An organization linked to a major hub of efforts to undermine the credibility of the 2020 U.S. presidential election was funded to the tune of millions of dollars by several right-wing donors, according to a tax document obtained by The Intercept. The group, the Bradley Impact Fund, is linked to a larger foundation that was identified in a recent report as a central player in distributing money to organizations pushing conspiracy theories about election fraud, denying the results of the 2020 election, and undertaking legal efforts to overturn the presidential vote.
Like the larger group, the Bradley Impact Fund has given money to groups that promote election fraud conspiracies and sought to overturn President Donald Trump’s 2020 election defeat. Bradley Impact’s donors, which were ostensibly cloaked in anonymity by the nonprofit’s structure, are being revealed here for the first time.
The tax document obtained by The Intercept, a publicly filed IRS form that included a list of donors, shows a handful of large corporate and individual donors to the Bradley Impact Fund. The contributions listed in the fiscal year 2018 filing range from roughly $782,000 to $1.5 million. The Bradley Impact Fund operates as a donor-advised fund, a vehicle frequently used to allow anonymous contributions by letting donors give to a fund and then directing their contributions to particular recipients.
Among the corporate donors to Bradley Impact, according to the tax document, were ABC Supply Co., whose website describes it as “the largest wholesale distributor of roofing in the United States”; the Boelter Companies, described online as “a provider of supplies, equipment, and design solutions for commercial foodservice, hospitality, and beverage industries”; and Bandon Golf Courses, which operates a number of golf courses in Oregon. Other donors include a former music industry CEO in Wisconsin, the CEO of a company that provides equipment to pipeline companies, and a number of small family foundations. (Neither Bradley Impact nor the donors listed in the tax filing responded to requests for comment from The Intercept.)
The largest donor to Bradley Impact listed in the fiscal year 2018 filing was the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. A much larger, linked nonprofit, the Bradley Foundation was identified by a recent New Yorker article as “an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules.” The report described the foundation as a key promoter of the idea that election outcomes unfavorable to Trump are the result of fraud, doling out millions in grants to projects in the United States aimed at disqualifying purportedly illegitimate voters from participating in elections, according to the New Yorker, while using the issue of election integrity as a way of both undermining faith in the democratic process and manipulating election outcomes in a manner more favorable to candidates aligned with Trumpism. According to the 2018 filing, the Bradley Foundation gave $2.5 million to the Bradley Impact Fund.
The Bradley Foundation said in a statement that the Bradley Impact Fund is a separate group. Five of Bradley Impact’s board members and officers hold board seats at the Bradley Foundation, and the Bradley Impact group says its donors’ outlook is aligned with the larger foundation.
According to tax filings for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, Bradley Impact funded some of the same organizations funded by the Bradley Foundation — groups that constitute a network of election fraud conspiracists and undertook legal efforts to overthrow the 2020 election. The Public Interest Legal Foundation, identified by the New Yorker as “leading the way” in attempts to nullify the 2020 election, was given more than $300,000 by Bradley Impact over the two tax years. Bradley Impact also funded at least three right-wing groups that have promoted election fraud conspiracies: Turning Point USA, Project Veritas, and the Heritage Foundation.
The issue of election integrity has become deadly serious in pro-Trump circles. Following Trump’s 2020 election defeat, conspiracy theories suggesting that the election had been stolen by President Joe Biden, who took office in January 2021, gained traction. Trump had been setting the stage for such ideas by spreading suspicion of the election process even before his loss, something he had done in 2016 in anticipation of his contest with Hillary Clinton as well. Faced with apparently declining electoral fortunes in the United States, some in the Trump movement have doubled down on voter suppression as a means of maintaining political power in the country. A controversial voter suppression law in Georgia is just one of many current flashpoints over voting rights in the United States, where Republicans have pushed to make access to elections harder for as many people as possible.
“There is an active subset of people on the right, more Trumpist than truly conservative, who are trying to do that to regain and maintain their power even at the cost of free and fair elections.”
“There is an active subset of people on the right, more Trumpist than truly conservative, who are trying to do that to regain and maintain their power even at the cost of free and fair elections,” said Rick Hasen, an elections law expert, referring to groups that seek to “restrict the franchise or undermine democracy.”
Meanwhile, “the big lie,” a term for the Trump-created conspiracy about the 2020 election, continues to inspire radical movements in the country that believe that the democratic process was already abolished in order to keep their favored candidate out of office. The January 6 riot at the Capitol was inspired in large part by the idea that the election had been stolen, a perception that continues to be promoted by pro-Trump media outlets and their financial backers.
In contrast to Bradley Impact, which had a $10 million budget in 2019, the Bradley Foundation boasts an $850 million endowment, making it smaller than liberal rivals but still a potent force in American politics. In discussing the foundation’s role in subverting faith in the outcome of the 2020 election, the New Yorker piece, written by investigative journalist Jane Mayer, quoted an expert who argued that organizations that had previously “focused on advancing such conservative causes as capturing the courts and opposing abortion have now ‘more or less shifted to work on the voter-suppression thing.’” Mayer’s piece also calculated that the foundation had paid upward of $18 million since 2012 to groups working to challenge election results.
“It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy,” Mayer wrote. “But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries.”
The prospect of another retired general becoming secretary of defense before finishing the mandatory seven-year, post-service waiting period wasn’t the only problem looming over President Joe Biden’s nomination of Lloyd Austin for the Cabinet position. The former four-star head of U.S. Central Command also sat on the board of Raytheon, a multibillion-dollar defense contractor that would be vying for the Pentagon’s most lucrative deals, raising questions about the military’s impartiality when issuing awards.
Austin’s nomination arrived on the heels of a corporate-ridden Defense Department under the Trump administration. Before Austin, another person with ties to Raytheon, the contractor’s chief lobbyist Mark Esper, held the reins of the Pentagon. Esper’s predecessors, Patrick Shanahan and James Mattis, had respectively been a senior vice president at Boeing and a board member of General Dynamics. Ellen Lord, the former president and CEO of Textron Systems, oversaw the Pentagon’s weapon acquisitions.
After the abundant conflicts of interest in Trump’s White House, some in Biden’s party pushed for someone without industry ties to lead the Defense Department.
“Despite President Trump’s boast that he would ‘drain the swamp’ and hire only ‘the best people,’ he has continuously failed to do so,” Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., wrote in a November 2020 letter to Biden. “We strongly encourage you to reject the mistaken nominations of the Trump era; and, again, commit to appointing Secretaries of Defense with no previous ties to defense contractors.”
Biden ignored their call. Whatever differences he has from Trump, a rejection of the revolving door between industry and the Pentagon is not one of them. In addition to Austin, the new White House has nominated or appointed a slew of corporate executives to serve at the upper echelons of a federal department whose enormous budget funnels billions of dollars to private companies every year.
Jack Poulson, executive director of the accountability nonprofit Tech Inquiry, which tracks tech and defense contractor influence in government, noted that there seemed to be a bipartisan consensus on the cozy relationship between the private and public sectors.
The pattern of Biden appointments of high-level Pentagon officials straight from consulting firms and corporations seeking influence with the government, said Poulson, risks “something close to pay-to-play in the tech national security arena.”
Ronald Moultrie, Biden’s pick to serve as Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, comes from at least a dozen consulting firms and contractors, which he joined after holding positions in the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and Navy.
He notably was a board member of Altamira Technologies, a defense contractor that recently won an award worth up to $950 million to support the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System program that’s creating a high-speed network for military personnel to share information as they’re taking potentially lethal action.
For what differences Biden has from Trump, a rejection of the revolving door between industry and the Pentagon is not one of them.
Moultrie has a background that involves overt influence peddling, including work as a paid adviser to Resolute Public Affairs, a lobbying shop that touts its ability to intervene on behalf of clients on sensitive matters such as controls of foreign investments. Moultrie reported earning $350,000 since 2020 from the firm on his disclosure forms.
Moultrie also sat on the board of Pallas Advisors, a “strategic advisory firm specializing in navigating complex national and international security dynamics” founded by Sally Donnelly, a senior adviser to Mattis during his tenure as defense secretary. Donnelly, a former Amazon consultant, notoriously facilitated a private dinner between Mattis and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos while the Pentagon was developing a solicitation for a $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud services contract. That contract is now entangled in a lawsuit Amazon filed after Microsoft won the award.
Silicon Valley-based corporations like Amazon have had growing influence inside the Department of Defense as the military embraces big data. The Pentagon has launched outreach initiatives like the flagship Defense Innovation Unit, whose managing director, Michael Brown, is now Biden’s choice to serve as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, the position Lord previously held.
Brown leads the Pentagon’s primary outreach to California’s technology giants — and was himself formerly CEO of Symantec Corporation and Quantum Corporation, multibillion-dollar companies in the cybersecurity and computer storage industries.
In a recent “virtual fireside chat” with Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO who previously served as the founding chair of the Department of Defense’s Innovation Board, Brown expounded on the success of DIU for facilitating military partnerships with Silicon Valley. He emphasized that there was much more to be done.
“We need more cross-pollination, so there needs to be more folks from the tech world who get into government and going back out,” said Brown.
Frank Kendall talks before the start of his confirmation hearing to serve as secretary of the Air Force before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., on May 25, 2021.
Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee reviewed the nomination of Frank Kendall, chosen by Biden to lead the Air Force. Kendall, a former vice president at Raytheon who served as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics for President Barack Obama, has spent the last few years as an adviser and consultant to defense contractors. Kendall’s disclosures show that the bulk of his income has come from advising Northrop Grumman, followed by income from Renaissance Strategic Advisors, an investment firm that arranges mergers and acquisitions in the defense sector.
Shawn Skelly, nominated as the assistant secretary of defense for readiness, comes to the Pentagon from CACI International, the sprawling contractor that serves military bases around the world.
The Biden administration is embracing corporate executives at a time when the Defense Department is acknowledging the disastrous effects of the neoliberal outlook that has dominated the corporate world since the 1980s.
“Together, a U.S. business climate that has favored short-term shareholder earnings (versus long-term capital investment), deindustrialization, and an abstract, radical vision of ‘free trade,’ without fair trade enforcement, have severely damaged America’s ability to arms itself today and in the future,” a January report from the Pentagon’s industrial policy office states.
“The recent wave of industry appointments certainly raises concern.”
Biden’s appointee to oversee this office, Jesse Salazar, comes from none other than management consulting giant McKinsey, responsible for facilitating mergers, acquisitions and offshoring that have consolidated industries and supply chains and moved manufacturing overseas.
While not working inside the Pentagon, Pete Buttigieg’s leadership of the Transportation Department is likely to bring another McKinsey alum in close proximity to the Defense Department, as the two set eyes on emerging aerospace technology. Buttigieg’s predecessor Elaine Chao, for example, participated in an industry event hosted by the Air Force last year to engage makers of electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, or flying cars.
Heidi Shyu speaks during her confirmation hearing to be Defense undersecretary for research and engineering before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on May 25, 2021.
Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Heidi Shyu, nominated to be the Under Secretary for Defense Research, runs an aerospace and defense consulting firm, through which she advises a range of contractors as a consultant and a board member to several companies. Shyu advises traditional defense giants, such as Boeing, General Electric, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman, according to her recently filed ethics disclosure.
Shyu, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, also serves on the board of several drone-focused ventures, including Auterion Government Solutions, a start-up that provides artificial intelligence software for drones to the Pentagon, and Levitate Capital, which invests in autonomous aerial vehicles.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense, notably, will be staffed by many officials with close ties to contractors. Elizabeth George, the deputy general counsel for the Pentagon, is a former outside Google attorney through the firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Ahmad Khan, a special assistant to the secretary, comes from Govini, a start-up that won a $400 million contract in 2019 to help the Pentagon analyze data. Ely Ratner, also appointed as an adviser to the secretary, previously consulted for the defense IT firm SAIC and for WestExec Advisors, a firm founded by former Obama administration officials to help Silicon Valley firms win contracts with the government.
