to more accurately tally minority communities. It would use statistical sampling, which included detailed demographic data and survey research, to adjust the ﬁnal census count and compensate for the demographic skew. That provoked a furious response from Republicans, who claimed sampling would be inaccurate and cost their party 24 seats in Congress and 410 seats in state legislatures. “At stake is our gop majority in the House of Representatives as well as partisan control of state legislatures nationwide,” said Republican National Committee Chair Jim Nicholson. House Speaker Newt Gingrich sued the Census Bureau and took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in his favor, even though, as Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, “the use of sampling will make the census more accurate than an admittedly futile attempt to count every individual by personal inspection, interview, or written interrogatory.” Brookings Institution demographer William Frey projects that in the 2020 census, for the ﬁrst time, the white share of the population will fall below 60 percent. Trump, who won the white vote by 20 points in 2016, would stand to gain politically if the census were manipulated to slow that shift. Undercounting minority populations would do the greatest harm to states like California, which has the most immigrants in the country. A signiﬁcant undercount in 2020 could cost the state more than $20 billion over a decade and potentially one or two congressional seats and electoral votes. California is planning to spend $50 million over the next two years on outreach to hard-to-count populations.
“If we lose a congressional seat or two, our voice is minimized,” says state Rep. Joaquin Arambula, a Democrat from the Fresno area. “Our representation in the Electoral College is diminished. Our ability to inﬂuence who the next president is has changed. And it’s not reﬂective of what our democracy truly represents: one person, one vote.” Some former directors of the census worry Republicans could simply choose to disregard the 2020 count. There’s precedent for that, too. Back in 1920, the census reported that for the ﬁrst time, half the population lived in urban areas. Those results would have shifted 11 House seats to states with most of these new urban immigrants, who tended to vote Democratic. The Republicancontrolled Congress recoiled. “It is not best for America that her councils be dominated by semicivilized foreign colonies in Boston, New York, and Chicago,” said Republican Rep. Edward Little of Kansas. Congress refused to reapportion its seats using the 1920 census. Instead, it imposed drastic new quotas on immigration. It didn’t adopt a new electoral map until 1929. There’s no indication Congress will ignore the results of the 2020 census. But Prewitt sees parallels between the Republican Congress of 1920 and the one today. “You could make a plausible argument that one party beneﬁts from the current distribution of seats across the legislative bodies, and they can’t necessarily improve on the ratio they now have, so therefore why reapportion?” he says. “It’s unlikely, but not implausible.” a day after canvassing the alleys of east
Fresno, Quezada and Sanjuan drove me 30 miles south, past almond, pistachio, and orange ﬁelds. We reached a sprawling, unoicial trailer park, three miles square, inhabited by farmworkers and known as Tijuanitas. Across the street from a grape ﬁeld, we met a woman named Jacinta in front of her white trailer, next to a huge pile of abandoned refrigerators and tires. Her three children played by a plywood chicken coop in the backyard while her husband was out picking lettuce. Jacinta arrived 11 years ago from Oaxaca, Mexico, where she’d grown up speaking Triqui, an indigenous language. She doesn’t remember receiving a census form in 2010 and said that if anyone from the government came to Tijuanitas, she wouldn’t open the door. When Quezada asked whether
she would ﬁll out the census form if she received one, Jacinta responded, “I can’t read. How can I ﬁll it out if I can’t read or write?” Her next-door neighbor, a grape picker named Gilberto, had lived there for 20 years. A cage with two doves hung from a tree in his front yard; his work tools dangled from another. He was also from Oaxaca but spoke Mixtec, another indigenous language. When Quezada asked if he’d ever received the census form, Gilberto said no. “The census is for US citizens only,” he said. “If I received the form, I would return it because I’m not a US citizen.” Quezada told him the census counted noncitizens, too. “I didn’t know that,” Gilberto responded. Tijuanitas isn’t visible from any major roads. It’s accessible only by a potholefilled dirt road. It lacks safe drinking water and internet access, according to Quezada. Many residents have no street address and receive mail at PO boxes in nearby San Joaquin. From the perspective of the Postal Service or internet providers or utility companies, it’s as if Tijuanitas doesn’t exist. It appears ever likelier that the 2020 census will regard Tijuanitas and other underserved and neglected communities across the country the same way. Q
