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Christmas tree growers battle against popularity of plastic

By Lydia Mulvany and Megan Durisin
Christmas tree growers battle against popularity of plastic
Workers harvest Christmas trees at Brown's Tree Farm in Muncy, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Nov. 29, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Luke Sharrett.

Millennials have earned a reputation for loving consumer products that are local and artisanal. So why are they buying so many plastic Christmas trees?

That's the question irking Tim O'Connor, the executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board in Littleton, Colorado. To help capture more buyers, growers are positioning themselves as analogs to the local and organic food movement. Real trees have all the things younger adults are drawn to, he said, touting authenticity, benefits to the environment and support for regional economies.

They've got their work cut out for them. While almost 95 million U.S. households will display a Christmas tree this season, only 19 percent of those are expected to be real, according to a survey conducted by Nielsen for the American Christmas Tree Association released Thursday. While some houses display both types of trees, most will be putting up artificial trees, usually made from plastic and coming from factories sometimes located across the globe.

The tide could already be starting to change, according to George Richardson, the co-owner of Richardson Farms in Spring Grove, Illinois, who's a fifth-generation farmer. He plants 10,000 seedlings a year on his operation, where buyers can choose and cut their own tree.

"Real Christmas trees were immensely popular in 40s 50s 60s 70s 80s, and then the fake trees got in," Richardson said. "For a while, people thought, this is so convenient, let's do that. Now we're finding out that maybe they're not the healthiest, pristine thing we thought they were, and they'll end up in a landfill."

The best customers of real trees are families with children. Older adults from the Baby Boomer generation are becoming empty-nesters, while millennials -- a cohort of young people now aged about 18 to 35 -- are on the cusp of starting families. That's left a gap for real trees, which have lost buyers as artificial trees gained.

But the real-tree industry says there's potential to win big over the next decade as young families bloom. Only 20 percent of millennials currently have young children, O'Connor of the farmer-funded Christmas Tree Promotion Board said. That leaves the lion's share of the biggest generation -- and their future Christmas traditions -- still up for grabs.

O'Connor is also hoping to capture younger consumers' interest in sustainable products to boost sales. Real Christmas trees are farm-grown like a crop, not cut from a forest, he said. They grow on grounds not suitable for higher value crops, turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, and their roots hold soil in place. When they're cut, a new one is planted, and after being used, they can be recycled into mulch. Oregon is the top growing state.

Still, artificial trees appeal to consumers looking for re-usability and convenience, said Jami Warner, the Sacramento-based executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association, which promotes both the farm-grown and manufactured varieties. It can be set up in minutes and there's no mess or watering involved.

Another hurdle for real trees: rising prices.

A real Christmas tree will probably cost about 10 percent more this year compared with last, said Doug Hundley, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers. Tree supplies are tight, and demand is expected to be robust due to the healthy economy and signs that consumers are set to splurge this holiday.

Supplies are still in recovery mode after plantings took a hit during the recession in 2008. It takes as long as 10 years for a tree to grow to market height, so plantings made during the slump are coming to market now.

There could be regional shortages and short supplies even in big box stores closer to Dec. 25, according to Hundley.

"People have extra money to spend on Christmas, so there's lots of pressure on the demand side," he said.

Intrigue grows over what sparked the attack on Rand Paul

By Justin Jouvenal
Intrigue grows over what sparked the attack on Rand Paul
Sen. Rand Paul, right, emerges from the Senate dining room on Nov. 14. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - Rand Paul was on the verge of becoming a powerful senator and the nation's leading libertarian. His neighbor was a successful doctor and Kennedy-style Democrat who favored nationalized medicine.

They might have sparred over health care or taxes, but an acquaintance of both said they stood in their yards roughly a decade ago shouting at each other over the grass clippings Paul's mower had shot on Rene Boucher's property.

" 'I ask him, I tell him and he won't pay attention,' " the acquaintance, Bill Goodwin, recalls Boucher saying after the argument. " 'One of these days.' "

That day may have come recently, when Boucher's attorney said in an interview his client attacked Paul over long-simmering disagreements between the two about the care of grass, trees and other landscaping on their adjacent properties in an exclusive gated community.

The account marks the first time either side has offered a reason for one of the nation's most talked-about political mysteries: What sparked the worst attack on a sitting senator in decades?

The assault left Paul, 54, with six cracked ribs, a case of pneumonia and briefly sidelined during a crucial debate over a tax overhaul in Washington. Boucher, 59, has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in the case and could yet face more serious consequences.

Federal prosecutors said they are investigating the case. Boucher could be charged under several federal statutes, including one rarely used provision that bars assaults on members of Congress and other high-ranking government officials.

