Juan Williams: If Obama had acted like Trump…

Right-wing media to President Obama: We are so very sorry.

That’s the message I got last week from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The Journal abandoned efforts to make sense of President Trump’s outright fiction that Obama wiretapped him. Its editorial page — never a friend to Obama — wrote this last week about Trump:

“[He] clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims.”


Wow. The Journal was sharply critical of Obama but never said he had the credibility of a drunkard.

They are not yet saying “Thanks, Obama,” but their words do stir new appreciation for the good old days under the previous president.

Will right-wing talk radio follow the Journal’s example?

Imagine the reaction from far-right talk radio — the people who raised hell and their ratings by attacking Obama daily with accusations about fake scandals — if the 44thpresident had lied about his predecessor or if people in his circle had been taking money from Russia.

Imagine the outburst from Rush Limbaugh — the king of conservative talk radio — if the Justice Department told Obama that his National Security Advisor had lied about discussing sanctions with Russian government officials and Obama had waited three weeks to demand that person’s resignation.

And what would Hugh Hewitt say on radio if it was later revealed that the advisor took over $65,000 from companies linked to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in addition to pocketing more than $500,000 from moonlighting as a lobbyist tied to the Turkish government?

What might my friend, conservative radio host Lars Larson, have said if Obama’s former campaign manager had taken $10 million from Russian oligarchs to — in his words — “greatly benefit” the interests of Putin’s Russia inside the U.S.?

Of course, the reality is Obama’s team never engaged in such damaging acts. It is Trump’s team that is under investigation for all of these charges of scandalous behavior.

Radio talk show hosts on the right have great ratings but they are not elected to defend the democratic basis of our government. That job belongs to Congress.

But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has become an apologist for Trump. Last week, he rushed over to the White House to say he had seen transcripts of apparently legal intercepts that may have swept up some Trump campaign officials.

Was this evidence that Obama wiretapped Trump as he was running for president? No. Even Nunes admits that. But by briefing the White House before sharing the information with his own committee, Nunes revealed himself as an advocate for the Trump White House.

Nunes, who served on the Trump transition team, compromised any claim to independence and threw away the credibility he needs.

Before Nunes’ rash action it was left to the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffNunes won’t reveal sources to Intel Committee members First GOP lawmaker calls for Nunes to recuse himself Spicer: If Trump uses Russian salad dressing ‘somehow that’s a Russian connection’ MORE (D-Calif.), to explain to the nation what the House panel had already found:

“Last summer, at the height of a bitterly contested and hugely consequential presidential campaign, [Russia]…intervened in an effort to weaken our democracy, and to influence the outcome for one candidate and against the other,” Schiff said.

Schiff made more news later in the week when he told Chuck Todd of NBC News, “there is more than circumstantial evidence” that there was collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.

Meanwhile, House Republicans continue injuring the party’s brand as they busily sweep dirt from the Russia scandal under the White House carpet.

But even the attempted congressional cover-up can’t fool the public — not even in concert with the silence from right-wing talk radio hosts. Look at the polling: Trump’s approval ratings are at historic lows for any president in the modern age at this point in his presidency.

A Quinnipiac poll last week found his approval rating had fallen to 37 percent while his disapproval rating had risen to 56 percent. According to the same poll, 60 percent of voters say he is “not honest,” 55 percent say he “does not have good leadership skills” and 57 percent say he “does not care about average Americans.”

What could be driving the president’s collapsing poll numbers?

The Quinnipiac results suggest an answer.

A whopping 70 percent of voters do not believe Trump’s claim that Obama wiretapped him last year. Just 19 percent believe — in the face of the evidence — that Obama did so.

In perhaps the most damning result in the Quinnipiac survey, 73 percent of voters say Trump’s administration makes “statements without evidence to support them ‘very often’ or ‘somewhat often.’”

Again, it was left to the Wall Street Journal editorial page to admit that the Trump White House is drowning in a vast credibility crisis. 

“If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him?” The Journal wrote. “Would the rest of the world? We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.”

President Obama, please accept the right wing’s many apologies.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


Conservative media struggles with new prominence under Trump

Conservative media outlets have suffered through a tumultuous few weeks punctuated by infighting and public controversy, underscoring the difficulty some are having adjusting to the new levels of attention and scrutiny that comes with their elevated status in the age of Trump.

GOP majorities in Congress and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFox News delivers most-watched quarter in cable news history The Hill’s 12:30 Report Administration, Nunes blocked ex-acting AG from testifying MORE’s presidency have been a boon for conservative media, which has benefitted from increased access to Washington’s power brokers and a White House that has gone out of its way to accommodate outlets that were once considered fringe.