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CLOAK AND DATA
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were untrue. They were just “playing along” with “ludicrous hypothetical scenarios” proposed by a prospective client. His company, meanwhile, claimed that it did not “use or hold data from Facebook proﬁles.” By the end of the day, Cambridge Analytica had suspended Nix pending an investigation, and he had oﬀered to resign if it would spare the company. “Alexander was always entertaining,” a former colleague told me. “In the end, he will always hang himself.” The revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged political tricks and shady data mining added to a growing list of problems the company was already facing. A few months earlier, in December, Nix had appeared before the House Intelligence Committee—though not in person. The panel’s Republicans, who ran the committee’s Russia probe with an eye toward minimizing any political damage to the president, arranged for Nix to beam in by video link. One topic of discussion was Nix’s outreach to WikiLeaks. His testimony remains secret, though he subsequently acknowledged approaching Assange in an eﬀort to get his hands on “information that could be incredibly relevant to the outcome of the US election.” (In the Channel 4 undercover footage, Nix mocked the Intelligence Committee and said the Republican members asked him only three questions. “Five minutes—done,” he said, adding, “They’re politicians; they’re not technical. They don’t understand how it works.”) The committee’s Democrats had taken a keen interest in Trump’s data operation and Cambridge Analytica’s role in particular. Michael Bahar, a former general counsel on the committee who worked on the investigation before entering private practice, told me that one line of inquiry explored whether Cambridge Analytica had deployed its targeting tactics to more eﬀectively spread Russian disinformation, and whether it had been enlisted to use data and analytics stolen from the Democratic National Committee by Russian-directed hackers. “Maybe [hacked information] was actually given to a campaign to help with the microtargeting,” Bahar says. “That’s why I think the role of Cambridge Analytica…needs to be looked at very carefully.” Scrutiny will likely intensify given revelations that Cambridge’s Russian connections predated the 2016 election. Wylie, the former Cambridge employee, provided 68
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
documents to the Observer revealing that the ﬁrm briefed Lukoil, the Russian oil company, on its behavioral microtargeting strategies. In a recent interview with cnn, Wylie drew a startling connection between the ﬁrm’s work and the Russian cyberattacks during the election. “I am concerned that we made Russia aware of the programs that we were working on,” he said, “and that might have sparked an idea that eventually led to some of the disinformation programs that we have seen.” In addition to Nix, Democrats, according to a House Intelligence Committee memo, had hoped to call as witnesses Alex Tayler, Cambridge Analytica’s chief data ofﬁcer; Julian Wheatland, the chairman of scl; and Rebekah Mercer. Instead, in early March, committee Republicans hastily shut down the probe, though Democrats have vowed to continue investigating on their own without subpoena power. On March 21, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiﬀ (D-Calif.), wrote to Aleksandr Kogan seeking an interview and requesting documents about his interactions with scl and Cambridge Analytica. Chris Wylie has agreed to meet with committee Democrats. The ﬁrm also remains a subject of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mueller last fall requested the emails of any Cambridge employee who worked on the Trump campaign. Nix’s unguarded comments to Channel 4 may be of interest. He said the ﬁrm relied on an encrypted email system that deleted messages two hours after they were read. “So then there’s no evidence, there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing.” Yet another avenue of interest for investigators is Cambridge’s possible role in a second 2016 election that featured covert Russian meddling—the British referendum to leave the European Union, known as Brexit. In 2016, Cambridge seemed to break its informal rule of forgoing UK political work when it unveiled a partnership with Leave.EU, the more extreme of the pro-Brexit campaigns, only to backtrack and deny any involvement in Brexit. In February, as part of a broader inquiry into fake news, members of the British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee grilled Nix for more than two hours. He unconvincingly blamed the announcement of the Leave .EU partnership on “a slightly overzealous PR consultant.” He claimed that he and his staﬀ had “never worked with a Russian organization in Russia or any other