Intrigue has deepened in the weeks since the Nov. 3 assault as Paul and Boucher have remained largely quiet about what prompted it. Neither would comment for this article.

Into the vacuum, competing theories for the assault have been floated, like so many Washington trial balloons. They range from the mundane, such as bad blood over spoiled views of a lake, to the outlandish - an Antifa plot.

Some conservative media outlets have suggested the attack might have been motivated by Boucher's liberal politics. Paul appeared to endorse that idea by retweeting the stories. Boucher, a registered Democrat, was critical of President Donald Trump on his now-deleted Facebook page.

Paul, who gave his first TV interview about the attack last week with Fox News, said he had not talked to Boucher in 10 years, but didn't say what caused the assault. He said it was beside the point.

"After my ribs were broken then he said things to me to try to indicate why he was unhappy but I think the, I guess to me the bottom line is it isn't so important - if someone mugs you is it really justified for any reason?" Paul said.

Kelley Paul, his wife, also penned an op-ed for CNN, casting doubt on the idea that landscaping or anything else Paul did had prompted the attack. She said any dispute existed only in Boucher's "troubled mind."

"It is incredibly hurtful that some news outlets have victimized Rand a second time as he struggles to recover," Kelley Paul wrote.

But so far, interviews with friends and area residents who would talk, and a review of court files and police records that have been made public reveal only the type of small-time neighborly conflict that has vexed many a suburban relationship.

"There is absolutely no political motivation behind this," said Boucher's attorney Matthew J. Baker. "It all stems from maintenance, or lack of it, at these two neighboring properties."

Boucher, who employed professional landscapers, didn't see eye-to-eye with Paul, who delighted in doing his own yard work and had an independent streak about the care of his property in keeping with his libertarian beliefs.

"Rene is meticulous about a lot of items in life. He's neat. It's the doctor in him. Everything had to be just right. The yard was one of them," Goodwin said. "It's been a running feud."

---

For more than a month, the heavy wrought-iron gates of the Rivergreen community have concealed the bizarre saga. With a buzz, they slowly swung open on a recent Sunday.

Despite calls to dozens of residents, just one was interested in taking a reporter by the scene of the assault. Jim Skaggs, the co-developer of Rivergreen and a local Republican politico, said the attack has divided residents and left them scratching their heads.

"I'm dumbfounded," Skaggs said, echoing the sentiments of others in the neighborhood. "You have two wealthy, very accomplished doctors. It's difficult to understand this level of action arising from a property dispute."

As Skaggs talked, he wheeled his SUV past the large custom homes of doctors, lawyers and bankers. The properties are nestled on rolling green lots around a sparkling, 16-acre man-made lake.

Skaggs came to a stop between Boucher and Paul's homes. Boucher, a retired and divorced anestheologist and Paul, an ophthalmologist, have been neighbors for 17 years and once worked at the same hospital.

Boucher's gabled home sits on a corner lot across a sloping expanse of grass and trees from Paul's red brick colonial. It was in that territory that Kentucky State Police said the assault occurred.

Baker said the old tensions over landscaping were triggered on Nov. 3 by a fresh incident he declined to detail.

In his interview with Fox News, Paul said he was blindsided by the attack.

"I was working in my yard with my earmuffs on, you know, to protect my hearing from the mower and I had gotten off the mower, facing downhill and the attacker came running full blown," Paul said. "I never saw him, I never had conversation - in fact, the weird thing is, I haven't talked to him in 10 years."

Kentucky State Police said they were called to the scene shortly after 3:20 p.m., according to a police report. Authorities said Boucher admitted going on to Paul's property and tackling him.

After an investigator interviewed both men and left the scene to consult with a prosecutor, Boucher was charged with fourth-degree assault after 8 p.m. that night, Baker said.

Police said Paul initially refused medical care, thinking the injuries were minor, but eventually was treated as the extent of the damage done by the tackle became more apparent.

"He is profoundly regretful," Baker said of Boucher. "He wishes this had never happened."

Friends and neighbors said both men were similarly driven and devoted to medicine, but with one crucial difference.

Skaggs said Boucher was exacting about the standards for his yard - landscaping bags filled with waste were a common site on his property. Neighbors said Paul had a reputation for a more relaxed style that some felt didn't always jibe with a community that features gas lamps, Greek statuary and a 13-page packet of rules.

The senator had a pumpkin patch, compost and unraked leaves beneath some of his trees. Goodwin said it annoyed Boucher that Paul did not consistently cut his grass to the same height, and leaves from Paul's trees blew on his property.

Baker, Boucher's attorney, said Paul and his client had stopped speaking for a number of years because of these landscaping issues. He described the silence as a cold war of sorts.

Friends of Paul in the neighborhood said the story rings hollow and such petty issues would never justify an assault on the senator.

Several said they were unaware of any such problems and said Paul carefully maintained his property. If Boucher had problems with Paul, several current and former representatives of the homeowner's association said, he had not brought them to the board in recent years.

"They're just good neighbors," Gayla Warner said of the Pauls. "We never knew of any conflict."

---

But Boucher has had disputes over his property before.

Rivergreen residents said Boucher's family had previously had a disagreement with another neighbor over the fate of a tree near the border of their properties. The Bouchers wanted to keep the tree, but the neighbor wanted it removed to clear the way for a house project.

And in 2012, Boucher sued the prospective buyers of his home after they pulled out of a contract, according to court records.

Boucher sued the couple for breach of contract and slander, saying they had spread false stories that Boucher was "untruthful and is engaging in unscrupulous acts" to sell his home. Boucher was worried the comments would affect his reputation as a doctor.

The couple denied the allegations and the suit was eventually settled. None of the parties involved responded to requests for comment.

The rancor capped a decade or so of difficulty for Boucher.

In 2005, Boucher suffered a severe accident while bicycling that left him unable to work, according to court records. During his recovery, Boucher developed a rice-filled "Therma-a-Vest" that could be heated to help ease neck and back pain. It was sold on QVC and in stores.

Three years later, his wife of 22 years filed for divorce, saying the couple's marriage was "irretrievably broken," according to court records. The pair had two adult children and divorce records indicate Boucher was left alone in the family's large home, which he was attempting to sell then as well. Boucher's family members did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the issues, there was little to presage the violent attack on Paul.

Boucher has no criminal record and call records from the Warren County Sheriff's Office and Kentucky State Police do not indicate authorities were previously called to deal with disputes between the senator and his neighbor.

Kentucky State Police are now wrapping up their investigation into the incident. State prosecutors will then determine whether the assault rises to the level of a felony charge in Kentucky.

Skaggs said the assault would likely never have occurred if Boucher had his way. Boucher had been trying to sell his home to move closer to his children, Skaggs said. They are out of state.

Danny Renshaw, another neighbor, said the case should give anyone with neighbors pause.

"We never know what our neighbors are thinking - none of us," Renshaw said. "You see stuff that happens in New York or L.A. or Florida and think, that would never happen in our neighborhood. But you just never know what someone will do or what is going on in their mind."

Military funding a study of falcons to build drone killer

By Justin Bachman
Military funding a study of falcons to build drone killer
A peregrine falcon. MUST CREDIT: Frank Doyle/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Throughout history, humans have employed falcons as lethal hunters of other animals. Now those raptors are being sent after drones.

It turns out that many of the skills feathered predators use to find a tasty lunch can be applied to the developing field of drone defense. A U.S. Air Force-funded study by zoology researchers at Oxford University suggests that the means by which a peregrine falcon tracks its quarry could be effective in defending against drones that threaten troops, police or airports.

The researchers fitted the falcons with miniature video cameras and GPS receivers to track their angle and method of attack on other birds, or on bait being towed through the air by a drone. In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S., the falcons' approach to intercepting its target aligned closely with the rules of proportional navigation, a guidance system used by visually-directed missiles.

The principle is such that a missile-or a falcon on the hunt-will reach a target as long as its line-of-sight remains unobstructed while it closes in. The earliest AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles, dating to the 1950s, used this technique with a rotating mirror to "see" the target.

A key difference, however, is that falcons adjust their angle of attack to compensate for their slower speeds-which is where drones come in. The work, the researchers suggested, could be applied to the development of small, visually-guided drones that can disable other drones.

"We think that the finer details of how peregrines operate could certainly find application in small drones designed to remove other drones from protected airspace," Professor Graham Taylor, the principal investigator, wrote in an email. The research involved data from 55 attack flights in Wales with falconers and a certified drone operator.

For soldiers on the battlefield and even law enforcement at home, the threat of drone attack has grown as every day passes-as has a desire for a working defense. In July, the Pentagon authorized 133 U.S. military installations to shoot down private or commercial drones that threaten their airspace. That move followed a decision earlier this year to ban aerial drones near these facilities.

Cheap, small drones have become a handy weapon for militants, with the Defense Department working to field new technology and techniques to protect troops and equipment. To date, the Pentagon has explored a variety of methods to deter hostile drones. These range from the most basic-machine gun fire-to more sophisticated approaches including lasers, frequency jamming to render them inoperable and more advanced techniques to actually gain control of the drone.

The application to drone defense "emerged naturally through the course of the study" given research by several police forces to eliminate drones using trained raptors, the authors said. Police in the Netherlands, for example, have studied whether eagles can be an effective means to capture and disable small drones.

"The problem with this approach is that raptors are only motivated to chase targets if they are hungry or defending a territory, and spinning rotor blades pose as much of a threat to a birds' talons as they do to our own fingers," Taylor wrote in an email. "Keeping a defense team of hungry raptors on call isn't practical, and flying them at large multi-rotors isn't ethical." (The Air Force didn't immediately return a request for comment)

Taylor called the study's findings "an elegant convergence" of raptor behavior and missile guidance law, "which reflects how natural selection and engineering design are constrained similarly by maths and physics. It's also quite beautiful how well the model fits the data, and thrilling for me as a mathematically-minded biologist to see how the flight trajectories of real birds engaged in real attacks emerge from the equations that ultimately govern them."

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

Why we must raise defense spending

By robert j. samuelson
Why we must raise defense spending

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon and the welfare state have been locked in brutal combat for decades, and the Pentagon has gotten clobbered. Protecting the country was once the first obligation of government. No more. Welfare programs -- Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and other benefits -- dwarf defense spending. As a result, we have become more vulnerable.

Here is the assessment of Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense specialist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute:

(BEG ITAL)”The United States now fields a military that could not meet even the requirements of a benign Clinton-era world. The services have watched their relative overmatch and capacity decline in almost every domain of warfare ... for nearly two decades. As rival nation-states have accelerated their force development, the Department of Defense has stalled out, creating a dangerous window of relative military advantage for potential foes. ... While the United States continues to field the best military personnel in the world, policy makers have asked them to do too much with too little for too long.”(END ITAL)

Politically, the vaunted military-industrial complex has been no match for the welfare state’s personal handouts. There has been a historic transformation. In the 1950s and 1960s, defense spending often accounted for half of the federal budget and equaled 8 to 10 percent of gross domestic product (the economy). In 2016, defense spending was 3 percent of GDP and 15 percent of the federal budget, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Meanwhile, welfare programs -- called “human resources” by the OMB -- accounted for 15 percent of GDP and 73 percent of federal spending.

(A note for policy wonks: Some military spending occurs outside the Defense Department, but including this spending would not much change trends or conclusions.)

There are many telltale signs that defense spending, though now exceeding $600 billion annually, is being squeezed. A new study by Todd Harrison and Seamus Daniels of the Center for Strategic & International Studies reports the following:

-- “For FY [fiscal year] 2015, the Army’s active duty end strength reached the lowest level since the end of World War II.”

-- “The Army has noted in Congressional testimony that two-thirds of its Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) are not at an acceptable level of readiness because of personnel shortages, maintenance backlogs and insufficient training.”

-- “From its peak in FY 1987 to the trough in FY 2015, the Navy’s ship count fell by more than half.”

-- “The total aircraft inventory of the Air Force declined by 44 percent from its peak in FY 1986 to FY2016.”

Sizable increases in defense spending seem warranted to compensate for past underfunding and to confront new challenges. China and Russia loom as potential adversaries; North Korea could become a global menace; the Middle East remains a cauldron of conflict; global terrorism survives; and new forms of warfare -- cyberattacks, drones and space-based conflict -- demand new responses.

Proposals abound. The plan of AEI’s Eaglen would, among other things, increase the Army’s number of active-duty soldiers from 476,000 to 519,000; raise the number of Navy ships from 275 to 339 by 2025; expand the Air Force’s inventory of planes to 6,391 by 2022, up from 5,465; and accelerate research and procurement.

Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry -- the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees -- have endorsed a similar proposal. So has the Trump administration, though with less detail. The problem is not policy; it’s politics.

Eaglen’s plan would cost $672 billion more than existing law over the next five years. Will Congress vote to spend that money? If so, will it be financed through higher taxes (seems dubious, given Republicans’ misplaced zest for tax cuts); reductions in other government programs (also dubious -- if cuts were popular, they’d already have been adopted); or borrowing (the easiest alternative, but embarrassing)? Present congressional budget negotiations for FY 2018 focus on a smaller increase in defense outlays.

Defense spending is increasingly a political orphan. Republicans are wedded to tax cuts. Democrats are addicted to welfare spending, mislabeled as “entitlements.”

What these political preferences share in common is that they provide immediate political gratification for large constituencies: lower taxes or higher benefits. By contrast, defense spending confers smaller benefits on smaller constituencies, mainly workers at military bases and government contractors.

In the competition for scarce public funds, the military-industrial complex is at a distinct disadvantage with the welfare state, an essential and permanent part of our social fabric. No one is going to dismantle it. But the favoritism toward the welfare state weakens the military. It is time to recognize and rectify this bias because it poses a fundamental threat to our collective well-being.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

Our institutional crisis is upon us

By e.j. dionne jr.
Our institutional crisis is upon us

WASHINGTON -- Our democratic republic is in far more danger than it was even a few weeks ago.