But the transition from the edges of the media to its center can be difficult. Conservative media’s mainstream peers have greeted them with suspicion and hostility, often eager to highlight the newcomers’ stumbles or question their legitimacy.


In interviews with nearly a dozen key figures in conservative media, right-leaning reporters and editors spoke about their relative youth and inexperience and the need to professionalize and move on from the sensationalism that initially helped them attract readers.

They see their challenge as one that mirrors what the Republican Party as a whole is experiencing, as it makes the transition from being the opposition party to the party in power.

“I think there is a bit of an existential crisis,” said Lucian Wintrich, a 28-year-old gay conservative provocateur who is moving to Washington to be the White House correspondent for the Gateway Pundit blog.

“We’re having some growing pains as we try to expand our reach and become more mainstream and less sensationalist in our writing and journalism. It’s an interesting transition. You have publications that historically have not had much oversight suddenly needing to reevaluate how they do things.”

The millennial-focused conservative website Independent Journal Review (IJR) suspended three staffers last week, including creative director Benny Johnson — a former BuzzFeed reporter who had been a high-profile hire for the young outlet — for publishing a conspiracy theory about President Obama. The controversy provoked one of the site’s reporters to resign in frustration over the direction of the company.

Also last week, Breitbart News investigative reporter Lee Stranahan quit the publication after going public with his frustrations with the site’s political editor, Matthew Boyle, who has greater editorial control now that former chairman Stephen Bannon has become Trump’s chief White House strategist.

Meanwhile, Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze, suspended one of its top personalities, the unapologetically pro-Trump booster Tomi Lahren, for announcing on “The View” that she supports abortion and for criticizing anti-abortion conservatives.

And Fox News yanked one of its top legal experts, Andrew Napolitano, after he alleged that a British intelligence agency had wiretapped Trump Tower at Obama’s request. White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeated the claim during a press briefing, resulting in international backlash.

The errors and turmoil have frustrated some on the right, who warn that the mainstream press and the left will seize on every misstep in an effort to delegitimize conservative outlets.

“Conservative media has always been held to a higher standard than liberal media, and as conservatives we have to live up to that higher standard,” said Matthew Continetti, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon. “When we don’t, it not only undermines our work as journalists, but also the conservative project as a whole.”

Tensions between the mainstream press and right-wing media outlets have spilled into the open in recent weeks.

State Department reporters cried foul when only one outlet — the conservative IJR — was allowed to travel abroad with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. IJR instructed its reporter, Erin McPike, not to tweet or write daily news reports. She focused instead on a single feature story they could be packaged as an exclusive.

Reporters excluded from the trip were furious that McPike didn’t act as their eyes and ears by filing incremental news stories or pool reports.

And Wintrich, the Gateway Pundit correspondent who once ran an art installation for young gay men called “Twinks 4 Trump,” was accosted in the White House briefing room and called a racist by a Fox News Radio reporter who berated him in front of the press corps.

“If you’re legacy media and have been trading on that access for decades, when the new guy comes in and gets your access, it’s enraging,” said Sean Davis, a co-founder of The Federalist. “I don’t buy that this is about conservative outlets making errors or not knowing what they’re doing. This is legacy outlets acting like an entitled monopoly or a cartel when someone new comes in and does the job better than they do.”

Still, many conservative media players interviewed by The Hill acknowledged that adjusting to the brighter spotlight, coupled with the gravity of covering the White House, has been a challenge.

“A lot of them aren’t ready for prime time,” said John Ziegler, a Trump critic who spent 20 years in conservative media but left his radio show last year after he grew weary of battling his pro-Trump audience.

“A lot of so-called conservative media is like the dog that caught the car and now they don’t know what the hell to do. They’re completely confused because they’ve never been in this situation before.”

Many are rushing to “professionalize” or “institutionalize” their operations. 

Some conservative outlets have never before been in the rotation for White House pool duty. Their reporters are learning on the fly as they follow the president around the country to file reports for the benefit of the entire press corps, in what has traditionally been the domain of nonpartisan outlets.

Breitbart has applied for its first permanent congressional credentials, a process that opens the outlet to new scrutiny about its investors. In order to get the credentials, Breitbart had to disclose that the conservative billionaire Robert Mercer, a major Trump backer, is a part owner.

These outlets are also facing editorial challenges over how to cover a political landscape that is dominated by like-minded conservatives.

“It was a lot easier under Obama, when you could just hate on everything he did,” said one source who works in conservative media but requested anonymity.

And covering Trump, who is not a traditional conservative and who is viewed as reckless and dangerous by some in his own party, presents a unique challenge.

“Trump has added a new dynamic to conservatism,” said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who now runs the Daily Wire, another conservative news site. “Politics used to exist on a right-left X-axis. Now we’ve added a pro-Trump, anti-Trump Y-axis. And that’s throwing everything into turmoil.”

