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Gitmo Turned Its Inmates into Artists. Now, They Want to Send a Message. Adam Popescu

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Photo illustration by The Free Press.

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — In September 2002, police in the well-to-do neighborhood of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, in the Pakistani city of Karachi, arrested a man named Ahmed Rabbani. 

It had been a year since the September 11 attacks, and the Pakistanis, with the Americans, were rounding up people suspected of al-Qaeda ties.

Rabbani, then in his early thirties, appeared to be connected to Osama bin Laden. When the Pakistanis later arrested Rabbani’s driver, he suggested they check out another address, where cops found Rabbani’s brother, a few other people—and Sega game consoles that had been turned into detonators for explosives, plus passports for twenty members of bin Laden’s family.

Fast-forward to 2004: after bouncing around several CIA black sites, Rabbani was sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The Americans believed he had worked for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed architect of the September 11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing in 2000—running safe houses, organizing travel plans, tending to wounded al-Qaeda operatives, and building explosive devices, among other things. (Both KSM and al-Nashiri are awaiting trial in Guantanamo.) 

But for the next eighteen and a half years, Rabbani was stuck in limbo at Guantanamo—with prosecutors unable to show the military court that he had played a role in September 11 or any other terrorist attacks, and his lawyers unable to convince the court he wouldn’t do so in the future.

It was while he was at Guantanamo that Rabbani discovered his inner artist, as it were.

Back home, he had been (depending on who you asked), a lowly taxi driver or a well-connected operative who spoke Urdu, Arabic, and English. He definitely was not a burgeoning Monet.

But while he was in prison, something happened. 

“In the beginning,” Clive Stafford Smith, Rabbani’s lawyer, told The Free Press, “he wasn’t an artist.” Then, slowly, he developed into one. “His art benefited from his suffering,” Stafford Smith said. “That’s true of most artists.”

For years, the prisoners at Gitmo had been dabbling in artwork—etching floral designs on the sides of styrofoam cups with the help of spoons, pebbles, apple stems, and their fingernails. (Iraq War veteran and anti-war activist Aaron Hughes told me he’d heard Guantanamo guards showed intelligence analysts the etchings to make sure the designs were not actually secret messages between prisoners; they were not.)

Rabbani’s painting of his Guantanamo prison cell. (Ahmed Rabbani)

By 2009, prison officials had determined the artwork had a calming effect on prisoners, and the informal etchings and (later) drawings turned into a formal art program.

This was how Rabbani, while at Guantanamo, wound up in front of an easel with a paintbrush and a palette, while chained to the floor. 

Over the years, he painted pictures that captured different chapters of his life in captivity. There was the painting of Rabbani, hooded and wearing a jumpsuit and in a wheelchair. Then there was the painting with the more abstract-expressionist bent that was supposed to represent the lightless, hopeless void where he spent two years of his imprisonment. “No blanket, no shoes—nothing,” he told me over the phone.

Other paintings were more graphic: one depicted Rabbani with his hands tied behind his back and suspended by a rope attached to his wrists; that happened, Rabbani later said, while he was at a CIA black site in Kabul.

A Pentagon press release announcing the “repatriation” of Rabbani and his brother, Mohammed Rabbani, who had also been detained, did not mention how many years he had been imprisoned or the fact that he was never convicted of anything. “The United States appreciates the willingness of the Government of Pakistan and other partners to support ongoing U.S. efforts focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantanamo Bay facility,” the release said.

On the flight home with Rabbani were most of his 252 paintings and 5 sculptures—minus those that depicted his torture, which U.S. officials prevented him from taking. (According to Stafford Smith, Rabbani’s lawyer, the military doesn’t want anyone learning about its “methods of interrogation.”)

In May, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi put on an exhibit of Rabbani’s works, introducing the 53-year-old driver-turned-painter to the art world. 

The exhibit was called The Unforgotten Moon: Liberating Art from Guantanamo Bay, and there was something defiant about it. Moon is badr in Arabic; it’s also the nickname Rabbani’s mother gave him when he was little, and it was the way he signed all his paintings. Not with Arabic characters, but with a Latin alphabet script: BADR, in capital letters.

It was as though he were insisting that Badr—Rabbani—had never been forgotten by the outside world. Or, perhaps, it was that Badr hadn’t forgotten himself.

Rabbani with Natasha Malik, the curator of his recent art show in Karachi, Pakistan. (Ahmed Rabbani)

It’s been more than 20 years since George W. Bush opened Guantanamo and 14 years since Barack Obama (on his second full day in office) issued an executive order that it be closed. 

But 30 men—of the 780 total who have been detained there—still remain, mostly from Yemen, a few from Libya and Tunisia and elsewhere. Of that, only a dozen reportedly pose any serious national security threat. (The Pentagon, in its statement announcing Rabbani’s release, noted that 18 of the remaining Guantanamo prisoners are eligible for transfer.)

