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What's in a food truck?

By Bonnie Berkowitz, et al.
What's in a food truck?
Kirk Francis (a.k.a. Captain Cookie) said anyone hoping to start a food truck should plan to work 100-hour weeks for the first three years. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary.

First of all, no matter what you think is in there, there's probably more.

Most modern food trucks - at least the ones special enough to make it into your regular lunch rotation - are operated by serious foodies whose wheeled restaurants roam more than 300 U.S. cities as part of a $2.7 billion industry. They're often veteran chefs who are used to the amenities of commercial kitchens or entrepreneurial home cooks who demand the perfect tools.

None of these folks are willing to compromise on equipment, even if it all has to fit, Tetris-like, into the space of a large minivan.

First in: The basics.

Before a new food truck owner can shop for the perfect griddle or pizza oven, they have to figure out how much room is left after they pencil in the equipment required by their jurisdiction.

These basic requirements are similar around the country, according to Jason Tipton, co-owner of East Coast Mobile Business Launchpad, which has outfitted more than 400 food trucks in his Manassas, Virginia shop over the past decade.

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A small budget and a big oven

Start-up costs for a food truck average about $100,000, far lower than the several hundred thousand required for even a tiny brick-and-mortar place in the Washington area, Tipton said. Some trucks get on the road for far less.

"When I was a kid, I'd eat cookies until there weren't any more cookies," said Kirk Francis, who began baking as a 4-year-old with his mom. He had supplied cookies to a local coffee shop before deciding to bring chocolate chips (and fresh milk, of course) to the masses.

His budget was just $30,000 for the entire truck, and he wanted to make sure his cookies were baked fresh at the curb.

So he found a used, 625 pound Vulcan convection oven on Craigslist, stuck it into a 1988 Washington Post delivery van that he bought for $2,400, and Captain Cookie and the Milkman was born.

The truck is small - the 6-foot-1 Francis has maybe an inch of clearance when he stands inside - but the commercial oven is about twice the size of a normal kitchen oven and can bake 120 cookies at once, or 720 in an hour. Francis estimates that it has baked more than a million cookies since he launched the truck in 2012.

Francis told all this to a culinary arts class at D.C. Central Kitchen on a frigid March day when steady rain and gusty wind had kept most trucks off the road. When it's raining, truck operators say, sales go down by half compared with a sunny day. When it's cold and raining, sales drop to a quarter.

The cookie truck's motor coughed and died as Francis pulled into the parking lot, and after the class of cooks-in-training checked out the truck and sampled cookies, he had to wait in the rain for a tow truck.

"You have to be able to roll with it," he said, shrugging. "I never have to worry about the store breaking down by the side of the road."

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Family biz and a pasta boiler

Thirty-six years ago in Colombia, the daughter of an Italian pasta-factory owner fell in love with a chef-to-be. Three grown kids later, the family business is wrapped up in a black-and-yellow truck with a (trademarked) spaghetti logo and a play on the matriarch's name: Tempo di Pasta - "pasta time."

Inside, the couple's son, Joseph Peña Tempo, also a chef, juggles entrees in five saute pans at a time. Daughter Stephany Peña Tempo takes orders, handles the finances and serves as her brother's quality control manager. Their sister, Angela Peña Tempo, is in charge of marketing and catering. Harold Peña, the patriarch, is in charge of operations, and Mom, well . . .

"My title is 'everything!'" said Claudia Tempo, owner of the truck and ultimate authority on the Northern Italian sauce recipes that are the basis for everything they serve.

"We're trying to make a fancy Italian restaurant - without wine," says Joseph Tempo.

As a "cook-to-order" truck, Tempo di Pasta serves food made from scratch while a customer waits. ("Hot-and-hold" trucks are usually less complex inside because food is prepped off-site in a commissary kitchen.)

Because fresh pasta goes from perfect to mushy in seconds, boiling it in advance is unthinkable. So where a typical truck might have an oil-filled fryer, Tempo di Pasta has a water-filled pasta cooker. Each order gets a precisely timed dip in a wire basket, until it's al dente.

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A niche and the perfect cast-iron disks

Mounir Elhilali, a Morocco native who spent a lot of time with family in France as a child, had been a chef for 17 years in the United States when he and Robert Catanuso, a friend and former restaurant manager, decided to jump on the surging food truck wave. As they tossed around ideas, they noticed something. Or rather a lack of something. "Crepes the way they are done in France, you can't find them here," Elhilali said.

Most American crepes he tried were made with white flour, he said, not the hearty, bready buckwheat flour that is the signature of savory French crepes. And the cooking was all wrong. Batter shouldn't be flung around in a uniform swirl, he said, but painted on and distributed carefully from the middle.

"The edges should be thinner than the middle so you have a combination of crispy edges and a soft middle," he said, noting that "crepe" comes from the Latin word "crispa," which means wavy and crinkly.

To create authentic crepes, he needed proper crepe makers. The several he tried either cooked unevenly or required too much oil to keep the delicate crepes from sticking.

So when the Crepes Parfait truck launched in 2012, its focal point was four 16-inch, cast-iron crepe makers imported from France and arrayed like a drum kit in front of Elhilali.

Is it hard to operate them all at once? "Not at all," he said. "I wish I had five."

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A freezer and a new career

Brandon Byrd is just as finicky about frozen custard as Elhilali is about crepes, and he couldn't find the creamy frozen delicacy on the East Coast when he moved to New York in 2010 to work for XXL Magazine. Frozen custard is denser than ice cream, he said, thanks to ingredients (eggs and at least 10 percent butter fat) and technique (slow churning so that not much air is mixed in).

The squeeze of the recession on the publishing industry - and a hefty sense of burnout with the entertainment world, where he'd worked for years in marketing - brought Byrd to Washington in 2011 and the food truck scene in 2012. Now he is an evangelist of sorts, sharing the glory of Wisconsin-style frozen custard from a restored 1952 International Harvester Metro Van named Gigi.

In his home state, "the popularity of frozen custard is equivalent to gelato or soft serve on the East Coast," Byrd said. "It's like going to New England and having a lobster roll, like going to New York City and having the pizza. In Wisconsin, it's brats, beer, frozen custard and cheese curds."

Byrd adapted his mom's recipes for Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, and he outfitted Gigi to function like an old-time soda fountain. Inside is a Kegerator with root beer for floats and an industrial blender for his signature banana and peanut butter shakes. And the keeper of the custard is a freezer that can hold 15 gallons at a time.

Byrd is far from the only person nudged into food trucks by the Great Recession. The modern food truck culture took root during that time, when people had less money to start new restaurants - and to dine in them.

Chef Roy Choi and his pal Mark Manguera are credited with launching the movement in 2008 with their Kogi BBQ truck. They began rolling around Los Angeles in 2008, slinging Korean short rib tacos and Tweeting their locations to the masses.

Che and Tadd Ruddell-Tabisola took the plunge in 2011 after Tadd's boss in the corporate world asked him which co-workers should be laid off next, Che said. They had hoped to start a restaurant, but lenders were suddenly stingy, so the couple maxed out their credit cards and cashed in their 401Ks to trick out BBQ Bus, serving tweaked versions of Tadd's grandfather's recipes. They recently opened a brick-and-mortar smokehouse, and, like many food truck owners, do plenty of catering.

The recession "created a market that didn't have a lot of money to spend and still wanted innovative food," said Che, former director of the DMV Food Truck Association. "It all collided into a moment that we could never have engineered."

Profits dropped in some places last year, including Washington, as new trucks poured into a rebalancing market. But Che sees an upside to the downturn.

"Just like when a new restaurant opens and has a line around the block the first six weeks, then it levels off? I think the food truck industry has experienced that as a whole," he said. "But now we are a part of the rotation in folks' regular dining choices."

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Two grills and a flat-nosed cabin

A typical food truck in the United States is about 24 feet long, said Tipton, whose company has outfitted trucks for markets around the country. But an unusual Washington regulation sets the legal maximum at 18 feet 6 inches - short enough to fit into a standard 20-foot parking space.

No one is clearer on this rule than Sam Tahmasbi, owner of two Persian cuisine trucks named Saffron.

First of all, let's establish that Tahmasbi is not loosey-goosey about details. Before he launched his first truck in 2013, he tried about 200 variations of his tahchin, a baked chicken-and-rice dish, until his family said it was perfect and begged him to cook something else. He says he makes sure everything he serves (except water) contains saffron, sent by relatives in Iran, where it is less pricey. He is so persnickety about presentation that he grills his garnishes, often lemon slices, a pepper or a tiny tomato.

He planned the truck's equipment just as carefully, including two types of grills - propane and charcoal - because authentic kebabs need real charcoal flavor, he said.

And the truck itself is impossible to miss: It looks like a tidy wooden cottage on wheels. Twitter followers know it as "the cabin." The exterior idea came to Tahmasbi when he admired the character in the wood pattern of an old cutting board.

"The idea at the beginning was wrap or paint," Tahmasbi said. Wraps - essentially huge vinyl stickers - are the most common type of food truck exterior. "But I asked, as joke, 'Is it possible to put real wood?' "

It was. It took an extra three months just to outfit the exterior of the truck in cedar and shingles, he said.