“Much of Biden’s policy circles are already strongly vying for increases to the Pentagon budget under a ‘great-power competition’ framing, especially with respect to integrating AI into U.S. battle networks,” said Poulson, the executive director of Tech Inquiry. “The recent wave of industry appointments certainly raises concern.”
At a congressional hearing Wednesday, senators peppered military leaders with questions about the resilience of Defense Department infrastructure to the climate crisis. Members of both parties asked the officials for updates on individual bases’ resiliency plans, questioned how they were balancing climate adaptation with other priorities, and discussed a list of the most climate-vulnerable military installations — a congressional mandate that President Joe Biden doubled down on last month.
It was the type of detailed climate conversation that’s necessary in an era of a deepening emergency — but a discussion that Congress has relegated disproportionately to military matters. This week’s session was the ninth congressional hearing focused on protecting national security and military installations from climate risk since early 2019, according to a list of around 300 climate-related hearings held since the start of that year. A review of the list, compiled by the Climate Action Campaign, suggests that Congress has prioritized military climate readiness over climate resilience for other types of publicly funded infrastructure.
The most glaring thing about the list of hearings was what didn’t appear on it: During the period, there were zero hearings specifically to strategize on how to protect schools or prisons against the ravages of the climate crisis. A single hearing was dedicated to discussing climate risk to housing and only one focused on risk to toxic sites. Some congressional hearings have focused generally on infrastructure resilience, but no sector has gotten the same attention from lawmakers as the U.S. military — which emits more climate-warming carbon than most countries, according to a 2019 report by Brown University’s Costs of War project.
The congressional emphasis on national security adaptation contributes to concerns scientists and policy analysts have raised about whether legislators are meaningfully preparing the U.S. for extreme storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires that are already occurring and will inevitably get worse due to fossil fuel emissions already in the atmosphere. The hearing schedule raises questions about what our future might look like if military facilities are better prepared for the climate crisis than any other public infrastructure.
“Looking at climate change through a militarized frame promotes a search for military solutions.”
“The problem is looking at climate change through a militarized frame promotes a search for military solutions,” said Lorah Steichen, who focuses on the intersection between climate policy and militarization as outreach coordinator for the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Priorities Project. She pointed particularly to the border. “Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon have cited the climate crisis to justify increased border militarization.”
To Steichen, the problem comes down to the budget. “U.S. militarism and the ballooning Pentagon budget misdirects resources away from the programs that we need to mitigate and adapt to a warming climate,” Steichen said. “Redirecting federal resources away from war and weapons could free up hundreds of billions of dollars a year to help resource the rapid transition off fossil fuels we desperately need.”
The number of national security hearings is in part a result of Republicans’ climate denial. John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security, described a direct relationship between climate denial and the militarization of climate policy. “I look around at our security apparatus versus others around the world,” Conger said. “In some places where climate is more of a universal — everyone accepts the fact that climate change is happening — security has been less of a focus, because it hasn’t had to be.”
He pointed to a 2018 Washington Post article, headlined “How to get Trump to sign climate legislation? Put it in a defense bill,” which noted that the recently signed defense budget bill was “the only legislation readying the country for climate change to become law” at the time. Conger said, “That framing means the folks that want to make progress on climate, but recognize that they might be blocked by more conservative voices, say let’s make progress here.”
To Conger, the military has served as an important validator for the reality of the climate crisis, moving the right wing toward acknowledging that human-driven climate change is real. “Now that we’ve gotten largely past that argument,” Conger said, “we can argue about what to do.”
Even in a new political era, with the White House and Congress controlled by Democrats, the expensive and politically fraught process of widespread climate adaptation remains a hard sell. Democrats instead have focused attention on more politically palatable ideas like a new energy economy. Both lawmakers and Biden have put a heavy emphasis on framing the transition to renewables and energy efficiency as an opportunity for jobs and technological innovation. Such a transition will be vital to addressing the climate crisis, but is not enough without significant adaptation measures.
Security-focused resilience measures remain a constant focus. The new presidential administration has only deepened the executive branch’s commitment to militarized climate policy. In Biden’s first days in office, for example, the president signed an executive order officially making the climate crisis a national security priority.
The president hasn’t been silent on adaptation. He also signed another order reinstating Obama-era standards for federal buildings in flood zones, which Donald Trump had eliminated — but at the end of April, the White House rescinded the order with little explanation. Some analysts took it as a signal that the Biden administration was not sufficiently prioritizing resilience and adaptation.
Sell the Bases, Save the Planet
There’s no dispute that public assets other than military bases are in need of climate preparedness measures. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, displaced community members in Houston sued the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for leaving them stuck in poorly adapted government-subsidized housing in a floodplain. Nationwide, around 450,000 subsidized housing units are located in floodplains, according to a 2017 study by New York University’s Furman Center.
“Instead of pouring more resources into DoD agencies to retool military bases, we should start planning to close many of these bases.”
Meanwhile, this winter’s cold snap in the South left detainees in federal prisons and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in multiple states suffering dire conditions. Some scientists say the sudden extreme cold was consistent with the impacts of the climate crisis. Incarcerated people have also suffered extreme heat, hurricane-induced flooding and wildfire-driven evacuations in recent years.
A 2019 Government Accountability Office report found that 60 percent of Superfund sites, areas identified by the federal government as containing hazardous material, are at a high risk of being impacted climate disasters like floods or wildfires.
Steichen has her own proposal for paying for climate adaptation: Redirect the U.S.’s massive military spending. “Maintaining this global empire of bases is incredibly costly,” she said. “Instead of pouring more resources into DoD agencies to retool military bases, we should start planning to close many of these bases. Closing half or more of our overseas military bases would free up $90 billion a year, funds that could be reallocated to climate solutions.”
A Justice Department trial attorney repeatedly contacted Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers asking, eventually under threat of subpoena, about research they had conducted on the 2019 Bolivian presidential election, according to emails obtained by The Intercept. Sent between October 2020 and January 2021, the emails point to the existence of the Justice Department inquiry and add new evidence to support Bolivian allegations that the United States was implicated in its 2019 coup.
The emails reveal the Justice Department’s involvement in the Bolivian coup regime’s criminal investigation into alleged voter fraud, which has not previously been reported. The inquiry targeted a pair of respected MIT researchers about their work for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in which they broadly refuted suspicions that Bolivia’s socialist party had rigged the election.
The short-lived coup regime reached power following a clear script: In the weeks leading up to the Bolivian presidential election in October 2019, the opposition pumped endless propaganda through social media and television networks, warning that incumbent President Evo Morales would exploit widespread fraud to win reelection. Morales had become the first Indigenous president elected in Bolivia in 2005, at the head of his party Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, and by 2019, he was running for his fourth term. He faced intense opposition, often framed in explicitly racist terms, from a Frankenstein coalition of right-wing Bolivians of European descent and supporters of former President Carlos Mesa, once a member of Bolivia’s left revolutionary party who had become hostile to Morales’s social democratic government.
As the votes were counted on election night, Morales was ahead as expected. The question was whether he would win by enough to avoid a runoff, which in Bolivia is triggered when a candidate wins by a margin of fewer than 10 points. In an unofficial tally, Morales led Mesa by 7.9 points, giving the opposition hope for a second round. But when the official count was released, Morales had won by 10.6 points. There would be no runoff.
Without evidence, the opposition immediately leveled fraud charges. It was backed up the next day by the Organization of American States, the powerful hemispheric cooperation organization based in Washington, D.C.
“The OAS Mission expresses its deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls,” read the OAS’s incendiary statement. Protesters took to the streets; the military called for Morales to step down; and the opposition installed a new leader, Jeanine Áñez, after three weeks of unrest. Far to Mesa’s right, Áñez assumed office and swiftly attempted to eliminate the sense of enfranchisement for Indigenous people that the Morales government had brought. While 14 out of 16 members of Morales’ first Cabinet were Indigenous, Áñezdid not appoint a single Indigenous person to her first Cabinet. In the two months before assuming office, she had tweeted that Morales was a “poor Indian” and implied that Indigenous people cannot wear shoes. When she reached the presidency, she declared that “the Bible has returned to the palace.”
Former interim Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez is escorted by members of the Special Force to Fight Against Crime after being arrested in La Paz, Bolivia, on March 13, 2021.
Photo: Aizar Raldes/AFP via Getty Images
The coup, roughly the same play President Donald Trump would attempt a year later, was complete.
But the U.S. press refused to call it that, instead accepting the allegations of fraud at face value.
“The line between coups and revolts can be blurry, even nonexistent,” wrote Max Fisher for the New York Times. He cited what political scientist Jay Ulfelder calls “Schrödinger’s coup”— those cases which “exist in a perpetual state of ambiguity, simultaneously coup and not-coup”— and dismissed the distinction as “old binaries” now considered “outdated” by scholars.
The Times did not undergo such hand-wringing over allegations that Morales’s party had rigged the election. Its October 2019 coverage reproduced the opposition’s promises for a “damning” unreleased OAS report, raising “the prospect that a victory by Mr. Morales would be regarded by the international community as illegitimate.” The Trump administration’s top diplomat for Latin America, Michael Kozak, condemned the Morales government and vowed that the U.S. “will work with the international community to hold accountable anyone who undermines Bolivia’s democratic institutions.”
Even a surface-level look at the vote-counting process suggested that the surge for Morales was utterly predictable.
But even a surface-level look at the vote-counting process suggested that the surge for Morales was utterly predictable. The bulk of the votes that were left to be counted on election night in 2019 had been cast deep in the country’s rural areas, where Indigenous miners, coca growers, and other working-class people overwhelmingly favored Morales. (The former president hails from the Chapare and was previously the head of the coca growers’ union.) It should have seemed obvious that their votes had put him over the top.
Just over a year later, in November 2020, late-counted Democratic votes put Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election, and Trump called foul. “We were winning everything, and all of a sudden it was just called off,” Trump said on election night. “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court, we want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list.” The U.S. media had no difficulty explaining why the surge for Biden was legitimate. But when reporting on Bolivia, all of the American election expertise evaporated.
The OAS followed its October statement with a more in-depth analysis in November 2019, this time finding perhaps as many as a few hundred cases of apparent vote-tampering. But the data in the report did not sufficiently support the organization’s allegations of widespread fraud. In a letter to the OAS later that month, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., asked if the organization was “aware that this steady increase in Evo Morales’ margin was the result of precincts that were, on average, more pro-Morales reporting their results later than precincts that were, on average, less pro-Morales? Why is this apparently obvious conclusion — from the publicly available data — never mentioned in the EOM [Election Observation Mission] press statements or reports?”
In fact, it would be statisticians who repudiated the coup. Researchers at MIT, commissioned by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, took a closer look at the data and evidence behind the allegations and concluded what many other independent observers had already found: The fraud claims were bogus, according to a statistical analysis conducted by Jack R. Williams and John Curiel of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab.
The fallout from the MIT researchers’ analysis, which was published by the Washington Post in February 2020, was considerable. In a stunning reversal, the New York Times published an article on the findings, saying that it “cast doubt on Bolivian election fraud.”
The prestigious release was a major blow to the coup regime, leading to references in many of the same major media outlets that had peddled the coup government’s election fraud narrative. The new insight sapped the coup government’s international credibility, which was further degraded as it repeatedly delayed a new election. With La Paz shut down by protesters — this time the crowds were on the side of MAS — the regime was finally forced to hold an election on October 18, 2020.
Three days before the vote, the researchers received the first of the Justice Department’s requests. Trial attorney Angela George identified herself as an attorney at the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, or OIA, and said she had “received a formal request from Paraguay” for assistance in an ongoing criminal investigation. Curiel told her she had the wrong researcher, as he had not worked on any Paraguayan election study, and she told him that Bolivia was the one she had meant.
George never provided details about the nature of the criminal investigation, the existence of which has not been previously reported. Attempts to reach the coup government’s minister of justice, Álvaro Coimbra, were unsuccessful, as he is in prison facing charges of sedition related to the coup.
“We have a few questions about the data report, and we would appreciate if you could let us know when you are available to speak with us via telephone before or by November 6, 2020,” George wrote to the researchers. When Williams explained that his research was based on publicly available information, she replied threatening “a subpoena being served on you and the lab” but also dialed down her demand, saying that an interview might not be necessary. “I am simply trying to find out if the report, Analysis of the 2019 Bolivia Election, that is embedded in the Washington Post article referenced below includes your research and is an authentic copy of the report that was produced … and includes the comprehensive research you and Mr. Curiel conducted,” the prosecutor wrote.
The Justice Department inquiry frightened election researchers in the academic community and may have had a chilling effect on subsequent research.
The threat of subpoena was an extraordinary move, as the Justice Department has strict protocols to protect the freedom of the press and prevent government intimidation. According to a source familiar with the investigation, who was not authorized to speak publicly, the Justice Department inquiry frightened election researchers in the academic community and may have had a chilling effect on subsequent research.
A former Department of Justice trial attorney who also worked at the OIA told The Intercept that the correspondence was unusual for several reasons. Requesting anonymity to avoid professional reprisal, they said that professional investigators trained in interview techniques usually contact subjects, and there are stiff rules governing any interactions with the media.
“Generally, OIA would enlist the FBI or other investigative agency to execute an incoming MLA request such as a voluntary witness interview or inquiry like this one. It’s unusual for an OIA attorney to handle it,” the former trial attorney explained.
They also said that interactions with the media require authorization from senior Justice Department leadership.
“There is a whole set of onerous protocols in place for trial attorneys seeking information from a media organization, and the decision to move forward would be made at high levels at the DOJ. This particular request is not your run-of-the-mill criminal investigation, so you can be fairly sure that it received very high-level exposure,” the source said.
Justice Department spokesperson Joshua Stueve declined to comment.
Earlier in 2020, the U.S. government-funded media organization Voz de América, the Spanish-language complement to Voice of America, singled out the same two researchers by name in an article. The story implied that they could be taken to court over their study.
“Bolivia roundly rejected the supposed study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, by its English initials), which assured that there had been no electoral fraud in Bolivia,” begins the story dated March 5, 2020, by Yuvinka Gozalvez Avilés.
Avilés writes that Karen Longaric, then Bolivia’s minister of foreign affairs, “dismissed the idea of pressing charges against the two people who published the article,” and warned that there are harsher sanctions than a judicial investigation, namely to be professionally discredited.
“Both experts belong to MIT; however the institution denied any participation or authority in said document, clarifying that both people ‘saw the project through as independent contractors of the Center for Economic Policy and Research,’” Avilés continues. The Center for Economic Policy and Research told The Intercept that they had not received any communication from Voz de América for the article, nor did they hear from the Justice Department about the investigation. MIT’s press team did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.
The article also echoes a baseless allegation from Longaric that the MIT researchers’ report “is linked to people connected to the disputed president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, an ally of former president Evo Morales.” Avilés does not provide any evidence for this claim but quotes Longaric saying of the researchers: “We can assert that once again those enemies of democracy tried under false pretenses to disrupt the rule of law in Bolivia and obstruct the elections.” (Trump allies also claimed that Venezuela had a hand in stealing his own election.)
Leading up to the second Election Day, the right-wing media ecosystem was once again rife with claims that the vote would be rigged, but the effort failed the second time, as MAS won in a landslide. Morales, then still in exile, did not run, but his protégé Luis Arce won 55 percent of the vote. Once again, there would be no runoff.
Áñez had dropped out of contention a month before the new election, leaving Mesa again as the leading opposition candidate. Morales has since returned to Bolivia from exile, and Áñez has been arrested, charged by the new government with terrorism, sedition, and conspiracy.
In the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol in January, a former CIA official named Robert Grenier published an article in the New York Timestitled “How to Defeat America’s Homegrown Insurgency.” His recommendations were mild when it came down to the specifics: finding and prosecuting those who carry out violence, engaging in a national dialogue, and holding Donald Trump accountable politically. Grenier, though, had once run the CIA’s counterterrorism center and played key roles in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. His article invoked those conflicts. Before the riot, he wrote, “it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program. But this is where we are.”
After the article was published, I received a message from a longtime U.S. soldier. He had once belonged to one of the right-wing militant groups that Grenier’s proposed counterinsurgency program would target and remained well-connected among them. “Mike, this is making the rounds,” the message read. “It’s stories like this that set folks on edge.”
The soldier — whom I’ll refer to as Hawkeye, an echo of the nickname he uses in militant circles — served in the same conflicts Grenier was referencing and has scars from injuries sustained along the way. When I called, he was at a military base, training troops ahead of their deployments. Grenier wasn’t alone in comparing right-wing Americans to foreign adversaries; an onrush of commentary has applied the familiar terms of the global war on terror to the types of people who stormed the Capitol. Sometimes, the discussion ties violent extremists together with a broader segment of society. Former CIA Director John Brennan, in one of his frequent TV appearances, warned of “an unholy alliance” of undesirables, including racists and fascists as well as “religious extremists” and “even libertarians,” that “looks very similar to insurgency movements that we’ve seen overseas.” Domestic terrorism is a newly popular term.
To Hawkeye, the implications were apparent: Calling someone an insurgent or terrorist implied permission to marginalize him, strip him of his rights, detain him, hunt him, and kill him. He’d done this himself to people tagged with those labels overseas. “When I think terrorist,” he told me, “I think, take your ass to Gitmo, and that’s where you belong.”
Now he was finding himself on the other end of it. “America has always had a boogeyman,” he said. “At one point it was Germany, then it became Korea, then it became Russia, and then all of a sudden it’s Middle Easterners.” As he sensed the government’s sights turning his way, he was stripping his social media accounts of political references and being careful about what he said. “I’m posting nothing but cat videos and family reunions. I’m trying to mitigate as much as possible.” More than three dozen active and retired members of the military allegedly took part in the Capitol riot; the following month, Lloyd Austin, the new defense secretary, ordered a military-wide “stand down” to address extremism in the ranks, pledging zero tolerance for “actions associated with extremist or dissident ideologies,” and he later urged service members to report encounters with extremists. Military officials also circulated a list of symbols that ranged from the Nazi swastika to the logos of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, two militant groups that were implicated in the riot.
Hawkeye wasn’t the only soldier wondering how far the definition of extremist might extend, he said. One of the men he was training had a Three Percenter tattoo and was talking about getting it removed. (He has since had it overlaid with a different design, Hawkeye told me recently, though “you can still see it if you know what you’re looking for.”) Others wondered whether T-shirt slogans like “Trump Is Still My President” could get them flagged. “It’s scary, because that’s my entire life I have invested,” Hawkeye said. “That’s kind of my version of a 401k, making sure I can retire and live my life happily.” All of that could be at risk, he worried, “just because the current administration says you’re a violent extremist.”
Yet he still believed the aggressive measures America had deployed in the name of combating violent extremism overseas — and in many cases, against Muslims at home — were justified. He was no advocate for closing Guantánamo Bay. “It’s very hypocritical,” he acknowledged. “But if we knew they were an extremist and fit the profile, or knew these people were being turned into extremists — if all the target indicators were there — I don’t have a problem with it. If you want to keep America safe, you have to find out who the bad guys are.”
“We’ve always needed an enemy, and that’s the good part and the bad part about us.”
I remarked that, by his own standard, he was someone who should be investigated. He had watched the Capitol riot on TV, was against the violence, and was unconvinced by claims that the election had been stolen. He wasn’t a white supremacist, or even white. But he’d been an active member of the Oath Keepers, a group known for recruiting in the police and military and at the center of FBI investigations into January 6. “Would I consider myself fair game? I guess the honest answer would be yeah, I guess I would. That’s a harsh fact to admit, but yeah,” he said. “How do you square the hypocrisy? I honestly wish I knew. In today’s society, where everything seems to be upside down and backwards, is there even a right answer anymore?”
“Like I was saying before,” he continued, “we’ve always needed an enemy, and that’s the good part and the bad part about us. It pushes us to be better and come up with new ways to defeat a potential enemy. But at the same time, this hysteria and paranoia kind of fucks us over.”
Capt. Michael Witherspoon watches a video of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin address extremism within the U.S. military during a mandated stand-down at Virginia Beach, Va. on March 1, 2021.
Photo: Travis J. Kuykendall/ U.S. Navy
It’s not so much that a new national security complex is building up around right-wing extremism. It’s more that the one that already exists around Islamist extremism is adaptable. The country has legions of analysts, experts, journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, and current and former government officials who know how to rally around an extremist threat. Regular citizens, too, are used to being swept up in their fears of it. This is not the first time, of course, that such fears have turned inward. Muslim Americans have been caught in this trap for two decades. They’ve had their mosques infiltrated by federal agents; their political and charitable donations closely tracked; their social media posts monitored; their allegiances questioned. They’ve seen what it means when violent extremists are grouped with a wider swath of society. The difference, in this polarized moment, is that so many Americans on either half of the political divide seem so willing to turn this machine against the other side.
I spent the year leading up to the Capitol attack listening to people on the militant right discuss their opponents on the left in the language of counterinsurgency. They called antifa and Black Lives Matter activists domestic terrorists. They cheered when federal agents in Portland, Oregon, pulled left-wing protesters into unmarked vans and called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. In the months since January 6, many liberals have seized on the opportunity to return the favor. For those on the right who’ve served in the military since 9/11, and whose militant leanings predispose them to see elements of the left as dangerously extreme, this experience has been especially disorienting.
“You don’t think I have stuff on my Facebook account that they could consider insurrectionist because I’m very conservative, and just because I work for the government, doesn’t mean I trust it?”
I spoke to a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve who asked not to be named, like others in this story, because, as he put it, “We’re literally talking about the military doing a loyalty test.” He’d never been in a militant group but sympathized with the ideology of the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers and was lamenting that “there’s no separation between an opinion and a human being anymore” as he worried about all the Trumpy posts and memes he’d put online. “You don’t think I have stuff on my Facebook account that they could consider insurrectionist because I’m very conservative, and just because I work for the government, doesn’t mean I trust it?” he asked. “There’s my question. I don’t know.”
One fear for the forever wars has always been that the systems America deploys overseas, in places where its laws and Constitution don’t apply, will eventually come home, in the name of fighting not only foreign threats on U.S. soil, but also domestic ones. More Americans seem to be getting a small sense of what this might feel like. “The government is not tyrannical yet. It’s just a pain in the dick,” the reservist said. But he sympathized with an argument, common on the militant right, that the path is paved with incremental steps: “the idea,” he said, “that you can get to a bad place very slowly.” This is the space where complaints about social media censorship and cancel culture can accelerate into talk of Soviet gulags and Nazi Germany; with the hunt supposedly on for extremists in the military, some service members are feeling the anxiety more acutely. “Look at it like this,” he said. “Let’s say you are a guy [in the military] who’s involved with the Oath Keepers in your time off, and you’re on their rolls, and you have no plans of overthrowing the government … and then one day, your commander shows up and you’re being forced out because you’re with this group. You’re out of a job. What did the government just do? They created the thing that they’re afraid of, because now that guy is pissed, and if he didn’t already think the government was coming after people, he sure does now. And he’s been at war for 20 years. You think he knows something [about how to fight]?”
Soldiers with the 1st Theater Sustainment Command participate in an extremism stand-down at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, March 16, 2021.
Photo: Spc. Zoran Raduka 1st TSC Public Affairs/U.S. Army
As much as I’ve heard such talk from people in and around right-wing militant groups since January 6, though, I’ve also heard resignation. I got a call last month from a Marine veteran and former private military contractor who was in a mood to vent. He’d waited to get involved with the Oath Keepers and similar groups until he was done working overseas. Then, eventually, he’d stepped away from them, deciding that their threats of political violence were both dangerous and dumb. He mocked those who talked about insurrection and then stormed the Capitol without guns. “If you look at what a real insurgency looks like, that wasn’t it. Granted, that doesn’t justify what they did,” he told me. “If your words are one thing and your actions are another, then you have a consistency crisis. If the course of action is not legitimate, why even talk about it? You’re just a blowhard, because people in the end — and the right is no exception to this — are not willing to make sacrifices.”
“I think the right is probably just going to walk away with a whimper,” he continued, and he really didn’t see a better choice. If they’d been serious about what he called “preserving” the country, he said, they should have spent more time engaging in the political process instead of threatening to overthrow it if it didn’t go their way. “We’re stuck in this position now where we can’t really do much,” he said, “because no sane person wants revolution.”
The former contractor, the reservist, and Hawkeye are the sorts of people who might get involved in civil violence if there were ever a serious and sustained outbreak of it, but are also sensible enough to see that this path is highly undesirable. If they caught wind of someone planning an attack, they’d likely inform the authorities. (“I would try first to dissuade them of it,” Hawkeye told me, adding that if he couldn’t, he’d call the FBI.) The fever dream of the most radical-minded militants, and of so-called accelerationists, meanwhile, is to provoke either a massive government overreaction or a general societal breakdown that could push these more serious-minded people, along with a larger segment of the country, to get involved in a civil conflict. It’s part of their obsession with America’s founding generation, the ultimate provocateurs. You could call trying to understand and manage the various currents within right-wing militancy a counterinsurgency strategy, or you could call it law enforcement. “It’s a form of community policing,” Tom O’Connor, who was an expert on militant groups in the FBI and the head of its agents’ association before retiring in 2019, told me. “It’s getting out and getting to know people and sitting down with them. Because when things start going to the extreme, not everyone who signs up is actually down with that. There are going to be those who are stepping out [and alerting authorities]. And that’s what you need.”
The forever wars have helped make Americans more militant and infused their terms and zero-sum mindset into our politics.
He worried that conflating the problem with America’s overseas conflicts would confuse the response to it. “There are a lot of international terrorism experts who aren’t getting the same attention they got years ago and are going to be [moving over to] this,” he said. “It’s going to become a cottage industry.”
A more useful discussion of America’s post-9/11 expeditionary wars might revolve around their failings. In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Nate Rosenblatt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, and Jason Blazakis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, cautioned that taking a “reductionist approach” to the kind of political violence that erupted on January 6 and the people who took part in it “risks creating more enemies rather than fewer, and threatens to make the same mistakes at home as the country has made in twenty years of combatting terrorism abroad.” These include failing to understand the true nature of the threat; driving people into the arms of extremist groups with overly broad and aggressive policies; and alienating potential allies. The authors urge the Biden administration to “overcome the national crisis in political violence by separating moderates from those ideologically extreme enough to commit political violence.”
In the end, the authors are still embracing a counterinsurgency framework: The recommendation above is in line with doctrine developed by U.S. military strategists such as David Petraeus. But talking about U.S. efforts at counterinsurgency overseas in a domestic context can be misleading. Even when these efforts have had some success, as in the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, they’ve revolved around arming indigenous forces to kill the enemy and airstrikes. The entire discussion is also centered on a fallacy. It assumes a U.S. government endowed with hegemonic power seeking to enforce its will in weaker countries. What we’re really talking about with domestic political violence, however, is an America beginning to turn on itself at home. To me, the most relevant way to consider the forever wars here is to grapple with the ways they’ve helped to make Americans more militant and infused the terms and zero-sum mindset of those conflicts into our politics.
A demonstrator wears an Oath Keepers badge on a protective vest during a protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021.
Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The problem of right-wing militancy, meanwhile, is especially fraught because of the degree to which militant groups have incorporated themselves into mainstream conservatism. Oath Keepers, for example, recruited at tea party rallies in the group’s early days and gave speeches at local Republican events. The party has since embraced the charged rhetoric about socialism, tyranny, and international conspiracies that militant groups espoused long before it became politically fashionable under Trump. At the same time, militant groups have worked to co-opt the ethos of the police and military. The black-and-gold Oath Keepers logo is modeled on the Army Rangers seal. The group defines itself on the oaths members of the police and military swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic — which it often portrays as antifa, Black Lives Matter, and Democrats. Even members of self-styled militias who never served will talk with pride about the similar oaths they swear when they join their outfits. The founding myth of the Three Percenters, that only this small percentage of the population took part in the Revolutionary War, can appeal to soldiers who sign up to fight in the long-running conflicts most Americans ignore. Militant groups portray themselves as champions of small government and gun rights. They’ve blended into the back-the-blue, kneel-for-the-cross-and-stand-for-the-flag brand of patriotism that has come to define the Republican Party.
I received an email recently from a woman named Joneen Flemings in North Carolina. She has no affiliation with militant groups and wasn’t defending them, but worried that my focus on the subject plays into a larger effort to demonize all conservatives. “I am acquainted with some in the military who are currently under investigation after outrageous allegations in the press for attending the Jan 6 rally in DC, possible poster children or fall guys for the [military’s stand-down],” she wrote. She saw the response to January 6 as a potential bridge to an attack on her own identity and politics. “I am a conservative, voted for Donald Trump, and a devout Roman Catholic. All those ‘extremes’ that I now understand make me such a potential public enemy number one.”
People on the militant right often paint elements of the left as violent extremists and terrorists even as they decry being targeted with these same terms themselves.
She was so troubled by the national dialogue that she couldn’t sleep, she wrote, and was composing her message at 2 a.m. “‘Civil war,’ ‘treason,’ ‘insurrection,’ ‘coup,’ ‘sedition’ and ‘execution’ are all terms thrown around in social media parlance, not in the least propagated by the media without any attempt at moderation or de-escalation. This is totally out of bounds on all sides, no doubt — and yeah, conservatives are as bad as liberals and probably always have been,” she wrote. “But the current course set by what you choose to emphasize in the press, instead of providing or proposing a solution or even just shining something of an objective light on the whole of the problem, is blanket characterizing conservatives as extremist, irrational, and volatile.”
Her message was both a plea for empathy and a call for the other side to be targeted too. “I am wondering why you did not write about Antifa at all, or the Black Lives Matter movement,” she wrote, adding that she could find nothing in my work about alleged violence by left-wing protesters.
This is a common theme among conservatives that also runs through my conversations with people on the militant right, who often paint elements of the left as violent extremists and terrorists even as they decry being targeted with these same terms themselves. “The whole antifa movement, personally, I see that as literally about as domestic terrorism as you can get,” Hawkeye told me. I remarked that people on both the left and right seemed to be growing more comfortable applying that label to the other side. “I think a lot of it is the escalation of force from both sides,” he replied. “At what point does that escalation stop, you know? Is it all-out war on the streets? Or is someone going to actually have the good idea to say let’s work it out somehow?”
But can you work it out with people you’ve written off as terrorists? “It’s not good,” he conceded. “And then you have to ask yourself, once we start rolling down that slope, where do we stop?”
“It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked,” the billionaire investor Warren Buffett has famously said.
During the crash of 2008, the whole world learned just how dangerously nude Wall Street was. Now evidence is accumulating that suggests that many financial institutions are skinny-dipping once more — via similar types of lending that could lead to similar disasters as the water recedes again due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A longtime industry analyst has uncovered creative accounting on a startling scale in the commercial real estate market, in ways similar to the “liar loans” handed out during the mid-2000s for residential real estate, according to financial records examined by the analyst and reviewed by The Intercept. A recent, large-scale academic study backs up his conclusion, finding that banks such as Goldman Sachs and Citigroup have systematically reported erroneously inflated income data that compromises the integrity of the resulting securities.
The analyst’s findings, first reported by ProPublica last year, are the subject of a whistleblower complaint he filed in 2019 with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Moreover, the analyst has identified complex financial machinations by one financial institution, one that both issues loans and manages a real estate trust, that may ultimately help one of its top tenants — the low-cost, low-wage store Dollar General — flourish while devastating smaller retailers.
This time, the issue is not a bubble in the housing market, but apparent widespread inflation of the value of commercial businesses, on which loans are based.
Those who remember news coverage at the time know that the tale of the 2008 financial implosion involved an enormous swirl of numbers and acronyms. But when boiled down to its essence, the story of the housing bubble of the 2000s, and plausibly Wall Street’s actions today, is simple: It’s counterfeiting.
Traditional counterfeiters print money: pieces of paper that supposedly are worth their face value but in fact are worth nothing.
Wall Street counterfeiters during the housing bubble printed securities: pieces of paper that supposedly were worth their face value but in fact were worth much less.
This time, the issue is not a bubble in the housing market, but apparent widespread inflation of the value of commercial businesses, on which loans are based.
In the mid-2000s, companies like Countrywide Financial Corp. issued so-called liar loans. Often without informing the borrowers themselves, Countrywide and other loan companies would claim that, say, a bartender was making $500,000 a year, allowing them to borrow enough money to buy a home that they couldn’t possibly afford. The originating banks then took the loans, which could never be paid back on the bartender’s real income, and securitized them — i.e., bundled them together into a trust, which was then sliced up into bonds called residential mortgage-backed securities. These securities behave similarly to regular bonds, coming with a quality rating and an interest rate that they pay out. These securities, sold to credulous investors such as pension funds, were the counterfeit paper of the period, remaining valuable as long as home prices rose, which allowed the bartender to refinance or sell the property when the payments got out of hand.
When prices stopped rising, the housing bubble collapsed, and those at both ends of the transaction were ruined. Borrowers, unable to sell or refinance, were thrown out of their homes. Many investors, who generally thought that they were buying risk-free bonds, lost huge sums. But by then, middlemen like Countrywide’s CEO Angelo Mozilo had taken home hundreds of millions of dollars from the fees for originating and packaging the mortgage loans.
Now it may be happening again — this time not with residential mortgage-backed securities, based on loans for homes, but commercial mortgage-backed securities, or CMBS, based on loans for businesses. And this industrywide scheme is colliding with a collapse of the commercial real estate market amid the pandemic, which has business tenants across the country unable to make their payments.
Former Countrywide Financial Corp. CEO Angelo Mozilo emerges from a courthouse after testifying in the wrongful dismissal suit of a top executive of Countrywide in Van Nuys, Calif., on Jan. 18, 2010.
Photo: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
John M. Griffin and Alex Priest are, respectively, a prominent professor of finance and a Ph.D. candidate at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. In a study released last November, they sampled almost 40,000 CMBS loans with a market capitalization of $650 billion underwritten from the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2019.
“Overall,” they write, “actual net operating income falls short of underwritten income by 5% or more in 28% of loans.” This was just the average, however: Some originators — including an unusual company called Ladder Capital as well as the Swiss bank UBS, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley — were significantly worse, “having more than 35% of their loans exhibiting 5% or greater income overstatement.” The below graph from the paper illustrates just how prevalent this issue is with some of Wall Street’s biggest names:
Overstatement by originator.
Image: “Is COVID Revealing a CMBS Virus?” by Professor John M. Griffin and Alex Priest, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin
The paper explains that the authors are “interested in studying intentional income overstatement.” In an interview, Priest said that “we find that the direct inflation of past financials is common practice in the industry” and “our tests demonstrate that this really doesn’t seem to be a pattern that’s driven by coincidence. … It’s hard to argue that these originators are just naive,” making innocent mistakes.
One way the authors approach the issue is by examining whether lending institutions overstated borrower income more or less frequently during the first half of the seven years it covers (i.e., 2013-15) compared to the second half (2016-19). Unintentional overstatement should have occurred at random times. Or if lenders were assiduous and the overstatement was unwitting, one might expect it to diminish over time as the lenders discovered their mistakes. Instead, with almost every lender, including Ladder, the overstatement increased as time went on.
