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Thursday, December 29, 2022

In Much of the South, Subfreezing Weather Crippled Water Systems - The New York Times

In Much of the South, Subfreezing Weather Crippled Water Systems

"The bitter cold had left the region by Wednesday, but myriad broken pipes, disrupted municipal water systems and widespread aggravation remained.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water employees working on a burst pipe on Poplar Avenue in Memphis on Wednesday.
Lucy Garrett for The New York Times

BYRAM, Miss. — As soon as he saw that temperatures would nosedive to subfreezing lows over the Christmas weekend, Richard White had a strong hunch about the trouble it would spell for his community in Mississippi even after the ice had thawed: Frozen pipes would burst, and water in the system would stop flowing.

Sure enough, that’s what happened.

“We’ve been through this many times, and it’s just miserable,” said Mr. White, the mayor of Byram, just outside Jackson, Miss., and the owner of an auto supply store where water on Wednesday — five days after the temperature plunged — was still reduced to a trickle.

It was the same across much of the Southeast, where the bitter cold was long gone — the high in Byram skirted 70 degrees on Wednesday — but the fallout from the recent winter storm endured in the form of broken pipes, disrupted water systems and widespread aggravation.

Byram, which relies on Jackson’s long-troubled municipal water system, has been under a boil-water advisory for several days, as are hundreds of thousands of people in Memphis after more than three dozen water main breaks there. In Charleston, S.C., officials warned that the storm thrust the water system alarmingly close to catastrophe. In Selma, Ala., a series of major leaks led the mayor to declare a state of emergency.

Pipes also burst at the airports in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., inserting yet another bump into a holiday travel season transformed into an obstacle course of cancellations and delays.

Emily Kask for The New York Times

The myriad breaks and leaks have underscored the threat that extreme weather poses to local water systems. Those vulnerabilities have been exposed in recent years by winter storms, floods and hurricanes and are expected to keep intensifying because of climate change.

The water woes are among many caused by the monster winter storm that swept across the country beginning last week, causing temperatures to rapidly plunge, unleashing ice and slashing winds and dumping more than four feet of snow in some places. Although much of the South was spared an intense assault, the storm pushed temperatures to single digits in parts of the region, a level of cold that is unfamiliar and difficult to contend with.

“We’re not used to weather like this down here,” said Rex Jones, the owner of Cougar Oil in Selma, a city of about 17,000 people on the Alabama River. “We like warm weather on the river.”

In Selma, the authorities have been called to homes and businesses where pipes burst and a mess was left to clean up. “We’ve been working since Christmas because we had a lot of frozen lines, busted lines,” Chief Kenta Fulford of the Selma Police Department said.

Water seeped out of the doors of some shops in the Selma Mall. “The whole mall was just full of water,” said Shanna Bullard, who owns The Treasure Box Flea Market, a business that avoided the worst of it. “Luckily, it didn’t hit us that bad.”

In Memphis, restrictions limiting water use were rolled back on Wednesday as officials said that most of the major leaks in the city had been repaired. But a boil-water notice remained in place.

Lucy Garrett for The New York Times

Lora Burke’s house was already going to be, as she put it, “wild and crazy” around the holidays, with three grown children and their children — ranging in age from 1 to 15 — piled inside.

“This year, we had a total of 13 people in the house,” she said.

Shortly after her family arrived, Ms. Burke, 65, tried to wash a load of laundry and the machine wouldn’t run. That’s how she discovered she had frozen pipes. “The young kids, my grandkids, were horrified and shocked when I said, ‘Don’t flush the toilet,’” she said.

“I constantly boiled water and kept it in pitchers, one in the dining room and one in the kitchen,” she added. “I probably boiled water seven or eight times in a day.”

Her family also started drinking canned sparkling water and juice. “One of the moms doesn’t let her son drink juice,” Ms. Burke said, “but even she was like, ‘Forget it, he can have apple juice.’”

At Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in downtown Memphis, hospital administrators said they had been well prepared. After a previous winter storm, the hospital installed pumps into its water system to increase pressure; it also keeps enough bottled water stocked for 1,700 patients.

Medical equipment and supplies are being cleaned with bottled or sterilized water. Doctors and nurses are using portable hand-washing stations that use purified water, which is also being used to prepare food.

