Article of the Day: 1/8/2020

This is an opinion piece appearing in Christanity Today.

We Worship with the Magi, Not MAGA

Epiphany reminds us that faith is not a prop for political power.

Tish Harrison WarrenJanuary 7, 2021

Yesterday, January 6, was the Feast of Epiphany, when Christians celebrate how the light of Christ spreads to all nations. The season of Epiphany—also called Theophany in the East—focuses on Jesus’ revelation of his true identity to all the world. In the West, it centers on the stories of the Magi (who represent the nations or the Gentiles) finding Jesus through their mysterious stargazing. In the weeks ahead, the Epiphany season recalls the baptism of Christ and the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle.

But what a strange Epiphany we had in the United States. Instead of Magi worshiping a newborn king, MAGA hats descended on our nation’s capital. Instead of the baptism of Christ announcing his true identity, men and women held signs proclaiming “JESUS SAVES” as they demanded to overturn an election. Instead of a miraculous display of love at a wedding feast, we saw a display of political violence.

Epiphany calls us to light and truth. It reminds us that the promise of Isaiah is fulfilled in Christ: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:3). Light is beautiful, and it is also revelatory. The word epiphanycomes from the word reveal and gestures toward a realization of the truth. To have an epiphany is to grasp reality, to receive insight. In these gospel stories, followers of Jesus begin to slowly understand who he is. They glimpse the truth: The light of the world has come to all people and all ethnic groups.

The season of Epiphany reminds us that we do not just receive the light of Christ. We are charged with sharing it with all the world. But if the nations were watching yesterday—as people destabilized democracy while carrying flags that read “Make America Godly Again”—would any onlooker want anything to do with this Christ?

The violence wrought by Trump supporters storming the Capitol yesterday is anti-epiphany. It is dark and based in untruth. The symbols of faith—Jesus’ name, cross, and message—have been co-opted to serve the cultish end of Trumpism.

In the story of the Magi, King Herod tries to use the wise men as pawns in his own quest to protect his power. He promises that he too is devout, that they can trust him, and then he asks his astronomer visitors where to find Jesus, so that he also “could worship him” (Matt. 2:8). Epiphany therefore reminds us that the very language of worship can be wielded as a weapon of earthly political power.

While what happened at the Capitol yesterday is tragic, it is not surprising. For more than four years, Trump has shown that he is more than willing to say any lie, ignore any standard of decency, and bring any amount of violence and division to shore up his own power. Through manipulative disinformation, he incited an insurrection and has yet to condemn it unequivocally. Like Herod, he is happy to use religious leaders as pawns.

But sadly, in this anti-epiphany, the wise men are not so wise. They willingly comply. So for me, the worst part of yesterday’s insurrection is how it represents an utter failure in the American church. This anti-epiphany reveals the horrid outgrowths of Christian nationalism, faulty spiritual formation, false teaching, political idolatry, and overriding ignorance.

Though it saddens me deeply, it must be clearly admitted: Yesterday’s atrocity was in large part brought to us by the white, evangelical church in America.

An emaciated and malformed evangelical political theology got us where we are now. Jeffrey Goldberg describes the insurrection at the capitol as “chaos … rooted in psychological and theological phenomena, intensified by eschatological anxiety.” He tells how one protestor told him, “It’s all in the Bible … Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible.” Goldberg continues, “The conflation of Trump and Jesus was a common theme at the rally. ‘Give it up if you believe in Jesus!’ a man yelled near me. People cheered. ‘Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!’”

The light of Christ coming to the nations is good news, but it isn’t always comforting. Light reveals what is hidden. It exposes darkness. And the church must reckon with the “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11, ESV) that this anti-epiphany—and all that has led to it—makes visible. The storming of the Capitol cannot be understood outside the heresy of Christian nationalism peddled by the likes of Josh Hawley, Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress; the unhinged apocalyptic Trump-worship of Eric Metaxas; the blasphemies of the Jericho March; and the millions of evangelicals who see Jesus as a means to ill-conceived ideas of American greatness.

I have at times tried to dismiss these leaders and events as fringe, as the crazy cranks and bizarre displays we ought to ignore. I have instead focused on how, day in and day out, pastors and Christian laypeople are seeking to faithfully follow Jesus, to love their neighbor, and to serve the poor, to embody the truth we proclaim this season. But I cannot overlook the reality that millions of evangelicals are swayed by those who proclaim untruth and ugliness in the name of Jesus.

The responsibility of yesterday’s violence must be in part laid at the feet of those evangelical leaders who ushered in and applauded Trump’s presidency. It can also sadly be laid at the feet of the white American church more broadly.

The conflation of the Christian faith and Trumpism did not suddenly spring up in a vacuum four years ago. It arose through decades of poor catechesis and spiritual formation. Through false teaching that the American flag and the cross of Christ do not conflict. Through evangelical leaders who counted losing their souls a small price to pay for grasping political power. Through white supremacist assumptions that snaked their way into church pulpits and pews. And through the belief that the church exists not to show forth the light of Christ to all people but to Make America Great Again.

By contrast, Epiphany tells us of Jesus’ kingship over all the nations, and yesterday’s events show us what happens when we invert that message: Christian faith is used as a tool to prop up political power.

So what are we to do? How can we move forward as Christians when it seems our very churches have become the epicenters of post-truth? How can we walk in the way of Jesus when his illumination has been traded for conspiracy theories and apocalyptic scare tactics? How do we embody beautiful orthodoxy—truth and light—under the long shadow cast by a cross draped in a MAGA flag on the Capitol lawn?

We have to take up the slow work of repair, of re-forming our churches around the deep, unchanging truths of the light of Christ. We must reconstruct communities where we can know and speak truth, serve the needy and the poor, love our neighbors, learn to be poor in spirit, rejoice in suffering, and witness to the light of Christ amid darkness.

This work will be frustratingly small and local, under the radar, and away from the headlines. It will feel paltry and unimportant in the face of the raging nations and widespread ecclesial and national decay. It will be long, risky, and uncertain. But in that meek and humble place, perhaps, with the Magi, we can again find the small star that leads us to the true Light of the World.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night (IVP, 2021).

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.

Article of the Day: Do you want to live under an authoritarian regime?

An Insurgency From Inside the Oval Office

President Trump’s effort to overturn the election he lost has gone beyond mere venting of grievances at the risk of damaging the very American democracy he is charged with defending.

Published Jan. 4, 2021Updated Jan. 5, 2021, 6:48 a.m. ET

“So what are we going to do here, folks?” President Trump said on a call with Georgia’s secretary of state. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.”
“So what are we going to do here, folks?” President Trump said on a call with Georgia’s secretary of state. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.”Pete Marovich for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s relentless effort to overturn the result of the election that he lost has become the most serious stress test of American democracy in generations, one led not by outside revolutionaries intent on bringing down the system but by the very leader charged with defending it.

In the 220 years since a defeated John Adams turned over the White House to his rival, firmly establishing the peaceful transfer of authority as a bedrock principle, no sitting president who lost an election has tried to hang onto power by rejecting the Electoral College and subverting the will of the voters — until now. It is a scenario at once utterly unthinkable and yet feared since the beginning of Mr. Trump’s tenure.

The president has gone well beyond simply venting his grievances or creating a face-saving narrative to explain away a loss, as advisers privately suggested he was doing in the days after the Nov. 3 vote. Instead, he has stretched or crossed the boundaries of tradition, propriety and perhaps the law to find any way he can to cling to office beyond his term that expires in two weeks. That he is almost certain to fail and that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be inaugurated on Jan. 20 does not mitigate the damage he is doing to democracy by undermining public faith in the electoral system.

Mr. Trump’s hourlong telephone call over the weekend with Georgia’s chief election official, Brad Raffensperger, pressuring him to “find” enough votes to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in that state only brought into stark relief what the president has been doing for weeks. He has called the Republican governors of Georgia and Arizona to get them to intervene. He has summoned Michigan’s Republican Legislature leaders to the White House to pressure them to change their state’s results. He called the Republican speaker of the Pennsylvania Housemultiple times seeking help to reverse the outcome there.

Mr. Trump and his staff have floated the idea of delaying Mr. Biden’s inauguration, even though it is set in stone by the Constitution, and the president met with a former adviser who has publicly urged him to declare martial law to “rerun” the election in states he lost. Mr. Trump’s erratic behavior has so alarmed military commanders who fear he might try to use troops to stay in the White House that every living former defense secretary — including two he appointed himself — issued a warning against the armed forces becoming involved.

Undaunted, the president has encouraged Vice President Mike Pence and congressional allies to do anything they can to block the final formal declaration of Mr. Biden’s victory when Congress meets on Wednesday, seeking to turn what has historically been a ceremonial moment into a last-ditch showdown over the election. The idea has disturbed even many senior Republicans and it is guaranteed to fall short, much to the president’s frustration.

“The ‘Surrender Caucus’ within the Republican Party will go down in infamy as weak and ineffective ‘guardians’ of our Nation, who were willing to accept the certification of fraudulent presidential numbers!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday, quickly drawing a fact-checking warning label from the social media firm.

He denied subverting democracy, posting a quote he attributed to Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of his Republican allies: “We are not acting to thwart the Democratic process, we are acting to protect it.”

But Mr. Trump’s efforts ring familiar to many who have studied authoritarian regimes in countries around the world, like those run by President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary.

“Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, and his pressure tactics to that end with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, are an example of how authoritarianism works in the 21st century,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present.” “Today’s leaders come in through elections and then manipulate elections to stay in office — until they get enough power to force the hand of legislative bodies to keep them there indefinitely, as Putin and Orban have done.”

Supporters of Mr. Trump line the streets as his presidential motorcade passed by last week in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Supporters of Mr. Trump line the streets as his presidential motorcade passed by last week in West Palm Beach, Fla.Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

The call with Mr. Raffensperger, which was recorded and released to the news media after Mr. Trump tweeted a false version of the conversation, provided a breathtaking case study of how far the president is willing to go to preserve power. He ran through one unfounded conspiracy theory after another and pushed Mr. Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” to flip the election outcome, appealing to him as a Republican to show loyalty and implicitly threatening criminal charges if he refused.

The Interpreter: Original insights, commentary and discussions on the major news stories of the week.

“So what are we going to do here, folks?” Mr. Trump said at one point. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.”

The call was unseemly enough that even some of the president’s allies distanced themselves. “One of the things, I think, that everyone has said is that this call was not a helpful call,” Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, one of the Republicans pushing to reject Biden electors from swing states, conceded on Fox News.

Mr. Trump’s claim that the election was somehow stolen from him has gained no traction in any of the dozens of courts that he and his allies have petitioned, including the Supreme Court, with three justices he appointed. Republican election officials in swing states like Mr. Raffensperger have rejected his assertions as false. Even Mr. Trump’s own attorney general, William P. Barr, said he saw no widespread fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election.

A group of 22 historians released a statement on Monday pointing out that the 2020 election was not even particularly close in historical terms. Mr. Biden won as many or more Electoral College votes as the winning candidates in five elections since 1960 and larger popular vote majorities than in more than half of the presidential elections held in the past six decades.