country.” And he denied that his ﬁrm used Facebook data. After the latest round of revelations, Damian Collins, a conservative member of Parliament who chairs the committee, said Nix had “deliberately misled” his panel “by giving false statements” and vowed to further investigate. The blowback from the Cambridge Analytica scandals also hit Facebook, which faced a torrent of criticism for its lax handling of users’ data. The company’s stock price tumbled by 7 percent, losing more than $50 billion in value, and the Federal Trade Commission reportedly launched an investigation into its data practices. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook trended on Twitter. Facebook ceo Mark Zuckerberg ﬁnally broke his silence, issuing a statement admitting to a “breach of trust” between Facebook and its users. Yet, critics wondered, just how many times had their trust been breached? Cambridge Analytica was hardly alone in hoovering up user data. And how exactly were Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic techniques diﬀerent from Facebook’s core business model—tapping into the vast amounts of data it collects on its users to guide hypertargeted advertising, be it for shoe companies or political campaigns or dubious fake news sites. By most accounts, Cambridge Analytica’s main feat of political persuasion was convincing a group of Republican donors, candidates, and organizations to hand over millions of dollars. (A company called Emerdata that lists Nix as a director recently added Rebekah Mercer and another Mercer daughter to its board, suggesting that Nix hasn’t fallen out with all his gop patrons.) But Cambridge’s controversial foray into US politics spawned larger questions about how our social-media habits can be turned against us, and how companies such as Facebook hold more power over our lives—the ability to shape public conversation, even political outcomes—than many people are comfortable with. Whether or not Cambridge Analytica survives, data about our personality types, our predilections, our hopes and fears—information we unwittingly divulge via status updates, tweets, likes, and photos—will increasingly be used to target us as voters and consumers, for good and ill, and often without our knowledge. These tactics will facilitate the spread of fake news and disinformation and make it easier for foreign interests to intervene in our elections—whether they are Russian trolls or British chancers. Q
WEAPONS OF MASS DISRUPTION
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Security oicials warned that “Russian government cyber actors” had targeted companies and systems involved with America’s water supply, nuclear plants, aviation, and other key infrastructure. Still, the Trump administration appears to have done little to counter these rising threats. Since 2016, Congress has earmarked $120 million to counter foreign interference, but the State Department has spent none of it, according to the New York Times. President Donald Trump has dragged his feet on enforcing congressionally mandated sanctions against Russia and told the public he believes Vladimir Putin’s assertions that there was no election interference. Admiral Michael Rogers, who heads the National Security Agency and the Pentagon’s US Cyber Command, told Congress in February that Trump had not given any order to disrupt Russian election interference. (Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the White House would comment for this article.) “I do not believe that we are prepared and focusing nearly enough on bolstering our cyberdefenses,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (DPa.), who has introduced legislation that would direct the State Department to study the Ukrainian experience, told me. “Cyber is the battleﬁeld of the 21st century, and I am deeply concerned that we are woefully unprepared in this area.” Junaid Islam, the chief technology ofﬁcer and founder of Vidder, a Californiabased cybersecurity ﬁrm, told me that one of the most troubling aspects of the NotPetya attack was that it involved nextgeneration cyberweapons. Unlike malware activated when a user clicks an email attachment or a link, NotPetya, once installed by an unwitting user in a single computer, spreads by itself through the network connected to the machine. That kind of weapon, notes Islam, can target one person (say, a candidate’s campaign manager) and erase her hard drive as soon as she logs in to the network. Or it can target an entire organization, company, or government agency. Such a self-propagating piece of malicious code, Islam points out, would move even faster in America, where 90 percent of the population has internet access, versus just over half in Ukraine. “That to me is a true cyberweapon,” he says. There’s no telling how the Kremlin will