Then, after the body shop was finally done and the truck was ready to go - it was more than six inches too long.

Tipton said this is a fairly common problem in the Washington market because 18-foot-6 is not a standard length for truck manufacturers. The solution is usually to take the space off the back of the truck. But Tahmasbi couldn't bear to cut through his meticulously crafted exterior, so he told the folks at the body shop to simply lop the nose off the cab. It is now exactly 18 feet 6 inches long.

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A fire truck and a lot of people

Many trucks are fairly simple to operate and usually have just one or two people on board. Others contain the tiny-house version of an entire restaurant kitchen and a whole staff as well.

Take El Fuego, a converted fire station supply truck that has served Peruvian food in the Washington area since 2011.

"I treat it like a regular restaurant except we are on four wheels," said Manuel Alfaro, who grew up in Puerto Rico, trained as a chef in Spain and fell in love with the cuisine of his wife's native country of Peru. He created the entire menu except for one item: The rocoto sauce comes from an old family recipe.

The truck, which has (non-working) roof lights and hose nozzle connections from its previous life, contains nearly every piece of equipment you'd find in any brick-and-mortar place, plus four - four! - people stationed inside. When everyone is in place, there is not enough space to fit a camera tripod in the center. (We tried.)

During a typical lunch rush, Alfaro's son, Danny, assembles sandwiches. His childhood friend Lemine Cheikh mans the grill and deep fryer, which is nearly always going because french fries go into many of the entrees. Another family friend, Aracely Navarrete, operates the stir fryer. And Alfaro's daughter, Stephanie, is the customer service rep who takes orders and money at the window.

Despite the close quarters, the four say they rarely crash into one another. "We all kind of have a little bubble we stay in," said Stephanie.

Unfortunately, none of the bubbles are cool in summer. Many trucks have air conditioning units, but the people inside say the units often don't do a lot to cool the workspace. Ventilation hoods suck out some heat, and windows, insulation and roof vents can help, but there's no getting around the fact that food truck operators are trapped for at least four hours a day in metal boxes filled with steam tables, grills, stoves, fryers and ovens.

Manuel Alfaro says he keeps El Fuego off the road for the safety of his crew when the temperature soars past 95 degrees. Others tough it out.

"It's brutal!" said Rob Miller of Ball or Nothing, a hot-and-hold truck that contains three large steam tables for dishing out meatballs and seasonal sides. "I've lost seven pounds in one lunch shift before."

In the end, Miller said, "you just have to throw on a fan and power through it."

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What's not on the truck?

One key thing: A bathroom. And food truck denizens put forethought into this situation.

"You plan ahead," said Miller, a six-year veteran of the truck lifestyle. "I'm a little strategic. You pee before you leave the [commissary] kitchen."

In an emergency, several folks said they'll run to Starbucks or a nearby small business. They emphasized that they always buy something in return - usually a cold drink. But honestly, no one we talked to seemed to consider the lack of a potty to be a huge inconvenience.

It's just another little quirk of a quirky industry, part of life inside the truck.

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The specific trucks in this story operate in Washington. But much of the information applies to trucks all over the country. Additional information for this story came from "Food Truck Nation," a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation; the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the DMV Food Truck Association.

Trump steps up attacks on FBI's probes during campaign

By John Wagner
Trump steps up attacks on FBI's probes during campaign
President Donald Trump speaks during an event on tax policy in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Al Drago

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump asserted Wednesday that the FBI's use of a confidential source to seek information from his campaign aides was shaping up as a major scandal and that lawmakers would soon realize that "a lot of bad things happened."

In a series of morning tweets, and later speaking to reporters, Trump assailed what he called "spygate," claiming that it could become "one of the biggest political scandals in history!"

The comments were Trump's latest salvo over reports that the FBI used a confidential source in its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

There is no evidence to suggest that the source was inserted into the Trump campaign, as the president has suggested, but the source did seek out and meet Trump campaign advisers.

On Twitter, Trump suggested that the tables had turned on those investigating his campaign for possible collusion with Russian, writing: "What goes around, comes around!"

The president referred to those investigating him as the "Criminal Deep State," claiming they had been "caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before!"

As he departed the White House early Wednesday afternoon en route to an event in New York, Trump told reporters: "I hope it's not true, but it looks like it is."

The FBI source, a longtime Republican and former University of Cambridge professor Stefan A. Halper, had contact with at least three advisers to Trump during the campaign. Trump and his allies have sought to cast that as inappropriate political spying.

In his tweets, Trump also quoted Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge and frequent Fox News commentator, saying that "it's clear that they had eyes and ears all over the Trump campaign." Napolitano appeared on "Fox & Friends" earlier Wednesday morning.

Trump and his aides have derisively used the term "deep state" to refer to long-serving unelected officials who they claim are out to undermine his presidency.

During a television appearance Tuesday, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that the FBI never spied on the Trump campaign.

"They were not. They were spying - a term I don't particularly like - on what the Russians were doing," Clapper said during an appearance on ABCs "The View" to promote a new book.

The FBI, Clapper said, was simply trying to answer the question, "Were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage and influence?"

In a later tweet Wednesday morning, Trump took issue with Clapper's assessment that the then-GOP nominee should have been grateful for the FBI's surveillance.

"No, James R. Clapper Jr., I am not happy," Trump wrote. "Spying on a campaign would be illegal, and a scandal to boot!"

The use of the confidential source has been at the fore of Trump and conservative lawmakers' long-running feud with the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Trump's campaign coordinated with Russia during the campaign.

On Tuesday, the White House said that two Republican lawmakers will be allowed to review classified information about the FBI source during a meeting Thursday with intelligence officials. The Justice Department had resisted sharing information, saying it jeopardized the source.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump said he expects "total transparency" from Justice officials.

"What I want is I want total transparency," he said. "You have to have transparency."

Trump said that lawmakers will probably be troubled once they see documents regarding the use of the source.

"When they look at the documents, I think people are going to see a lot of bad things happened," Trump said.

On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., planned to send a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray requesting that they reconsider meeting with GOP lawmakers. If a meeting takes place, Schumer said, it should include a broader bipartisan group of lawmakers.

"For the President of the United States to pressure the Justice Department to reveal details and documents pertaining to an active investigation of the President's campaign, for the purpose of denigrating it, is a gross and unprecedented abuse of power," Schumer said in a tweet.

Former FBI director James Comey, whom Trump fired last year, also weighed in on the controversy Wednesday, chastising both the president and GOP lawmakers.

"Facts matter," Comey wrote on Twitter. "The FBI's use of Confidential Human Sources (the actual term) is tightly regulated and essential to protecting the country. Attacks on the FBI and lying about its work will do lasting damage to our country. How will Republicans explain this to their grandchildren?"

Speaking to reporters later, Trump sought to discredit Comey, calling him a liar and saying he could be in trouble once a review of the FBI's handling of the Russia probe is completed by the inspector general of the Justice Department.

"I did a great service to this country by firing James Comey," Trump said.

Trump also rejected a reporter's suggestion that he was undercutting the work of the Justice Department.

"No, no. We're not undercutting," Trump said. "We're cleaning everything up. This was a terrible situation. What we're doing is we're cleaning everything up. What I'm doing is a service to this country."

The Russia probe apparently remained on Trump's mind a couple of hours after his initial tweets Wednesday.

Shortly after 9:30 a.m., he fired off a two-word message in all capital letters: "WITCH HUNT!"

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Video: Stefan A. Halper, the source who assisted the FBI's Russia investigation during the 2016 campaign, is drawing the ire of President Trump and House Republicans. Here's what you need to know about the well-connected Republican and emeritus professor at Cambridge.(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

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Church built by two of Rev. Moon's sons is locked, loaded for the Lord

By Tom Dunkel
Church built by two of Rev. Moon's sons is locked, loaded for the Lord
Pastor Hyung Jin

Sanctuary Church - whose proper name is World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, but which also goes by the more muscular-sounding Rod of Iron Ministries - stands inconspicuously on a country road that winds through the village of Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, 25 miles southeast of Scranton. The one-story, low-slung building used to be St. Anthony's Catholic Church. Before that, it was a community theater, which is why there are no pews, only a semicircle of tiered seats facing the old stage, now an altar.

On a Sunday morning in late February, 38-year-old Pastor Hyung Jin "Sean" Moon, son of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, entered stage right wearing a white hoodie and cargo pants. He strapped on a leather headband and picked up a microphone. "OK, take it away," he said to the electric pianist and two female vocalists who function as the choir. They launched into the first of four songs: "O, light of grace, shining above / lighting my dim shadowed way ..."

The 200-plus congregants packed into the room sang along with gusto. Pastor Sean stood by his front-row seat with his wife at his side, wringing his hands like an orchestra conductor. The song cycle ended and, after a brief prayer, he took center stage. "Look at all these crowns of sovereignty!" he exclaimed, gazing upon his audience. One tenet of the Sanctuary Church is that all people are independent kings and queens in God's Kingdom - a kind of don't-tread-on-me notion of personal sovereignty. Hence, symbolic gold and silver crowns bobbed on row after row of heads.

