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May 15, 2024
What A Day
DOJ Vows To Protect Election Workers

In This Episode

  • President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump agreed to two debates on Wednesday. In agreeing to the debates, Biden and Trump are bucking the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which had been organizing debates since the 80s.U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said this week that the Department of Justice will “aggressively” prosecute anyone who threatens election workers ahead of the 2024 election. The announcement comes as a new poll from the Brennan Center for Justice found that more than half of local election officials are scared for their safety. Alexis Johnson, a former VICE News reporter who covers race, politics, and culture, says despite good intentions, Garland and the DOJ will likely struggle to keep that promise, leaving election workers vulnerable.
  • And in headlines: Inflation dipped slightly in Aprilthe number of Americans who died from a drug overdose decreased for the first time in five years, and a high-level Biden appointee resigned in protest of the U.S.’s continued support for Israel and its war in Gaza.

 

Show Notes:

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Thursday, May 16th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.

 

Juanita Tolliver: And I’m Juanita Tolliver and this is What a Day, the show where we’re dancing on the grave of the Chuck E. Cheese creepy animatronic robot band. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: The company officially announced that they are pulling the plug on the band forever, and our nightmares got a little less scary afterwards. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Truly creepy. I don’t know why this was a good idea. Who thought of this? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Probably whoever thought of the terrible Chuck E. Cheese back story. Look it up. [laughter] [music break] On today’s show, inflation takes a tiny drop. Plus, New York City Mayor Eric Adams puts his foot in his mouth yet again. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: But first. 

 

[clip of President Joe Biden] Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020. Since then, he hasn’t shown up for a debate. Now he’s acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal. I’ll even do it twice. So let’s pick the dates Donald. I hear you’re free on Wednesdays. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: That was President Joe Biden challenging former President Donald Trump to two debates on Wednesday, and Trump agreed. Biden and Trump will face off first on June 27th on CNN. Weeks before either of them is formally named their respective party’s 2024 presidential nominee and the second debate will be hosted by ABC on September 10th. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Big news, but we have to go back to that audio. He sounds like he is ready to give Donald Trump a knuckle sandwich. It sounds like bring it on like school fight vibes. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Make my day. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: And I kind of love it. Got to be honest. But anyways, this is especially big news considering that Trump famously did not participate in a single one of his party’s primary debates, it was unclear that any debates would ever happen during this election cycle. So what prompted Biden and his campaign to start this debate challenge? 

 

Juanita Tolliver: According to reports, the Biden and Trump presidential campaigns have been discussing debate options for a few weeks now, but Biden’s team is saying that they want to get in front of voters early. Now, the campaigns and the networks are still ironing out the details around mics and rules. But both campaigns agree that these debates will take place without live audiences present. As for the hosts, former President Trump seems wide open. Take a listen to what he said on The Hugh Hewitt Show on Wednesday. 

 

[clip of Donald Trump] I’d be willing to take anybody. You know, what difference does it make? I’d be willing to take anybody. But, you know, the commission got caught cheating with me. You know that? 

 

[clip of Hugh Hewitt] Yes. 

 

[clip of Donald Trump] They turned down my sound, remember?

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Gonna store that clip away for the end of June, when he inevitably complains about whoever ends up moderating this debate. So speaking of the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, how will their schedule and their relevance be impacted by these two early debates? 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Their schedule was effectively thrown out the window. Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s 2024 campaign chair, sent a letter to the commission on Wednesday saying that President Biden would not be participating in the September and October debates that they scheduled because the original dates are, quote, “out of step” with the timeline for early voting in the election. And because of the commission’s inability to enforce the rules during the 2020 debates. So Biden and Democrats have effectively joined Republicans in their rejection of the commission that has organized presidential debates since 1988. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Got it. Okay, so they are aligned on that, but we have not mentioned third party candidates like Robert Kennedy Jr. What does this mean for them?

 

Juanita Tolliver: Based on the timing and the debate criteria, folks like RFK Jr. have effectively been boxed out. Both CNN and ABC require that a candidate is polling at 15% or higher in four national polls, and appears on the ballot in enough states to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. While RFK Jr. has some polling that hits that mark, he does not appear on enough ballots yet as he is still collecting signatures. This also means that voters won’t have the opportunity to see Kennedy on the debate stage, which seems opportune for Biden and Trump, who are both impacted by his candidacy, attracting some of their supporters, as seen in three way polls conducted by CNN, New York Times and NBC news. Kennedy shared his frustrations on X, posting, quote, “they are trying to exclude me from their debate because they are afraid I would win. Keeping viable candidates off the debate stage undermines democracy.” I mean, question on the viable candidate part, but–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Kind of broken clock on democracy and access. So uh, mixed reactions here. Looking ahead, we should keep an eye out for Kennedy’s ability to turn his frustration into action with his supporters. And if Trump and Biden agree to any additional dates.

