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How a 7th grader's strike against climate change exploded into a movement

By Sarah Kaplan
How a 7th grader's strike against climate change exploded into a movement
Alexandria Villasenor, 13, skips school to strike in front of the United Nations, with signs reading:

NEW YORK - On the ninth Friday of her strike, 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor wakes to a dozen emails, scores of Twitter notifications, and good news from the other side of the planet: Students in China want to join her movement.

Every week since December, the seventh-grader has made a pilgrimage to the United Nations Headquarters demanding action on climate change. She is one of a cadre of young, fierce and mostly female activists behind the "school strikes for climate" movement. On March 15, with the support of some of the world's biggest environmental groups, tens of thousands of kids in at least two dozen countries and nearly 30 U.S. states plan to skip school to protest.

Their demands are uncompromising: Nations must commit to cutting fossil-fuel emissions in half in the next 10 years to avoid catastrophic global warming.

And their message is firm: Kids are done waiting for adults to save their world.

"Mom, this is so cool," Alexandria says, as she reads the latest list of countries where kids have pledged to participate in a global strike: Australia, Thailand, Ghana, France. "Where is Gir--, Girona?"

"That's in Spain," replies her mother, Kristin Hogue.

They sit on the couch, still in their pajamas, and Alexandria pulls out the planner she purchased to keep track of all her commitments. Each task is color-coded by geographic scale: Pink for global organizing. Orange for national. Yellow for New York.

First on the agenda is an interview with a reporter from the U.K., who seems caught off guard by the young woman's fervor.

"My generation is really upset." The deal struck at COP24, the U.N. climate meeting in December, was insufficient, she says. "We're not going to let them . . . hand us down a broken planet."

"Huh. Right," the reporter says. "Big ambitions."

Alexandria raises her eyebrows.

"Yeah," she replies, confident.

Afterward, she changes into her striking uniform: waterproof ski pants and a down jacket, all in white, just like the congresswomen at the State of the Union and the suffragists of old. She packs her bag - planner, thermos, gloves - and grabs her plastic-encased cardboard signs, which read "SCHOOL STRIKE 4 CLIMATE" and "COP 24 FAILED US."

She holds the signs facing inward so other commuters on the subway can't see them. She doesn't like it when people stare.

"They'll probably think it's just a science project," Alexandria tells her mother. Then she laughs. "Well, technically it is. It's project conservation. Project save the Earth."

- - -

It's been four months since Alexandria decided the Earth needed saving. Last year, during a visit with family in northern California, she was caught in the cloud of smoke from the Camp Fire, which killed nearly 100 people and filled the air with unbreathable smoke. The girl suffers from asthma, and for days afterward she felt physically ill and emotionally distraught.

This isn't normal, she thought. This isn't right.

She began to look up articles about the West's historic drought, read reports about recent global temperature rise, asked her mother, a graduate student in the Climate and Society program at Columbia University, to explain the drivers behind global warming. She joined the New York chapter of Zero Hour, a network of young American climate activists.

In December she watched as international negotiators met in Poland to carve out a plan for curbing carbon emissions. A recent U.N. report found that humanity has until 2030 - the year Alexandria turns 24 - to achieve "rapid and far-reaching" transformation of society if we wish to avoid the dire environmental consequences of warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Yet the agreement that was ultimately reached fell far short of what scientists say is urgently needed.

In the midst of all this, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old from Sweden, took the podium.

"You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes," the girl proclaimed to a room full of stunned adults. "We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not."

Recalling that speech, Alexandria's eyes light up. "She just put them in their place," Alexandria says. "That was extremely satisfying."

Alexandria searched Greta's name online and found stories about the Swedish girl's climate strike in front of her country's parliament building, then in its fourth month. Greta said she had been inspired by student activists from Parkland, Fla., who said they would not go back to school until gun-control legislation was passed. "I am too young to vote and to lobby," she told The Washington Post this week. "But I can sit down with a sign and make my voice heard."

Alexandria knew what she needed to do.

She made her first pilgrimage to the United Nations Headquarters on Dec. 14. The next week she was back - with an umbrella. She has endured relentless rain and brutal wind off the East River (weeks three and four). She has braved the polar vortex that sent temperatures plummeting to 10 degrees (week eight).

Few of the New Yorkers bustling by ever stop to talk to her. And in her first eight weeks of striking, no one offered to join.

"But I stay motivated," she says. "Of course. It's my future on the line."

Many of Alexandria's friends are uninterested in her activism; their Instagram posts are more likely to show off a new outfit than a scene from a protest. Alexandria doesn't blame them - until a few months ago her life had also revolved around sleepovers and school plays. "I guess we're still teenagers," she says, shrugging.

But now she is switching to a private school that could accommodate her activism schedule and staying up all night talking to Thunberg and other kids from Australia, Uganda, the U.K. They are kindred spirits, internet-savvy teenage girls who can recite the results of the latest U.N. climate report and take pride in seeing through what Alexandria calls "the veil of money and B.S." that seems to stall so many adults.

Together, they debate strategy and discuss going vegan. On their strike days, they trade tweets littered with heart emoji and cheer as the walkouts expand.

Adults who underestimate the movement do so at their own peril. Since late last year, strikes in European cities have regularly drawn tens of thousands of participants. More than 15,000 people showed up for a strike in Australia - even after their prime minister urged them to be "less activist."

When a Belgian environment minister suggested that the growing protests were a "setup" this month, she was forced to resign. The following day, 20,000 kids were back in the streets of Brussels.

That day, Alexandria shared an image of a Dutch protest on Twitter, alongside the declaration, "It's coming to America. You haven't seen anything yet."

Alexandria has joined forces with Haven Coleman, a 12-year-old striker from Colorado, and Isra Hirsi, the 15-year-old daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., to organize the U.S. movement.