This crowd was about twice the usual size because this service was the warm-up for a renewal-of-marriage-vows ceremony scheduled for Wednesday morning. Scores of couples already had arrived from Japan and Korea. That ceremony - officially, the "Cosmic True Parents of Heaven, Earth and Humanity Cheon Il Guk Book of Life Registration Blessing" - would cap a week of activities that thus far had included an arts festival, a survival skills contest and a goat-butchering demonstration.

The wedding-blessing event was generating nationwide attention - something new for Sanctuary Church, which, until now, hadn't even registered on the radar of the Pocono Record, the local daily newspaper. A key pillar of Sanctuary dogma is the importance of owning a gun, particularly the lethal, lightweight AR-15 semiautomatic, which the National Rifle Association has proclaimed "the most popular rifle in America." Last fall, Pastor Sean had studied the Book of Revelation. It makes multiple references to how Christ one day will rule his earthly kingdom "with a rod of iron." Although Revelation was written long before the advent of firearms, Pastor Sean concluded that "rod of iron" was Bible-speak for the AR-15 and that Christ, not being a "tyrant," will need armed sovereigns to help him keep the peace in his kingdom.

As a result, a recent Sanctuary Church news release had noted that "blessed couples are requested" to bring with them to the upcoming Book of Life ceremony an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle "or equivalents." This was unfortunate timing for the Church: The next day a young man walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and killed 17 people with an AR-15. Shooters had used that same model rifle to carry out mass murders in Las Vegas; Orlando, Florida; San Bernardino, California; and other cities.

That latest tragedy was freshly imprinted on millions of minds, among them Pastor Sean's. He eased into his hour-long Sunday morning sermon by reminding everyone of what President Donald Trump had pointed out after the Parkland shooting: "He said if the teachers were armed, they would have shot the hell out of that guy. This is the first time we've heard a president talk like that. This is God's grace, folks."

Virtually the entire congregation was coming back on Wednesday for the big blessing ceremony, so he reviewed some safety precautions, like securing rifle triggers with a zip tie: "Remember, folks, you can never take back a bullet." That was not to say worshipers couldn't pack heat. Anyone with a concealed-carry permit was welcome to bring their loaded pistol Wednesday (their "mini rod of iron") in addition to their AR-15. You never know, "there may be a wolf in sheep's clothing who tries to make trouble," said Pastor Sean.

After delivering a few social announcements (parents seeking marriage partners for their adult children were meeting at 3 p.m.; tomorrow at 5 p.m. there would be an AR-15 "breakdown" tutorial on how to properly disassemble the rifle), Pastor Sean delivered the meat of his sermon. He plowed familiar ground at first, citing Bible passages where the "rod of iron" was used to smite evildoers. Pacing the altar, he then segued into a freewheeling, gunfire-and-brimstone diatribe.

"You must shed the slave mentality and adopt the royal mentality. ... The Democratic Party has become the Communist Party funded by Nazi collaborator George Soros. ... The fake ministers and fake priests are pushing a dictator-Christ." He took potshots at some favorite targets: Hillary Clinton ("she was paying for the Russian dossier"), Pope Francis ("a socialist, communist devil") and government that gets too big for its britches. "Jesus never centralized power. Jesus never created government," he said. "The worst killer in all of humanity the last one hundred years is centralized government."

He showed a video clip of younger Church members undergoing quasi paramilitary training as Sanctuary's standby Peace Police/Peace Militia. They shoot rifles on the run in the woods. They wear camo for the Lord. They learn Filipino knife fighting. "It's not about being a badass. It's about practicing to be deadly because you love people," Pastor Sean told his flock. "The way of the rod of iron is the way of love."

In a few days, reporters, photographers and TV camera crews would swarm upon sleepy Newfoundland for the wedding-blessing ceremony - professional gawkers lured by the incongruous coupling of semiautomatic rifles and a house of worship. But the media circus also would quickly move on, without fully answering questions left dangling. Who, exactly, are these Sanctuarians? And, with their injection of guns into the country's already divisive mix of politics and religion, what do they want?

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When the Rev. Sun Myung Moon died of complications from pneumonia in 2012 at age 92, it set off a power struggle within his family. Sean, with backing from older brother Kook Jin "Justin" Moon, contends he was selected from among his 10 adult siblings to inherit the Unification Church mantle and be crowned the next-generation "Second King" - not a full-fledged messiah like his father purported to be, but nonetheless responsible for finishing the work of building God's Kingdom. Meanwhile, their mother, Hak Ja Han, claims the Rev. Moon, her husband of 52 years, passed the baton to her.

The church they were fighting over has roots in both Korea and America. The Rev. Moon - born in 1920 in what is now North Korea but was then part of Japan - said Jesus appeared to him when he was 15 and asked him to take on the "special mission" of completing God's Kingdom on earth, Cheon Il Guk in his native Korean. First, however, he went off to study electrical engineering in Japan and got arrested (and tortured) twice for his activity in the Korean independence movement. He returned home, married and after World War II moved to Pyongyang, where the communist government threw him in a labor camp for preaching Christianity. When that camp was liberated near the end of the Korean War, Moon headed south.

He established a church in Seoul in 1954, dubbing it the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. He codified his beliefs in a text titled "Divine Principle." One core construct says Satan seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden. This caused "the fall" of humankind by contaminating the bloodlines she and Adam transmitted through Cain and Abel. God sent Jesus to serve as a Second Adam to find sin-free love and salvage the family of man. But Jesus didn't live long enough to marry. It thus became Sun Myung Moon's destiny to step in as a Third Adam and redeem the world.

His ministry put a premium on the sanctity of traditional marriage and condemned premarital sex, divorce and homosexuality. That conservative message found an audience in Seoul, though police arrested him twice - for suspicion of having religious sex orgies and ducking the draft. (Both charges ultimately were dropped.) By 1957, he'd built a network of 30 churches and was wired into the South Korean business community and government. The only glitch was that his own marriage proved imperfect, ending in divorce. However, Hak Ja Han soon entered his life. They married in 1960, and followers hailed them as God's anointed "True Parents."

A decade later the Rev. Moon came to the United States, a necessary foothold for uniting the planet under his Unification banner. Moon spun a web of foundations and interlocking companies, reportedly becoming South Korea's first billionaire. His followers were untroubled by his wealth, but Congress investigated his empire, and then the Internal Revenue Service came after him. In the mid-1980s Moon served 13 months in prison for failure to declare $162,000 in taxable income. Ever the entrepreneur, he made arrangements in prison to start the conservative Washington Times, saying he did it "to fulfill God's desperate desire to save this world."

Unification Church membership figures have always been elastic, ranging from tens of thousands to several million. In 2009, the Washington Times cited 110,000 "adherents." Whatever the correct number, it had peaked by the late 1990s. Yet the Rev. Moon pressed on. In 2003, a double-page ad in the Washington Times trumpeted this news: All 36 deceased American presidents acknowledged Sun Myung Moon's greatness. What's more, each one had written an endorsement letter from the Great Beyond. "People of America, rise again. Return to the nation's founding spirit," said Thomas Jefferson, once characterized as a "howling atheist" by political opponents. "Follow the teachings of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Messiah to all people."

Jefferson was, of course, one of the architects of America's system of government - which will become obsolete if the Rev. Moon's vision of God's Kingdom on earth comes to pass. Pastor Sean is convinced that will happen, and in preparation, he has taken it upon himself to write a Constitution of the United States of Cheon Il Guk, grounded in principles articulated by his father.

If all proceeds according to divine plan, the country will be ruled by monarchs drawn from his branch of the Moon family. If the Kingdom comes in Sean's lifetime, he'll take the reins as king of the United States. Brother Justin - who serves as Sanctuary Church's de facto assistant pastor - is set to be inspector general, a super special prosecutor charged with rooting out government corruption. Don't worry. It's not a theocracy, Sean says: "We would refer to it as a libertarian Christian monarchy or maybe a libertarian republican democracy."

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The Moons primarily raised their 13 children on an estate north of New York City owned by the Unification Church. The main house at East Garden had 12 bedrooms, seven bathrooms and Church minions catering to their every need. But life was far from idyllic. One son died in a car accident, another committed suicide and a third succumbed at a relatively young age to drinking and drugs.

Sean Moon wrote about the downside of their gilded childhoods in a 2005 memoir. "We grew up many times seeing Parents one or two weeks, combined over various visits, out of the year," he recalled. "I many times felt scared, abandoned, and neglected. ... We were surrounded, constantly, by [Church] members. ... I sat and seethed in anger many nights, as I drifted off to sleep."

Rev. Moon fancied himself an outdoorsman. There were guns around the mansion, and, at 14, Justin fired one. It was love at first recoil: By 18 he had a permit to carry. He went on to major in economics at Harvard and earn an MBA at the University of Miami, tinkering with gun designs in his spare time. After graduate school he opened Kahr Arms in office space across the Hudson River from East Garden, using a $5 million loan from his father. His immediate goal, he later told American Handgunner magazine, was to create "an ultracompact 9-millimeter pistol." And he did.

Kahr introduced its palm-size K9 model in 1995; people and police departments gobbled it up. Justin's success with the company caught his father's eye. Kahr soon was absorbed into one of the Unification Church's corporations. Justin moved to Korea to take on the added role of president of a sister subsidiary. By 1999, Kahr had enough cash to buy the company that produced the storied Thompson submachine gun once toted by gangsters such as Baby Face Nelson. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reports Kahr sold 40,274 pistols and 9,086 rifles in 2016.