A few months ago, The Free Press visited Guantanamo to attend the pretrial hearing of one of the last few truly dangerous men at Gitmo, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected orchestrator of the USS Cole attack, which left 17 sailors dead and 39 others wounded.

The hearing took place in an air-conditioned trailer behind layers of barbed-wire fencing, and it was guarded by soldiers who looked like they hadn’t been born when 9/11 happened, 22 years ago. 

That disconnect reflects the surreality that is Guantanamo: while time has moved on outside the island fortress, inside it can feel like we’re stuck in the early aughts. The site of the Twin Towers is now a memorial; the Pentagon has been patched up; the field in southwestern Pennsylvania where Flight 93 went down is grassy again. But at Guantanamo, the military judges, the prosecutors, the guards—to say nothing of the last few prisoners—are still battling over who did what and when and how immediately before or after the worst terrorist attacks in American history. 

The grounds of Guantanamo. In the background is Camp X-Ray, the first place detainees were held on the island. (Photo by Adam Popescu for The Free Press)

That just four prisoners have ever been successfully convicted—while nine have died in custody—only deepens this sense of timelessness. This feeling that nothing ever really happens at Guantanamo, that Guantanamo is stuck where it’s been for more than two decades.

As lawyers argued in front of a military judge, reporters and the father of a sailor killed on the USS Cole watched the proceedings from behind a thick pane of glass. 

It was at the hearing that Rabbani’s painting of himself with his hands tied behind his back and strung up from a ceiling came up. 

When he’d left Guantanamo a few months before, that was one of the paintings Rabbani had been forbidden from taking. But he had described the painting—and the torture, called strappado—to Stafford Smith, who had another artist recreate it. At the hearing, a copy of that secondhand drawing was passed around. Al-Nashiri had been subjected to the same treatment.

During his testimony, Bruce Jessen, one of the two psychologists behind the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” was asked whether the drawing accurately depicted what prisoners had endured. Jessen, looking a little shaken, said, “It was worse.” 

One of Rabbani’s many paintings of the torture he experienced. Others were not authorized to leave the prison. (Ahmed Rabbani)

When the Obama administration created the art program, it didn’t get much notice.

If it had, Americans probably would have been appalled. As late as November 2015, the GOP-controlled Congress voted overwhelmingly to bar Guantanamo detainees from being transferred to the United States, with most Democrats supporting the measure. 

Just last week, President Biden rejected a plea deal from the five Guantanamo detainees accused of the 9/11 attacks, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—with the detainees agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences and better treatment.

Americans may have been uncomfortable with detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely, but they were hardly convinced these detainees were not a national security threat.

In an interview, John Bellinger, a legal adviser to the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and early proponent of closing Guantanamo, said whichever president shuts down the prison will have to spend a lot of political capital doing it.

Bellinger said there are practical hurdles, too. “With all the winnowing and winnowing and winnowing of detainees from the Bush administration to the Obama administration and even, then, Trump—my sense is we may have scraped the bottom of the barrel as far as people we’d want to transfer elsewhere, either because their home countries just won’t take them, or they’re so dangerous that no other countries will take them.” 

He added: “Not all people detained at Guantanamo were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Guantanamo, in other words, is a kind of frozen place—a place that had to be but shouldn’t be, a place for stowing the world’s most dangerous people, and a place that was morally repugnant and becoming even more repugnant the further we drifted away from September 11. It presented America with an existential challenge: what kind of people do this to other people? 

Rabbani’s depiction of time at Guantanamo. (Ahmed Rabbani)

The contrasts are surprising. Gitmo is a world of small spaces—cells, trailers, prefab fluorescent-lit buildings—enveloped by a seemingly permanent sunshine and a turquoise sea always beyond the reach of the men in the orange jumpsuits.

When I finally spoke with Rabbani—he was in Karachi—he couldn’t believe that, after all these years after his release, no one in Washington so much as acknowledged what he had endured.

“They didn’t apologize, but it’s my right to ask for an apology,” Rabbani told me. “I missed my family’s life, my son’s life, my life—21 years.”

I wanted to know about his art, but he lacked the words to describe it. He noted that he hadn’t been an artist until Guantanamo.

Natasha Malik, the Pakistani curator who oversaw the Rabbani exhibit, told me that the exhibit included several paintings by other Pakistani artists depicting scenes from Rabbani’s life in prison and that those had been sold for a total of $21,000, which, she said, had been given to Rabbani.

But Rabbani, she said, did not want to part with any of the paintings he himself had created. 

“He’s very, very attached to his paintings,” Malik said from her home in Islamabad, several hundred miles northeast of Karachi, on the Arabian Sea. “He’s like any artist, but with him, it’s a very unique relationship, because that’s how he survived. He said, ‘When I painted at Guantanamo, that was my escape.’ ” 

Guantanamo opened in 2002, and though Obama and Biden have both vowed to close it, it remains open with 30 detainees inside. (Adam Popescu for The Free Press)

If Gitmo is an ethical and political and legal minefield, the artists of Gitmo pose a new kind of quandary.

Over the past few years, several Gitmo artists have emerged from the cells and shadows and torture chambers.

In late 2017 and early 2018, John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York hosted the first known exhibit of Guantanamo artists. The exhibit, titled Ode to the Sea, featured Rabbani and seven other artists. (In response, President Trump barred detainees from taking their art with them when they were released, arguing the art was U.S. government property.)

In late 2022, some former and current Guantanamo artists sent President Biden an open letter demanding he lift the ban on Gitmo artists taking their art upon release. 

In February 2023, days before Rabbani was let go, the White House did just that—but the Defense Department says detainees can take only a “practicable quantity,” whatever that means, and insists the art is still U.S. government property.

And in May, the Rabbani exhibit in Karachi took place.

The suburban streets of Guantanamo where prison employees live. (Adam Popescu for The Free Press)

It’s unclear how much demand there is for this kind of art, although Gitmo paintings have been selling—from $500 to a few thousand dollars.

Sahyr Sayed, an artist from the Pakistani city of Lahore who took part in the Rabbani exhibit, told The Free Press Rabbani’s art is “obviously amateurish or naive, but it’s also so sincere and intense—it has that appeal.” Beth Rudin DeWoody, a board member of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, told me she wouldn’t buy Guantanamo art “unless I knew for sure the men who made them were innocent. And if I liked the art.”

But it’s worth noting that the open letter the Gitmo artists sent to the president also included hundreds of “signatures in solidarity,” including those of the artist Molly Crabapple; Peggy Monahan, a curator at the Oakland Museum of California; the Chicago Tribune art critic Lori Waxman; and Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters, also known for his Israel-bashing.

The question remains: Who owns this art? And should anyone be allowed to profit from it? 

Brett Eagleson, whose father, Bruce, was killed on September 11, when the World Trade Center’s South Tower collapsed, found the idea of Gitmo inmates painting—to say nothing of profiting from their work—unbelievable.

“If these detainees are truly sorry,” Eagleson told me from his home in Connecticut, “the money should go to families like mine.” 

But the nascent Gitmo art market sees in this art an opportunity to reflect on the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the United States’ response to them. 

History teacher Dan Norland has purchased several pieces by former Gitmo detainee Abd Almalik, which he displays at his San Diego school. (John Peters for The Free Press)

For San Diego history teacher Dan Norland, buying artworks by Guantanamo detainees is a way to make amends. 

In April 2018, Norland was scrolling on Twitter when he came across a tweet from a man named Abd Almalik, who said he’d painted while he was a prisoner at Guantanamo and shared a link to four of his landscapes, filled with minarets and mosques and fuchsia sunsets and purple-brown deserts. 

Not long after spotting Almalik’s work on Twitter, Norland bought four paintings from the artist—who had come from Yemen and spent 15 years in Gitmo before being released and sent to Montenegro—for $2,000.

He also helped the former prisoner set up a website and sell his paintings to other buyers. So far, he’s helped Almalik sell 20 paintings for about $500 each. He’s not sure about Almalik’s past—Almalik was accused of being bin Laden’s bodyguard, but he was never brought to trial. When I pressed him, Norland said he “wants to believe” Almalik is innocent.

One of the buyers Norland steered toward Almalik’s paintings was Gail Helt. Helt used to be a CIA analyst, and it had been her job to pore over intelligence reports to help the Obama administration decide which Guantanamo prisoners should be released.

She quit in 2014, convinced Guantanamo was a travesty.

“If I can help, I will,” Helt, now a political science professor at the Presbyterian-affiliated King University in northeastern Tennessee, said in an interview with The Free Press. She owns two paintings—a blue landscape by Almalik, and another landscape, draped in red, by Ghaleb Al-Bihani, who was suspected of fighting for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and spent years in Guantanamo before being released in 2017. 

“I feel a connection when I look at my two paintings,” Helt said. “They’re gorgeous.”

Another bin Laden bodyguard, Mohammed al-Ansi, has made a name for himself in Hollywood with his paintings. (Al-Ansi came to the attention of art buyers after the John Jay College exhibit.)

Ben and Casey Affleck’s mom, Christine, bought two works by al-Ansi, paying about $1,000 total and giving one to each son as Christmas presents in 2017. One image shows palm trees; the other is a winter scene of leafless trees. 

“I didn’t think they were the most brilliant paintings,” Christine Affleck said at the time. “But the combination of what they were painting and who they were—incarcerated persons thousands of miles from their homes and families, from anything—was emotionally powerful.”

