Epstein Autopsy Adds Darker Notes to Mystery

Acosta's press conference on the Epstein matter

The Story:

The mystery of the death of financier/sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who died of strangulation in his cell in a federal prison in New York City on August 10, has deepened and darkened in recent days, with an autopsy that calls the cause of death suicide, but that discloses evidence that seems to some to favor a contrary conclusion: homicide.


Epstein had connections with at least two American Presidents, William Clinton and Donald Trump. His arrest on trafficking charges in July led to the resignation of US Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, because Acosta, as a federal prosecutor in 2007-08, had approved a cushy plea deal for Epstein in the face of an earlier round of criminal charges.

Epstein apparently first attempted suicide on July 24. He was found “nearly unconscious” with injuries to his neck. Standard protocols for the protection of a prisoner after a suicide attempt were not thereafter followed in this matter. He (or someone else?) finished the job on August 10.

New York’s Medical Examiner, Barbara Sampson, performed the autopsy the day after Epstein’s death, but held off for days on issuing a report.

The Thing to Know: 

Her autopsy showed multiple breaks to the bones in Epstein’s neck. Although this is possible in a suicidal hanging, it is much more common in homicide victims of strangulation. Sampson’s report will surely not end the controversy about Epstein’s death.

Gun Control after Three Mass Shootings

Liberal Democrats set their sights on gun control

The Story:

Three gun massacres in quick succession — at a garlic festival in California (July 28), at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas (August 3), and on a busy downtown street in Dayton, Ohio (August 4) — have pressed the issue of gun control to the front of US politics at every level.


Every mass shooting has its own profile and raises a number of distinct questions. For example, the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 raised issues not only about the shooter’s possession of several firearms, but about his developmental and mental health problems, the reasons he may have targeted Sandy Hook, and school security needs in general.

In the unique case of the July-August cluster of killings, the rapid sequence has caused other elements in each of the three cases to fade into the background, so that public discussion is more focused than usual on one point: the easy availability of firepower to civilians in the United States.

The Thing to Know:

Ohio’s Governor, Mike DeWine (R), who has a reputation as an opponent of gun control, sought to address a vigil after the Dayton shooting. The crowd picked up on a chant, “Do something! do something!” The following day, DeWine announced his support for a universal background check system. The chant may well represent the attitude of the contemporary electorate broadly.

The Progressive ‘Squad’ : A Test of Unity

The Story:

Frequently lumped together in discussion of a so-called progressive “squad,” four Congresswoman, each elected to the House for the first time in 2018, are diligently moving the politics of the Democratic Party to the left. Though neither of these four is running for President, they are in conjunction influencing the candidates for that post, and drawing the fire of irate tweets from the incumbent.

Four Members:

The four squad members are: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Rashida Tlaib (MI).

A conservative commentator on Fox News has called them “the four horsewomen of the apocalypse.”

Yet key policy issues may test their cohesion as a group. One such issue: whether Americans who support a Palestinian State ought to advance that cause by boycotting Israeli-made products, working to exclude Israel’s performers and academics from international events in their fields, and similarly working to isolate that country from the rest of the world.

The Thing to Know:

On July 23, the House of Representatives voted on a proposition to condemn the international boycott-Israel movement. Three of the four Squad members voted against condemnation. But Pressley, the fourth (and the one of the four with the most public policy experience prior to November 2018) voted yes, for condemnation, and so against the practice of boycotting Israel.


No Easy Fallback for Governor Hickenlooper

The Story:

After two rounds of debates, and with the tightening of requirements for entry into the third (September) round, the Democratic party’s field of Presidential aspirants may be due for a winnowing. One of the marginal candidates, former Colorado Governor Hickenlooper, is said to have his eye on a fall-back office: he may run for the Senate seat now held by Republican Cory Gardner.

Gardner’s Vulnerability:

The website Roll Call says that Gardner is “the most vulnerable Republican Senator” looking for re-election in 2020. He looks so vulnerable because he won the seat six years ago running as a moderate independent-minded sort of Republican, which is the type of GOP candidate who does best in the Centennial State.

But in the last three years Gardner has been a loyal soldier for President Trump, and he chaired the National Republican Senate Committee in 2018. This may have weakened his ‘independent’ cred.

The Thing to Know:

Should Hickenlooper despair of a Presidential nomination, he might want to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party for Gardner’s seat instead. But it is not obvious that he could get that. There are at least a dozen other Democrats interested in challenging Gardner, and few of them, if any, would step aside in Hickenlooper’s favor.

Rep. Hurd Not Running for Reelection

The Story:

On August 1, Representative William Ballard Hurd, from Texas’ 23d district (in the southwest part of the state, along the border with Mexico), announced that he will not be running for reelection next year, so that his current (third) term will be his last.


The 23d district is changing of late. It is becoming more challenging for Republicans, all along the ballot. Though Mitt Romney won this district in 2012, when he was the GOP candidate for President, Hillary Clinton won it in 2016, as the Democratic candidate for the same post.

Incumbents always have advantages in campaigns: visibility, name recognition, an established network of supporters, the good they can do their districts on the basis of increasing seniority, and so forth. But with Hurd leaving, the GOP will have to try to hang onto his seat without running an incumbent, and that may be tough.

The Thing to Know:

Hurd’s announced retirement is not unique. He is among a sizable group of Republicans in the House who have decided that this is a good time to return to the private sector.  It seems that the job has become a good deal less fulfilling for Republicans since the Democrats took over the leadership roles this January.

