Midterm Time Capsule, 48 Days to Go: Children, the Future, Cancer, Due Process

Border Patrol agents taking a Central American child into custody, this past June, in McAllen, Texas. (John Moore / Getty)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here are some items from the news that barely break the consciousness-barrier, amid the Kavanaugh confirmation fight and other chaos, but that I expect will be considered significant in the history of our times:

(1) Children. Starting back in the Clinton administration, U.S. immigration authorities have been under court supervision for handling any children who are caught with parents or other adults during border crossings. Together the rules for treating children are often referred to as “Flores standards” or “the Flores settlement,” after Flores v. Reno, a case filed back when Janet Reno was attorney general.

The rules are complicated, and you can see more here and here. Apparent violations of Flores, along with basic cruelty, were at the heart of the controversy about separating children from parents at the southern border this past summer.

One important part of current Flores standards is that children apprehended along with adults can’t be held for more than 20 days. Having lost a long sequence of court rulings about its “zero-tolerance” approach and other immigration policies, the Trump administration is now proposing essentially to de-impose the Flores limits, through new regulatory guidance. You can read more about what the changes would mean here. (The new approach is likely to be challenged in court, too.)

(2) The future. Human activity produces roughly five times as much carbon dioxide as emissions of methane. But methane is vastly more powerful as an agent of climate change. You can see the details here and here, but as an approximation methane is at least 80 times stronger than CO2 in its short-term climate effect, and as a recent article put it, “its impact is 34 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period, according to the latest IPCC Assessment Report.”

An increasing source of atmospheric methane is simple leakage, from the natural-gas (mainly methane) wells that have become an increasing source of North America’s energy supply. From both a business and an environmental perspective, these leaks are sheer waste and inefficiency, in addition to being destructive.

To reduce the volume of escaping methane, the Obama administration proposed a series of anti-leak standards and rules. On taking office, Trump and his team — Scott Pruitt at EPA, Ryan Zinke at Interior, Rick Perry at Energy — said they would delay implementation of the anti-leak rules, or ignore or suspend them. Again they lost a series of court cases.  (A federal judge in California said the new policy was “untethered to evidence.”)

This week, in a parallel to the Flores changes, the administration announced that it would just undo the methane policy with its own set of new rules. You can see the details, from the estimable science writer Marianne Lavelle, here.  Another clarifying piece is here.

After this revelation, Al Gore replied via Tweet:

This one too will be challenged in the courts.

(3) Cancer. Any president is head of the executive branch, and thus structurally the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States.

In an Oval Office interview with John Solomon and Buck Sexton of The Hill, which went online on Tuesday, the chief law-enforcement officer of the land referred to the FBI as “truly a cancer” and said this about how he should have treated its staffers even before he took office:

“If I did one mistake with Comey, I should have fired him before I got here. I should have fired him the day I won the primaries,” Trump said. [Note: Trump held no public office at that time.] “I should have fired him right after the convention, say I don’t want that guy. Or at least fired him the first day on the job. ...

Trump said he had not read the documents he ordered declassified [emphasis added: back story here] but said he expected to show they would prove the FBI case started as a political “hoax.”...

Asked what he thought the outcome of his long-running fight with the FBI, the president said: “I hope to be able put this up as one of my crowning achievements that I was able to ... expose something that is truly a cancer in our country.


A freer hand to detain children. Removing controls on environmentally hyper-destructive sheer waste. Working around court rulings toward both those ends — while denouncing the law enforcement structure he is supposed to “take care” to defend.

These things happened while the Kavanaugh case was commanding the news. To the best of my knowledge, the list of Republican senators who have noticed or objected to any of it is this familiar group:

48 days to go.