Offers of support began streaming in almost faster than the girls could respond. The executive director of Greenpeace agreed to hand the group's social media accounts over to students for the day of the strike. The New York chapter of the Sunrise Movement, the grass-roots group advocating for the Green New Deal, offered to handle outreach for March 15. Prominent climate researchers including Michael Mann, Kathrine Hayhoe and Peter Kalmus followed the girls on Twitter and began to organize an open letter of support from scientists. Alexandria and her mother have been invited to attend a special briefing next week on the U.N. Climate Summit being held later this year.

"These kids go straight to the top, and the adults listen," Hogue says.

"That's because they see the opportunity of the strikes and what it will do as good as the next person," Alexandria replies. "They see it."

Still, even the 13-year-old is stunned by the momentum of the movement, which seems to have taken on a life of its own. Sometimes all she can do is watch the emails roll in and think, "Whoa. I did that."

- - -

"That one down there is mine," Alexandria says. She points to a bench about 100 feet from the U.N. visitor entrance, as close as she's allowed to get to the protected building.

It's raining - a persistent chilly drizzle - and the wind keeps blowing her posters down. But Alexandria is feeling good about the day. For the first time since she started her protest, she will have company later that day.

Hogue takes a photo to post to Twitter. Alexandria poses with her arms crossed and her hip tilted to the side, unsmiling. She is not here to look cute.

Then Hogue hugs her daughter and walks away. Since she began the strike nine weeks ago, Alexandria has been adamant about protesting on her own.

"This is about my generation," the girl says.

After a few hours, the rain subsides and Alexandria's first fellow protester appears. Stefanie Giglio, 31, is a freelance writer and activist who was trained as one of Al Gore's "Climate Reality" advocates.

Alexandria reaches out to shake the woman's hand. "Thanks for coming," she says.

They compare signs and commiserate about how much more radical Europeans are than Americans.

"I really believe in direct action," Alexandria says.

"Yeah," says Giglio. "It's great that your parents are OK with this."

The 13-year-old nods. She has friends elsewhere in the city whose parents won't let them skip school to protest.

"They're so dependent on school," Alexandria says. "Like, I need to go to school to get the education for the job that's definitely going to be there in 10 years."

She raises her eyebrows again.

"If I don't have a future, why go to school? Why go to school if we're going to be too focused on running from disasters? Striking has to be the way."

Two blocks away, in the coffee shop where she usually waits out the protest, Hogue monitors Alexandria's Twitter feed and tries not to feel guilty for leaving her daughter out there alone.

The comments online don't help. For all the strangers on the internet who call Alexandria an inspiration, there are still people who tweet "YOU'RE A MORON" and "Go back to school!" and threaten to "come down there and teach you a real lesson about climate change."

Hogue blocks the worst offenders before the seventh-grader can see their messages. But there's not much else she can do. When she went to the New York Police Department's 17th precinct to file a report, officials told her they could only respond to concrete threats.

And every week, Alexandria insists on returning to her post.

"I have to let her make her own choices," Hogue says. "This is what she wants."

She recalls their first honest conversation about climate change, when Alexandria was 9 or 10, and Hogue was reading Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" for a college literature class.

The girl asked what the book was about. So Hogue told her of Carson's crusade against pesticides that killed birds and poisoned streams, how one woman speaking out led to the rise of environmentalism and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. That led to conversations about pollution and sea-level rise, about Alexandria's asthma and California drought - all the ways humans are still suffering today from the changes we've made to our planet.

"She seemed mad," Hogue said. "'Don't they know?' she kept asking. And I said yes. And she was like, 'Well, then why do they do it?' "

Hogue realized this was a truth from which she could no longer protect her daughter, just as she couldn't protect her from the pollutants that irritated her lungs.

It doesn't matter to them, she explained. Too many people will do what benefits them in the moment, even if it hurts others in the long run.

"She just couldn't understand how people could knowingly do that to the planet," Hogue said. "I think, sitting out there right now, she still doesn't understand."

But maybe, Hogue thinks, that's exactly what makes Alexandria and her friends so formidable.

- - -

The next day, a Saturday, Alexandria's chapter of Zero Hour huddles in a meeting room on the Columbia University campus to discuss plans for the global strike. The other kids are all in high school, but Alexandria is the clear leader of this gathering.

"Here's today's schedule," she says. "First Peter de Menocal is going to be giving a presentation on the latest climate science. Peter -" she looks toward the lone adult in the room, "are you ready?"

De Menocal, the dean of science for Columbia, stands and calls up the slide show he usually gives to graduate students. "Alexandria asked me to give you my worst," he says.

He displays a graph of future emissions scenarios. A blue curve depicts the path recommended by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which would limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. "Business as usual" is shown in red - a line that just keeps going up.

"This is all that stuff you guys are fighting for," de Menocal says. "If you don't fight for it, we own those red pathways."

Alexandria knows this story. It's the one that climate researchers have been telling for nearly 40 years, to little effect. Humans keep emitting greenhouse gases, temperatures keep rising, and the outlook for the future keeps growing more and more bleak. When Alexandria tries to envision her own adulthood, she sees only "what ifs" - What if a wildfire destroys her family's home in California? What if there are food shortages, or illnesses, or floods?

But all those hours of organizing, all those days sitting in front of the U.N., "It helps," she says. "It makes me feel like I have power. Like I can make some kind of change."

His presentation done, de Menocal hands the clicker over and Alexandria straightens in her chair. "OK," she says. "Here's the update."

The professor leans forward as the 13-year-old launches into a description of the global strike - all the support it has, all the attention it has received. In 30 years of studying climate, in all his uncountable hours of attempting to convey the scope of the crisis, he has rarely felt so humbled, he says - or so filled with hope.

"Do you have a statement I can read somewhere?" he asks.

"Sure," Alexandria says. "We have a mission statement and a media advisory on our website."

De Menocal mouths "wow" and turns around to give the girl's mother an amazed grin. Afterward, he pulls Alexandria aside.

