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Government shutdown looms as Trump meets with Sen. Schumer

By Mike DeBonis, et al.
Government shutdown looms as Trump meets with Sen. Schumer
Demonstrators hold illuminated signs during a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 18, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Zach Gibson.

WASHINGTON - With hours left before a possible shutdown, President Donald Trump huddled at the White House with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on Friday to discuss striking a deal to keep the government open.

The meeting involving two New Yorkers set off alarms among congressional Republicans, who are holding firm in support of the short-term spending bill that passed the House Thursday night.

Neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., nor House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., attended the White House meeting, according to GOP aides, leaving unclear exactly what Trump and Schumer might do.

But at least one Senate Republican and some Democrats were optimistic that a crisis could be averted.

"This is welcome news to American people, military, DACA recipients," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wrote on Twitter. "Let's see if two New Yorkers can agree on a deal good for USA."

"Mr. Schumer is well aware of the priorities we share so I'm optimistic that invitation was made with the idea of being constructive," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi D-Calif., told reporters.

Republicans on Capitol Hill said White House aides assured them that no private deal will be struck between Trump and Schumer.

"He wants to hear Schumer out," said one Republican.

Senate Democrats had rallied against a short-term spending bill that does not offer protections for young undocumented immigrants or address other priorities such as disaster relief, and the House was threatening to adjourn, having already passed the bill Thursday night.

Trump and the Republicans, who control all levers of government, faced the possibility of a shutdown on the first anniversary of his inauguration. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Americans by a 20-point margin blame Trump and the GOP over Democrats if the government closes.

Ryan and McConnell met early Friday morning and resolved to stand firm for passage of the House bill.

There was uncertainty about House members' plans to remain in Washington after delivering a take-it-or-leave-it spending bill to the Senate. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he would release his members to depart for a planned one-week recess, but leadership later advised members that additional votes were possible Friday.

The House passed the short-term bill Thursday evening by a vote of 230 to 197.

"We've done our job," McCarthy told reporters Friday morning, saying it was up to Schumer "to decide if he wants a shutdown."

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, remained short of the 60 votes needed to advance the bill to fund the government through Feb. 16. The House's imminent departure further decreased the possibility Congress will extend government funding for just a few days, as Democrats have requested.

Trump, blaming Democrats, tweeted that they would rather have "illegal immigration and weak borders" than supply enough votes to keep the government open.

"Shutdown coming? We need more Republican victories in 2018!" Trump tweeted Friday morning.

It was uncertain when the Senate would vote, but McConnell delivered a political salvo, saying Democrats had been led into a "box canyon" by Schumer. McConnell said that Democrats would be held responsible for a shutdown, even though the GOP controls Congress and the White House.

By late Thursday, nine Senate Democrats who had voted for a short-term spending bill in December said they would not support the latest proposed extension. They joined 30 other Democrats and a handful of Republicans in opposing the bill.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said late Thursday that he was "not inclined" to vote for a short-term spending measure because leaders did not keep their promise to hold a vote by the end of January on legal protections for young undocumented immigrants. On Friday morning, he said he preferred Democrats' proposal of a mini funding extension to allow more time for negotiations, an idea GOP leaders rejected Thursday.

Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney said he put the odds of a shutdown at 50-50. He said that he was instructing federal agencies to prepare for the possibility and that they would be granted more flexibility to move money around to continue services.

Marc Short, Trump's director of legislative affairs, said that the effort by Democrats to put an immigration fix in the bill was unreasonable, given that legislative text has not been drafted and the program doesn't expire until March.

"There's no DACA bill to vote on, and there's no emergency on the timing," Short said.

A government shutdown causing employee furloughs has never occurred under unified party control of Congress and the White House.

The Trump administration is drawing up plans to keep national parks and monuments open despite a shutdown as a way to blunt public anger, and while the military would not cease to operate, troops would not be paid unless Congress specifically authorizes it.

The last shutdown, in 2013, lasted for 16 days as Republicans tried unsuccessfully to force changes to the Affordable Care Act. On Jan. 30, Trump is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address.