“We put all these systems in place for the ‘just in case,’ and now we are at the ‘just in case,’” said Michael Wiggins, the hospital’s president and chief executive.

Kelly English, an acclaimed Memphis chef who runs four restaurants in the city, is offering customers a $5 gift certificate if they bring their own bottled water or soft drink. His restaurants have also turned off soda fountains and brought in 1,000 pounds of ice from Arkansas.

Mr. English also cautioned customers to brace themselves for their favorite dishes tasting slightly different than what they’re accustomed to because of the boiled water. “We even boiled water to wash our lettuce today,” he said.

Lucy Garrett for The New York Times

In Jackson, the Mississippi capital, crews were repairing leaks across the city of 150,000 people and water pressure was gradually stabilizing. “Things are looking up,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told reporters on Wednesday. “The system has begun to recover.”

Still, he said, the outer reaches of the water system were waiting for their faucets to dispense more than drips. The problems only compound frustration that has built over years of recurring service disruptions and boil-water advisories as the system has fallen into a crisis for which aging and inadequate infrastructure are blamed — the result, many Jackson residents say, of a failure to invest sufficient resources in Mississippi’s largest city.

In August, the water system was overwhelmed by torrential rains that left more than 150,000 people in Jackson without access to safe drinking water, prompting an intervention by state and federal authorities. A winter storm in 2021 upended water service for weeks.

“This one has been a lot more frustrating to deal with than the last one,” said Ronnie Crudup Jr., a state lawmaker and the executive director of New Horizon Ministries, a nonprofit group, pointing to the timing — just before Christmas — as a reason for the added stress. “This one seems to hit more mentally and emotionally.”

He acknowledged a measure of optimism. In November, the Justice Department installed a third-party manager to oversee the water system. And more funds are available now to fix it.

“I think we know it’s going to get fixed,” Mr. Crudup said. “It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.”

In Byram, Mr. White’s phone was blowing up with calls. As mayor, he said, it was his duty to be reachable. And plenty of residents were fuming, fed up with service hiccups returning yet again.

Mr. White has ambitions of building Byram a water system of its own. It would be costly and laborious, but his city is growing, drawing residents and businesses.

“My people said, ‘No matter what it costs, I don’t want to be on Jackson’s water system,’” Mr. White said.

But first, he was calming the constituents calling to complain. Slowly, it seemed as though water pressure was picking up.

“It’s about twice as good as it was yesterday, and it’s not great,” he said.

Then he wanted to check again. He went to the restroom in his office and pressed the handle on the toilet.

“It’s flushing,” he said, a hint of surprise in his voice. “That’s pretty dang good.”

Rick Rojas reported from Byram, Alyson Krueger from Memphis and Sydney Cromwell from Selma."

In Much of the South, Subfreezing Weather Crippled Water Systems - The New York Times

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Moors

Did the Tesla Story Ever Make Sense?

Did the Tesla Story Ever Make Sense?

A photo illustration including a portrait of Elon Musk in a gilt frame, overlaid over an image of a blue Tesla vehicle that has been wrecked in a crash test.
Illustration by Sam Whitney/The New York Times; photographs by Patrick Pleul, via Picture Alliance, Chip HIRES, and Tomekbudujedomek, via Getty Images

“You’re reading the Paul Krugman newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  A guide to U.S. politics and the economy — from the mainstream to the wonkish.

If you’re one of those people who bought Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency near its peak last fall, you’ve lost a lot of money. Is it any consolation to know that you would have lost a similar amount if you had bought Tesla stockinstead?

OK, probably not. Still, Tesla stock’s plunge is an opportunity to talk about what makes businesses successful in the information age. And in the end, Tesla and Bitcoin may have more in common than you think.

It’s natural to attribute Tesla’s recent decline — which is, to be sure, part of a general fall in tech stocks, but an exceptionally steep example — to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and the reputational self-immolation that followed. Indeed, given what we’ve seen of Musk’s behavior, I wouldn’t trust him to feed my cat, let alone run a major corporation. Furthermore, Tesla sales have surely depended at least in part on the perception that Musk himself is a cool guy. Who, aside from MAGA types who probably wouldn’t have bought Teslas anyway, sees him that way now?

On the other hand, as someone who has spent much of his professional life in academia, I’m familiar with the phenomenon of people who are genuinely brilliant in some areas but utter fools in other domains. For all I know, Musk is or was a highly effective leader at Tesla and SpaceX.