“Yet in none of these elections did any losing candidate attempt to claim victory by brazenly sabotaging the electoral process as Donald Trump has done and continues to do,” said the letter, organized by Douglas Brinkley of Rice University and Sean Wilentz of Princeton University. Among the signatories was Michael W. McConnell of Stanford University, a former appeals court judge who was effectively repudiating the effort led by one of his former clerks, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri.

Mr. Trump’s fidelity to the concept of American democracy has long been debated. From the earliest days of his campaign for the White House, critics suggested that he harbored autocratic tendencies that raised questions about whether he would eventually subvert democracy or seek to stay in power even if he lost, questions that grew loud enough that he felt compelled to respond. “There is nobody less of a fascist than Donald Trump,” he insisted in 2016.

But Mr. Trump did little to disabuse those fears in subsequent years. He expressed admiration for strongmen like Mr. Putin, Mr. Orban, President Xi Jinping of China and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, evincing envy of their ability to act decisively without the checks of a democratic government. He asserted at various points that the Constitution “allows me to do whatever I want” with the special counsel investigating him and that his “authority is total”to order states to follow his wishes.

He sought to turn government agencies into instruments of political power, pressuring the Justice Department to prosecute his enemies and go easy on his friends. He made expansive use of executive orders that courts at times ruled went too far. He was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House in 2019 for abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to help him sully Mr. Biden’s reputation although he was later acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.

When Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published their best-selling book, “How Democracies Die,” in 2018, warning that even the United States could slide into autocracy, they faced blowback from some who thought they were overstating the case. “We were criticized by some as alarmist,” Mr. Ziblatt, a government professor at Harvard University, said on Monday. “It turns out we weren’t alarmist enough.”

Mr. Ziblatt said a healthy democracy requires at least two political parties that know how to compete and lose. “I hope and think we will get through the next few weeks,” he said, “but our democracy can’t survive in any recognizable way for long if we don’t have two parties committed to the rules and norms of democracy.”

In the end, this period of conflict and confrontation should not have come as a surprise to anyone who watched Mr. Trump over the past four years. He foreshadowed his plans to challenge the election as invalid unless he won, suggesting as far back as summer that the November vote be postponed and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Even now, just two weeks before the end of his term, Mr. Trump has left doubt about how he will leave the White House when Mr. Biden is inaugurated.

What else Mr. Trump could try to do to stop it remains unclear because he seems out of options. But he is not yet willing to acknowledge the reality of his situation, much less follow John Adams’s example.

Article of the Day: 1/4/21 Even Dick Chaney stands up for your vote to count

All 10 living former defense secretaries declare election is over in forceful public letter

(CNN) — All 10 living former US defense secretaries declared that the US presidential election is over in a forceful public letter published in The Washington Post on Sunday as President Donald Trump continues to deny his election loss to Joe Biden.

The letter — signed by Dick Cheney, James Mattis, Mark Esper, Leon Panetta, Donald Rumsfeld, William Cohen, Chuck Hagel, Robert Gates, William Perry and Ashton Carter — amounts to a remarkable show of force against Trump’s subversion efforts just days before Congress is set to count Electoral College votes.

“Our elections have occurred. Recounts and audits have been conducted. Appropriate challenges have been addressed by the courts. Governors have certified the results. And the electoral college has voted. The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived,” the group wrote. Since Election Day, Trump has falsely claimed that a second term is being stolen, even as there have been no credible allegations of widespread voting issues as affirmed by dozens of judges, governors, and election officials, the Electoral College, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the US Supreme Court.

Still, a wide swath of congressional Republicans are siding with the President and plan to object to Biden’s win during Electoral College counting on Wednesday — even though their efforts will only delay the inevitable affirmation of Biden’s win. 

The former Defense secretaries, who collectively represent decades of tenure in the position, wrote that presidential transitions “are a crucial part of the successful transfer of power.”

“They often occur at times of international uncertainty about U.S. national security policy and posture. They can be a moment when the nation is vulnerable to actions by adversaries seeking to take advantage of the situation.”The letter follows Trump’s removal of Esper in November as part of a set of sweeping changes atop the Defense Department’s civilian leadership structure that included the installation of perceived loyalists to the President.

The shakeup put officials inside the Pentagon on edge and fueled a growing sense of alarm among military and civilian officials.And while America’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, told Congress in August that the military won’t help settle any election disputes, the group of former Defense secretaries reiterated in their letter that such an effort “would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”

“Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic,” the letter states.

Cohen, a Republican who served as Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton, told CNN’s Ana Cabrera on “Newsroom” shortly after the letter was published that the “highly unusual” step was warranted given the “unconstitutional path” Trump has taken the country. 

“It was really our attempt to call out to the American people. We believe all of them are patriotic. They’ve been led down a path by President Trump, which is an unconstitutional path. And so we felt it was incumbent on us as having served in the Defense Department to say: Please all of you in the Defense Department, you’ve taken an oath to serve this country, this Constitution, not any given individual,” he said. Perry, a Democrat who also served as secretary of defense under Clinton, said in a tweet Sunday evening that the idea for the statement came from Cheney, a Republican who was secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush before becoming vice president to President George W. Bush.

“Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution; that oath does not change according to party designation,” Perry said. 

The former Defense secretaries ended their letter urging the Defense Department to “refrain from any political actions” that could undermine the election results or harm the transition to a new administration. 

“We call upon them, in the strongest terms, to do as so many generations of Americans have done before them,” the letter states. 

“This final action is in keeping with the highest traditions and professionalism of the U.S. armed forces, and the history of democratic transition in our great country.”

This story has been updated with additional details Sunday.

Article of the Day: 1/3/21–Democracy under attack by a would-be dictator

Trump Pressured Georgia Official to ‘Find’ Enough Votes to Overturn Election

The president vaguely warned of a “criminal offense” as he pressured Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a call, according to audio excerpts.

President Trump has spent almost nine weeks making false conspiracy claims about his election loss.
President Trump has spent almost nine weeks making false conspiracy claims about his election loss.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times
Michael D. Shear

By Michael D. Shear

  • Jan. 3, 2021, 2:28 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — President Trump demanded that Georgia’s Republican secretary of state “find” him enough votes to overturn the presidential election, and vaguely threatened him with “a criminal offense,” during an hourlong telephone conversation with him on Saturday, according to audio excerpts from the conversation.

Mr. Trump, who has spent almost nine weeks making false conspiracy claims about his loss to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., told Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top elections official, that Mr. Raffensperger should recalculate the vote count so Mr. Trump would win the state’s 16 electoral votes.

“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” Mr. Trump said on the call, a recording of which was obtained by The Washington Post, which published excerpts from the audio on its website Sunday. “Because we won the state.”

Mr. Raffensperger rejected the president’s efforts to get him to reverse the election results, which are set to be certified by Congress during a session on Wednesday. Some of Mr. Trump’s allies in the House and the Senate have said they will object to the results of the elections in several states, including Georgia.

But Mr. Raffensperger told Mr. Trump that he stood by the results.

“Well, Mr. President, the challenge is that you have is the data you have is wrong,” he said, according to the audio recording.

During the call, the president offered several false conspiracy theories, including debunked charges that ballots in Fulton County were shredded and that voting machines operated by Dominion Voting Systems were tampered with and replaced. Ryan Germany, the legal counsel in Mr. Raffensperger’s office, can be heard telling the president that such charges are untrue.

“You should want to have an accurate election. And you’re a Republican,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Raffensperger, who replied that “we believe we that we do have an accurate election.”

Mr. Trump responded: “No, no, no, you don’t, you don’t have, you don’t have, not even close. You guys, you’re off by hundreds of thousands of votes.”

Then the president suggested that Mr. Raffensperger could be prosecuted criminally.

“You know what they did and you’re not reporting it,” the president said. “You know, that’s a criminal — that’s a criminal offense. And you know, you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer. That’s a big risk.”

The president confirmed the call in a tweet Sunday morning, claiming that Mr. Raffensperger “was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the ‘ballots under table’ scam, ballot destruction, out of state ‘voters’, dead voters, and more. He has no clue!”

In a response on Twitter, Mr. Raffensperger wrote: “Respectfully, President Trump: What you’re saying is not true. The truth will come out.”

Michael D. Shear is a White House correspondent. He previously worked at The Washington Post and was a member of their Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. @shearm

Brilliant Analysis of the Day: 12/31/20

Heather Cox RichardsonDec 31

And so, we are at the end of a year that has brought a presidential impeachment trial, a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 338,000 of us, a huge social movement for racial justice, a presidential election, and a president who has refused to accept the results of that election and is now trying to split his own political party.

It’s been quite a year.

But I had a chance to talk with history podcaster Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers yesterday, and he asked a more interesting question. He pointed out that we are now twenty years into this century, and asked what I thought were the key changes of those twenty years. I chewed on this question for awhile and also asked readers what they thought. Pulling everything together, here is where I’ve come out.

In America, the twenty years since 2000 have seen the end game of the Reagan Revolution, begun in 1980. 

In that era, political leaders on the right turned against the principles that had guided the country since the 1930s, when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided the nation out of the Great Depression by using the government to stabilize the economy. During the Depression and World War Two, Americans of all parties had come to believe the government had a role to play in regulating the economy, providing a basic social safety net and promoting infrastructure. 

But reactionary businessmen hated regulations and the taxes that leveled the playing field between employers and workers. They called for a return to the pro-business government of the 1920s, but got no traction until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the Supreme Court, under the former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, unanimously declared racial segregation unconstitutional. That decision, and others that promoted civil rights, enabled opponents of the New Deal government to attract supporters by insisting that the country’s postwar government was simply redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to people of color. 

That argument echoed the political language of the Reconstruction years, when white southerners insisted that federal efforts to enable formerly enslaved men to participate in the economy on terms equal to white men were simply a redistribution of wealth, because the agents and policies required to achieve equality would cost tax dollars and, after the Civil War, most people with property were white. This, they insisted, was “socialism.” 

To oppose the socialism they insisted was taking over the East, opponents of black rights looked to the American West. They called themselves Movement Conservatives, and they celebrated the cowboy who, in their inaccurate vision, was a hardworking white man who wanted nothing of the government but to be left alone to work out his own future. In this myth, the cowboys lived in a male-dominated world, where women were either wives and mothers or sexual playthings, and people of color were savage or subordinate. 

With his cowboy hat and western ranch, Reagan deliberately tapped into this mythology, as well as the racism and sexism in it, when he promised to slash taxes and regulations to free individuals from a grasping government. He promised that cutting taxes and regulations would expand the economy. As wealthy people—the “supply side” of the economy– regained control of their capital, they would invest in their businesses and provide more jobs. Everyone would make more money. 

From the start, though, his economic system didn’t work. Money moved upward, dramatically, and voters began to think the cutting was going too far. To keep control of the government, Movement Conservatives at the end of the twentieth century ramped up their celebration of the individualist white American man, insisting that America was sliding into socialism even as they cut more and more domestic programs, insisting that the people of color and women who wanted the government to address inequities in the country simply wanted “free stuff.” They courted social conservatives and evangelicals, promising to stop the “secularization” they saw as a partner to communism.