hit America as election season heats up— but what is certain, says Camille Stewart, an Obama-era Homeland Security oicial, is that Putin has every incentive to continue with his disinformation strategy. “If there haven’t been enough precautions put in place,” she says, “they’re likely to use the same methods. Hacking the public conﬁdence has been very eﬀective, and they are likely to continue in that vein.” Andrei Soldatov, a leading cybersecurity journalist based in Moscow, agrees that Putin has come to see cyberwar as high reward and low risk. “That’s the explanation of why [the Kremlin] has become so adventurous,” Soldatov said. “They don’t see any risks coming their way.” Cybersecurity experts told me they fear that Trump’s refusal to challenge Putin will leave the United States exposed to attacks even more devastating than what happened in 2016. Michael Carpenter, the former deputy assistant defense secretary for Ukraine, Russia, and Eurasia, says that because so much of America’s critical infrastructure is privately owned, the government can do little to standardize security protocols, so levels of preparedness vary wildly. And Americans are just more dependent on digital systems, period. In Ukraine, he notes, “the only way those [nuclear] power plants got back online is because they were so old they had manual functionality. Had our plants been hit by a similar virus, they would have gone down, and the consequences are enormous. I think a lot of Americans haven’t woken up to this yet.” In February, the House of Representatives passed Rep. Boyle’s US-Ukraine cybersecurity bill, and the legislation is now headed for the Senate. But if it becomes law, will the Trump administration follow its directive? Carpenter told me bluntly that he believes the president “is turning a blind eye because he is beholden to the Kremlin.” Boyle was more circumspect: The president, he told me, appears to have reacted to every revelation about Russia with a focus on self-preservation. “This whole topic feeds into his insecurity,” he said. “If we can take this outside the realm of the 2016 election and couch it as an issue of national defense, then I think we have the prospect of being successful.” But there’s the rub. To protect the nation, Trump would have to acknowledge that his success may have been buoyed by Russian support. And that, it seems clear, he refuses to do no matter what. Q
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don’t want to be told that it does. Marisa Weiss, a breast oncologist and the founder of BreastCancer.org, gives talks on college campuses, where she explains to young women the cancer risks they face from drinking. “I see the same people get completely trashed that night,” she laments. But she understands why. “It’s because life is a bitch,” she says. “We work long hours, and alcohol becomes like self-medication. It’s relaxing. It’s fun.” I get it. But you know what’s not fun? Watching your 10-year-old daughter keen and hyperventilate after you tell her you have cancer. Or having six-inch needles full of radioactive dye plunged repeatedly through your nipple, without anesthesia, so a surgeon can see if the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes. Or leaving work early while awaiting biopsy results because your hands are shaking so badly you can’t type. Cancer isn’t fun, in ways far beyond the obvious. And in relative terms, I’ve had it easy so far. I’m still alive. A few months ago, I plugged my data into the National Cancer Institute’s breast cancer risk calculator to see what my odds had been before I discovered my tumor. The bare-bones assessment showed I had a 1.1 percent risk of getting breast cancer in the next ﬁve years. The calculator doesn’t account for my alcohol consumption (or the protective eﬀects of exercise and breastfeeding), but the experts I’ve spoken with say booze probably bumped up my risk. I’ll never know for certain whether alcohol caused my cancer. There are so many factors: Just in December, a Danish study found that being on birth control raises the risk of breast cancer more than previously thought. What I do know is that cutting back on drinking, particularly when I was young, is virtually the only thing I could have changed about my lifestyle to try to prevent this cancer if I’d been fully informed. Now I’ve mostly given up alcohol to hedge my bets against a recurrence. I can’t be sure I would have done the same thing if someone had told me when I was 15 or 20 that drinking could give me breast cancer. I’d like to think so—I never smoked—but there’s no guarantee I wouldn’t have been just like the students Weiss talks to. At least they have a choice—they’ve been told the risk they’re taking. Like most women, I didn’t have that choice, and a powerful industry worked to keep it that way. Q M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
LOVE, CONTRACTUALLY How to protect an unconventional family in the age of Trump by nicole pasulka for several years, friends Megan Hessenthaler and Sully