Until this point, there was an underlying faith in much of the political world that if Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian collusion in the election of Donald Trump turned up damning material about the president, Republicans in Congress would feel obligated by their commitment to the country’s well-being to take him on.

We would often hear recollections of how Republicans during Watergate -- Sen. Barry Goldwater would inevitably come up -- decided that the smoking guns were too smoky and that Richard Nixon had to go. They made clear to him that he no longer had the support of his party.

Surely, said the optimists, we have not drifted so far from decency that this sort of patriotism is beyond us.

Well, it sure seems to be. It’s not surprising that Trump and those on his payroll want to protect him at all costs. But we learned last week that Republicans are deepening their complicity in derailing Mueller’s investigation and burying the facts. The more Mueller imperils Trump, the more McCarthyite the GOP becomes.

The apotheosis of Republican congressional collusion with Trump’s efforts to hang on at all costs came at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. One Republican after another attacked Mueller and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as if the latter should be placed on a new compendium of subversive organizations.

The occasion was testimony before the committee by Christopher Wray, the Trump-appointed FBI director. It was heartening to see Wray stand up for his colleagues, which made you wonder if Wray may soon go the way of his predecessor, James Comey.

Deserving an Academy Award for the most striking imitation of a member of the old House Un-American Activities Committee was Rep. Louie Gohmert. The hard-right Texas Republican went through a roll call of investigators, name-by-name, asking Wray if each had shown political bias. Wray defended every one of them he knew, and wryly smiled when he was unfamiliar with one of the five names on Gohmert’s hit list.

Gohmert might as well have echoed the favored question of the congressional inquisitors of the early forties and fifties: “Are they now or have they ever been ... supporters of Hillary Clinton?” When Republicans are FBI haters who are sidetracking probes into Russian subversion, the world truly is turned upside down.

Note also the statement of Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, that if every member of Mueller’s team who was “anti-Trump” were kicked off, “I don’t know if there’d be anyone left.” The implication is that even if Mueller’s investigation produces unassailable evidence of wrongdoing by Trump, we should ignore the truth, because Mueller’s team should have been vetted to exclude anyone who had a smidgeon of doubt about the president.

The rationale for this GOP assault is that Peter Strzok, an FBI agent involved in the investigation, exchanged texts critical of Trump and favorable to Clinton with an FBI lawyer. Somehow, Mueller got no props for removing Strzok from the investigation this summer.

But even if Strzok played some role in developing material that ultimately hurts Trump or proves Russian collusion, are Americans supposed to brainwash themselves? Trump’s allies want us to say: Too bad the president lied or broke the law, or that Russia tried to tilt our election. This FBI guy sending anti-Trump texts is far more important, so let’s just forget the whole thing.

Really?

Because we are inured to extreme partisanship and to the political right’s habit of rejecting inconvenient facts, we risk overlooking the profound political crisis that a Trumpified Republican Party could create. And the conflagration may come sooner rather than later, as Mueller zeroes in on Trump and his inner circle.

Only recently, it was widely assumed that if Trump fired Mueller, many Republicans would rise up to defend our institutions. Now, many in the party are laying the groundwork for justifying a cover-up. This is a recipe for lawlessness.

We also assumed that Mueller’s findings would be respected because of his deserved reputation for fairness and independence. Just last May, Newt Gingrich called him a “superb choice to be special counsel” and praised his “honesty and integrity.” Now, pro-Trump politicians feel free to contradict anything they said in the past and to dismiss what they once saw as legitimate authority if those who hold it threaten their power. This is a recipe for autocracy.

We are far closer to the edge than we want to think.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump partisans attack America from within

By dana milbank
Trump partisans attack America from within

WASHINGTON -- Thursday was Pearl Harbor Day, the anniversary of one of the deadliest attacks on American soil and perhaps the most unifying day in American history.

This year some of us marked Pearl Harbor Day by attacking America from within.

For five hours on Thursday, President Trump’s partisans delivered a reckless and sustained attack on the FBI and the special counsel. They amplified Trump’s claim that the FBI’s “reputation is in Tatters -- worst in History” and that Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe, which has already secured guilty pleas from two Trump campaign officials and the indictments of two more, is part of a system that is “rigged,” “phony,” “dishonest” and using a “double standard.”