Rabbani with his son Jawad, whom he met for the first time after his release and return to Pakistan. (Ahmed Rabbani)

After Rabbani returned to Pakistan, he asked Natasha Malik for help getting canvases, paintbrushes, and paints, and she told me she did. She thought that he had more to say, or paint, that he wasn’t done creating. But she doesn’t think he’s touched any of the art supplies. For now, she said, Rabbani is focused on his new restaurant, Al-Arab Food, which he recently opened in Karachi with the proceeds from the exhibit.

“I don’t see him inclined toward painting again,” she said. “He was painting just to survive, just to preserve a sense of self when everything in that place is about stripping these things away from you.”

John Bellinger, the former Bush administration lawyer who advised the NSC, sounded almost incredulous that, in 2023, we were still talking about prisoners at Gitmo, orange jumpsuits, shackles, hoods, torture.

“It’s a conundrum,” he said. “It’s tragic.”

Stafford Smith, Rabbani’s lawyer, said it never had to be this way. “There are three things in life that are certain: death, taxes, and the fact that the Guantanamo authorities will always do the wrong thing,” he said.

If the Pentagon and Justice Department and the White House had simply agreed to haul the five Guantanamo detainees suspected of the 9/11 attacks in front of a judge way back in the beginning, they would have won hands down, Stafford Smith said. 

Instead, they insisted on maintaining a prison on a socialist island that was entirely removed, in the eyes of the administration, from the strictures of the Geneva Convention and the United States Constitution.

Stafford Smith predicted the prison would stay open until the last prisoner is dead. (The exact ages of detainees are hard to pin down, but the average age is around 50. And in 2018, the Pentagon instructed Gitmo’s commanding officers to plan on staying open for another 25 years—and to think about hospice care for aging terrorists.) 

He did not think he’d be alive to see that happen. “I would have to survive the youngest prisoner in Guantanamo,” he said. 

Then, he added, just to be clear: “I’m 64. The chances of me surviving are extremely slim.”

Adam Popescu is a writer for The Free Press. Read his last piece for The Free Press, “What Happened When One Illinois Town Passed Reparations.” And follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @adampopescu. Peter Savodnik is a writer and editor for The Free Press.

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Also: We’re hosting our first live debate on September 13 at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles. Has the sexual revolution failed? Come argue about it and have a drink. We can’t wait to meet you in person. You can purchase tickets now at thefp.com/debates.

 

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The Free Press LIVE from the RNC: Biden’s Interview, Trump, J.D. Vance, and More! Bari Weiss

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A lot happened in American politics last night: the Biden interview, the Vance unveiling, Trump’s RNC entrance—his first public appearance since Saturday’s shooting. And there, to help you all make sense of it, was The Free Press team in our first-ever live video on X. To be honest, we weren’t sure how it was going to go. We were blown away by the response.

There were some 350,000 of you watching this experiment, in which we had the kind of panel we wish were assembled on cable news, or as host Michael Moynihan put it: “the Traveling Wilburys of political panels.”

Monday night’s supergroup included Newsweek editor and Free Press contributor Batya Ungar-Sargon, Puck correspondent Tara Palmeri, Red Scare co-host Anna Khachiyan (chain-smoking, of course), legendary pollster Frank Luntz, Manhattan Institute president Reihan Salam, author and Free Press contributor Rob Henderson, and journalist James Pogue. This is a group of people you just cannot find anywhere else.

Today, we’ll play that live conversation for you. And stay tuned for more live! Follow The FP on X.

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices

 

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These Republicans use violent rhetoric. They are featured speakers at the RNC. Judd Legum

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A view of the convention floor before the 2024 Republican National Convention on July 14, 2024, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

In the wake of the attempted assassination of Donald Trump, his top political aides and allies are blaming Democrats for inciting the horrific attack. The co-manager of Trump’s campaign, Chris LaCivita, wrote that “for years, and even today, leftist activists, democrat donors and now even Joe Biden have made disgusting remarks” about Trump and it’s “high time they be held accountable for it.” (LaCivita later deleted the post.) “This isn’t some unfortunate incident,” Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) said. “This was an assassination attempt by a madman inspired by the rhetoric of the radical left.” Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) flatly asserted that the Biden campaign’s rhetoric “led directly to President Trump’s attempted assassination.” 

Authorities have not determined the motive of the shooter, who was registered as a Republican.

The Republicans’ concern about violent and extreme rhetoric is a new phenomenon. This is a party that nominated Trump, who has spent his political career advocating and encouraging violence. Here are just a few examples:

At an event in 2017, Trump encouraged the police to rough up protesters. “Please don’t be too nice,” Trump said.

In 2018, Trump praised then-Congressman Greg Gianforte (R-MT) for assaulting a reporter. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!” Trump said. “You know, that’s nothing to be embarrassed about.” Gianforte pled guilty to misdemeanor assault.

During the protests following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Trump tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The phrase was used by notorious segregationist George Wallace and others to justify police brutality. 

