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Report: Trump Officials Helped Meatpackers Thwart Covid Safety Measures

Workers at a Missouri pork-processing facility in 2017, prior to the pandemic.Preston Keres/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire

This investigation was originally published by the Guardian. It is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Trump officials “collaborated” with the meatpacking industry to downplay the threat of Covid to plant workers and block public health measures which could have saved lives, a damning new investigation has found.

Internal documents reviewed by the congressional select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis reveal how industry representatives lobbied government officials to stifle “pesky” health departments from imposing evidence-based safety measures to curtail the virus spreading—and tried to obscure worker deaths from these authorities.

At least 59,000 workers at five of the largest meatpacking companies—Tyson Foods, JBS USA Holdings, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef Packing Company which are the subject of the congressional inquiry—contracted Covid in the first year of the pandemic, of whom at least 269 died.

According to internal communications, the companies were warned about workers and their families falling sick within weeks of the virus hitting the US. Despite this, company representatives enlisted industry-friendly Trump appointees at the USDA to fight their battles against Covid regulations and oversight.

In addition, company executives intentionally stoked fears about meat shortages in order to justify continuing to operate the plants under dangerous conditions. The fears were baseless—there were no meat shortages in the US, while exports to China hit record highs.

Yet in April 2020, Trump issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants open following a flurry of communication between the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, the vice-president’s office, USDA allies and company executives.

The order, which was proposed by Smithfield and Tyson (whose legal department also wrote the draft), was an overt attempt to override health departments and force meat plant workers—who are mostly immigrants, refugees and people of color—to keep working without adequate protections while shielding the industry from lawsuits.

James Clyburn, chairman of the subcommittee, condemned the conduct of the industry executives and their government allies as “shameful.”

“Trump’s political appointees at USDA collaborated with large meatpacking companies to lead an administration-wide effort to force workers to remain on the job during the coronavirus crisis despite dangerous conditions, and even to prevent the imposition of commonsense mitigation measures. This coordinated campaign prioritized industry production over the health of workers and communities, and contributed to tens of thousands of workers becoming ill, hundreds of workers dying, and the virus spreading throughout surrounding areas.”

The meatpacking industry, which includes slaughterhouses and processing plants—is one of the most profitable and dangerous in the US. It is a monopoly business, with just a handful of powerful multinationals dominating the supply chain which, even before Covid, was bad news for farmers, workers, consumers and animal welfare.

As Covid spread, the industry was warned about the high risk of transmission in their plants. For example, a doctor near the JBS facility in Cactus, Texas, wrote to a company executive in April 2020 saying “100 percent of all Covid-19 patients we have in the hospital are either direct employees or family member[s] of your employees,” warning that “your employees will get sick and may die if this factory continues to be open.”

In late May 2020—well after the importance of prevention measures such as testing, social distancing and personal protective equipment was widely recognized—an executive told an industry lobbyist that temperature screening was “all we should be doing.” The lobbyist agreed, replying: “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!”

The report, Now to get rid of those pesky healthy departments!, reveals how USDA Trump appointees did the industry’s bidding in order to carry on with business as usual. The report is based on more than 151,000 pages of documents collected from meatpacking companies and interest groups, as well as interviews with meatpacking workers, former USDA and CDC officials, and state and local health authorities among others.

The documents show that:

  • In March 2020, the industry aggressively lobbied USDA officials, who in turn escalated their wishes to Vice President Mike Pence’s office, to ensure states were advised to designate meatpacking workers as “critical infrastructure” employees who could be exempt from social distancing and stay at home orders. This conduct was “particularly egregious considering that the nation’s meat supply was not actually at risk,” the subcommittee found.
  • Mindy Brashears, the undersecretary of food safety, was considered the go-to fixer, who could stop health departments enforcing Covid safety measures at local plants. Brashears “hasn’t lost a battle for us,” said one lobbyist.
  • Career USDA staff told the congressional subcommittee how they were sidelined, while Brashears and her deputies communicated with industry officials on their personal phones in order to avoid leaving a paper trail.
  • Meatpacking companies also successfully lobbied USDA officials to advocate for Department of Labor policies that deprived their employees of benefits if they missed work or quit, while also seeking insulation from legal liability if workers then fell ill or died.

As reports of Covid clusters at meatpacking plants increased, industry officials and the USDA jointly lobbied the White House to dissuade frightened workers from staying home or quitting. For instance in April 2020 the CEOs of JBS, Smithfield and Tyson among other companies asked the secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, during a call to “elevate the need for messaging about the importance of our workforce staying at work to the POTUS or VP level.”

It worked. At a press briefing soon after, Mike Pence told meatpacking workers that “we need you to continue … to show up and do your job,” admonishing recent “incidents of worker absenteeism.”

The report concludes: “Meatpacking companies knew the risk posed by the coronavirus to their workers and knew it wasn’t a risk that the country needed them to take. They nonetheless lobbied aggressively—successfully enlisting USDA as a close collaborator in their efforts—to keep workers on the job in unsafe conditions, to ensure state and local health authorities were powerless to mandate otherwise, and to be protected against legal liability for the harms that would result.”

The trade association for meat and poultry packers and processors rejected the report’s findings and accused the subcommittee of “cherry-picking data.”

“The report ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies enacted to protect employees and support their critical infrastructure workers,” said Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute.

In addition, a spokesperson for JBS said the company “did everything possible to ensure the safety of our people who kept our critical food supply chain running.” In a statement Cargill said: “We’ve worked hard to maintain safe and consistent operations to feed families during the pandemic, yet we did not hesitate to temporarily idle or reduce capacity at processing plants in the interest of our employees’ wellbeing.”

A spokesman for Smithfield said: “The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal…Did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely.”

Tyson said collaboration with the government was crucial to the supply chain and for worker safety: “Over the past two years, our company has been contacted by, received direction from, and collaborated with many different federal, state and local officials—including both the Trump and Biden Administrations—as we’ve navigated the challenges of the pandemic.”

The subcommittee investigation into the meatpacking industry’s response to the pandemic was launched in February 2021 following reports that meat companies had refused to take adequate safety measures precautions to protect workers during the first year of the pandemic. Last year, the subcommittee found that the illness and death toll at plants owned by the five big meatpackers had been grossly underestimated, and that the companies put profits over worker safety.

The Guardian has contacted the USDA and former Trump administration officials for comment.

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Politics

The GOP’s Four Biggest Lies About Joe Biden and Fossil Fuels

Rep. Jim Jordan is among the Republican lawmakers trying to mislead the public about the Biden administration and its actions.Graeme Jennings/AP

This story was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Republican lawmakers and right-wing media have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by waging a misinformation campaign about the Biden administration being “at war with fossil fuels.”

The goal, of course, is to leverage the crisis in Eastern Europe to provide more access and regulatory relief to an oil and gas sector that is already very profitable, heavily subsidized, has enormous sway in Washington, and is sitting on unused permits to drill across millions of acres of land and water.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) accused President Joe Biden of leading “a frontal assault on oil and gas.” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) bemoaned Biden’s “backwards, America-last energy policies.” And numerous other industry-backed members of the GOP have spent the days since Russia launched its violent war peddling industry talking points and demanding Biden “unleash” America’s full oil and gas potential.

The GOP campaign to blame Biden for both Russia’s war and high gas prices has included misleading statements and outright falsehoods, as well as circulating lists of demands that closely mirror those of the fossil fuel industry. It is being led by some of Washington’s largest beneficiaries of industry campaign donations. And it comes on the heels of the latest dire climate report from the United Nations, which warns that the window for reining in greenhouse gases in order to “secure a livable and sustainable future” is rapidly closing.

Let’s break down some of the biggest whoppers:

1. The administration “destroyed” our energy industry

In a post to Twitter this week, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) wrote that rising prices at the pump during Biden’s presidency “is what happens when you destroy America’s energy industry”—part of a broader argument that Biden is waging “war” on domestic fossil fuel companies.

For a destroyed industry, Big Oil is doing exceptionally well. Two years after the pandemic tanked oil demand and prices, the nation’s largest producers—ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips—have seen their profits skyrocket alongside energy prices. And while Biden campaigned on a promise to “take on the fossil fuel industry” and end drilling on federal lands and waters, that has not materialized.

In fact, to the frustration of climate and environmental advocates, the Biden administration approved more drilling permits during his first year in office than former President Donald Trump did in any of his first three, according to data compiled by the conservation group Center for Western Priorities. It also held the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in US history in the Gulf of Mexico last year. A federal judge later vacated those leases, concluding that the Biden administration failed to properly account for climate effects when it held the offshore auction.

“The Biden admin is doing next to nothing to practically inhibit near-term oil production,” Casey Merriman, an analyst at the industry research firm Energy Intelligence, wrote on Twitter.

None of this is likely to temper Republican rhetoric. Biden’s “agencies have been waging war on domestic production, and we’ve seen domestic production dropping and dropping and dropping,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told Fox News this week.

In reality, the US produced more oil and gas during Biden’s first year in office than during Trump’s, and crude oil output is forecast to reach a record high in 2023, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

2. Biden “ended” oil and gas drilling on federal lands

In an interview late last month with right-wing news outlet Newsmax, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine because of Biden’s energy policies, including “ending drilling on federal lands.”

Biden did not end federal drilling—far from it.

Early in his tenure, Biden paused new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters pending the outcome of a review of the federal leasing program—an action that industry-allied Republicans falsely labeled a “ban” and falsely predicted would devastate the energy sector. A Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana later struck down Biden’s executive order that froze new leasing.

More recently, in February, the Biden administration instituted a second pause on new federal leasing and permitting in response to a second Trump-appointed judge’s ruling that blocked the administration from using a higher calculation for the damages associated with planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

None of this has prevented US companies from moving ahead with drilling under already approved federal permits or on state or private lands. Approximately 75 percent of domestic oil production and 86 percent of gas production occurs on state and private lands, according to the Interior Department.

As White House press secretary Jen Psaki has pointed out repeatedly in recent weeks, the industry has stockpiled more than 9,000 unused but approved permits to drill onshore. Nearly half of the roughly 25 million federal land acres currently under lease are not currently in production.

“I would suggest you ask the oil companies why they’re not using those if there’s a desire to drill more,” Psaki told Fox News’ Peter Doocy during a press conference this week.

While Republicans revive the “drill, baby, drill” mantra and demand Biden “unleash” American energy, the oil and gas sector and its Wall Street investors have made clear they have little interest in ramping up drilling amid record high prices, as NPR has reported.

And even if they did, it would do little if anything to ease gas prices in the short term.

3. Biden “shut off” the Keystone XL pipeline

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline was a proposed 1,179-mile, $8.5 billion project that would have transported some 830,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil per day from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska. Biden revoked a key permit for the Keystone XL via a climate executive order on his first day in office, effectively killing it. Only 8 percent of the pipeline was constructed and it never carried oil.

Nevertheless, Republicans have attacked Biden with falsehoods about the beleaguered project, at times conflating it with the larger Keystone Pipeline system that’s been in operation since 2010 and which the Keystone XL was supposed to tie into.

Biden “shut off the Keystone Pipeline,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) declared in an interview last week. “Get the Keystone Pipeline operating again!” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) demanded at a congressional hearing. “If we had a strong president, he would put the Keystone Pipeline back online,” Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) told Fox News. And at a press conference Tuesday, Sen. Roy Blunt falsely stated that the Keystone XL would have “produced” roughly the same number of barrels that the US currently imports from Russia.

Again, the Keystone XL was never operational. And it was never going to “produce” a drop of oil. Rather, it was a proposed extension, or shortcut, to transport Canadian oil to Nebraska, where it would link up with the existing Keystone pipeline and be sent to refineries in Texas and ultimately exported overseas.

Asked Wednesday if Biden would reconsider his decision to kill the Keystone XL, Psaki said doing so would not address any of the current petroleum problems in the US.

“The pipeline is just a delivery mechanism, it is not an oil field,” Psaki said. “It does not provide more supply into the system.”

4. Biden “destroyed American energy independence”

There are many iterations, but the Republican argument is basically that Biden “reversed,” “sabotaged” and “sacrificed” the so-called “energy independence”—some call it “energy dominance”—that the US purportedly achieved under Trump.

“​​Trump gave us energy independence. Biden gave us expensive gas,” Jordan recently tweeted.

“Biden’s anti-energy policies have caused skyrocketing prices, ended America’s energy independence, and compromised our national security,” House Republicans wrote in a post from their official Twitter account.

“Energy independence” can have different meanings. If Republicans are talking about simply producing more energy than we consume, the US remains energy independent today, as Robert Rapier, an energy industry engineer and author, pointed out in a Forbes piece this week. But if they’re talking about a nation free of any imported petroleum products, the US never achieved that under Trump.

“Flatly stated, the United States is not oil-independent, and hasn’t been since the early days of oil production,” Yahoo Finance columnist Rick Newman wrote this week.