Shamefully, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee launched an all-out assault on the special counsel and the FBI -- choosing to protect Trump at the cost of Americans’ faith in the justice system and the rule of law.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman, echoed Trump’s “tatters” claim and told FBI Director Christopher A. Wray that Mueller’s probe and the Clinton email probe have been tainted by “bias.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said he has a “hunch” that “pro-Clinton, anti-Trump bias” at the FBI was behind a secret “warrant to spy on Americans associated with the Trump campaign.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., called former FBI director James B. Comey an “egomaniac rogue” and speculated that the FBI paid for the “dossier” on Trump’s activities in Russia.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., speculated that anti-Trump bias led the FBI to conclude that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, and he threatened Wray: “I think you’re walking into a contempt of Congress.”

This is calumny. Mueller is a longtime Republican who was appointed FBI director by George W. Bush. He was named special counsel by Rod J. Rosenstein, also a Republican, who was appointed by Trump himself to be deputy attorney general. Comey, a Republican who served in Bush’s Justice Department, made political contributions to John McCain, Mitt Romney and other Republicans. Wray, a Republican who also gave to GOP candidates, was appointed by Trump.

The slander is based on the fact that several of Mueller’s underlings made political contributions that went mostly to Democrats, including Clinton; that one member of Mueller’s team opposed Trump’s first travel ban (which was struck down and withdrawn), and anti-Trump texts between one of Mueller’s people (since taken off the case, with the incident under review by the Justice Department inspector general) and his girlfriend.

But if we’re going to declare “biased” those who gave money to Democrats, then Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn and the president himself are biased against Trump. Also, if Mueller had inquired about political leanings before making hires, he would have violated Justice Department rules.

And more broadly: pro-Clinton bias? It was precisely Comey’s public announcement of a reopened Clinton probe just days before the election that helped give the presidency to Trump.

What’s more outrageous is the purpose of the attacks on the FBI and Mueller: To help Trump with his legal problems, these officials are willing to undermine Americans’ faith in the justice system. This is part of a pattern. As House Republicans were attacking the FBI and Mueller, Sen.?Al Franken, D-Minn., was announcing his resignation on the Senate floor. He had been drummed out by fellow Democrats for sexual misbehavior, but Trump and the Republicans are rallying behind GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, faced with credible allegations of sexual misbehavior with teenagers -- for the short-term benefit of keeping one Senate seat Republican.

Trump routinely attacks institutions, including the courts, the media, the electoral process, the intelligence community, the IRS, the United Nations, foreign allies, the Justice Department and the pope. That’s the strategy of the autocrat: Don’t believe the courts or the justice system or the electoral process or the legislature or the media or my accusers. Believe me.

When lawmakers back up Trump, however, they give a cue to Republican voters that such out-of-bounds attacks on our system are legitimate. That’s how they normalized Trump. That’s how we’re getting Moore. That’s why Republicans are being convinced the FBI and federal prosecutors are corrupt.

The FBI is one government agency Republicans historically held in high regard (70?percent had a favorable view in a 2015 Pew Research Center poll), but a poll by the University of Texas in June -- after Trump’s attacks began -- found favorable views of the FBI among Texas Republicans at 43?percent.

Likewise, multiple polls found that Republicans are far more likely to believe sexual-harassment claims against Democrats than against Republicans; Democrats see the claims as credible regardless of the perpetrator’s party.

This tribalism is meant to help Trump, and Moore. It undermines America.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

The martyrdom of Al Franken

By kathleen parker
The martyrdom of Al Franken

WASHINGTON -- With quavering voice and a tinge of stubborn denial, Sen. Al Franken announced that he would resign from office.

The Minnesota Democrat’s remarks on Thursday marked the culmination of exactly three weeks during which eight women -- half of them anonymous -- alleged sexual misconduct by the former “Saturday Night Live” star. By the seventh allegation, 33 of his Democratic colleagues, including 13 female senators, plus Republican Sen. Susan Collins, had urged him to step down. Franken doubtless felt he had no choice.

While men and women may have found his alleged behavior unbecoming a U.S. senator, it is transparently obvious that Democrats needed Franken to leave as a political matter. Even as other officials similarly charged will face investigation by an ethics committee rather than necessarily forfeit their jobs, Franken clearly was a sacrificial symbol for the party that stands, when convenient, for women.

After the seventh strike, but not the fifth or sixth, it became clear that Franken’s job was to fall on his sword so that Democrats could seize the high ground surrendered by Republicans when they turned their support to Alabama’s Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.

Franken’s alleged actions, including one that was captured on film, were certainly objectionable. But they were nowhere near as repugnant as the charges leveled at Moore and other men of prominence. These include Donald Trump, who, as Franken noted with irony, had bragged on a recording about his having forcibly kissed and grabbed women.

Franken, himself, is alleged to have kissed women without their permission and let his hand wander during photo ops. Anyone who follows the news has seen the photo of him during a USO tour in which he apes at the camera while preparing to grab one of his accuser’s breasts while she’s sleeping. Whether he actually did grab her isn’t clear, but the image was enough to remind people that Franken’s silly prankster days aren’t so far in his past. One can be a senator or a clown, but you can’t be both -- for long.