Justin Moon is a hyper defender of the Second Amendment. Private citizens, he says, should have unfettered access to any handheld weapon the U.S. military uses. "Were every woman in America to exercise their right to bear arms, America would basically eliminate its crime rate," he told me one morning at Kahr Arms. "Nobody would be able to rape them or rob them."

While Justin was climbing the Unification Church's corporate ladder, Sean followed in his footsteps only as far as Harvard. He got a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and a master's of theology, and spent eight years studying Buddhism in the United States, Korea and India.

He had a compelling reason to go off in search of himself. Sean was in college in October 1999 when his brother Young Jin "Phillip" Moon jumped out the 17th-floor window of a Las Vegas hotel. He was 21, a year older than Sean. They had been inseparable growing up. "For most of our lives we shared the same room, the same video games, and the same Doritos chips," Sean wrote in his memoir.

In July 2007, the prodigal son returned to the fold of the Unification Church. Sean had telegraphed his intentions the previous fall by doing 12,000 prayer bows over six days; on one of those days he also made a poster-size calligraphy of the Korean character seong ("sincere"), using a paintbrush dipped in his blood, which had been extracted by a physician.

Sean's initial job was pastor of a Unification Church in Seoul. Within 10 months, he was put in charge of international Church operations. On three ceremonial occasions, he says, his father named him "heir and successor." However, he also sent conflicting signals to oldest brother Preston and to Hak Ja Han. A few days after her husband's passing in 2012, Hak Ja Han summoned Sean to the magnificent Peace Palace the Moons had built in the mountains north of Seoul. According to Sean, she put him on notice that "I'm God. I'm Hananim." To which he replied, "Mummy, please, you can't say that. Father's not going to be happy."

He says she phased him out of Church activities and stopped taking his phone calls. In September 2013, on the first anniversary of his father's death, Sean went to the palace in hopes of seeing his mother. In his version of events, she had security guards shoo him away.

Justin Moon sided with his younger brother. Coincidentally, around that time, the New York legislature passed several gun-control measures that irked him. He decided to extricate himself and Kahr Arms from the Unification Church and move Kahr headquarters elsewhere. Eastern Pennsylvania beckoned: reasonable cost of living, excellent schools for his seven children, and 900,000 NRA members within a 300-mile radius of the state capital, Harrisburg.

By spring 2013, both brothers' families were ensconced in Pennsylvania. Sean began holding Sanctuary Church services in his living room (in a town appropriately named Lords Valley). When the congregation outgrew the space, he did his preaching in the banquet room at a Best Western. In May 2014 Sanctuary settled into the former Catholic church in Newfoundland. Members voluntarily have dug into their pockets, contributing $683,000 in 2015 and $491,000 for the first six months of 2016. A foundation Justin runs in brother Phillip's name supports Sanctuary with grants (almost $380,000 combined in 2015 and 2016), plus it bought the church site. That revenue stream should keep the lights burning for the foreseeable future and Pastor Sean's camouflage-colored Jeep Wrangler on the road.

In January 2015, Sean publicly renounced his mother for hijacking the Unification Church and rewriting and editing his father's religious texts. He has since taken to calling her the "whore of Babylon." Last September, Sanctuary Church shunted Hak Ja Han aside, and a posthumous wedding was thrown for the Rev. Moon. He (well, his spirit) married 90-year-old Hyun Shil Kang, supposedly the first person to join his ministry in the early 1950s. She moved to Pennsylvania to live with Sean and his family.

Hak Ja Han did not comment on specific allegations made by her son, but Ki Hoon Kim, continental chairman of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification USA, responded in an email: "I know with certainty that Dr. Moon has reached out to her son, Hyung Jin, numerous times since February 2013 asking him to come back to Korea to meet with her, but he has refused each request. ... We can't know exactly what took place in private discussions between mother and son, but it's clear that he holds an escalating resentment towards her. ... Even if Dr. Moon had made such a statement [that she is God], it is in line with our theological beliefs that she and her husband are one with God, just as Jesus said, 'I and the Father are One.' "

In Jin Moon, second oldest of the surviving children, took an active role in the Unification Church until about eight years ago. She currently lives in New Jersey and has never before spoken out publicly about Sean and Justin. However, she says, "the language that's coming out of Sanctuary Church is quite alarming," so she feels obliged to raise her voice. She loves her brothers "ferociously" but says that the possibility their commingling of God and guns could inadvertently incite violence "is the great concern for the family." And, yet, she thinks healing and reconciliation is possible. "I still believe in the unity of my family," she says.

There seemingly is not much interest in reconciliation on the part of her brothers, however. Indeed, kicking Mom out of the family tree was not enough to satisfy Justin Moon. At a question-and-answer session with Church members in 2016, he explained that if a queen tries to usurp a king's throne, the ultimate price must be paid: "It's the king's responsibility to arrest her and execute her."

Any second thoughts about Hak Ja Han having committed a capital offense? Sitting at his office desk one morning, sporting his ever-present Kahr Arms baseball hat, Justin told me he stands by his earlier remarks: "It's a comment on the record. I'm not going to walk it back." All he was willing to do was change the analogy: "I love my mother," he said, but what if she attempted to overthrow the U.S. government? "She should probably be tried for treason."

---

A year and a half ago, Sanctuary Church bought a larger house for Pastor Sean, his wife and their five children. Heaven's Palace is perched on a hill overlooking Matamoras, the easternmost town in Pennsylvania, near the Delaware River. Sean has a brown belt in Brazilian jujitsu and several nights a week teaches a class inside his converted garage. The students are Church members, most in their 20s, and most of them active in the so-called Peace Police/Peace Militia.

On a Wednesday in late March, eight women and five men paired up for a practice session, trading positions as Moon guided them through a series of jujitsu holds and mini bouts. Dressed in a salmon-colored kimono top and loosefitting black pants, he sat yoga-style on his knees facing the class. "Work it! There you go! That's definitely burning it into your muscle memory, your hippocampus."

A burst of action. A pause for sips of water and a few push-ups. Repeat, repeat. More guidance. Using his son as a prop, Sean stopped at one point to demonstrate the kimura hold, a double-wrist lock you can put on an opponent's shoulder and upper arm. "Once we have the kimura position, we're going to capture the shoulder with chest pressure," he said while tying his son in a knot. "Basically, you're sitting on the head so it doesn't move."

"He explains things well," said Doug Williams, a retired police officer and Sanctuarian who lives next door and studied judo in his younger days. "He's strict, but he's inspiring at the same time. The kids know that."

They obediently ground each other's faces into the mat for two hours. Everyone then knelt and recited the Lord's Prayer in unison. Sean lifted his arms and murmured, "All glory to God." Class dismissed.

Sean Moon never raises his voice teaching jujitsu in the garage. Inside the house, however, he regularly unleashes the higher-octane side of his personality. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 5 to 8 a.m., Pastor Sean records a live webcast, called "The King's Report," in a room next to the kitchen.

He sits at a desk with an AR-15 rifle prominently displayed next to his microphone, always decked out in a shirt and tie, the camouflage suit jacket he bought on eBay, and a crown made of polished rifle shells. He'll interview an occasional guest and show clips from the NRA's digital TV channel.

But mostly he discusses the latest stories being featured by his conservative-media holy trinity - the Drudge Report, Breitbart News and Alex Jones' paranoia-pushing Infowars - and riffs at length about current events, from Oprah Winfrey's potential presidential bid ("She worships Satan. She promotes the New Age Christian view of God, which is a relevant God, which is, of course, Satan") to gun-control advocates ("They are complete demons. ... They want to make you completely vulnerable to the predations of the wicked").

While the Rev. Moon seldom indulged in personal attacks, Sean and Justin regularly toss verbal grenades. They're also more enamored with guns than their father - and more overtly political.

"No question about it," Sean told me one afternoon as we chatted in the orchestra section of the theater-turned-sanctuary: God's hand was at work in the 2016 presidential campaign. A week before Election Day, Justin spoke to a group of Japanese Sanctuarians who were visiting Pennsylvania and described in biblical terms what was at stake: Hillary Clinton, he said, was the "Fallen Eve" who would start a war (possibly nuclear) with Russia. Donald Trump was the "Adam-type figure" who wanted to attack and "bring judgment on the government, on the archangel." Depending on the outcome, he added, "the nature of God's judgment on this world will be dramatically different."

Both Moons shoot straight on and off the firing range. Sean on Al Gore: "A fricking nutbag." Sean on 9/11: "False flag." Sean on Hollywood liberals: "The most despicable, thieving, conniving, manipulating, evil, wicked, iniquitous demons on the planet." Justin on the United Nations: "Satanic." Justin on welfare recipients: "Parasites." Justin on Democrats: "There are a lot of pedophiles in the Democratic Party. They realize that Trump is coming to get them. Literally. Round them up and put them in prison and execute them."

