Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Roy Moore Accusations Have Been a Magnet for Fake News

Welcome back to Can't Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.

Republican Roy Moore is still a contender for a US Senate in Alabama despite a total of eight women accusing him of behavior that ranges from romantically pursuing them when they were teenagers to outright sexual assault. Members of Moore's own party, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have called on him to drop out of the race.

Moore maintains that the accusations are "fake news," and wrote an open letter to Fox News host and pro-Trump propagandist Sean Hannity in which he claims to have been "attacked by the Washington Post and other liberal media in a desperate attempt to smear my character and defeat my campaign." He accused his accusers of lying, and even claimed that what looked like his signature in an accuser's high school yearbook was the result of "tampering."

But lest we forget, something similar happened to the president. A month before his election, Donald Trump was revealed to have bragged into an open mic in 2005 that he grabbed women "by the pussy," and that he kissed them without permission. He was also accused of predatory behavior by more than a dozen women. Then he won. But though he maintains that all of his accusers are lying and though he has not yet joined the Republican outcry against Moore, he has responded to fresh accusations against Democratic Senator Al Franken—who posed for a photo of himself grabbing a sleeping woman's breasts, and is accused of kissing her without permission—by accusing him of even worse behavior on Twitter:

My point is, Moore still has a real shot. If he wins, it may be because enough Alabama voters were convinced by some of the shadier fake news items spread in the wake of these accusations. Most of these hoaxes were given a push by Moore's wife, who will post seemingly anything online if it seems to bolster her husband's tarnished reputation.

One of Roy Moore's accusers works for Michelle Obama

"Second Roy Moore Accuser Works For Michelle Obama Right NOW," the headline says, and gosh, I know some Facebook uncles who are eager to hit the share button on a story like that. Indeed, according to the counter on the site that published it,, 20,000 people did share it online.

But hold the phone! This isn't real news, and we can be sure of that because according to a disclaimer at the bottom of every page, is "satire." So those thousands of people who shared this fake post about a fake accuser working for the former first lady? Don't worry, they just enjoyed the article for its sidesplitting humor!

Reporters are bribing women into accusing Roy Moore

Roy Moore often connects two dots with regard to the Washington Post when he talks about the press:

  1. The Post broke the initial story about statutory rape allegations against Moore, and
  2. The Post editorial board has endorsed Moore's opponent, Doug Jones.

Of course, the story about Moore's accusers wasn't a piece of opinion journalism but a carefully reported documentation of what women were saying about the candidate. Nevertheless, Moore said of the Post shortly after the initial story, "I think they have a political agenda," and added that the public should expect "revelations about the motivation and the content of this article."

Then last weekend, a rumor circulated on the right-wing internet that someone was paying women to dish dirt on Moore.

A reporter was supposedly taped while offering a woman $1,000 to provide sexual allegations about Moore. The origin of this story was the Twitter account @umpire43—an account that has since been either temporarily or permanently shut down.

The Daily Beast dug through some of the other information @umpire43 has helpfully provided thanks to the many jobs the account's owner has claimed to have had: a Navy SEAL, a Reuters pollster, a State Department worker based in Calgary, a voter fraud expert, and an associate of Reince Preibus. The account frequently posted fake claims of expertise designed to discredit polls or prove the supposed validity of Trump's more outlandish statements, like the one about thousands of Muslims celebrating after 9/11 in New Jersey.

In short, the bribe story was sourced entirely from a Twitter account that just constantly posts lies.

A Jewish reporter is cold-calling Alabamans with bribe offers

Then, like a bolt from the blue around November 15, a robo-call claiming to be from the Washington Post started ringing phones in Alabama. Initially reported by a pastor named Al Moore (no relation), the calls to the homes of potential voters seem to be coming from a reporter named "Bernie Bernstein," a name that doesn't match the name of anyone on staff at the Post. "Bernstein" claims to be paying sources enormous sums of money for information that he "will not be fully investigating." Before hanging up, he gives the email address of someone named Al Bernstein instead of his own. Oh, and he has a Jewish name, and the exact speech pattern of my Jewish grandmother, so I think it's safe to say his name is meant to be spelled "(((Bernie Bernstein)))."