Indeed, the way these outlets cover Trump is often itself news — especially if the story is coming from Breitbart.

Under Boyle’s stewardship, Breitbart has steadfastly backed Trump, even as the president whipped support for an ObamaCare replacement bill that the outlet has tried to sink. As they have long done, Breitbart cast GOP leadership as the villains in the drama.

That editorial decision has been controversial and is one of the criticisms Stranahan, the site’s former investigative reporter, made as he unleashed a litany of frustrations with Breitbart’s direction.

“Bannon was such a visionary and when he left it was significant,” Stranahan said. “It is still a good company. But there is a difference between being a good company and a disruptive one. When Steve left, it was a big deal.”

Still, Breitbart’s impact on the political landscape remains.

They lobbied hard to doom the GOP healthcare bill, making themselves instrumental in shielding Trump from political damage while setting Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill’s 12:30 Report House GOP insists: We’re not giving up on ObamaCare repeal Ryan: Don’t tie Planned Parenthood to government funding fight MORE (R-Wis.) up for defeat. Boyle is one of only a handful of reporters to score an Oval Office interview with Trump. 

But access can have its downsides. Breitbart scored an exclusive interview on Facebook Live with White House press secretary Sean Spicer minutes after a judge blocked Trump’s travel ban — a much-watched scoop that was undermined by the broadcast’s poor production values and awkward camera angles.

Even as these tensions play out in public, though, conservatives argue that the growing pains are a good problem to have. They believe that conservative media can appeal to a growing audience frustrated with the mainstream press.

“This is healthy. These outlets are earning their battle scars,” said one editor at a conservative outlet. “These are the key moments every outlet needs to survive and get to the next stage. It sucks now, but we’ll get there.”


What Kevin Brady thinks of Trump’s trade agenda

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady was still cutting his political teeth in the Texas legislature in 1993 when Congress nearly tore itself apart over the vote to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But two decades later, he’s on the front lines as President Donald Trump prepares to make good on his campaign promise to renegotiate the landmark agreement with Canada and Mexico — or pull the United States out of it.

Trump’s NAFTA push is a high-wire act that, as Brady sees things, could determine whether the White House succeeds in its pursuit of a series of bilateral trade agreements, as opposed to regional pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the new president abandoned days after taking office. Asked if the pending renegotiation was an important “test case” for the administration, Brady’s expression showed his agreement even before the question was finished being posed.

“Oh I think so,” Brady told POLITICO in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “Clearly, the trade world will be micro-examining every comment related to NAFTA.”

Few Republicans in Congress agree with Trump that NAFTA was one of the worst deals in trade history. After all, it was negotiated under a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, and approved by Congress with strong Republican support.

But since Trump has walked away from TPP — which included Mexico and Canada as well as Japan and eight other countries — it makes sense for the GOP to push the White House toward modernizing NAFTA rather than killing its second major regional pact.

“I think NAFTA has been extremely beneficial to the United States, in many ways, but there’s no question after 23 years it needs to be updated, to say the least,” Brady said.

For the Texas Republican, that means finding new ways to expand agriculture, manufacturing and services trade between the three countries, as well as addressing a number of newer issues, such as digital trade and state-owned enterprises, which weren’t on any trade negotiator’s agenda in the early 1990s.

Trump clearly has a different approach to trade than previous Republican presidents, but Brady praised Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro for aggressively seeking advice from Congress and other interested parties on three key questions as they prepare for talks with Canada and Mexico.

“What’s working for America in NAFTA today? What’s not? And what should be included in a 21st century trade agreement?” Brady said. “Those are exactly the right questions.”

So far, the Trump administration has laid out only a bare-bones sketch of its priorities for trade agreements. But Brady said he believed Trump could use NAFTA renegotiation to make good on his promise to bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S. “We have a new economy, much different than 23 years ago, and the potential for greater cross-border trade I think is really kind of exciting,” Brady said.

Still, since NAFTA eliminated most duties on trade between Mexico, Canada and the U.S., the Trump administration might be challenged as it tries to make improvements that will generate lots of additional manufacturing jobs.

If the final deal is submitted to Congress for a vote, the U.S. International Trade Commission will be required to do an economic analysis. When the ITC looked at the 12-nation TPP pact, it projected the agreement would boost U.S. employment by just 128,000 full-time job equivalents by 2032, including gains from reforms made by Canada and Mexico.

Brady said he continues to think a regional approach, like TPP, would be more effective than negotiating a series of bilateral deals, but adds that he’s willing to give the White House a chance to show what it can do.

“I think the Trump administration feels comfortable that each agreement will build upon the next,” Brady said, outlining a process that he sees beginning with a revamped NAFTA and continuing with bilateral deals with Asia-Pacific countries, and potentially a deal with the European Union and, later, the United Kingdom, after it completes its exit from the European bloc.