Mike Gravel Suspends His Campaign for President

Live: Senate debates bringing Kavanaugh confirmation to a vote

The Story:

Mike Gravel, a former US Senator who was for much of this year waging a long-shot campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, suspended that campaign last week, and as he left the field he sharply criticized the Democratic National Committee for keeping him out of the televised debates.


Gravel, an Alaskan, became well-known during the Vietnam War period, first for his outspoken opposition to the draft of young men into the military; later for his enthusiastic support of the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers.”

Gravel lost his seat in the US Senate in 1980 and has been out of the public eye for most of the time since. But this year two young (teenager) admirers effectively ran a Presidential campaign on his behalf and with his blessing. It is that campaign that Gravel suspended on August 2.

Although Gravel met the criteria for a spot in the debates, the DNC had also set a limit on the number of candidates who could participate, putting the ceiling at 20. Since 20 other candidates crossed the necessary thresholds before he did, Gravel was not allowed in.

The Thing to Know:

Gravel’s distinction in the campaign was to be its foremost advocate of a non-interventionist (opponents might even call it an isolationist) foreign policy. Gravel has demanded that both former President George W. Bush and former President Barack Obama be tried by the International Court of Justice for “the crimes and murders they’ve committed” by way of overseas military actions.

Rep. Gabbard has a big Debate Moment

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: War with Iran would make Iraq War 'look like a cakewalk'

The Story:

On July 31, during the second night of a two-night debate held in Detroit, Michigan among the Democratic Party’s candidates for President, Rep Tulsi Gabbard (HI) attracted a good deal of attention by launching a direct attack on the prosecutorial record of Sen. Kamala Harris (CA).

The Attack:

Senator Harris has long adopted a ‘tough cop’ persona as part of her political appeal. In 2004, Harris became the District Attorney of San Francisco. In 2010, she was elected California’s Attorney General. She went from that post into the US Senate in 2016. This history gives her a resume on which to run, but it has also given opponents a target.

In the debate in Detroit, Gabbard said of Harris’s record as prosecutor, “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.” What is more, Gabbard said that Harris “blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so,” and that she “kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the State of California.”

The Thing to Know:

Gabbard, who has been an almost peripheral figure in the campaign thus far, may now receive greater prominence. Meanwhile, Harris will have to come up with convincing answers to the Gabbard challenge in the months ahead.


Korea: How Many Parties in the Talks?

President Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un open to third summit

The Story:

For many decades, US policy with regard to talks about the Korean peninsula was simple: the US would not engage in one-on-one talks with the North Korean government. There would have to be representatives of our ally, South Korea, in the room. Furthermore, since such talks would naturally also include North Korea’s ally, the People’s Republic of China, US policy was in effect a rejection of two-party talks in favor of four-party talks. The Presidency of Donald Trump has decisively broken with this.

The Debate:

On July 30, ten of the candidates for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party met in debate, the first half of a two night event. Only hours before, the North had fired off missiles, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, so naturally the subject of the Trump administration’s policy toward the North was discussed.

The Thing to Know:

Nobody involved in the Democratic debate made a case for insisting on the presence of South Korea (or for four-party talks in general). Representative Ryan made the case that Trump has helped boost the prestige of the northern regime, and he clearly thought this a bad thing, but he gave no indication that a larger number of participants in the talks would have changed his view.

The Politics of Vaccines

The Story:

The number of measles cases in the US this year has passed 1,000: a rare milestone. This has stoked the already contentious politics of childhood vaccines. Every state in the United States requires that children receive certain immunizations before they may be enrolled in public schools. Most states allow a religion-based exemption, and several states allow exemption on the basis of conscientious objections that may not be religious in character. The whole subject is in flux.


The issue of childhood vaccinations reached the bully pulpit of the presidential campaign when Democratic primary candidate Marianne Williamson described mandatory vaccination as “Orwellian.” She compared a push to close the conscientious exemptions to the efforts to narrow the range of lawful abortions, saying “The US government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.”

As criticism of this statement rolled in, Williamson then sought to clarify: “I am sorry that I made comments which sounded as though I question the validity of life-saving vaccines. That is not my feeling and I realize that I misspoke.”

The Thing to Know:

The extent of public skepticism about vaccines, or at least about the mandatory character of vaccinations, and sentiment for expanding rather than shrinking the range of exemptions, is difficult to measure. It could ally itself with a much broader skepticism about the political pull of “Big Pharma,” and this issue may become increasingly explosive in years to come.

The 2020 Senate Campaign: Tennessee

The Story:

Senator Lamar Alexander (R – Tenn.) has been a prominent figure in US politics for a long time: in the Senate, or in the Tennessee Governor’s mansion, or in the cabinet of President George H.W. Bush. But Alexander is now retiring from public life, and the campaign of 2020 shall decide who replaces him in the Senate.


It seems likely, although not certain, that the Republican Party will nominate Bill Hagerty to take the Alexander seat. Hagerty is at present the US Ambassador to Japan.

On the Democratic side, the only declared candidate for nomination for this post thus far is James Mackler, both an attorney (who has been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney) and a twitter denizen. In that latter capacity Mackler has tweeted in a way that signals a campaign theme: “There’s common ground to fix our bridges, roads, & invest in 21st century infrastructure.”

The Thing to Know:

President Trump has endorsed Hagerty. One former Governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen, has endorsed Mackler. A campaign between Hagerty and Mackler next fall could draw on national reserves of money and receive nationwide attention.  It could in other words, become the next “Sen. Cruz versus O’Rourke.”