Even if that’s the case, though, it’s hard to explain the huge valuation the market put on Tesla before the drop, or even its current value. After all, to be that valuable Tesla would have to generate huge profits, not just for a few years but in a way that could be expected to continue for many years to come.

Now, some technology companies have indeed been long-term moneymaking machines. Apple and Microsoft still top the list of the most profitable U.S. corporations some four decades after the rise of personal computers.

But we more or less understand the durability of the dominance of Apple and Microsoft, and it’s hard to see how Tesla could ever achieve something similar, no matter how brilliant its leadership. Both Apple and Microsoft benefit from strong network externalities — loosely speaking, everyone uses their products because everyone else uses their products.

In the case of Microsoft, the traditional story has been that businesses continued to buy the company’s software, even when it was panned by many people in the tech world, because it was what they were already set up to use: Products like Word and Excel may not have been great, but everyone within a given company and in others it did business with was set up to use them, had I.T. departments that knew how to deal with them, and so on. These days Microsoft has a better reputation than it used to, but as far as I can tell its market strength still reflects comfort and corporate habit rather than a perception of excellence.

Apple’s story is different in the details — more about individual users than institutions, more about physical products than about software alone. And Apple was widely considered cool, which I don’t think Microsoft ever was. But at an economic level it’s similar. I can attest from personal experience that once you’re in the iPhone/iPad/MacBook ecosystem, you won’t give up on its convenience unless offered something a lot better.

Similar stories can be told about a few other companies, such as Amazon, with its distribution infrastructure.

The question is: Where are the powerful network externalities in the electric vehicle business?

Electric cars may well be the future of personal transportation. In fact, they had better be, since electrification of everything, powered by renewable energy, is the only plausible way to avoid climate catastrophe. But it’s hard to see what would give Tesla a long-term lock on the electric vehicle business.

I’m not talking about how great Teslas are or aren’t right now; I’m not a car enthusiast (I should have one of those bumper stickers that say, “My other car is also junk”), so I can’t judge. But the lesson from Apple and Microsoft is that to be extremely profitable in the long run a tech company needs to establish a market position that holds up even when the time comes, as it always does, that people aren’t all that excited about its products.

So what would make that happen for Tesla? You could imagine a world in which dedicated Tesla hookups were the only widely available charging stations, or in which Teslas were the only electric cars mechanics knew how to fix. But with major auto manufacturers moving into the electric vehicle business, the possibility of such a world has already vanished. In fact, I’d argue that the Inflation Reduction Act, with its strong incentives for electrification, will actually hurt Tesla. Why? Because it will quickly make electric cars so common that Teslas no longer seem special.

In short, electric vehicle production just doesn’t look like a network externality business. Actually, you know what does? Twitter, a platform many of us still use because so many other people use it. But Twitter usage is apparently hard to monetize, not to mention the fact that Musk appears set on finding out just how much degradation of the user experience it will take to break its network externalities and drive away the clientele.

Which brings us back to the question of why Tesla was ever worth so much. The answer, as best as I can tell, is that investors fell in love with a story line about a brilliant, cool innovator, despite the absence of a good argument about how this guy, even if he really was who he appeared to be, could found a long-lived money machine.

And as I said, there’s a parallel here with Bitcoin. Despite years of effort, nobody has yet managed to find any serious use for cryptocurrency other than money laundering. But prices nonetheless soared on the hype, and are still being sustained by a hard-core group of true believers. Something similar surely happened with Tesla, even though the company does actually make useful things.

I guess we’ll eventually see what happens. But I definitely won’t trust Elon Musk with my cat.“

Why Does My Sleep Become Worse as I Age?

Why Does My Sleep Become Worse as I Age?

“Research has found that sleep quality does indeed get a little rusty as you grow older, but it’s not a fate you have to live with, experts say.

A photograph of an alarm clock reading 1:49 next to a bed with messy covers, in a darkened room with the yellow glow of a night-light below.
Joyce Lee for The New York Times

Q: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it harder and harder to fall and stay asleep. Why is that?

Dr. Abhinav Singh, medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center and a sleep professor at Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine, likes to answer this question with an analogy. Think of your ability to sleep as though it were a car, he said. As it ages and clocks more miles, it begins to fall apart; it needs more repairs, and its ride becomes less smooth.

