On Plane to Africa, Pope Shrugs Off His American Critics

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — In an offhand remark on the papal plane en route to Mozambique, Pope Francis on Wednesday acknowledged the sharp opposition he has faced from conservative Catholic detractors in the United States, calling it an “an honor that the Americans attack me.

His remark came at the start of a six-day trip to Africa, as Francis shook hands in the back of the plane with a French reporter who handed him a copy of his new book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope.”

Francis warmly told the reporter, Nicholas Senèze, who covers the Vatican for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, that he had been unable to find the book, which explores American financial, political and media backing of the small but noisy conservative opposition seeking to undermine Francis. Apparently referring to his critics, Francis quipped that their disapproval is “an honor.”

He then handed the book to an aide, and jokingly called it “a bomb.”

Francis’ priorities and inclusive approach to the papacy have infuriated some American prelates, donors and their supporters in the constellation of conservative Catholic media. Those critics often complain that Francis is watering down church orthodoxy, retreating in the culture wars and sowing confusion in the church.

Mr. Senèze said in an interview later that his book, which was released in France on Wednesday, explored the criticism of American conservatives who disagree with Francis’ championing of migrants, his absolute opposition to the death penalty and his willingness to offer the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics.

Supporters of Francis had hoped that, after years of being drawn into the sexual abuse scandal and bickering with his conservative critics, this week’s trip to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritiuswould allow him to focus anew on poverty, climate change and migration.

Pope Francis with his spokesman, Matteo Bruni, left, addressing journalists during his flight from Rome to Maputo, Mozambique, on Wednesday.
CreditPool photo by Sandro Perusini

But it was Francis himself who brought the old ideological rifts along for the ride.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, has been the de facto leader of the dissent against the pontiff. But other conservative prelates in the American hierarchy have not been shy to criticize Francis on a broad variety of issues.

Last August, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, demanded the pope’s resignation. He has been hailed as a hero in some American conservative circles.

It has been no secret that Francis, the first Latin American pope, has a complicated view of his former neighbors to the north, and that the American conservatives have long been out of his good graces.

He has been a committed critic of the abuses of American capitalism. Not long after Francis’ election, Vatican ambassadors briefed the pontiff about various situations around the world and suggested that he be especially careful when appointing bishops and cardinals in the United States.

“I know that already,” the pope interrupted, a high-ranking Vatican official told the Times in 2017. “That’s where the opposition is coming from.”

That year, two close associates of Pope Francis, in an article published in a Vatican-vetted magazine, accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an unholy alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to help President Trump.

One of the writers of that article, Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit who edits the magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, sat with Pope Francis in the front section of the plane on Wednesday.

Almost immediately after the pope finished his meet-and-greet, asked for prayers for victims of hurricane Dorian and returned to his seat, the Vatican spokesman appeared in an apparent effort to clean up his remarks.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, has been the de facto leader of the dissent against the pontiff.
CreditAlessandro Bianchi/Reuters

“In an informal context the pope wanted to say that he always considers criticism an honor,” said Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman. “Particularly when it comes from authoritative thinkers, in this case from an important nation.”

The pope’s casual conversation with reporters on the plane soon after taking off from Rome on papal trips is a tradition, and usually features the pope receiving gifts and requests for blessings from reporters in the Catholic media, and engaging in harmless and often awkward chitchat.

When I told the pope on Wednesday that I nearly missed the flight because, like him a few days earlier, I had been stuck in an elevator, he chuckled and made an Italian hand gesture to show how scary it was.

But other conversations yielded more pointed remarks.

In another conversation overheard on the plane, Francis spoke with a German reporter, Andreas Englisch, about the pope’s decision to elevate to the rank of cardinal Raymond Burke, a longtime proponent of interreligious dialogue with Muslims.

Francis called the elevation of Bishop Fitzgerald, who had been sidelined under Pope Benedict XVI, “an act of justice.”

Mr. Englisch said that he also told Francis that not all Germans believed the bad things said about him by the German cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the church’s former chief theologian, who was fired by Francis.

When the pope asked Mr. Englisch what Cardinal Müller had been saying about him, Mr. Englisch told him the cardinal had been saying he would try and save Francis’ papacy from bad theology.

Francis replied that Cardinal Müller “has good intentions and he is a good man, but he is like a child,” Mr. Englisch said.

‘Go Back’ Message Deepens Immigration-Debate Wounds

The country is being riven by an issue unresolved by successive administrations and Congresses000

At Mass on Sunday, Catholics around the world heard the gospel parable of the Good Samaritan: It is the story Jesus told of a Samaritan encountering on the road a Jewish man—a foreigner to him—who had been beaten and left for dead. While others walked by and let the man suffer, the Samaritan stopped, dressed his wounds and took him to safety despite their deep cultural differences.