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, definitely something we will continue to watch. But speaking of the upcoming election, Attorney General Merrick Garland said this week that the Department of Justice will, quote, “aggressively prosecute anyone who threatens election workers ahead of the 2024 election.” This comes as a new poll from the Brennan Center for justice found that more than half of local election officials are scared for their safety, and about 60% of them are concerned about politicians interfering with them doing their jobs. At a press conference on Monday, Garland took a tough line. 

 

[clip of Attorney General Merrick Garland] If you threaten to harm or kill an election worker, volunteer or official, the Justice Department will find you and we will hold you accountable. The public servants who administer our elections must be able to do their jobs without fearing for their safety or that of their families. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: And this is just the latest effort to crack down on the harassment of poll workers after former President Donald Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election results. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, the Justice Department created the Election Threats Task Force back in 2021, for this purpose, but relatively speaking, they haven’t been able to do a whole lot quite yet. Garland boasts of prosecuting 17 people and convicting 13 so far, but hundreds of threats were reported after the 2020 contests and in elections ever since. And in the lead up to this election, Trump has already started to sow doubt in the electoral process and call on his supporters to monitor and potentially challenge the election results at poll sites. Alexis Johnson, a former VICE news reporter who covers race, politics, and culture, did some reporting on election worker safety following the last presidential election. She told me that despite good intentions, Garland and the DOJ have quite the challenge ahead. Just a heads up, there is some explicit language ahead. So if you are listening in the company of children or people who would be offended by that, please feel free to skip ahead. 

 

Alexis Johnson: The Attorney General said that they’re working closely with local U.S. Attorney’s offices and FBI offices around the country. But in reality, Priyanka, like these local election officials in like a small county in Iowa, like they’re not going to know how to reach the task force. You know what I mean? Like–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: They’re generally just reporting these threats to their local police departments. So I’m just wondering, you know, what the DOJ is doing to kind of collaborate with these local police departments and make–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: –sure that these threats are making it up the chain for these investigations. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: You did a piece for VICE News back in 2022 where you interviewed Rick Barron, the former director of Fulton County, Georgia’s election department. I want to play one of the voicemails that someone left for him that you uncovered during your reporting. 

 

[clip of unnamed person leaving voicemail for Rick Barron] Time’s running out, Richard. We’re coming after you and every motherfucker that stole this election with our Second Amendment. Subpoenas be damned. You’re going to be served lead you fucking fucking [?]enemy communist. [bleep sound] You will be served lead.

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Wow. Okay, that is like a jaw drop–

 

Alexis Johnson: Yeah. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: –moment. Really.

 

Alexis Johnson: I’m ashamed to say how many times I’ve heard that threat already. That it still stings as much as it did the first time I heard it three years ago. [laugh]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: So crazy. 

 

Alexis Johnson: Yeah. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: But you actually called back some of those people who made these threats to confront them. 

 

Alexis Johnson: Yeah. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: What were those conversations like, and what stood out to you about what these people had to say? 

 

Alexis Johnson: They were calling from their personal phone numbers, you know, and that’s kind of how we were able to so easily reach out to them and call them back ourselves. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: They were not afraid to say who they were, what their full names were, and they also kind of showed no remorse. And I was like, hey, do you remember saying this, you know, to Rick Barron and like, you know, do you regret any of that? And they said, no. You know, they felt like it was their patriotic duty to fight for what they believed was a stolen election. Another thing that kind of stood out to me was that a lot of them weren’t even Fulton County citizens, like people were calling from outside of Georgia, people were calling in from Tennessee and Indiana.

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Wow. 

 

Alexis Johnson: To harass these election workers. And it really kind of also showed a spotlight on the consequences of disinformation. Right? Because the gentleman we spoke with from Indiana who called Rick Barron and he said, quote, “which side are you going to be on when the shooting starts?” He told me that he watches One America News, and that One America News was the ones, you know, convincing him that there was some shady business going on in the Fulton County elections warehouse and that they put the phone number up to say call the Fulton County Elections warehouse and stand up for your rights. And so that kind of disinformation really seeped into their psyche, and then it–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 

 

Alexis Johnson: –turned into harassment, and then it turns into threats. Right? So it was kind of like this huge, nasty cycle. And that’s why they really felt like they were not wrong in doing what they did. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: You know, you mentioned specifically following the 2020 election, we also heard from an election worker named Shaye Moss during the congressional hearings about January 6th. She described how the big lie basically turned her whole life upside down. Take a listen to this clip from her testimony. 