Their straight talk caught up with them three weeks before the blessing ceremony. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremists, issued a "Hate Watch" on Sanctuary Church - ironically, further raising its profile. SPLC took issue with a "cult leader" urging followers to carry guns and with comments Sean made about public school children "getting indoctrinated into the homosexual political agenda" and "the transgender agenda." Sean responded by posting an alert of his own on Facebook: "Southern Poverty Law Center is well known as an extreme left hate group."

---

In December 2013, Justin Moon paid $2 million in cash for a 620-acre industrial site north of Newfoundland. On Aug. 30, 2016, he held the grand opening of Kahr Arms' Tommy Gun Warehouse showroom-store, the place to go for rifles, pistols, knives and the Brooklyn Smasher steel baseball bat that in an emergency can be used to club an intruder or a deer to death. The grand-opening guest of honor was Eric Trump. "That came about because God made it happen," Justin told me. Somebody from the Trump campaign had called him out of the blue and said, "Eric wants to come."

So Eric came, and Sean introduced him by saying: "It's my opinion that we must elect a president that will protect and expand the right to bear arms. ... I hope we can all agree that Hillary Clinton should never be the president of the United States. ... God bless the U.S.A., and please buy some guns and ammo!"

Eric, in an open-collar shirt and dark sports jacket, stood in front of a wall of rifles and next to a U.S. flag. "This election for every gun owner is a huge thing. It will be the difference between adding to our Second Amendment freedoms or not adding to our Second Amendment freedoms," he said, then switched to the topic of America hemorrhaging jobs. "We don't make anything here anymore. That's why Justin deserves a tremendous, tremendous round of applause. ... Our government does not make it easy on you, either from a shooting perspective or from a manufacturing perspective."

A year and a half later - on a Saturday night before the renewal-of-vows ceremony - Rod of Iron Ministries and Kahr Arms hosted a "President Trump Thank You" dinner at the Best Western in Matamoras. This time the only Trump in attendance was a life-size cardboard cutout of the president.

The event doubled as a fundraiser for Gun Owners of America, an organization Executive Director Emeritus Larry Pratt said takes "a more robust position" on guns than the NRA. Pratt lives in northern Virginia and served one term in the House of Delegates in the early 1980s. His dinner speech not only denounced any restrictions on gun sales and possession, it went a giant step further by asserting "the feds should have nothing to do with law enforcement anywhere."

Sean Moon echoed that ultra-libertarian theme. "Government is becoming a totalitarian crime syndicate," he warned, on its way to creating "a dystopian, Christ-hating hell on earth." Justin alluded to his father, saying, "without our property and our guns, we're nothing but laborers in a communist death camp."

The dinner opened with a moment of silence for the Parkland shooting victims, followed by a prayer led by Sanctuarian Ted O'Grady, who gave thanks for Trump: "This room knows that this is only the beginning ... that you will be the president that ushers in God's Kingdom on earth."

It ended with Hyun Shil Kang, Mrs. Moon No. 3, selecting the winning raffle ticket for the door prize: an AR-15 rifle donated by Kahr Arms. The winner was a middle-aged woman whose reaction was surprisingly muted; it turned out she already owns an AR-15.

A few days later, on Wednesday morning, about 20 demonstrators gathered outside Sanctuary Church armed with only signs. "Father Forgive Them." "Pickles for Peace, No More Absurd than Guns for God." As a precaution, all students at the elementary school a half-mile away had been bussed to other classrooms for the day. But no wolves in sheep's clothing tried to make trouble.

John Hind, a lifelong Newfoundlander, soaked in the scene from his front porch across the street. "They're good neighbors," he said of the Sanctuarians. "They haven't bothered nobody."

"But they're weird," snorted his friend Carol Wood, puffing a cigarillo. "And blessing their guns? It's confusing, and it's irritating."

Inside the church, Timothy Elder, acting as master of ceremonies, informed the overflow congregation and some 50 reporters and cameramen lining the walls (plus about a hundred people watching a video feed in the adjacent community room) that "this is not a blessing of inanimate firearms." It was strictly a recommitment of sacred wedding vows - for people bearing firearms.

Just before 10:30, Elder asked everyone to remove their AR-15s from their cases, "being careful to point the muzzle up and remove your finger from the trigger." Camera shutters clicked crazily. Attendants in pink-and-white vestments led a procession into the sanctuary, followed by a three-man, armed color guard dressed in combat fatigues. Next came Pastor Sean, the "Second King," and his wife, Yeon Ah Lee Moon, the "Queen," both clad in white. Justin Moon was on their heels, his dark suit topped off by his baseball hat. Mother Kang took a seat in a white-and-gold chair on the altar. A crown was placed on the chair next to her, representing the absent Rev. Moon.

Pastor Sean carried a bound copy of the Constitution of the United States of Cheon Il Guk, which he carefully laid on a table on the altar. His wife cradled a gold-plated AR-15. "The King and Queen will now place the Rod of Iron on its ceremonial stand where it will guard the Constitution," Elder explained.

The brides and grooms in attendance, some 500 total, jointly sipped from tiny cups of wine. They took their vows ("Do you promise an eternal bond as husband and wife?"). The King said an extended prayer, acknowledging their "right to sovereignty, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to inherit the earth and protect it from socialism, communism and political Satanism." Husbands and wives then exchanged rings. The sanctuary filled with applause, then cheers.

Outside a polite battle of words raged. On the front lawn, a contingent of Korean Sanctuarians unfurled a 20-foot-long banner referencing their divided country: "Thank you USA. We will never forget America's grace. Trump chosen by God, relocate the tactical nucleus to the 38th line." A chest-high rail fence runs along the property line, hugging the road. The Sanctuarians occupied one side, the protesters commanded the other.

Two adversaries faced off in gentlemanly mouth-to-mouth combat. Gideon Raucci is a second-generation Unificationist in his late 20s who switched allegiance to Sanctuary Church. He's active in Sean's Peace Police. Teddy Hose, 39, is a writer-graphic artist who flew in from San Francisco. He was part of a film crew shooting a documentary on cults. He's also a second-generation Unificationist who grew up near East Garden in close contact with the Moon family. Hose left the Church years ago.

"It can take just one bullet to change everything," he told Raucci.

"I totally hear you about being responsible with guns," Raucci replied.

"What I feel is not coming across to the rest of the community around you, this is scaring people ..."

"This might open up something beautiful where people understand where we're coming from," Raucci said. "Your focus is on loving your neighbor, I'm totally down with that. ... We're taught to never be the initiators of violence."

"David Koresh and Charles Manson both used the Book of Revelations," Hose reminded him, "because it's a very extreme part of the Bible."

It went back and forth like that for about 10 minutes. Then they reached over the fence, and hugged.

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The day after the blessing ceremony Regis Hanna, a Georgetown University graduate in his late 60s who recently moved to Pennsylvania to join the Sanctuary Church congregation, walked into Kahr Arms' Tommy Gun Warehouse showroom with his wife, Nancy. Right inside the door stands a taxidermy triptych: a lion and a leopard attacking an antelope, all three animals shot by Justin Moon on safari in Tanzania. "Infowars" was playing on the big-screen TV. Posters of beautiful women in spiked heels, flashing slit skirts and Kahr pistols, adorn two walls. Hanna was thinking of buying a handgun. He moved here from Panama, where gun laws are strict and where he spent 21 years doing missionary work for the Unification Church. He and Nancy did a lot of family counseling with unwed couples. Theirs was one of the early American marriages arranged by the Rev. Moon. They've been together 43 years and have seven children.

After the Unification Church rupture, the Hannas chose to cast their lot with Pastor Sean. Regis, a round-faced man of mellow temperament, is now part of Sanctuary's paid staff, and today it was his job to field any post-ceremony calls. The Church's main number had been forwarded to his cellphone, which rang shortly after he entered the showroom. It was a New Jersey area code. He put the call on speaker phone.

"Are you f---ing insane? You don't know the meaning of religion! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!"

A minute later, another call came in. Oklahoma area code: "I was wondering if you're accepting more people into your group." Hanna told the man he could catch Sanctuary services on YouTube.

Another call. British Columbia. "I love what you guys are doing. I love Sean."

"Thank you, brother," said Hanna.

Hak Ja Han's ascension to the head of the Unification Church had ripple effects, and many hundreds of people faced the same decision the Hannas did. Friendships got torn apart, marriages blew up and families were divided as Church members declared different loyalties. Most Unificationists stayed with the parent church; some went with Pastor Sean; a few followed oldest brother Preston Moon, who established a secular Global Peace Foundation in Seattle. Others quit the movement altogether.

Kyle Toffey, 65, was a longtime Unificationist who lived in Korea for 10 years. He admitted to me that "at first it did sound a little bit off the wall" when Pastor Sean added an AR-15 twist to the blessing ceremony, but he and his wife participated. He has learned to "reserve my skepticism" and trust Sean's judgment. Plus, he has grown to appreciate the responsibility and self-confidence that comes with being armed: "In the morning when you strap on a pistol, you feel like the sheriff of the town."

Dan Fefferman used to worship with Regis Hanna at a Unification Church in Washington, D.C. He and his wife were married in the same group ceremony as the Hannas. They live in Bowie, Maryland, now and stayed with the Unification Church, but Fefferman visited Sean Moon's congregation several times.

"A lot of us went to check it out," Fefferman said in a phone interview, "hoping we could talk sense into him." In his opinion, the Moon brothers "attract the more unbalanced members" that can be found in any religious sect. He considered Rod of Iron a "far-right group with a paramilitary aspect to it." Not a hate group per se, "but I certainly hope and expect the FBI is watching them closely."

For second-generation Church members, these choices are more emotionally complex. The Unification Church is the only anchor they've known. Andrew Stewart's parents raised him in the Church. He spent several college summers as an intern on a nondenominational farm near Newfoundland, where he got exposed to Sanctuary Church. He helped with some minor building renovations and attended Sunday services. The vibe grew progressively darker, he said. Although personally fond of many people he met, it struck him as odd that, theologically, "the Church thrives off the ability to make people angry." He gradually drifted away from Sanctuary and this spring left the Unification Church, too.

Somiya Chapman Gabb - whose father was part of the Unification Church support staff at East Garden - was so offended by Hak Ja Han's revising of Rev. Moon's religious texts that she jumped to Sanctuary in early 2015. She and her husband were then living in Yonkers, New York, a three-hour round-trip drive. But she and her family felt increasingly out of tune with Sanctuary's often "scathing" sermons. Also, a member of the congregation told her that another Sanctuarian had pulled a loaded gun on him. By the end of 2017, the Gabbs stopped making that long Sunday drive to Pennsylvania. They read the Bible and pray at home now. Gabb thinks "there's still hope" that Sanctuary Church can right itself but said Sean Moon "is one word away from a violent situation and he may not even know it."

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Individually, Sanctuary Church members come across as honest, reasonable, upright folk, the stuff of good neighbors. Collectively, the dynamic changes. So much of the Church discourse can't abide contrasting opinions and worldviews. You don't hear much talk about, or empathy for, the poor, the infirm, the weak. Most enervating, though, is the steady drumbeat of dystopia. To be a devout Sanctuarian requires almost superhuman faith in the cleansing waters of catastrophe. It's like standing on the deck of the Titanic and rooting for the icebergs.

Justin Moon told me we've entered "that End of Times time frame" prophesied in the Book of Revelation, when God and "his champions" will "take the political power in the earth" away from Satan. Viewed through that lens, the 2016 election was "very different." Actually, hugely different. "I believe God is using Donald Trump," he said, a sentiment his brother shares. "He is an imperfect person, a sinner, but God has chosen to use him. Just like King David was an imperfect person."

The apocalyptic events predicted in the Bible began unspooling, Justin explained, during his father's lifetime: World War II, the Cold War, famines, disease epidemics and "the continuing confusion we see today." Biblical timelines are unpredictable, but he is confident the End of Times and the corresponding advent of Cheon Il Guk will come in his son's lifetime, if not his own. His father, the Rev. Moon, said so.

Sean Moon's Constitution of the United States of Cheon Il Guk is a powerful document. It throws the country in reverse and then steps on the gas. Consider just these few provisions: The House of Representatives will elect the president. The king will pick Supreme Court justices. Congress cannot levy income taxes or property taxes; nor can it fund health care, education, Social Security or Medicare. The constitution specifically states there will be no Central Bank, Environmental Protection Agency or national police force.

Oh, and there will be no standing military of any kind. Justin Moon says the United States will follow the "Swiss model" of national defense. For example, he says, the Swiss Air Force has a small number of paid managers who schedule airplane maintenance and design training regimens, but citizen volunteers take care of all the planes and fly them, too. He says the Swiss defense system has kept Switzerland safe and secure for a long time. This is true, though being a neutral country may have a little something to do with that.

President Trump was doing a fine job implementing God's plan, the way Pastor Sean saw it - that is, until he signed the omnibus spending bill that added another trillion dollars to the national debt. Then came the April airstrikes on Syria. A few days later Sean Moon addressed these developments in a "King's Report" webcast: "This is very, very disturbing for the actual Trump supporters who got him elected. We don't want war. We're sick of foreign entanglements. ... He's completely doing a 180. He's becoming frickin' Hillary Clinton. ... If he continues down this road, America is dead, folks. ... He's a man with many flaws, many sins, and now he's capitulating to the most evil wickedness on the planet."

That wickedness kept getting worse. The day he recorded this particular "King's Report," news broke that the judge overseeing the court case of the president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, had officiated at the 2013 wedding of George Soros ("the Antichrist; he has his Rothschild fingers in everything," Pastor Sean moaned) and Nancy Pelosi was a guest. The fix is in, he said. One way or another, the "deep state" is going to take Trump down.

Then again, for Pastor Sean, the good news is that all this bad news is actually great news. He perceived a hidden hand at work, puzzling it out live on "The King's Report." The quicker the country goes down the toilet, the quicker Americans will come to their senses and embrace the Rod of Iron and Cheon Il Guk. It now appears to him that God is using Trump to run America into the ground, not make it great again. "We didn't know exactly how it would unfold," Pastor Sean told his fellow Sanctuarians, YouTube watchers and the world, "but we knew that in the end times, it gets worse before it gets better."

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Tom Dunkel is the author of "Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line."

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Video: The World Peace and Unification Sanctuary is a religious group in Newfoundland, Pa., led by Pastor Hyung Jin "Sean" Moon. Here is a sampling of his teachings.(Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

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

House conservatives demand an investigation - of Hillary Clinton

By dana milbank
House conservatives demand an investigation - of Hillary Clinton

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Milbank clients only)

By DANA MILBANK

WASHINGTON -- Robert S. Mueller III's investigation has won indictments against President Trump's former campaign chairman and 16 others and has secured guilty pleas from five people, including Trump's former national security adviser and two campaign advisers.

This can mean only one thing: It is time to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.

Federal agents raided the properties of Trump's personal attorney, who was paid by corporations seeking to influence Trump and who was reimbursed by Trump for paying hush money to a porn actress.

As a natural consequence of this, it is imperative to probe the dealings of the Clinton Foundation.

Voluminous evidence has emerged showing that Russians and other foreign nationals met with the Trump campaign with offers to help him win the election.

And this leads inevitably to the conclusion that federal prosecutors must look into the Uranium One sale during Clinton's tenure as secretary of state.

This, at any rate, is the peculiar view expressed by a group of House conservatives Tuesday as they introduced a 12-page resolution demanding that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate various allegations against Clinton, the vanquished Democratic presidential nominee. They also want this new special prosecutor to look into the circumstances that started the Russia probe, though here, too, they blame Clinton, and to probe the conduct of Mueller and top officials at the Justice Department and FBI, who, as these lawmakers see it, are all hopelessly biased against Trump.

"We need a special prosecutor to investigate the special prosecutor," asserted Rep.?Louie Gohmert, R-Tex..

Rep. Paul A. Gosar, R-Ariz., joining his fellow conservatives, alleged "an orchestrated campaign against a duly elected government" -- namely, Trump's. "That's why there's nothing short of treason for those that actually participated," he added.

The group of them -- 10 men and one woman -- tossed in their greatest hits from the Obama years: The "Fast and Furious" gun-running scheme, Anthony Weiner, political targeting at the IRS, Bill Clinton's tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch, Andrew McCabe's wife getting Clinton-connected money. It's a wonder they didn't bring up Benghazi or Monica Lewinsky.

"It's the scandal of our time, the scandal perhaps of our lifetime," judged Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz..

There are just a couple of problems with this reprise of 2016's "lock her up" mania: Clinton is no longer a candidate or an officeholder. Besides, if the FBI and Justice Department tipped the vote toward anybody in '16, it was toward Trump, when FBI Director James B. Comey announced shortly before the election that he had reopened the email investigation. Mueller, the other focus of the conservatives' ire, is a Republican appointed by another Republican, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who was appointed by Trump.

But such nuance was not on the minds of those demanding a new independent counsel to probe Mueller, Rosenstein, Clinton and, presumably, anybody Trump feels is out to get him -- a persecutor prosecutor, if you will.

NBC's Kasie Hunt offered the conservatives an observation: "I've spoken to the more moderate members of your caucus, one of whom used the word 'crazy' to describe all of you and this effort."

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., who wrote the anti-Clinton resolution, argued that "what's crazy about all of this is the fact that every single thing in that resolution is accurate. That's crazy."

No, what's crazy is that Zeldin believes his allegations are somehow relevant.

Democrats would like nothing more than for Republicans to attack Clinton again; that would further rile the base. This, presumably, is why GOP leaders want nothing to do with the Zeldin resolution. But the conservatives, who tend to come from districts that voted heavily for Trump, don't care what anybody else thinks.

Thus did Zeldin, reading from his resolution Tuesday morning, sound as if a time warp had taken him back to 2016, or to an alternate reality in which Clinton won.

"With regards to Secretary Clinton, federal law and State Department rules, regulations and protocol were violated with her use of a private email server in her Chappaqua, New York, home," Zeldin said.

There are 57 whereas clauses in the resolution, and the name "Clinton" appears 33 times, including the Clinton Foundation allegedly getting Uranium One money and Clinton's campaign backing the Fusion GPS dossier.