After the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, talk radio spread the message that Black and Brown Americans and “feminazis” were trying to usher in socialism. In 1996, that narrative got a television channel that personified the idea of the strong man with subordinate women. The Fox News Channel told a story that reinforced the Movement Conservative narrative daily until it took over the Republican Party entirely.

The idea that people of color and women were trying to undermine society was enough of a rationale to justify keeping them from the vote, especially after Democrats passed the Motor Voter law in 1993, making it easier for poor people to register to vote. In 1997, Florida began the process of purging voter rolls of Black voters. 

And so, 2000 came.

In that year, the presidential election came down to the electoral votes in Florida. Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 540,000 votes over Republican candidate George W. Bush, but Florida would decide the election. During the required recount, Republican political operatives led by Roger Stone descended on the election canvassers in Miami-Dade County to stop the process. It worked, and the Supreme Court upheld the end of the recount. Bush won Florida by 537 votes and, thanks to its electoral votes, became president. Voter suppression was a success, and Republicans would use it, and after 2010, gerrymandering, to keep control of the government even as they lost popular support.

Bush had promised to unite the country, but his installation in the White House gave new power to the ideology of the Movement Conservative leaders of the Reagan Revolution. He inherited a budget surplus from his predecessor Democrat Bill Clinton, but immediately set out to get rid of it by cutting taxes. A balanced budget meant money for regulation and social programs, so it had to go. From his term onward, Republicans would continue to cut taxes even as budgets operated in the red, the debt climbed, and money moved upward.

The themes of Republican dominance and tax cuts were the backdrop of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. That attack gave the country’s leaders a sense of mission after the end of the Cold War and, after launching a war in Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda, they set out to export democracy to Iraq. This had been a goal for Republican leaders since the Clinton administration, in the belief that the United States needed to spread capitalism and democracy in its role as a world leader. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq strengthened the president and the federal government, creating the powerful Department of Homeland Security, for example, and leading Bush to assert the power of the presidency to interpret laws through signing statements. 

The association of the Republican Party with patriotism enabled Republicans in this era to call for increased spending for the military and continued tax cuts, while attacking Democratic calls for domestic programs as wasteful. Increasingly, Republican media personalities derided those who called for such programs as dangerous, or anti-American. 

But while Republicans increasingly looked inward to their party as the only real Americans and asserted power internationally, changes in technology were making the world larger. The Internet put the world at our fingertips and enabled researchers to decode the human genome, revolutionizing medical science. Smartphones both made communication easy. Online gaming created communities and empathy. And as many Americans were increasingly embracing rap music and tattoos and LGBTQ rights, as well as recognizing increasing inequality, books were pointing to the dangers of the power concentrating at the top of societies. In 1997, J.K. Rowling began her exploration of the rise of authoritarianism in her wildly popular Harry Potter books, but her series was only the most famous of a number of books in which young people conquered a dystopia created by adults.

In Bush’s second term, his ideology created a perfect storm. His administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people and caused $125 billion in damage in and around New Orleans in 2005, revealed how badly the new economy had treated Black and Brown people, and how badly the destruction of domestic programs had affected our ability to respond to disasters. Computers permitted the overuse of credit default swaps that precipitated the 2008 crash, which then precipitated the housing crisis, as people who had bet on the individualist American dream lost their homes. Meanwhile, the ongoing wars, plagued with financial and moral scandals, made it clear that the Republicans optimistic vision of spreading democracy through military conflict was unrealistic. 

In 2008, voters put Black American Barack Obama, a Democrat, into the White House. To Republicans, primed by now to believe that Democrats and Black people were socialists, this was an undermining of the nation itself, and they set out to hamper him. While many Americans saw Obama as the symbol of a new, fairer government with America embracing a multilateral world, reactionaries built a backlash based in racism and sexism. They vocally opposed a federal government they insisted was pushing socialism on hardworking white men, and insisted that America must show its strength by exerting its power unilaterally in the world. Increasingly, the Internet and cell phones enabled people to have their news cater to their worldview, moving Republicans into a world characterized by what a Republican spokesperson would later call “alternative facts.” 

And so, in 2016, we faced a clash between a relentlessly changing nation and the individualist ideology of the Movement Conservatives who had taken over the Republican Party. By then, that ideology had become openly radical extremism in the hands of Donald Trump, who referred to immigrants as criminals, boasted of sexually assaulting women, and promised to destroy the New Deal government once and for all. 

In the 2016 election, the themes of the past 36 years came together. Embracing Movement Conservative individualist ideology taken to an extreme, Trump was eager enough to make sure a Democrat didn’t win that, according to American intelligence services, he was willing to accept the help of Russian operatives. They, in turn, influenced the election through the manipulation of new social media, amplified by what had become by then a Republican echo chamber in which Democrats were dangerous socialists and the Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a criminal. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision which permitted corporate money to flow into election campaigns, Trump also had the help of a wave of money from big business; financial institutions spent $2 billion to influence the election. He also had the support of evangelicals, who believed he would finally give them the anti-abortion laws they wanted. 

Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes but, as George W. Bush before him, won in the Electoral College. Once in office, this president set out to destroy the New Deal state, as Movement Conservatives had called for, returning the country to the control of a small group of elite businessmen who, theoretically, would know how to move the country forward best by leveraging private sector networks and innovation. He also set out to put minorities and women back into subordinate positions, recreating a leadership structure that was almost entirely white and male. 

As Trump tried to destroy an activist government once and for all, Americans woke up to how close we have come to turning our democracy over to a small group of oligarchs. 

In the past four years, the Women’s March on Washington and the MeToo Movement has enabled women to articulate their demand for equality. The travel ban, child separation policy for Latin American refugees, and Trump’s attacks on Muslims, Latin American immigrants, and Chinese immigrants, has sparked a defense of America’s history of immigration. The Black Lives Matter Movement, begun in July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin, has gained power as Black Americans have been murdered at the hands of law enforcement officers and white vigilantes, and as Black Americans have borne witness to those murders with cellphone videos. 

The increasing voice of democracy clashed most dramatically with Trump’s ideology in summer 2020 when, with the support of his Attorney General William Barr, Trump used the law enforcement officers of the Executive Branch to attack peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C. and in Portland, Oregon. In June, on the heels of the assault on the protesters at Lafayette Square, military officers from all branches made it clear that they would not support any effort to use them against civilians. They reiterated that they would support the Constitution. The refusal of the military to support a further extension of Trump’s power was no small thing.

And now, here we are. Trump lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes and by an Electoral College split of 306 to 232. Although the result was not close, Trump refuses to acknowledge the loss and is doing all he can to hamper Biden’s assumption of office. Many members of the Republican Party are joining him in his attempt to overturn the election, taking the final, logical step of Movement Conservatism: denying the legitimacy of anyone who does not share their ideology. This is unprecedented. It is a profound attack on our democracy. But it will not succeed. 

And in this moment, we have, disastrously, discovered the final answer to whether or not it is a good idea to destroy the activist government that has protected us since 1933. In their zeal for reducing government, the Trump team undercut our ability to respond to a pandemic, and tried to deal with the deadly coronavirus through private enterprise or by ignoring it and calling for people to go back to work in service to the economy, willing to accept huge numbers of dead. They have carried individualism to an extreme, insisting that simple public health measures designed to save lives infringe on their liberty.

The result has been what is on track to be the greatest catastrophe in American history, with more than 338,000 of us dead and the disease continuing to spread like wildfire. It is for this that the Trump administration will be remembered, but it is more than that. It is a fitting end to the attempt to destroy our government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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Article of the Day: Monday, December 28, 2021–Feast of the Holy Innocents

FBI team leader: How I know the Blackwater defendants didn’t deserve a pardon from Trump

Thomas O’Connor served for 23 years as an FBI special agent before retiring in 2019. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) — The President of the United States has the power to grant a pardon to anyone he believes deserves one. This is an incredible power when used for good. There are cases where the US justice system gets it wrong and cases where the defendants had served their time and were now doing good things. However, none of those fact patterns are present in President Donald Trump’s pardon of four Blackwater security guards serving time for their involvement in the killing of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad on September 16, 2007. 

I know that these men were undeserving of pardons because I was a member of The FBI Evidence Response Team that traveled to Iraq and investigated the site of these killings. Thomas O'Connor

I am not a writer, an academic or one who has frequently spoken out publicly on political issues. I am a 35-year law enforcement professional. I retired on September 11, 2019, after 23 years as FBI special agent. I was a team leader on the FBI’s Washington Field Office, Evidence Response Team for more than 20 years. I have investigated many violent crimes and acts of terrorism around the world, including the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, war crimes in Kosovo in 1999, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attack at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. 

The most important rule for me during these deployments to major crime scenes: Don’t look at the crime and fit the forensic evidence to match a perceived narrative; instead, look at the forensic evidence that will show the story of the event. By letting the evidence lead the direction of the investigation, the FBI Evidence Response Teams and the FBI Laboratory have an important role of speaking for the victims who cannot tell their story. 

On September 16, 2007, Baghdad, Iraq, was a dangerous place. No one will dispute that fact. On that day, a bombing took place a few miles from a busy traffic circle called Al Nisour Square, which is used by Iraqis to access major roadways across Baghdad. 

A security detail from the private government contractor Blackwater was protecting a US official attending a meeting at a government building when the bomb was detonated. When bad things happen, it is the security team’s job to get the protectee “off the X” and away from danger. The security detail called the command center in the US Green Zone and advised that they were leaving with the US official. At a place called “Man Camp,” Blackwater Team Raven 23 sounded the alarm that they might be needed to assist the exfiltration of the protectee from the scene and back into the US Green Zone.The team leader of Raven 23 called the command center and requested permission to leave the protected US Green Zone and go to assist the incoming Blackwater team. This request was denied. 

The team leader then chose to violate the orders and left the US Green Zone anyway. The four Blackwater armored trucks were captured on video leaving the green zone. They drove out to Nisour Square, turned left and entered the traffic circle, blocking the northbound traffic, the southbound traffic and the traffic entering the circle from the west.Two Iraqi traffic officers stopped the traffic going toward the four armored vehicles. One of the first cars in that stopped traffic was a white KIA occupied by a woman and her son. The woman was a local doctor and the son, who was driving the car, was going to medical school to follow in his mother’s footsteps. 

What happened next began the Nisour Square shootings. 