It remains a mystery who exactly is behind this robo-call, but it seems designed to discredit the Postand thus the story about the women. As ruses go, it's pretty obvious—but it seems clear that it's not necessarily for Moore and his allies to prove the allegations against him are false, they are just hoping to sow enough doubt so that his voters don't desert him.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

How Two Reverends are Queering the Modern-Day Church

Reverend M. Barclay, who is ordained within the United Methodist Church, admits there’s not a lot of work out there for gender non-binary trans queer pastors. That’s why, after feeling a sense of professional dissatisfaction earlier this year, they sat down and asked themselves that all-important question: “What do I really want to do with my life?” (Honestly, same.)

The self-examination led Barclay to revisit a long-running dream they’d held with friend and fellow queer theologian Rev. Anna Blaedel, and they decided to launch Enfleshed earlier this month, a non-profit organization that helps faith leaders and parishioners make their practice queer-friendly. Offering everything from LGBTQ-friendly liturgy for weddings, funerals or retreats to individual consultation as one navigates the often murky holy waters of one's queerness and faith, Enfleshed aims to help bring churches and faith practices into the 21st century.

Barclay said they and Blaedel both shared frustrations with how Christian leaders were approaching topics like sex and race relations; the hope is that an organization like Enfleshed can help address the schism between a longstanding institution like Christianity and modern-day society. We spoke with Barclay about their own journey toward self-acceptance, the difficulties faced when preaching to queer people, and the future of LGBTQ ministry.

VICE: Why “Enfleshed?” It’s an incredibly loaded and powerful word, especially for a Catholic, like myself—I think of Communion, or the Body of Christ.
Reverend M. Barclay: The word means so much to us. For Anna and I, putting flesh onto our faith is not only obviously rooted in Christian tradition—God takes on flesh—but we would say that God is continuously doing that. And the places where there’s the most pain in the world, and the places that we, as a society, call perverse (like our sex lives), we think God is dwelling. And we’re committed to diving right into it. It makes what we’re doing particularly important to us.

Your group’s tagline is: “Bringing what matters back to the gospel for justice, liberation, and delight.” But what is it, exactly, that matters?
When people started following Christ, it was a movement for liberation, for wholeness. We certainly recognize that Jesus Christ was crucified by the state because of his radical commitment to the marginalized and all people. It’s really unfortunate just how difficult it is to see a commitment for that same set of values by churches today. We’re looking forward to re-centering that movement aspect; not just social justice, but our internal spiritual lives as well.

You’ve always been in tune with your spiritual life, correct?
I grew up extremely conservative and very fundamentalist in my faith. And I was really into that for a while. It wasn’t until I went to college that I was pushed in very important ways, and I had to rethink my faith. That propelled me into the seminary, and it wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized I was queer, and then came out as trans later. It was both perfect timing and the worst timing. But I feel very fortunate to have gone through my own coming out process while I was surrounded by feminist and queer theology. And, honestly, since then, it’s my faith that makes my commitment to being proud of my queer and trans identity really solid.

A vast majority of LGBTQ people shudder at the thought of religion, mostly because of past hurt from the Church. How difficult is it ministering to them?
It’s been the most difficult, in the sense that I have queer and trans folks reach out to me because they struggle to find a Christian community that either shares their beliefs or accepts them for who they are, or even integrates their identity into their Christian faith. It’s deeply angering and upsetting that this is still happening every day. The good part is that there are a lot more people that they can turn to these days. And it’s not impossible to find queer and trans pastors. In the last six or seven years, LGBTQ ministry has grown so fast; it’s wonderful. Just among Methodists, there are more than 150 out queer clergy members, and that’s considering we’re a discriminatory denomination! But given the massive size of Christianity and all of the different ways it’s being embodied, there’s still a lot of harm being done to people who want to live in their faith.

Watch VICE visit an LGBTQ church in Texas to find out why Houston doesn't have an equal rights protection ordinance:

What will Enfleshed do for those who do show interest in pursuing their spirituality?
One of our dreams is to be able to build a whole team of queer and trans pastors, especially of color, from different places who can speak to the ways people have been marginalized and how they, themselves, have found liberation in their own faith. As Enfleshed grows, we can have a whole team of people that will be able to offer meaningful pastoral care that’s well-rounded. I never had that growing up. We’re also making sure that traditional liturgies can be queer inclusive, and not patriarchal, by rewriting some and crafting new ones.

