A collection of opinionated commentaries on culture, politics and religion compiled predominantly from an American viewpoint but tempered by a global vision. My Armwood Opinion Youtube Channel @ YouTube I have a Jazz Blog @ Jazz and a Technology Blog @ Technology. I have a Human Rights Blog @ Law
Sunday, April 30, 2023
When a Walkable City Becomes a Death Trap - The New York Times
When a Walkable City Becomes a Death Trap
"Vision Zero, the initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities, seems to have stalled, if the reoccurring tragedies on a single Brooklyn avenue are any proof.
Ginia Bellafante writes the Big City column, a weekly commentary on the politics, culture and life of New York City.
Although violent crime has declined in New York City this year, the month of April has been brutal in another sense. Fifteen traffic deaths were logged in the first 24 days, one of them having occurred on a notorious stretch of Atlantic Avenue that divides Brooklyn Heights from Cobble Hill, where several other lives have also been lost. On April 16, a 31-year-old woman, Katherine Harris, was crossing Atlantic at Clinton Street, where she had the right of way, when she was struck and killed by a speeding 27-year-old driver, who was charged with vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, driving while impaired and refusing to take a breathalyzer.
This was the same intersection where Martha Atwater, a 48-year-old writer, producer and mother, was killed as she was leaving a bakery 10 years ago and a Honda S.U.V. jumped the curb. Two years after that, in 2015, Muyassar Moustapha, the 66-year-old owner of a beloved Middle Eastern grocery on Atlantic, was struck and killed by a Mercedes in the same spot, right near his store.
“These big streets running two lanes in both directions,” said Jon Orcutt, a consultant who served as policy director for the Department of Transportation during the Bloomberg administration, “are really the killing fields of the city.”
Mr. Orcutt was instrumental in drafting the Vision Zero Action Plan, one of Bill de Blasio’s first major initiatives, a plan set in motion in 2014 that sought to eliminate traffic fatalities entirely within 10 years. The goal was established after an especially tragic period; the city counted 299 deaths in 2013, and one in particular left an enduringly chilling imprint. Sammy Cohen Eckstein, a 12-year-old boy weeks away from his bar mitzvah, was retrieving a ball that had rolled onto Prospect Park West one fall afternoon when he was struck and killed by a Chevy van.
Toward the end of 2014, as part of the mayor’s agenda, the speed limit on most city streets was reduced to 25 miles an hour. During its first five years, Vision Zero brought the installation of more than 360 speed bumps and major bike lane and pedestrian plaza projects; it also increased by more than sevenfold the number of intersections in which pedestrians were now given a head start to cross, in advance of turning cars. Despite the implementation of these and many other measures, over the long term the raw numbers have not been encouraging. Last year saw 257 traffic fatalities in the city; just one fewer than there had been nine years ago, when Vision Zero began.
The pandemic managed both to confirm and undermine New York’s reputation as the most walkable city in the country. We walked to go places, to achieve equilibrium, to escape, to commune, to protest. The writer David Sedaris sometimes found himself walking 20 miles a day. In a dangerous convergence of trends, persistent fears of public transportation pushed car ownership upward while the stresses of Covid life were causing people to drink more. Speeding and reckless driving were the leading causes of traffic deaths, and in 2021 they reached their highest point in the Vision Zero era. Nationally, there were more pedestrian deaths in 2021 than there had been in 40 years. Covid has receded but some of the dangerous habits it produced obviously have not. A proposed law in the New York State Legislature would lower the permissible level of alcohol in the bloodstream, a measure that some studies have shown acts as an effective deterrent against driving drunk.
Under Vision Zero, the Department of Transportation was tasked with identifying “priority corridors” — those stretches where pedestrian deaths and serious injuries are most concentrated. One of them was Atlantic Avenue: not merely a few blocks but the whole 10 miles of it, from the western end at Brooklyn Bridge Park to Jamaica, Queens. Since 2020, there have been four deaths on the westernmost mile alone. So far this year, traffic injuries have increased on Atlantic between Fourth and Bedford Avenues by roughly a third over the same period in 2022.
Recently, I asked Mr. Orcutt to walk part of the western tip of Atlantic with me, explain the root of the problems and what might be done to solve them. Atlantic is Brooklyn’s primary east-west artery, functionally a highway that runs through a series of increasingly dense residential neighborhoods, where construction during the past several years has been more and more active.