A sniper on the Raven 23 team placed his rifle out a porthole of the Bearcat armored vehicle and fired at the driver of the white KIA. The man was struck and killed by the bullet. The car began to roll forward slowly, bumping into a red vehicle. The two Iraqi traffic officers physically tried to stop the movement of the car. The defendants said they feared the white KIA was a car bomb as it moved ahead. The car rolled forward after the sniper, a security guard, shot the driver and his foot came off the brake. This is why the sniper was charged with, andconvicted of, first-degree murder.At that point gunfire erupted from a small number of the Raven 23 Blackwater operators. The gunfire was directed into the white KIA, killing the women seated in the front passenger seat. These rounds were from a rifle and a large turret gun. A grenade was fired from the turret gunners’ rifle mounted launcher. The grenade skipped off the ground under the driver’s door exploding and causing the gas line to rupture and set the car ablaze. How do I know this? During the forensic evidence recovery later conducted by the FBI team, the bumper of the white KIA was removed and paint transfer was matched to the red vehicle, which was also processed. The blast fragment under the door showed a pattern, which was determined by FBI explosives experts to be from an M203 grenade. 

In examining the white KIA, I was able to count 38 bullet entry points, and that does not account for the numerous rounds that entered through the windshield that no longer existed. We recovered a black steel tip rifle round from the steering wheel of the white KIA. This type of ammunition is against the rules of engagement in a US sanctioned war zone and in violation of US Military and Blackwater regulations.

A few cars back in the traffic was a blue Suzuki Trooper and inside were two families. The driver was Mohammed and his 9-year-old son Ali sat in the rear seat behind his father. In the front passenger seat was Mohammed’s sister. Ali’s two young female cousins sat next to him in the back seat. 

Gunfire erupted and everyone in the car laid down in his or her seats as bullets hit the front of the trooper. At a break in the gunfire, likely during reloading, one of the little girls in the back seat yelled that “Ali has no hair.” When the shooting stopped and the Blackwater team began to move, Mohammed exited the driver door and opened a rear passenger door. Ali, who had been slumped against the door, fell into his father’s arms. Ali had been struck with a Blackwater round, which entered the rear driver side door and hit the boy in the head. As his father reached for his 9-year-old son, Ali’s brains fell out onto the street and onto his father’s feet. 

How do I know this? I spoke with Mohammed while I was procuring his car from him for forensic evaluation. When a grieving father tells you the story of his son being shot, you don’t forget. Mohammed asked me one thing, bring justice for his son, tell the story. I responded to him with “Inshallah” (God willing). While witnesses are not always 100% accurate, the bullet holes in the rear driver’s door which entered into the seat where Ali sat don’t lie. What was indisputable is the brain matter, which we had to clear to complete the trajectory analysis and recovery of fragmented rounds.A white VW Caddy used to transport ice was also stopped in that traffic. Two men sat in the driver’s area of the truck. When the shooting began numerous rounds entered the driver’s compartment. The man in the driver’s seat was struck by gunfire. He tried to crawl out the passenger’s door to safety. A grenade then struck the driver’s door, blowing a 10-inch by 10-inch hole in the outer metal of the door and sending fragmentation into the vehicle. A second explosion hit the roof over the driver’s compartment. The blast also sent fragmentation raining into the truck. These two victims were not terrorists; they were businessmen trying to sell ice in a place where electricity frequently went out. One man was killed, the other injured. How do I know the grenade was the cause of that explosion? I processed this vehicle and took hundreds of photographs of the damage and the bloodstains left in the driver’s compartment of the vehicle. FBI Explosives experts analyzed the damage and confirmed the M203 grenade fragmentation pattern.While this shooting was taking place on the roadways of the traffic circle, a boy was seated on a bench on the other side of a wall at a nearby children’s school next to a makeshift playground. A grenade fired from a Blackwater rifle came over the wall and landed next to the bench. The grenade exploded, injuring the boy. The fragmentation in the metal bench was documented photographically.I could go on with each of the 17 victims killed and 20 seriously injured in thisincident. Same story, sitting in traffic waiting to get somewhere, anywhere but Nisour Square. In each case the vehicles were processed methodically and forensic evidence was recovered.

The Blackwater Raven 23 defendants claimed that they responded to gunfire aimed at them while stopping traffic in Nisour Square that day. I believed this to be the case before we deployed to Iraq for this crime scene investigation. I had worked with Blackwater operators on previous deployments to Iraq and they were good people doing a difficult job in a dangerous environment. That said, I would let the evidence lead the investigation and assist the agents in finding the truth.

One of the first things we did once we were in Baghdad was to ask to see the Blackwater vehicles, which, we had been told, sustained firearms damage. This would be very important evidence of a reason for the shooting incident. I know that as a career law enforcement professional, if I had been involved in a shooting, I would do everything in my power to protect the evidence of bullet impacts coming toward me and show that I was defending myself. If you know the FBI Evidence Response Team is on their way to review the vehicles in the shooting, lock them up, protect the evidence. It is not rocket science.What happened next gave me more than pause. The four armored vehicles involved in the Nisour Square shooting were silver in color when they were observed on tape leaving the US Green zone against orders. The vehicles in front of us at the “Man Camp” were now desert sand color. The reported impact points — we were told they the impacts were from bullet rounds — on the side of the vehicle were no long there. In their place were traces of a sanding wheel, which had been used to sand off any potential marks. In the up gun turret of the Bearcat was a rifle cartridge. Only half of the cartridge was spray-painted desert sand brown. The vehicles were painted so quickly that they did not even clean up the debris. We had been told that the radiator of one of the Blackwater vehicles had been punctured from a bullet round coming in from the traffic at Nisour Square. During the review and documentation of the vehicle, we found that the damaged radiator had been repaired. We were also told that the front driver’s tire of the vehicle had been punctured, likely from a bullet. We then found the tire had been replaced and the damaged tire discarded. Luckily we located the discarded tire, which had been removed and placed in an adjacent room. We took both the radiator and the tire back to the FBI Laboratory for expert forensic review. One of the top explosives examiners in the FBI X-rayed the tire. Inside the tire he located a metal fragment. The fragment was not a bullet; it was a starlet (a piece of fragmentation made to cause damage) from an M203 grenade fired by the Blackwater security guards, which likely ricocheted off the white KIA and struck the tire. Now, when you paint a vehicle, you don’t paint the undercarriage, right? Of course you don’t. A review of the undercarriage near where the radiator was damaged showed a small impact point. A basic trajectory was taken from the impact point to the radiator damage. This showed it was possible for a bullet or fragment to travel from that impact point to the radiator. Photographs and measurements were taken of the impact point. It was later displayed in court proceedings and was clear evidence that the same class of item, which caused the damage to the bench at the children’s school, caused the damage to the undercarriage of the Bearcat. Another example of ricochet evidence from the M203 grenade fired at the white KIA.The FBI team made four trips to Iraq to investigate this shooting. The agency spared no expense to gather as much evidence from the scene and the vehicles as possible. Countless interviews were conducted and over a thousand photographs were taken of the scene. The evidence was collected professionally, and the best examiners in the world did the analysis.All of this evidence was introduced into several US court hearings. The prosecution team was fair, professional and extremely competent. The defendants in this case had some of the most knowledgeable and professional defense teams possible. The judge was one of the most fair and objective jurists on the bench. A jury heard the evidence and found four Blackwater guards guilty of murder, manslaughter and weapons charges. The system worked and justice was brought to the deceased, the injured victims and their families.

The families of those killed and wounded at Nisour Square will now watch those responsible for this tragedy go free thanks to a pardon by the President of the United States. This simply makes me sad and angry. I spoke to Mohammed this morning. He told me he could no longer tell his family and the people of Baghdad that the system worked and justice was found for Ali. Mohammed asked me one more question. Could this pardon be changed? I told him “no.” I could not say Inshallah. The purpose of my writing this piece is to introduce you to these victims.

There is no forensic evidence of anyone shooting at the Blackwater team. How do I know? The evidence told me that.

Article of the Day: 12/24/20

The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus Christ

First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly inclusive figure he was, and what was true then is still true today.

Dec. 24, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Paul Wehner, New York Times

Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well, by Annibale Carracci, 1594-95.
Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well, by Annibale Carracci, 1594-95.Bridgeman Images

“Get used to different.”

That line comes from a marvelous new TV series on Jesus’ life, “The Chosen,” in which Jesus, played by Jonathan Roumie, invites Matthew to become one of his disciples. Simon Peter, already a disciple, registers his fierce objection. Matthew is a tax collector, who were viewed as tools of Roman authorities, often dishonest and abusive. They were therefore treated as traitors and outcasts by other Jews.

“I don’t get it,” Simon Peter says to Jesus about his decision to invite Matthew, to which Jesus responds, “You didn’t get it when I chose you, either.”

“But this is different,” Simon Peter answers. “I’m not a tax collector.” At which point Jesus let’s Simon Peter know things aren’t going to be quite what his followers expected.

First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly radical and radically inclusive figure Jesus was, and neither are today’s Christians. We want to tame and domesticate who he was, but Jesus’ life and ministry don’t really allow for it. He shattered barrier after barrier.

One example is Jesus’ encounter, in the fourth chapter of the gospel of John, with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus and the woman talked about Jesus being the Messiah, why he was even deigning to talk with her, and the unnamed woman’s past and present, which she initially sought to hide from Jesus. (It included her five previous husbands, according to the account in John, and the fact that “the one whom you now have is not your husband.”) Yet not a word of condemnation passed the lips of Jesus; the woman felt heard, understood, cared for. Jesus treated her, in the words of one commentator, “with a magnetic dignity and respect.”

The encounter with Jesus transformed her life; after it the woman at the well became “the first woman preacher in Christian history,” proclaiming Jesus to be the savior of the world to her community, according to the New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey.

This story is a striking example of Jesus’ rejection of conventional religious and cultural thinking — in this case because Jesus, a man, was talking earnestly to a woman in a world in which women were often demeaned and treated as second-class citizens; and because Jesus, a Jew, was talking to a Samaritan, who were despised by the Jews for reasons going back centuries. According to Professor Bailey, “A Samaritan woman and her community are sought out and welcomed by Jesus. In the process, ancient racial, theological and historical barriers are breached. His message and his community are for all.”

This happened time and again with Jesus. He touched lepers and healed a woman who had a constant flow of menstrual blood, both of whom were considered impure; forgave a woman “who lived a sinful life” and told her to “go in peace,” healed a paralytic and a blind man, people thought to be worthless and useless. And as Jesus was being crucified, he told the penitent thief on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus was repeatedly attacked for hanging out with the wrong crowd and recruited his disciples from the lower rungs of society.

And Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, a story about a man who helps a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, made the hero of the story not an influential priest, not a person of social rank or privilege but a hated foreigner.

The Interpreter: Original insights, commentary and discussions on the major news stories of the week.

For Christians, the incarnation is a story of God, in the person of Jesus, participating in the human drama. And in that drama Jesus was most drawn to the forsaken and despised, the marginalized, those who had stumbled and fallen. He was beloved by them, even as he was targeted and eventually killed by the politically and religiously powerful, who viewed Jesus as a grave threat to their dominance.

Over the course of my faith journey, I have wondered: Why was a hallmark of Jesus’s ministry intimacy with and the inclusion of the unwanted and the outcast, men and women living in the shadow of society, more likely to be dismissed than noticed, more likely to be mocked than revered?