Toward the end of this hour-long exercise in subject changing, a reporter's phone went off. The ringtone was the sound of a duck. It was, quite accidentally, a perfect soundtrack: Having tried all other means of defending Trump, his allies are now practicing quackery.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Philadelphia's unnecessary war on Catholics

By kathleen parker
Philadelphia's unnecessary war on Catholics

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, May 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, May 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)

By KATHLEEN PARKER

WASHINGTON -- At a time when more than 400,000 children are in foster care nationwide, the city of Philadelphia is threatening to cut ties with Catholic Social Services because of the group's policy against placing foster children in same-sex households.

On the surface, one might say this is a classic case of state vs. church: The city must uphold its policies forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And CSS must honor Catholic teaching and not place children in LGBTQ households.

On a deeper level, however, the issue cuts right to the core of religious liberty. Although the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom has always meant that the state couldn't impose a religion upon its people, secularism would seem to qualify as a religion inasmuch as the state's policies are really beliefs -- articles of faith based upon far less information and experience than the church's. There's no dogma like no-dogma, if I may quote myself.

In fact, CSS has never been petitioned by a gay couple, according to a complaint that the group and three foster parents in its network have filed against the city in federal court.

The clash began in March after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a gay couple seeking to adopt had been turned away by another religious-based agency, Bethany Christian Services. Soon thereafter, the city's Department of Human Services suspended foster-care intake with both Bethany and CSS, pending an investigation by Philadelphia's Commission on Human Relations.

This is one of those instances when both sides have a compelling argument.

One could argue that when 6,000 children in Philadelphia alone receive foster care, the church's restrictions are stubbornly out of step. And, rather oddly, the church objects only to same-sex couples. A single gay man could become a foster parent, according to an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing CSS and the three claimants, who happen to be single women with vast experience as foster parents over several decades.

More to the point, I agree with legal expert Alan Dershowitz, who has said that society should always lean toward deciding in favor of religious liberty. At the time, he was debating -- but, really, agreeing with -- Ken Starr about religious objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. The Supreme Court agreed in two related cases -- Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby -- ruling in favor of religious exemptions in both.

This case, too, could eventually wind its way to the highest court. The Becket Fund is known to accept cases that have appellate value. Clearly, there's more at stake than whether one gay couple should be able to insist that one religious-based foster-placement group assign them children. Sure, I think they should, assuming the couple is otherwise well-positioned to help children who need not just shelter but a home.

But I'm not Catholic, nor do I share the church's belief that same-sex marriage is a sin. And defunding CSS is no good answer. On a typical day, Philadelphia's CSS serves on average more than 120 foster children and supervises about 100 homes, according to the lawsuit. In 2017, CSS worked with more 2,200 at-risk children.

That's a lot of slack for other agencies to pick up, explaining why the city issued an emergency call in March for 300 new foster families. Threatening to cut ties with CSS in June, based solely on its religiously informed policy, seems like discrimination by any other name. And, yes, some would argue that CSS' policy is discriminatory.

Whatever one's personal beliefs, it's clear that this case is about more than one gay couple or one obviously targeted religious group. It's about freedom of conscience for everyone.

Given the immense good that CSS and other religious charities do, surely there is another way intelligent people in the City of Brotherly Love (and elsewhere) can resolve their differences. The ultimate aim of secularists, of course, isn't to place foster kids with gay couples or force devout bakers to create wedding cakes for gay weddings but to banish God from the village square. Lest you celebrate too soon, remember: The state is a soul-less, ruthless and insatiable machine, and its only purpose is to increase its power and subjugate its citizens for maximum efficiency.

Every time religious liberty is put to the test, freedom holds its breath.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump's 'animal' instincts toward immigrants go beyond MS-13

By ruben navarrette jr.
Trump's 'animal' instincts toward immigrants go beyond MS-13

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, May 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, May 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Navarrette clients only)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

SAN DIEGO -- The world of politics can be a zoo. So it was only a matter of time before the demagogue-in-chief labeled some illegal immigrants "animals."

It happened last week during a White House meeting that had the vibe of a carnival freak show. President Trump met with officials from California who, judging from their remarks, are itching to put on junior G-men badges and play immigration agent.

You would think that people who want to get mileage out of SB-54, the so-called sanctuary-state law, might have read the darned thing. If they had, they would know that, in the Golden State, the concept of "sanctuary" isn't worth a plugged nickel.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims complained: "There could be an MS-13 member I know about -- if they don't reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it." Trump responded: "We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in -- and we're stopping a lot of them -- but we're taking people out of the country. You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals."

The sheriff doth protest too much. An earlier version of SB-54 -- which went much further in limiting cooperation between local law enforcement officials and federal immigration agents -- was threatened with a veto by California Gov. Jerry Brown. It was a cynical play. The Democrat -- who has been in elective office on-and-off since 1970 and has politics in his veins -- wanted to keep his party from being branded "pro-illegal immigration" and "anti-law and order."

Changes were made, and a watered-down bill was signed into law by Brown. Under the current version, Immigration and Customs Enforcement still has plenty of access to county jails, and it can still get a heads-up from the local sheriff's office when an illegal immigrant is released from custody -- if that person has committed certain serious crimes, or if ICE has a warrant with the person's name on it.

That's what Mims calls a "certain threshold."

But I don't see the problem. According to Trump, and most of the hangers-on at his White House meeting, every member of MS-13 -- a gang that was created in Los Angeles, exported to El Salvador and now seems to be making its way back -- is a mixture of "El Chapo" Guzman, Al Capone, and the indestructible villain Thanos from "Infinity War." With the "bad hombres" of MS-13, meeting the threshold should be easy.

The bigger problem is what Trump said. Americans have a foul history of comparing immigrants -- from Germany, Ireland, China, Italy, Mexico and El Salvador -- to animals. So we should not brush off those comments so easily.

There is a backstory here. Just in the last 10 years, Republicans have repeatedly tapped into their "animal" instincts.

-- Dr. Pat Bertroche, a candidate for Congress from Iowa, noted that he can microchip his dog and asked: "Why can't I microchip an illegal?"

-- Tennessee state Rep. Curry Todd insisted that illegal immigrants come to this country and multiply "like rats."

-- Rep. Steve King of Iowa wanted an electrified fence on the U.S.-Mexico border because it works "with livestock."

Trump's defenders made excuses for him, just as they did when he labeled Mexican immigrants drug traffickers and rapists.

I have to wonder: Why does someone who bills himself as a great communicator always need clarification when he talks about immigrants?

Besides, while Trump did mention MS-13 in doubling down the next day, he did not refer to the gang in his initial remarks at the White House. And it's not the job of journalists to read his mind and try to figure out what he meant, only to report what he said.

That also applied to Hillary Clinton, who -- while pushing for a crime bill in the 1990s -- warned about a mob of violent young people who she called "super predators" who had to be brought "to heel." Many African-Americans complained -- and still maintain to this day -- that Clinton was comparing young black men to animals. Clinton's supporters claimed her words were taken out of context. There is a lot of that going around.

Meanwhile, Trump likes to portray himself as bravely standing up to political correctness.

Fine. Then he should stand up and admit that his antipathy toward immigrants is not limited to gang members. Such an admission would show maturity, honesty and character.

And those are things that separate us from the animals.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

In the Russia probe, fringe characters take center stage

By david ignatius
In the Russia probe, fringe characters take center stage

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, May 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, May 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)

By DAVID IGNATIUS

WASHINGTON -- In the bizarre double helix that is the Russia investigation, one of the recurring themes is the role of would-be influencers. They start off as connectors and facilitators, but gradually (and implausibly) they move to the center of the story.

That's true with Stefan Halper, the retired American professor at Britain's Cambridge University who has become the object of President Trump's counter-witch hunt to expose a supposed FBI mole who infiltrated his campaign. The FBI is guarding Halper's identity as it should any trusted informant, but he was named a week ago by conservative news sites and then by other publications.

It's outrageous that Trump has encouraged "outing" this putative intelligence source. And this latest attempt to deflect special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation only adds to suspicion that Trump has something very big to hide.

But it's laughable to imagine Halper as a superspy, infiltrating the heart of the Trump campaign. Those who know Halper describe someone closer to a gregarious busybody and academic eccentric -- an intellectual who jostles for first billing on a book cover -- than a mole burrowing toward Trump's inner circle. Like many underemployed ex-professors, he likes to gossip, and perhaps that made him a good intelligence source. But this is not James Bond.

A former British intelligence officer who knows Halper well describes him as "an intensely loyal and trusted U.S. citizen [who was] asked by the Bureau to look into some disconcerting contacts" between Russians and Americans. Isn't that what the FBI and its sources are supposed to do?

The professor is just one of the unlikely figures who populate the edges of the Trump-Russia investigation. These Zelig-like characters at the periphery have been so enticing for journalists, left and right, that they've become part of the central narrative. They're the mice that roared.

Another such middleman who has become a central character is George Nader, a Lebanese-born operative who worked for the United Arab Emirates. According to news reports, Nader tried to channel UAE money to people close to the Trump campaign to mobilize support for Emirati efforts against Iran and Qatar.

Nader is a familiar gadfly to people who follow the Middle East. Since the mid-1980s, he has been a professional intermediary, trying to freelance connections between America and the Arab world. It's a mystery why the UAE, a sophisticated country that can buy the best expertise in the intelligence business, would turn to a character like Nader. But on such oddities and lapses in judgment, the world turns.

Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman who was indicted last year by Mueller, is another influence peddler who now looms larger than life. Through more than 40 years in politics, Manafort has been hustling his connections to try to make his way to the big show. Mueller's allegations of fraud and money laundering make Manafort sound like a master player, but a close reading of Manafort's life describes a series of missed opportunities and squandered money.

Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch, is another odd character who hovers on the fringes of this story. Manafort tried to impress Deripaska with his Trump credentials, presumably hoping it would prove lucrative. Weirdly, leaked text messages show that Deripaska's American lawyer tried to make a connection between Sen. Mark Warner, ranking member of the intelligence committee, and Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer who compiled the famous "dossier" alleging back in mid-2016 that Russia was secretly colluding with the Trump campaign.

Steele may be the ultimate Zelig in this story, a character who keeps reappearing at each turn. From what his former colleagues say, he was too good an intelligence operative to be described as a peddler. But his role as a freelance investigator, hired by Trump's opponents, has become a black hole in this story, into which other facts disappear.

Large events sometimes turn on small characters who place themselves at center stage. Think of Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian fixer who launched the Iran-contra scandal that shrouded President Ronald Reagan's second term. Or Ahmad Chalabi, the charmingly manipulative Iraqi banker who helped lobby President George W. Bush into invading Iraq.

The Russia investigation, like these other moments in history, is becoming a version of the "butterfly effect," where seemingly random, distant events have large consequences -- thanks to the pro-Trump echo chamber. It's Mueller's job to keep the strands of the central narrative in his hands so that they can be understood and, where necessary, prosecuted.

Trump is running a circus of distraction. But at the center of the ring remains Mueller, silent and unblinking.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Here are the top excuses people use for not investing in a 529 college-savings plan

By michelle singletary
Here are the top excuses people use for not investing in a 529 college-savings plan

THE COLOR OF MONEY COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, May 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, May 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Singletary clients only)

WRITETHRU: 8th to last graf, first sentence, inserting "tax" so that it reads: "...you'll have to pay ordinary income tax on the earnings..."

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY

WASHINGTON -- In the fall, my husband and I will have three children in universities: one in her second year of graduate school, one a junior in college, and the other a first-semester freshman.

When they are finished, not one of our children will graduate with any debt. None. Nada.

How did we do it without hitting the lottery or the scholarship jackpot?

We started saving when our kids were wee little people, the last two before they could walk or talk. And the vehicle we used to save was a 529 plan.

Under a 529, if the money is used for qualified educational expenses, the earnings are not taxed.

But despite the fact that this tax-advantaged savings plan has been around for 22 years, a recent survey by the financial services firm Edward Jones found that 71 percent of Americans couldn't correctly identify a 529 as a way to save for education expenses.

This is disturbing. The average published charges for in-state college tuition, room and board was $20,770 for the 2017/2018 academic year, according to the College Board. Without taking into account inflation, that's $83,000 for four years, if no financial aid is offered. For a private college, the price would be nearly $188,000.

"Every day people wait, they are falling behind," said Danae Domian, an Edward Jones principal.

Families that lack savings often resort to taking out loans. This is also troubling, because a lot of people don't know important details about their education debt, according to a Prudential Financial survey last year. Seventy-four percent of respondents were unsure about how much time they had to pay back their loans, and 53 percent didn't know what their monthly payments would be.

Citing what they've heard -- not researched -- here are four of the top reasons parents give for why they aren't investing in a 529.

(BEG ITAL) No. 1: Saving in a 529 will hurt my child's chances of getting financial aid.(END ITAL)

Under the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a 529 plan can only reduce a student's need-based financial aid package by a maximum of 5.64 percent of the account's value.

"The benefits of investing in a 529 plan outweigh any other financial-aid concerns that parents would have -- especially the younger the child," said James Mahaney, vice president of strategic initiatives at Prudential.

(BEG ITAL) No. 2: Financial experts say I should concentrate on saving for retirement, because I can't borrow to retire, but my children can borrow to go to school. (END ITAL)

This isn't an either-or situation. You have to try and do both.

College graduates 35 and under with education debt spend 18 percent of their income making loan payments, and 60 percent of them expect they'll still be paying off their loans into their 40s, according to a 2016 survey by Citizens Bank.

"The reality is most of us have to have a combination: long, intermediate and short-term savings goals," said Ken Hevert, senior vice president of wealth management at Fidelity.

(BEG ITAL) No. 3: If my child doesn't go to college, I'll be penalized by the IRS.(END ITAL)

If you don't end up using the money in your 529 account for college expenses, you'll have to pay ordinary income tax on the earnings when you take the money out. And there is a 10 percent penalty for a nonqualified withdrawal.

But the penalty and taxes are due only on the earnings, not on your contributions, which were made with after-tax dollars.

And instead of taking a nonqualified withdrawal, you could keep the money invested in the 529 and use it for another child's college costs, or to pay for graduate school later.

"The money is very easily transferable to other family members," said Roger Young, senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price.

(BEG ITAL) No. 4: I'll have to pay a penalty if my child gets a scholarship.(END ITAL)

I won't get into how so many parents are delusional about their children's chances of getting a full ride to college. But OK, let's say your child is awarded a $40,000 scholarship. The 10 percent penalty is waived for the full scholarship amount.

You could withdraw the money and use it for whatever you like without paying the penalty. But you would still owe income taxes.

"I don't run into too many people who say, 'Oh, I can't believe how much money I had left in my 529,'" Young said.

The cost of college is no joke. So, are you ready to stop making excuses now?

--0-- --0-- --0--

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

It's been amateur hour on China negotiations

By catherine rampell
It's been amateur hour on China negotiations

THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients only)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

The Trump administration is supposed to be negotiating with China. But right now it more often seems to be negotiating with itself.

China knows what it wants out of these bilateral negotiations; the White House plainly does not. Trump officials have offered shifting and at times contradictory demands and objectives, further complicated by administration infighting, public turf wars, reversals, retractions and clumsy errors.

In short: Over here on Team USA, it's been amateur hour.

On Friday, for instance, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters that China had offered to reduce the U.S. trade deficit by "at least" $200 billion.

That would be an astonishing figure, as it would comprise more than half of our entire goods deficit with China.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman flatly denied that China had offered this number. And the next day, when the White House released its joint communique with China on the negotiations, the statement mentioned only "a consensus on taking effective measures to substantially reduce the United States trade deficit in goods with China."

No actual figures were included, certainly not $200 billion.

So how did Kudlow respond when confronted with these developments?

On ABC's "This Week," he denied that he'd ever touted an agreement on the $200 billion figure, saying that it was just "a number that interests the president a lot."

This is hardly the only time the administration has been confused about the facts, or its own position.

On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer offered somewhat mixed messages on what was expected to happen with tariffs going forward. Mnuchin said the United States was "putting the trade war on hold"; Lighthizer emphasized that tariffs remain on the table.

In Beijing earlier this month, divisions between the free-trader and protectionist wings of the U.S. delegation exploded, with the White House trade adviser Peter Navarro reportedly shouting and cursing at Mnuchin after being excluded from a meeting.

Trump himself is not exactly helping to make the administration's message more coherent.

A month ago, the Commerce Department imposed harsh penalties on Chinese telecom giant ZTE, which U.S. officials determined had not complied with a previous settlement over illicit sales to Iran and North Korea. Trump's FBI director, the nation's top counterintelligence official and the Defense Department have likewise warned that ZTE phones may pose a cybersecurity threat.

But then this past week, Trump bizarrely declared that he was hoping to reverse these U.S. actions. "Too many jobs in China lost," Trump tweeted. "Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!"

In subsequent days, Trump and his underlings have offered muddled and at times contradictory guidance about the motivation behind this change of heart, and what actual policy adjustments it might entail.

More broadly, this administration often doesn't seem to realize that its stated goals regarding China are at some level schizophrenic, if not mutually exclusive.

The administration has said it wants better investment terms for U.S. companies in China, for instance, which means that U.S. multinational companies would be more likely to move more of their supply chains to China. It would also lead more capital to flow from the United States to China. As the Financial Times' Lucy Hornby points out, these developments would be at odds with Trump's goal of reducing our goods trade deficit with China.

So why can't the administration get its act together? Why do officials keep publicly undermining themselves and their colleagues?

At core, the problem is that Trump's trade agenda is deeply confused, which enables cacophony and cattiness.

During the 2016 election, Trump was obsessed with the idea that our trade deals were "unfair," part of his broader campaign message attempting to scapegoat foreigners for all the nation's ills.

Trump's evidence was that we had a big trade deficit, which meant we were "losing." Deficits, however, are not inherently bad, nor necessarily a sign of "unfair" trade. They're a function of lots of other broader macroeconomic factors, like savings and investment.

But no matter.

All Trump understood was that voters liked the story he was telling. So rather than taking the time to learn about our actual complaints regarding China's trade policy (primarily, intellectual property theft), or how we could deal with them (through multilateral pressure, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump killed), Trump fixated on deficits. The part of the story that sold with the public.

Meanwhile, the people in charge of executing Trump's trade policy became prisoners of Trump's fairy tale, doomed to try to solve a problem that doesn't exist rather than the one that does.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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