He downplayed the possibility that other countries would be wary to enter into talks with the U.S. because of Trump’s harsh rhetoric, noting that it’s still early days. “We wouldn’t expect any administration to have their legs under them at this point. So they deserve a chance to begin to put that strategy in place,” Brady said.

The veteran lawmaker emphasized he would be pushing the administration to pursue deals with former TPP countries. “We must move aggressively in Asia-Pacific because our competitors like China are moving very swiftly to tie down a regional trade agreement that leaves … our farmers and our workers and our businesses out,” Brady said.

On another question related to NAFTA renegotiation, Brady said he’s still not certain a revised package would need a congressional vote, even though the Trump administration is following congressionally mandated procedures to set the stage for that.

“You know, the answer is that’s not clear yet,” Brady said. “While we have explored some of that, the vast majority of our time has been working with the Trump administration on how to make NAFTA an even better trade agreement.”

But the White House, for its part, seems determined to do whatever it can now to make sure it has the necessary support if and when they submit a revised deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote, Brady said.

“What I sense from Secretary Ross is that they’re willing to spend the time upfront listening to Congress about what should be in this updated NAFTA agreement because they want to negotiate a good one and have strong bipartisan support when it’s ready,” he said.


‘They Think We Are Slaves’

For Juliana, America was supposed to be the promised land. It wasn’t.

Juliana traveled here in 2015 from Brazil to become an au pair—a visiting domestic worker in a State Department program designed to build friendship between the United States and other countries. In return for light housework and child care, she would join an American family for a year, learning the language and culture. The private company that arranged her placement assured her she’d be treated with love and kindness.

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Instead, Juliana says she worked illegally long hours and wasn’t paid; she was denied food, screamed at and was generally treated like “trash.” Her au pair company, Cultural Care Au Pair, the largest in the U.S, told me her alleged treatment was “unacceptable” and asked me for her name to investigate the situation. But Juliana says when she complained to the company’s representative at the time, she was told to be “flexible.”

Eventually, Juliana found a new host family, which assured her she’d be able to eat in the household. (Families are expected to provide three meals a day for their au pairs, according to the State Department.) But when she got there, she learned fruit, bread and milk were off limits because they were too expensive. “You need to make choices,” she recalls her new hosts saying, telling her she’d have to decide whether to buy food or spend her meager stipend on something else. After that, Juliana gave up and went back to Brazil. “They think we are slaves,” she says. (Like most au pairs interviewed for this article, Juliana used a pseudonym because she fears retaliation.)

Many of the roughly 17,500 au pairs who live and work in the United States every year have positive experiences. But according to a dozen current and former au pairs as well as former au pair company employees, ordeals like Juliana’s aren’t unusual, either. They relay horror stories of au pairs who are overworked, humiliated, refused meals, threatened with arrest and deportation—even victims of theft. Worst of all, they say, complaining about exploitative, unsafe working conditions rarely makes any difference. Sometimes, reporting abuse makes the situation worse.

Of course, all stories have two sides, and it’s hard to know what really happens behind a family’s closed doors. All specific allegations against au pair companies in this article were provided to the ones involved. They addressed some incidents, but often said they were unable to comment on specific allegations without knowing au pair names. To avoid exposing au pairs, POLITICO Magazine didn’t contact families; instead, families aren’t named. But the real problem isn’t any particular families—it’s that the State Department and the au pair companies it contracts seem to have very little interest in finding out what might be going wrong, or in taking action when they do.

Companies and their advocates disagree with that diagnosis. “The goal of the program is for young men and women to come to the United States and have a positive cultural exchange experience,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, an advocacy organization representing 12 au pair companies, including Culture Care. “A critical element of the program are the various support resources sponsors provide, including local representatives, dedicated regional staff and 24 hour emergency contact lines.”

But in fact, the vast majority of complaints coming from au pairs appears to disappear into a bureaucratic black hole, where they aren’t thoroughly investigated or even publicly reported. A State Department spokesman told POLITICO Magazine it received 62 complaints from au pairs and families in 2015. But according to a State Department internal analysis of the program obtained by POLITICO Magazine, that’s inaccurate: Au pair agencies received and reported to the government more than 3,500 incidents that year.

All this casts a shadow over a government program bringing thousands of domestic workers, mostly young women, to the United States each year. It was designed to showcase American values and generate international goodwill. But how can it achieve that when worker protections are minimal and oversight is scarce, and as a result many of these women claim to suffer the worst that America has to offer?