Part of the explanation surely has to do with the belief in the imago Dei, that Jesus sees indelible dignity and inestimable worth in every person, even “the least of these.” If no one else would esteem them, Jesus would.

Among the people who best articulated this ethic was Abraham Lincoln, who in a 1858 speech in Lewiston, Ill., in which he explained the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence, said, “Nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”

Yet another reason for Jesus’ connection with outcasts undoubtedly had to do with his compassion and empathy, his desire to relieve their pain and lift the soul-crushing shame that accompanies being a social pariah and an untouchable.

But that is hardly the only reason. Jesus modeled inclusion and solidarity with the “unclean” and marginalized not only for their sake but for the sake of the powerful and the privileged and for the good of the whole.

Jesus must have understood that we human beings battle with exclusion, self-righteousness and arrogance, and have a quick trigger finger when it comes to judging others. Jesus knew how easily we could fall into the trap of turning “the other” — those of other races, ethnicities, classes, genders and nations — into enemies. We place loyalty to the tribe over compassion and human connection. We view differences as threatening; the result is we become isolated, rigid in our thinking, harsh and unforgiving.

Jesus clearly believed that outcasts had a lot to teach the privileged and the powerful, including the virtues of humility and the vice of supreme certitude. Rather than seeing God exclusively as a moral taskmaster, Jesus understood that the weak and dispossessed often experience God in a different way — as a dispenser of grace, a source of comfort, a redeemer. They see the world, and God, through a different prism than do the powerful and the proud. The lowly in the world offer a corrective to the spiritual astigmatisms that develop among the rest of us.

It’s easy for us to look back 20 centuries and see how religious authorities were too severe and unforgiving in how they treated the outcasts of their time. The wisest question those of us who are Christians could ask ourselves isn’t why we are so much more humane and enlightened than they were; rather, it is to ask ourselves who the modern outcasts are and whether we’re mistreating them. Who are the tax collectors of our era, the people we despise but whom Jesus would welcome, those around whom are we determined to build a “dividing wall of hostility,” to use the imagery of the Apostle Paul?

“How Christians, including me, responded to the AIDS crisis in the ’80s haunts me,” my longtime friend Scott Dudley, senior pastor of Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Wash., recently told me. “Had we, like the first Christians, cared first and cared most for modern day ‘plague’ victims, I think we’d be in a whole different conversation with the L.G.B.T.Q. community. We may still have significant differences of opinion. However, I believe the dialogue would be one of more mutual respect, and I believe the L.G.B.T.Q. community would feel less afraid of the wounds Christians can inflict.” But even if the conversation were not different, as Scott knows, caring first and caring most for those victims of a plague would have been the right thing to do.

No society and no religious faith can live without moral rules. Jesus wasn’t an antinomian, one who believes that Christians, because they are saved by grace, are not bound to religious laws. But he understood that what ultimately changes people’s lives are relationships rather than rule books, mercy rather than moral demands.

Jesus’ teachings are so challenging, so distinct from normal human reactions and behaviors, that we constantly have to renew our commitment to them. Every generation of Christians need to think through how his example applies to the times in which they live. We need our sensibilities to align more with his. Otherwise, we drift into self-righteousness and legalism, even to the point that we corrupt the very institution, the church, which was created to worship him and to love others.

The lesson from Jesus’ life and ministry is that understanding people’s stories and struggles requires much more time and effort than condemning them, but it is vastly more rewarding. And the lesson of Christmas and the incarnation, at least for those of us of the Christian faith, is that all of us were once outcasts, broken yet loved, and worth reaching out to and redeeming.

If God did that for us, why do we find it so hard to do it for each other

Article of the Day: 12/23/20 How congress works…

Buried in Pandemic Aid Bill: Billions to Soothe the Richest

The voluminous coronavirus relief and spending bill that blasted through Congress on Monday includes provisions — good, bad and just plain strange — that few lawmakers got to read.

Published Dec. 22, 2020Updated Dec. 23, 2020, 8:28 a.m. ET

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, at the Capitol last week. He said leadership intentionally waited until the last minute to unveil final proposals to the spending bill.
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, at the Capitol last week. He said leadership intentionally waited until the last minute to unveil final proposals to the spending bill.Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Tucked away in the 5,593-page spending bill that Congress rushed through on Monday night is a provision that some tax experts call a $200 billion giveaway to the rich.

It involves the tens of thousands of businesses that received loans from the federal government this spring with the promise that the loans would be forgiven, tax free, if they agreed to keep employees on the payroll through the coronavirus pandemic.

But for some businesses and their high-paid accountants, that was not enough. They went to Congress with another request: Not only should the forgiven loans not be taxed as income, but the expenditures used with those loans should be tax deductible.

“High-income business owners have had tax benefits and unprecedented government grants showered down upon then. And the scale is massive,” said Adam Looney, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Treasury Department tax official in the Obama administration, who estimated that $120 billion of the $200 billion would flow to the top 1 percent of Americans.

The new provision allows for a classic double dip into the Payroll Protection Program, as businesses get free money from the government, then get to deduct that largess from their taxes.

And it is one of hundreds included in a huge spending package and a coronavirus stimulus bill that is supposed to help businesses and families struggling during the pandemic but, critics say, swerved far afield. President Trump on Tuesday night blasted it as a disgrace and demanded revisions.

“Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests, while sending the bare minimum to the American people who need it,” he said in a video posted on Twitter that stopped just short of a veto threat.

The measure includes serious policy changes beyond the much-needed $900 billion in coronavirus relief, like a simplification of federal financial aid formsmeasures to address climate change and a provision to stop “surprise billing”from hospitals when patients unwittingly receive care from physicians out of their insurance networks.

But there is also much grumbling over other provisions that lawmakers had not fully reviewed, and a process that left most of them and the public in the dark until after the bill was passed. The anger was bipartisan.

“Members of Congress have not read this bill. It’s over 5000 pages, arrived at 2pm today, and we are told to expect a vote on it in 2 hours,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, tweeted on Monday. “This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking.”

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, agreed — the two do not agree on much.

“It’s ABSURD to have a $2.5 trillion spending bill negotiated in secret and then—hours later—demand an up-or-down vote on a bill nobody has had time to read,” he tweeted on Monday.

The items jammed into the bill are varied and at times bewildering. The bill would make it a felony to offer illegal streaming services. One provision requires the C.I.A. to report back to Congress on the activities of Eastern European oligarchs tied to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The federal government would be required to set up a program aimed at eradicating the murder hornet and to crack down on online sales of e-cigarettes to minors.

It authorizes 93 acres of federal lands to be used for the construction of the Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota and creates an independent commission to oversee horse racing, a priority of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.

Dealbook: An examination of the major business and policy headlines and the power brokers who shape them.

Mr. McConnell inserted that item to get around the objections of a Democratic senator who wanted it amended, but he received agreement from other congressional leaders.

Alexander M. Waldrop, the chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said on Tuesday that Mr. McConnell had “said many times he feared for the future of horse racing and the impact on the industry, which of course is critical to Kentucky.”

That the racing legislation — versions of which the industry had debated for years — passed as part of the Covid-19 relief bill was of no particular mind, Mr. Waldrop said.

“It just developed this way over the last several weeks,” he said. “The only approach left to us was a federally sanctioned, independent, self-regulatory organization. It was our only viable option left, and this legislation accomplishes that.”

But the tax provisions — including extending a $2.5 billion break for racecar tracks and allowing a $6.3 billion write-off for business meals, derided as the “three-martini lunch” expense — have prompted the most hand-wringing.

The bill also lowers some taxes on alcoholic beverages.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said deducting expenditures from funds not considered taxable income violated “Tax 101.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said deducting expenditures from funds not considered taxable income violated “Tax 101.”Al Drago for The New York Times

No break is bigger, however, than the deductions that will soon be permitted under the Paycheck Protection Program. Businesses had been lobbying the Treasury Department and the I.R.S. since the spring to deduct spending from the program’s loans, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was firmly opposed, saying deducting expenditures from funds not considered taxable income violated “Tax 101.”

The Paycheck Protection Program was the most visible part of the federal government’s coronavirus relief efforts in the spring to keep small businesses afloat. So far, the government has distributed more than $500 billion in loans, which could be forgiven and turned into permanent grants as long as the businesses use most of the money to pay workers and keep people employed.

In passing the law in the spring, Congress explicitly said that the Paycheck Protection Program funds should not be included as taxable income — unlike, say, unemployment benefits.

Despite that largess, businesses wanted more. In May, the heads of the tax-writing committees — Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts — wrote Mr. Mnuchin urging him to reconsider his opposition.

“Small businesses need help maintaining their cash flow, not more strains on it,” they wrote.

But a Brookings Institution analysis said the change would help far more wealthy than mom-and-pop business owners.

“So there’s no cost on the way in and no cost on the way out — those two don’t add up,” said Richard L. Reinhold, the former chairman of the tax department at Willkie Farr & Gallagher and a professor at Cornell Law School. Congress could have simply expanded the program, but instead it did it almost by stealth, through a tax deduction.

“That’s the part that is troublesome,” he said.

Although there had been discussion of limiting the deduction to Paycheck Protection Program recipients below a certain income threshold, the final provision was made available to anyone, regardless of income.

The Small Business Administration this month released data showing that just 1 percent of the program’s 5.2 million borrowers had received more than a quarter of the $523 billion disbursed.

That 1 percent included high-priced law firms like Boies Schiller Flexner and the operator of New York’s biggest horse tracks, which received the maximum loan amount of $10 million.

“The year 2020 is going to be one of the most unequal years in modern history,” Mr. Looney said. “Part of the inequity is the effect of Covid, which hammered service sectors the most and allowed rich, educated people to work on Zoom. But the government totally compounded these inequities with their response.”

Yet in the end, only six senators, all Republicans, voted against the coronavirus relief package and spending bill, mostly citing fiscal concerns about runaway spending, while 85 House members — a mix of Democrats and Republicans — voted against its military provisions. The bill increased military spending by about $5 billion.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, opposed the military spending but voted for other aspects of the bill. He and his liberal colleagues had lobbied for direct payments for most Americans as part of a relief package, and he said he shared colleagues’ concerns about a lack of time to review the final piece of legislation.

“We need a better system to have members review online text as it is being drafted and have input,” Mr. Khanna said. “That said, leadership did keep us informed on almost daily calls about the essential aspects of the bills and the issues at stake.”

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and one of the leaders of the bipartisan group that pushed for a $900 billion stimulus, said leadership intentionally waited until the last minute to unveil final proposals.

“Leadership likes the process the way it is,” he said. “Wait until the deadline, and then there’s no input at all. They say, take this or not. I’m sick and tired of how this game has been played.”

That said, there was plenty for lawmakers to cheer for. They sent out news releases promoting preferred provisions like the ban on most surprise medical bills, the restoration of college financial aid for incarcerated people and the restrictions on the use of powerful planet-warming chemicals that are commonly used in air-conditioners and refrigerators. The bill also creates new museums honoring women and Latinos.