At about the time that gospel was being proclaimed, President Trump tweeted out his already-famous, incendiary declaration that young Democratic congresswomen criticizing America should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

The contrast in those Sunday messages was striking. So too was the evolution in Republican rhetoric from the days of Ronald Reagan, an earlier GOP president who, in his farewell address, talked of America as a “shining city” that was “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace” and whose “doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Mr. Trump’s tweet came at a time when the country already was pained by television images of illegal immigrants packed into chain-link pens at the border, and while the immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was beginning a wave of raids to round up undocumented immigrants.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) PHOTO: NICK WAGNER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

There is a root cause for all this: The country is being riven by a seething immigration debate, left unresolved by successive administrations and Congresses. Put bluntly, the immigration system is broken and needs fixing, yet the emotions now being stirred probably are making it less likely, not more likely, that it will be fixed any time soon.

In his message, Mr. Trump was referring to a group of young congresswomen known as “the squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All are minorities and, despite the implication of the president’s tweet, three of the four were born in the U.S.

Ironically, the four outspoken progressives had been a far bigger problem for fellow Democrats, and specifically for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, than for Mr. Trump. They have incensed fellow Democrats by charging them with racist behavior, encouraged progressives to challenge incumbent Democratic lawmakers, and undercut the party’s attempts to modulate its message to win back moderate and working-class voters who drifted toward Mr. Trump in 2016.

In fact, comments by Trump allies suggest they would like to make those controversial congresswomen the new face of the Democratic party in the eyes of middle-of-the-road Americans.

The president’s attack on the congresswomen had significant racial overtones, because all four are women of color. But the policy debate running beneath the charged rhetoric is over immigration.

The nuts and bolts of the immigration problem now riveting the country are relatively simple. Rampant social violence and economic dislocation are compelling working men and women in Central America to seek a way out. Current immigration law and court rulings have created a muddle over when and how such people might seek asylum in the U.S., and what should be done with them when they do so.

The asylum option is drawing northward thousands of immigrants. A sensible U.S. policy solution would be to

  • clarify the law’s provisions about asylum,
  • establish a more sensible system for handling asylum seekers and their families, and
  • provide more help to Central American nations to reduce the problems that compel people to leave in the first place.

As U.S. officials and lawmakers have concluded at various times in the past, the price of helping Central American nations solve their problems there is probably lower in the long run than is paying the financial and social prices of having the problems land here.

Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar PHOTO: SAUL LOEB/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Nearly lost in the process is a recognition of the considerable contribution immigrants make to American society. The New American Economy is an organization, funded by business leaders, that has set out to document the contributions immigrants make to U.S. economic growth. On its website, it estimates the impact of immigrants by state, and even by city.

Example: The Kansas City metropolitan area has 140,442 immigrant residents, who pay $1 billion in taxes, have $3.1 billion in spending power, and include 9,625 immigrant entrepreneurs.

Mr. Trump’s supporters often point out that his administration supports legal immigration, and is fighting illegal immigration, which is true. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has overseen the drafting of an immigration proposal that would boost border security while also setting up a merit-based immigration system that would keep the number of legal immigrants at current levels while shifting the mix more to those with needed job and technical skills.

But the congresswomen Mr. Trump targeted also are here legally, a sign of how fast rhetoric can slide downhill.

Top Ocasio-Cortez Aide Becomes a Symbol of Democratic Division

House Democratic leaders, their patience clearly fraying, signaled this weekend to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s outspoken top aide that his seeming efforts to lead an insurrection against more moderate Democrats would no longer be tolerated — a message also aimed at the freshman congresswoman who employs him.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal firebrand from the Bronx, has given her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, remarkable latitude to pursue the divisive politics that made his name when he led Justice Democrats, a group founded to challenge entrenched Democrats through primary campaigns.

With that license, Mr. Chakrabarti has become an unelected symbol of the party’s growing disunity, as Democrats try to coalesce as a party before what promises to be a punishing fight next year for the White House. The battle between the Democrats who secured the House majority last year by flipping Republican districts and the smaller, but politically potent, left-wing from secure Democratic districts has found its cause célèbre.

Mr. Chakrabarti ignited a firestorm two weeks ago after a bruising intraparty fight over an emergency border aid package that progressives said lacked sufficient restrictions on the Trump administration. Calling out moderate Democrats who sank a more liberal aid package, he compared them to “new Southern Democrats.”

They “certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s,” he said on Twitter. He later deleted the tweet.

On Friday night, Democratic leaders showed that they had enough. Using the House Democratic Caucus’s official Twitter account, they delivered a rhetorical slap that questioned not only Mr. Chakrabarti’s future but also whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wanted to be a lawmaker on the inside or an outsider campaigning to purge the party of centrists and force it to the left.