The US has been the world’s largest producer of oil and gas since 2018. And in 2020, it became a net exporter of oil for the first time. Still, it imports millions of barrels of oil per day, including from Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and, until recently, Russia. Earlier this week, Biden signed an executive order banning Russian petroleum imports—a move that had bipartisan support but that Biden warned would drive gas prices up even higher. (Under Trump’s watch, Russian oil imports increased 39 percent, as HuffPost reported).

As the last few months have highlighted, the US remains at the mercy of a global energy market that sets oil and gas prices at home and abroad—a reality that the Biden administration and environmentalists argue should motivate the nation to transition quickly to renewable energy sources.

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Politics

Report: Mark Meadows Registered to Vote Somewhere He Might Not Have Lived

In his memoir, The Chief’s Chief, published almost a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, Mark Meadows voiced concern about voter fraud, heavily implying that it had tainted the legitimacy of Biden’s victory. 

“If we could get a few more Republicans to show up in places like Minneapolis and Bemidji in November, we would be able to win not only Minnesota, but the whole election—assuming, of course, that everyone else who votes was alive, a real person, and an actual resident of the state they were voting in,” wrote Meadows, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff. “That last part turned out to be a little harder than we thought.”

Most allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election have been roundly debunked by media outlets, election administrators, and the courts. But as it turns out, Meadows might have been speaking from firsthand knowledge, according to new reporting from the New Yorker.

In September 2020—about a month after Meadows had decried voter fraud in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper—Meadows and his wife, Debra, listed a 14-by-62-foot mobile home in North Carolina as their address in voter registration forms, the New Yorker noted. The property’s former owner told the magazine that Debra Meadows had rented the place for two months sometime within the last few years but that she had only stayed there one or two nights. Mark Meadows, she claimed, had never stayed at the home at all.

Under North Carolina law, people are required to have lived in the county where they’re registering for at least 30 days before the date of the election. Upon Meadows’ appointment as Trump’s chief of staff in March 2020, he and his family sold their house in Sapphire, North Carolina, and moved to Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington, DC, leaving them with no place of residence in their former home state. 

Local news outlets and the Washington Post have since confirmed many of the New Yorker’s allegations and fleshed out new details. In both documents, Meadows and his wife represented “under penalty of perjury” that they were moving to the mobile home on September 20, 2020, the day after the voter registration forms had been filed. 

Upon reading the New Yorker’s reporting, Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University, told the Post that, he found it “honestly hard to see how this is not a clear violation of federal law.”

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Politics

Biden Reverses Trump’s Transgender Military Ban

Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty

More than three years after Donald Trump tweeted into existence a ban against transgender service members, his successor has reversed it.

On Monday morning, President Biden repealed the controversial order ahead of the swearing-in of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “Allowing all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform is better for the military and better for the country because an inclusive force is a more effective force,” a White House press release stated. “Simply put, it’s the right thing to do and is in our national interest.”

Trump’s July 2017 tweets, which said the military would no longer “accept or allow” trans service members to serve “in any capacity,” eventually triggered a legal battle before a watered-down policy was implemented in April 2019. That policy, which the Pentagon refused to call a ban, barred enlistees who have had sex reassignment surgery or a “history of gender dysphoria” from joining the military—with limited exceptions. As I reported at the time:

Service members who are given a diagnosis of gender dysphoria after April 12 won’t be able to receive hormones or undergo sex-transition surgery. They will also be forced to adhere to the standards of their birth sex—determining everything from their names on paperwork to the length of their hair—which advocates compare to the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, when queer service members could only express their true selves in private.

Now that ban is history and the lawyers who fought to defeat it in court are celebrating.

“President Biden’s order allows us to put this shameful episode behind us and marks the beginning of a much brighter era in which military service is once again based on a person’s qualifications, not on who they are,” Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement. “Transgender people have proved their fitness to serve and ask nothing more than the opportunity to do so based on the same standards that apply to others. This is a great day for our nation and a welcome relief from the negative and divisive policies of the past four years.”

Biden’s order reversing the ban also directed the military to reexamine and correct the records of service members affected by Trump’s policy. For members of the military whose status in the military was thrown into limbo following Trump’s tweets, the reversal finally provides some stability.

“President Biden’s restoration of open service recognizes transgender service members as an integral part of our military and closes a dark chapter of history,” Emma Shinn, a Marine Corps captain and president of advocacy group SPART*A, said in a statement. “I am elated that the approximately 15,000 transgender service members proudly serving across the globe can rest easier knowing that their service to our nation is seen, valued and that they can continue to serve as their authentic selves.”