We began our analysis on the southwest corner of Atlantic and Hicks Street at the beginning of rush hour, when a steady stream of cars and trucks were aggressively turning left from Hicks, sometimes cramming into three lanes, to make their way onto Atlantic’s one-lane entrance ramp to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway typically swerving into the crosswalk. Mr. Orcutt pointed out a proliferation of trucks that were so big they were not legally allowed to pass through many streets in the city, especially in the midst of so many dining sheds that worked to obscure drivers and pedestrians from one another.
Curb extensions that position those crossing the street to be more visible to drivers, while also shortening their distance on the street, were needed, he said. The blocks on Atlantic are long, and he recommended the installation of additional crosswalks in the middle of the blocks. One possible means of mitigating congestion, he continued, was to contain retail deliveries to a night shift and leave one lane closed, reserving it only for parking during the designated period. “At night you would have only one lane in each direction,” Mr. Orcutt said, “which would curb your ability to drive like a jerk.”
There was also an urgent need for more stringent enforcement. Walking eastward, we saw a cop jaywalking and the driver of an S.U.V. backing into the middle of Atlantic Avenue to make a three-point turn as if he were in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Three days after Katherine Harris was killed, a group of elected officials and community leaders sent a letter to the transportation commissioner, Ydanis Rodriguez, calling for these and other changes.
American car culture breeds certain kinds of entitlement that are not easily subject to regulation. Rates of roadway death are lower in Canada, France and Finland than they are in the United States, where individualism is the reigning religion and aggression is the natural order. In 1924, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover organized a conference to deal with what officials were calling the “the homicidal orgy of the motor car.” One idea was to form “cooperative organizations,” otherwise known as “vigilance committees” that could work with police departments to promote road safety. Maybe now, in the age of social media and its addiction to public shaming, it’s an idea whose time has finally come."
Needing Younger Workers, Federal Officials Relax Rules on Past Drug Use - The New York Times
Needing Younger Workers, Federal Officials Relax Rules on Past Drug Use
As more states legalize marijuana and competition for talent grows fiercer, the U.S. government is loosening guidelines from the “Just Say No” era.
Not long ago, urinating in a cup for a drug test was a widely accepted, if annoying, requirement to start a new job. The legalization of marijuana in more and more states in recent years upended that, prompting many employers to shelve hiring rules from the “Just Say No” era.
There was a major holdout: the federal government, by far the nation’s largest employer. But now, it too is significantly relaxing drug screening rules as agencies struggle to replenish the ranks of a rapidly aging work force in a tight job market.
During the past five years, the United States military gave more than 3,400 new recruits who failed a drug test on their first day a grace period to try again, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Agencies like the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. have adopted more lenient rules regarding past use of marijuana among job candidates, officials acknowledge.
And later this year, the Biden administration is expected to take another major step, scaling back how deeply the government delves into the drug histories of people applying for a security clearance.
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Polls show that more than half of Americans have used marijuana recreationally or medicinally and that a majority believe it should be legal. Medical cannabis use is legal in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Recreational marijuana is lawful in 22 states as well as the nation’s capital but remains illegal under federal law.
“We don’t want to be disqualifying half of the population, tens of millions of people, for having done something that most of our recent presidents have done,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who has introduced legislation that would deem marijuana use immaterial in security clearance reviews required for many federal jobs. “You’re taking huge numbers of people off the field.”
Once hired, federal employees remain barred from using drugs including marijuana, even in states that have legalized it. And while there is broad support for more permissive hiring policies regarding past marijuana use, the shifting rules have critics.
When Gen. David H. Berger became the commandant of the Marine Corps in 2019, he expressed concern about how prevalent drug use had become among Marines.
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“I remain troubled by the extent to which drug abuse is a characteristic of new recruits, and the fact the vast majority of recruits require drug waivers for enlistment,” he wrote in a report on the state of the Marine Corps. The Marines declined to provide specific data on drug waivers for enlistment.
Until recently, admitting recent drug use was disqualifying for many roles. But even some of the government’s most selective agencies have loosened their rules as part of a patchwork of policies that have gone largely unnoticed outside of the federal government.
The C.I.A., for instance, began telling applicants in April of 2022 that they needed to refrain from using marijuana for just 90 days before submitting an application, shortening its previous one-year eligibility requirement. In 2021, the F.B.I. reduced its marijuana abstention requirement for those seeking employment to one year from three.