 

[clip of Shaye Moss] I felt like it was all my fault. Like people are lying and spreading rumors and lies and attacking my mom, I’m her only child. And I felt horrible for picking this job and being the one that always wants to help and always there. Never missing not one election. I just felt like it was it was my fault. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: How did these kinds of threats affect the lives of election workers like Shaye Moss and like Rick Barron, beyond just quitting? 

 

Alexis Johnson: I mean, you can hear the anxiety, you know, in her voice. It sounds like she has PTSD, and that’s what Rick Barron told us he had. That’s why he ended up quitting. He had a serious sense of anxiety, thinking, you know, he could be harassed or attacked. Rick Barron was bold enough, you know, and courageous enough to speak to us on camera using his full name. But there were a lot of election workers we reached out to who didn’t want to. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: You know go on camera because they were leaving their jobs and taking different routes home. Some of them have bought new license plates because they thought that they were being followed home. This kind of trauma stayed with these election workers. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: In every aspect of their lives. Yeah.

 

Alexis Johnson: Exactly. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Something you’ve also covered in your reporting is how law enforcement at the state and local level did not protect these people in so many cases. Why do you think they can’t or they won’t protect election workers?

 

Alexis Johnson: Yeah, we actually filed a FOIA to the Fulton County Police Department to get any information they had on investigations into the threats that Rick Barron had sent over to us. And what they said was that they never opened any investigations. And the quote that they sent us was, “while many of those comments were quote unquote ‘upsetting.’ They did not rise to the level of a threat from a legal perspective.” And you just heard some of those threats, right? You would think that–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: –any of that would be illegal. And in Georgia, it’s illegal to threaten bodily harm against someone. It’s a federal crime–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 

 

Alexis Johnson: –to threaten somebody online. We spoke to a former DOJ official. Her name was Mary McCord. Her reasoning was that sometimes it’s difficult for law enforcement to distinguish between a crime versus free political speech in these specific kinds of incidences where people are making threats, if prosecutors don’t think they’ll win the case, they simply won’t bring the charges. Which leads back to my questions to Attorney General Garland is like, how are you going to sift through this gray area and actually–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 

 

Alexis Johnson: –follow up on these threats and determine, you know, who you’re going to charge and who you’re going to let slide? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: All of this brings us back to the present and the upcoming election. Former President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Convention said just last month that they plan to deploy 100,000 lawyers and volunteers, essentially to intimidate election workers at polling sites. What will that mean for the people running our elections or trying to do that as we head into November?

 

Alexis Johnson: We saw a rise in recent years, you know, especially after the 2022 midterms of these poll watchers, you know, [?]– 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: -definitely. Do what it’s set out to do. It’s set to induce more anxiety for election workers. I mean, I can imagine showing up for work. And now, like hundreds of people are staring at me or like recording me while I do my job. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: It’s absurd. 

 

Alexis Johnson: And I think we know the real consequences of this is like, not only are these election officials quitting and they’re taking like years of, like, institutional knowledge with them, but we have to think about who in turn will backfill these positions. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: And there has been an increase of bad actors and election deniers that are suddenly interested in these roles. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. Who are being pushed them by the RNC and Trump’s campaign. 

 

Alexis Johnson: Exactly. Exactly. Not that there’s been an exodus of these election workers. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: What is it that we can do to protect our election workers as they get closer and closer [?]. What can we do to protect our elections because we need them to keep our–

 

Alexis Johnson: Yeah. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: –elections fair and free? 

 

Alexis Johnson: It’s hard to say because you don’t want to be like, show up to these polls and like, have a standoff with the Proud Boys that are standing out there armed. You know what I mean? But–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: Like, it is important to show community and be in community if you know anybody who works in these positions, check up on them, let them know that you’re supporting them. And also like, reach out to your local officials and your local police departments and make sure that they’re doing their jobs to keep people safe and actually protect their citizens, you know, because otherwise–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Alexis Johnson: –it’s just going to be like death to our democracy by a thousand cuts. I think we just need to be, you know, having as much support for these people as we can, especially going into this election. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That was my conversation with former VICE News reporter Alexis Johnson. That is the latest for now. We will, of course, continue to cover this. We’ll get to some headlines in just a moment. But if you like our show, make sure to subscribe. Share it with your friends. We’ll be right back after some ads. [music break]

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Let’s wrap up with some headlines. 