The au pair program, founded in 1986 under the auspices of promoting diplomacy and cultural exchange, seems benign enough. Au pairs come to America on a J-1 visa, which allows nonimmigrant visitors like camp counselors and professors to work in the U.S. They typically stay for one year, living with a family and providing child care. The State Department contracts 16 private companies, or sponsors, to handle the nuts and bolts of the program, including recruiting, training and placing au pairs with families. It’s a “mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity,” says a State Department brochure.
But the system has always had critics. Initially, it was run out of the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency, which advocated reforming the program because the work hours were too long for it to be classified as a cultural exchange. (Congress then passed legislation to prevent the agency from limiting work hours.) In 1990, the General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency, concluded au pairs shouldn’t receive J-1 visas, saying it was inappropriate to bring workers to the U.S. under this visa because it wasn’t meant for labor programs. In 2012, a State Department Inspector General report criticized the entire J-1 visa program, because sanctioning sponsors who break the rules “rarely results in meaningful consequences.” The report recommended transferring oversight of the au pair program to the Department of Labor, and said the program had “significant issues.”

In 2013, the Senate debated a bill that would have prohibited companies from charging au pairs recruitment fees, which can range from $500 to $3,000 and can leave au pairs in debt. (Au pair companies also charge families roughly $8,000 per au pair.) “This program is a scam,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, during Senate debate over the au pair reform bill. “It is not a cultural-exchange program. But the agencies lobbied vigorously against the measure; Congress voted it down.

Most higher profile recent controversies involve wages. Au pair companies set au pair wages at $195.75 per week for 45 hours of work, or $4.35 an hour—a number that comes from subtracting 40 percent from federal minimum wage for room and board. Labor rights organizations call this a legally dubious arrangement for several reasons, including because deducting housing costs in programs where providing housing primarily benefits the employer (like the au pair program) isn’t allowed by law. In 2015, several au pairs sued 15 companies (one company joined the program after the suit was filed) in a Federal District Court in Colorado, claiming they were illegally denied full minimum wage and au pair companies engage in illegal price fixing. “Our clients allege [their wages have] been fixed by anti-competitive conduct, maintained through fraud, and violates federal, state and local wage and hour laws,” said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of the nonprofit Towards Justice, which is representing the au pairs. The case is still pending.

There’s another lawsuit in Massachusetts. Theoretically, au pairs are entitled to the minimum wage in the state where they live, which can be higher than the federal minimum wage. But even though that rule is advertised in State Department materials for au pairs, until recently, no state enforced it. In 2015, the Massachusetts Legislature passed workers rights legislation entitling au pairs to that state’s $11 minimum wage plus overtime (with a situational deduction for room and board that is much less than 40 percent). Cultural Care Au Pair sued to block the law, arguing au pairs aren’t “domestic workers” and provide only “limited child care services,” and therefore aren’t entitled to the minimum wage. “Because au pairs are protected by the [Fair Labor Standards Act], they are protected by state minimum wage laws as well,” wrote the Massachusetts attorney general’s office in its legal response to Cultural Care’s lawsuit. The office argues au pairs are entitled to expanded labor rights in many areas. But it’s unclear how many au pairs are contacting the Massachusetts attorney general’s office to enforce their rights. The case is still ongoing.

But these attempts at reform don’t address the program’s biggest problem. The au pairs I spoke with said a raise would be nice, but the real issue is that some hosts ignore already existing regulations—and so do the au pair companies supposedly responsible for their well-being.

The most common complaint is overwork. Hours for au pairs are capped at 45 per week and 10 a day. They are entitled to weekends off every month and two weeks of paid vacation. But many, like Juliana, are asked to work more than that. In fact, extra hours are “pretty much an expectation,” says Judy Bitting, a former local child care consultant for Cultural Care. (Local child care consultants are contracted by au pair companies to act as the on-the-ground contact for families and au pairs.)

It’s supposed to be easy for au pairs to complain to their agencies about this type of exploitation, through monthly meetings with local consultants. (The State Department has a complaint channel too, though au pairs more often go through their companies.) The au pairs I spoke to, however, say that when they raised issues, they got nowhere. In an annual evaluation, Itzel Reyes, an au pair who used her real name, told Cultural Care she regularly worked more than 45 hours a week. Her program director apologized but did nothing. Then the company resent the evaluation, “as if my answer might change the second time,” Reyes says.

Letters obtained by POLITICO Magazine show consultants urging au pairs to work additional hours or do work unrelated to child care. One consultant’s guide for new au pairs suggests doing extra child care during their time off, like when they go to a restaurant with the family. “You are not a guest, you are a part of the family,” the guide says.