In December 2021, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, issued a memo stating that past recreational marijuana use ought to be regarded as “relevant,” but “not determinative,” in deciding a person’s suitability for sensitive national security work.
And late last year, at the urging of senior national security officials, the Office of Personnel Management put forward a proposed overhaul of the security clearance vetting process that would effectively stop regarding people who previously used marijuana as a security risk.
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Currently, people applying for a security clearance must disclose a detailed account of their use of illegal drugs during the past seven years. Background checks to issue security clearances explore whether an applicant has been truthful about drug use.
Under the proposed new rules, the government would limit that time frame to five years for drugs other than marijuana, and applicants would be asked to disclose marijuana use only during the 90 days before they sought the job.
The recent arrest of a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman accused of leaking classified documents has renewed debate in Congress about how the government protects its secrets. But officials said that case had not affected the proposed overhaul of the security clearance screening process regarding drug use histories.
A senior intelligence official involved in personnel policies said the government is struggling to recruit people in their 20s as the unemployment rate is among the lowest it has been in half a century. The official, who declined to be quoted by name because the proposed changes in the government rules remain under review, said it had become clear that the intelligence community needed to adjust to a changing landscape as its employees grow older.
The government competes for talent with the private sector, which often offers better salaries, more opportunities for remote work and, increasingly, a laissez-faire approach to drug use that doesn’t affect job performance.
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Military recruiters ask prospective service members about their alcohol and drug use and are instructed to disqualify those with substance abuse problems — current or past. A key hurdle comes when recruits take a drug test at a military entrance processing station as they officially join. For years, failing that test usually meant getting kicked out on Day 1.
In 2022, 4,710 recruits failed their entry drug tests, a nearly 33 percent increase from 2020, according to military data.
Between 2018 and 2022, the Army granted waivers to more than 3,300 recruits who failed a drug test or admitted past drug use that technically made them ineligible, according to Army data. The Army has historically been more lenient with waivers than the other services.
The Navy, which had a zero-tolerance policy for those who failed an entry drug test, launched a pilot program in 2021 that allowed recruits the chance to take a second test after 90 days. Over the past three years, the Navy said it has issued drug waivers to 1,375 recruits.
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“We recognize that changes in state laws concerning marijuana around the country mean that a portion of our target demographic of 17- to 24-year-olds are more likely to have used THC,” Cmdr. Dave Benham, a Navy spokesman, said, referring to the active ingredient in marijuana.
The Marine Corps and Air Force also recently began allowing recruits a second opportunity to take drug tests. Military officials said the policies should not be construed as a more permissive stance on drug use once people are in the service. Federal workers are subject to random drug tests and individual agencies have significant leeway in how often they require them.
“Simply because we have a waiver process, we’re not lowering our qualifications,” said Master Sgt. Brandon S. Reid of the Air Force, who oversees a team of recruiters in New York City.
Sergeant Reid’s team recently allowed a highly qualified recruit who had signed up for a hard-to-fill mechanic role to take a second test after he failed a first one. The recruit told Air Force officials that he had been in an unventilated basement with a friend who was smoking marijuana, an account that was deemed credible, Sergeant Reid said, and the recruit passed the second test.
“It ended up being a win-win for the Air Force because we got a high-quality recruit who was motivated and honest throughout the process,” he said. Since 2018, the vast majority of military recruits allowed to retake a drug test passed a second one, according to data from the military.
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Beth J. Asch, an economist at the RAND Corporation, which conducts research for the Defense Department, said there was a common assumption that service members who enter the military after obtaining waivers are subpar recruits. But a 2021 study she led looking at the career outcomes of all soldiers who received waivers between 2001 and 2012 showed that those with a history of drug use performed no worse than their peers.
“Leaders in the military are well aware that legalization is happening and attitudes have become more tolerant,” Dr. Asch said. “My sense is they will try to take leniency to the extent they can while still being consistent with federal law.”
The government’s focus on drug use in the federal work force began during the Vietnam War amid concerns that heroin and marijuana use had become endemic among service members. A Pentagon health survey in 1980 showed that more than 27 percent of service members disclosed having used illegal drugs within the previous 30 days.
In the years that followed, President Ronald Reagan escalated the war against drugs that had been launched in the Nixon administration. A centerpiece was the “Just Say No” campaign, led by the first lady, Nancy Reagan.