"Thank you for what you're doing," he says, shaking her hand. "Thank you so much. What can I do to help?"

She tells him about the scientists who are writing a letter of support and suggests that he get involved.

"He can organize the adults," she says later. "We're ready for them now."

Economic trends turn downward for farmers

By Millie Munshi and Shruti Date Singh
Economic trends turn downward for farmers
A worker monitors corn being loaded into an outdoor storage bunker at the Michlig Grain elevator in Sheffield, Ill., on Oct. 2, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker.

Things are not looking good for the U.S. farm economy.

On Thursday, the farm belt's malaise deepened after the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted soybean exports would stay below their pre-trade war levels until the 2026-2027 season. That followed a report that sales of the oilseed in early January had the worst week ever. And things didn't end there: The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City warned that farm incomes were likely to have a weak start in 2019 and that credit was tightening at lenders.

"It's not a pretty picture, but it's not getting a lot worse quickly," said Dan Kowalski, at farm lender CoBank Acb in Greenwood Village, Colorado. "It's getting modestly worse over time."

Some of the hurdles have been around for years. Consecutive seasons of bumper crops kept grain inventories flush. At the same time, U.S. meat production was soaring and dairies were overflowing. The supply boom meant prices stayed low for a long time, while robust demand kept things from falling off a cliff. In fact, farm income posted a 22 percent rebound in 2017.

Then came Donald Trump's trade war.

As tensions escalated between Beijing and Washington, China slapped tariffs on a host of U.S. agricultural goods. Soybeans grabbed most of the headlines, though a myriad of other products are facing duties. Apricots, alfalfa, cherries, pistachios, pork and sorghum are some of the items on the hit list.

Ethanol, made from corn, has also felt the blow. Todd Becker, chief executive officer of biofuel maker Green Plains Inc., said Monday that the industry, collectively, may have burned through about $1 billion in cash to weather the tough 2018. China has 70 percent tariffs on the U.S. fuel additive.

Farmers are part of the base that helped drive Trump's election victory. Amid the economic woes, support for the president has mostly stayed resilient. Still, there are some cracks starting to show. At an ethanol conference last month in Iowa, Jeff Altena, a farmer and a director of operations at Siouxland Energy Cooperative, said the "long rope" the agriculture community gave the administration may be starting to fray.

To becalm his constituency, Trump has tweeted about his "love" for farmers. When he addressed the American Farm Bureau in January, his speech drew applause and cheers as he lobbied for a border wall, while telling the audience that he'll make it "easier" for migrants to work on farms.

His administration delivered an aid package to help counter the blow from tariffs. Growers had until Thursday to sign up for the so-called Market Facilitation Program. More than 864,000 producers applied since the program's debut in September, and payments have reached almost $8 billion, the USDA said this week.

"The bailouts did help out some," Lynn Rohrscheib, chairwoman of the Illinois Soybean Association, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television this week. "But most farmers, they just didn't want that. We want to be able to grow our crop and receive a fair price."

Rohrscheib said she knows of some producers who aren't farming this year because of the tariffs, and that her family "took a $600,000 hit to our annual income" as a result of the trade war.

While a truce in the trade war brought China back to the U.S. soybean market, purchases have been too small to make up for shrinking shipments. Inventories are still bulging across the Midwest, and prices are down 11 percent in the past 12 months.

The U.S. and China have made little progress during trade talks this week in Beijing, leaving much work to be done before Trump and his counterpart Xi Jinping look to seal a deal at a yet-to-be scheduled summit, people familiar with discussions said. USDA Deputy Secretary Steve Censky said on Wednesday that agriculture issues remain unresolved.

"We're still very much in the discussion and negotiating stage," Censky said on the sidelines of an ethanol conference in Orlando, Florida. "The Chinese have to be, in our view, a lot more forthcoming than what they have been to date."

Even if a deal is reached, it could be years before the farm economy completely bounces back. When importers shift to new suppliers, the U.S. loses out on the relationships it built, while rivals are able to strengthen their ties.

Meanwhile, other Trump policies have also taken a bite of out of the farm economy.

A labor shortage , which some in the industry say is at least partly sparked by Trump's tough stand on immigration, means employers have been forced to boost wages in the face of sluggish markets. On Thursday, U.S. poultry producer Pilgrim's Pride Corp. said it was increasing wages $50 million, year over year, to attract workers.

"A tight labor market in the U.S. and difficult market conditions last year are likely to weigh on at least some of the expansion plans" for the poultry industry, Pilgrim's Chief Executive Officer Bill Lovette said Thursday on a conference call. The company is "trying to develop some proprietary automation to do some of the more difficult tasks in our plants to alleviate that pressure on labor," he said.

"I think every company is facing virtually that same pressure."

- - -

Bloomberg's Lydia Mulvany, Mario Parker, Jeremy Hill, Alix Steel and Megan Durisin contributed.

Billion-dollar empire made from mobile homes

By Peter Whoriskey
Billion-dollar empire made from mobile homes
Kris Wilkin, a prison guard at the Riverbend Maximum Security institution, lives in a mobile home park owned by a private equity fund. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Stacy Kranitz

SMYRNA, Tenn. - It's not fancy. But in the exurbs of Nashville stands part of a billion-dollar real estate empire.

The Florence Commons community consists of about 300 mobile homes of varying vintages, mostly single-wide, many valued at less than $30,000 apiece, set 20 feet apart from one another. The occupants of some will tell you: The floors buckle. The ceilings crack. The doors don't shut right. Their homes are sinking.

"Okay - it's a trailer park, not a fancy gated community," said Jessica Boudreaux, 33, who lives there with her two daughters. "If people could, they'd live somewhere else."

Yet Florence Commons, along with more than 200 other mobile home parks around the U.S., has produced hefty returns for Stockbridge Capital, a $13 billion private-equity firm, and its major investors.