Ross lived on a boat in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, played in a punk rock marching band, and joked about having a baby together. They’re queer, so they would crack up thinking about Ross providing the sperm for artificial insemination and taking on the name “Uncle Daddy.” Then the joke got real. They lost their boat. Hessenthaler got married, and she and her wife, Heather Sommerville, did, in fact, want Ross to help them have a baby. “We had to talk about it like a real thing,” Hessenthaler says. In recent decades, America has come to look more like Modern Family than Leave It to Beaver. The number
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of unmarried couples living together increased by 61 percent between 2005 and 2016, and more than half the nation’s kids are no longer raised in households headed by a heterosexual couple in their first marriage. Most of our family law, though, is still written for the Cleavers. The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision gave millions of gay couples the right to marry, but it didn’t do much for a single lesbian having kids with her best friend or for sperm donors who want contact
with their progeny. The Trump administration’s eﬀorts to undermine Obama-era lgbt protections have put nontraditional families further on alert. Which is why Hessenthaler, Sommerville, and Ross decided to sit down and puzzle out the details—visitation, ﬁnancial responsibilities, what would happen if Hessenthaler miscarried—and codify them in a contract called a “known-donor agreement.” Martha Ertman, a University of Maryland law professor and the author of Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families, is the foremost evangelist for setting the terms of less-than-mainstream relationships in writing. A family contract may feel “cold and mean and scary,” she acknowledges, but the “default rules can be a lot colder than people realize.” The legal rights and responsibilities of marriage—spousal inheritance, shared custody of children, etc.—are suicient for most people, she says, but “Plan B families” need an extra layer of protection. Trump is empowering social conservatives who may be inclined to deny nontraditional families their rights. “If you can whip out a contract that says ‘order of parentage,’” Ertman explains, “that suggests to the person behind the desk, ‘I’m buying myself a huge headache.’” These legal arrangements may turn out to have special currency in the Trump era, but the conversation has been going on for decades. Long before gay marriage became legal, same-sex couples were drafting their own enforceable agreements. In the 1980s, tennis star Martina Navratilova and her girlfriend, Judy Nelson, had a contract that promised Nelson half of the millions that Navratilova earned during their relationship if the couple were to split. In 1992, gay sex was still illegal in Georgia when the state Supreme Court upheld a woman’s written agreement to co-own her home with a female partner. Sixteen years ago, Ertman decided to have a child with Victor Flatt, a gay male friend. There were details to be worked out before he FedExed his sperm. Ertman borrowed a sample contract from a sociologist and tailored it: She would do most of the parenting, and Flatt would chip
in for major expenses like college and spend summers with them. Four years later, Ertman fell in love with Karen Lash. Ertman and Flatt wrote her into their legal agreement, and when the two women tied the knot in 2009, they made their own contract. “Without the contracts, it’s a mess,” Ertman told me. Some contracts go beyond mere legal provisions to lay out a family’s emotional expectations. Hessenthaler and Sommerville wrote several drafts as they pondered details like how long they would try to get pregnant and what the baby would call Ross. (They settled on “Uncle.”) Ross surprised the women, and himself, when he realized he wanted to be the child’s legal guardian in the case of their deaths. Unfortunately, these contracts remain a Band-Aid solution. Judges have “a lot of discretion” in deciding what’s in a child’s best interests, New York lawyer Andy Izenson says. There’s a patchwork of laws governing whose name goes on a baby’s birth certiﬁcate. In states like Alabama, judges or hospitals could decide that for children of same-sex couples who inseminated at home, the donor is the legal parent. But at least a written document forces people to put their expectations on the table in advance. “It made us think through things,” Hessenthaler told me. If you’re planning to write a contract with your partner, Ertman recommends pouring a glass of wine and creating a list of what you care about, including columns with what you’re willing to give up and what you want to receive. For instance, how much of your paycheck do you want to deposit into a joint bank account with your partner? If you’re going to ask a friend for sperm to make a baby, consider whether he’ll be a donor, or a father ﬁgure—and what those two things mean to you. Then, sit down together and “let the back-andforth set the stage for this new aspect of your relationship,” Ertman says. Sure, these contracts can feel clinical—few besides Ertman would call the experience romantic. But romance without the ability to agree on what matters is a lot like living on a boat: awesome when it’s sunny, not so much when the weather gets rough. Q
