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'Mrs. Maisel' still flies high with its low-stakes comedy

By Hank Stuever
'Mrs. Maisel' still flies high with its low-stakes comedy
Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel in

(EDITORS: This article discusses some key plot points in Season 3 of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.")

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In its third season, Amazon Prime's "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" couldn't exhibit more moxie if it tried.

Yet it tries! As a viewer streams the eight episodes that premiered last week, the colors just get brighter and the wide shots get more meticulously and vividly nostalgic - look, it's the old Las Vegas! Here's Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel in its prime! And wouldja look at the Garment District all abloom with racks of floral dresses? The show's music become toe-tappier, the comedy gets hammier and the oy gets vey-ier. What's not to like? (Don't answer that!)

If I didn't know better, I'd suspect creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her collaborator husband, Daniel Palladino, harbor some insecurity about losing the show's pep, to use a Mrs. Maisel-y word. Its verve. Its vim.

Maybe they've heard from some of the malcontents who also drop me notes about the show, saying they don't like it as much as all their friends do. It's boring, they say. Nothing happens. It's annoying.

Or, because the show has been such a success (including multiple Emmy wins for Seasons 1 and 2), the dings against it grow more serious, pointing out how very white and very privileged Midge Maisel's world is - as if it were not a show about a very white and privileged (be sure to add Jewish) woman and her family in New York circa 1960.

Sherman-Palladino and company have done what they can to address those criticisms, introducing a subplot of lightly reduced financial circumstances in the Maisel family and a whiff of the civil rights movement in the world at large (more on that in a moment). But there's a bigger problem at the center of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which for some of us isn't a problem at all:

It's a low-stakes show.

We're so used to talking about, analyzing and praising high-stakes shows that we forget that most of what's on TV qualifies as low-stakes. Network comedies are almost always low-stakes shows, as are crime procedurals and most dramas. Characters have ups and they have downs, but the fluctuations tend to be short and resolvable. It's the television most of us grew up watching.

Why, then, can't "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" merely exist as a prestige iteration of the low-stakes show, featuring a character who is resplendent in her surroundings, quick with the cute quips and striving while not exactly suffering?

Why can't her panicky antics simply serve the show's zany momentum, without unleashing existential crises or darker themes? In fact, isn't the show honoring its period setting by keeping it light? That's how America so capably managed to sweep most of its social injustices under the rug for so long - by keeping it light. I look at the manic sunniness of "Mrs. Maisel" as a subversive form of accuracy.

Midge (played with thoroughly consistent pep, verve and vim by Rachel Brosnahan) is a low-stakes heroine in a low-stakes show with a set of low-stakes problems: Will she become a famous comedienne? (Maybe! Probably! Who cares?) Can she keep her hands off Joel (Michael Zegen), her increasingly honorable and belatedly adorable ex-husband? (Could you?) Will she and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) have a wild fling? (What, and ruin the frisson between them?) What happens to Midge's parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) now that he's given up his tenured slot at Columbia and lost the vast prewar apartment that came with it? Will Midge's manager, Susie Myerson (the great Alex Borstein), be able to juggle Midge's career and that of the wickedly demanding comedy legend Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch, contributing a season-saving performance)?

So many questions, not a one of them really needing an answer. "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" wants to be breezy and fun. Its detractors want it to be something weightier.

Perhaps that's because we pay extra for it. As the streaming wars heat up and monthly subscription bill alerts buzz continually on the phone ("You just paid Hulu $12.70" ... "You just paid Disney Plus $7.63"), viewers will increasingly insist that the content reflect the price. That typically means high-stakes television, where characters endure prolonged agony, where every episode is an anxiety attack and entire worldviews are challenged, upended. Mrs. Maisel could bump into Don Draper on Madison Avenue, but the two would have nothing to talk about. He represents prestige television; she represents ... well, what does she represent? (And for that matter, must she represent anything?)

Ostensibly, the long arc here is your basic, mid-century feminist reckoning - a Bryn Mawr girl who followed the rules, got married, popped out two kids and then realized she's too funny and too bright to not give herself a shot at becoming a star. We've followed her on that course, where the fun outweighs the frustration every time.

This season, the show tried to capitulate with a negligible dose of stronger medicine. Midge and Susie go on a national tour with Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), an African American pop singer. They soak up a taste of fame - Midge is a hit in Vegas; she and Shy become friends and confidantes. Sterling K. Brown ("This Is Us") contributes an effective, but surprisingly minimized, performance as Reggie, Shy's tell-it-like-it-is manager. Here and there, we get the sense that "Mrs. Maisel" might like to take us inside the tricky lives of touring black musicians in the early '60s, made trickier by the fact that Shy is a closeted gay man.

But it takes seven out of eight episodes for the show to get where it's going with this and other seemingly important matters, and it goes there grudgingly - a low-stakes show dragged into a high-stakes zone. In the season finale, Midge finds herself opening for Shy at Harlem's storied Apollo Theater, where, gallingly, she is placed higher on the night's billing than the black comedy pioneer Moms Mabley (a brief but ingenious cameo part for Wanda Sykes).

"I'm not ready for this," Midge pleads to Reggie backstage. "I haven't earned this."

"Maybe you should cut back on the Jewish brisket talk a little," Reggie offers.