In a September 2020 presidential debate, Trump refused to denounce the Proud Boys, a militant far-right organization, telling the group to “stand back and stand by.”

After he was indicted for fraud in New York in March 2023, Trump warned of “potential death & destruction” that “could be catastrophic for our country” if he was convicted. 

In an interview with Time Magazine earlier this year, Trump was asked if he was concerned about “political violence” following November’s election. “[I]f we don’t win, you know, it depends,” Trump responded. “It always depends on the fairness of an election.”

This week, the Republican National Convention features numerous speakers who have used violent and extremist rhetoric.  

Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake: “Strap on a Glock”

After Trump’s conviction for falsifying business records to cover up payments to Stormy Daniels, Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake (R) suggested that she and other supporters would fight the verdict with firearms. In a video, Lake said, “If you want to get to President Trump, you’re gonna have to go through me and you’re gonna have to go through 75 million Americans just like me, and I’m going to tell you … most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA.” Lake continued to say that it was “not a threat,” but “a public service announcement.” She later defended her comments, posting on X, “I meant what I said.” 

Lake also encouraged her supporters to arm themselves during an April campaign event. “They’re coming after us with lawfare. They’re going to come after us with everything. That’s why the next six months is going to be intense,” Lake said. “We are going to put on the armor of God. And maybe strap on a Glock on the side of us just in case.” 

North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson: “Some folks need killing”

In June, North Carolina Gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson (R) promoted the murder of “socialists,” “wicked people,” and other perceived enemies. “Some folks need killing,” Robinson said. “It’s time for somebody to say it. It’s not a matter of vengeance. It’s not a matter of being mean or spiteful. It’s a matter of necessity.” 

Robinson has also said that he owns semi-automatic rifles in case he needs to use them against the government, the Charlotte Observer reported. “I’ll tell anybody, I got them AR-15s at home and I like to go target shooting and all that. That’s not what they’re there for,” Robinson said in May. “I’m not ashamed to say it, I’m probably not supposed to say it, but I’m gonna say it anyway — I got them AR-15s in case the government gets too big for its britches. Cause I’m gonna fill the backside of them britches with some lead.”

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene: Nancy Pelosi deserves to be executed

In response to the attempted assassination of Trump, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) posted on X that Democrats were “the party of pedophiles, murdering the innocent unborn, violence, and bloody, meaningless, endless wars.” Although the shooter was a registered Republican, Greene said that the “Democrat party is flat out evil, and yesterday they tried to murder President Trump.”

A 2021 CNN investigation found that Greene “repeatedly indicated support for executing prominent Democratic politicians in 2018 and 2019 before being elected to Congress.” In one instance, Greene liked a comment calling for the execution of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) with “a bullet to the head.” Greene later claimed that staff members ran her account. But in 2019, Greene “created a White House petition” to impeach Pelosi for “crimes of treason,” for supporting immigration policies that Greene opposed. “[I]t’s a crime punishable by death is what treason is,” Greene said. “Nancy Pelosi is guilty of treason.” 

Senator Tom Cotton: Throw pro-Palestine protesters off the Golden Gate Bridge

In April, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) encouraged people to respond to pro-Palestine protesters on the Golden Gate Bridge with violence. “I encourage people who get stuck behind the pro-Hamas mobs blocking traffic: take matters into your own hands to get them out of the way. It’s time to put an end to this nonsense,” Cotton posted on X. On Fox News, Cotton was more explicit, saying that he would support throwing protesters off a bridge. “If something like this happened in Arkansas, on a bridge there, let’s just say I think there would be a lot of very wet criminals that had been tossed overboard not by law enforcement, but by the people whose road they’re blocking,” Cotton said. “If they glued their hands to a car or the pavement, well, probably pretty painful to have their skin ripped off but I think that’s [how] we would handle it in Arkansas.” 

Congressman Matt Gaetz: We should “hunt down” Black Lives Matter protesters

In 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) posted, “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?” The post was flagged as violating X’s rules because it promoted the “killing of fellow Americans.”

Former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson: Democrats are seeking a “one-party state”; Republicans should not “give up your AR-15s”

In March 2023, after Trump was indicted in the Stormy Daniels case, Tucker Carlson said that Democrats were involved in a “political purge” and are “pushing the population to react.” He described the charges as a test to see if Trump’s supporters were “demoralized and passive.” After a guest asserted that Democrats were pursuing “a one-party state and authoritarian government,” Carlson advised that it was “not the best time to give up your AR-15s.”

Senator Ted Cruz: “Grab a battle axe and… go fight the barbarians”

In a 2022 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) described the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress as “power hungry, abusive totalitarian nitwits.” He said his job as a Senator was to “grab a battle axe and… fight the barbarians.” He said that the conservative activists at the conference should think of themselves as “dangerous radicals… like those who died at the Alamo.”