In a sign of the preparations on Capitol Hill, congressional staffers received formal notice Friday morning that they may be furloughed starting at midnight. Individual lawmakers will have to determine which aides have to report for work during the impasse.

As senators awaited news about possible votes, the White House prepared to delay Trump's departure for his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida until after a short-term spending bill is passed. The president had intended to leave Washington late Friday afternoon ahead of a lavish celebration of his first year in office that is planned for Saturday night.

With the House scheduled to be out of session next week, several leaders have planned trips abroad. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Israel and Egypt, Ryan will visit Iraq, and McCarthy and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., will accompany Trump to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort village of Davos.

McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks said the Davos trip would be canceled in the event of a government shutdown, but that did not stop House Minority Leader Pelosi from criticizing the trip.

"Every year the Republicans plan the January schedule so that they can go to Davos. They want to spend next week hobnobbing with their elitist friends instead of honoring their responsibilities to the American people," she said.

The stalemate reflected Republicans' effort to force Democrats into a series of uncomfortable votes aimed at dividing moderates from states Trump won in 2016 from party leaders and outspoken liberals considering runs for the White House. Ten Senate Democrats are seeking reelection in states that voted for Trump, and Republicans believe the current conflict could provide powerful fodder for political attacks later in the year.

While the short-term bill did not include protections for "dreamers," immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, Republicans did attach a long-term extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program and delays to several unpopular health-care taxes. The GOP cast the spending vote, in part, as a choice between illegal immigrants and poor children, military troops and others who rely on government benefits.

In an interview with Fox News Channel Friday morning, Ryan blasted Democratic senators for putting the federal government on the cusp of a shutdown.

"These Senate Democrats are holding our men and women in uniform hostage over an unrelated issue. The Senate Democrats are holding children's health care hostage for an unrelated issue. . . . They're basically holding all of government hostage," he said.

Emboldened by signs of division within the GOP, meanwhile, Democrats rallied for a showdown on what they believe is favorable ground: fighting for popular policies against an unpopular president.

Pelosi said Friday that her caucus was "greatly strengthened" by the unity they showed by opposing the spending bill on Thursday.

"All of the priorities we are insisting upon have strong bipartisan support," Pelosi said in a message sent to fellow Democrats.


The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan and John Wagner contributed.

Locking panties and man-repelling bracelets: Is this what the women of 2018 need?

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Locking panties and man-repelling bracelets: Is this what the women of 2018 need?
Illustration for story about some of the well-meaning (but often ridiculous) defenses women have been offered against the great boogeyman of sexual violence. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post illustration by Eddie Alvarez

In the promised reckoning over sexual assault, harassment and rape culture, a bracelet probably wasn't the solution the women of 2018 were hoping for.

But here it is. Last week, a Dutch start-up announced the sale of the Invi bracelet, the latest in a long line of odd implements designed for fending off would-be rapists. When the wearer gives it a tug, the Invi releases a pungent stench that Invi's founder, Roel van der Kamp, likens to a skunk's perfume.

The tagline for the Invi, priced at about $70, is "Provoke Independence," which is an oddly upbeat way of reminding us that without some kind of protection, women's freedom is not a given. Guys, you get to slide your Time's Up pin through your lapel and call it a day. We'll go to work wearing a skunk bracelet just in case.

Which, well, stinks.

"If this approach was going to work, it would have worked already," says Jaclyn Friedman, an anti-rape activist and author of "Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All."

Instead, she says, these sorts of products are "incredibly exploitative of women's fears, and they sell the idea that there's some capitalist-commerce fix to the problem of sexual violence."

And, adds Emily May, executive director of Hollaback!, an organization that offers resources and training to fight harassment on the street and online, self-defense contraptions are a "cottage industry" built around "the idea that, essentially, it's your responsibility to protect yourself - that the people who perpetrate these behaviors don't have any self-control, and you need to take control and strap on your jacket with 110 volts of electricity."

Van der Kamp argues that men can also wear his bracelet to draw attention to sexual violence. Of the burden of ending rape, he says, "I don't believe it's a woman's problem. It's equally a man's problem."

So why are so many of these "protective" gadgets aimed at us? Here's a shortlist of some of the well-meaning (but often ridiculous) defenses women have been offered against the great boogeyman of sexual violence.

- The chastity belt

Researchers say there was never an actual medieval device intended to make a fortress of a woman's erogenous zones, but the fantasy of a locked-up damsel endures. A modern-day version might exist in AR Wear, a crowdfunded prototype of a woman's panty with locks at the waist and the legs. Tagline: "For when things go wrong."

- The rape whistle

Sound archaic? Dozens of these glorified noisemakers are available on sites such as Amazon. And after the brutal, deadly rape of a young woman in New Delhi in 2015, an organization called She's Against Rape even began distributing pink whistles to Indian women as a defense - along with a warning not to cry wolf.

- The self-defense movement

Urban American women first took up jujitsu and other self-defense training in the 1920s, just as they were going after the right to vote, according to the recent book "Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement." Was the timing a coincidence? We think not.

- Pepper spray

Whip it out of your pocket or purse and spray the rape away. Or maybe not. "I've always had this fear: What if I were in a situation where I had to carry (pepper spray) to protect myself, but what if it were turned on me? What if it blew up in my bag and ended up making me get sick?" says Jamia Wilson, director and publisher of the New York-based Feminist Press. "I'd rather have a society that holds people accountable, that teaches people about consent, and where rape culture doesn't exist."

- The Athena

The Athena is a button-like device that when triggered sends a distress message and your location to a network of contacts you've selected. Then you sit and wait for one of them to rescue you.

- The antirape condom

We can thank a South African doctor for the Rape-aXe, a female condom - never brought to market - with rows of teeth that would ensnare an attacker upon penetration, trapping him painfully until a doctor removed it. No word on how exactly a victim would discreetly use a condom, much less one that looked like a killer jellyfish.

- Code words

In 2016, a rape crisis center in England encouraged bar patrons on troubling dates to go to the bar and "ask for Angela," tipping bartenders to their need for help.

- Date-rape nail polish

Yes, really. Undercover Colors has developed but not yet begun selling a nail polish that changes color when dipped into, say, trashcan punch loaded with roofies. "Power," reads the company's website, "must be handed back to women in what is a devastatingly powerless situation."

- Consent apps

Swipe your consent to sex ahead of time, so you won't ever actually have to discuss it. LegalFling, announced last week, offers just that, with Tinder-like ease of use. As a bonus, your potential partner gets a record of that consent for posterity (or in case of future legal action), and if there's "a breach" of contract, you can simply tap the app, triggering a cease-and-desist letter. Men, naturally, are behind this.


So, where should inventors direct their money and efforts, if not lockable panties?

"Products that would reduce the likelihood of men wanting to assault," May deadpans. Maybe even a bracelet a man would have to wear. "Something like, every time a woman gets sexually assaulted, you get a tiny shock on your wrist."

Men wouldn't even have to wear it very long, she adds, to get a very strong jolt of women's reality.

After a year of Trump, Russians are still waiting for the thaw

By Anton Troianovski
After a year of Trump, Russians are still waiting for the thaw
Souvenir matryoshka dolls depicting Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, left, and President Donald Trump and his family sit on display at a tourist stall in the city center ahead of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on May 31, 2017. Photograph MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrey Rudakov

MOSCOW - Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky still fondly remembers the time he says a Russian official working at the United Nations arranged a meeting for him with Donald Trump.

"He understood that the way Russia is portrayed in the American press does not correspond to reality," Zhirinovsky said of Trump before recalling the 2002 meeting in New York. "He understood that we were even better than the Americans."

But as Russia takes stock of Year One of the Trump presidency, the pundits and politicians here who predicted a sea change in relations with the United States increasingly are concluding that they bet wrong. The first year in the White House of the most pro-Russian major-party presidential nominee in recent history has brought U.S.-Russian relations to an even lower point than before Trump took office.

"I thought there would be a revolution," said Zhirinovsky, who hosted a champagne reception in the Russian parliament after Trump won. "We could not possibly have foreseen all that happened."

In his campaign, Trump promised to improve relations with Russia. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin "very smart." But in Trump's first year as president, his administration has doubled down on Barack Obama's support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists and gone along with congressional sanctions against Russia.

The result: a civics lesson for those Russians who thought that the U.S. president could wield as much influence as their own. The state news media, pro-Kremlin politicians and many commentators now blame the Washington establishment and the U.S. media for spinning a fiction about Russian election interference and blocking Trump from carrying out his promise of a friendlier policy toward Moscow.

Putin told reporters last month that Trump hasn't been able to improve relations with Russia "even if he wanted to, because of the obvious constraints." His press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called the state of U.S.-Russian relations the main disappointment of 2017.

"This is a president whose hands are tied," Valery Garbuzov, director of the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said at a roundtable on Trump's first year hosted by a Russian state news agency. Using a phrase that is a favorite in Russian political circles, he added, "The Russian political elite saw the U.S. president as being at the top of a vertical of power, as we have it here."

One bellwether is Zhirinovsky, a presidential candidate and longtime firebrand who revels in racially charged and xenophobic rhetoric. Russians often ridicule him for his outrageous statements, but he supports Putin and is one of the most prominent voices in Russian politics.

In an interview, Zhirinovsky said he wanted to meet prominent Americans, preferably politicians, when he visited New York in 2002. But a Russian official working at the U.N., Vladimir Grachev, arranged a meeting for Zhirinovsky with Trump instead. Zhirinovsky said that in the meeting, he tried to convince Trump to build a development in Moscow and offered to help with contacts in the city government.

"He was the only one who agreed to meet with me," Zhirinovsky said. "Trump apparently was already on the radar screen as someone who traveled to Moscow and didn't refuse meetings with those who arrived in New York."

Grachev, now the deputy administrative head of Russia's Central Election Commission, confirmed in a phone interview that he arranged the 2002 meeting as a favor for Zhirinovsky, whom he had long known. Grachev said that he did so in a one-off, informal capacity and that it came together thanks to a mutual acquaintance of Grachev's and Trump's: Tamir Sapir, a Soviet-born real estate developer who had lived in Trump Tower and who died in 2014.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Two months after Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, Russian newspapers were already quoting Zhirinovsky as a Trump supporter. "We need Trump!" he shouted on a prime-time talk show the following year, in September 2016. "We need to fight for a Trump victory!" And after Trump did win, Zhirinovsky hoisted a plastic cup of champagne in parliament and delivered a toast to "a rapid improvement in relations between Russia and the United States."

A year into Trump's term, that improvement is nowhere in sight. By the end of the month, the U.S. Treasury is expected to release a list of Russian business executives close to the Kremlin - part of legislation responding to Russian election interference enacted by Congress over the summer. Being on the list isn't tantamount to being hit with sanctions, but it will likely carry a stigma nevertheless.

Trump has given his go-ahead for the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine for use against Russian-backed separatists, a step Obama avoided. And the new U.S. National Security Strategy, which the White House released last month, names Russia alongside China as challenging "American power, influence, and interests."

"If Clinton had won, then the whole elite of the U.S. wouldn't be so set against us," said Zhirinovsky.

But for all the hand-wringing in Moscow about the breakdown in U.S.-Russian ties, there is less discussion of what many Americans would say is one of the biggest factors in that disintegration: the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion, which the Kremlin rejects, that Russian operatives interfered in the American election. In the 90-minute roundtable discussion of Trump's first year, the topic barely came up.

"Not only at the top but also in society, most [Russian] people a year later don't recognize how important a question this is for the United States," Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, said of the allegations of Russian election interference.

Zhirinovsky said he doesn't know whether the interference allegations are true. But even those pro-Kremlin politicians who decisively reject them also sometimes voice satisfaction that more Americans now see Russia as a force that can't be ignored.

