On June 1, 2020, Gov. Janet Mills used taxpayer funded resources, including her staff’s time, to arrange a press event during which she read from prepared remarks concerning a phone call with state governors hosted by then-President Donald Trump. At the event, Mills bragged of how she had taken Trump to task for things he said or did not say during the segment of the one-hour call in which she was allowed to speak.
Shortly after the event, the White House took the unusual step of releasing the audio of the entire call, something Mills obviously did not expect. Comparing the audio of the phone call with the video of the press event reveals that nearly every major point in the Governor’s remarks, prepared prior to the press event, was false. The Governor and her staff had arranged the event specifically for the purpose of lying to the media and the people of Maine.
If this was not the single most egregious and elaborate effort at lying in Maine gubernatorial history, it is very near the top. This was a telephone call with the President of the United States and her actions were not an impulsive, offhand remark. This was a premeditated, well-planned event.
Despite being fully aware of what had happened at the presser and that they had been played—lied to by the governor of their state who used them to promote her own image and damage that of Trump—not a single member of the media has since publicly made any statement pointing out Mills’ blatant manipulation.
Almost two years later, two reporters from the New York Times published a book in which they claimed Mills told them that during the same call she told a “security guard” in her office, “You gotta sit here and listen to this because I think the president of the United States is having a nervous breakdown or something, and it’s scary.” Setting aside the fact that the Governor’s Office has no “security guards” within it, and that there are ample staff members who could perform the eavesdropping role instead, this is a remarkable assertion with national implications. When the authors mentioned the statement while promoting their book, Mills, having been burned once by the same call when the audio became public, declined to comment.
Between that day and this, no one in Maine’s media establishment has called on the Governor to produce the “security guard” to verify her claim, or to point out where in the audio of the call this segment appears. Knowing that she had lied repeatedly about this call the day it occurred, any good reporter should have immediately doubted her claim and pushed hard for answers. Instead, rather than review the audio and pass judgement themselves, the media simply reported Mills’ claims and that she “did not respond to inquiries.” Likewise, none reached out to the two authors to discuss what implications Mills’ fraudulent press conference on the call might have on the published “nervous breakdown” quote in their book.
When Maine Public Radio conducted an interview with both of the book’s authors, calling it a “blockbuster,” it made no mention of Mills’ fraudulent press conference and whether this should cast doubt on her nervous breakdown claim even though this was the primary reason the book drew attention in Maine. Incredibly, however, the published interview did include a complimentary comment from one of the authors who described Mills as “somebody who just is happy to call it like she sees it.”
On another occasion, Mills’ dishonesty with Mainers had very real and lasting consequences for the state’s healthcare system. In early August 2021, Rochelle Walenski, Director of the U.S. CDC and Anthony Fauci, Presidential Health Advisor, both went on numerous national television programs and made clear to viewers that “what (COVID-19 vaccines) can’t do anymore is prevent transmission” of the virus from someone who is infected to someone who is not. A week later, however, Mills announced the nation’s most harsh vaccine mandate for healthcare workers based on the false premise that only unvaccinated workers could pass the virus on to their patients. In her release, Mills quoted Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine CDC as saying, “Scientific data show that vaccination is our best protection against all strains of the virus that causes COVID-19.”
The result of the mandate was devastating to the healthcare industry in a real and lasting way. Maine’s media never reported on the U.S. CDC’s scientific information, Shah’s apparent ignorance of it, or Mills’ choice to ignore it with such harmful consequences. Perhaps now that Shah is the second-in-command at USCDC, he will begin to pay a little more attention to its scientific announcements.
On January 6 of this year, Maine Public Utilities Commission Chair Phil Bartlett announced that his commission had set Central Maine Power’s “standard offer” for residential electricity at a rate 49% higher than its already high current rate. Bartlett explained to WCSH6 that the latest jump in electricity rates in New England are largely driven by the price of natural gas which right now is more expensive, “In large part because of the war in Ukraine and the effect that that has had on supply disruptions into Europe.”
Apparently, not a single member of Maine’s media establishment thought they should verify Bartlett’s claim despite the importance of this story to nearly all Mainers at a crucial time. Had they done even the most basic Internet search, they would have discovered that it was completely false. The day before Bartlett made this claim, CNN reported that natural gas prices in the U.S. and Europe were plummeting and were now below prices in place before Russia began its invasion.
From the story: “Benchmark prices for wholesale gas in Europe have fallen nearly 48% since mid-December, and almost 80% since their all-time high in August thanks to warm weather and high levels of gas in storage.”
Stateside, also from the CNN story: “The cost of wholesale gas flowing through the Henry Hub pipeline—which serves as the (US) country’s price benchmark—has dropped 50% to $3.68 per million Mbtu since late November, back to around levels last seen in December 2021.”
Ten days after blaming yet another major hike in electricity rates on imaginary natural gas prices, Bartlett told the Bangor Daily News that “Community solar is putting downward pressure on prices by reducing the load, which also reduces our share of regional costs.” Downward pressure? Reduces costs? Aren’t you the same guy who, just ten days ago, announced a 49% jump in rates?
If you are waiting for a link here to a story in which some reporter called Bartlett out on his contradictory revelations, please exhale. It ain’t coming. When the media fails to perform its essential function toward government, the chair of the PUC can falsely claim that natural gas prices have jumped when they have nearly collapsed, allowing him to hide his favoritism toward costly solar power while deflecting the public from being critical of failing liberal environmental policies. Just before becoming PUC Chair, you see, Bartlett was chair of the Maine Democratic Party.