 

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Who Is J.D. Vance? Plus. . . Oliver Wiseman

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(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lot going on. On The Front Page today, we bring you reporting, analysis, and commentary on the ongoing fallout of Trump’s brush with death; another prime time Biden interview; the dismissal of the Trump classified documents case; and much more. 

But first: the Hillbilly running mate. 

Donald Trump’s selection of J.D. Vance as his running mate is remarkable in more ways than one. There is Vance’s journey from the broken home in a poor, rural Ohio he wrote about in Hillbilly Elegy, to the Marines, to Ohio State, then to Yale Law School and to the Senate, and now a presidential ticket. Also remarkable is his transformation from a prominent “Never Trumper”—who once called his now–running mate “America’s Hitler” and an “opioid for the masses”—to an enthusiastic Trumpist in the vanguard of the New Right. 

For some, Vance’s journey is simple enough to explain: it’s the story of a smart and ambitious “sellout” and an “angry jerk,” as one of his (ex-) friends from law school put it on X yesterday. To this crowd, Vance is only the most extreme example of a familiar story of Republicans kowtowing to the man who took over their party. 

But Vance is a much more complicated—and interesting—figure than that. 

Agree with him or not, he has undergone a sincere ideological conversion since 2016. That much was obvious to me when I followed him on the campaign trail in 2022. And it’s obvious from any speech or interview he gives. He is not someone who just parrots his party’s talking points. (He has also undergone an actual conversion: I recommend Rod Dreher’s interview with him on the day he was baptized and received into the Catholic Church in 2019.) 

In the Senate, he hasn’t just voted with the GOP herd but teamed up with Democrats on a range of bills that stake out new ideological territory for Republicans. He makes some of Trump’s donors uncomfortable. 

By picking Vance, Trump has made clear his project is about more than personality. The Republican presidential ticket now has a distinct ideological flavor. It has teeth. National Review’s Philip Klein called the pick “another nail in the coffin of Reagan Republicanism.” (This is not a compliment at that magazine.) Vance is a prominent critic of U.S. involvement in Ukraine (for more on his foreign policy views, I recommend this piece by my colleague Isaac Grafstein). 

He’s also economically unorthodox—and more relaxed about government involvement in the economy than many of his colleagues. He has backed a higher minimum wage and praised Lina Khan, Joe Biden’s FTC chair and a proponent of more robust antitrust policies. 

Did these ideological considerations clinch it for Vance? I suspect a bigger factor was that in Vance, Trump saw someone who was welcomed into the elite—as Trump never has been—but who turned his back on it.

How did the pick go down at the RNC in Milwaukee? Olivia Reingold was on the convention floor to find out. 

It’s just before 4 p.m. and everyone at the Republican National Convention is jockeying for a glimpse of Senator J.D. Vance. A woman kicks off her bedazzled heels, then stands on her seat barefoot to get a better view. A delegate tells me he just borrowed a woman’s lipstick to scrawl “VANCE” in capital letters on a white Trump sign.

Everyone is craning their necks toward the Ohio delegation, where Vance is shaking hands, posing for selfies, and gleefully fist-bumping attendees who pull away with a bewildered look, as if they can’t believe they just crossed paths with the future vice president of the United States.

“We love you, J.D.,” a man bellows through a rolled-up “Trump 2024” poster.

Vance—the man of the evening—pulls back for a second, as if to process the surreality of the moment, then shouts back: “I love you too, man.”

On Monday, Vance continued his ascent as the wunderkind of the Republican Party by becoming Trump’s 2024 running mate. In a statement released on Truth Social, the former president—and recent survivor of an assassination attempt—announced that 39-year-old Vance, who was elected senator of Ohio only two years ago, was “the person best suited to assume the position of Vice President of the United States.” Click for more from Olivia on the Trump critic turned Trump running mate.

A lot happened in American politics last night: the Biden interview, the Vance unveiling, Trump’s RNC entrance—his first public appearance since Saturday’s shooting. And there, to help you all make sense of it, was the Free Press team in our first-ever live video on X. To be honest, we weren’t sure how it was going to go. We were blown away by the response. 

There were some 350,000 of you watching this experiment, in which we had the kind of panel we wish were assembled on cable news, or as host Michael Moynihan put it: “the Traveling Wilburys of political panels.” 

Monday night’s supergroup included Newsweek editor and Free Press contributor Batya Ungar-Sargon, Puck correspondent Tara Palmeri, Red Scare co-host Anna Khachiyan (chain-smoking, of course), legendary pollster Frank Luntz, Manhattan Institute president Reihan Salam, author and Free Press contributor Rob Henderson, and journalist James Pogue. This is a group of people you just cannot find anywhere else.

If you missed it, catch up below. And stay tuned for more live! Follow The FP on X.