Banning drug use in the federal work force was a key initiative.
“Federal employees who use illegal drugs, on or off duty, tend to be less productive, less reliable and prone to greater absenteeism than their fellow employees who do not use illegal drugs,” Mr. Reagan wrote in a 1986 executive order that formally prohibited federal workers from using drugs.
The private sector followed the government’s lead. By 1990, nearly 46 percent of workplaces with more than 250 employees were drug testing workers, up from just under 32 percent in 1988, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Three decades on, the course has shifted: By 2021, only 16 percent of private sector employers were testing workers for narcotics or alcohol, a federal reportshowed.
Large employers that have phased out drug testing include Apple and Amazon, which in 2021 said it made the decision based on national data showing “that pre-employment marijuana testing disproportionately impacts people of color and acts as a barrier to employment.” (The New York Times stopped requiring drug tests as a condition for employment for many jobs more than five years ago.)
Gary Hess, a former Marine officer from Louisiana, said that for most of his career, he felt drug use ought to be disqualifying for workers. His disdain for drug users was such that he fired a brother from a private sector job in 2010 for using cannabis.
But a few years later, struggling with service-related chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr. Hess said he turned to medicinal cannabis as a “last resort.”
“For me it became a performance enhancer,” said Mr. Hess, who founded the Veterans Alliance for Holistic Alternatives, which provides veterans with information about treatments including cannabis and psychedelics.
Mr. Hess said discussions about drug use in the national security field continued to overstate the dangers and overlook the therapeutic potential of some of these substances.
“They could achieve an incredible amount of resiliency in their work force if they educated their communities about medical cannabis,” he said."
Opinion | Do Masks Work To Prevent Covid? - The New York Times
The Next Pandemic
How Well Does Masking Work? And Other Pandemic Questions We Need to Answer.
"Dr. Nuzzo is the director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health.
You’re reading The Next Pandemic newsletter. Insights and guidance for preparing for future outbreaks.
When the coronavirus took off in 2020, the unknowns were immense, as was the urgency. It was clear that the virus was novel, that it was spreading widely and that it was killing many of the people it infected. And there was no vaccine or proven drug treatment. This was the context in which states first mandated masks, issued stay-at-home orders and closed schools, among other measures — an emergency.
But now we should have more data from this pandemic to guide our decisions. We don’t send rockets into space without collecting data to monitor their progress and detect if they are veering off course. And yet we witnessed more than one million Covid-19 deaths in the United States without a clear plan to assess whether we were doing all we could to prevent more.
We should be systematically studying pandemic mitigation efforts in order to learn which interventions are effective and how best to employ them. Just as important: We should do so with the understanding that the absence of evidence of effectiveness is not the same as having evidence of ineffectiveness.
Questions about masking, for example, were recently revived by a Cochrane study reporting that masking (with surgical ones or respirators like N95) makes “little or no difference” in reducing infection at the population level, such as among health care workers or in communities. Some mask opponents claim this validates their assertions that masks don’t work. Some mask supporters are raising questions about the study’s authors and attempting to discredit their conclusions. Which side is right?
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As with most things about the Covid pandemic, the answer is most likely somewhere in between.
There is good evidence that masks can protect people who use them correctly and consistently. Laboratory studies clearly show that wearing a mask properly, when in the presence of the virus, will reduce a person’s exposure to it. Other studies show that higher-quality masks, such as N95 respirators, are better able to keep the virus out than less well-fitting surgical masks or cloth masks.
The confusion occurs when we shift from showing that masks work in a laboratory or for individual people to finding evidence that masking works at the population level and what interventions work to encourage it. At the population level, compliance and mask quality may vary, making it difficult to find evidence to review on the effectiveness of masking in reducing the number of respiratory infections. The Cochrane review tried to untangle the evidence in one analysis. And according to that limited evidence, masking at the population level did not have a clear impact on reducing infections.
How can this be? Part of the reason has to do with the quality of studies on masking. Though there have been studies observing differences in disease rates between places with masking policies and those without, evidence from these observational studies isn’t of the highest quality because it doesn’t fully account for other differences between masking and nonmasking populations.