“What you see at the end of every Congress is a clearing of the decks,” said Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “It’s all the stuff we wanted to pass but couldn’t. Everybody would love for legislation to be passed individually, but that is really a function of a bygone era that is not coming back.”

“There’s a lot of good stuff,” he said, “but something definitely gets snuck in.”

Luke Broadwater covers Congress. He was the lead reporter on a series of investigative articles at the Baltimore Sun that won a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award in 2020. @lukebroadwater

Jesse Drucker is an investigative reporter for the Business desk. He previously worked for The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News where he won a pair of awards in 2011 for investigative and explanatory reporting from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for a series on how U.S. multinationals shift profits into tax havens.  @JesseDrucker

Rebecca Ruiz is an investigative reporter based in New York. She previously worked for the Washington Bureau, the sports section and the business section. @rebeccaruizA version of this article appears in print on Dec. 23, 2020, Section A, Page 7 of the New York edition with the headline: Among Items Buried In 5,593-Page Package: Billions for the Richest. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | SubscribeThe historic moments, head-spinning developments and inside-the-White House intrigue.

Article of the Day: December 21, 2020

How Trump drove the lie that the election was stolen, undermining voter trust in the outcome

Amy Gardner

Incoming GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other supporters of President Trump protest the election results outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 7.
Incoming GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other supporters of President Trump protest the election results outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 7. (Kevin D. Liles/for The Washington Post)

Elena Parent, a Democratic state lawmaker from the Atlanta area, listened incredulously in a small hearing room in early December as a stream of witnesses spun fantastical tales of alleged election fraud before the Georgia Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

A retired Army colonel claimed the state’s voting machines were controlled by Communists from Venezuela. A volunteer lawyer with President Trump’s campaign shared surveillance video that she said showed election workers in Atlanta counting “suitcases” of phony ballots that swung Georgia’s election to former vice president Joe Biden. The president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, told the panel: “Every single vote should be taken away from Biden.”

“Since this has been debunked repeatedly, what evidence can you give to us that counters what our elections officials presented us with only an hour ago?” Parent asked one of the witnesses, her voice rising in exasperation. When she tried to ask a follow-up question, the Republican committee chairman cut her off.

Her questions — and the fact that the claims were misleading, unsubstantiated or just plain false — did little to keep the rumors in check. It didn’t matter that state and local election officials had explained what was in the video and conducted a hand recount to show that the machines were not rigged. It didn’t matter that multiple news outlets detailed, over and over, that there was no evidence of widespread fraud. It didn’t matter that, amid a global pandemic and massive demand for mail ballots, a system under historic strain in fact held up decisively.

To preserve his hold on power, Trump has spent the weeks since Election Day promoting falsehoods about voting problems in Georgia and five other states, successfully persuading tens of millions of his supporters to believe a lie — that the election was stolen from him, and from them.

Election results under attack: Here are the facts

He has done so by harnessing the power of his position, using his pulpit at the White House and his Twitter feed to let loose a fusillade of conspiracy theories. His assault on the integrity of the election has gotten a hefty assist from pro-Trump media outfits and an assortment of state lawmakers and lawyers who gave oxygen to the debunked allegations — and a majority of congressional Republicans, who called on the Supreme Court to overturn the results in four states.Since Nov. 4, President Trump has repeatedly claimed his election loss as a result of massive fraud. The following is a roundup of his claims. (The Washington Post)

Trump is continuing to press his case, even now that the electoral college has formally elected Biden. In a meeting with allies on Friday, the president discussed deploying the military to rerun the election and appointing attorney Sidney Powell, whose conspiracy theories about election fraud have been widely discredited, as a special counsel to investigate the outcome.

Along the way, Trump has willfully damaged two bedrocks of American democracy that he has been going after for years: confidence in the media as a source of trusted information and faith in systems of government. It might be one of his lasting legacies.

A Fox News poll released on Dec. 11 shows that more than a third of registered voters believe the election was stolen from Trump — a number that rises to 77 percent among those who voted for Trump. Conversely, 56 percent of voters believe Trump weakened American democracy by contesting election results in various states, with the number rising to 85 percent among those who voted for Biden, according to the poll.

Trump’s campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, declined to answer specific questions about the damage the president has done or the untruths he embraced.

“President Trump owes it to the 75 million Americans who voted for him — and to those who voted for Joe Biden — to ensure that the election was free, fair and secure,” he said.

Even now that the electoral college has voted, and the GOP’s top leaders have publicly accepted Biden’s victory, both parties and the country overall must reckon with the mark Trump has left on American democracy. Biden will start his presidency with nearly half the country believing he is not the legitimate occupant of the White House. Many Americans who voted against Trump andhave watched with horror as he has tried to subvert the results are equally disillusioned about the strength of the system, which they fear could have toppled but for the courage of a cadre of election officialsstate Republicansand judges who held the line.

‘The last wall’: How dozens of judges across the political spectrum rejected Trump’s efforts to overturn the election

Few anticipate that the mistrust and divisions will fade with the 45th president’s departure from the White House. One reason: The most ardent purveyors of unfounded accusations say they have no plans to back down.

“The fact is that President Trump was reelected by what will be known soon to be a landslide victory unparalleled in this country,” said L. Lin Wood, a Georgia lawyer and Trump ally who has filed unsuccessful lawsuits on the president’s behalf.

Wood said he spoke to the president in a phone call earlier this month, encouraging him not to concede in what he described as “a battle between good and evil.”

Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, said that kind of rhetoric has emboldened some in the country to doubt the results merely because their preferred candidate lost.

“We’re entering a very dangerous phase where a sizable share of the population has no faith in the basic mechanics of the democracy,” Persily said. Millions of voters, he added, now see the fight over who should lead the country as a function of “the willingness to exert power as opposed to playing by fair rules of the game.”

A base willing to believe

Trump has demonstrated a unique capacity to rally supporters to his war cries, even when they are false or unproven. He gained notoriety nearly a decade ago as the leader of the so-called birther movement, asserting falsely that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

This year, Trump’s obsession with election fraud has tested his followers anew, and their willingness to go along with him has shown how powerful his hold is on the GOP.Thousands of President Trump’s supporters converged on Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14 to falsely claim he won the election. (The Washington Post)

The president’s false claims about voting ramped up in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when election officials were gearing up for a historic surge in mail balloting. He got help from a chorus of Republican allies, who echoed and amplified his untruths on the campaign trail, on conservative television and in state capitols in key battlegrounds.

In challenging election defeat, Trump cements his control over the Republican Party

In the days following the election, his rhetoric defied logic as he cited more and more outlandish accusations and echoed unverified Twitter accounts. “They are finding Biden votes all over the place — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 4, suggesting falsely that ballots still being counted a day after the election were fraudulent. “So bad for our Country!”

On Nov. 30, the president retweeted an account named @Catturd2 that claimed in Arizona, “Truck Loads of Ballots Kept Coming in For 10 Days After Elections Officials Thought They Were Done Counting.”

Many of his increasingly outrageous accusations — blasted out to his 89 million followers on Twitter — came straight from one of his new favorite news sources, One America News.

“Pennsylvania Poll Watcher: USB Drives uploaded to machines, gave Biden thousands of votes,” the president tweeted on Nov. 27.

Dec. 16: “Study: Dominion Machines shifted 2-3% of Trump Votes to Biden. Far more votes than needed to sway election.”

Cobb County election workers recount votes by hand in Marietta, Ga.
Cobb County election workers recount votes by hand in Marietta, Ga. (Kevin D. Liles/for The Washington Post)

Trump and his allies also claimed to have scores of “affidavits” alleging fraud on a massive scale. But the sworn statements his campaign and his allies submitted in lawsuits contained meaningless observations, such as one complaint in Michigan that a “man of intimidating size” had followed a poll watcher too closely, and another who said that a public address system was too loud and therefore “distracting to those of us trying to concentrate.”

In poll watcher affidavits, Trump campaign offers no evidence of fraud in Detroit ballot-counting

Trump and his allies have lost overwhelmingly when they tried to overturn Biden’s victory through the courts, with at least 88 judges across the country ruling against them either on procedural grounds or on the merits in more than 50 cases. The president’s campaign on Sunday said it was filing a new petition with the Supreme Court seeking to overturn the result in Pennsylvania, challenging state voting procedures similar to those that the court has so far declined to act on.

Even as his accusations have collapsed under scrutiny, they have gained traction among his most ardent supporters.

They have been spurred on by Trump-supporting cable and online news outlets such as OAN and Newsmax, which touted unfounded theories about the Dominion machines, dead people voting and poll workers in Michigan allegedly covering up windows with cardboard to prevent observers from watching the process.

At a rally in Valdosta, Ga., earlier this month for two Republican senators facing a runoff election on Jan. 5, Trump paused his speech and turned to giant screens that played misleading news reports on fraud. Thousands in the crowd watched the videos, rapt.

Trump supporters chant at a rally in Valdosta, Ga. in early December.
Trump supporters chant at a rally in Valdosta, Ga. in early December. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump’s arguments made sense, his supporters said. They couldn’t believe that Biden fared better than Obama had in his races, and they were suspicious that Trump was ahead in some states on Election Day but fell behind as mail ballots were counted — either unaware or untrusting of news reports explaining why that was expected.

“Do you truly believe that Joe Biden got more votes than Barack Obama?” asked Wendy Mick, 53, who traveled from New Jersey to a “Stop the Steal” rally in the District on Dec. 12, and said that Newsmax and OAN are her new preferred sources for political news. “He never campaigned. There’s no way that Biden got so many votes.”

How the lie took hold

The relative silence of Republicans lawmakers in the initial days after the election, both in states and on Capitol Hill, quickly gave way to a flood of support for Trump’s posture.

A stock line emerged among Republican leaders who refused to acknowledge Biden’s win: The president has the right to pursue all legal avenues available to him.

But Trump has done more than pursue all legal avenues. He has openly cajoled his supporters to join the fight. And they did.

In Maricopa County, Ariz., home of Phoenix, his supporters lashed out at local election officials, accusing them without evidence of improperly verifying signatures, switching Trump votes to Biden votes on duplicate ballots and keeping observers too far away from ballot-counting to see anything.

In Wisconsin, they claimed the use of drop boxes for mail ballots was illegal. With most municipal offices closed to the public because of the pandemic, many city clerks set up secure drop boxes not just for ballots, but for other city business such as utility bills.

“I had customers dropping off absentee ballots and saying, ‘How are you going to differentiate my ballot from a utility bill?’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you must really think I’m dumb that I can’t differentiate a ballot envelope from a utility bill,’ ” said Lori Stottler, the city clerk in Beloit, Wis., on the Illinois border. “But then I thought, ‘Well, they don’t know what I do.’ And I took a step back and I tried to explain.”

GOP Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler’s Facebook page was inundated with demands from constituents that he reverse Biden’s win in the state. Protesters also gathered outside his rural home in Lancaster County on Dec. 5 with bullhorns and signs.

“Petition your governor for a special session!” an organizer shouted. “Why haven’t you petitioned him?”