And so, what seems like a triumphant, cross-cultural performance turns into a disaster for Midge, but even here it's a low-stakes plot masquerading briefly as a high-stakes moment. The "Mrs. Maisel" perkiness will prevail, because it can't help itself. The viewer's job here is to watch (or skip) the show that has been made, not the one that hasn't.

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"The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" (eight episodes) is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. (Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Filing frenzy shows companies lining up for poor area tax breaks

By Noah Buhayar
Filing frenzy shows companies lining up for poor area tax breaks
A tower is seen at Tyson Food Inc. in Center, Texas on Dec. 9, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Sergio Flores.

There wouldn't be much of an economy in Center, Texas, without Tyson Foods Inc. The company has a sprawling chicken-processing plant in town and employs about 1,600 people in a city of just over 5,000 near the Louisiana border.

So, when Tyson signaled two years ago that it wanted to build a $50 million feed mill, Center's economic development director, Jim Gibson, was eager to find a location and suggest tax abatements.

Before long, Tyson keyed in on a new benefit: a tax break signed into law by President Donald Trump, aimed at luring new investments to thousands of low-income areas across the country dubbed "opportunity zones." Center and most of the surrounding area sat squarely in one.

"One of the people from Tyson said, 'I think we're going to make a run at doing these,'" Gibson recalled.

That was in private. Tyson-the country's biggest meat processor, with roughly $40 billion in annual revenue-announced its plans for the feed mill in February as it began to seek a separate local tax abatement. News reports and minutes from two county meetings where the project was addressed make no mention of opportunity zones.

The company wasn't required to say anything publicly about its plans to use the federal subsidy. But like scores of businesses and investors in recent months, Tyson left a faint paper trail. It beat a path to Delaware-where more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies have a legal home-to lay the groundwork for claiming one of the most controversial and generous benefits in Trump's 2017 tax overhaul.

Once heralded as a novel way to help distressed parts of the U.S., opportunity zones are now being slammed as a government boondoggle. The perks are being used to juice investments in luxury developments from Florida to Oregon. And several reports have shown how politically connected investors influenced the selection of zones to benefit themselves.

While Tyson's feed mill fits more squarely with what lawmakers intended, it still highlights the lack of comprehensive data on who's claiming the benefits. Congress is now calling for changes to the legislation to boost transparency.

In the meantime, supporters can point to anecdotal evidence that the benefits are spurring development in areas that really need it, and detractors can cite examples of waste.

An analysis of almost 400,000 Delaware Division of Corporations records since the start of 2018 provides a fresh glimpse into what's going on. After starting slowly last year-as states selected zones and the U.S. Treasury Department wrote regulations-the number of filings referencing opportunity zones accelerated dramatically. There were at least 356 entities containing acronyms or phrases associated with the tax breaks in June alone, and more than 1,800 through the end of September.

Real estate investors and developers, a group that gravitated to the tax breaks early, make up a big portion of the list. But the records show that the appeal is broader, extending to previously unreported efforts by Tyson, AT&T and NextEra Energy. Billionaire hedge fund managers Steve Cohen and Bill Ackman have also made filings.

Tyson said it weighs a variety of factors when looking to expand, including the availability of workers and infrastructure. Government incentives often play a role, too, and were part of the equation for the new feed mill, said Derek Burleson, a spokesman for the Springdale, Arkansas-based company.

"Opportunity zones were created to help spur private development in economically challenged areas, and we believe this project will do just that," Burleson said in an email. "We see this as a significant investment in the community that will create new jobs with great benefits and make a positive impact on the local economy."

A spokeswoman for AT&T, which changed the names of two entities after an inquiry from Bloomberg News in July, scrubbing references to opportunity zones, said the company is evaluating programs to invest in the areas. NextEra, the world's largest utility company by market value, declined to comment, as did spokesmen for Ackman and Cohen.

The filings underscore the lack of transparency surrounding a federal subsidy that could cost billions of dollars, said Brett Theodos, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied opportunity zones. And it shows why the government should gather more information both about individual projects and the impact on communities as a whole.

"These are the exact types of investments that we will never learn about, absent more disclosure," said Theodos. "We should know how the government is spending our money, and it shouldn't fall to investigative journalists to figure this out."

That there's any record owes in part to jargon Congress used when drafting the law. Taxpayers who want to claim the benefits must hold their investments in a "qualified opportunity fund," a corporation or partnership that has most of its assets in "qualified opportunity zone" property.

Lawyers often use shorthand such as QOF or QOZ in naming the entities, even though it's not required, said Jessica Millett, head of the tax practice at Duval & Stachenfeld in New York who has structured dozens of opportunity zone deals.

"It just helps you remember what's what," she said, adding that Delaware was probably seeing a large share of the filings because of its longstanding reputation for being business-friendly.

Even so, the filings are just clues to what's going on, often giving little more than a name and date of formation. Many entities have names that are too generic or opaque to scrutinize, such as SM QOZB 3 LLC, created in September. Owners couldn't be identified in such cases.

Among those that can be are prominent developers or their projects. More than four dozen entities are tied to Starwood Capital Group, Brookfield Asset Management or RXR Realty, which are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to build in the zones.

Socially minded investors are also represented, including a $200 million effort started by retired Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan and another called Arctaris Impact, which has pledged to report publicly on its investments and pursue projects that benefit poor communities.

But, so too, are entities that likely stretch what lawmakers intended for the tax breaks. In July, someone used the Corporation Trust Co., a registered agent that handles many Delaware filings and can help obscure the identities of filers, to create a business called QOZ ART STORAGE QOF 2019, LLC.