The rebuke shared a tweet by Mr. Chakrabarti that explained that he believed Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas, one of the two first Native American women to serve in Congress, was enabling a “racist system” in voting for a weaker border aid package.

“I don’t think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system,” the aide had written, to which Democratic leaders demanded,“Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?”

The slap ended with, “Keep her name out of your mouth.”

House Democrats

@HouseDemocrats

Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?

Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice.

She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue.

Keep👏🏾Her👏🏾Name👏🏾Out👏🏾Of👏🏾Your👏🏾Mouth.

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17.8K people are talking about this

That last phrase was filled with its own meaning. It echoed a blow delivered on Tuesday to the White House adviser Kellyanne Conway by Representative Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, a member of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s “squad,” who wrote, “Keep my name out of your lying mouth.”

To further make the point, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, retweeted the slap.

Mr. Chakrabarti, a former Silicon Valley start-up founder turned left-wing political organizer, has defiantly retained his outsider streak even after becoming a chief of staff at one of the nation’s most establishment institutions, the House. That has riled ranks of Democratic lawmakers and aides. While convention on Capitol Hill holds that aides are to be seen and not heard, he has publicly and repeatedly criticized Ms. Pelosi. Perhaps most galling to lawmakers, he has also encouraged his Twitter followers to support liberal candidates trying to oust sitting Democrats, an uneasy reminder of his work with Justice Democrats.

He has cultivated a remarkably high profile for a congressional aide. He “isn’t just running her office,” a Washington Post Magazine profile of him said, “he’s guiding a movement.” A headline from Elle magazine crowed, “You Need to Know Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Chief of Snacks Saikat Chakrabarti.”

Mr. Chakrabarti has also remained defiant. He dismissed the rebuke from Democratic leadership Friday night, arguing that “Everything I tweeted 2 weeks ago was to call out the terrible border funding bill that 90+ Dems opposed.”

“Our Democracy is literally falling apart,” Mr. Chakrabarti tweeted. “I’m not interested in substance-less Twitter spats.”

Justice Democrats, the group he founded, and over a dozen other progressive groups backed him on Saturday, releasing a statement expressing concern that “senior Democratic Party leaders and their aides have been escalating attacks on new leaders in the party” and urging them to focus on “the real crisis at hand” at the border.

The drama may be more reminiscent of a high school student council than the House of Representatives, but it has created a dilemma for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. The progressive darling has remained silent on her aide’s remarks; her spokesman declined to comment on Saturday. Asked on Thursday to comment on her aide’s earlier tweets, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez replied that she had “not been paying attention to this.”

That is likely to further anger House members, many of whom are people of color representing moderate to conservative districts. It is considered a breach of protocol for unelected congressional aides to criticize lawmakers even in closed-door meetings — much less publicly blast out their grievances — and those who step out of line typically face consequences.

As the chairman of a powerful conservative caucus, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, fired a top aide in 2013 after allegations that the aide had allied with conservative advocacy groups to blow up a Republican leadership budget deal.

“We all rely on staff, but we have to have the full trust of our staff,” Mr. Scalise said at the time.

But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez prides herself on eschewing convention — an instinct that guided her ascent to become the youngest-ever elected representative — and so far has extended that approach to her staff. Shortly after arriving to Capitol Hill, her legislative assistant, Dan Riffle, gave an interview in which he described fellow Democratic congressional aides as Ivy League “careerists” who “don’t think big and aren’t here to change the world.”

Mr. Chakrabarti also has unloaded his grievances, sparing no one.

“Pelosi claims we can’t focus on impeachment because it’s a distraction from kitchen table issues. But I’d challenge you to find voters that can name a single thing House Democrats have done for their kitchen table this year,” Mr. Chakrabarti wrote after the divisive vote on border aid. “What is this legislative mastermind doing?”

“I like to show my cards and see people’s reactions,” Mr. Chakrabarti told The Washington Post Magazine, echoing President Trump. But other controversies have dogged him — in part because of the outsize attention Ms. Ocasio-Cortez receives from right-wing news outlets — for a lack of forthrightness.

After graduating from Harvard, Mr. Chakrabarti worked for a year as a technology associate at the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and then moved to Silicon Valley to help found the technology company Stripe. He is presumed to be rich, but has not filed a financial disclosure form, leadership aides say.

Because Ms. Ocasio-Cortez capped her senior aides’ salaries to ensure she could offer an entry-level wage of $52,000, her employees are below the income threshold that mandates public financial disclosure. Instead, a House ethics panel required her to compel at least one of her aides who can “act in the member’s name or with the member’s authority” to file a disclosure form.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez chose Mr. Riffle, the legislative assistant, to submit the disclosure, rather than Mr. Chakrabarti.