How are people reacting to Enfleshed and its mission?
We’ve gotten a lot of thank yous. I think people are really hungry for spirituality that matters, that speaks directly to their lives, and isn’t afraid to say the things that need to be said. There are so many people who are afraid of getting in trouble or that their radical politics are supposed to fall outside of their faith. People are finding our services meaningful.

What do you say to that skeptical parishioner, though?
I would encourage them and tell them that they’re not only tolerable and OK in the eyes of God, but that they’re to be celebrated for exactly who they are. Even if no one is around to tell them that, they’re surrounded by a queer ecclesia that is rooting for them deeply.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Follow Xorje Olivares on Twitter.

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The Republicans' Anti-Obamacare Tax Cut Bill Is a Huge Gamble

A new bid to cripple Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act apparently has legs. It took shape in late October, when conservative members of Congress started pushing the idea of using the big tax bill as a vehicle to eliminate the ACA’s “individual mandate,” which puts a tax penalty on people who don’t purchase healthcare. Early this month, President Donald Trump started stumping for the idea as well. Far-right groups in the House even tried to muscle a mandate repeal provision into their version of the bill this Tuesday, before a Thursday vote. The bill that passed the House on Thursday didn’t end up touch the individual mandate. But the Senate’s latest version, released on Tuesday, included language that would wipe it out starting in 2019.

Congressional Republicans have repeatedly tried to slash the ACA, and failed—thanks, more often than not, to opposition from moderate GOP senators. Fear of another such failure in the Senate was reportedly a big part of why the House held back on axing the mandate in its own bill. It seems odd, then, that the Senate decided to include anti-ACA language the House shied away from. So why did they decide to go for it?

The most obvious answer is that they need the money. Republicans have been struggling to make their tax cuts seem friendlier to poor and middle-class Americans without having to scrap big breaks for the wealthy and corporations. But they’re bumping up against a self-imposed limit of adding $1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that killing the mandate would save $338 billion over ten years. So conservatives sold the provision as a means of freeing up resources to use to bolster tax cuts for the middle class.

However those savings are a direct result of the fact that millions would drop out of the ACA marketplace without the incentive of the mandate’s fine. (The CBO estimates 13 million more people would not have health insurance by 2027 as a result of the mandate being wiped out). These dropouts would mostly be the young and healthy, who often don’t feel the impulse to buy insurance on their own. But losing them would presumably boost the costs for older and sicker people remaining in the ACA market’s pool, resulting in an estimated average 10 percent premium hike for people with individual marketplace plans.

Killing the mandate also psyches up some on the right who could have opposed the bill for other reasons, Joe Antos, a health policy wonk at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told me. That’s the kid of chit-trading that usually moves big, divisive bills forward.

But “there are a whole bunch of other things you could change,” Antos pointed out, to make the tax legislation appealing to the right number of legislators. And many of them would have been less risky. As long as this provision is intact, it kills what was a very real hope that Republicans could attract red-state Democrat supporters. So why, of all the tweaks they could have made for cash or appeal, did they target the mandate?

“This whole issue is driven largely by the failure of the Senate this last year to do anything on repealing and replacing Obamacare,” said William Hoagland, a former Senate Budget Committee staff director and current analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “They’re looking at this not so much from the policy perspective as to being able to hold onto the majority in next year’s elections.”

Senators may not fear as much backlash or internal division about axing the mandate alone as it’s always been the least popular part of the ACA. Republicans also doubt, and have been working to discredit, the CBO’s numbers. So, Hoagland said, “the majority of them probably don’t see that it really will cause 13 million people to lose coverage.” They’ll likely try to sell America on that doubt, too.

Discrediting that 13 million figure could pose an issue for them, though, Hoagland pointed out, because “if they didn’t lose 13 million, they wouldn’t have $338 billion to spend on tax reform.” It remains to be seen whether the public will accept the GOP’s cognitive dissonance on this.

The choice to add the provision was, reportedly, not unanimous among Senate Republicans. But there’s been no real outcry against it, not even from folks who balked at coverage-dropping attacks on the ACA earlier this year. In fact, earlier this week Republican Senator John Thune claimed they’d done a whip count on the new version of the legislation and it was looking good.