Their mobile home park company has produced tens of millions for investors in recent years and saw a return on investment of more than 30 percent between late 2016 and the end of 2017, according to documents.

Those ample returns arise in part from their willingness to boost the rents of the mobile home residents. As one investors report on the company put it approvingly: The "senior management team has a demonstrated track record of increasing home rental rates."

It has received $1.3 billion in financing through government-sponsored lender Fannie Mae, which says mobile homes are "inherently affordable." The money helped them buy existing mobile-home parks.

As large financial firms buy more and more U.S. homes, both conventional and mobile, the question of whether such investments benefit tenants or merely exploit them is a matter of dispute.

"They prey on people who can't afford land, people who can't move," said David Barrett, 62, an excavation equipment operator who lives in Florence Commons. "They're taking advantage of - I wouldn't say poor people - but working people. Where do you think their profits come from?"

Yes Communities, the investors' company that owns Florence Commons, says it is helping to meet the nation's need for affordable housing.

Much of the investors' revenue comes from residents who, while they often own their homes, must pay rent for the home lot. At Florence Commons, rent has risen by four percent a year or more, residents said - and most have little choice but to pay up: For practical reasons, they can't move. The dwellings are called "mobile," but they are costly to transport and sometimes owners are contractually forbidden to move them.

The residents at Florence Commons must pay in other ways, too. Rent checks that are six days late incur a 10 percent fee and a threat of quick eviction. If residents fail to cut the grass, the park managers threaten them with fees of $100 or more, residents said. An aggressive towing service has forced some residents t0 pay $200 or more to recover their cars.

The median income for families that live in mobile homes is about $30,000 a year. Adult residents of mobile homes also have lower levels of formal education, according to surveys. About two thirds lack education beyond high school.

"The owners just seem to want to get every dime from us," Boudreaux said.

Officials with Stockbridge Capital, a firm led by Terry Fancher and Sol Raso that focuses on real estate investments, released a statement: "Stockbridge is proud of its association with YES Communities, which has met the affordable housing needs of its residents nationwide for the past 11 years."

Vanessa Jasinski, vice president of marketing for Yes Communities said that the rents at Florence Commons have risen at four percent a year on average over the last six years - slightly higher than the average mobile home lot rate in the area last year, according to figures from Datacomp, an industry analyst.

Jasinski also said that the rules - and fees - for lawn and parking violations are intended to create pleasant surroundings. No park residents were required to pay for grass-cutting last year, she said. She noted that in the past five years, 46 home renters at Florence Commons have purchased homes in the community.

As for the damage caused by mobile homes settling, she said that "it is not uncommon for manufactured homes to settle and experience issues like these. This is true also of site-built homes."

- - -

Over the past three years, some of the biggest private-equity firms - Carlyle Group, Apollo Global Management and TPG Capital - have taken stakes in mobile home parks, according to a forthcoming report by the nonprofit groups Private Equity Stakeholder Project, MHAction and Americans for Financial Reform. The mobile home parks owned by private-equity firms have more than 100,000 home sites, according to the report.

"The firms made these investments seeking to double or triple their money in the space of a few years," said Jim Baker, director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, an organization that has been critical of the private-equity industry. "That doesn't lead to affordable housing."

He said residents of these mobile home communities are reporting substantial rent increases, aggressive fees for small infractions and escalating evictions.

Critics of the role of large investors are taking in mobile home parks point to the remarks of Frank Rolfe, an investor who has owned thousands of mobile home lots. Referring to the steady stream of revenue, he said that a mobile home park "is like a Waffle House where the customers are chained to their booths."

In fact, the money that investors can see from mobile home parks is remarkably steady - and growing fast. Between 2004 and 2018, operating income from mobile home parks rose 87 percent according to Green Street Advisors, the global real estate research firm, never once declining, even during the recession.

In the case of Yes Communities, government help supports the investors' returns.

In August 2016, Fannie Mae, the government sponsored lender, said that it was helping to finance Yes Communities. It has now helped, through two banks, to provide about $1.3 billion for Yes Communities. Those loans enable Yes Communities to buy up mobile home parks.

The Yes Communities loan "will preserve affordable housing in communities across the nation," Fannie Mae said in a news release at the time.

"[P]roviding investors with attractive returns helps YES to invest into new communities and markets and meet the affordable housing needs of both existing and new residents," she said.

The terms of the loan to Yes Communities, however, do not limit the rent hikes that face residents. A Fannie Mae spokesperson said rent limits are not in their purview.

"We believe the federal government should be preserving affordable housing, but as far as we can tell, that's not the case with these loans" said Elisabeth Voight, co-director of MHAction, an organization of mobile home residents. "If it were, there would be requirements to keep the rents affordable. These loans should be helping residents buy and run their own communities, not private-equity groups that earn huge profits."

- - -

Stockbridge Capital, which is based in San Francisco and specializes in real estate investments, first invested in the mobile home park operator in 2008. In August 2016, it sold 71 percent of Yes Communities to a fund whose investors include the government of Singapore and a pension fund for public school employees in Pennsylvania. It continues to manage the mobile home park operator.

It is generally difficult to know how much private-equity firms are making, but the Pennsylvania pension fund does issue some figures. Between September 2016 and December 2017, the value of its $179 million investment rose more than 30 percent, according to their public disclosures.

But while Yes Communities is producing ample returns for investors, some residents say the parks have suffered.

"It's really gone downhill," said Kris Wilkin, 47, a state corrections officer who bought a 2003 double wide in Florence Commons seven years ago.

One year, residents said, the community swimming pool didn't open for the summer. Residents also pointed to couches and other trash out lying in surrounding open spaces.

Boudreaux, a medical assistant for a neurologist, agreed. She and her two daughters moved there in 2011.