In March, a conservative group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying that Mr. Chakrabarti improperly disclosed the spending of two political action committees he helped establish that paid more than $1 million in 2016 and 2017 to a company he ran.

The company, Brand New Congress L.L.C., was an arm of a group he helped found by the same name that recruited community organizers as candidates who would all adopt the same transformative progressive platform; in turn, the group would contract their staff out to help run the candidates’ campaigns. To do this, Brand New Congress argued, the group had to be set up as a limited liability company — which is not required to disclose information about its owners or spending.

A lawyer for the company has said that Mr. Chakrabarti never received any salary or profit from the company, the political action committees or the campaign, and that the move was legal.

Pence Defends Conditions at Migrant Detention Centers in Texas

Vice President Mike Pence toured two Border Patrol facilities on Friday, later saying they were “providing care that every American would be proud of.”

Vice President Mike Pence played down reports of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at two migrant detention centers in Texas that he visited on Friday, but he acknowledged the gravity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding along the United States’ southwestern border.

The tour gave journalists covering the vice president a rare glimpse inside a Border Patrol station near McAllen, Tex., where they observed nearly 400 men crammed inside a cage with no space to lie down and no mats or pillows, according to pool reports.

Before members of the news media were ushered out of the facility, some of the detainees shouted that they had been there for more than 40 days, were hungry and could not brush their teeth. One pool reporter described the stench as “horrendous”some of the agents wore face masks — and said it was sweltering inside the detention center, which is less than 10 miles from the Rio Grande, the river that divides the United States and Mexico.

“I was not surprised by what I saw,” Mr. Pence said later at a news conference. “I knew we would see a system that was overwhelmed. This is tough stuff.”

Mr. Pence was effusive in his praise of Border Patrol agents, whom he referred to as “compassionate.” But instead of tamping down criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the tide of refugees, many from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the photos and videos that emerged from the tightly choreographed tour further inflamed critics.

The visit came 10 days after the release of a scathing report by the independent watchdog arm of the Department of Homeland Security on the poor conditions at migrant holding centers near the border. More than a dozen adult detainees have died while in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since the beginning of last year, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The same day Mr. Pence visited the border, thousands of demonstrators across the United States held protests and candlelight vigils to express their opposition to the White House’s immigration policy. In Aurora, Colo., protesters raised a Mexican flag in front of a local detention center.

“It’s apparent that @realDonaldTrump & @VP have very different definitions of humane and compassionate than the rest of us,” Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, said on Twitter. “Let’s be clear: crowding hundreds of people in cages in sweltering heat without showers or basic necessities is neither humane nor compassionate.”

At the news conference, Mr. Pence tried to deflect the criticism to Democrats in Congress, calling on them to provide additional funding for more beds for the undocumented immigrants detained by ICE. He also sought to highlight his role in a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill that tries to address the border crisis; it was approved by Congress last month and signed by President Trump on July 1.

Michael Banks, the patrol agent in charge of the McAllen detention center, said in a news media briefing that the migrants had been provided three meals a day by local restaurants, along with juice and crackers.

Because of space limitations, he said, male detainees cannot have cots, but they had been given mylar blankets that look like aluminum foil. Crinkling sounds from the blankets could be heard by journalists, who were allowed inside the facility for about 90 seconds.

Earlier on Friday, Mr. Pence visited a cavernous detention center in Donna, Tex., that can accommodate up to 1,000 people. It was built in May and currently houses about 800 migrants, according to pool reports.

The vice president was accompanied by the second lady, Karen Pence, and three Republican senators: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. Mr. Lee helped interpret for Mr. Pence, who had asked several migrant children questions in English, according to a pool reporter.

When Mr. Pence asked the children if they had food and were being taken care of, they nodded and a few said “sí,” according to the pool report. But when he inquired if they had a place to “get cleaned up,” the children shook their heads.

Two children told Mr. Pence that they had walked for two to three months to reach the United States. He then said “God bless you” in English and “gracias,” according to the pool report.

 

Several Democratic presidential candidates criticized Mr. Pence’s appearance at the detention centers. Among them was Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and a secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama.

Julián Castro

@JulianCastro

Make no mistake, @VP, this is the result of your administration slashing aid to Central America and undermining the asylum process. You and Donald Trump share the blame.

“Make no mistake, @VP, this is the result of your administration slashing aid to Central America and undermining the asylum process,” Mr. Castro said on Twitter on Saturday. “You and Donald Trump share the blame.”

On Friday, Mr. Pence excoriated one of Mr. Trump’s favorite targets, CNN, calling its coverage of his visit to the detention centers “dishonest.”

“And while we hear some Democrats in Washington, D.C., referring to U.S. Customs and Border facilities as ‘concentration camps,’ what we saw today was a facility that is providing care that every American would be proud of,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks in McAllen.