Creating the companies or partnerships is no guarantee that a taxpayer will claim the incentives. Both Cohen and Ackman formed entities in June that were intended to allow them to invest in the zones, but neither has done so yet, according to people familiar with the filings who asked not to be identified discussing the hedge fund managers' plans.

Just because investors and corporations aren't broadcasting their plans doesn't mean they're doing something untoward, said John Lettieri, chief executive officer of the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington nonprofit that helped conceive of and promote opportunity zones. Companies often hold back information for competitive reasons, he added, and sometimes even philanthropic efforts are undertaken anonymously.

"On its face, it doesn't concern me," Lettieri said. "When you make a charitable contribution, you can choose to get your name plastered on a building or choose not to." Even so, he added, the government needs to be gathering more information about investments in the zones so that it can better evaluate whether the incentives are effective.

In October, the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service released new forms that will require funds to say in which opportunity zones they have property and declare the value of those assets. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called it an "important step toward a thorough evaluation" of the incentives.

But researchers were quick to point out the shortcomings of the forms, which won't provide information such as the types of projects being funded or their precise locations. And because the disclosure is part of a tax return, the data may never be made public, said Samantha Jacoby, a senior tax law analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are advancing measures to gather more information. Among them is a bill introduced last month by Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden that would bar certain kinds of investments, including stadiums, and require funds to file detailed public reports each year.

More transparency would allow the public to determine whether the incentives actually work as intended and discourage bad actors, Wyden said.

"This is kind of Sunshine 101," he added. "What I keep coming back to is: Are the investment dollars largely benefiting those who are well-off in affluent communities? Or are they to support new projects in truly low-income communities?"

Center is the kind of place that could use the money. The poverty rate hovers around 30% in the Census tract where it sits, making it a shoo-in for the opportunity zone designation. But investors haven't exactly been beating down the doors.

"It's just not the happening spot in Texas right now," said Gibson, the economic development director.

The community lacks the skilled workforce that attracts businesses and real estate development to bigger cities, he said, adding that he couldn't think of an opportunity zone project in the area, other than the Tyson feed mill.

Construction of the facility on a site outside town and adjacent to a rail line has already begun, according to Gibson. When it opens in 2021, it will churn out chicken feed for nearby poultry farms. About 40 people will work there, with an annual payroll of about $3 million.

In addition to the opportunity zone benefits, Tyson is getting a five-year break on its county taxes for the mill. But the company decided to forgo another program that would have allowed it to cut payments to the local school district, Gibson said.

"It'll be really good for the schools," Gibson said. But, in the end, the number of jobs is pretty minimal, compared with the size of the investment, he added. "It's not one of those transformational game-changers."

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Bloomberg's David Ingold, Scott Moritz, Miles Weiss and Dave Merrill contributed.

U.S. lab chimps were dumped on Liberia's Monkey Island and left to starve. Their caretaker saved them.

By Danielle Paquette
U.S. lab chimps were dumped on Liberia's Monkey Island and left to starve. Their caretaker saved them.
Chimpanzees catch food thrown to them by a team of caretakers on Monkey Island, Liberia, on Nov. 3, 2019. The chimpanzees were infected with hepatitis B in the 1970s. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Danielle Paquette

MONKEY ISLAND, Liberia - All was quiet when the motorboat puttered to a stop. Saltwater lapped at the narrow sandy shore. Mangrove leaves fluttered in the breeze. Then the man in a blue life jacket cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted: Hoo hoo!

Like a secret password, the call unlocked a hidden primate universe. Dozens of chimpanzees emerged from the brush, hairy arms extended. They waded up to the rusty vessel with the nonchalance of someone fetching the mail.

"Time to eat," said Joseph Thomas, their wiry guardian of 40 years, tossing bananas into the furry crowd.

Chimps aren't supposed to be stuck on their own island - especially one with no food - or mingle with much-weaker humans. But nothing about Liberia's Monkey Island is normal. It's a spectacle, an increasingly costly burden and the enduring legacy of American scientists who set out to cure hepatitis B in 1974.

Animal testing has existed since doctors in ancient Greece studied the anatomy of rodents - an estimated 115 million creatures are still used each year in research worldwide - but rarely is the aftermath so visible. Rarely is it so hungry.

This colony of 66 chimpanzees, which never learned to survive in the wild, eats roughly 500 pounds of produce each day, plus a weekly batch of hard-boiled eggs for protein. They rely on money from a charity abroad and the devotion of men who've known them since they lived in steel cages.

"That's Mabel," said Thomas, the captain of that small crew, pointing to a 100-pound female. "Look! She likes to wash her food in the water."

As if on cue, Mabel dunked her banana in the mud-brown river.

Thomas, 60, met the chimp, 36, when she was a baby who pressed the soft black pads of her fingers into his open palm.

The New York researchers who once injected her with viruses quit the country on Africa's western coast during the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, abandoning Mabel and other animals who can live half a century.

Thomas hadn't planned to devote his life to protecting chimps through epidemic and civil war.

His long, strange mission started on the tennis court. He dreamed of becoming a professional athlete until he met a researcher from the New York Blood Center. She would give him a job, he said, if he could give her tennis lessons.

At 20, Thomas became a caretaker at the nonprofit's chimp laboratory in Robertsville, a remote town about 20 miles from the capital, Monrovia. He fed the animals, cleaned up after them and got to know their personalities, which ranged from shy to class clown.

He was promoted four years later to medical technician. The chimps were infected with hepatitis and river blindness, an eye sickness caused by a parasite, as researchers developed vaccines.

Chimp testing doesn't happen anymore. They hate to be cooped up. They laugh, cry, get jealous and have temper tantrums - "just like us," Thomas said.

He tended the animals as if they were his children. He hoped the experiments would ease suffering in West Africa and beyond. The New York Blood Center set up shop in Liberia because chimps - now considered an endangered species - were already climbing the trees of its dense forests.

No one expected the lab to tumble into chaos.

In the early 1990s, Charles Taylor - the rebel leader who would become Liberia's 22nd president and later a convicted war criminal - unleashed his ragtag army across the country, killing thousands and forcing untold others from their homes.

The American researchers fled. Thomas stayed behind with the chimps. Taylor's soldiers, he said, stole the lab's cars.

Conflict surged into the 2000s as militants fought for control of Liberia, and public pressure to end testing on chimps snowballed. The New York Blood Center halted tests in 2004, sparking a big question: What would they do with all the animals?

Putting them back into the nation's forests wasn't an option. They could spread disease to others, and they didn't know how to pick fruit or hunt insects.

Another problem arose from their artificial comfort zone. What if the chimps heard the familiar sound of people talking - or poachers talking - and ambled out to say hi?

"The only way to hold them was to put them on an island," Thomas said.

There are six islands in the Farmington and Little Bassa rivers. These makeshift sanctuaries on the Atlantic coast became known collectively as Monkey Island.

Thomas and the other caretakers collected funds from New York to deliver buckets of bananas and lettuce, among other goods, to the chimps every two days. A veterinarian stayed on the nonprofit's payroll to check on the animals.

In 2009, the New York Blood Center said it was getting hard to pay for Monkey Island. The charity contacted Liberia's then-president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for help and received no reply, its spokeswoman told The Washington Post. (A spokesman for Sirleaf declined to comment.)

By 2015, as the Ebola virus ravaged the country, the New York Blood Center notified the Liberian government that it could "no longer divert funds from its important lifesaving mission here at home," a spokeswoman said in a recent statement.

Thomas stuck to the feeding schedule until the last penny was gone.

He went with the other caretakers from fruit stall to fruit stall, seeking donations - a daunting task in a time of epidemic. One particularly generous neighbor gave him 50 pieces of coconut. The men gathered enough food to keep the chimps alive, if not full, for a few weeks.

During that period, Thomas remembers pulling up to islands and seeing frantic, desperate animals. They screamed and fought over scraps. It wasn't enough.

He told the story to whoever would listen, he said, and eventually found a sympathetic ear with connections to the Humane Society in Washington.

The nonprofit has since bankrolled the care, spending about $500,000 annually on Monkey Island. Meals now happen twice a day. The price grows, though, as the colony does.

Despite the team of 10 caretakers' best family planning efforts, which include vasectomies for males and slipping birth control in sugary milk paste, the chimps have had a few babies. "Very cute accidents," Humane Society chief executive Kitty Block said.

Over the years, Monkey Island has become a local legend, though some news articles have painted the inhabitants as infectious threats.

"A bunch of 'monster' Chimps are living on their own island in a Planet of the Apes meets Resident Evil-style scenario," one Australian reporter wrote in 2018.

Thomas rolls his eyes.

The public should stay away from animals that might get spooked and attack, he said, but it's unclear if the chimps still carry disease. Tests are too expensive.

The caretakers dream of building an animal hospital on one of the sanctuaries, as well as a proper security system to keep people away. As of now, one man sits on a small dock off each island, telling onlookers to scram.

That doesn't stop fishermen from floating over for a peek, and guidebooks from irresponsibly advising tourists to hitch a ride.

No one can get as close as Thomas. Photos show him standing knee-deep in river water, hugging the chimps he sees as family.

He greets them by name: Mabel. Stuart. Juno. Ellyse. Annie.

"I'll be doing this," he said, "until they die or I do."

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

Impeachment is part of a troubling global trend

By fareed zakaria
Impeachment is part of a troubling global trend

FAREED ZAKARIA COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, and thereafter.)

(For Zakaria clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By FAREED ZAKARIA

MUMBAI, India -- At first glance, the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump might seem to be a specifically and narrowly American matter. But if you look around the world, you see that it is part of a deeply worrying global trend. In country after country, we are witnessing an unprecedented wave of attacks on the constitutions, institutions, norms and values that have given democracy strength and meaning.

Consider what has been happening just this week around the world as Congress debated charges against President Trump. In India, the world's largest democracy, the ruling party passed an unprecedented citizenship bill that privileges certain religions over others, namely Islam, a move that has been widely criticized by human rights groups and described by one Indian intellectual as "a giant step to officially convert a constitutional democracy into a[n] unconstitutional ethnocracy."

This follows on the heels of an initiative by the same Hindu nationalist movement in one Indian state, seemingly aimed at Muslims, that stripped 2 million residents of citizenship on the grounds that they didn't have sufficient documentary proof -- in a country where most people have few written records. The government has begun building prisons in which to incarcerate these dispossessed people.

Israel, which boasts of being a stable democracy in a sea of dictatorships, appears paralyzed and polarized as it heads into its third election in a year. More disturbing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his party have launched an extraordinarily vicious attack on the Israeli justice system, which they claim has been plotting against him. In fact, Netanyahu faces indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust because the attorney general, who is from Netanyahu's party and was chosen by Netanyahu, was following existing laws and procedures. Yet the prime minister and his followers accuse prosecutors and police of engineering an "attempted coup" against him.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has spoken openly about building an "illiberal democracy," has pushed for laws to make it harder for opposition lawmakers to band together and to protest legislation. He has also moved to curtail the power of local governments after his party suffered a severe setback in municipal elections.

At the International Court of Justice, nearly 30 years after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a pro-democracy dissident, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi staunchly defended her government against charges of genocide against its Muslim minority, the Rohingya. In 2017, a military crackdown against the Rohingya led 700,000 of them to flee for their lives into bordering Bangladesh. United Nations investigators found evidence of mass murder, gang rape and arson, with "genocidal intent." The U.S. has since slapped sanctions on several of Myanmar's senior military leaders.

And this is all just in this week! If you broaden the lens, we are living through what Stanford's Larry Diamond has called a "democratic recession." Except it might be turning into a depression. For 13 consecutive years now, the international human rights watchdog group Freedom House has registered a decline in global freedom -- fair elections, free press, individual and minority rights, etc. Freedom House has long monitored democracy in far-flung places, so one of its key findings in 2018 was unusual: "The United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties."

This is the context in which to consider America's impeachment crisis. The facts of the case are blindingly clear. Trump pressured the new Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, as described in sworn testimony by 17 witnesses, many of them sitting senior government officials, with each person's account confirming the others' -- and emails, texts and the call transcript further documenting it all. The Republicans' defense is that this elaborate campaign to help Trump's reelection was actually a big misunderstanding. Trump had never asked for it; these officials, working feverishly for months across continents, were all simultaneously deluded. Call it the Walter Mitty defense.

In fact, the real defense is offense. This week the president called members of the FBI "scum" and Attorney General William Barr dismissed the conclusions of the Justice Department's own inspector general. The president and his followers now routinely attack the Foreign Service, intelligence agencies and the Justice Department. The White House has refused to honor congressional subpoenas or document requests to an extent unprecedented in American history.

Across the democratic world, the institutions of liberty and law are under attack. If they give way, the fraying democratic fabric of our societies will ultimately tear apart.

Fareed Zakaria's email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The impeachment articles are a major retreat for Democrats

By marc a. thiessen
The impeachment articles are a major retreat for Democrats

MARC A. THIESSEN COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, and thereafter.)

(For Thiessen clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By MARC A. THIESSEN

WASHINGTON -- That's it?

After three years in which Democrats accused President Trump of a host of criminal acts -- from bribery and extortion to campaign finance violations, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and even treason -- they have finally introduced articles of impeachment that allege none of those things. Not only have they dropped the charge of bribery, the words that gripped Washington -- "quid pro quo" -- don't even appear in the document.

This is a major retreat by Democrats, who have effectively admitted the president did not commit any statutory crimes. Indeed, if these articles are approved, this will be the first presidential impeachment in history in which no statutory crimes are even alleged. In that alone, Trump can claim vindication.

Instead, Democrats settled on two noncriminal allegations: obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. Both charges are farcical.

Take obstruction. Democrats claim Trump engaged in "unprecedented" defiance of congressional subpoenas and "sought to arrogate to himself" the right to withhold documents and witnesses "as well as the unilateral prerogative to deny any and all information to the House of Representatives." Please. If anyone is "arrogating" "unilateral" power to themselves, it is House Democrats.

Democrats seem not to understand that the legislative and the executive are equal branches of government. They do not get the last word when a president invokes executive privilege. When a dispute arises between the two branches, the president has a right to appeal to the third equal branch of government -- the judiciary. Trump did that, as is his constitutional right. If he appealed to the courts and lost but still refused to cooperate, (BEG ITAL)then(END ITAL) Congress would have every right to charge him with obstruction of Congress.

But Democrats refused to wait for judicial review. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, actually said, "We cannot be at the mercy of the courts." Excuse me? And Democrats are accusing (BEG ITAL)Trump(END ITAL) of being "a threat to the Constitution"? Democrats are doing exactly what they accuse Trump of doing. As Professor Jonathan Turley told Democrats on the Judiciary Committee "We have three branches, not two. ... If you impeach a president, if you make a high crime and misdemeanor out of going to the courts, it is an abuse of power. It's (BEG ITAL)your(END ITAL) abuse of power."

Democrats are also completely wrong when they declare Trump's invocation of executive privilege "unprecedented." In 2011, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform subpoenaed then-Attorney General Eric Holder to provide documents and witnesses related to the botched gun-running operation "Fast and Furious." Holder refused to fully comply. When the committee threatened to hold him in contempt, President Barack Obama stepped in and invoked executive privilege. The administration argued that "compelled disclosure would be inconsistent with the separation of powers established in the Constitution."

Guess what? The same Democrats now seeking to impeach Trump for obstruction of Congress backed Obama's obstruction of Congress. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., wrote, "The White House assertion is backed by decades of precedent that has recognized the need for the president and his senior advisers to receive candid advice and information from their top aides." Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the effort to hold Holder in contempt for refusing to comply was "politically-motivated." Pelosi called it -- wait for it -- worse than a "witch hunt." By the plain language of the Democrats' articles of impeachment, Obama committed an impeachable offense. And yet today, Holder -- the man at the center of Obama's obstruction scheme -- has the chutzpah to write that Attorney General William Barr is "unfit to lead the Justice Department." What a disgrace.

As for abuse of power, this will be the first presidential impeachment in history in which no violations of the law are even alleged. The justification for impeaching Trump without a statutory crime is that impeachment is a political, not legal, proceeding. Fair enough. Democrats held weeks of hearings to convince the American people that Trump's alleged abuse of power rises to the level of impeachment and removal. Instead, their slipshod inquiry convinced Americans of the opposite.

In October, before the hearings began, the Quinnipiac poll showed that a 48 to 46% plurality of Americans supported impeachment and removal; today, after the hearings, voters are opposed by a margin of 51 to 45%. In key swing states, a Firehouse/Optimus poll found that impeachment and removal is now opposed by 51% of voters in Michigan, 52% in Pennsylvania and 58% in Wisconsin.

This is the definition of failure. Earlier this year, Pelosi said she was "not for impeachment" because "unless there's something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don't think we should go down that path." She was right then. Democrats should have listened.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

Which is worse, bigotry or cowardice in the face of bigotry?

By michael gerson
Which is worse, bigotry or cowardice in the face of bigotry?

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, and thereafter.)

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

WRITETHRU: 5th graf, 2nd sentence: "hostile towards" sted "hostile toward"; 8th graf, 2nd sentence: "dependent upon" sted "dependent on"

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- Certain questions haunt many of us who care about the nature and future of the Republican Party. Is the GOP as it currently appears -- defined by white identity and excited by cruelty and exclusion -- really the way it has always been? Does Trumpism represent a hostile takeover of Republicanism or its natural outworking?

A recent study by political scientists Lilliana Mason, Julie Wronski and John Kane sheds some interesting light on these matters. They compare a Democracy Fund voter survey conducted in 2011 to a survey of the same voters done in 2017. And they analyze the factors in the 2011 group that predict current approval for the Democratic Party, for the Republican Party and for Donald Trump.

Mason, Wronski and Kane found that support for the Democratic Party is associated with warmer feelings toward African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and LGBT people. This type of "in-group love" is what you'd expect. "Put simply," said the authors, "when you like the people who make up the party, you like the party."

The results concerning the GOP were more mixed, but similar. Warmer opinions about whites and Christians in 2011 predicted later support for the GOP -- the Republican version of "in-group love." But hostility toward African Americans and Hispanics did (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) drive future Republican support (though negative feelings toward Muslims and LGBT people did have limited predictive value).

Support for Trump, in contrast, was strongly associated with "out-group hatred" of African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and LGBT people. "In every case, the people who felt hostile towards Democratic groups in 2011 are most likely to be Trump supporters today. The same cannot be said of Republican partisans."

What to make of these distinctions? "In-group love" of whites and Christians for other whites and Christians is hardly a noble political motivation. "Love your white neighbor as yourself" doesn't have quite the same moral ring to it. What Mason calls the "social sorting" of the parties -- in which partisan identities are closely associated with ideological, racial and cultural identities -- is a source of deep and damaging polarization.

Yet it comes as a relief to some of us that Republican partisans and Trump supporters can be distinguished from each other at all. And "in-group love" is certainly better than an "out-group hatred" of anyone who looks and thinks differently.

There is evidence, it appears, that the party of George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney was not merely the party of Trump in waiting. "Trump support," say the authors, "is uniquely dependent upon out-group hatred." This is not a normal sort of partisanship. It is partisanship supercharged by prejudice and contempt. This fits the experience of elected Republicans I have interviewed, many of whom no longer recognize the political party they rose within. The players and attitudes in many states and districts have shifted. Something different and disturbing is taking place.

Trump did not create this out-group animosity; he exploited it, organized it and sent it into political battle. "Even in the 2016 Republican presidential primary," the authors note, "out-group hatred predicted support for Trump, but not for [Ted] Cruz, [Marco] Rubio or [John] Kasich." They go on: "We tend to think of partisans as being generally intolerant of outsiders, but our findings suggest that Trump supporters are unique in terms of their out-group hatred."

This offers the comfort of knowing that the whole GOP is not united and defined by contempt for outsiders. But the indictment of the Republican non-haters is still quite damning. In every way that matters politically, they have accepted the leadership of a president and a movement that cultivate hatred as a strategy. The GOP non-haters -- say, business conservatives and social conservatives -- have deferred to the hater-in-chief. They have (for the most part) held his coat, carried his water and licked his boots -- which is not easy to do simultaneously.

All of which raises another vexing question: Which is worse, bigotry or cowardice in the face of bigotry?

Whatever the answer, we should prepare ourselves for an especially ugly and destructive 2020 presidential election. Trump seems to believe, with some justification, that the cultivation of anger against outsiders won him the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016. We should expect more of the same, and worse. The racism, misogyny and dehumanization -- the assault on migrants, Muslims and refugees -- have only begun. And those who enable it are equally responsible for it.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Republicans clue us in on how they'll handle Trump's trial

By dana milbank
Republicans clue us in on how they'll handle Trump's trial

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Milbank clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By DANA MILBANK

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans haven't yet said how they plan to handle President Trump's trial, but on Wednesday they gave us some clues.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and others brought in the Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to ask him about his report on the FBI's 2016 probe of the Trump campaign, which delivered unwelcome news for the conspiracy crowd.

The report found serious errors, worrisome abuses and dubious policies, but it also found that investigators didn't tap Trump's phones, plant an informant at his campaign, entrap his advisers or execute any of the other conspiracy theories Trump and his defenders floated. To the contrary, Horowitz found no evidence of political bias and concluded that the probe had a legitimate purpose and factual, legal basis.

So Republicans settled on a creative approach: They simply disregarded Horowitz's findings.

"They were on a mission not to protect Trump but to ... protect all of us smelly people from Donald Trump," Graham alleged. "That's what this is about."

Never mind that the inspectors found no such evidence in more than 1 million documents and more than 100 interviews over 19 months. "Whether you believe it or not, I believe it!" Graham announced.

Cruz, too, wasn't about to let the findings get in his way. "You did not find evidence of political bias. That is a judgment that you have and I disagree with that," Cruz told the inspector general.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, topped them all, arguing that the failure to find political bias proved there was political bias. "Is not the lack of evidence that you're talking about itself evidence of bias?" he asked Horowitz.

Let this be a cautionary tale for anybody who still believes Senate Republicans might do things on the level. Even confronted with 434 pages of unbiased, exhaustively researched findings, they covered their ears and cried "LA-LA-LA-LA-LA."

Politico reports that a small group of moderate Democrats in the House met about the possibility of censuring Trump instead of impeaching. Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.) said it "might be a little more bipartisan."

You poor, sweet child. In a rational world, Republicans would indeed be open to a way to rebuke Trump's behavior without removing him. But this is not a rational world. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., declared this week that Trump "did nothing wrong." (He then asserted, falsely, that Horowitz found that the FBI "spied on a presidential campaign.")

Now Senate Republicans are forming a copycat cuckoo caucus. FBI Director Chris Wray -- a Trump appointee -- is the latest of many political appointees and civil servants to say there is "no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election."

So what? Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., joined by Graham and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, demanded Obama administration records to prove otherwise, declaring: "Contrary to the popular narrative in the mainstream media that Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election has been debunked, or 'no evidence exists,' there are many unanswered questions that have festered for years."

Cruz, meanwhile, said on NBC that there is "considerable evidence" of Ukrainian interference, echoing comments by Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La..

Trump himself is now spreading a new conspiracy theory, telling a rally Tuesday night that Peter Strzok, one of the FBI officials in the 2016 probe, "needed a restraining order to keep him away from his once lover," FBI lawyer Lisa Page. "That's what I heard. I don't know if it's true."

Next, Trump will push to turn the Senate impeachment trial into a circus. His aides have said they want witnesses -- presumably, figures such as Hunter Biden and the whistleblower. Democrats, by contrast, may want to call in the likes of Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others who refused to participate in the House probe.

Whether to hold a serious trial, a Trumpian circus or skip witnesses entirely will largely be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He has claimed he "does not really have ball control," but that's nonsense: Almost everything will be decided by a 51-vote majority, giving McConnell full control unless principled (Mitt Romney?) or vulnerable (Susan Collins?) Republicans defect.

Judging from Senate Republicans' handling of the inspector general's findings, McConnell will find it difficult to keep it honest, even if he wants to.

Calmly, Horowitz explained that he uncovered no evidence of political bias -- not in emails and texts, not in interviews, not from anonymous whistleblowers on his hotline.

It didn't matter to Republicans.

Graham proclaimed the agents "biased," Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., concluded that they "effectively meddled in an ongoing presidential campaign" and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., proclaimed the FBI's "absolute maliciousness."

No evidence required.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The GOP picks power over liberty

By e.j. dionne jr.
The GOP picks power over liberty

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

(Advance for Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, and thereafter.)

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By E.J. DIONNE JR.

WASHINGTON -- The profound damage President Trump has inflicted on our liberties can be measured by widespread complacency in the face of his administration's escalating attacks on the rule of law, our public servants and the truth itself.

As Attorney General William Barr was reducing the Department of Justice to a legal defense and public relations firm, Trump himself (who pretends to be law enforcement's greatest friend) was attacking the FBI in terms that authoritarians use to prepare the way for persecuting their political enemies.

"Look how they've hurt people," Trump told his supporters Tuesday night in Hershey, Pennsylvania. "They've destroyed the lives of people that were great people, that are still great people. Their lives have been destroyed by scum. OK, by scum."

Please pause here. "Scum" was the word used twice by the president of the United States about those who dedicate their lives to battling wrongdoing and lawlessness. And because he is Trump, the response involved mostly shrugs and head shaking.

When this presidency began, it was commonplace to write off fears that our political and journalistic systems would eventually "normalize" the president's abuses. The worry was that however strong our system might have been in the past, we'd come to accept behavior that had never been acceptable before.

This is exactly what has happened. When the House unveiled impeachment articles on Tuesday, a large share of the reporting and commentary was about the political risks facing (BEG ITAL)Democrats(END ITAL) for insisting on something that would once have been uncontroversial: It is a chilling threat to freedom and to democracy for the commander in chief to use his power to press a foreign government to investigate a political opponent.

Not long ago, the smug and self-satisfied were certain that such a thing could never happen here. But is has happened here.

And the Republican Party -- including many of its leaders from whom we once expected better -- has reacted not with horror but by closing ranks around their petulant, abusive leader, accepting from him behavior they would have rightly denounced from any other president.