Florence Commons, she said, was appealing to her because it welcomes people with imperfect credit. At the sales office, where salespeople encourage customers to buy homes in the park, they tell visitors that they can buy a home even if their credit records include a bankruptcy or home foreclosure. Credit scores need be no higher than 550.

"Yes! It Feels Good to be a Homeowner!" the company brochures say. "Contact our homeownership specialist today!"

Boudreaux had come from a mobile home park in South Dakota that was family-owned. There, she said, "if there was an issue, they'd fix it." She expected it would be the same at Florence Commons.

"They said they'd work with us," Boudreaux said.

She bought a double-wide for $34,000.

There are aspects of the park she likes - for one thing, it's conveniently located and there are enough kids in the neighborhood that she's rarely had to drive them to a playdate.

But the company, she says, doesn't respond to basic requests for maintenance - for better drainage, for streetlights, for potholes. The park managers seem unimpressed, she said, by her complaint that uneven settling of her lot has created a crack in her ceiling where the two side of her double-wide are separating.

Meanwhile, the mobile home lot rents are rising.

The loan payments on the home itself, she said, have dropped. But over the last six years, her lot rent has risen from $338 to $437, or almost 30 percent.

"They're almost like slumlords," she said. "If you point something out, they're just like . . . whatever. They just want the rent."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Trump's emergency declaration showed why some people think him incapacitated

By dana milbank
Trump's emergency declaration showed why some people think him incapacitated


(Advance for Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Milbank clients only)


WASHINGTON -- It was a fine day for a national emergency.

There was no sign of alarm as administration officials and journalists assembled Friday in the Rose Garden under a perfect blue sky amid unseasonable warmth. Nor was there any sense of crisis conveyed by President Trump, scheduled to fly to his Mar-a-Lago resort later Friday. The much-anticipated emergency declaration was to have been at 10 a.m. At 10:18 an official said Trump would talk in two minutes. At 10:39, Trump emerged.

His topic demanded utmost solemnity: The situation on the border is so dire, such a crisis, that he must invoke emergency powers to circumvent Congress, testing the boundary between constitutional democracy and autocracy. But with the nation watching, Trump instead delivered a bizarre, 47-minute variant of his campaign speech.

He boasted about the economy, military spending and the stock markets ("we have all the records") and he applauded the Chinese president's pledge to execute people who deal fentanyl ("one of the things I'm most excited about in our trade deal"). He said Japan's prime minister had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He declared Ann Coulter "off the reservation" but praised his favorite Fox News hosts and celebrated Rush Limbaugh's endurance ("try speaking for three hours without taking calls").

Further, Trump reported about on his "great relationship" with the dictator of North Korea (which, Trump reported, is found "right smack in the middle" of South Korea, China and Russia) and he declared the "eradication of the caliphate" in Syria (his top general in the region begs to differ). He introduced his new attorney general, disparaged the Democrats' "con game," criticized retired House Speaker Paul Ryan, invoked campaign promises, recited the "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan and pronounced his re-election prospects excellent. He pinged from regulations to Britain to MS-13 to "monstrous caravans" to an apocryphal story about women gagged with duct tape.

Oh, and he also mentioned his emergency declaration -- specifically, that it isn't necessary. "I didn't need to do this," he said in response to a question from NBC's Peter Alexander. It's just that the emergency declaration lets him build a border wall "faster." He acknowledged that "I don't know what to do with all the money" Congress gave him for border security.

Somewhere, administration lawyers were face-palming.

On Thursday came reports that former FBI Director Andrew McCabe had confirmed that Justice Department officials discussed the possibility of removing Trump under the 25th Amendment for incapacity. The president then spent the next 30 hours showing exactly why some people think him incapacitated.

As The Washington Post reported, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke on the phone with Trump at least three times Thursday, trying to get Trump to agree to the bipartisan border agreement and avoid another shutdown. When Trump finally agreed -- apparently in exchange for McConnell dropping his opposition to an emergency order -- McConnell rushed to the Senate floor to announce it before Trump changed his mind, interrupting an irate Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Earlier, Grassley had offered the Senate his own benediction to supplement the Senate chaplain's: "Let's all pray that the president will have wisdom to sign the bill."

Prayers and frantic reassurance: This is how Republicans deal with an erratic president determined to defy an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress, take money from the military (the Pentagon's uses for it "didn't sound too important to me," Trump said) and set a precedent for future presidents to declare emergencies for their pet projects.

When President Obama attempted a less aggressive use of executive power in 2014, Republicans denounced him as a "tyrant" and "dictator," McConnell called him an "imperial president" and Trump himself said Obama "could be impeached" for it. Many lawmakers warned Trump not to "usurp the separation of powers" as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, put it.

Trump seemed not to have heard such warnings as he ricocheted from topic to topic in the Rose Garden. He carried a speech to the lectern but mostly ignored it as he spun fantasies.

Evidence that most of the illegal drugs pass through legal border crossings? "It's all a lie."

CNN's Jim Acosta pointed out that border crossings are near record lows and illegal immigrants are not disproportionately criminal.

"You're fake news," Trump replied.

Playboy's Brian Karem asked Trump to "clarify where you get your numbers."

"Sit down," Trump told him, declaring that "I use many stats." Minutes later, he pumped a fist in the air and departed.

"What about the 25th Amendment?" Acosta called after him.

Trump's performance had already provided a compelling answer.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

How the U.S. might stay in Syria, and leave at the same time

By david ignatius
How the U.S. might stay in Syria, and leave at the same time



(For Ignatius clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Is there a way for the United States and its allies to remain in northeastern Syria, even after President Trump's pledged withdrawal of U.S. military forces there? Officials are struggling to devise such a "workaround" strategy, but it could carry more risks than keeping the existing advisory force.

The loudest public call for an alternative to withdrawal from Syria is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The senator said on Friday in Munich that he wants European nations to provide troops for a "safe zone" as a way of coaxing Trump to maintain a U.S. presence.