To address the quality issue of these studies, the Cochrane review looked only at randomized trials evaluating the effectiveness of masking. Randomized trials are particularly helpful for studying the impact of health interventions within populations because they help to minimize bias and confusion caused by other factors besides the one you are trying to evaluate. For example, if you looked at infections among people who choose to mask versus those who don’t, you may be observing not just the effect of masking but also the effects of other protective decisions that people who are inclined to mask may also take, such as avoiding crowded indoor spaces.
There have been only a few randomized trials specific to masking, and most of the ones included in the Cochrane review were not conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic or in the United States. Many of the studies that the Cochrane review included looked at the spread of influenza.
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This is important because while we think there are some similarities between how the novel coronavirus and other respiratory viruses are spread, there also are likely to be important differences. Covid proved to be deadlier than seasonal influenza, which may have influenced how often and well people wore masks. Masking for Covid was also mandated throughout much of the United States, which most likely also influenced masking behavior.
The pertinent question isn’t whether masks work but why masking didn’t prove to be highly effective in the most rigorous studies. Was it because adherence to masking, not the masks themselves, was the problem? Is it because the population studied wore masks when around infected people but then got infected from family members? Maybe people didn’t wear masks properly because they weren’t comfortable or they didn’t fit. Knowing the answers to these questions will help us know how best to use masks and help us better control the spread of infections. The Cochrane review authors say their examination was limited to whether interventions to promote mask wearing help to slow the spread of respiratory viruses. It’s important to note that masks only work when people wear them, so adherence will always be key.
In early 2020, when we knew little about the virus but saw its toll, masks were a reasonable step because they had few harms. Considering the rapid spread of the virus and its deadly impact, we could not wait until we had all the data to understand how best to use them. And if a new, deadly respiratory disease emerged tomorrow, we’d have few tools besides masks to prevent spread and protect ourselves.
But we should have put into place efforts to rapidly collect and assess high-quality data to understand whether masks were having optimal effectiveness and, if not, how to increase that effectiveness. We should have done this for other mitigations, too, like school and business closings and policies that required exposed contacts of cases to quarantine. Pandemic measures like masking and vaccination have been challenged by political leaders and in the courts. Without clear evidence at the population level that mitigation measures meaningfully change transmission rates, it will be harder to meet challenges that could block effective, lifesaving interventions.
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We need to develop clear plans for randomized and other well-designed studies and get them funded. A review of research by investigators affiliated with U.S. governmental public health entities during the pandemic found very few studies that evaluated the impact of measures to control the spread of disease. It is ludicrous to simply hope academic researchers will spontaneously choose and muster the resources necessary to address the most pressing pandemic response questions. Just as we have established research networks and protocols to conduct the highest-quality evaluations of the effectiveness of vaccines, we should have the same for nonpharmaceutical interventions, like masking. We can and must identify the highest-priority research questions and the funding to systematically and rigorously investigate them.
Jennifer Nuzzo is the director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health and a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations."
Saturday, April 29, 2023
Truth Social whistleblower Will Wilkerson is working at Starbucks - The Washington Post
He blew the whistle on Trump’s Truth Social. Now he works at Starbucks.
"The former high-ranking executive of Trump’s media company says he’s shared 150,000 internal documents with federal investigators. Many of his new strip-mall coworkers have no idea who he is.
SOMEWHERE IN NORTH CAROLINA — About six months ago, Will Wilkerson was the executive vice president of operations for former president Donald Trump’s media business, a co-founder of Trump’s Truth Social website and a holder of stock options that might have one day made him a millionaire.
Today, he is a certified barista trainer at a Starbucks inside a Harris Teeter grocery store, where he works 5:30 a.m. shifts in a green apron and slip-resistant shoes, making Frappuccinos for $16 an hour.
“It’s an honest day’s work,” he says, sitting near the flower kiosk of the supermarket in a North Carolina suburb, which he asked not be named due to fears of harassment. “I love what I do.”
Wilkerson, 38, has become one of the biggest threats to the Trump company’s future: a federally protected whistleblower whose attorneys say has provided 150,000 emails, contracts and other internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and investigators in Florida and New York.
Wilkerson last year publicly accused Trump Media and Technology Group of violating securities laws, telling The Washington Post he could not stay silent while the company’s executives gave what he viewed as misleading information toinvestors, many of whom are small-time shareholders loyal to the Trump brand.