These income overstatements might cause defaults under any circumstances. But it has been particularly dangerous in a severe economic downturn like the one caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “There is an economically and statistically significant relation,” Griffin and Priest write, “between originator income overstatement and distress.” That is, loans where the fundamentals were misstated are, unsurprisingly, more likely to go bad during this crisis. All these banks are swimming naked.
The level of distress in the industry can be seen in this graph created by Trepp, a company that produces a specialized database for the commercial real estate and structured finance industries. The overall delinquency rate for commercial mortgage-based securities shot up last year to the same level as the peak during the last economic collapse. And CMBS delinquencies for retail and lodging businesses reached unprecedented heights.
CMBS delinquency rates.
Image: Courtesy of Trepp
This is not just the conclusion of academics.
John Flynn has worked in commercial real estate for decades, including stints at GMAC Commercial Mortgage and the ratings agencies Moody’s and Fitch. He now provides advisory and consulting services for CMBS investors, borrowers, and lawyers.
In conversation, Flynn comes across much like the investor Michael Burry in “The Big Short,” combining a love for financial arcana with deep outrage at how the system screws the little guy. “I’m not a perfect angel,” says Flynn. “But there has to be a limit.”
Flynn’s whistleblower complaint filed with the SEC states that he has identified “about $150 billion in inflated CMBS” issued since 2013 by banks such as Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank and the “shadow bank” Ladder Capital.
But it’s easiest to understand what seems to be happening in the CMBS market by looking at a single trust.
Take one called “LCCM 2017 LC26,” which Flynn has examined in fine-grain detail. What he’s found appears similar to the residential mortgage trusts of the 2000s, with some newfangled twists.
LCCM 2017 LC26 consists of 57 commercial real estate loans bundled together, with a total unpaid principal balance of $625 million. LCCM stands for Ladder Capital Commercial Mortgage Securities, the trust depositor. 2017 is the year the trust was created. LC stands for Ladder Capital Finance, the trust’s sponsor and mortgage loan seller. 26 means it’s the 26th in a series.
Ladder Capital is best known for being one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest creditors.
LCCM and LC are both subsidiaries of Ladder Capital, a small Wall Street firm best known for being one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest creditors. According to Trump’s 2020 financial disclosure, companies he controls owe Ladder a minimum of $110 million, including a mortgage on Trump Tower for at least $50 million. Jack Weisselberg, the son of Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg — considered the architect of Trump tax and financial strategies — is a director at Ladder and reportedly a senior loan-origination officer there.
Ladder was founded by three former executives who all worked at Dillon Read Capital Management, an internal hedge fund at UBS that collapsed in 2007 after making investments in the subprime housing market. Ladder is a real estate investment trust that also produces and sells commercial mortgage-backed securities. It’s the type of nonbank financial institution that has proliferated since Congress passed the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act in an attempt to rein in Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis. Ladder Capital did not respond to several requests for comment.
According to the documentation for a memo Flynn produced for journalists, he found problems with 13 of the 57 loans in LCCM 2017 LC26. The 13 loans were worth $203 million, or 32.5 percent of the total value of the trust’s unpaid principal. Finding those problems took enormous legwork, not the type of diligence typically conducted by investors who acquire these securities. The documents that undergird trusts like LCCM 2017 LC26 are publicly available but only with access to a premium subscription service. The documents produced to vouch for the quality of a loan are not typically investigated by investors — or, in most cases, ratings agencies — who rely on the word of the summary and prospectus produced by the issuer of the security. The offering circular for LCCM 2017 LC26 is 407 pages long, plus hundreds more pages of appendices.
The circular includes standard “safe harbor” language emphasizing that Ladder cannot predict the future performance of the bonds issued by the trust. But as Flynn found, the issue was Ladder’s representations of the past.
First, Flynn discovered that the 13 loans had previously been packaged into other trusts, which allowed him to compare how previous lenders had characterized the loans versus how Ladder was now characterizing them. For instance, if a previous lender had said a property had generated a certain amount of income in 2015, you would expect that Ladder would provide the same numbers for that year. But in many cases, it didn’t. Sometimes the numbers weren’t even close.
If a previous lender had said a property had generated a certain amount of income in 2015, you would expect that Ladder would provide the same numbers for that year. But in many cases, it didn’t.
Even if investors did attempt to scour the documents for anomalies, doing so would have been extraordinarily difficult. Flynn had to engage in laborious detective work, as the names or addresses of the 13 relevant borrowers in LCCM 2017 LC26 were often different from their listings in previous trusts. In order to find previous loan documents to compare to current ones, Flynn often had to get creative. For instance, Flynn looked for matches between tenants or square footage of the property being purchased to determine that a loan in LCCM 2017 LC26 was the same as the one in a previous trust.
Flynn then looked at two key financial metrics for each loan: the property’s net operating income, or NOI, and net cash flow, or NCF. In the world of commercial mortgages, a property’s NOI and NCF hold a significance similar to a borrower’s income for residential mortgages. The higher the numbers, the more creditworthy you are, allowing you to borrow more at lower interest rates.
The previous trust’s servicers had reported the NOI and NCF. Then when Ladder Capital packaged them into a new trust, Ladder also reported the NOI and NCF. But the numbers didn’t match.
For instance, one of the loans in LCCM 2017 LC26 was for $14.1 million to refinance the mortgage on an office building in Wilmington, Delaware. The building was 160,500 square feet, all of which was leased by Verizon.
According to the old trust, the building’s NOI for 2016 was $1,285,465. But according to LCCM 2017 LC26, the building’s NOI for 2016 was $1,717,350 — 33.6 percent higher.
According to the old trust, the building’s NCF for 2016 was $1,273,427. But according to LCCM 2017 LC26, the building’s NCF for 2016 was $1,717,350, or 34.9 percent higher.
By Flynn’s calculations, as of April 2019, the 13 anomalous loans had, in aggregate, total inflated NOIs of $2.5 million and NCFs of $3.85 million.
This makes them look much like the loans of the housing bubble. Flynn alleges in his SEC complaint that companies like Ladder Capital have an incentive to exaggerate a business’ income. As Flynn explains in his memo, Ladder “takes profits and fees from originating, arranging, and selling the loans into CMBS trusts, and then selling the securities.”
Flynn also alleges in the complaint that changes in names and addresses when loans are moved out of old trusts and into new ones are not an accident but suggestive of deliberate obfuscation. “The correlation of name and address changes with inflated numbers,” he says, “is something like 95 percent.”
Ironically, Ladder Capital’s website describes commercial real estate underwriting — i.e., the accurate assessment of the creditworthiness of borrowers — as its “core competency.”
Ladder Capital describes commercial real estate underwriting as its “core competency.”
Image: Ladder Capital
That’s the part of the story that’s similar to the 2008 crisis. But it gets even stranger.
Ladder Capital does not just make loans. As its website explains, it does indeed engage in “originating senior first mortgage fixed and floating rate loans collateralized by commercial real estate.” But it also makes money “owning and operating commercial real estate.”
The money for the loans that make up LCCM 2017 LC26 did not come from Ladder. Rather, it borrowed the money on a short-term basis from Wells Fargo, and then one of its subsidiaries, Ladder Capital Finance LLC, loaned it to companies that wished to take out a mortgage to buy commercial property (or refinance an existing mortgage). It then packaged these 57 loans into the trust. But of the 57 loans, 23 of them, totaling $76.7 million, were made by Ladder Capital Finance LLC to another Ladder subsidiary in the real estate business, Ladder Capital Finance Holdings LLLP. In other words, contrary to the admonition to neither a lender nor a borrower be, Ladder was both in the same transaction.
A pedestrian wearing a face mask walks past a Wells Fargo branch in New York on July 9, 2020.
Photo: Peter Foley/Bloomberg via Getty Images
In LCCM 2017 LVC26, 21 of the 23 loans were used by Ladder Capital to purchase properties where Dollar General is Ladder Capital’s sole tenant. (The other two loans Ladder Capital made to itself were used to buy properties with tenants including Bank of America and Walgreens.) Ladder’s relationship with Dollar General is significant for the company: During a 2020 earnings call, Ladder’s co-founder and president Pamela McCormack stated that “our three largest tenants are Dollar General, BJ’s, and Walgreens.”
This, Flynn contends in his memo, could allow Ladder Capital to make money coming and going. First, Ladder subsidiaries would get the fees for originating and packaging the loans. Next, the seemingly exaggerated NOI and NCF numbers for the 13 problem loans push down the interest rates for the entire trust, including Ladder Capital’s loans to itself.
That’s where Dollar General comes in. Because Ladder Capital is paying the trust a lower interest rate on its mortgages than it would be if the cash flow and income numbers had not been increased, its monthly loan services costs for its properties logically must be lower. And if that lower cost is then translated into a cheaper rent for the tenant — in this case Dollar General, though the logic would apply generally — that means the store’s overall costs would go down significantly, especially compared to other retailers operating in the same areas.
Rent is the largest cost for many retailers, particularly understaffed stores run by underpaid employees and stores with low-margin sales of low-priced consumer products.
Daniel Stone worked for four years for Dollar General as a market planning analyst, where he was responsible for finding prime locations for new stores. He said the rent at a potential store was the most significant factor he would look at. “Rent was the largest year-to-year cost,” he said, noting that many stores employed just two or three full-time workers. If the rent on a potential location was too high, he said, the company would push back, explaining that they could only open a location at a particular price. Often, he said, as much as $10,000 a year would be knocked off the annual rent by the would-be landlord, and the store would be opened.
He was fired in April 2020, he said, after expressing concerns about the way workers were being treated in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “They classify you as a manager so they don’t have to pay you overtime,” Stone said.
A person walks by a Dollar General store on Dec. 11, 2018, in New York.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Tom Barrack, a close friend of Trump’s and a leading real estate investor, made the same point about the significance of rent costs for low-margin retailers earlier in 2020 — and warned about the fragility of the CMBS market during the pandemic. “When commerce stops and they can’t pay rent,” Barrack said on Bloomberg TV, “and they can’t pay interest on the debt, and then the banks or the intermediaries can’t pay the investors, it all collapses.”
Moreover, the spread of Dollar General stores and stores like it is widely understood to be bad for the health of communities where they’re located. They sell snacks, drinks, and canned foods — which makes regular supermarkets reluctant to open locations nearby — but limited or no produce or fruit, thereby creating food deserts. Communities across the U.S. have tried to stop the opening of dollar stores.
Nonetheless, Dollar General’s stock has gone up almost 150 percent in the past five years. Now, as tens of millions of Americans still face economic hardship and are desperate to spend as little as possible, Dollar General is trading near its highest level ever.
So we know who seemingly benefits from LCCM 2017 LC26. The victims of it are more diffuse but just as real.
There are the investors, including pension funds and college endowments, who will be left holding the bag if borrowers received larger loans than they could service and end up defaulting.
“Just in the commercial mortgage market, you have $4.5 trillion,” Barrack said. “And that money needs to keep recycling to keep people moving and to keep employers in their buildings so that they can hire employees. If that stops, margin calls at the banks, to all the intermediaries. We talk about the nonbank banks and the shadow banks that after Dodd-Frank were instituted in order to create more liquidity in the system for mortgages — when that stops, everything stops.” That is, if stores can’t pay their rent, their landlords can’t pay their mortgages, less money flows into the trusts created from those securitized mortgages, investors in the trust don’t get paid, and the whole system freezes.
Other victims include the businesses that are forced to raise capital without the advantage of artificially low interest rates. “Misrepresentations made in the loan sales allow complicit lender/owners to subsidize and decrease interest rates payable for their own loans,” Flynn argues in his memo, which gives them “a competitive advantage over competing retailers.”
That brings us to today. “The pandemic has justifiably renewed concerns about the fragility of the CMBS market and the possibility of a new, commercial, mortgage crisis,” according to a memo from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, an international white-shoe law firm that specializes in large-scale, complex lawsuits.