"I'm hoping that President Trump will be coming to some of you and asking for your help and you will say yes," Graham said, promising that the United States would offer "in return, the capability that we have that is unique," and that the United States "will still be in the fight in Syria."

How this plan might operate remains unclear, according to current and former U.S. officials. One official said Friday that Britain, France and Germany had already turned down initial U.S. requests for troops in Syria, but that was before Graham's public plea. Current plans call for U.S. military forces to depart Syria by the end of April, but officials say the timeline is fuzzy.

One possibility, according to U.S. and foreign officials, would be to have paramilitary officers from the CIA take over the training and advising of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since 2015, those duties have been carried out by U.S. Special Operations forces.

This approach, still in the discussion stage, would allow Trump to claim he is delivering on his pledge to withdraw troops from Syria, without creating a vacuum in the northeast that would be exploited by Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime.

This new option, in the language of government lawyers, would mix Title 10 overt military operations and Title 50 covert action. Reduced military activity could continue under Title 10 authority, to provide air cover and logistical support for U.S. and allied troops on the ground, but the SDF's advisers might be CIA officers. The CIA operatives, like existing Special Forces personnel, wouldn't be involved directly in ground combat.

Trump's December withdrawal decision shocked U.S. allies, members of Congress and administration officials -- and led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The latest open critic is Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, who told CNN Friday during a trip to Oman that Trump's decision to pull the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria "would not have been my military advice at that particular time."

Votel said the Islamic State "still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, so our continued military pressure is necessary to go after that network." He said SDF fighters "still require our enablement and our assistance with this."

A paramilitary advisory force, operating under Title 50, would have some significant disadvantages, reminiscent of other covert actions in past decades. Current U.S. military forces in Syria can deter adversaries because they carry the U.S. flag, literally and figuratively. A paramilitary force wouldn't have that same deterrent capability, or the ability to deconflict operations with other forces in the area, such as Russia and Turkey.

"Having a visible force on the ground deters all the other actors," argues a former U.S. official. "If we can't talk about that force, or it's wearing a different [CIA] hat, then our ability to deter is limited."

European nations will weigh the vulnerability of their troops as they consider any request to provide forces for a buffer zone. They've been reluctant to provide such overt support in the past. But they share U.S. worries about creating a vacuum in northeast Syria and the danger that Kurdish-led forces might be slaughtered if abandoned by the United States.

Given the U.S. and European policy muddle, SDF commanders must weigh whether to make their own accommodation with Russia and the Syrian regime. The United Arab Emirates is said to favor such an approach, and some longtime SDF supporters say a deal with the regime would be safer for the Kurds than depending on a fickle United States and a gun-shy Europe.

Trump supporters, such as Graham, often propose workarounds that try to preserve sensible policy while accommodating the president's whims. That might be doable in Syria, with allied help and some legal and military juggling. But the best course would be for Trump simply to acknowledge that his earlier decision was unwise and reverse it.

David Ignatius' email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The three amigas

By kathleen parker
The three amigas


(Advance for Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)


WASHINGTON -- By the Republican response to the three most-famous Democratic freshmen in Congress -- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC) of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan -- you'd think these women were Shakespeare's Three Witches rather than the three amigas seen chumming and laughing in countless photographs.

But then, you'd also infer from Democrats' counter-response that the GOP's reaction has been solely an expression of racism, misogyny and anti-Muslim sentiment, rather than the result of legitimate observations of concern.

Let's break it down.

First, shame on the media for giving these three women oh-so-much attention. Yes, they're unique and interesting. AOC, 29, is the youngest woman ever elected to the Congress. Omar is the first representative to wear a hijab. And Tlaib, also Muslim, is the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in the chamber.

Bravas all around. Their elections, as well as those of two Native-American women, are all news- and noteworthy. After just a few weeks in office, AOC miraculously produced a big bill -- the Green New Deal, a joint resolution co-introduced by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. Of course, such bills don't just happen overnight. Undoubtedly, lots of planning, strategy and little elves with pockets of political savvy pulled the legislation together and handed it off to Markey and the youngest member of Congress, ensuring a Big Green Splash and further burnishing AOC's star.

In a brief sidebar: Texas' Beto O'Rourke is experiencing a similarly sudden star turn. It's easy to see why so many are attracted to him. He's young (46), charismatic, has a beautiful family, and appeals to a cross-section of Americans. But something about him seems manufactured. A leaner, lankier version of two likely role models, Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama, his practiced performances tend to make one wish for the real McCoys. With unmistakable echoes of Obama's cadences and Kennedy's mannerisms, O'Rourke seems to have been created by an artificial intelligence that was informed by polls and demographic projections.

Tlaib, too, became newsworthy when the Detroit lawyer was caught on video early last month telling a gathering that she had come to Washington to "impeach the mother------," referring to President Trump. Like AOC, she's a declared democratic socialist, and she has been a harsh critic of the Israeli government, calling for an end to U.S. aid to Israel.

Not least, Omar, too, has invited accusations of anti-Semitism for recently tweeting that Washington politicians push pro-Israel policies because they're funded by lobbying organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. After incurring a firestorm from nearly all corners, including the Democratic leadership, she issued an apology that was both quick and appropriate, even though the American president declared it "lame."

Omar said she meant no offense to Jewish Americans and that "we have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity." Trump, meanwhile, said she should resign, which is ridiculous. She, like Trump, was duly elected.

Regarding money, AIPAC, though a pro-Israel lobbying group, does not actually finance politicians. Omar was also quite wrong about the nation's pro-Israel stance being "all about the Benjamins baby," a reference to $100 bills. As most readers know, the U.S. supports Israel in large part because it is surrounded by countries, including Iran, that deny its right to exist, as well as other states that harbor or support terrorism or are, in the case of Gaza, run by a terrorist organization. It is, in other words, in our national interest to support Israel.