The company fired him shortly after, saying he had “concocted psychodramas” but not responding to the specifics of his claims. This month, the company’s chief executive, the former Republican congressman Devin Nunes, sued Wilkerson for defamation in a Florida circuit court, claiming he had been subjected to “anxiety,” “insecurity,” “mental anguish” and “emotional distress” as a result of Wilkerson’s comments.
Wilkerson’s whistleblowing case has gained little of the attention the other legal challenges facing the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee have gotten, including the criminal charges Trump faces related to hush money payments to the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.
But his testimony and trove of records have challenged the main engine of Trump’s post-presidential business ambitions, a venture that once commanded multibillion-dollar valuations with lofty promises to overtake the titans of American tech.
The company’s attempt to merge with a financial outfit known as a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, has been frozen for months due to a pending SEC investigation that predates Wilkerson’s public comments and has blocked the company’s ability to unlock a critical source of cash.
The SPAC, Digital World Acquisition, said in an SEC filing last month that it had replaced its chairman and chief executive, Patrick Orlando, and was facing “unprecedented headwinds.”
Orlando’s termination came one week after The Guardian cited Wilkerson’s testimony in a report alleging that federal investigators were examining whether $8 million in investments had violated money-laundering rules. Orlando did not respond to requests for comment.
The Post provided a detailed summary of this story to Trump Media and Digital World, seeking comment. Trump Media spokeswoman Shannon Devine said in a statement, “This report lazily regurgitates already discredited hit pieces, defamatory allegations, and false statistics about Truth Social’s record levels of traffic,” without addressing any specific claims. Digital World’s interim chief Eric Swider said The Post’s reporting contained “several material inaccuracies” but declined to say what they were.
On Truth Social, the social network where Wilkerson posted Trump’s first “truth” last year, he is regarded as a Judas-like traitor and pasted into memes showing his head on the body of a snake.
But at Starbucks, he said in an interview, almost no one seemed to know anything about the whole ordeal. He explained his situation to one person, his direct supervisor, who he said is a “very sweet lady, but she doesn’t really understand the legal system in the United States, you know, and what that means.”
One recent morning, the woman told a Post reporter that Wilkerson is “nice” and “calm” and pointed to a printout that suggested the cafe’s customer-service ratings had gone up since he’d begun.
“Obviously, I don’t shout from the rooftops here about my past history and my whistleblower status,” Wilkerson said. Many of his co-workers are still in high school.
Sometimes, though, he can’t prevent the two parts of his lives from intersecting. When he recently had to ask for a week off, Wilkerson told his store manager he needed the time because he was a witness in a federal investigation. (“Sounds serious,” the man replied, as Wilkerson recalled, before penciling him in.)
If the SEC takes action against Trump’s company and eventually collects sanctions, Wilkerson could be eligible to make millions of dollars through the agency’s whistleblower reward program, depending on the amount of assessed penalties. But such payouts are far from guaranteed, and it’s unclear whether it’ll make up for the money he lost by speaking out. Wilkerson’s lawyers, Phil Brewster, Patrick Mincey and Stephen Bell, argue that his firing was corporate retaliation, which is prohibited by U.S. law.
The early hype of Trump Media had made it into a financial blockbuster. An initial public offering raised $300 million for Digital World, while a group of private investors pledged another $1 billion. Investors had sent the stock price of the SPAC soaring to a high of $175 on the strength of its proposed merger with Trump Media. In September, shortly before Wilkerson’s firing, Forbes magazine had estimated that Trump’s stake in Trump Media was his “single most valuable asset,” worth roughly $730 million.
In the months since, the venture’s value has nosedived. Each Digital World share is now worth about $13. In a financial disclosure filing this month, as required by his new presidential candidacy, Trump said Trump Media was worth between $5 million and $25 million and that his income from it had been less than $200.
Still, the former president and his allies have declared Truth Social a resounding success. Nunes, the former Republican congressman who now is Truth Social’s CEO, said in an interview this month that the site is “blowing up the status quo,” and Trump said in a “truth” this month that it has allowed him to “get the word out like never before. As soon as I ‘speak’ on Truth, the WORD immediately spreads everywhere. MAGA!”
But the company, which had told investors it would reach 50 million users by 2024, appears to be only a fraction of the way there, according to the site’s own publicly visible follower data. Truth Social’s global traffic last month fell to roughly 7 million visits, 40 percent below its August peak, according to estimates from the online analytics firm Similarweb. For comparison, the video site Rumble had 169 million visits in March, and Twitter had more than 6.6 billion.