The same thing happens with your sleep, Dr. Singh said.

Researchers have found that sleep quality does indeed get a little rusty with age: Older adults are more likely to take longer to fall asleep, wake up more frequently throughout the night and spend more time napping during the day compared with younger adults. They also spend less time in deep, restorative sleep, which helps with bone and muscle growth and repair, strengthens the immune system and helps the brain reorganize and consolidate memories, Dr. Singh said. Your melatonin levels, which play an important role in sleep-wake cycles, also go awry with age, he said.

It is no surprise, then, that when researchers surveyed more than 9,000 people ages 65 and older in a landmark study published in 1995, they found that 57 percent of them reported at least one sleep complaint over three years. These included trouble falling or staying asleep, waking up too early, feeling unrested and napping during the day. In a different study, published in 2014, scientists found that a little more than half of the 6,050 older adults surveyed had either one or two insomnia symptoms over the past month.

Research suggests that women are more likely than men to report poorer sleep quality in general. And sleep begins to elude them earlier in life, usually starting around the menopausal transition (or the years leading up to menopause), which typically begins between 45 and 55, according to the National Institute on Aging.

What exactly causes these changes?

The truth is that no one knows for sure. “We’re only just starting to understand why all of this happens,” said Luis de Lecea, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

One explanation might have to do with an aging brain. In a study published in February, Dr. de Lecea and his team found that a particular cluster of neurons responsible for wakefulness became overly stimulated in aging mice, disrupting their sleep cycles. This shift “likely also happens to humans,” he said, because the part of the brain that regulates sleep in mice, called the hypothalamus, is similar to that of humans. (Many sleep studies are conducted in mice for practical and ethical reasons.) Researchers have also found that the suprachiasmatic nucleus, another brain region that regulates the body’s circadian rhythms, deteriorates in mice with age. This results in sleep disorders, including trouble falling asleep at regular times.

Certain lifestyle changes can lead to sleep disruption later in life, too, said Adam Spira, a professor and sleep researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. As people retire, their days become less structured and routine. They may wake up later or nap during the day, which can make it harder to fall asleep at night, creating a vicious cycle.

Researchers have also found links between depressionlonelinessgrief over the loss of a loved one and poor sleep in older adults. And in a 2014 study, Dr. Spira concluded that older adults who struggled with certain activities or household chores, like laundry, grocery shopping, meeting with friends or taking a walk, were more likely to report insomnia symptoms than older adults who were able to participate in those activities.

For women, hot flashes, night sweats and higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress — common symptoms of the menopausal transition — are also correlated with poor sleep. But researchers are still not exactly sure why those perimenopausal symptoms might be more severe and frequent in some women, and how best to address them.

Of course, certain medical conditions that are more prevalent in older adults can also wreak havoc on sleep, Dr. Singh said. Weight gain, for example, can increase the risk of developing a condition like sleep apnea, which can cause you to snore, gasp for air or feel like you’re choking while you’re sleeping. And medications, like diuretics for blood pressure, can also impair sleep because they can lead to more trips to the bathroom. They really can “act like darts into your sleep board,” Dr. Singh said.

Are sleepless nights a fate you have to live with?

The good news is that the same habits that improve sleep for people in generalwill work for older adults with changing sleep patterns, too, Dr. Spira said. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, avoiding naps and late-afternoon caffeine, following a healthy diet and exercising regularly are all things that will help your sleep, research suggests. In fact, one small study published in 2022 found that at least 40 minutes of either aerobic or resistance training four times a week helped older adults fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer.

Keeping consistent mealtimes every day can also help maintain a routine, which, in turn, can help regulate sleep, Dr. Singh said — as can spending time outside in sunlight, which helps keep melatonin production and the body’s circadian rhythm in check. Older adults who are on medications should also check with their doctors about whether the drugs might be interfering with their sleep and if there might be alternative options or a different dosage, he added.“

As Covid-19 Continues to Spread, So Does Misinformation About It

As Covid-19 Continues to Spread, So Does Misinformation About It

“Doctors are exasperated by the persistence of false and misleading claims about the virus.

Two paramedics load a patient on a stretcher into an ambulance.
The constant barrage of bad information about Covid-19 has made it increasingly difficult for accurate advice to break through, misinformation researchers say.Boston Globe, via Getty Images

Nearly three years into the pandemic, Covid-19 remains stubbornly persistent. So, too, does misinformation about the virus.

As Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise in parts of the country, myths and misleading narratives continue to evolve and spread, exasperating overburdened doctors and evading content moderators.

What began in 2020 as rumors that cast doubt on the existence or seriousness of Covid quickly evolved into often outlandish claims about dangerous technology lurking in masks and the supposed miracle cures from unproven drugs, like ivermectin. Last year’s vaccine rollout fueled another wave of unfounded alarm. Now, in addition to all the claims still being bandied about, there are conspiracy theories about the long-term effects of the treatments, researchers say.

The ideas still thrive on social media platforms, and the constant barrage, now a yearslong accumulation, has made it increasingly difficult for accurate advice to break through, misinformation researchers say. That leaves people already suffering from pandemic fatigue to become further inured to Covid’s continuing dangers and susceptible to other harmful medical content.

“It’s easy to forget that health misinformation, including about Covid, can still contribute to people not getting vaccinated or creating stigmas,” said Megan Marrelli, the editorial director of Meedan, a nonprofit focused on digital literacy and information access. “We know for a fact that health misinformation contributes to the spread of real-world disease.”

Twitter is of particular concern for researchers. The company recently gutted the teams responsible for keeping dangerous or inaccurate material in check on the platform, stopped enforcing its Covid misinformation policy and began basing some content moderation decisions on public polls posted by its new owner and chief executive, the billionaire Elon Musk.

From Nov. 1 to Dec. 5, Australian researchers collected more than half a million conspiratorial and misleading English-language tweets about Covid, using terms such as “deep state,” “hoax” and “bioweapon.” The tweets drew more than 1.6 million likes and 580,000 retweets.

The researchers said the volume of toxic material surged late last month with the release of a film that included baseless claims that Covid vaccines set off “the greatest orchestrated die-off in the history of the world.”

Naomi Smith, a sociologist at Federation University Australia who helped conduct the research with Timothy Graham, a digital media expert at Queensland University of Technology, said Twitter’s misinformation policies helped tamp down anti-vaccination content that had been common on the platform in 2015 and 2016. From January 2020 to September 2022, Twitter suspended more than 11,000 accounts over violations of its Covid misinformation policy.

Now, Dr. Smith said, the protective barriers are “falling over in real time, which is both interesting as an academic and absolutely terrifying.”

“Pre-Covid, people who believed in medical misinformation were generally just talking to each other, contained within their own little bubble, and you had to go and do a bit of work to find that bubble,” she said. “But now, you don’t have to do any work to find that information — it is presented in your feed with any other types of information.”

Robert Malone, a vaccine skeptic, spoke at an anti-vaccine rally in Washington in January 2022.
Tom Brenner/Reuters

Several prominent Twitter accounts that had been suspended for spreading unfounded claims about Covid have were reinstated in recent weeks, including those of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, and Robert Malone, a vaccine skeptic.

Mr. Musk himself has used Twitter to weigh in on the pandemic, predicting in March 2020 that the United States was likely to have “close to zero new cases” by the end of that April. (More than 100,000 positive tests were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the last week of the month.) This month, he took aim at Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who will soon step down as President Biden’s top medical adviser and the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Mr. Musk said Dr. Fauci should be prosecuted.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Other major social platforms, including TikTok and YouTube, said last week that they remained committed to combating Covid misinformation.

YouTube prohibits content — including videos, comments and links — about vaccines and Covid-19 that contradicts recommendations from the local health authorities or the World Health Organization. Facebook’s policy on Covid-19content is more than 4,500 words long. TikTok said it had removed more than 250,000 videos for Covid misinformation and worked with partners such as its content advisory council to develop its policies and enforcement strategies. (Mr. Musk disbanded Twitter’s advisory council this month.)

But the platforms have struggled to enforce their Covid rules.

Newsguard, an organization that tracks online misinformation, found this fall that typing “covid vaccine” into TikTok caused it to suggest searches for “covid vaccine injury” and “covid vaccine warning,” while the same query on Google led to recommendations for “walk-in covid vaccine” and “types of covid vaccines.” One search on TikTok for “mRNA vaccine” brought up five videos containing false claims within the first 10 results, according to researchers. TikTok said in a statement that its community guidelines “make clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation, and we will remove it from the platform.”