But Omar is right on the money when she expresses broad concern about the degree to which legislators do receive contributions intended to curry favor. In her apology, she said she is being educated on anti-Semitic tropes -- and is "listening and learning," which is good advice for all concerned. Republicans, rather than trying to villainize these three new congresswomen and make them the faces of the Democratic Party, should bow to the positive while drawing important distinctions.

And isn't it time Democrats discarded their own arsenal of tropes about Republicans? It isn't racist to openly worry that Democratic newcomers are expressing anti-Israel views. The fact that the three are female is irrelevant to those concerns. And, it certainly isn't anti-Muslim to observe that expressed sentiments might be influenced by one's heritage or religion.

A diverse country requires that all voices and perspectives be heard. An intelligent future demands that the best ideas, not the personalities presenting them, win the day.

Kathleen Parker's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Paid family leave isn't just a women's issue. It's an economic one.

By catherine rampell
Paid family leave isn't just a women's issue. It's an economic one.



(For Rampell clients only)


To borrow a famous construct from the then-first lady: Women's issues are economic issues, and economic issues are women's issues.

That's how we should be thinking about many of the "softer" policy areas that will be debated in the 2020 election -- and that have already found their way into legislative proposals, including the paid family leave bill reintroduced this week by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn..

I'm hardly the first to point out the connection between "women's issues" and the economy. Slate's Jordan Weissmann, for instance, recently wrote an excellent piece emphasizing the economic benefits of affordable child care. But still, policies that affect mothers' ability to work are too often framed as being mainly about fairness, feminism, personal fulfillment and family bonding.

They are indeed all these things. But they (BEG ITAL)also(END ITAL) address a pressing macroeconomic concern. In the long run, if we want to boost economic output and productivity, we need our policymakers to focus less on trickle-down tax cuts and more on why so many American women who want to be working aren't.

A few decades ago, the United States was a leader in women's labor-force participation. For women considered to be of prime working age (25 to 54 years old), the United States ranked sixth out of 22 wealthy economies in 1990. By 2017, we ranked 20th.

Even Japan -- a country not exactly known for progressive gender roles -- is eating our lunch. There, thanks to a national effort to take greater advantage of women's economic potential ("womenomics"), 77.5 percent of prime-age women are in the labor force as of 2017, vs. 75 percent here.

Why does this matter?

An economy is only as strong as its workers, and the share of our population in the workforce is shrinking. In fact, one of the main reasons U.S. economic growth is almost universally expected to slow dramatically in the coming years is precisely this demographic issue.

As the population ages, a growing share of retirees must depend on a shrinking share of working people to produce the goods and services that retirees consume. There will also be a smaller share of working-age people available to fund the tax base needed for retirees' public benefits, such as Medicare.

One solution, of course, is more immigration of working-age people. But regardless of whether we do that, we should also make it easier and more attractive for members of the existing working-age population to, you know, work.

The problem doesn't seem to be that American women, or even mothers specifically, are (BEG ITAL)uninterested(END ITAL) in working. A Pew Research Center survey found that 79 percent of women with minor children would like to be working at least part time as of 2012, whereas only 68 percent were actually employed in the latest Labor Department data.

The problem is that they don't have the support system necessary to help them stay attached to the labor force. An oft-cited paper from Cornell University economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn estimated that if the United States implemented family support policies about equal in generosity to the average across other developed countries, women's labor-force participation would rise nearly seven percentage points.

Such policies include paid family leave.

You may have heard the talking point that the United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave. That actually understates the case. As of 2015, the United States was one of only a handful of countries (BEG ITAL)in the world(END ITAL) that didn't mandate paid maternity leave at the federal level, according to a report from the International Labor Organization.

Paid maternity leave -- and its broader, more ecumenical version, paid family leave -- is quite popular, drawing support from majorities of both Democrats and Republicans. It's no wonder, then, that GOP politicians are proposing their own versions of the idea. Ivanka Trump met with GOP lawmakers this week to re-up the issue, and a version of the policy she backed last year is expected to be reintroduced soon.

I'm not a fan of Trump's specific policy formulation, which involves having parents finance their family leave by raiding their own Social Security benefits. But I'm hopeful nonetheless that lawmakers will seriously consider other iterations, including those already implemented by a handful of states that have been linked to higher worker productivity and lower turnover.

I'm hopeful, too, that in the months ahead, other pro-work, pro-women policies -- including greater access to child care and flexible scheduling -- will gain traction not just as bleeding-heart fantasies but as hard-headed ways to strengthen the economy overall.

Catherine Rampell's email address is Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Myopic Green New Dealers need to look beyond America for a climate cure

By megan mcardle
Myopic Green New Dealers need to look beyond America for a climate cure



(For McArdle clients only)


WASHINGTON -- If you are going to make fun, as I have, then you are eventually going to be asked what (BEG ITAL)your(END ITAL) plan is to combat the insane risks humanity is taking with the world's climate.

The retort is an evergreen in policy debates. No doubt when skeptics raised questions about the efficacy of bleeding patients to cure their cholera or of burning witches to halt crop failures, someone was standing there with their head cocked at a righteous angle, saying, "Oh no? Well, what's your plan, then?" Unfortunately, there is no law of universal symmetry by which the recognition of a problem automatically creates a feasible solution.

But as it happens, I do have a plan, one that recognizes the true scope of the problem -- and therefore points in the opposite direction from the outdated, U.S.-centric approach taken by the Green New Deal resolution introduced last week by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. I'll confess upfront that I'm far from sure my plan will work. I can only protest that it's more likely to work than the myopic austerity of the enviro-socialists.