In the meantime, we can only wait patiently for a reporter to explain natural gas prices to Bartlett and ask what is really causing the 49% spike in electricity rates.
Perhaps the biggest news story of the last two weeks has been Governor Mills’ release of her proposed biennial budget for fiscal years 2024 and 2025. In announcing her new spending plan, by far the largest in Maine history, Mills admitted that it would increase the bottom line by a billion dollars. At the same time, she listed its highlights and claimed it “proposes these investments without raising taxes.” Since roughly 85% of the revenue in every state budget comes from income and sales taxes, any budget that is a billion dollars larger than its predecessor will need an increase of roughly $850 million in tax revenue.
Sadly, Maine media never challenged Mills’ campaign claims that she cut taxes during the previous budget, even after this spending plan resulted in record high tax revenues. Nor did they fact check her repeated claims that she negotiated a bipartisan budget in 2021, the year she and her fellow Democrats enacted this budget by excluding Republicans from the $8.3 billion process entirely, stripping huge swaths of the state’s population from having any input into the budget process simply because their House or Senate district had elected a Republican. This act is the very definition of “taxation without representation,” but Maine’s media, both in news and opinion, allowed Mills to regularly describe her budget work as bipartisan without any challenge.
This week gave us another example of how the absence of media scrutiny of state government directly effects the lives of regular Mainers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, very few people in our state would argue that abortion was one of, if not the most prominent issue leading up to the election last November. During the debates and other campaign discussions, Mills made her position on Maine abortion laws perfectly clear in her own words, from her own mouth. Just one example: In an October 4 debate about whether she supported extending the date in a pregnancy beyond which abortions would be prohibited, one of the debate questioners asked bluntly “Would you support removing the current viability restriction in Maine’s law?”
Mills promptly replied unequivocally. “No. I support the current Maine law. It reflects Roe v. Wade.” When the questioner pushed further on the legal restrictions that limit abortions in Maine to no later than 24 weeks into a pregnancy, Mills emphatically reiterated, “The current law. I have no plans to change the current law.”
Exactly fourteen days into her second term, Mills proposed a drastic change to the current law, effectively making every abortion in any circumstance legal. Only one article, written by Penelope Overton, the reporter from the Press Herald who asked the key question on this issue during the October debate, made significant note of Mill’s abrupt flip-flop. The other reporter-turned questioner at that debate wrote the relevant article for Maine Public Radio and completely ignored Mills’ change in position.
A week before the debate, the Bangor Daily News ran a story with the headline “Janet Mills Wants No Changes to Maine’s Abortion Laws,” outlining her commitment to the current law. After last week’s announcement, the same reporter wrote an article that described Mills new position as “somewhat of a reversal” of the position she claimed she held during the campaign. Somewhat?
During the campaign, and since for that matter, Mills was at liberty to say whatever she thought might put her in the good graces of the largest number of voters without fear of reprisals when she later took the opposing position. Working with a largely complicit press corps, she can lie, mislead, and act against her previous promises without political consequences. This is bad for the people of Maine.
The importance of the role of the media became clear a few days after Mills’ announcement. After the Maine Wire published an article excoriating Maine reporters for demonstrable left-wing bias in their coverage of Mills’ abortion about face, the Portland and Bangor newspapers both posted “do-over” stories focused on Mills’ flip flop, which she described as an “amplification” of her abortion position. Whereas Mills never responds to inquiries from the Maine Wire, she does grant the occasional interview to the newspapers.
As she had in the debate, reporter Overton of the Press Herald asked the Governor the salient question—Why did you flip? Mills’ response reveals why more reporters should be asking more questions on a regular basis. According to Overton, after proclaiming “that the Mainers who voted for Mills in November are getting exactly what was advertised…a staunch abortion defender, Mills said that she had not lied at the debate, but after the election ‘came to that decision after talking with her staff about ways to preserve Mainers’ right to abortion.’” An old friend of mine has a great word for answers like this—hooey!
In Mills’ response, we are expected to believe that such a staunch champion of abortion rights had never discussed strategies on the topic with her staff until after she had secured a second term, and only then opened a new dialog about something so important and controversial. Mills’ answer is akin to saying, “I am a tiger on the late-term abortion issue but, you know, I just never really thought about it before the election was over.”
With the press willing to turn a blind eye, Mills used taxpayer resources to organize a press event solely for the purpose of lying to the people about a conversation she had with the President of the United States. She implemented harmful healthcare policies that contradicted the best available science and made important promises during a campaign about a major issue she did not intend to keep. Now, Mills’ can rest assured that she will not read any challenge in a major newspaper to her claim of cutting taxes in a budget that resulted in the largest increase in tax collections in the state’s history. As a result, she was comfortable making the same mathematically dubious assertion that her new budget proposal adds another billion dollars in spending “without raising taxes.”
These are just a few of the many instances where Maine people were seriously affected in negative ways by false and dishonest statements or actions from their elected officials, most notably their governor. The lack of regular, vigorous media scrutiny of our state government is more than just disappointing. It is dangerous, since it allows the processes of government that directly impact regular citizens to occur behind a veil of secrecy and falsehood.
Barring some sea change in the attitude and actions of those who control Maine’s media, this government by deception and dishonesty will continue unabated and Mainer’s will continue to suffer for it.