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OATS AND DREAMS How a milk trend could stoke an agricultural revolution by tom philpott
in late 2016, the Swedish company Oatly set up
production in North America and began shopping its oat-derived “milk” to New York City’s latte cognoscenti. By the next autumn, oat milk had conquered the city’s “most esteemed coffee bars” at a “practically unheard of” rate, according to the coffee trade magazine Sprudge. Chic cafés peddling a grainy Scandinavianinspired formula may sound too twee for words. But the market for dairy alternatives is growing quickly in the United States, where negative perceptions of cow’s milk have created a thirst for substitutes made from coconut, peas, and hemp. Oat milk offers another benefit. If consumption approaches levels now enjoyed by industry leader almond milk, those urban hipsters may be the vanguard of a soil revolution. Oat milk has three times the protein of its almondbased rival and at least twice the fiber, though it’s higher in carbs. When it comes to each drink’s environmental footprint, there’s no comparison. As I first reported in 2014, in California, home to 80 percent of the world’s production of almonds, nut trees are swallowing up land once devoted to crops that could be fallowed during droughts. California’s almond crop commands more than three times as much of the state’s annual water supply as Los Angeles. As droughts become more frequent, few ecologists would argue for extra almond groves. Oats, however, thrive all over the world and come with ecological benefits. They would be especially helpful in the Upper Midwest, where most prime farmland is currently devoted to just two crops: corn and soybeans. As a result of this unholy duopoly, insect, weed, and fungal pests have flourished, prompting farmers to use a slew of pesticides and fertilizers. Corn and soybeans don’t emerge until late spring and are harvested in the early fall; when the ground is bare in between, it is vulnerable to erosion, which washes away topsoil. Simply rotating in oats—along with a legume like red clover, a cover crop that remains after the
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
such a transition started, she says. If the beverage went the way of almond milk, it could incentivize Iowa’s farmers to sow double the acreage of oats they do now. Subbing oats for just 10 percent of the corn currently fed to the state’s livestock would require more diverse crop rotations on 3.6 million acres, enough to virtually eliminate soil erosion on the state’s most vulnerable farmland. For now, annual oat milk sales are paltry. But almond milk, too, was obscure until trendsetting baristas started foaming it into lattes. Sales surged 250 percent between 2011 and 2016, and almond milk now accounts for 64 percent of the $2.1 billion alt-milk market. Oat milk may be on the same path: Oatly is sold at more than 1,000 locations nationwide. In February, Blue Bottle Coffee, a chain majority-owned by Nestlé, replaced soy milk with oat milk at all its stores. I don’t drink much milk, plant-based or otherwise, but I recently took one for the team and tried some made from oats. It was creamy, lightly sweet, and pleasantly grainy. If this is what an agricultural revolution in the heartland tastes like, sign me up.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
oats are harvested—would change all that, explains Matt Liebman, an agronomist at Iowa State University. Since 2002, he has been running test plots near Ames that compare a conventional two-year corn-soy rotation with a three-year corn, soy, and oat and red clover scheme. His research shows that adding a third crop like oats disrupts weed patterns, resulting in a startling 96 percent drop in herbicide use. Red clover grabs nitrogen from the air and deposits it into the soil, providing natural fertilizer. All together, three-year plots require 86 percent less added fertilizer to yield slightly more corn and soybeans—while dramatically reducing erosion and chemical runoff. Back in 1950, Iowa farmers led the nation in oat production, planting 6.6 million acres, more than a quarter of the state’s cropland. But demand for oats has plummeted, a change that has helped trigger the erosion of one of the world’s largest stores of fertile topsoil. Oat milk could begin to turn this around. Jessie VanderPoel, a buyer for Grain Millers, which supplies oats to Oatly’s US operation, says an oat milk boom alone wouldn’t be enough incentive for farmers to add the grain to their rotations. That would require tweaking subsidies that help keep farmers wedded to corn and soybeans, and adding oats to the feed of chickens, cows, and pigs—a massive untapped market. Still, an oat milk boom “would be huge” in getting
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