“Do your job!” the crowd chanted back. “Do your job! Do your job!”

Trump supporters pray and sing outside the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Dec. 14, as the state’s electors cast their ballots for Biden.
Trump supporters pray and sing outside the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Dec. 14, as the state’s electors cast their ballots for Biden. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

At one point, Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican lawmaker from York County, Pa., said a conservative activist confronted him at the Capitol in Harrisburg, demanding that the legislature take action to seat Trump’s electors — even though state law does not allow such a move.

Grove said he was stunned when the longtime tea party organizer proclaimed, “You know, the Constitution doesn’t limit government!”

It was a reminder, Grove said, of just how much power Trump has amassed over the Republican electorate, to the point that some of his supporters are no longer guided by political principles they have claimed adherence to in the past.

“I looked at him. I’m like, ‘What?’ ” Grove recalled. “It shocked me. Shocked me.”

Lawmakers in Arizona and Pennsylvania rebuffed the president’s efforts to stage official hearings to examine potential fraud. But back benchers in both states assembled media spectacles in hotel ballrooms, labeling them hearings but presenting “witnesses” that were not under oath and offering no evidence for their claims.

Republican lawmakers in Michigan and Georgia did hold official hearings, giving Giuliani an additional platform to unspool a series of false claims.

“I know they are under a lot of pressure from their base, from the lies being spun by Trump and his enablers, right-wing media, etc., but it was really disappointing,” said Parent, the Georgia senator. “The hearing was obviously a sham that wasn’t designed to answer any questions about the election.”

Republicans on the committee did not respond to requests for comment.

One witness at the Michigan hearing, Mellissa Carone, gained notoriety for a stream of unfounded accusations, including one claim that she’d seen a van pull up to a Detroit vote-counting center that was meant to bring in meals for election workers but was actually filled with phony ballots. Carone had previously been deemed “simply not credible” by a state judge.

Trump lashed out at those who refused to bend to his will. He called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, an “enemy of the people” for failing to embrace the president’s accusations of fraud. He accused the Michigan secretary of state, Democrat Jocelyn Benson, of “breaking the law” by rigging voting machines.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks at a news conference in Atlanta.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks at a news conference in Atlanta. (Kevin D. Liles/for The Washington Post)

And he threatened Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, with a primary challenge in 2022 for not helping him reverse the outcome — even though Kemp had explained in a contentious phone call that he did not have the power to do so.

Trump’s rhetoric has spurred some of his supporters to do more than merely protest.

Raffensperger and his wife began receiving death threats and accepted a state security detail at their home in suburban Atlanta. Protesters trespassed at Benson’s home in Detroit, some armed with bullhorns and some with guns, ignoring neighbors’ pleas to go home because they were scaring children, including Benson’s 4-year-old son.

Inside the ‘nasty’ feud between Trump and the Republican governor he blames for losing Georgia

In Houston, a former police captain was arrested Tuesday after allegedly slamming into an air-conditioning repairman’s truck to thwart what he said was a vast election-fraud scheme. The man, Mark Anthony Aguirre, was paid $250,000 by a right-wing organization to pursue fraud conspiracy theories and believed that the truck contained 750,000 fake ballots, police said.

The truck, it turned out, was full of nothing but air conditioning parts. 

‘The fraud happened’

Vanishingly few national Republicans have been willing to stand up to the false statements, despite privately acknowledging that the election is over. “The future will take care of itself,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters in early December, refusing to acknowledge that Biden had won.

In Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers who had initially resisted the president’s entreaties wound up signing onto an emergency petition to the Supreme Court that sought to overturn Biden’s win in the state, though they never cited fraud in their filing. They also sent a letter to Congress urging federal lawmakers to reject Pennsylvania’s electoral votes when they convene on Jan. 6.

Grove, the GOP lawmaker from Pennsylvania, said he and other Republicans had assumed the letter would go nowhere. A challenge requires support from a member of both the House and Senate, but Grove and others incorrectly thought they had to be from the state in question, and they knew that Pennsylvania’s two senators, Republican Patrick J. Toomey and Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., would not support it.

“We didn’t know that anyone can do it from any state,” Grove said. “That was a surprise.”

Congressional Republicans also began echoing Trump’s claims; 126 of them ultimately signed onto an emergency petition to the Supreme Court seeking to overturn results in four states Biden had won.

Where Republicans in Congress stand on Trump’s false claim of winning the election

“The fraud happened,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) at a hearing last week in Washington to examine election irregularities.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who called the hearing despite acknowledging that Biden had won a legitimate election following the electoral college vote, declared at the start of the proceeding: “There was fraud in this election. I don’t have any doubt about that.”

That idea that something went wrong with the vote this year has now taken hold among many Americans.

Anna Van Winkle, a retired aesthetician in Savannah, Ga., who voted for Trump, has accepted her candidate’s defeat, but believes lawmakers must fix the election process to make sure such broad doubt in the outcome can’t happen again.

“My concern is that we don’t go down this road again,” she said. “We had a problem. We had a big problem. And now, going forward, the best way to deal with this is to fix this where somebody like me is not going to wonder, ‘Okay, was there fraud here?’”

Van Winkle was perplexed when she received multiple absentee ballot request forms at her address, and worries that others willing to commit ballot fraud would have been able to do so by requesting more than one ballot. Although Georgia requires identification to request a ballot online — and signature matching on ballots themselves — Van Winkle doesn’t understand why states don’t require mail voters to get their ballots notarized.

Clayton County election workers recount votes in Jonesboro, Ga.
Clayton County election workers recount votes in Jonesboro, Ga. (Kevin D. Liles/for The Washington Post)

Voting-right activists, meanwhile, are concerned that such sentiments will now be cited as an excuse to try to erect new barriers to casting ballots.

Indeed, GOP lawmakers in Georgia have already floated a proposal to eliminate no-excuses absentee balloting, meaning only those with a qualifying reason such as illness or an overseas assignment could vote by mail. In Texas, lawmakers have filed bills to limit distribution of absentee ballot applications and make it a felony to help voters fill out ballots. Pennsylvania Republicans have discussed tighter identification requirements for mail ballots and signature matches.

Defenders of this year’s elections also recognize the need to shore up public confidence. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who advocated unsuccessfully for billions in election aid for states this year, believes Congress must act to curtail misinformation on social media companies, which she said fell short in their civic obligation to restrict false claims on their platforms.

Klobuchar said she was heartened by the Republicans who immediately acknowledged Biden’s win, by those who did so after the electoral college vote and by the dozens of judges across the country, many of them Republican appointees, who roundly rejected the fraud claims of Trump and his allies.

“All of those things mean our democracy is working during a really hard time,” she said.

But there remains the reality that Trump and millions of his supporters still refuse to accept Biden’s win, creating a disturbing precedent, Klobuchar said, in a political system that has prided itself on the peaceful transfer of power and acknowledgment of election results.

“I’m concerned about our democracy in the long run if these civil mores change,” she said, “so people don’t even have to tell the truth about who won.”

Emma Brown, Robert Barnes, Emily Guskin, Rosalind S. Helderman, Elise Viebeck and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Article of the Day: December 19, 2020

Punch After Punch, Rape After Rape, a Murderer Was Made

The execution of Lisa Montgomery would be an injustice on top of an injustice.

Dec. 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

Aidan Koch

By Rachel Louise Snyder

Ms. Snyder is the author of “No Visible Bruises,” about domestic violence.

On Jan. 12, Lisa Montgomery is set to become the first woman executed on federal death row in nearly 70 years. The last executions, both in 1953, were of Bonnie Heady, killed in a gas chamber in Missouri, and Ethel Rosenberg. Ms. Montgomery would be only the fifth woman put to death in a federal civilian execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

On Dec. 16, 2004, Ms. Montgomery drove to Skidmore, Mo., where she strangled a pregnant woman named Bobbie Jo Stinnett, then sliced open her belly and took the baby to the home she shared with her husband, Kevin, in Kansas. The baby survived.

These basic facts, however, are nearly all that is not under dispute in the case. Her post-conviction lawyers, Kelley Henry, Amy Harwell and Lisa Nouri, have sent a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming that Ms. Montgomery’s trial “fell far short of minimum standards of fairness” and thus violated international law, and that the United States government itself bears some culpability for her crime given its abject failure, throughout her life, to protect her from severe child abuse and sexual violence.

On Dec. 1, the commission ruled that the execution would result in “irreparable harm” and requested a delay until it has had the chance to reach a decision on Ms. Montgomery’s petition. The commission’s rulings are not legally binding, but past ones have resulted in stayed executions in Ohio and Texas.

In addition to this petition, more than one thousand supporters have put forth their own letters and petitions, including prosecutors, anti-trafficking and domestic violence organizations, and mental health practitioners.

But none of this has any real bearing on whether Ms. Montgomery’s execution will go forward. Her only chance at clemency rests entirely with President Trump — whose administration has ordered an astonishing six people be executed during his final days in office.

The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide found that 16 other women across the United States have committed comparable crimes to Ms. Montgomery’s since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, yet none of them have been executed. Even cases that captured the national spotlight — like the attacks by the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, for instance — have not resulted in the death penalty.

So why is Lisa Montgomery going to be executed?

A capital case has two distinct parts: the trial, or culpability; and the sentencing, or punishment. The Supreme Court has held that “death is different.” Because the punishment is irreversible, the standards for a death sentence should be higher. In the sentencing phase of a capital trial, mitigation evidence in the form of life history and mental health testimony is presented to the jury; these narratives are meant to humanize the defendant and offer context to determine the appropriate punishment.

Ms. Montgomery’s guilt was never in question. But she was sentenced to death because her trial lawyers, uninformed about gender violence, didn’t seem to understand how to defend her.

Ms. Montgomery has bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis, traumatic brain injury and most likely fetal alcohol syndrome. She was born into a family rife with mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Ms. Montgomery’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, claimed to have been sexually assaulted by her father.

Ms. Montgomery’s own father left when she was a toddler. Her family moved every year, sometimes more than that — to Washington, Kansas, Colorado, back to Kansas. She was abused by her mother in extreme and sadistic ways, according to court documents and mitigation investigations with nearly 450 family members, neighbors, lawyers, social workers and teachers, most done only at the behest of the post-conviction attorneys.

She was forced to sit for hours in a highchair if she didn’t finish her food. Ms. Shaughnessy so regularly covered her daughter’s mouth with duct tape to keep her quiet, Lisa learned not to cry. Ms. Shaughnessy told an investigator that Lisa’s first words were, “Don’t spank me. It hurts.”

Lisa’s stepfather, Jack Kleiner, began to sexually assault her when she was around 13. He built a shed-like room with its own entrance on the side of the family’s trailer outside Tulsa, Okla., and kept Ms. Montgomery there. Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team learned that Mr. Kleiner, who was a rampant alcoholic, would bring friends over to rape her, often for hours, often three at once. Ms. Shaughnessy also began to prostitute her daughter to offset bills for plumbing and electric work. (She refused to speak to her daughter’s post-conviction counsel, and has since died.)

