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5 Reasons Rex Tillerson Is Unfit to Be Secretary of State

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By Kathy Mulvey

The nomination of Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon, is on the Senate floor this week. Tillerson is a weak nominee at a time when the U.S. desperately needs skillful, experienced diplomacy to assert continued leadership on vital global affairs. His confirmation process confirmed one thing: he is ill-equipped to deal with the chaotic consequences of President Trump's "America First" agenda and the risks it poses for our relations with other nations and our status as a world leader.

Over the past six weeks, we've gotten to know Rex Tillerson as he seeks to transform himself from head of the largest U.S.-based oil and gas company to America's top diplomat. Here are five reasons why the Senate should block his confirmation.

1. Tillerson Lacks Understanding of Refugee and Human Rights Issues

The actions taken this past weekend to enforce President Trump's executive order on refugees, immigrants and Muslims have rattled me to my core.

As a human being I'm appalled at the lack of compassion for people who have suffered devastating losses in the face of wars and repression. As a believer in our Constitution, I'm horrified at the application of a religious test to those seeking refuge in our nation. As an American I'm angered to learn about people holding valid visas or green cards detained and/or denied entry into the U.S. As the spouse of an immigrant I'm alarmed by the stories of families separated at airports. As a citizen I'm grateful that elected officials like Rep. John Lewis and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are opposing the ban (and disappointed that so few members of the party in power have done so). As someone who has spent my entire working life in civil society organizations I've cheered on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other legal advocacy groups and felt proud of the statement issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) President Ken Kimmell.

Tillerson's inexperience and lack of knowledge of refugee issues is deeply troubling. Not only do we face the immediate crisis brought on by President Trump's executive order targeting Muslims and refugees, but we as a nation and a world also face the growing threat of climate-driven displacement: of people driven from agricultural lands, coastal communities, mountain villages—their homes—by drought, crop and livestock loss, flooding, wildfires, disease and other impacts.

The role of climate change and extreme weather in creating scarcity, generating conflict and displacing people is increasingly well understood by our own military, to say nothing of the international development community. Indeed some experts believe the war in Syria has its roots in the extended drought the country has faced. Such precarious international threats demand the most considered American response.

In response to questions from Sen. Ben Cardin, Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson repeatedly stated that he does not have "a comprehensive understanding" of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, but that he "will work to further his understanding" if confirmed. Given the state of conflict in the world and the refugee crisis in Europe—something Trump is hoping to avoid in the U.S.—shouldn't the nominee have studied up on the program before his Senate appearance?

Refugees, their families, the U.S. public and our global allies deserve a Secretary of State who is already up to speed on U.S. refugee programs and our international obligations and can hit the ground running.

2. Tillerson has Failed to Address Conflicts of Interest

I've studied Steve Coll's Private Empire in light of Tillerson's nomination. Coll paints a picture of a corporation so large and powerful—operating in some 200 nations and territories—that it really has its own foreign policy. The book provides examples of how Tillerson managed that foreign policy and represented Exxon's interests—sometimes at odds with U.S. national interests—in his dealings with leaders of Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia and other countries where the company does business.

It is not a pretty picture.

For his part, President Trump has faced widespread criticism for his cavalier attitude about potential or actual conflicts between his business interests and the U.S. national interest. In the most recent example, his executive order targets seven nations where he does not have business interests, but omits other majority-Muslim nations where the Trump Organization does business—even though many of these countries also face terrorism concerns.

(The White House denied that Trump's business ties had any influence over the countries selected for the travel ban, saying that they were initially identified as "countries of concern" under the Obama Administration).

Tillerson, however, appears not to be concerned about potential conflicts between President Trump's overseas business interests and American interests in any particular country. In response to a question from Sen. Jeff Merkley, Tillerson expressed his "understanding that [President] Trump has separated himself from his family's business in such a way that this matter would not come up at all."

Meanwhile, Tillerson has received preferential treatment from Exxon that could be seen as "a pre-payout for advancing Exxon's interests at the State Department." As Secretary of State, Tillerson could, for example, intervene on the side of his former employer in legal proceedings related to human rights abuses, including a longstanding case alleging that Exxon was complicit in murder and torture in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Yet he refuses to recuse himself from matters involving Exxon for the duration of his term as Secretary of State.

3. Tillerson Doubts and Downplays Climate Change

One issue on which the U.S. national interest runs counter to Exxon's business interests—and to the company's fundamental business model—is climate change. Under Tillerson's leadership, Exxon "acknowledged" the goals of the Paris climate agreement when it took effect last November, but stopped short of saying it agreed with or would work toward the goal of keeping warming well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

While Tillerson called for U.S. leadership in other arenas of foreign affairs, on climate change he is content with just having "a seat at the table."

Somewhat perplexingly, Tillerson testified that climate change can only be solved by international action, yet downplayed the urgency of action and the evidence of climate risks and impacts.

The vast majority of climate scientists, of course, disagree with many of the claims Tillerson made during his testimony and in his written responses, as my colleague Rachel Cleetus blogged last week. He told the Foreign Relations Committee, for example, that "The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited." In his written responses, he followed up by asserting:

"I agree with the consensus view that combustion of fossil fuels is a leading cause for increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I understand these gases to be a factor in rising temperatures, but I do not believe the scientific consensus supports their characterization as the 'key' factor."

Perhaps Tillerson is referring to the discredited research of Dr. Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon, funded by Exxon and other fossil fuel interests as recently as 2012, which broadly overstated the role the sun plays in climate change?

Tillerson also stated "I do not see [climate change] as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do." Those "others" include the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and military leaders.

Tillerson has been credited with shifting Exxon's posture on climate change—saying that the company would no longer fund groups that deny climate change and publicly stating its support for a carbon tax. However, the company's actions do not yet match its words.

Exxon maintains leadership roles and affiliations with trade associations and industry groups that spread disinformation on climate science and policy and has been criticized for not consistently supporting a carbon tax and as CEO Tillerson repeatedly disparaged climate science and overemphasized humanity's ability to adapt to a changing climate.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.