Obama "called us a nation in ruins that is a small regional power. A year later, people in America are talking about nothing but Russia," said Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's upper house of parliament. "The only right lesson out of all this is: Don't pretend that others are dwarves."

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

Autonomy, inclusion and the abortion debate

By michael gerson
Autonomy, inclusion and the abortion debate

WASHINGTON -- Forty-five years after Roe v. Wade was decided, the right to abortion that the Supreme Court discerned remains controversial and disputed.

The expectation of legal abortion is deeply embedded in American law and practice. Many states were lifting restrictions on the procedure even before Roe. Justice Blackman’s landmark decision seized upon an existing social trend. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 79 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances. A constitutional amendment against abortion -- favored by many social conservatives -- is a practical impossibility.

But the Supreme Court created a legal regime more extreme than the general consensus. The dogged pro-life activists who return to Washington each year to protest Roe during the March for Life are not alone. In the same Gallup poll, 49 percent of Americans agreed that abortion is “morally wrong” (compared with 43 percent who find it “morally acceptable”). Just 29 percent believe abortion should be legal in every circumstance. A number of states have moved to restrict abortion at the edges -- requiring abortion clinics to meet the standards for ambulatory surgical centers, ensuring that abortion providers have visiting privileges at local hospitals, restricting the procedure after the fetus can feel pain.

Why does this issue refuse to fade from our politics? One reason concerns Roe itself, which was (as Justice Byron White put it in his dissent) “an exercise in raw judicial power.” Blackmun’s ruling does not hold up well on rereading. His system of trimesters and viability was (and is) arbitrary and medically rootless -- a fig leaf covering an almost limitless abortion right. Blackmun’s weak argument largely substituted for the democratic process in 50 states. Fiat replaced deliberation and democratic legitimacy. This was a recipe for resentment and reaction.

But judicial fiat can’t be a sufficient explanation. The Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage in every state was also sweeping. It has produced almost no political reaction. The contrast to Roe could hardly be starker. And the explanation is rather simple. All the great Civil Rights movements have been movements of inclusion. The first modern Civil Rights campaign -- militating for the end of the British slave trade -- set the pattern with its slogan: “Am I not a man and a brother?” Susan B. Anthony asked: “Are women persons?” The most rapidly successful Civil Rights movement of our time -- the gay rights movement -- used the strategy of coming out to reveal gay people as friends and family members. All these efforts expanded the circle of social welcome and protection.

The pro-choice movement, in contrast, is a movement of autonomy. Its primary appeal is to individual choice, not social inclusion. And the choice it elevates seems (to some people) in tension with the principle of inclusion. A fetus is genetically distinct from the mother, biologically human and has the inherent capacity to develop into a child. This makes it different from a hangnail or a tumor. At what point does this developing human life deserve our sympathy and protection? When neurological activity develops? When the fetus can feel pain? When a child is born? When an infant can think and reason? All these “achievements” are, in fact, scientifically and ethically arbitrary. They don’t mark the start of a new life, just the development of an existing life.

It is the pro-life movement that appeals to inclusion. It argues for a more expansive definition of the human community. It opposes ending or exploiting one human life for the benefit of another. There are heart-rending stories that prevent the simplistic application of this approach. But most of the pro-life men and women I know have the genuine and selfless motivation of trying to save innocent lives.

An appeal to choice is undeniably powerful in our time. It seems to be the age of autonomy on both left and right, from abortion rights to right-to-die laws to marijuana legalization. The assertion of a right is often enough to end an argument. But there is an ethical and political alternative, emphasizing an inclusive concern for the common good and solidarity with the most vulnerable members of the human family. Martin Luther King Jr. called this “the beloved community.” It emerges not through the assertion of autonomy, but through the acceptance of our shared humanity and of the loyalty we owe each other.

Both of these priorities -- autonomy and inclusion -- are strongly present in American history. The abortion debate falls along this enduring divide, producing a social conflict that will only be managed, not settled.