Before he died in 2009, Mr. Kleiner videotaped a statement denying the abuse, but his employer testified that Mr. Kleiner had admitted to raping Ms. Montgomery. Her half brother Teddy Kleiner confirmed that their mother would make the other kids go outside while she was being raped (his statement wasn’t made until 2013).

The jury in her 2007 trial heard very little of any of this. Ms. Montgomery’s male attorneys failed to offer a comprehensive picture of her decades of torture. Instead, they suggested that Tommy Kleiner was the actual killer, despite having his own probation officer as his alibi.

In Her Words: Where women rule the headlines.

The jury never saw the M.R.I. scans of Ms. Montgomery’s brain, which showed tissue loss in her parietal lobe and limbic structures, and larger-than-normal ventricles, which indicate brain damage. They never saw the PET scans, which showed an abnormal pattern of cerebral metabolism indicative of brain dysfunction. These areas can be affected by traumatic experiences and are responsible for regulating social and emotional behavior and memory.

And, perhaps most important, her trial lawyers did not adequately explain the insidious ways sexual and domestic violence alters one’s very neurology, behavior and sense of self. One expert witness for the government even described the rapes by Ms. Montgomery’s stepfather as consensual. “My recollection,” he testified, was that “she was a willing participant, at least at some point.”

The jurors deliberated for under five hours before reaching a guilty verdict. Days later, they recommended the sentence be death, and the judge ruled accordingly.

II.

Many children are abused in secret. What’s striking about the violence in Ms. Montgomery’s family is how many people knew about it — or at least had good reason to suspect it.

Diane Mattingly, Ms. Montgomery’s half sister, was sent to foster care after being raped by one of Ms. Shaughnessy’s acquaintances when she was 8. (Lisa was around 4, and the sisters shared a room so small they could hold hands in bed.) Ms. Mattingly testified that she threw up as she left, knowing what would befall her younger sister. Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team found no evidence that anyone followed up on the other children.

Others noticed, too. Lisa, an A student in elementary school, was placed in special needs classes in middle school. An administrator thought deep emotional trauma was a likely cause but it appears that the school failed to alert anyone.

When Lisa was a teenager, she told her cousin, David Kidwell, then a deputy sheriff in Kansas, that Mr. Kleiner and his friends raped her. According to court documents, he said he knew she was telling the truth — she was “crying and shaking”— and he still lives with regret about not speaking up.

When Ms. Shaughnessy and Mr. Kleiner divorced in 1985, Lisa, then 17, was forced by her mother to give a statement about the rapes for their divorce proceedings. Ms. Shaughnessy sat so unmoved during her daughter’s testimony that the judge reprimanded her for lacking empathy. A social worker found Lisa’s allegations of abuse credible and turned the file over to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, where it appears no one ever followed up.

When she was 18, Ms. Montgomery married her 25-year-old stepbrother, Carl Boman, the son of Ms. Shaughnessy’s fourth husband. A report called a Biopsychosocial History, which documents Ms. Montgomery’s neurodevelopmental and social history, notes that Ms. Montgomery told a mitigation expert that Mr. Boman assaulted her vaginally and anally and with bottles, tied her in stress positions, held a knife to her throat. One of Ms. Montgomery’s half brothers told an investigator that he saw a video of Mr. Boman raping and beating her. “It was like a scene out of a horror movie,” he said, but this, too, never came up at trial. (Mr. Boman, who is in jail awaiting trial on charges of child sexual abuse, could not be reached for comment.)

By 23 she had four young children, and her grip on reality was growing ever more tenuous. At one point, she woke the kids in the middle of the night for what she said was to be an educational trip to the Alamo. She put a diaper on a pet goat, put it in the car, and drove from Kansas to Texas in a haze of mania.

Eventually, she and Mr. Boman divorced, and she married Kevin Montgomery, who has remained supportive of her throughout her legal battle. Ms. Montgomery’s Biopsychosocial History says that Mr. Montgomery insisted on incorporating sexual violence into their relationship, but that he “was not as violent or hurtful as Carl.”

In the time leading up to her crime, Ms. Montgomery repeatedly pretended to be pregnant, and each time claimed to have lost the baby. Her ex-husband, Mr. Boman, knew she was lying — Ms. Montgomery had undergone sterilization after the birth of her fourth child. Mr. Boman filed to take custody of two of their children in December 2004 — very near the time of the homicide, which surely weighed on her.

There would have been good reason to take the children away. Lisa Montgomery was an abusive and neglectful mother. The prosecutor in her case made much of this. He spoke about Ms. Montgomery’s inability to feed and bathe her children and her own lack of hygiene (she had lice for several years).

Her defense team, on the other hand, mostly avoided the subject, presumably for fear it would make her look even worse — a common mistake by lawyers in cases involving domestic violence, a miscalculation that feeds into a persistent stereotype about what a victim should look and act like. As a result, both sides flattened Lisa Montgomery’s personhood; in one version she’s a monster, and the other a myth.

Sandra Babcock, the founder and faculty director of the Cornell death penalty center and an expert in gender discrimination in capital cases, says such trials often become about a woman’s character. “Prosecutors have a set playbook in capital cases involving women,” she said. “They condemn women who are bad mothers, or who don’t fit an idealized version of femininity.”

What the defense team should have done is frame her inability to care for her children — and herself — as a symptom of her years of abuse.

On an Adverse Childhood Experiences test, Ms. Montgomery scored nine out of 10 — a number reserved for the most extreme forms of torture. On a different test, the Global Assessment of Functioning, given by one of her therapists a year or so before the crime, Ms. Montgomery scored a 48. A normal score is 80 to 100. Such a score points to “severe impairment” in daily activities. (In prison, it took Ms. Montgomery an entire month to learn to make her bed according to the guidelines.)

A social worker who spoke with Ms. Montgomery after she was arrested found she sometimes recounted her experiences in the present tense, as if she was reliving them, unable to distinguish between the present and the past. Her defense team suggested that she suffered from a rare condition called pseudocyesis — when a woman believes she is pregnant and will even develop physical symptoms. But pseudocyesis, if she had it, was a symptom of a bigger problem. (It didn’t help that the defense’s expert witness, who wasn’t a licensed mental health practitioner in this country, later said he had no special expertise in pseudocyesis.)

III.

There was chaos and churn in her defense team, and she ended up with three male attorneys, John O’Connor, Frederick Duchardt and David Owen. From 2004 to 2007, when the trial finally took place, several female attorneys either withdrew from the case or were dismissed. A lawyer who once worked with Mr. Owen, Laine Cardarella, told Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team that Mr. Owen was overbearing and misogynistic. (“You’re not one of those militant female lawyer types, are you?” Mr. Owen asked her once, she says.)

A particular blow to Lisa Montgomery was the loss of Judy Clarke, a renowned lawyer who helped Ted Kaczynski, Zacarias Moussaoui (conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks) and Jared Loughner (the Arizona gunman who nearly killed Representative Gabrielle Giffords) avoid death sentences. Ms. Clarke, who has twice argued before the Supreme Court, was described in a 2015 profile in The New Yorker as quite possibly “the best death-penalty lawyer in America.”

Ms. Clark was dropped from the team in April 2006. The judge in the case, Gary Fenner, said he dismissed her because “her involvement was obstructive in getting a defense for Miss Montgomery put together.” Ms. Montgomery’s post-conviction team believes that Mr. Owen, who attended a series of unrecorded meetings with the judge leading up to Ms. Clarke’s dismissal and later described Ms. Clarke as bossy and “emasculating,” was the one who convinced Judge Fenner to dismiss her. (Mr. Owen, Mr. Duchardt and Judge Fenner declined to comment for this article.)

Ms. Montgomery, whose understanding of her own circumstances appears to wax and wane, was shattered at the loss of Ms. Clarke, who seemed to be the first attorney Ms. Montgomery had ever trusted. She was so upset, she wrote a letter to Judge Fenner, who told her Ms. Clarke was let go because she was “no longer necessary and/or helpful.” Once Ms. Clarke left, any semblance of teamwork seemed to disappear.

A year and a half later, Ms. Montgomery was convicted, and four days after that, her sentencing hearing was held.

It’s standard practice at such hearings to present mitigating evidence collected by a trained investigator called a “mitigation specialist.” Ms. Montgomery’s lawyers went through four different mitigation specialists, all of them women. Mr. Duchardt called the profession of mitigation specialists “laughable.” None of the specialists were asked to testify at Ms. Montgomery’s trial, though they have all since spoken under oath during post-conviction proceedings.

As Ms. Henry, one of the post-conviction lawyers, put it, “We’ve had a lot of training when it comes to implicit bias as it relates to race, but I don’t think we’ve had enough on gender bias.” She said she didn’t “mean to suggest the men in this case thought they were engaging in misogynistic behavior, or that their ideas of gender norms” affected the case, “but they did.”

Ms. Montgomery’s execution, far from righting a wrong, would in itself be an injustice atop an injustice.

The prosecutor, Matt Whitworth, an assistant U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., used the famous Alan Dershowitz phrase “abuse excuse” in his closing argument. But what Mr. Whitworth and so many others refuse to understand is how abuse is cumulative. Traumatic brain injuries are cumulative. Punch after punch, kick after kick, rape after rape. Injured brains do not heal like injured bodies.

Of course, boys and men are also victims of abuse and sexual assault. But courts can’t treat experiences like Ms. Montgomery’s as genderless. Her rapes, her teenage marriage, the multiple pregnancies with an abusive partner — Ms. Montgomery endured a lifetime of abuse because she was a woman. She was trafficked and raped because she was a girl. And the severe cognitive impairment she suffers today is a direct result of those crimes.

“Were it not for her being a woman,” Ms. Babcock told me, “she would not be on death row, because she wouldn’t be subjected to the kind of torture that she was.” Her case, she said, “is all about gender.”

Systems failed her again and again. Child protective services failed her, the education system failed her and law enforcement failed her; later, when she was an adult, mental health services failed her and domestic violence advocacy failed, and eventually, all these failings resulted in an unimaginable crime.

No one is arguing that Lisa Montgomery should be freed from prison. But her abuse should take death off the table.

That the Department of Justice is ordering executions in the middle of a pandemic is itself cause for alarm. Since the Supreme Court has prohibited the execution of people who are mentally incompetent, Ms. Montgomery is entitled to be assessed by a mental health professional close to the date of her execution — something that might not be possible during the coronavirus outbreak. No one can visit her at her prison in Texas except her immediate family and her lawyers, two of whom are based in Nashville and are recovering from Covid-19. The third lawyer is based in Kansas City and cannot travel to Texas because of the risks posed by the virus.

As Ms. Montgomery’s legal team wrote to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “In its haste to execute her notwithstanding the pandemic, the government has violated her rights to petition the authorities and to due process.”

Retribution is one method of accountability for criminal acts. But Ms. Montgomery’s life, however much she has left of it, is already irreparably shattered. For many of us, that might seem punishment enough.

Rachel Louise Snyder is an associate professor at American University and the author of “No Visible Bruises.”

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