Moore, far from being a comedian, is known for his affection for the Ten Commandments. Clearly, there should have been an amendment to the commandment that thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife: or his little girl, either. The former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court is alleged to have fondled or otherwise behaved in sexual ways with teenaged girls when he was an adult in his 30s.

If these charges are true -- and Moore denies them -- then Franken’s sins, by comparison, were on a par with yanking ponytails. Which is a metaphor and not an excuse.

But clearly, the accusations against Franken and Moore are in no way similar. Patting a grown woman’s tush during a photo op may be crude, rude and inexcusable, but this act alone probably hasn’t caused anyone lasting harm. (BEG ITAL)What a jerk! (END ITAL) she might have said and walked away. A teenager being seduced by an older man of some repute, however, is a victim, who, indeed, may suffer emotional or psychological harm.

In all other ways, Franken did everything right in the wake of the accusations. Though he denies some of the claims, he has apologized for others. The sleeping woman publicly accepted his apology. Franken also had sworn to cooperate with ethics investigators and to work toward changing the culture that has kept women abused and silent.

But none of this was enough in the current climate. Moreover, Democrats couldn’t very well let Franken stay when Rep. John Conyers, the civil rights icon, was shown the door.

If Franken was set ablaze on the pyre of political expediency, Republicans busied themselves constructing monuments to denial and political self-mockery. No tortures of conscience for those who found Moore morally reprehensible but support him, anyway.

Meanwhile, at least one Republican member of Congress accused of misconduct has been granted due process through an ethics investigation: Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, who spent taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment suit. Another Republican, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, who admitted to discussing surrogacy with two former staffers, resigned Friday.

In the game of righteous indignation, it would seem that Democrats are leading. Many of them may rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican, but Republicans would seemingly rather vote for an accused child molester than let a Democrat enter the Senate chamber.

Come Tuesday, we’ll see where Alabama voters stand. Chances are better than good he’ll win. But Bible Belters know -- and Roy Moore would tell you -- that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

When an alleged child molester becomes a U.S. senator, beware the boll weevil.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Why teacher preparation programs are crucial for our children

By esther j. cepeda
Why teacher preparation programs are crucial for our children

CHICAGO -- One of the most important yet frequently overlooked and misunderstood components of public school education is the system of teacher-preparation programs.

The national network of higher-education institutions that select, train and oversee the mentorship of the country’s new teachers holds in its hands the immense power to shape public education through the quality of its emerging teacher corps.

And not nearly enough sunlight shines on how these programs select teaching candidates, choose what skills to convey, and assess their graduates’ effectiveness.

A new proposed bill called the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act actually seeks to make things even cloudier. The legislation was recently introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., chairman of the Higher Education and Workforce Development subcommittee.

The PROSPER Act purports to eliminate “burdensome federal regulations that put Washington in the middle of issues that are the responsibility of institutions or states, limit student choice, and stifle innovative practices by institutions,” according to the bill summary. “The bill also repeals or streamlines reporting requirements that fail to provide useful information to students, families, and policymakers, and exacerbate rising college costs.”

In effect, the bill would end the current requirement that educator-preparation programs submit vital performance data to the federal government. Plus, the U.S. Department of Education would no longer be required to collect and report this data.

But the answer is to improve the existing accountability system for teacher preparation programs, not eliminate it, according to Kate Walsh, president of the nonpartisan watchdog organization, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

“Are the current attempts at oversight of teacher-preparation programs actually improving teacher preparation? No. The accountability efforts in place are absolutely not what they should be, but why is the answer to get rid of them instead of fixing them?” asked Walsh.

She told me that throwing out the baby with the bathwater in the case of the current level of oversight is indicative of the current administration’s view of all regulations across industries.

But Walsh isn’t sweating it, because the NCTQ does the job of reporting out to the public how teacher-preparation programs are doing by partnering with the states themselves.

The “2017 State Teacher Policy Yearbook,” which is scheduled to be released Dec. 14, acknowledges that it’s the close relationship that the NCTQ has with individual states, which provide the organization data, that makes progress on this front possible.

This is especially notable considering that the news this year isn’t what anyone would like shouted from rooftops. From 2009 to 2015, the NCTQ had found progress in implementation of policies to improve teacher quality -- things like tightening admission requirements to get more qualified candidates into teaching, adequately preparing teachers in high-need subjects like special education and ensuring teachers are highly qualified in their selected content areas.

But progress has slowed.