There’s been, the firm warns, “a steady drumbeat of warnings regarding troubling origination and underwriting practices impacting the long-term stability of the market.” This has already translated into litigation similar to that during the 2008 meltdown: In February, the SEC filed a lawsuit against a credit rating agency for allegedly manipulating its CMBS rating methodology. Last September, another credit rating agency paid $2 million in fines to settle a similar SEC suit.
Flynn believes that a reckoning is coming, one way or another. “It’s incredible but not surprising that Wall Street is repeating the same kind of shenanigans, given there were no real repercussions after the subprime crisis,” says Flynn. “CMBS borrowers and investors will face more frequent defaults and higher losses from these kinds of issues as CMBS 2.0 credit and loan quality is laid bare by Covid-19.”
When Pete Hatemi, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University, got an email from a student he didn’t know asking him to become a faculty adviser for a conservative group on campus, he did some research on the organization, Young Americans for Freedom, and quickly decided that he wanted nothing to do with them. Among current and former leaders of YAF chapters across the country, he learned, were declared white supremacists, believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, and supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys. Some were involved with neo-Nazi activist Richard Spencer. And at least one had participated in the assault on the U.S. Capitol, staged by hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump less than a week before the student’s email.
As a matter of policy, Hatemi never gets involved in student groups no matter their affiliation, he said, but he thought it his responsibility to make sure that the student was aware of the group’s ties to far-right extremists. So he declined the request and offered some advice. “Your timing, frankly, could be seen as offensive to many,” he wrote, referring to the January 6 assault. “It might be time to reflect on what you stand for and what your organization stands for.”
Hatemi said he put quite some thought into his two-paragraph response. “The right thing to do was to say, ‘Hey, you need to take a look at what you’re doing and this group you belong to,’” he told me in an interview. “If I say nothing, what kind of educator am I?”
Within days, Hatemi’s email to the student was published on Campus Reform, a conservative website that bills itself as the “#1 Source for College News” and whose stated mission is to expose “liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses.” The article accused Hatemi of having “lashed out” at the student and “responded harshly” to his request. Quotes from Hatemi’s email also appeared in right-wing publications like The Federalist, The Blaze, and the Post Millennial, and they spread on social media, where they were manipulated and stripped of context. A deluge of hate mail followed, directed at Hatemi as well as at his university’s administration. Some of it threatened violence, prompting campus police to intervene, though Hatemi declined to comment on the details. The university did not respond to a request for comment.
Kara Zupkus, a spokesperson for YAF, wrote in an email to The Intercept that the group “has regularly condemned white nationalism, mob violence, and extremism.” She also referred to a statement the organization issued shortly after the incident involving Hatemi.
“It is Penn State YAF’s constitutional right to exist on campus – whether this professor likes it or not,” the group wrote then. “To attack all conservative students and YAF by accusing them of supporting riots and violence with no evidence is disgraceful and unbecoming of a professor at an institution of higher education.”
Campus Reform is published by the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that has trained conservative activists for four decades through the generous funding of billionaire donors like the Koch family. The institute reported more than $16 million in revenue in 2018 alone. Over the last several years, Campus Reform has targeted hundreds of college professors like Hatemi, leading to online harassment campaigns, doxxing, threats of violence, and calls on universities to fire their faculty. Professors featured in Campus Reform stories have felt isolated and confused as they came under attack, often over public statements they made but sometimes over things they said in class or even academic research they published. Campus Reform stories have regularly been picked up by a host of established conservative outlets, from Breitbart to Fox News, amplifying outrage and unleashing abuse in a manner that observers of the site note mirrors how far-right extremists attack their targets online.
“The effects of Campus Reform stories can be similar to the online harassment often deployed by white supremacists,” said Isaac Kamola, an assistant professor at Trinity College who studies the politics of higher education and closely monitors the site.
A majority were singled out over their comments on race, and Black professors were disproportionately targeted.
Kamola has tracked more than 1,570 stories posted on Campus Reform since 2020 and surveyed the 338 individuals they targeted, many of whose official profiles and contact details were linked to in stories about them. The survey, the results of which will be published by the American Association of University Professors’ Academe magazine, found that at least 40 percent of respondents received “threats of harm” following a Campus Reform article, mostly via email and social media but also often by phone, text message, or postal mail. One professor reported receiving thousands of emails, many of them laced with violent, racist, and sexist comments, Kamola said. In the most extreme cases, he added, online trolls published the professors’ personal information online, forcing them to change their phone numbers, leave their homes, and retain security. Less than half the people surveyed by Kamola reported receiving support from their universities’ administrations, and more than 12 percent reported facing disciplinary action as a result of a Campus Reform story. Three people said they lost their jobs.
The professors were targeted over a variety of liberal positions, the survey reveals, but a majority were singled out over their comments on race, and Black professors were disproportionately targeted. Those who discussed topics like antifa, Black Lives Matter, and Palestine were especially subjected to threats, the survey found. And the intimidation seemed to work, with nearly a quarter of surveyed professors saying that they dialed back their social media presence as a result of being targeted, even though others said that the experience bolstered their commitment to speak out about social justice issues.
“I basically know that Campus Reform has written something about me because I’ll just suddenly start getting vicious hate mail in my inbox,” said Asha Rangappa, a senior lecturer at Yale University who was twice the subject of Campus Reform stories and has described the site as an example of “domestic information warfare.”
“Within 24 hours, it will have been cited or replicated in an entire ecosystem of right-wing media,” she added, noting that professors who lacked the social media status to push back were particularly vulnerable. “It’s just never clear why it’s newsworthy; it’s portrayed as something crazy and outrageous, and it is never contextualized. But it very predictably turns into a barrage of targeted harassment.”
Campus Reform’s managing editor and the site’s chief spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. Morton Blackwell, a conservative activist and the founder and director of the Leadership Institute, wrote in an email to The Intercept that the institute “was founded to train and develop principled conservative leaders for our country: men and women who share our country’s founding principles of liberty, individual rights, and equal justice for all under the rule of law.”
Campus Reform is emblematic of the raging battle in American public discourse over so-called cancel culture, which the site’s writers have regularly lamented even as they set out to cancel the reputations and jobs of the people they attack. Campus Reform is also the product of a decades-old conservative and libertarian effort to shape the values of U.S. higher education through a series of organizations that give the appearance of a diverse and organic conservative campus movement but are in fact part of the same coordinated network.
First published in 2009 as a resource hub for conservative students at U.S. colleges, Campus Reform was created to give them what it called “weapons in their fight for the hearts and minds of the next generation of citizens, politicians, and members of the media,” according to research by Sam McCarthy, a student at Trinity College who works with Kamola and has been studying the site as part of her sociology thesis. About eight years ago, Campus Reform began to rebrand as a “news” site, McCarthy said, aiming to expose bias, waste, and abuse on college campuses and obscuring its political agenda behind a pledge of objectivity and “rigorous journalism standards.” Around that time, the site began to recruit and groom a cadre of student correspondents tasked with discovering instances of liberal misconduct; the site paid $50 per story, or $100 if they included video or photos, McCarthy found.
Soon Campus Reform established a tiered system of rewards for its contributing writers: After publishing four articles, a correspondent would rise from bronze to silver and make $75 a piece. After 15 articles, they would rise to gold and receive $100 per story. Other perks include a verified email account, a blue check on Twitter, business cards, and a press pass, as well as résumé writing help, recommendation letters, mentorship opportunities, and a pipeline to a career in conservative media. Campus Reform offers a way for student writers to build up a portfolio, a chance for their stories to go viral, and access to a steady stream of media gigs, with the most high-profile being appearances on “Fox and Friends” or “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Even nonwriters can benefit, making $50 for tipping the site off to supposed liberal abuse.
McCarthy calculated that the site’s most prolific writer has published 253 articles since last May, which could have earned them more than $26,000. And while student correspondents she interviewed shared the site’s politics and mission, they told her that the financial incentives were a main draw.
“There’s a lot of money in it,” she told me in an interview. “But there’s some real harm that comes out of this apparatus.”
After Campus Reform published a story about Alyssa Johnson, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, over a tweet she had posted in response to an incoming student’s racist slur, she faced such an onslaught of abuse and threats that she was forced to leave her home.
“Nobody directly said, ‘I’m going to come kill you,’ but it was so close to that.”
The story was picked up by scores of right-wing outlets, including Fox News, and went viral on social media and on a website for LSU sports fans, where insults and attacks against Johnson filled chat rooms for dozens of pages. “I read them all because I just wanted to make sure that nobody had found my address,” said Johnson, who is Asian American. She noted that a majority of the online comments as well as hundreds of emails she received were filled with sexist insults and “racial slurs about Asian people that I had never even known existed,” she said.
Johnson erased her social media profiles, unplugged her office phone, and filed a police report, but the intimidation got so bad that she ended up temporarily relocating with her husband and two small children to wait out the storm. “Nobody directly said, ‘I’m going to come kill you,’ but it was so close to that,” said Johnson, who declined to press charges even though police told her that some of the messages she received amounted to crimes. “I didn’t want to be worried about somebody showing up at my door, threatening my family.”
It took more than two months for the attention to die down. As Johnson learned more about Campus Reform, she connected with other people who had gone through similar experiences, and they built a network offering support to the site’s latest targets. Johnson has since taken a step back from Twitter. “I post much less; I don’t ever post opinions anymore or really any thoughts,” she told me, noting that she was consumed by guilt for putting her family in harm’s way. “I hate to give in because it’s exactly what they wanted: They wanted to silence me. But it was a feeling that I never want to feel again.”
“Most Universities Have No Clue”
Institutional responses to Campus Reform have varied significantly. A senior communication executive at a top-ranked private university, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid drawing Campus Reform’s attention, said that his university has a policy against responding to any requests by Campus Reform or the College Fix, another right-wing outlet with “an agenda to undermine respect and credibility for higher education.” When student journalists reach out to faculty members seeking comment on something they wrote or said, professors often want to answer in good faith, the executive added, providing thoughtful and lengthy responses that are invariably distorted to give the story an extra boost.
“We just hit delete,” he said. “Nothing good comes from engaging with them.”
Often both university administrators and instructors have little understanding of the amount of money and coordination by outside interests that goes into these attacks, said Kamola, who regularly reaches out to people targeted by Campus Reform with information about the site and its funders. Hatemi, the Pennsylvania State University professor, was surprised to learn from Kamola that Campus Reform was “actually a whole program” designed to put faculty through the barrage of harassment he had just experienced. “Most universities have no clue,” he said.
After he became the target of what felt like an organized intimidation effort, Hatemi dug into YAF as well as Campus Reform and the Leadership Institute and published a long essay detailing their ties to far-right extremists. In the essay, Hatemi listed more than half a dozen YAF affiliates with white supremacist views or connections and referenced YAF-sponsored campus activities like a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” contest and a “Koran Desecration” competition. While not all YAF members might have shared such views or participated in such activities, the fact that he could find so many examples “within minutes of researching YAF,” Hatemi wrote, spoke to the group’s deep connections to far-right extremism.
Hatemi said he hoped that his essay might help others in similar situations, but he also wanted to ensure that his own employer understood the Campus Reform story as “an outside, concerted effort to manipulate the system.” While no university official formally contacted him about it, he says he initially feared that he might face discipline, hearing “chatter” about it from colleagues, which disappeared as soon as he published his research.
Several professors argued that as learning institutions have increasingly come to view students as paying customers, they have become more preoccupied with reputational damage and public relations than with the tenets of intellectual freedom and education that are essential to academic life. “University administrators often don’t take the side of their faculty member because they don’t necessarily understand how the story originated, what the funding sources are, what the political intentions are of the platform,” said McCarthy. “And so we see the faculty member facing adverse consequences that they really should not have, under their academic freedom.”
In its own words, the Leadership Institute, Campus Reform’s publisher, aims to train “freedom fighters” to “effectively defeat the radical Left.” Funded by a host of well-known, ultrawealthy donors, including multiple foundations connected to the Koch family network, the institute claims to have trained more than 200,000 conservative activists since its founding in 1979 and offers a rich program with a heavy focus on media and communications.