Michael Gerson’s email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

France inspires world on immigration debate

By fareed zakaria
France inspires world on immigration debate

NEW YORK -- Emmanuel Macron is today the most admired world leader among liberals, centrists and cosmopolitans around the globe. He has managed to win the French presidency, enact reforms and stay relatively popular -- all while speaking positively about the free market, the European Union, globalization and trade. He has done all this in the face of a tide of populism that is still surging. What’s his secret? One key area to watch him on is immigration.

On Tuesday, Macron announced yet again that his government would be tougher on immigration, expediting asylum claims and then actually deporting those whose applications were rejected. (In 2016, France deported less than 20 percent of those denied asylum.) He insisted that he would never permit another “Jungle” to appear on his watch, referring to the enormous makeshift refugee camp that was cleared in 2016. Macron is being criticized from the left and congratulated by his former opponent in the presidential election, the populist right-wing leader Marine Le Pen.

Macron has been an extraordinarily shrewd politician, and has a chance to be one of the great presidents of France’s Fifth Republic. He understands something about the popular mood, and not just within his nation’s borders. In Germany, Angela Merkel has seen her once sky-high public support crater over one central issue -- her decision in 2015 to allow in a million refugees, many from Syria. In the recent German elections, in which Merkel’s party lost ground and the right-wing AfD won enough votes to enter the Parliament for the first time, exit polling showed that 90 percent of voters wanted those rejected for asylum to be deported faster, and 71 percent wanted to cap the overall number of refugees.

The central issue feeding populism around the globe is immigration. That’s why you still see right-wing populism in such countries as Germany, Holland and Sweden, where economic growth is strong, manufacturing is vibrant, and inequality has not risen dramatically. Donald Trump beat 16 talented Republican candidates because he outflanked them all on one issue -- immigration. “The thing [my base] want[s] more than anything is the wall,” Trump explained to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to move left on economics, believing that this will make them more credible populists. But polling shows that the public is already with them on economic issues. Where they differ -- and especially with white working-class voters -- is on immigration. And yet, the party is now more extreme on the topic than it has ever been.

Positions that dozens of Democratic senators took on immigration 10 years ago are now rejected by almost every party leader. Most back then, for example, would have agreed that America’s current mix of immigration skews too heavily toward family unification and needs to attract more immigrants with skills. Now, none will speak on the issue. The party today embraces “sanctuary cities,” suggesting that local authorities should ignore federal laws or even defy federal authorities who try to enforce the law of the land. Imagine if Republican mayors did the same with regard to laws they don’t like on guns or abortions.

It is difficult to be moderate on any topic these days, most of all immigration. Trump discusses the issue in ways that seem, to me, racist. Factions of the Republican Party have become ugly and mean-spirited in tone and temper, demeaning immigrants and encouraging nativism and bigotry. To compromise with these kinds of attitudes seems distasteful, even immoral.

And yet, the issue is one that should allow for some sensible middle ground. The late Edward Kennedy was one of the most liberal senators in the country. Sen. John McCain is a staunch conservative. And yet they were able to agree on a set of compromises in the mid-2000s that would have largely resolved America’s immigration deadlock and the rage surrounding it. Canada used to have strong nativist forces within it. But ever since its immigration system moved to a skills-based one -- coupled with strong efforts at celebrating diversity, multiculturalism and assimilation -- it has had few such voices. And this despite the fact that Canada now has a substantially higher percentage of foreign-born residents than the United States.

The scale and speed of immigration over the last few decades is a real issue. Just since 1990, the share of foreign-born people in America has gone from 9 percent to 15 percent. It has nearly doubled in Germany and the Netherlands and nearly tripled in Denmark. Most of the new immigrants do come from cultures that are more distant and different. Societies can only take so much change in a generation. If mainstream politicians do not recognize these realities and insist that those who speak of them are racists, they will only push the public in its desperation to embrace the real racists -- of which there are many.