Though Trump posts to the site at all hours, his Truth Social audience has grown only slightly in the last six months, from 4 to 5 million — a tiny fraction of the 87 million who followed him on Twitter before he was banned after the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump’s Twitter account was reinstated in November after Elon Musk’s takeover, raising anxieties among Truth Social investors that he would race back to tweeting as the 2024 presidential campaign heats up. So far, however, Trump has remained true to Truth Social, despite it being only the 2,479th most popular website in the United States, according to Similarweb — viewed less often than the animal-news blog The Dodo, an AARP games webpage and, as Jimmy Kimmel noted on his late-night show, a website for photos of celebrities’ feet.
Wilkerson grew up in Los Angeles, where his grandfather, Billy Wilkerson, had been a controversial legend: The founder of the Hollywood Reporter, and owner of some of the Sunset Strip’s most famous nightclubs, he had been a chief instigator of the anti-Communist Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s that came to define America’s red scare.
Will Wilkerson got into the L.A. music scene and, after high school, promoted nu-metal bands like System of a Down, helping send around stickers and swag. The work led him to odd jobs at radio stations along the Pacific Coast and, ultimately, to a producer role at the syndication company Premiere Networks, where he met Andy Litinsky and Wes Moss, two former contestants on “The Apprentice,” the competition-reality show where Trump was host.
The three men, Wilkerson said, had kept in touch over the years, trading business ideas. When they met one weekend in Atlanta to hammer out a proposal for a portable milk-frothing device they’d called the Super Shaker Latte Maker, Litinsky said he had a better idea: Using the then-novel financial maneuver of a SPAC to fund a media company that could capitalize on Trump’s post-presidential fandom and fame.
Wilkerson helped draft the company’s first plan for “Trump’s New Media Empire,” and he was part of the team that pitched Trump over cheeseburgers at Mar-a-Lago, his opulent Palm Beach estate, three weeks after the insurrection. They promised Trump an online platform where he would never be silenced, canceled or fact-checked. What’s more, Wilkerson said, they offered him 90 percent of the company without him having to invest a single cent. (Trump’s recent disclosure filing confirmed he still owns 90 percent.)
Inside the company, Wilkerson said he became a “Swiss Army knife,” tackling the start-up’s many financial and technical demands as it sealed a partnership with Digital World, patched together a social network and navigated Trump’s unpredictable temper.
“One day, you know, he would be in a very, very happy mood,” Wilkerson said. “The next day he would read something in the paper and just yell, just be livid. That’s who we were dealing with.”
By last summer, Wilkerson’s own feelings on the company had soured, and he’d begun to worry that the same small-time investors the founders had counted on were now at serious risk. He alerted the SEC to his concerns via a whistleblower tip form in August, then spoke with The Post and the Miami Herald for stories published in October. Trump Media fired Wilkerson shortly after learning he’d spoken with a Post journalist, saying he’d made “unauthorized disclosures” to The Post.
Over the next few months, Wilkerson said he sent out hundreds of job applications, hoping to find something in tech or radio but never getting past the first few calls. He suspects the drama around his whistleblowing — and the company’s attacks on his integrity — might have persuaded employers to stay away.
In December, running out of money and options, he applied at Starbucks and got a call back the next day. Though he’d listed his Trump Media executive role on his resume, he suspects it was his past barista experience, at a Whole Foods coffee-juice bar in L.A. in his 20s, that got him the job.
Trump Media, meanwhile, has faced its own struggles. Digital World said in an SEC filing Wednesday that it is cooperating with investigations by the SEC and the Department of Justice as well as an inquiry from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority related to events from before the SPAC declared its intention to merge with Trump Media in 2021. Finra declined to comment.
With its Trump Media deal frozen by the pending investigation, Digital World blew through its initial one-year merger deadline, leading the SPAC to try and failseveral times to schedule shareholder votes to extend the deadline. Without those votes, the SPAC has forced to borrow millions of dollars from its sponsor, ARC Global Investments II, to keep the deal afloat, SEC filings show.
Trump Media has also begun pushing for help from Washington. In February, the company’s general counsel, Scott Glabe, a former Homeland Security official in the Trump administration, wrote a letter urging top Republicans in Congress to investigate the SEC for its “egregious conduct and blatant politicization” in delaying the company’s merger, saying the “endless investigation … clearly constitutes an unprecedented attempt to kill the deal without any finding of wrongdoing.”