A few extra hours at family dinner might not sound all that bad. But it only gets worse from there. Jessica with AuPairCare—another au pair company—says her host father, “Steve,” monitored her birth control, interrogating her when she asked his wife to administer a contraceptive injection. “I had to explain my period to him,” she recalls. Jessica claims he was angry with her for spending free time with her boyfriend, rather than his family. After Steve accused her of sleeping with her boyfriend in his house, he fired her, telling her she had to be out of the house in a couple of days. When she called AuPairCare, they didn’t offer her a place to stay or even a ride from the house. “Call an Uber,” she says she was told. She says the company also denied her the chance to be placed with a new family.

Jessica believes her au pair company didn’t let her find new hosts because she owed Steve money for a plane ticket to visit family in Brazil. (Steve also owed her for the cost of her old cellphone that he’d traded in for an iPhone upgrade when she first arrived. She had returned the new phone after she was fired.) But after she repaid Steve a few weeks later, Jessica alleges he then stole $250 from a shared bank account he’d created for her when she arrived in America. She gave POLITICO Magazine an email she sent to Steve and AuPairCare staff containing pictures of her bank statements. Her money had been transferred to another account. She asked for it back. Nobody answered.

“The health, safety and welfare of our au pairs and host families are paramount,” says Joanne Hritz, AuPairCare’s director of marketing, in response to Jessica’s account. Stories have “two sides.” Hritz was unwilling to comment more without Jessica’s real name. “In order for AuPairCare to investigate this we need to know the full name of the au pair and host family,” she says.

And yet, the au pairs I spoke to told me they and their fellow au pairs feel that the agencies aren’t particularly interested in listening to their sides, or in grappling with the messy stories they hear. In most complaints, the companies put the onus on the au pair, giving them two weeks to find a new family if a mediation process with the consultant doesn’t work. If they fail to find new hosts, their visas are canceled. The sponsors then have total discretion to label the au pairs either “inactive” or “terminated” in a Department of Homeland Security database. A “terminated” label jeopardizes their chances of getting a U.S. visa in the future. “The State Department does not monitor the accuracy of these designations [by au pair companies],” wrote Janie Chuang, a law professor at American University, in a 2013 article about au pairs in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. Fired au pairs may also have to pay for their plane tickets home. These are all factors that can make au pairs reluctant to complain about maltreatment.

Kate, a former au pair, says her company even sent her home early before her allotted time to find a new host family had run out because “they didn’t feel like I would find a match.” Although she lacked necessary training, she’d been assigned a special-needs child who she says kicked and bit her. “I tried talking to [the family] about it, but they wouldn’t listen,” she says. “Even the agency didn’t [listen].”

Liz Warrick, another former Cultural Care consultant, says one of her au pairs was sent home after the host mother told police the au pair had shaken her baby. A few days later, the mother admitted to social service workers the accusation was false. “How else was I able to get her out of my home?” Warwick says the mom said. Why did she want her gone? The mother admitted she’d been unable to overcome a language barrier with the au pair.

And what happens to the families involved in an au pair complaint? Bitting claims they are rarely removed from the program. She says her company even gave au pairs to families she told them shouldn’t be hosts. “The company said it was a waste of my time” to prevent abuse. (Cultural Care disputes this, saying it removes families who violate rules. “We have ended relationships with host families, specifically if there is a flagrant violation of the regulations or program rules,” it says.) Without Cultural Care’s help in resolving exploitative situations, Bitting says, “my hands were tied.” Au pairs “would beg me not to go back [to talk] to the family.” They feared retaliation.


Ask the State Department and they’ll tell you incidents like these are isolated and not indicative of systemic issues. “The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program today is stronger than ever, and we continually strive to improve it,” Nathan Arnold, a State Department spokesman, told me.

According to the State Department’s public statements, there is almost no recorded abuse in the program. While acknowledging “not every incident will be reported,” Arnold said just 218 complaints—from families, companies and au pairs—were recorded from 2013 to November 2016, with 62 complaints in 2015 alone. The Washington Post reported similar numbers in November, based on what it had been told by the State Department. Companies are “required to report [to the State Department] any incidents involving or alleging a crime of moral turpitude or violence,” Arnold assured me, plus “any serious problem or controversy,” meaning anything worse than “lost luggage” or “missed flights.”

The problem? These numbers are incorrect—according to the State Department itself. Every year, au pair agencies provide the government with a “summation of all complaints” by au pairs and families. The State Department’s 2015 Au Pair Program Annual Reports Analysis, a previously unreleased document obtained by POLITICO Magazine, states that not 62, but a full “3,505 complaints were received by sponsors” from au pairs, families or both during that year.

Confronted with this 3,443-complaint discrepancy, Arnold clarified: The first set of complaints included those reported by parties only “other than a sponsor”—meaning directly to the government. (That was after the spokesperson had explicitly confirmed those numbers were the full set of complaints, including those “reported through sponsors.”)

These higher numbers have never been publicly reported. And what has the government done about them? Not much, according to Arnold. Most “are classified as issues that do not require State Department intervention,” he told me. Many complaints are vaguely labeled and described only in terms like “incompatibility and/or personality conflict.” Mostly, the issues were resolved when au pairs were fired or placed with new families. Families were removed from the program in just 4 percent of incidents.

According to the 2015 report, “40% of complaints were initiated by both au pairs and host families; 30% of complaints were initiated by au pairs; 30% of complaints were initiated by host families. These labels aren’t cut and dry. Family complaints could be sparked by things like an au pair refusing to work extra hours or asking to be paid on time. Jessica’s situation, for example, would be considered a family complaint.

POLITICO Magazine was unable to uncover details about specific complaints. It’s unclear, for example, how Juliana or Jessica’s stories were characterized, if at all—whether they would be labeled a “personality conflict” or something more serious. (The State Department estimates it will respond to POLITICO Magazine’s Freedom of Information request for full audits of the program, which could provide clarity, in 2018.)

Despite assurances, the exchange is “stronger than ever.” State Department documents also indicate the government is aware of some of its major problems. The program analysis from 2014, also obtained by POLITICO Magazine, doesn’t contain specific complaint numbers from the au pair agencies, but it did does say that in “many of the audits [au pair companies are required to submit to the government]” au pairs reported working extra hours.

At the heart of the program’s problem is a difference in expectations. Companies “market the program differently to host families and to au pairs,” the 2014 analysis notes. “For host families, the program is commonly marketed as an affordable, reliable and flexible way to obtain quality child care. For au pairs, the program is often advertised as an easy way to live with an American family, learn about American culture, take classes and earn some money.” In other words: Au pairs are sold a cultural experience, but families are looking for cheap labor.

But the biggest problem might be that the State Department seems content to live and let live. It has just 30 staff members dedicated to monitoring the entire J-1 program for compliance with rules. (Over 375,000 J-1 visas were issued in 2016.) And while those 30 employees look into the small number of cases reported to the State Department’s hotline, it’s clear they don’t have the time or manpower to review the thousands of other complaints. For the most part, the government trusts au pair companies—businesses that have a financial interest in the continuation of the program in its current form—to regulate themselves. (When asked if the State Department ever looks into complaints reported by companies to see whether they were handled properly, Arnold did not answer. “Each situation is unique and decisions on how to respond necessarily vary,” he said.) Arnold said the State Department is unaware of any widespread pattern of abuse that would require intervening with companies. “This is a mutual partnership built on trust and transparency,” he said of State’s relationship with sponsors.

Even when it comes to complaints reported directly to the State Department, I saw no evidence the government takes meaningful action. Sets of complaints from 2012 and 2013 are revealed in transcripts of calls made to the State Department’s abuse hotline that were uploaded to the State Department’s online FOIA library. According to one transcript, an anonymous au pair told the State Department her host mother used threats of deportation to hold her in the house against her will, forcing her to work illegally long hours uncompensated. When the au pair complained to her local consultant, she says she was told the company couldn’t help because she had “signed a contract.” A different complaint alleged an au pair was being forced to work over 100 hours a week. Another au pair said she was made to sleep in her family’s laundry room like a “dog” and that her company hadn’t checked in on her. The FOIA library did not include information on how these cases were resolved, but we do know one thing: The au pair companies involved were not sanctioned. While Arnold assured me that “the Department may impose sanctions on a sponsor when it is determined that sponsor has violated the regulations and those violations warrant sanctions,” he also told me the last time any company was sanctioned was in 2006, when five companies received “lesser sanctions” for “inadequate management of educational component.”

It’s not exactly a portrait of heavy oversight. The State Department couldn’t even tell me how many complaints sponsors reported in years other than 2015; the government has not compiled those numbers, even though the sponsors are required to report them every year. (State also refused requests to release raw data submitted by individual companies.) That doesn’t mean the government isn’t paying attention, Arnold insists. For example, the State Department holds “meet-and-greets” around the country, where au pairs are encouraged to talk to State Department officials (without their sponsors) about their experiences. But a few meet-and-greets doesn’t help thousands of au pairs with issues. Worse, the au pairs I spoke to for this story didn’t feel safe complaining to the State Department, in fear that their complaints would get back to their host families or their au pair companies. “The notion that whatever information is gained from a complaint might lead to possible sanctions against an au pair agency offers little incentive for au pairs to assume the risk of reporting,” writes Chuang, the AU law professor.

For a program designed to enhance the way America is perceived in the world, the au pair exchange clearly has a long way to go. Sure, many au pairs have good relationships with their host families, and lax enforcement isn’t a problem for them. But good experiences aren’t guaranteed. And when a host family does want to flout the rules, who’s to stop it if the State Department isn’t watching?