A man in a black shirt and green medical scrub pants sits looking at the camera.
Dr. Anish Agarwal, an emergency physician in Philadelphia, said some patients continued to believe “crazy” claims about Covid-19 vaccines.Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

In years past, people would get medical advice from neighbors, or try to self-diagnose via Google search, said Dr. Anish Agarwal, an emergency physician in Philadelphia. Now, years into the pandemic, he still gets patients who believe “crazy” claims on social media that Covid vaccines will insert robots into their arms.

“We battle that every single day,” said Dr. Agarwal, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and serves as deputy director of Penn Medicine’s Center for Digital Health.

Online and offline discussions of the coronavirus are constantly shifting, with patients bringing him questions lately about booster shots and long Covid, Dr. Agarwal said. He has a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the Covid-related social media habits of different populations.

“Moving forward, understanding our behaviors and thoughts around Covid will probably also shine light on how individuals interact with other health information on social media, how we can actually use social media to combat misinformation,” he said.

Years of lies and rumors about Covid have had a contagion effect, damaging public acceptance of all vaccines, said Heidi J. Larson, the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“The Covid rumors are not going to go away — they’re going to get repurposed, and they’re going to adapt,” she said. “We can’t delete this. No one company can fix this.”

Some efforts to slow the spread of misinformation about the virus have bumped up against First Amendment concerns.

A law that California passed several months ago, and that is set to take effect next month, would punish doctors for spreading false information about Covid vaccines. It already faces legal challenges from plaintiffs who describe the regulation as an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. Tech companies including Meta, Google and Twitter have faced lawsuits this year from people who were barred over Covid misinformation and claim that the companies overreached in their content moderation efforts, while other suits have accused the platforms of not doing enough to rein in misleading narratives about the pandemic.

A man in a gray pullover and navy blue joggers leans against a concrete pole in front a sign for the Kaiser Permanente emergency room.
Dr. Graham Walker, an emergency physician in San Francisco, quit Twitter this month over frustrations with Covid misinformation.Jason Henry for The New York Times

Dr. Graham Walker, an emergency physician in San Francisco, said the rumors spreading online about the pandemic drove him and many of his colleagues to social media to try to correct inaccuracies. He has posted several Twitter threads with more than a hundred evidence-packed tweets trying to debunk misinformation about the coronavirus.

But this year, he said he felt increasingly defeated by the onslaught of toxic content about a variety of medical issues. He left Twitter after the company abandoned its Covid misinformation policy.

“I began to think that this was not a winning battle,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like a fair fight.”

Now, Dr. Walker said, he is watching as a “tripledemic” of Covid-19, R.S.V. and influenza bombards the health care system, causing emergency room waits in some hospitals to surge from less than an hour to six hours. Misinformation about easily available treatments is at least partly responsible, he said.

“If we had a larger uptick in vaccinations with the most recent vaccines, we probably would have a smaller number of people getting extremely ill with Covid, and that’s certainly going to make a dent in hospitalization numbers,” he said. “Honestly, at this point, we will take any dent we can get.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Opinion For Cassidy Hutchinson, ‘I don’t remember’ wasn’t good enough

Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testifies before the House's Jan. 6 committee on June 28. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP) 

“Cassidy Hutchinson knew better than to put herself in debt to what she called “Trump world.” As she would later testify, “Once you are looped in, especially financially with them, there is no turning back.”

But Hutchinson, who witnessed the final days of the Trump White House from her all-access perch as an aide to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, had been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 select committee. The deadline for turning over documents was looming, and Hutchinson was, she said, “starting to freak out.” One lawyer she consulted said he could assist — then demanded a $150,000 retainer.

So, the young aide, out of work since Donald Trump had left office a full year earlier, initially decided to turn to Trump world for help. Which is how she came to receive a phone call from Stefan Passantino, previously a lawyer in the Trump White House counsel’s office.

On Dec. 19, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection wrapped proceedings and made criminal referrals for former president Donald Trump. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

“We have you taken care of,” he told Hutchinson. When she asked who would be paying the bills, Passantino demurred — this despite legal ethics rules that let attorneys accept payment from third parties but only with the “informed consent” of their client.