Doug Mills is the photographer who captured the remarkable image of Donald Trump and the bullet that clipped his ear on Saturday. Here he gives his first account of the shooting. “I probably did not do the smartest thing by running right at it, but that’s what [photojournalists do],” he said. (Fox News

In a New York Times/Siena survey conducted before Saturday’s shooting, Kamala Harris outperforms Joe Biden in two states: Pennsylvania and Virginia. The near assassination of Donald Trump has bought Joe Biden time in his fight to remain his party’s nominee. One Democratic insider said Sunday the shooting “probably saved Biden’s nomination” but also “doomed his reelection.” (New York Times

If any Democrats thought Joe Biden was their only problem, a new poll from NBC makes for a sobering read. It finds that the popularity of the Democratic Party has taken a dive and now matches its all-time low in the three-decade history of the survey. The party is the most unpopular figure or institution in the poll. (NBC

Trump once unified Democrats and divided Republicans. The shooting and the debate have turned the tables, writes Jonathan Martin. He reports that Nancy Pelosi, convinced that Biden will lose, has been “working the phones” since the debate looking for a “way to ease him off the ticket.” (Politico

Joe Biden agreed to extend Secret Service protection to RFK Jr. on Monday. The independent presidential candidate, whose father was assassinated on the campaign trail in 1968, has been asking for federal protection for months. After Saturday’s assassination attempt on Trump, the only question is: What took Biden so long? (Associated Press

Comparisons between Trump and nineteenth-century president Andrew Jackson are nothing new. But Walter Russell Mead argues that “Saturday’s events made America more Jacksonian and gave Mr. Trump an unbreakable hold on Jacksonian America.” (Wall Street Journal)

The system is out to get you, says Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie: “Our leaders have called for a cooling down of our political rhetoric, but unfortunately this is not a problem that can be solved by presidential decree. To change the conversation—not just its contents, but also its tenor and tone—we need to change the incentives of a system that has ensnared us in its addiction feeds.” (Substack Reads)

Forty-four percent of Ukrainians support starting peace talks with Russia, compared to 35 percent who say it is not time to negotiate yet, according to a new poll. Zelensky said he was open to a Russian delegation attending peace talks later this year. (Semafor

A French soldier was stabbed Monday in Paris, eleven days before the Olympic opening ceremony. The soldier was injured but is not in a life-threatening condition. (ABC

Rapper 50 Cent has been shot nine times. His song, “Many Men (Wish Death)” is an ode to cheating death. In Boston on Saturday night, he performed the song in front of a blown-up version of his album cover Get Rich or Die Tryin’, only Donald Trump’s face replaced that of the rapper. There is chatter that “Fitty” might perform at the Republican convention this week. (Vibe

As the dust settles after Saturday’s very nearly successful attempt on Donald Trump’s life that killed one person in the crowd and left two in critical condition, one of the many confounding questions that linger is: How did the Secret Service fail so badly? Some have noted the Secret Service’s DEI push under current head Kimberly Cheatle. Amid serious retention and recruitment struggles, she has said she is focused on “attracting diverse candidates.” Does this suggest an organization laser-focused on its purpose: ensuring the safety of its protectees? Or does it suggest a bloated and distracted bureaucracy in dire need of reform? Rupa Subramanya investigates. 

→ Trump’s classified documents case is thrown out—for now, writes Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld: In a legal stunner, Judge Aileen Cannon yesterday threw out Special Counsel Jack Smith’s classified documents prosecution of former president Trump.

Contrary to early reporting, Judge Cannon’s dismissal of the case had nothing to do with the presidential immunity ruling recently announced by the Supreme Court in Smith’s other prosecution of Trump—the one dealing with January 6.

Instead, Judge Cannon ruled that Attorney General Merrick Garland had no constitutional authority to appoint Smith as special counsel in the first place. Because the appointment was unconstitutional, Smith had no power to bring a criminal case against Trump. So the whole case had to be dismissed. 

Boiled down, Judge Cannon’s key conclusion is that no statute authorizes the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor if the appointee is someone from outside the Department of Justice, as Smith was when he was appointed. But Judge Cannon faces a little problem in reaching her conclusion: the Supreme Court stated the opposite in 1974. 

In the landmark U.S. v. Nixon case, the Court ordered President Nixon to comply with a subpoena issued by Leon Jaworski, who had been named special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate scandal even though he was outside government at the time of his appointment. Citing the same statutes that Garland and Smith relied on, the court stated that Congress had “vested in the Attorney General” the power to make Jaworski a “Special Prosecutor with unique authority and tenure.” 

In the decades since, lower courts, including appellate courts, have considered this statement conclusive. But Judge Cannon held that the Court’s statement was mere “dictum”—a point of law assumed only by the Court, not actually ruled on, and therefore, not binding on her. 

This remarkable conclusion makes her ruling extremely vulnerable on appeal. 

In her favor is the fact that Justice Clarence Thomas, in the immunity case, strongly implied that he views Jack Smith’s appointment as unconstitutional. Against her is the fact no other justice joined Thomas.