Like all myopes, the Green New Dealers can see clearly only what's right in front of them, which is to say the United States, beyond which they perceive only the fuzzy outlines of a half-mythical European enviro-paradise. And 30 years ago, that was an almost reasonable way to look at the problem. But today, the United States accounts for 4.3 percent of the world's population, roughly 25 percent of its economic output and 15 percent of its carbon emissions from fuel combustion. Meanwhile China, with 18 percent of the world's population, has 15 percent of its gross domestic product and 28 percent of its emissions. And India, with a population almost as big as China's, produces only about 3 percent of global GDP and 6 percent of emissions.

Looking at these three countries brings the scale of the problem into focus. There is a small, rich world that lives in comfort and plenty, and a much larger, poor one that wants to get rich. To do so, those billions of people will pass through an intermediate stage when their developing industries are much dirtier than their highly regulated rich-world counterparts. The global emissions problem is likely to get much worse before it gets any better.

Even if the United States becomes ever more efficient in its energy use, that still won't prevent the planet from warming. For that matter, zeroing out U.S. emissions and moving the whole country into yurts wouldn't prevent the climate from warming, because Americans are not the biggest problem anymore. The problem is the more than 6 billion people who aren't living in the rich world.

No matter what rich-world economies do about their energy consumption, or what "moral leadership" they exert, people in the non-rich world are going to want to drive cars instead of walking; to wash their clothes in machines instead of in a river; to cool their houses with air-conditioning; to eat meat every day -- in other words, to do and own all the things that make modern rich-world lives so safe and pleasant.

Developing countries aren't going to put scarce resources into artificially expensive "green" ways of replicating the rich-world lifestyle; they're going to get there by the least costly route. The solution isn't figuring out how to subsidize or mandate green alternatives; it's figuring out how to make them cheaper than the carbon-intensive versions.

There are a number of possible paths to that outcome, and the United States should be walking them all: massive government investment in scientific research, along with a revenue-neutral carbon tax and research prizes to encourage private industry to get into the act.

Then there is the road best not taken: massive regulatory programs to marginally improve the energy efficiency of American buildings and appliances; subsidizing high-speed rail and public transit in a country almost entirely devoid of the population densities needed to make them feasible; larding green initiatives with ideological wish lists that will do nothing to prevent climate change but will do a lot to polarize the country on the most important policy priority of the 21st century.

The latter set of options is, of course, the route that the Green New Dealers have charted for America. If they'd looked past their own backyard, however, they'd have seen it's a dead end.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

We have a national emergency, all right. Its name is Donald Trump.

By eugene robinson
We have a national emergency, all right. Its name is Donald Trump.


(Advance for Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Robinson clients only)


EDITOR'S NOTE: The Eugene Robinson column sent earlier today on the Green New Deal can now be run on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, or a time of your choosing.

WASHINGTON -- We have a national emergency, all right. Its name is Donald Trump, and it is a force of mindless, pointless disruption.

The president's decision to officially declare an emergency -- to pretend to build an unbuildable border wall -- is not only an act of constitutional vandalism. It is also an act of cowardice, a way to avoid the wrath of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the far-right commentariat.

It is an end-run around Congress and, as such, constitutes a violation of his oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" -- which gives Congress, not the president, the authority to decide how public money is spent. It does not give Trump the right to fund projects that Congress will not approve. Authoritarian leaders do that sort of thing. The puffed-up wannabe strongman now living in the White House is giving it a try.

Let's be clear: There is no emergency. Arrests for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border peaked in 2000, nearly two decades ago, at more than 1.5 million a year. They declined sharply under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and, in 2017, were at their lowest point since 1971. In 2018, apprehensions ticked up slightly -- but still barely climbed above 400,000.

There has indeed been an increase in families presenting themselves at legal points of entry to seek asylum -- those groups of bedraggled Central Americans that Trump calls "caravans." Under U.S. and international law, these people have an undisputed right to ask for asylum and have their cases evaluated. Again, they come to legal border crossings to seek admission. Only a literal handful try to navigate the forbidding rural terrain where Trump says he wants to build a wall.

What the administration really needs to do is expand and improve facilities for processing, caring for and, when necessary, housing these asylum seekers. But Trump doesn't care about doing the right thing, or even the necessary thing. He cares only about being able to claim he is following through on his vicious anti-immigration rhetoric, which brands Mexican would-be migrants as "rapists" and Central Americans as members of the MS-13 street gang.

Trump had two years in which Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate -- and could not convince Congress to give him funding for a wall. He decided to make it an issue only after Democrats won the power to say no. The president's negotiating strategy -- pitching tantrums, walking away from the table, venting on Twitter, provoking the longest partial government shutdown in history -- was never going to work. You might think he'd have learned something about how Washington works by now, but you would be wrong.

Since there obviously is no legitimate emergency, Trump's declaration -- and the shifting of resources from duly authorized projects to the wall -- will surely be challenged in court. It is possible, if not likely, that any actual construction will be held up indefinitely.

Indeed, legal briefs arguing against Trump's action practically write themselves. An emergency, by definition, is urgent. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, were clearly qualified as a national emergency. But Trump has been talking about issuing an emergency declaration to build the wall for a couple of months. If such action wasn't necessary in December, some judge will surely ask, then why now?

Money for the wall will have to be taken from other projects, all of which have constituencies in Congress and among the public. Ranchers and others whose land would have to be taken by eminent domain for the wall will be up in arms.

Politically, Trump carelessly put Republican senators in a tough spot. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., may have the House pass a resolution of disapproval, which the Senate would be compelled to take up. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his caucus would have to decide whether to support a presidential power grab they know is unwise -- or oppose Trump and risk the ire of the GOP base.

One of the most strident Republican criticisms of Obama was that he took executive actions that should have been the purview of Congress. But this action by Trump goes much further and sets a dangerous precedent.

What would keep the next Democratic president from declaring an emergency, in the wake of some mass shooting, and imposing a ban on assault weapons? Is that what McConnell wants as his legacy?

Trump cares only that his base is mollified. And that nobody remembers how Mexico was supposed to foot the bill.

Eugene Robinson's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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