Trump’s a Dictator? He Can’t Even Repeal Obamacare

Back in January, I argued in these pages that whatever President Donald Trump’s proclivities towards being a strongman ruler, the American system of checks and balances in the end had a good chance of containing him. Friday’s failure of the Republican attempt to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act underscores how difficult our political system makes any kind of decisive political action. During Obama’s presidency, House Republicans voted some 60 times to repeal parts or the whole of the ACA, and Trump himself pledged that he would replace it with “something wonderful” on day one of his administration. And yet it appears that the ACA will continue to be, as House Speaker Paul Ryan admitted, “the law of the land.” This happened despite the fact that we no longer have divided government, with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency.

The fundamental reason for the failure of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) lies, of course, in the internal divisions within the Republican Party. The bill was extremely unpopular from the beginning due to the fact that it would have potentially resulted in 24 million fewer Americans having health insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Democrats, though a minority, were therefore uniformly opposed to repeal, meaning that the Republicans could afford only 26 defections for the legislation to fail. The hardline Freedom Caucus in the end could not be badgered or threatened to accept “Obamacare Lite,” coming, as many of them do, from safe, gerrymandered districts.

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This is where the mounting number of institutional checks within the American system came into play. Had this vote been held 75 years ago, the powerful committee chairmen in the House, together with the Republican Party leadership, could have corralled these renegades through a combination of bribes or threats. Today, such tools do not exist: Earmarks have been eliminated along with the powers of the committee chairs, and there is too much money from groups outside the control of the party hierarchy. The Freedom Caucus holdouts were much more frightened of a Tea Party challenge in the primaries than they were of either Paul Ryan or Donald Trump.

And then, of course, there is the fact that the Republican Party is itself much more narrowly ideological and fragmented than it was in the mid-20th century, making it better adapted to vetoes and obstruction than to actually governing. As Ryan’s ill fated predecessor, John Boehner, understood, party discipline no longer exists.

President Trump came into office seeming to think that he could run the U.S. government like he ran his family-owned business, through executive orders. As he admitted on Friday, “We learned a lot about the vote-getting process.” Unlike a parliamentary system, the U.S. Constitution firmly vests most powers in Congress; the president is powerful only to the extent that he can be a cheerleader and consensus-builder in a system of widely shared powers.

So, far from being a potential tyrant as many Democrats fear, Trump looks like he is heading to the history books as a weak and ineffective president, hobbled by the same checks and balances as his predecessor. He has expressed regret that he went for health-care reform before tax reform, but he will find that the latter is an even further bridge. Should the Republicans push ahead with their border adjustment tax, they will find a huge coalition of powerful and well-organized interest groups opposing them. (Note, for instance, how vociferously Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, home of retail giant Wal-Mart, has expressed his opposition.) Whatever the national interest in lowering the headline rate of corporate taxation, the organization of Congress gives these interest groups the ability to veto any measure affecting their narrow part of the economy. Ditto for an ambitious infrastructure initiative: It is that same Tea Party bloc that will be the most relentless opponents of any effort to spend federal dollars on it. And even if Congress approves, the courts and states will have a major say in how and whether projects are executed: just look at the remaining obstacles to Keystone XL getting built.

Trump could end up being a powerful and transformative president under one condition: that he breaks decisively with the Tea Party wing of his own party and pursue bipartisan cooperation from the Democrats. On the infrastructure initiative and possibly on tax reform this is entirely plausible. This would also have been possible with health-care reform, had Trump worked sincerely to fix the ACA rather than foolishly demonizing from the start what has proven to be a popular law.

I’m not counting on any of this happening, however. Trump’s instinct is to run to his red state base of core supporters for comfort and adulation, rather than seeking to govern as president of the entire country. Note that he has yet to hold an event in a state he didn’t win. He needs moreover to think carefully about the interests of his working-class supporters, rather than outsourcing policy to conservative ideologues like Paul Ryan—whose ideas would make them worse off. In Latin America, populist presidents shower their supporters with new social programs; our populist president has spent much of his early days trying to take benefits away from them.

Moreover, Trump has done so much to undermine trust that it’s not clear the Democrats would accept an olive branch even if it were offered. Their intention to filibuster the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, an eminently qualified jurist, to the Supreme Court is a harbinger of future obstruction for its own sake. It is much more likely that the Trump presidency will continue to hobble along, weakened by its own lack of experience and internal contradictions. I am personally very pleased that the AHCA failed, since I thought Obamacare was good thing, and I hope that Congress will reverse many of the cuts proposed in Trump’s budget. But Americans should not be pleased with an institutional system that privileges small minorities like the Freedom Caucus and makes the search for broad consensus so difficult. This is what feeds demands for strongman leadership in the first place and prevents the country from facing difficult decisions for the common good.