The battle in the Virgin Islands offers a glimpse into the chaos that could unfold at the GOP convention.
Tim MurphyApr. 13, 2016 6:00 AM
The US Virgin Islands Republican caucus would hardly register on the national radar in a normal year. Traditionally, it hardly even registers on the islands' radar—fewer than 100 people participated in the 2012 event. But with front-runner Donald Trump struggling to lock up the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, the behind-the-scenes wrangling for delegates has taken on an unprecedented significance. And that fight has come to this US territory. The chaos there says a lot about what could unfold in Cleveland in July, when the Republicans convene to select their presidential nominee.
This collection of Caribbean islands—which includes St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas—is home to one of the smallest Republican parties in the United States, but it has produced one of the nastiest and most unexpected political clashes in recent memory. The battle has played out in radio attack ads and in the courts, featuring allegations including corruption, carpetbagging, and Nazi sympathizing.
In one corner is the island's Republican Party chair, John Canegata, a shooting-range owner who works at a rum distillery and has led the GOP there for four years. In the other is a faction led by John Yob, a veteran political consultant from Michigan who worked for Sen. Rand Paul's presidential campaign before moving to the islands last winter. Yob and his wife, Erica, along with Lindsey Eilon, another political operative recently arrived from Michigan, were among the six delegates elected on March 10; Canegata is fighting to have the entire slate replaced and has signaled he may take the challenge all the way to Cleveland.
A federal judge in West Virginia sentenced former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to a year in prison on Wednesday for conspiring to commit mine safety violations at his company's Upper Big Branch mine during a period leading up to the explosion there that left 29 miners dead in 2010.
Blankenship was convicted of the misdemeanor charge in December, but the conviction was explicitly not linked to the Upper Big Branch disaster itself and Blankenship's attorney worked hard to ensure the accident was hardly mentioned during the trial. And that verdict was a disappointment to prosecutors; he was found not guilty of the more serious felony charges of making false statements to federal regulators in the aftermath of the blast in order to boost Massey's stock price. (Had he been convicted on all counts, he would have faced up to 30 years in prison.) The conspiracy conviction rested on evidence of Blankenship's domineering management style, which emphasized profits over the federal mine safety laws designed to avert underground explosions:
[T]he attention to detail that made Blankenship such an effective bean counter may also be his undoing. He constantly monitored every inch of his operation and wrote memos instructing subordinates to move coal at all costs. "I could Krushchev you," he warned in a handwritten memo to one Massey official whose facilities Blankenship thought were underperforming. He called another mine manager "literally crazy" and "ridiculous" for devoting too many of his miners to safety projects. Despite repeated citations by the MSHA, Blankenship instructed Massey executives to postpone safety improvements: "We'll worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time." And this is only what investigators gleaned from the documents they could find: Hughie Stover, Blankenship's bodyguard and personal driver—and the head of security at Upper Big Branch—ordered a subordinate to destroy thousands of pages of documents, while the government's investigation was ongoing. (Stover was sentenced to three years in prison in 2012 for lying to federal investigators and attempting to destroy evidence.)
Before he stepped down as Massey's CEO in 2010, Blankenship had built the company into one of the largest coal producers in the United States and become a polarizing figure in his home state, where he bankrolled the rise of the Republican Party, pushed climate denial, and crushed unions. For more on Blankenship, read my piece from the magazine on his rise and fall.
Rachel Maddow posed an interesting question to Sen. Bernie Sanders during their interview on Wednesday: Would he like to see the Republican Party just disappear? Sanders' answer was also an interesting one. He didn't take the bait; instead, he offered an alternative theory—the GOP would disappear if corporate media simply told the truth about the party's agenda.
Sanders didn't mean that as hyperbole. By his estimate, the Republican Party would drop to single-digit support if it weren't for negligence by the press:
I think if we had a media in this country that was really prepared to look at what the Republicans actually stood for rather than quoting every absurd remark of Donald Trump, talking about Republican Party, talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the top two tenths of 1 percent, cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid, a party which with few exceptions doesn't even acknowledge the reality of climate change, let alone do anything about it, a party which is not prepared to stand with women in the fight for pay equity, a party that is not prepared to do anything about a broken criminal justice system or a corrupt campaign finance system, I think, to be honest with you—and I just don't, you know, say this rhetorically, this is a fringe party. It is a fringe party. Maybe they get 5, 10 percent of the vote.
"The Republican Party today now is a joke," he continued, "maintained by a media which really does not force them to discuss their issues."
Sanders was returning to one of his driving issues over the years—a fervent belief that corporate-owned media was steering democracy off a cliff. In 1979, he wrote an essay arguing that TV networks were "using the well-tested Hitlerian principle that people should be treated as morons and bombarded over and over again with the same simple phrases and ideas" to prevent them from thinking critically about the world around them. He hit those same themes (albeit more diplomatically) in his book, Outsider in the House, arguing that TV news coverage was dumbing down America by inundating viewers with superficial coverage of O.J. Simpson instead of "corporate disinvestment in the United States." Not surprisingly, when Maddow asked Sanders in an interview last fall what his dream job might be, he quickly blurted out, "president of CNN."
A corporate media that obsesses over the issues Sanders obsesses over would certainly have some impact on the political landscape. But Sanders' dismissal of the Republican base seems to miss a far more obvious takeaway. People vote for Republicans not because they've been brainwashed, but because they actually like what Republicans like Trump are proposing.
Donald Trump told a Wisconsin town hall on Wednesday that his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States would have an exception for the billionaire's rich friends.
"I have actually—believe it or not—I have a lot of friends that are Muslim and they call me," Trump said, when asked about his plan by MSNBC's Chris Matthews, the event's moderator. "In most cases, they're very rich Muslims, okay?"
Matthews then asked Trump if his rich Muslim friends would be able enter the country under Trump's Muslim ban. "They'll come in," Trump said. "You'll have exceptions."
But he didn't stop there. A few moments later, when Matthews suggested a blanket ban might rub Muslims the wrong way, Trump flipped the script, arguing that it would instead have a galvanizing effect on Middle Eastern countries in the fight against ISIS.
"Maybe they'll be more disposed to fight ISIS," Trump said. "Maybe they'll say, 'We want to come back into America, we've got to solve this problem!'"
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton wasted little time dismissing Trump's comments:
Donald Trump refused to rule out using nuclear weapons in Europe during a town hall in Wisconsin on Wednesday. The Republican presidential front-runner was asked about his recent contradictory statements about nuclear proliferation—in which he said he was concerned about the spread of nukes while also suggesting that more countries, including Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, should be allowed to acquire them.
MSNBC's Chris Matthews, the host of the town hall, tried to pin Trump down on what circumstances might compel President Trump to deploy the United States' nuclear arsenal.
"Look, nuclear should be off the table, but would there a time when it could be used? Possibly," Trump said.
Matthews asked Trump to tell the Middle East and Europe that he would never use nuclear weapons, but Trump continued to evade. Asked again if he'd use nuclear weapons in Europe, Trump held firm. "I am not—I am not taking cards off the table," Trump responded.