“If you want to know at the end, we’ll let you know, but we’re not telling people where funding is coming from right now,” Hutchinson, in her deposition, recalled him saying. “Like, you’re never going to get a bill for this, so if that’s what you’re worried about.”

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If Hutchinson’s live testimony before the select committee was riveting, her deposition testimony, taken several months later and released Thursday, is a page-turner: The Godfather meets John Grisham meets "All the President’s Men." Before, we could only imagine how frightening the situation must have been for the 20-something Trump staffer. Now, we can read of her frantic search for help, and her terror as she contemplated telling the truth.

It is a tale, at least in Hutchinson’s telling, of Trump allies dangling financial support in exchange for unyielding loyalty. “We’re gonna get you a really good job in Trump world. You don’t need to apply other places,” Passantino assured Hutchinson. “We’re gonna get you taken care of. We’re going to keep you in the family.” The goal, as he set it out, was clear: “We just want to focus on protecting the President.”

It’s a story of meek compliance enforced by fear of consequences — and menacing admonitions to remain on board. “They will ruin my life, Mom, if I do anything they don’t want me to do,” Hutchinson told her mother when she offered congratulations about finally securing a lawyer.

The night before her second interview with the committee, an aide to Meadows called Hutchinson about her former boss: “Mark wants me to let you know that he knows you’re loyal and he knows you’ll do the right thing tomorrow and that you’re going to protect him and the boss. You know, he knows that we’re all on the same team and we’re all a family.”

Most vividly, it is a chilling account of questionable legal ethics practiced by Passantino who, in a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood scriptwriter, was the Trump White House’s chief ethics officer. Passantino is depicted repeatedly advising Hutchinson to fall back on an asserted failure to remember anything. “The less you remember, the better.”

Except Hutchinson did remember — and quite a lot. Such as the incident in the presidential limousine, as related to Hutchinson by deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato, in which an enraged Trump allegedly lunged at his lead Secret Service agent when he refused to take the president to the Capitol on Jan. 6.

When Hutchinson mentioned this episode to Passantino shortly before her first interview with the committee, “he’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to talk about that.’” The committee, he said, “have no way of knowing that. … But just because he told you doesn’t mean that you need to share it with them.”

Deposition prep with Passantino seemed confined less to reviewing the facts than to instructing the witness in the art of declining to disclose them. “He was like, ‘Well, if you had just overheard conversations that happened, you don’t need to testify to that,'” Hutchinson said.

“Stefan never told me to lie,” she told the committee. “He specifically told me, ‘I don’t want you to perjure yourself, but "I don’t recall" isn’t perjury. They don’t know what you can and can’t recall.’” Hutchinson pressed him on this matter. “I said, ‘But, if I do recall something but not every little detail, Stefan, can I still say I don’t recall?' And he had said, ‘Yes.’”

A week later, appearing before the panel, Hutchinson found herself peppered with questions about the Trump limousine incident. She kept saying she hadn’t heard anything like that — and Passantino sat silently by as his client offered testimony he knew to be false.

“I just lied,” a rattled Hutchinson told Passantino during a break. “And he said, ‘They don’t know what you know, Cassidy. They don’t know that you can recall some of these things. So you saying "I don’t recall" is an entirely acceptable response to this.’”

No, no, no. Lawyers advise their clients not to volunteer information — that’s appropriate. They instruct them to give limited answers, confined to the precise scope of the question — that’s appropriate, too.

But lawyers — at least lawyers who want to keep their law license — do not provide the kind of counsel that Hutchinson describes. There is no “overheard” or “I don’t recall” loophole if, in fact, you did hear something and you do remember it. Ominously for Passantino, the deposition transcript reveals that Hutchinson provided the same information to the Justice Department.

Passantino, who has taken a leave of absence from his law firm to “deal with the distraction of this matter,” said in a statement that he represented Hutchinson“honorably, ethically, and fully consistent with her sole interests as she communicated them to me” and believed she “was being truthful and cooperative with the Committee throughout the several interview sessions in which I represented her.”

In the end, Hutchinson decided she could not accept such advice and still look at herself in the mirror. So, she dumped Passantino and decided to spill what she knew to congressional investigators.

“To be blunt, I was kind of disgusted with myself,” Hutchinson said. “I became somebody I never thought that I would become.”

To read her deposition is to wonder: What do the others in the Trump crowd see when they look in the mirror?”