After the Guardian’s report that federal prosecutors in New York were examining $8 million in Trump Media investments, CEO Nunes sued Wilkerson, the Guardian and a Florida journalist who had covered the story, saying Wilkerson’s goal had been “defaming Nunes” and that the report made Nunes “appear odious, ridiculous and contemptible.”
Nunes’ lawsuit argues that the journalists had published “statements that were a product of their imagination” and that “the entire story is fabricated.” Wilkerson contends that he has documents supporting key claims in the report, including the allegation that the $8 million had come from a family trust with no public profile and a bank in the Caribbean island of Dominica.
Wilkerson said his fellow executives inside the company had been uneasy about the loans because Orlando, who had helped facilitate the transfer, had declined to offer any detailed information about its origins.
In one March 2022 email, which Wilkerson has shared with investigators and The Post, Trump Media’s chief financial officer, Phillip Juhan, said that the company had no contact information for anyone at the family trust more than a month after the money had been transferred. The Trump Media spokeswoman was asked about this email but did not address it in her statement, and Juhan did not respond to a request for comment.
A few days after the report, Digital World announced in an SEC filing that its board of directors had “terminated” Orlando as its chairman and CEO and installed a new management team to help “restore confidence” to its roughly 400,000 shareholders across 30 countries.
Digital World, which lists the address of its executive offices as a UPS store in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, said in a filing this month that it is now paying for office space in Humacao, Puerto Rico, owned by the consulting firm managed by Swider, the SPAC’s interim chief. An address listed in the letter corresponds to a gated community inside the sprawling coastal resort of Palmas del Mar. The cost, $15,000 a month, also covers “secretarial and administrative support,” Digital World told the SEC.
In its filing this week, Digital World said it had accrued more than $17 million in debts by the end of last year, up from $480,000 at the end of 2021, and that its cash on hand had dropped from more than $327,000 to about $989.
The SPAC also said it needed to complete the merger or seek further extensions by June 8 or its “existence will terminate,” in which case it would be required to return the money to shareholders. In a filing, the company said it “cannot assure shareholders that there will be sufficient funds” for the purpose of paying for its own liquidation costs or outstanding bills, and that the money in its trust account could “become subject to the claims of our creditors which would have higher priority than the claims of our public stockholders.”
Digital World’s unpaid debts could end up rolling onto the small-time, Trump-loving investors if the deal falls apart, said Michael Ohlrogge, a law professor at New York University who researches SPACs.
“The vast majority of SPACs just don’t rack up these kinds of expenses … and the shareholders could be in some danger of getting pursued by the unpaid vendors,” he said. “It could be an interesting and somewhat fitting end for Trump’s SPAC: that it ends in failure and liquidation and sticks its shareholders — presumably many or most of whom are his political supporters — with the bill.”
Wilkerson said he still looks at Truth Social sometimes, where he has a special “verified” account with 38,000 followers, and feels a pang of sadness about the way things turned out. He said he has sent messages to Litinsky and Moss, who he still regards as friends, but has yet to get a response. The men did not respond to separate requests for comment from The Post.
Wilkerson says he enjoys Starbucks: He gets to talk to nice people, likes his co-workers and doesn’t have to worry about Trump screaming at him through the phone. “I’m proud of what I do, no matter what it is,” he said. “Nothing’s beneath me.”
After a Post journalist took photos of Wilkerson at work last week, though, some of his co-workers began Googling his name and coming up to congratulate him and cheer him on. “Now most of the store knows my story,” he said.
Wilkerson expects detractors will say that he’s gotten what he deserved. On Truth Social, the user “Gi_Bill1962,” who says he is a Trump supporter and Digital World shareholder, posted a recent “truth” saying, “The backstabbing @Will Wilkerson thought he was gonna have his 15 minutes of fame!” alongside three crying-laughing emoji.
But Wilkerson said he doesn’t regret trying to protect shareholders by sharing information that, had he said nothing, “would have probably never seen the light of day.”
“I made the conscious decision. I knew the risks … especially in regards to retaliation. But I don’t think I could have sat back and stayed quiet, even if I was compensated handsomely for doing so,” he said. “I’m here and I’m not going away. … Ultimately, you know, I just want to do what’s right.”