This may stem from the fact that Senate Republican leaders reportedly struck a deal to final allowing compromise legislation that would stabilize the ACA’s individual markets temporarily to get a floor vote in exchange for putting the mandate provision in the tax bill. The reconciliation process that allows Republicans to pass this bill with a simple majority vote in the Senate also contained language mandating that it include provisions opening arctic preserves to oil drilling, something Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, one of the Republican no votes on previous ACA attacks this year, backs. Hoagland suggests this may blunt some of her expected outcry. And Senator John McCain, another previous ACA repeal no vote, may be pacified by the fact that the bill is moving through regular order, his big ask.

Knowing the likely wouldn't face as much friction on this provision as on past ACA-related votes, Senate Republican leadership faced no major restrictions to at least testing this language out before they had to lock in the legislation's text.

Liberals are gearing up to bash the GOP for trying to nix the mandate. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said Democrats won’t vote for the Alexander-Murray compromise legislation if it’s put on the table in exchange for cutting the mandate. But Republicans don’t seem to be afraid of that. As Hoagland pointed out, they can vote on this version of the tax bill before Schumer would have time to tank the Alexander-Murray compromise legislation. This might put pressure on Schumer to cave and take some vote protecting the ACA’s marketplaces, even if it plays right into Republican hands. “It’s all timing,” said Hoagland.

It remains to be seen whether the mandate repeal will remain in the bill. It may get taken out as negotiations advance in the Senate, or when the two chambers of Congress their bills in the reconciliation process. At any point it could be sacrificed to secure a vote or two endangered by a tweak to another priority.

“This is all very fluid,” said Antos. He doubts anything that’s in the bill now will definitely be in the final Senate bill, much less the bill that comes out of a compromise between the final House and Senate versions. “I’ll believe it more when the Senate takes it up seriously,” he added, “which is not going to be until after Thanksgiving.”

So the Senate’s decision to jam an attack on the mandate into its latest tax bill is a test balloon, floated in light of a new balance of wants and accommodations. There’s a good chance that it could actually pass delivering a win to the GOP and Trump at last.

But that balance is fragile. It could fall apart as any of the thousands of moving pieces in or surrounding the tax bill shift slightly. If the Senate does just drop this provision again, after reviving mass attention on the Republican healthcare agenda, that could read as another, if minor, failure for them. Floating this provision is a gamble. And, as Hoagland told me, “it’s terribly risky.”

Follow Mark Hay Twitter.

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A Reminder That America Is Incredibly Corrupt and Only Getting Worse

After 11 strange weeks, a mistrial was declared in the corruption case against New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez on Thursday. The saga has been closely watched for its potential impact on the balance of the power in the US Senate—and the ability of prosecutors to convict politicians for any form of bribery less blatant than a briefcase of cash left on an office desk.

Menendez pleaded not guilty to bribery, conspiracy and fraud after being accused of trading gifts and campaign donations offered by his friend, a Florida eye-doctor named Salomon Melgen, for political favors in a scheme stretching over seven years. (Menendez also allegedly attempted to conceal some gifts from his financial disclosure forms.) But according to the defense, the gifts were a natural expression of their decades-long friendship, and Menendez’s lobbying on Melgen’s behalf stemmed from his genuine concern as an elected official—his advocacy just happened to benefit his pal.

It speaks to the bipartisan chicanery consuming Washington in the Trump era that Menendez was represented by Abbe Lowell, who is also a member of White House Senior Advisor and Presidential Son-in-Law Jared Kushner’s legal team. And the mistrial suggested corrupt power-players have little to fear from the law in the age of Trump.

The Menendez case was specifically seen as a test of the stricter legal definition of bribery established by the the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling on McDonnell vs. United States. According to the McDonnell opinion, public officials aren't breaking the law if they pick up the phone, make an introduction, or organize an event on behalf of a donor who plies them with gifts— they simply can't take an “official action,” using the power of their position directly and explicitly to make something happen.

When former NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver saw his corruption charges overturned this July, the court cited the McDonnell ruling, and this September, the corruption conviction of former NY State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was vacated for the same reason. Federal prosecutors have moved to retry both cases, but the bar for proving corruption has, so far, proved insurmountable.

Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Illinois, suggested this new, narrower definition of bribery impacted the Menendez case, too.