Smith will undoubtedly appeal, but one consequence is certain. Just as the Supreme Court’s presidential immunity ruling guaranteed that Smith’s January 6 case against Trump won’t be tried before the election, Judge Cannon’s ruling has the same effect on the documents case. Given the appeals process, it will be a very long time before this case could ever be tried. And long before then, there may be an occupant of the Oval Office who sees to it that this case is dropped. —Jed Rubenfeld

→ Biden doesn’t lower the temperature: For Americans looking to see if President Joe Biden has changed his approach to the presidential election after an assassin nearly killed his opponent, Donald Trump, Monday evening’s interview on NBC will have been disappointing. 

Biden stuck to his talking points about lowering the rhetorical temperature in the nation. But he seems to believe this advice does not apply to himself. Holt asked the president about some of his own overheated rhetoric. “You called your opponent an existential threat,” Holt said. “On a call a week ago you said, ‘It’s time to put Trump in the bull’s-eye.’ ”  

Biden replied with confused defiance. “I didn’t say cross-hairs,” Biden said in response to a question about putting Trump in the “bull’s-eye.” When Holt corrected him and said he indeed did say “bull’s-eye,” Biden responded, “It was—it was a mistake to use the word. I didn’t mean—I didn’t say ‘cross-hairs.’ I meant ‘bull’s-eye.’ I meant focus on him. Focus on what he’s doing.” 

Biden recovered a bit after that, but still made the case that his calls for calm after Saturday’s shootings referred to Trump and his supporters and not his own side. “I’ve never seen a circumstance where you ride through certain rural areas of the country and people have signs there stand—big Trump signs with—middle—signs saying ‘F Biden’ and the little kid standing there putting up his middle finger,” he said. 

Apparently, Biden is unfamiliar with the last eight years of his party and supporters comparing Trump to Hitler and asserting that Trump is a Russian agent. Biden seems unaware of his own Twitter feed. On June 28, Biden’s X account posted, “Donald Trump is a genuine threat to this nation. He’s a threat to our freedom. He’s a threat to our democracy. He’s literally a threat to everything America stands for.” 

None of this is to absolve Trump for his own excessive rhetoric. Trump’s irresponsible speech is well-known because it has been covered extensively by the mainstream media since he announced his first bid for the presidency in 2015. 

But the excesses in countering Trump by the Democrats have been papered over. After Saturday’s near catastrophe in Butler, Pennsylvania, one might expect the leader of the Democratic Party to pull back and reassess. After Biden’s interview Monday evening, don’t hold your breath. —Eli Lake

→ Morning No: In the wake of Saturday’s near assassination of Donald Trump, everyone from elected officials to media bigwigs agrees it’s time to “lower the temperature.” At 30 Rockefeller Center, NBC executives decided that the only way they could ensure they were seen to calm things down was to turn the dial right down to zero in the studio of Morning Joe, MSNBC’s flagship breakfast news show. Per one report: “A person familiar with the matter told CNN that the decision was made to avoid a scenario in which one of the show’s stable of two dozen-plus guests might make an inappropriate comment on live television that could be used to assail the program and network as a whole.” 

Translation: At a crucial moment for the country—right after an attack on American democracy, as the RNC gathers to nominate Trump, and with Joe Biden fighting to stay in the race, we don’t trust the people we pay to bring you the news to bring you the news. It’s confirmation that so much of cable news exists for partisan entertainment, not to inform its audience. And next time you think of switching on MSNBC, ask yourself: If the network’s own executives don’t trust these people, why should I? —OW 

→ Who wants a Trump Got Shot tattoo? America’s great entrepreneurial spirit kicked into full gear over the weekend, after the attempted assassination of former and probably future president Donald Trump. A veteran of reality TV, Trump knows better than anyone how to play for the cameras, and he proved it this weekend. The bloodied face, the raised fist, the American flag in the background—it’s a hell of a picture, and now, it’s everywhere. You can buy it on t-shirts from former Trump assistant Sebastian Gorka, or right-wing commentator Candace Owens, or Etsy, or even from random boardwalk shops

Images of the bloodied, defiant Trump are also available on trading cards; a fake $2 bill that, perhaps criminally, advertises itself as “Genuine U.S. Legal Tender”; coffee mugs; and much more. People have already designed and administered tattoos of it. They vary in quality.

Is it in bad taste to profit from an act of political violence that left an innocent bystander dead? Yeah, probably. But do you think anyone wearing a politically charged graphic tee is worried about taste? This is America, a country where people go to museums and visit the gift shop first. There’s no version of our nation where this doesn’t happen, so if you’re on the fence about making your own Trump assassination merch, strike while the iron is hot. This is the American dream, and if you aren’t selling out, you’re buying in! —River Page

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Follow him on X @ollywiseman

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