John Light

John is TPM‘s Prime editor. His writing has also appeared at The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, UN Dispatch, Vox, Worth, and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. Before joining TPM, John was a producer for Bill Moyers and WNYC, and worked as a news writer for Grist. He grew up in New Jersey, studied history and film at Oberlin College, and got his master‘s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Articles by John

Welcome to the weekend, Prime subscribers. What a week. We received significant Supreme Court decisions, followed by an even more significant decision — that of Justice Anthony Kennedy to retire. That, coupled with the drip, drip of the Russia probe, ongoing fallout from the administration’s child separation policy, surprising primary results on Tuesday and a horrifying mass shooting at a local Maryland paper on Thursday, kept us busy.

Here’s what happened in Prime.

  • In early January, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach gave an interview to Breitbart about what the phony Trump administration voter fraud commission, which he headed up, had accomplished. Six months later, that interview continues to come back to haunt the Department of Justice in court, Tierney Sneed writes.
  • We learned this week, Josh writes, that Russia was funding Manafort’s work in Ukraine: “The key to me is that this puts us much closer to understanding that Manafort was essentially a Russian agent, had been for a decade when he came to work for free, on the recommendation of Tom Barrack, to run candidate Trump’s campaign.”
  • The many enemies of federal regulatory agencies who Donald Trump selected to head federal regulatory agencies are dealing out oodles of favors for their friends. Matt Shuham chronicles the biggest.
  • The Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME this week was the latest blow in a long series of blows to unions. According to a recent study, weaker unions translates directly to lower Democratic voter turn out.
  • Josh writes that the story of a Customs and Border Protection agent who approached reporter Ali Watkins claiming he was investigating leaks is more significant than people realize.
  • In her Weekly Primer on the Russia probe, Allegra Kirkland writes that Mueller is speeding up his work on the collusion and obstruction of justice portions of his probe, and aims to issue reports on those topics by the fall.
  • Even as the Supreme Court dealt voting rights advocates a series of significant blows, those advocates saw some victories in lower courts, Tierney writes.
  • Whether Donald Trump likes it or not, Obamacare will be a significant issue in the 2018 midterms, Alice Ollstein writes in her Weekly Primer on the topic.
  • Allegra gives a rundown of the other investigations of presidents in modern history as the Russia probe begins to cast its shadow over the midterm elections.
  • Democrats keep winning special elections, but their lead on the generic congressional ballot isn’t looking as hot as it once did. Does the party have cause to worry? a reader asks. Our political correspondent Cameron Joseph has an answer.

Unions were dealt another blow with this morning’s Supreme Court decision on Janus v. AFSCME. The court ruled that non-union employees in public sector unions could not be asked to pay for collective bargaining from which they benefit. The decision has been a long time coming. In 2016, following Justice Scalia’s death, the court split evenly on a case that dealt with similar issues, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Now, with Neil Gorsuch on the court, the anti-union crusaders backing the Janus suit have succeeded.

We know anecdotally that attacks on unions have a real impact on Democratic votes. A paper from earlier this year by political scientists James Feigenbaum, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Vanessa Williamson (and highlighted in a Times piece about the conservative money backing Janus) puts numbers to that impact. The paper found that, on average, the Democratic share of the vote in presidential elections dropped 3.5 percent after right-to-work laws were passed in a state. These laws, like the Janus decision, strike at a union’s ability to fund its activities.

Democratic turnout also dropped by 2 to 3 percentage points after right-to-work laws were passed. And the researchers found that right-to-work laws “force unions to reallocate resources from politics into membership recruitment and retention.”

In this way, the Janus decision today, enabled by Justice Gorsuch, will likely have some effect on elections. Unions don’t just help Democratic candidates through fundraising: They educate their membership about the candidates that support pro-worker policies and then get those members to show up at polls.

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Earlier today, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in one of the biggest cases of the term, dealing with redistricting in Texas. Only a handful of questions put before the court this term remain unanswered, but we’ll likely have those answers by the end of this week.

One case, Janus v. AFSCME, asks the court to decide whether employees whose interests are represented by public-sector unions, but who are not themselves part of a union, have to pay fees that go toward collective bargaining. Many states have laws that allow unions to collect these “fair-share fees,” which the conservative, anti-union movement has sought to eliminate. This one looks likely to end in victory for those forces; the court split on a similar case 4-4 two years ago, before Justice Neil Gorsuch was on the court. His addition is unlikely to help unions.

Another big case remaining before the court deals with the third iteration of Trump’s travel ban, barring travelers from five predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia — and two others, North Korea and Venezuela. This case, like many others, will likely hinge on Justice Kennedy and on how far the judges are willing to go in considering Trump’s motives.

But the biggest decision we’re waiting to learn about this week won’t come in the form of a ruling from the court itself. It’s whether Justice Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, will retire. If he does, he’ll likely announce his decision at the end of the term, or a few days after.

Kennedy will be 82 years old next month and is the longest-serving member of the Supreme Court. Though a swing vote, he is a conservative, and, many speculate, more likely to retire during a Republican president’s term. If he steps down, Trump will be able to pick his second Supreme Court justice; if another comparatively young justice in the mold of Neil Gorsuch — a former Kennedy clerk — is confirmed, it will likely put the already conservative court more firmly in conservative hands for years to come. We could then see the court revisit past decisions the continue to enrage conservative culture warriors, including Roe v. Wade and cases relating to gay rights.

But whoever Trump nominates will have to make it through the confirmation process first. In that way, Kennedy’s decision, which we’ll likely learn this week, could set up a key political battle that will unfold during the second half of 2018.

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Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is taking a stand against the Trump administration, holding up an appellate court nominee for two weeks — and threatening to hold up more nominees — in order, according to one unnamed CNN source, to prompt a Congressional discussion about the administration’s trade and Cuba policies.

It may seem somewhat out of left field that after all the Trump administration’s various outrages, Flake decided to take a stand against it in part because he disagrees with the administration’s stance on Cuba.

But the senator has a long reputation as a rare Republican dove on Cuba. He’s visited the island several times since taking office. When the Obama White House moved to engage with it, he was one of the administration’s key allies in doing so.

Earlier this month, Flake became the first U.S. senator to meet with the country’s new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who is the first person to lead the nation in a half century who doesn’t have the last name “Castro.” He traveled with a collection of Google executives, including former CEO Eric Schmidt. The Miami Herald reports that Google is hoping to reach an agreement with the Cuban government to expand internet access on the island.

“The funny thing about freedom is that when people experience a little more of it, they don’t want to give it up, and they want more than they have,” Flake told Politico back in 2014, arguing that the Obama administration’s move to relax travel restrictions to Cuba will help foster Democracy in the country. “That has been the case with travel and will continue to be the case in Cuba.”

The Google proposal is in line with this theory. The island currently gets its internet via a cable from Venezuela. It is slow, limited, and expensive for Cubans. It is also controlled by the government. The Google initiative would change that. The more that the Cuban people are able to connect with the outside world, the theory goes, the more they’ll pressure their government to do the same, regardless of American policy toward the island.

When Flake leaves Congress this year, the Senate will lose one of only a handful of Republican champions of reengaging with the nation at a time when the administration appears ready to take relations back to their Cold War-era status quo.

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