Andrew Isenhour, a spokesperson for two major Koch institutions, wrote in an email to The Intercept that “no support or resources from the Charles Koch Foundation or Charles Koch Institute benefit Campus Reform.”
Isenhour did not respond to follow-up questions about the Koch family’s support for the Leadership Institute, which employs Campus Reform staff. According to DeSmog, an environmentalist publication that closely monitors the Koch network, the Leadership Institute received at least $278,958 from Koch-related foundations between 2003 and 2017. The Leadership Institute is also part of the State Policy Network, a group of think tanks and political groups funded through the Koch network. Top institute funders also include Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, anonymous conservative donor funds that have been called “the Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement.”
The Leadership Institute has long been a major player in mainstream conservative politics, and its early alumni include Republican elected officials like Sen. Mitch McConnell and former Vice President Mike Pence as well as James O’Keefe, the right-wing provocateur behind Project Veritas, famous for his doctored videos targeting the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and Planned Parenthood. There is a revolving door between the Leadership Institute, YAF, and other conservative youth groups like Young Americans for Liberty and Turning Point USA.
“The Leadership Institute has helped manufacture the right’s construction of anti-antifa hysteria, all while having a long history of platforming actual fascists.”
The group, however, also has a less-known history of ties to far-right movements and racist extremists. “There is actually a long history of close connections between the Leadership Institute and white nationalist organizations,” said Kamola, the Trinity professor. “The Leadership Institute has helped manufacture the right’s construction of anti-antifa hysteria, all while having a long history of platforming actual fascists.”
Matthew Heimbach, a neo-Nazi activist, former YAF chapter leader, and once-Leadership Institute trainee, told HuffPost in 2016 that the institute “trained this entire next generation of white nationalists.” The institute also employed Kevin DeAnna, another former YAF leader who started the campus-based white supremacist group Youth for Western Civilization. In his essay, Hatemi included photos of both Heimbach and DeAnna posing with neo-Nazi activist Richard Spencer as well as a photo of Spencer and Kyle Bristow, a former YAF chapter leader who called Latino students and faculty “savages” and went on to become an attorney for right-wing figures, representing both Spencer and KKK leader David Duke.
Hannah Gais, a senior researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism, said that the Leadership Institute “definitely has had, historically, ties to the far right and extremism.”
But Gais, who exposed writings DeAnna had posted under different pseudonyms on several prominent white nationalist publications, also noted that the institute is so large that “to a certain extent, some of these kinds of pseudo-anonymous white nationalists coming up through their ranks is sort of inevitable,” she said.
The far-right movement that resurfaced during the Trump years, she added, deliberately relied on the resources of established conservative institutions to gain political power. “If you’re a far-right extremist and you can kind of hide your views and make them seemingly more professional,” she added, “it’s a lot easier to lurk in these spaces.”
“Campus Reform’s content tends to be shared in fringe social media spaces where we have seen consistent thematic overlaps with other content we know plays well with right-wing audiences.”
More recently, former Leadership Institute intern Martin Christopher Rojas was exposed as an active contributor to a series of white supremacist publications, where he published more than 500 pieces under his own name and a series of pseudonyms. The Guardian and the nonprofit Right Wing Watch also recently reported that Michael J. Thompson, a regular in conservative circles who worked with the Leadership Institute and Campus Reform, was also a frequent contributor to online white supremacist publications, where, under the name “Paul Kersey,” he started the racist blog “Stuff Black People Don’t Like” and wrote lies about the demographic replacement of white Americans and the genetic inferiority of people of color. Thompson’s stories have since been scrubbed from Campus Reform.
In his email to The Intercept, Blackwell, the Leadership Institute’s founder, distanced himself from former institute affiliates.
“My Institute has employed hundreds of principled conservatives over the last 40 years,” he wrote. “A few former staffers managed to hide their beliefs from me and my staff. These individuals wrote racist articles under fake names to hide their identities. They went to great lengths to keep their true beliefs hidden. Such beliefs are entirely incompatible with employment at the Leadership Institute.”
Since rebranding as a news enterprise, Campus Reform has effectively been able to straddle between the mainstream conservative politics of its funders and a more radical audience active in fringe spaces and eager for content to feed its online wars.
According to an analysis by Media Matters for America, which monitors media and the web for conservative misinformation, Campus Reform stories have spread on Reddit as well as on social media platforms favored by the far right. Such platforms include Parler, the QAnon forum GreatAwakening.win, and Patriots.win, formerly thedonald.win, a forum for Trump supporters that moved to its own site after being banned by Reddit. “Our research has found that Campus Reform’s content tends to be shared in fringe social media spaces where we have seen consistent thematic overlaps with other content we know plays well with right-wing audiences,” said Stefanie Le, Media Matters’ deputy research director. “Similar to when an article from a conservative outlet goes viral on fringe platforms, users in these spaces attempt to focus on or invent conspiratorial implications of the stories and then use it to support other far-right narratives and stoke conversation.”
That feedback loop is indicative of how far-right discourse has benefited from the support of pillars of the conservative establishment and of the way that the latter have been willing to overlook the harm they enabled — a dynamic that Campus Reform lays bare.
“It really feeds into the conservative outrage machine that will take targets, tied especially to issues of culture war, and basically completely go off on them,” said Gais, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But they’re doing so with big money from the Koch Foundation.”
Among the panoply of bizarre memes that far-right extremists flash at Trump rallies and share obsessively online, one of the more disturbing for its frightening historical reference is that of the “Hoppean Snake.” The image typically consists of a coiled serpent sporting the officer’s cap of notorious Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet. In the background fly childlike depictions of helicopters from which stick figures are jettisoned to their death, crying “Aaaahhh” in a barely legible scrawl. In one of its many variants, the snake-as-Pinochet proclaims with a sardonic smirk, “I’m evil for throwing people out of helicopters? False. Commies aren’t people.” It’s unclear why Pinochet is depicted as a snake, though it may be inspired by the recalcitrant snake on the Gadsden flag that warns “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Far from being a joking homage to Pinochet — putschist, tyrant, torturer, mass murderer, puppet of the CIA, and hater of all things socialist, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 — the fetishized totem of the Hoppean Snake has dire significance for U.S. paramilitaries. When Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, armed Trumpists, and the like wear T-shirts that offer “free helicopter rides,” they are referencing a program of extermination.
Following Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état, which ended the short-lived and turbulent administration of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende, an avowed Marxist, thousands of Allende’s supporters were killed, tens of thousands of perceived enemies of the putschist regime were tortured, and thousands of others were disappeared, often after being flown in a military helicopter and toppled from the sky. Sometimes this free helicopter ride included splitting open the guts of kidnapped victims while they were still alive so that their bodies wouldn’t float when dumped in the sea.
U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet, right, photographed in Santiago, Chile, in 1986, wearing the military cap that is now being seen in an alt-right meme called the “Hoppean Snake.”
Photo: Alexis Duclos/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
“The Hoppean Snake is utilizing Cold War-era anti-communist imagery of a once-hidden history of right-wing brutality and terror that utilized U.S. military hardware,” said Portland-based investigative photojournalist Jeff Schwilk, who has documented the iconography of the alt-right since 2016. “Pinochet specifically hearkens to the heyday of U.S.-backed death squads in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, from the Phoenix Program in Vietnam to Suharto in Indonesia to the Contras in Nicaragua. It is a direct threat of the intention of deadly mass violence and future death squads targeting the left in the United States and anyone else deemed an enemy. It reveals the true nature of this ideology.”
On January 27, the Department of Homeland Security issued a terrorism advisory bulletin warning of the ongoing threat from far-right domestic extremists. The January 6 assault on the Capitol was said to be mere prologue, with “DVEs” — domestic violent extremists — now “emboldened … to target elected officials and government facilities.” The Homeland Security bulletin further warned of threats “against critical infrastructure, including the electric, telecommunications and healthcare sectors.”
In the wake of Allende’s election in 1970, right-wing elements in Chile formed a paramilitary group called Patria y Libertad, or Fatherland and Liberty. Patria y Libertad was not too different in spirit from the militias now common on the right in the U.S., though it had foreign funding and training, courtesy of the CIA. The group engaged in arsons, assassinations, and disruptions of infrastructure — exactly what the Department of Homeland Security warns we should expect from violent domestic extremists today.
I first came across the image of the Hoppean Snake while editing Schwilk’s 2020 book of essays and photography, “Unflattering Photos of Fascists: Authoritarianism in Trump’s America.” Schwilk’s intention was to find a modicum of humor in the costumed display and ostentation of the alt-right, and in the Hoppean Snake, there is something at first glance that’s comedic: the smiling crayon-colored reptile and the plunging stick figures, the deluded implication of a communist threat in U.S. politics (Who are these commies? I ask myself. The corporate capitalist dollar-drenched Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer?), all of it suggestive of ignorant, harmless folk propaganda. But this imagery, and the history it evokes, is far from harmless.
The origin of the name, when Schwilk first related it, seemed to strain belief. Prior to his entrance into the limelight of the epic realm of far-right struggle, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a German-born immigrant to the United States, was a mostly forgotten libertarian economist who served out his days in the dungeons of academia at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Hoppe’s claim to fame in the small world of libertarian economics was as second-stringer and all-around gopher to his hero and intimate friend, Ludwig von Mises, who was considered, alongside Friedrich August von Hayek, one of the leading lights of the so-called Austrian school of economics. The Austrian school posited that there was no such thing as society except as a concatenation of individual choices in the marketplace. The individual was all; society was a mere afterthought of the many atomized creatures in it, and any attempt to aggregate the interests of the clashing atoms — say, in the form of democratic decision-making via universal suffrage — was a form of oppressive statist intervention. Hoppe’s contribution to the Austrian school was his 2001 book, “Democracy: The God That Failed,” whose title basically was the message.
“The Hoppean Snake is utilizing Cold War-era anti-communist imagery of a once-hidden history of right-wing brutality and terror that utilized U.S. military hardware.”
That the snake is “Hoppean” begins to make a kind of conspiratorial sense when you consider the career of Mises’s intellectual brother, Hayek, who died in 1992. Hayek was a big fan of Pinochet, visiting Chile in 1975 to meet with the dictator to celebrate and advise on the dismantling of the country’s programs of social welfare, the massive privatization of public goods, and the deregulation of corporate interests. Along with Milton Friedman, Hayek was among the ambassadors of neoliberalism in fascist Chile described by Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine.” As historian Greg Grandin writes, “Hayek glimpsed in Pinochet the avatar of true freedom, who would rule as a dictator only for a ‘transitional period,’ only so long as needed to reverse decades of state regulation.” The concern of the libertarians — Hayek, Friedman, and their ilk — was the liberty of business to make more money but not at all the humans who were being murdered and tortured to further the great project of corporate freedom.
A meme depicts a snake wearing Pinochet’s military cap and reading the book “Democracy: The God That Failed” by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.
What garnered Hoppe the far right’s honor of associating him with Pinochet’s homicidal regime, however, was not the introduction of neoliberalism in Chile but specifically his musings about the democratic god that failed. Hoppe contends that the “physical removal” of undesirable citizens will be required in a putative libertarian “compact.” “There can be no tolerance,” he writes, “toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They — the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism — will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.”
When I wrote Hoppe to ask, as I put it in an email, about his name “being associated with a meme that celebrates mass murder,” he replied, “Your question — and insinuation — indicates that you are completely ignorant regarding my person and intellectual work. Even by the low intellectual standards of most contemporary journalists and journalism, then, [it] strikes me as scandalous and impudent. As even a cursory study of my website would reveal, for more than 40 years I have been an intellectual champion of private property right, free markets, freedom of contract and association, and peace.”
