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John Oliver: it’s time for Trump to stop lying to coal miners

On Last Week Tonight, Oliver does two things that are rare in mainstream media reports about coal.

John Oliver summarizes my last several posts.

UPDATE, June 22: Ha! It turns out Oliver was correct in predicting that coal baron Robert Murray would sue him over this segment. Murray has filed a lawsuit in a West Virginia circuit court, accusing Oliver of “a meticulously planned attempt to assassinate the character of and reputation of Mr. Robert E. Murray and his companies.” The segment is particularly egregious, the complaint argues, because Murray is “one of the staunchest defenders and most ardent champions of the United States coal industry and America itself.” (American itself!) The attack, it says, will “likely further reduce [Murray’s] already limited life expectancy.”

The full complaint is really worth reading — it’s as though a Trump tweet were expanded into an essay. Legal experts largely dismiss Murray’s suit as frivolous junk, so it probably won’t go anywhere, but still, it’s funny.

John Oliver went after the coal industry on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, and it was every bit as delightful as you would imagine. He even kicks things off with my favorite image from the last year:

trump and coal
Everything about Trump is contained in this GIF.

Oliver points out that the coal industry employs fewer people than JC Penny (“I didn’t even know JC Penny had employees anymore!”) but, to his credit, takes the suffering of coal communities seriously.

In fact, he takes it so seriously that he dares to tell them the truth. Oliver does two things that are rare in mainstream media reports about coal. First, he cites research showing that competition from natural gas and renewables, not Obama regulations, is killing US coal.

Second, he makes clear that the interests of coal miners and coal executives often diverge — that it’s coal CEOs, not coal miners, that Trump is close to. In fact, coal executives are in the process of trying to screw over retired miners as we speak.

He then turns his sights on two of the most flamboyantly awful coal executives in recent history: former CEO Don Blankenship of Massey Energy and CEO Robert Murray of Murray Energy.

The must-see bit comes from a rally Blankenship held in 2009. Who should appear on stage but Sean Hannity, who, immediately after touting “family and faith” ... hits on a “a really hot-lookin’ chick in the third row there.” It’s even creepier than it sounds. (Oliver: “In the course of his speech he referenced God, quoted Reagan, and engaged in sexual harassment — that man really is Fox News.”)

And then there’s a whole bit about Murray — who preemptively threatened to sue Oliver — that involves opposition to black lung regulations, lies about mine safety, and a talking squirrel that ... I don’t feel quite equipped to summarize.

Oliver also unearths this quote, from a 1990 interview Trump gave to Playboy:

If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination — or whatever — to leave their mine. They don’t have “it.”


What every comedy skit needs: further reading

Anyway, Oliver’s segment makes references to all kinds of things that I (and others at Vox) have written about. So if you want to go longer and deeper on the themes in his piece:

  • Yes, US coal is in the midst of an irreversible decline. See here, here, and here.
  • Oliver cites a study from the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, tracing the sources of coal’s woes. I dug into that study here.
  • Oliver calls out EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for lying about a recent surge in coal jobs. In fairness, that’s just one of many, many things Pruitt lies about.
  • Oliver mentions that coal executives are getting bonuses even as they seek to jettison pension and health benefits owed to retired miners. It’s even more outrageous than he makes out — more on that here.
  • Yes, it’s true, the Kentucky Coal Museum has installed solar panels on its roof! I covered that here.
  • Yes, it’s true, Trump’s budget would slash assistance for a number of economic development programs targeted at Appalachia.
  • Oliver mocks Blankenship, but honestly, he could easily devote a whole segment to Blankenship, who is one of the most comically malignant figures in recent American history — a mustache-twirling, union-busting, worker-screwing demagogue so outrageously unpleasant that an author of fiction would hesitate to write him. One of the first freelance pieces I ever wrote was called “Don Blankenship is an evil bastard,” and if anything, I understated the case. See also here, here, and here. Blankenship is out of jail, where he was serving time for mine safety violations, and (in true Trump-before-Trump fashion) is now angrily tweeting about the injustices he has faced. He calls himself a “political prisoner.” Seriously.
  • And as for the 1990 Trump interview with Playboy, Vox’s Ezra Klein had a few things to say about that: