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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria raises her eyebrows.

"Yeah," she replies, confident.

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria knew what she needed to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She raises her eyebrows again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic trends turn downward for farmers

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

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

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

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

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

Then came Donald Trump's trade war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

Billion-dollar empire made from mobile homes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the mobile home lot rents are rising.

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

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

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

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

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


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

(For Milbank clients only)


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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere, administration lawyers were face-palming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You're fake news," Trump replied.

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

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

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

Trump's performance had already provided a compelling answer.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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

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



(For Ignatius clients only)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Ignatius' email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The three amigas

By kathleen parker
The three amigas


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

(For Parker clients only)


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

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

Let's break it down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathleen Parker's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

'The Affluent Society' revisited

By robert j. samuelson
'The Affluent Society' revisited


(Advance for Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Samuelson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- I am rereading "The Affluent Society" with pleasure and profit.

Written by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith and published in 1958, "The Affluent Society" survives as one of the most influential books of the last half of the 20th century. Galbraith foretold that private prosperity would lead to a larger public sector. But this has also left problems that linger today.

Galbraith -- who died in 2006 -- was rare among economists in that he had a distinctive writing style that was, at once, authoritative (even when he was later proved wrong), arrogant and charming. Humanity, he argued, was at an historic inflection point. For centuries, "poverty was the all-pervasive fact of the world." People constantly contended with "hunger, sickness and cold." Even after good harvests, everyone knew that famine "would strike again."

By the 1950s, this was no longer true in the United States and some European countries, Galbraith wrote. Just the opposite: "The ordinary individual has access to amenities -- foods, entertainment, personal transportation and plumbing -- in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago."

Of course, Galbraith wasn't the only one to notice this. In his 1952 book "The Big Change," historian Frederick Lewis Allen reported that from 1900 to 1950 car ownership jumped from 13,000 to 44 million, and life expectancy rose from 49 years to 68. In "The Great Leap," published in 1966, John Brooks indicated that from 1940 to 1960, the share of homes without bathtubs and showers had dropped from about 40 percent to about 12 percent.

Air travel, television, interstate highways, credit cards, air conditioning and suburbanization all flourished during these decades.

What Galbraith brought to the table were ideas about how the economic system worked and how it might be improved. He argued that the social usefulness of private spending was reaching its limits. True, it was important to maintain production; this held unemployment down. But to do so, companies artificially stimulated demand for products and services of decreasing value.

The "direct link between production and wants is provided by the institutions of modern advertising and salesmanship," he wrote. "Their central function is to create desires -- to bring into being wants that previously did not exist."

Meanwhile, the public sector -- aside from defense -- was starved for funds, Galbraith contended. Schools, hospitals, local roads and police and other public services were all shortchanged.

The solution, he said, was to expand the public sector. This would provide useful services and help stabilize the economy, because the supply of public services would be less erratic than either consumer or business spending, underpinned by debt. (A half-century before the 2008-09 financial crisis, Galbraith identified private-sector debt as a major economic threat.)

To a large extent, Galbraith's vision has triumphed. Federal spending -- excluding the military -- has soared since 1950. We have a large welfare state; social regulation, led by the environment, is pervasive. And yet, all is not well.

The premise of "The Affluent Society" was that the economy would remain robust forever. Our important needs could be satisfied; the crucial decision was deciding what we needed. "The Affluent Society" barely mentions foreign competition. In the 1950s and early '60s, it was inconceivable to most Americans that other countries could pose a threat to U.S. economic dominance.

Galbraith shared this optimism, believing that mega-companies of the order of General Motors, IBM and AT&T guaranteed U.S. superiority. He generally disparaged the role of entrepreneurs in founding new industries and technologies.

Likewise, Galbraith's theory of consumption, though it seems plausible and probably describes some behavior, collides with most everyday observation. Advertising does not foist products on most consumers that they would not otherwise want. People don't have to be convinced to fly, to use the internet, or to go to a good restaurant. Advertising determines mostly which brands people buy.

Economic stabilization has also proved more difficult than Galbraith assumed. The Great Recession of 2007-09 was proof of that, if nothing else. Most economists failed to forecast it.

Still, Galbraith's achievement -- providing a coherent and literate view of the whole economy -- is no mean feat. Unfortunately, the affluent society is not as affluent as he and others expected. This explains many of our problems, because it confronts us with choices that we'd rather avoid.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

The real national emergency: the triviality of our politics

By e.j. dionne jr.
The real national emergency: the triviality of our politics


(Advance for Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)


WASHINGTON -- When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi learned that President Trump would declare a national emergency to shift around money to finance his border wall, her denunciation was predictable. But her way of expressing outrage was not. The issue she used to make her point was important on many levels.

Observing the "unease" even among many Republicans over Trump's abuse of his power, she noted that "if the president can declare an emergency on something that he has created as an emergency -- an illusion that he wants to convey -- just think of what a president with different values can present to the American people."

And then she recalled the slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018, when 14 students and three staff members were gunned down. "You want to talk about a national emergency?" Pelosi asked. "Let's talk about today, the one-year anniversary of another manifestation of the epidemic of gun violence in America. That's a national emergency. Why don't you declare that emergency, Mr. President? I wish you would."

Our nation's deadly permissiveness toward firearms was very much on Pelosi's mind because the House Judiciary Committee had voted 21-to-14 the night before to send a bill requiring background checks for all gun sales and most gun transactions to the House floor.

It was the first serious vote on a gun-reform measure since 2013, when the Senate fell six votes short of the 60 needed to advance a background-checks bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. It was also the most significant gun-sanity measure to move though the House Judiciary Committee since 1993.

Yet as important as this step was, it received scant media notice. The drowning out of news that mattered tells us a great deal about our political moment. It also underscores the challenge confronting those speaking for the vast majority of Americans who want action in the face of what Pelosi was right to call a national emergency on gun violence.

In counting the many costs of the Trump era, we focus too rarely on the president's success in pushing divisive trivialities and self-interested contrivances to the center of national concern. He manufactures crises, and then uses his manufactured crises to create new ones.

There is no crisis at our nation's border. To the extent that there are border problems, his wall would do little or nothing to set things right. And Congress' decision not to finance Trump's monstrous waste of money in no way justifies his seizing of national emergency powers. His vast overreach really (BEG ITAL)does(END ITAL) create a crisis, which dominates the news and shoves aside all other concerns. But it is all part of the Triviality Feedback Loop that is the Trump presidency.

In the meantime, problems that should engage our energy are forced to the back of the queue of public attention. The normal constitutional approaches to governing -- bills passed through committees, compromises reached in conferences involving both parties and both houses of Congress -- are no longer respected.

And no matter how much journalists investigate and expose Trump's misconduct (we should be grateful for this), his I'm-The-Only-One-Who-Matters approach to politics fits well with the needs of modern media, both social and traditional. Clicks and page views and ratings encourage everyone to dwell on individuals more than on issues.

This aggravates a profound pre-existing cynicism about the possibilities of political action. And defeatism is especially damaging when it comes to guns.

For decades, as one massacre cascaded into another, the gun lobby beat back even the most modest efforts to control access to firearms. The sense of doom about any progress is so deep that it obscures overwhelming evidence that the politics of guns has changed. Even the most moderate Democrats made opposition to the gun lobby a key component of their campaigns in 2018 -- and in district after district, they prevailed.

These victories led directly to last week's Judiciary Committee vote. Organizing worked. Elections mattered. Public sentiment prevailed. Democracy made a difference.

This is why what happened in the House last week on guns deserved far more coverage than it got, and why Pelosi was right to use Trump's phony emergency to highlight a real one. The only cure for political cynicism is to show that the steady and painstaking work of grassroots action can bear fruit. And the only alternative to a politics of spectacle is for elective officials and the media to lift up problems that actually need solving.

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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

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



(For Rampell clients only)


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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does this matter?

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

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

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

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

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

Such policies include paid family leave.

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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