May 16, 2022
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre began her first press briefing today by noting its significance. “I just want to say a few words about how honored I am to be here with all of you today in this role, in this room, standing behind this podium,” she said. “I am obviously acutely aware that my presence at this podium represents a few firsts. I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman, the first of all three of those to hold this position. I would not be here today if it were not for generations of… barrier-breaking people before me. I stand on their shoulders…. I benefit from their sacrifices. I have learned from their excellence, and I am forever grateful to them. Representation does matter.”
She noted that President Joe Biden and the members of his administration believe that the press room belongs “to the American people. We work for them,” she said. “And I will work every day to continue to ensure we are meeting the President’s high expectation of truth, honesty, and transparency.” Jean-Pierre told members of the press she had “tremendous respect for the work that you do…. The press plays a vital role in our democracy, and we need a strong and independent press now more than ever. We might not see eye to eye here in this room all the time, which is okay. That give-and-take is…incredibly healthy, and it’s a part of our democracy.”
In honor of the press and answering questions, I’m going to catch up on some stories that are hanging out there.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has slowed, and Ukraine appears to be gaining the advantage. Today, on Russian state television, defense analyst Mikhail Khodaryonok warned that the willingness of Ukrainian forces to fight for their homeland gave them the upper hand and that the world has turned against Russia. It was a remarkable moment, and Russia specialist Tom Nichols noted that, together with Putin’s weak Victory Day speech and the fact that Russian minister of defense Sergei Shoigu finally picked up the phone when U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III called, it might indicate a change.
Today, McDonald’s announced it is leaving Russia for good because of the Ukraine invasion. It closed its 850 restaurants in March. McDonald’s was one of the first western brands to enter the region just before the USSR dissolved in 1991. Its leaving symbolizes Russia’s isolation from the rest of the world.
On May 13, the Treasury Department released a strategy for continuing to crack down on money laundering and terrorist financing in the United States. “Illicit finance is a major national security threat and nowhere is that more apparent than in Russia’s war against Ukraine, supported by decades of corruption by Russian elites,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, who is Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes. The department will work with international partners, close loopholes, and use new technologies “to tackle the risks posed by corruption, an increase in domestic violent extremism, and the abuse of virtual assets” in order to strengthen the international financial system.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced it will make it easier for foreign manufacturers of baby formula to ship to the U.S. Regulators also say they have reached a deal to enable Abbott Nutrition to reopen the plant in Sturgis, Michigan, which closed because its machinery was contaminated. That closure stopped the production of more than 40% of the country’s baby formula, sparking the current shortage.
A new poll by NBC shows that support for abortion rights has hit a new high, with 63% of Americans opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Only 5% of Americans say abortion should be illegal in all cases.
While the Supreme Court has not yet handed down the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision that is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, it did today hand down Federal Election Commission v. Cruz, in which, by a vote of 6 to 3, it struck down a limit on how much of their own money a political candidate could recoup after an election. Daniel Weiner of the Brennan Center for Justice explained that before this decision, the law capped reimbursement at $250,000. The court struck down that limit on the grounds that the limit on reimbursements violated the First Amendment right to free speech.
Joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent. Contributions after an election to repay a loan are not about free speech to influence an election, she said; they enrich the candidate personally “at a time when he can return the favor—by a vote, a contract, and appointment.” Post-election contributions “pose a special danger of corruption.”
Weiner noted that few candidates lend their campaigns more than $250,000, so the effects of the decision will be limited. But this case builds on the redefinition of our political world launched by the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court argued that seeking influence over politicians was a positive good. As Roberts wrote: “Influence and access ‘embody a central feature of democracy,’ that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns.”
But while the court is protecting the access of wealthy donors to the democratic system, Weiner noted, it has shown no interest in protecting an individual’s right to vote. Weiner characterizes FEC v. Cruz as “another step in an extraordinary transformation, wherein First Amendment doctrines traditionally used to protect dissenting and marginalized voices now primarily get deployed to defend…the already powerful.”
There are other legal cases in the news, as well.
Last Thursday, May 12, 2022, the New York Times reported that the Department of Justice has convened a federal grand jury to look into how former president Donald Trump and his associates handled the fifteen boxes of material, some of which was top secret, that they took improperly to Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago. Today, Frank Figliuzzi, a national security analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, explained that the convening of a grand jury means that this is not just an investigation into how things might have been mishandled, but that officers of the Department of Justice think a crime may have been committed. Noting that Trump’s businesses took in $2.4 billion during his presidency, Figliuzzi suggested that investigators will likely look into whether the documents were of monetary value to Trump or others.
And today a judge granted another delay in the sentencing of former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg, who pleaded guilty to child sex trafficking and other federal charges more than a year ago. Greenberg is an associate of Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and has been cooperating with authorities. When requesting a sentencing delay in October 2021, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg told the judge, “I think this is an unusual case. The evidence takes us places. And frankly, it takes us places we did not anticipate.”
Gaetz has denied any wrongdoing.