When I pressed him about the tying of his ideas to the snake meme, he wrote back, “What do I know? There are lots of crazy people out there!” Perhaps he should communicate this to the extremists who have adopted him as an avatar for a doctrine of terror.
Joe Biden has been sworn in as president, but the divisions exemplified by the January 6 assault on the Capitol are here to stay, if billionaire heir and far-right financier Rebekah Mercer has any say in the matter. That’s according to her little-publicized 2019 book “What I Believe,” a transcription of a speech she gave in 2018 to the right-wing publishing house Encounter Books.
“[W]hat is the state of [the American] experiment today?” Mercer asked. “‘Now we are engaged in a great civil war,’ said Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863. One hundred and fifty-five years later, it is barely hyperbolic to echo the Great Emancipator.” Raising the specter of violence, Mercer writes, “We are not yet in armed conflict, but we are facing an ever more belligerent, frantic, and absurd group of radicals in a struggle for the soul of our country,” referring to antifa specifically and casting her opposition to progressives more broadly in existential terms.
Mercer has been financing a host of right-wing individuals and groups involved in the storming of the Capitol, The Intercept reported earlier this month, from Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward to “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander, in addition to her role as a financier of news website Breitbart and the social network Parler. In 2020, Mercer’s father, Robert Mercer, donated $1.5 million to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, and the Mercers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican National Committee.
The far right has used extensive “civil war” rhetoric, including on January 6. “How we got to this point is that fascist billionaires like Rebekah Mercer have bankrolled and fueled the rise of violent white supremacist and authoritarian forces in this country,” said Saqib Bhatti, the co-executive director of the Action Center on Race & the Economy. “Mercer co-founded Parler, the app that fascists used to plan violent demonstrations before it was shut down. She and her family have helped fund reactionary causes and candidates, including one of the patron saints of the insurrection at the Capitol, Ted Cruz. Mercer is not warning us against armed conflict, she is threatening us with it.”
The Mercers also own a firearms company, Centre Firearms Co., with a warehouse in Queens, New York, that includes “an Mk 19 belt-fed grenade launcher, capable of hurling 60 explosives per minute.”
Further incendiary rhetoric pervades Mercer’s book. She calls New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer a “shockingly unethical fantasist,” rails against “Antifa,” saying that it is “one of the militant arms of our current domestic foes, is intent on strangling our freedoms in the name of a belief system that, in the twentieth century, was responsible for the deaths of 100 million people. “
Mercer accuses progressives of having “taken to heart the lessons of Antonio Gramsci in their long campaign against our institutions and have obtained almost complete dominion over education.” Gramsci was an Italian Marxist philosopher who criticized the “cultural hegemony” by which capitalism maintains itself and wrote about the ways that institutions could be changed to more democratic forms through working-class leadership.
Finally, Mercer is indefatigable in her critique of the media. “Today, journalists of the mainstream media are little more than the Machiavellian foot soldiers of the progressive left, unethical to their very hearts, shameless about writing lies and defaming people, and assiduously filtering the stories they print through a prism of partisan prejudice,” Mercer writes. “I know just how unethical, deranged, and shameless some of these journalists really are because I have personal experience as a target for their defamatory fantasies and slanders.”
Mercer contrasted the media’s treatment of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice who was credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women who went on the record, with its treatment of former President Barack Obama’s use of cocaine as a young man. “It’s just business as usual that the alleged drinking habits of a college student from decades ago are put under the microscope for review while the self-admitted use of hard drugs by the most recently retired Commander in Chief is pounced on as an opportunity to praise him and to point out how he had experienced much and knew much because of his criminal drug use.”
Mercer is incorrect that drug use is criminal. In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in Robinson v. California that laws that criminalized drug use as opposed to possession or sale were unconstitutional.
“It’s clear that Mercer is not only funding extremist and far-right groups, but she is also reading their rhetoric on her platform, Parler,” said Margaret Huang, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s no surprise that her language mirrors that of the hate groups — they are all on the same team. We need to start seeing donors like Mercer as part of the problem; she is enabling those who are trying to overturn the government.”
Mayer laughed upon hearing that Mercer had written a book and, in response to Mercer calling her a fabulist, said, “It would be so great if only the Mercers were a fantasy! But the more than 11,000 words I’ve written on them are fact, not fiction, which is why the Mercers have never asked for or received a single correction.”
Elly Page had never seen anything like what’s happened in recent days. A senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Page has been tracking the proliferation of anti-protest bills across the U.S. since Donald Trump became president in 2017. “The number of bills we have seen in the past three weeks is unprecedented,” she said.
Since the day of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, at least nine states have introduced 14 anti-protest bills. The bills, which vary state by state, contain a dizzying array of provisions that serve to criminalize participation in disruptive protests. The measures range from barring demonstrators from public benefits or government jobs to offering legal protections to those who shoot or run over protesters. Some of the proposals would allow protesters to be held without bail and criminalize camping. A few bills seek to prevent local governments from defunding police.
The pushes by close to a fifth of state legislatures are part of a pattern that began to pick up speed after the summer’s uprisings in response to the police killing of George Floyd, which in many communities included significant property damage. In a handful of states, lawmakers did what they often do: introduced new legislation — however unnecessary — to show that they were responding to their constituents’ concerns.
“We expected to see some bills this month, as state legislatures reconvened, but the number of bills and their severity is still shocking.”
The rate of new bills being offered sped up dramatically this month as lawmakers kicked off their legislative sessions at the very moment that Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Bills quickly arose in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island.
“There has generally been an uptick at the beginning of odd-numbered years, when most states begin their biennial legislative sessions. But this year beats prior recent years,” Page said in an email. Since January 1, she noted that 11 state legislatures have introduced 17 bills, including those filed before the Capitol insurrection. “Compare that to 0 during the same period in 2020, 9 in 2019, 5 in 2018, and 13 in 2017,” she said, adding that the 2017 spike was mostly due to North Dakota responding to that winter’s Standing Rock protests.
Because of state legislatures’ part-time schedules, most legislative sessions were over by late last summer, leaving insufficient time to pass bills that responded to the uprisings against police brutality. “We expected to see some bills this month, as state legislatures reconvened, but the number of bills and their severity is still shocking,” she said.
In Florida, lawmakers have latched on to the insurrection at the Capitol to justify a bill they’d been working on for months. “Lawmakers may be trying to take advantage of the moment and the visuals of the violent and destructive Capitol scene, to make their case — to the public and to fellow lawmakers — that these draconian new measures are necessary,” said Page.
To some observers, the timing of the bills smacked of hypocrisy. “It’s telling that so many radical right-wing state lawmakers are responding to an attack on our democracy with an attack on our democracy,” added Daniel Squadron, a former Democratic state senator from New York and president of Future Now, a group focused on winning state legislatures from Republicans. “Make no mistake, these bills were teed up long ago to criminalize peaceful protest, stifle speech, and obscure the clear distinction between First Amendment rights and a violent insurrection.”
Restrictions and Penalties
The rash of bills present something of a unified effort, drawing on predecessor legislation as well other states’ measures for their language.
A version of Nebraska’s bill was first described at a press conference last fall, when Republican state Sen. Tom Brewer said he was inspired by Florida’s proposed legislation. Just as Florida reintroduced a version of its anti-protest law a day after the Capitol attack, Nebraska Republican lawmaker Joni Albrecht introduced her own version of a bill on January 7 — a bill she told The Intercept had nothing to do with events on Capitol Hill and was modeled on a law passed in Tennessee last year.
The Nebraska bill, like many of the others, qualifies as what Page has described as a “kitchen sink” bill: a single bill throwing “everything but the kitchen sink” at the issue of disruptive protests. Like several other states’ bills, lawmakers in Nebraska are seeking to redefine disruptive protests — in this case, upping the penalty for “riots” that include any disturbance in a public place involving at least three people obstructing government functions or putting property or people at risk.
New Nebraska penalties, like ones proposed in Mississippi and Indiana, would also punish anyone aiding a riot. Prosecutors would be able to bring felony charges against anyone who was a part of a riot where injuries or significant property damage occurred, even if they didn’t personally cause it. Several states also imposed stricter detention rules around rioting: In Nebraska, riot participants would not be eligible for bail, while proposals in Arizona and Kentucky would allow law enforcement to detain people arrested during a riot for 12 hours unless a judge deemed them unlikely to begin rioting anew.
The Nebraska bill also creates new, harsher penalties for obstructing traffic — another one of the most common recent anti-protest bill elements, included in legislation in Oklahoma, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Rhode Island, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
In other states, bills would expand the definition of conduct that would justify use of force from bystanders against demonstrators, including things perceived as “threatening” behavior. Among these provisions, some states’ proposals would strengthen “stand your ground” laws — allowing deadly force — should a person be confronted by a “mob” or riot, including in New Hampshire; other provisions, such as in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Florida, would protect a driver who, fleeing a riot, injures or kills someone.
“Oklahoma has no shortage of ways to punish folks. So really what this does is it chills speech.”
For civil liberties advocates in Oklahoma, the measure warranted particular attention: Last summer, a man drove a truck with a trailer into a protest in Tulsa, but prosecutors declined to charge the driver. Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of Oklahoma, said the bill entrenches a culture of impunity among protest opponents and could make demonstrators think twice about engaging in a protest. “Oklahoma has no shortage of ways to punish folks,” McAfee said, noting that new laws were not needed to deal with disruptive protests. “So really what this does is it chills speech.”
While most of the bills have their roots in responses to last summer’s protests against police brutality, only one of the new bills, in Minnesota, deals with oil and gas infrastructure. (Ohio passed such a bill in December and signed it into law this month.) The logic for the bill in Minnesota is clear: Indigenous-led pipeline opponents participating in a direct action protest movement against Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline in the state have repeatedly halted pipeline construction. The Minnesota bill focuses on individuals who aid oil pipeline protesters, including up to 10 years’ imprisonment if their associate damages the property with the intent to prevent pipeline operations.
Like many of the other states’ efforts, the Minnesota bill is not exactly new. Versions of it have been introduced and rejected repeatedly in recent years — a pattern also playing out with Rhode Island’s anti-protest bill.
Several states are seeing multiple anti-protest bills at once: Indiana has seen four bills introduced since January 1. As Katie Blair, advocacy and public policy director at the ACLU of Indiana, put it, “They’re all different frankensteins.”
Civil Liberties Opposition
Central to the debate over the laws is their necessity. “There’s really nothing on the books about the rioting in the state of Nebraska,” said Albrecht, the lawmaker who introduced the bill. “We need to be able to clarify the difference between a peaceful protest and rioting.”
“I just don’t think that’s accurate,” said Spike Eickholt of the Nebraska ACLU. He noted that Omaha police seemed to have no trouble making numerous arrests last summer during police brutality protests: “Whether you’re protesting or not, you don’t have any right to break someone’s car window, you don’t have any right to block the street.”
The bills have potential to do real harm, he said. In particular, Eickholt pointed to attempts in multiple states to limit bond for people who have been arrested but not yet convicted of a protest-related crime: “Other jurisdictions around the country are doing things to not be wedded forever to cash bond or to allow people to actually be able to be presumed innocent.”
Various ACLU chapters across the country view the bills with suspicion. “We believe it’s unduly harsh, it’s unnecessary, and it’s clearly aimed at protest,” said Steven Brown, ACLU Rhode Island’s executive director, of the bill in his state.
The civil liberties advocates worry that bills moving in the wake of the Capitol insurrection may find a broader range of targets once enacted. “I can only speculate, but if the alleged motivation for these bills is the attack that occurred on the Capitol, I think we can virtually guarantee that its actual implementation and enforcement will be against people of color and other protesters in very different contexts,” said Brown.
The insurrection could also help give the bills a boost. “I think the insurrection at the Capitol is something that may change the course of if these bills get hearings or not,” said Blair, of the Indiana ACLU. Advocates will have to stay on guard, she said, noting that the Indiana legislature expects hundreds more pieces of legislation during its session: “I don’t think we’re done seeing these bills.”