As a whole, for nearly 80 percent of states, the policy recommendations that the NCTQ has been pushing have either stalled or decreased, including increasing oversight of teacher preparation programs, moving more qualified people of color into the teaching pipeline and instituting more meaningful teacher evaluation. This was about the same as in 2015 and worse than in 2013, when 60 percent of states made gains.

Frankly, it’s easy to be unmoved by such statistics -- it’s true that this topic is largely the education industry’s version of inside ball.

But parents, pay close enough attention and you might start to see why it really matters.

Next time a note comes home from school or you get the opportunity to visit your kids’ classroom, watch for things like misspellings or even inaccurate or politically biased information posted on bulletin boards.

Maybe you’ll ask your child for details about what goes on during the day and suspect that not much goes on at school -- or that your kid’s classroom is out of control.

You might even read a local news story reporting that your school is getting dinged on state school report cards for poor performance or for not servicing students with special needs adequately.

Only then will you realize how vitally important the sleepy topic of state teacher-preparation program quality really is to your family and local community.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Cat me if you can

By gene weingarten
Cat me if you can

WASHINGTON -- (BEG ITAL)Editor’s note: This is the sixth cat-related column Gene has written in 2017. As a service to our readers, he will be docked $7,000 in pay for each subsequent one.(END ITAL)

“Herding cats” may be the most common term to describe an exasperating, nearly impossible job. I found a better one: “Herding cat.”

Late in October, my daughter and son-in-law and their newborn left for Guangzhou, China, where they will be living for the next couple of years. Because of a sequence of unforeseeable, interlocking events, bad things occurred. Not to them, to me:

Because their flight was delayed, and because they had sold their car, they had to spend their last day and night in a hotel near the airport, and because the hotel accepted no pets, they had to leave their two cats in their house, and because I had both a key to their house and an automobile, it became my job to corral the cats at 3 a.m., wrangle them into two cat carriers, and drive them to the airport for a 6 a.m. flight.

It’ll be a piece of cake, my son-in-law assured me. The larger animal, Lyla, is a real pussycat, he said, and though the smaller one, LittleGrey, is somewhat more recalcitrant -- she had been a neighborhood stray, with all the caginess one develops when in constant survival mode -- once you have grabbed hold of her, she meekly submits: “She goes limp,” he said.

So assured, I awoke at 2:30 and went into their basement, to which both cats had been quarantined for easy access. I picked up the sweet and obedient Lyla and put her, unprotesting, into her carrier. Then LittleGrey bit my hand and darted away. Technically, I had not yet “grabbed hold of her,” so I was undeterred. She was now hiding under a bed, which I proceeded to lift from one end, like a wheelbarrow. She skedaddled and darted straight up the stairs to the main part of the house. Muhahaha.

I had closed the door. LittleGrey -- an adult cat no larger than a well-fed rat -- was trapped at the top of the stairwell, which was only three feet wide. Slowly I turned and step by step, inch by inch, I ascended the stairs, my arms splayed at my sides to block any route of escape. I felt like Freddy Krueger. In my defense, if I didn’t get LittleGrey into that carrier one way or another, she’d probably never see her mom and dad again.

When I was within two feet of her, she leapt right at my head, four sets of claws in my face. For an instant we were entwined, like the crewmember and the crustaceanoid face-hugger from “Alien.” I stumbled backward down the stairs, somehow staying on my feet. And now I had her off my face and in my grasp.

She did not “go limp.” Whatever the exact opposite of “going limp” is, that is what LittleGrey did. Her legs were windmilling in a blur, like the Road Runner’s before it got traction and roared away, beep-beeping, across the desert. Somehow, the cat broke my grip and was gone, bolting into the bathroom, no bigger than a two-holer outhouse. I followed and closed the door behind me. The cat was in the bathtub. Slowly, I turned. Step by step, inch by inch, I approached her. At this point, I had commandeered a bedsheet to use as a net. As I bent to grab her, net spread wide, LittleGrey assessed the situation and bounded over my head, onto my back, and then off it, and was ... gone. Nowhere in the bathroom.

Eventually, I saw her escape route. Using me as a springboard, she had leapt into a cat-size hole in a heating duct. She had disappeared into the unreachable-by-humans bowels of the house.

Perhaps you know what I did next, or perhaps you are too much of a humane person to imagine it. In that case, avert your eyes. I had about 10 minutes to get the cat. So I turned up the heat to 90 degrees. The furnace blasted on. I set the fan to high.

For eight minutes I sweltered, until LittleGrey staggered out of that hole, waay more docile and toasty to the touch. Both cats made it to the airport in time. Today they are happily with their family in Guangzhou. The next time I see my son-in-law, I plan to have a talk with him. It might be heated. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll “go limp.”

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

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