 

[sung] Headlines. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Inflation appears to have slowed down slightly in April, according to a new report on Wednesday. It was down 0.1% to 3.4% from 3.5% back in March. Even though it’s small, it’s still a positive sign for consumers, especially after three months of price increases. The Federal Reserve is cautiously optimistic because if this downward trend continues, it means that they’re more likely to cut interest rates later this year. But of course, we’re not getting our hopes up too quickly. Prices are still pretty high. In fact, another report released from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said that about one in five borrowers are using almost all of their available credit, and maxed out cardholders are more likely to miss their payments or to fall behind. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: The number of people who died from a drug overdose decreased slightly last year. It’s the first time the number of deaths fell in five years. That’s according to preliminary data from the centers for Disease Control released Wednesday. Still, the number of annual overdose deaths remains stubbornly high, topping 100,000 last year for the third year straight. The CDC’s report shows that while deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to make up the vast majority of fatal overdoses, the total number of opioid deaths did tick down a bit. But it also shows the number of people who died from stimulants like meth and cocaine inched up. Also on Wednesday, Walgreens announced plans to start selling a generic over-the-counter version of the overdose reversing drug Narcan. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: A high level Biden appointee resigned on Wednesday in protest of the US’s continued support for Israel and its war on Gaza. Lily Greenberg Call, a Jewish American, was a political appointee at the Interior Department. She joins a growing number of staffers who have stepped down because of Biden’s policies related to Israel’s war in Gaza, Greenberg Call wrote in her resignation, quote, “I can no longer in good conscience continue to represent this administration amidst President Biden’s disastrous continued support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza.” Greenberg Call’s resignation came on the 76th anniversary of the Nakba, the mass displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians back in 1948. This marked the end of the Arab-Israeli War and the beginning of Israel as an independent Jewish state. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: New York City Mayor Eric Adams is under fire from immigrant rights groups and fellow city lawmakers, and it’s not for what you’d think. On Tuesday, during his weekly press briefing, Adams, a Democrat, floated the idea of filling empty city lifeguard jobs with migrants because many are, quote, “excellent swimmers.” 

 

[clip of New York City Mayor Eric Adams] How do we have a large body of people that are in our city and country that are excellent swimmers, and at the same time, we need lifeguards. And the only obstacle is that we won’t give them the right to work to become a lifeguard. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: What? On Wednesday, Adams defended his comments, saying they were based on conversations he’d had with migrants at city shelters and that he’s repeatedly called for migrants to be able to work while their asylum claims play out. The head of New York Immigration Coalition, though, called the comments racist and accused Adams of, quote, “making light of the perilous and often life threatening journeys people are forced to make to escape violence and persecution.” 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, that. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Globally, drowning is also the most common cause of death for migrants, with more than 36,000 recorded deaths in the last decade, according to the International Organization for migration. If you’re interested in getting involved in responding to Adam’s comments, we’ll link to the New York Immigration Coalition’s information in the show notes. Adams’ comments come a little more than a week after New York Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul came under similar criticism for saying that Black children in the Bronx, quote, “don’t even know what the word computer is.” When you have two top leaders in one state repeatedly saying harmful, racist, xenophobic statements, this is what they believe. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Absolutely. And they’re saying this in public. This is them trying to be like the least offensive possible. So can you only imagine what they do when we’re not around? It’s really upsetting, to be honest. And those are the headlines. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show. Make sure you subscribe. Leave a review, pour one out for the Chuck E. Cheese Band and tell your friends to listen. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: And if you’re into reading and not just a list of all of the deranged things New York City Mayor Eric Adams says in a given week like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Juanita Tolliver.

 

Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi.

 

[spoken together] And brace yourself for the summer debate. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Are you looking forward to a June debate, Priyanka? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Well, I already check my calendar. I’m on vacation so [laughter] I will not be watching that. Have fun, have fun. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Priyanka is not tuning in, but we would love to hear what you plan to do. Watch, not watch, just get debilitating drunk. I don’t know, I don’t know. [music break]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our associate producers are Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf. We had production help today from Michell Eloy, Greg Walters, and Julia Claire. Our showrunner is Erica Morrison, and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.