For years now, Team Trump claimed that an honest examination would prove Deep State conspiracy theories. In probing possible Russian ties to the Trump campaign, the FBI was "spying" as part of a politically motivated "witch hunt."

The Justice Department's Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, undertook just such an inquiry. As he explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, his office found that the FBI's investigation "was opened for an authorized investigative purpose and with sufficient factual predication." It "did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation" lay behind the FBI's actions.

This, of course, did not matter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He announced his conclusion before the hearing began to "CBS This Morning."

"When he says that there's no evidence of political bias or political motive -- everybody involved in this investigation hated Donald Trump," Graham said. "They wanted to bring down this president. I really believe that." Graham's beliefs mattered more than a 434-page report, the product of almost two years of work.

Worse were Barr's attacks on his own department's Inspector General and his furthering of Trump's conspiracy theories -- he called the FBI's effort to unmask Russian influence a "travesty" -- along with a highly unusual public statement from Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham.

Handpicked by Barr to undertake yet another investigation of the Trump investigation, Durham said his office had advised Horowitz that "we do not agree with some of the report's conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened." Horowitz said Wednesday he was "surprised" by Durham's statement in light of his own interactions with him.

As for Trump, he attacked his own appointee, FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said he accepted Horowitz's conclusions, including criticisms of his own agency. Trump wasn't happy, tweeting about Wray: "With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI." This was either a threat to fire Wray, or an attempt to pressure the director to think twice about any future steps that might hurt Trump's image. One way or the other, it was a corrupt effort to, well, put the "fix" in.

Slowly, gradually, but inexorably, our country is accepting the unacceptable. We thought we had a consensus about basic norms that protect freedom and self-government. That consensus has been swept away by Republican partisans who value political power over the constitutional liberties they have always claimed to revere above everything else.

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Why McKinsey became a problem for Pete Buttigieg

By megan mcardle
Why McKinsey became a problem for Pete Buttigieg

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By MEGAN MCARDLE

WASHINGTON -- Now that Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg has received permission from McKinsey & Co. to disclose details of his work at the big consulting firm, it seems likely that the "questions" (veiled accusations) about his job there will die down. Buttigieg, now the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, worked at McKinsey from 2007 to 2010, when he was in his late 20s; he would have been a very junior consultant doing grunt work for the people who had actual authority over the company's recommendations to clients. It only sounded interesting because the nondisclosure agreement he signed upon leaving conferred an entirely undeserved air of mystery.

Why did this become such a problem for Buttigieg that he had to beg McKinsey to break its normally ironclad customer confidentiality? Look no further than a question tweeted last week by Graeme Wood of the Atlantic: "why, when you are a Rhodes Scholar and all-around privileged smartypants who can do ANYTHING, would you opt to work as a management consultant?"

You can sort of understand why people go into investment banking, that other default choice of America's educational elite: If you can hang on for a few years, you will be paid large multiples of any conceivable social value you create. But consultants aren't nearly as lavishly overpaid. Why do so many people with elite degrees make their living telling other people how to run their businesses, rather than, say, just cutting out the middleman and running a business?

As it happens, I have an answer for that. In 2001, on the verge of completing an MBA, I accepted a job with a boutique strategy consulting firm. I never actually started work -- the dot-com bubble collapsed, and they started laying off instead of bringing on new hires -- but I remember well why I wanted to work there so badly.

For one thing, the hiring process soothingly replicates the process of admission to an elite school. You slide down a well-greased chute from informational mixers to on-campus interviews, through second- and third-round interviews, and smoothly to a job offer, sometimes more than one. After a brief period of agonizing, you choose a firm -- generally the highest-status destination, for they have a known hierarchy, as colleges do. And just like that, your future is settled for the next few years, without the arduous labor of figuring out what industry you'd like to work in and finding a company that will hire you.

Nor are you going to be asked to run a call center. You'll spend most of your time around other people just like you, doing pleasant and at least moderately interesting work. After a few years of that, you can pick an industry and slip into a middle-management position on the strength of your résumé, without the tedium of learning a business from the ground up.

In other words, these jobs are custom-designed for maximal appeal to the upper-middlebrow conformists who excel at navigating elite education. I suspect that Buttigieg's consulting experience stirred up so much antagonism because he and McKinsey were standing in for that whole class of people whose lives revolve not around any particular competency but simply around "being smart" -- with "smart" defined as having leaped a certain number of educational hurdles in the prescribed manner, after which you earn the right to tell everyone else their business.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat identifies this as a weariness with experts who don't deliver, but I think this slightly misses the mark. For one thing, for all the flak they take, consultants actually do often deliver for their clients, just not necessarily what critics want them to.

I think of a consultant friend who assisted with a complex analysis for a commodity producer. The analysis calculated that the client's best return on investment came from lobbying the government -- which was probably correct but arguably immoral.

More prosaically, there are the consultants so often called in when something is badly wrong. Often management understands how to fix the problem but needs an "objective" outside voice to say aloud what everyone already kinda knows but would stir fierce internal resistance, such as "shut down this badly underutilized facility."

The problem isn't necessarily that these self-appointed experts are wrong; often they're right about something we'd rather not hear. And one can understand why the more rooted and less high-flying resent hearing it from the very folks who refuse to make the binding commitments to one place or one business that might leave them vulnerable to exactly the kind of economic disruption they're paid to deliver.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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