“I think the McDonnell ruling and the subsequent reversals in New York have put a chill over prosecutors’ presentations and the jury instructions that are given,” he told me. “I don’t want to say the prosecution was arguing with one hand tied behind their backs, but it wasn’t as full-throated an argument as would be made pre-McDonnell.”

“It’s going to take one stupid politician to get himself or herself convicted from here,” Cramer added.

Jeff Hauser, executive director of the good-government Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said the outcome of the Menendez case is best understood in the broader context of corruption in the Garden State and in White House. Hauser attributed Governor Chris Christie's low approval rating—recently pegged at 14 percent—to the Bridgegate lane closure scandal, which he described as “a crime that he very evidently committed in plain sight and was never charged for.”

Hauser continued, “You have a president who’s leading the most corrupt administration in American history, and you have the representatives of the federal government, which is controlled by Republicans, going after a Latino Democrat.” Christie was never indicted in the Bridgegate scandal and has repeatedly, loudly denied involvement, but two of his aides were convicted for their role in the scheme last year.

Hauser does not think Republicans are unfairly singling out Menendez, but did argue the jury’s unwillingness to convict reflects a trend of impunity for corruption. “In a context in which Christie never gets charged, and Trump never gets charged, I think people might have a hard time seeing this messiness as the sort of thing you go to jail for,” he told me.

Over almost nine weeks, jurors learned that Menendez liked to drink orange juice, cranberry juice, and Evian on the private plane trips; they learned about the luxury amenities at Casa de Campo, the exclusive Dominican resort where Melgen hosted the senator. (Melgen’s wife, Flor, maintained that Menendez did not take advantage of most of these amenities.) They learned that, in two instances, the timing of Melgen’s campaign donations corresponded with Menendez’s favors—in 2012, $60,000 in political donations came through the same day Menendez sent an email about a port security issue that would impact Melgen’s business interests, and later that year, Melgen made a $300,000 donation a week before Menendez met with then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to argue his friend’s side in the Lucentis billing dispute.

Menendez and Melgen—who has since been convicted of Medicare fraud—did not dispute that most of these actions took place. But the evidence was circumstantial, and with a higher standard for bribery, jurors didn’t find the facts convincing enough for a conviction. "I just wish there was stronger evidence right out of the gate," said Edward Norris, a juror. "It was a victimless crime, I think, and it was an email trial. I just didn't see a smoking gun.”

Norris claimed that the jury was split ten to two, with ten jurors supporting acquittal—not exactly encouraging for the prospect of a re-trial.

“I think the real issue was proving corrupt intent beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who is currently a law professor at George Washington University. “That’s not strictly a McDonnell issue… This is more a general bribery issue. it’s always a challenge in a bribery case to prove the quid pro quo, to prove that what happened was because of the corrupt deal.”

The mistrial was an inglorious end to a trial with its share of frustrations and blunders. In a separate mistrial hearing on October 26, Menendez lawyer Abbe Lowell complained that Judge William Walls interrupted him too often, saying, “I feel sometimes I can’t even finish a sentence before you interrupt and say, ‘but go on. But I can’t go on, because you’ve interrupted the flow.” And on November 9, juror Evelyn Arroyo-Maultsby was dismissed to take a long-planned vacation and immediately told the press what had happened behind the closed doors of the deliberation room, correctly predicted a mistrial, and accused the feds of “trying to throw a good man under the bus.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Menendez issued this extremely New Jersey warning to his opponents: “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won't forget you.”

The outcome eliminated one nightmare scenario for Democrats: If Menendez had been convicted and compelled to leave office before January, Republican Governor Chris Christie would have appointed his replacement—giving him a better note to end on than squabbling with voters in his posh Northern New Jersey town. Christie would have appointed a Republican, shifting the Senate balance in the GOP’s favor. But if the feds decide to retry Menendez, which they probably will, the second trial may overlap with the Senator’s 2018 reelection bid.

In keeping with their state’s long and colorful tradition of tolerance for imperfect leaders, New Jersey Democrats show no sign of breaking ranks to find a candidate less compromised by corruption scandals—a heavy lift in in the Garden State, but theoretically possible nonetheless.

"Should he decide to seek reelection, he will have my full support," governor-elect Phil Murphy, a Democrat who long worked at Goldman Sachs, said in a statement.

Follow Erin Schwartz on Twitter.

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