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Preparing our Middle East partners to fight their own battles

By david ignatius
Preparing our Middle East partners to fight their own battles

FORT POLK, La. -- In training exercises in a mock Afghan village constructed here on a base amid swampland, the U.S. Army is applying the military lesson of the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq: Help your partners beat the enemy, but don’t try to do the fighting yourself.

Letting others fight the battle hasn’t been the American way in modern times, to our immense national frustration. The U.S. military became bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, much as it had a generation earlier in Vietnam, by trying to reshape societies with American firepower. For the military, the lesson from these quagmires is to step back -- and help local forces with training, advice and airpower.

Fort Polk is a final warmup for the 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigade, one of the Trump administration’s most innovative military experiments. About 1,000 soldiers are being trained here this month before deploying this Spring to Afghanistan. The preparatory exercises all focus on the same basic theme: Step back, and insist that partners do the front-line combat.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the Centcom commander who oversees U.S. military operations from Libya to Afghanistan, brought me along on a visit Thursday to the SFAB final training site. He summed up the concept behind the new brigade this way: “We have to let our partners own it. That’s hard for us to do. It’s in our DNA to dive in. But our job is to help our partners fight, not fight for them.”

The Afghanistan simulations are carefully staged in the military version of a movie set, with a mosque tower, goats meandering in the street, peddlers hawking flowers and posters of President Ashraf Ghani on the walls of make-believe Afghan National Army (ANA) headquarters. The idea is to make soldiers “comfortable with the uncomfortable,” says Maj. Gen. Gary Brito, the commander at Fort Polk.

Over 14 days of training, the soldiers practice helping Afghan partners reclaim a police station from the Taliban in the imaginary village of “Marwandi” and arrest a Taliban financier who’s sheltered by the local population. In one exercise, soldiers practice rescuing their comrades who’ve gotten caught in a firefight, applying quick tourniquets to their wounds and dragging them to safety.

At each stop, Votel listens as soldiers repeat the new doctrine: “Put the ANA in the front,” says a sergeant heading for Afghanistan. “We have to remove ourselves so it’s not our fight.” Votel replays that unconventional message to the troops through a long day. “What we’re really going to rely on is your adaptability,” he admonishes one advisory team.

When the brigade moves into Afghanistan in several months, it will have 36 combat advisory teams, with about a dozen members each, partnered with ANA divisions spread across the country. Team members will be able to request supporting fire from planes, drones and advanced artillery. Other teams will assist at headquarters and in logistics operations. They will join more than 10,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan.

The new brigade, cobbled together quickly with volunteers from divisions across the Army, is an attempt to deal with three issues vexing the Pentagon after more than 15 years of frustration: What works? How can the successful tactics be sustained? And how can the train-and-assist skills of Special Forces -- who have been the star players in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria -- be spread across the Army?

Leading this tactical review was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last Spring, he began a “failure analysis” of what had and hadn’t worked in the battle zones.

The new brigade illustrates a broader process of shaping military plans for the Middle East that’s finally getting traction in the Trump administration, after a year of discussion and delay. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the Syria piece of this strategic framework this week at Stanford. He argued that America should keep train-and-assist forces in northeast Syria, to aid stabilization there. Walking away from these conflict areas in the past had been a mistake, Tillerson said, but so is trying to steer local governance through nation-building.

America has been so frustrated with combat in the Middle East that people have barely noticed the victory against the Islamic State, and the partnering tactics that made it possible. U.S. collaboration with Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Shiites has made neighboring states nervous, especially Turkey. But it achieved results.

Since the days of T.E. Lawrence, analysts have argued that the people of the Middle East must fight their own battles. This simple but essential idea finally seems to have become hardwired at the Pentagon.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Don’t worry: HELOCs will survive despite new tax law

By kenneth r. harney
Don’t worry: HELOCs will survive despite new tax law

WASHINGTON -- It’s a big and confusing question for many homeowners in the wake of the December tax law changes: Are new interest-deductible home equity credit lines (HELOCs) and second mortgages now totally out of reach going forward?

The new law eliminated a long-standing section of the tax code that allowed homeowners to borrow against their equity and use the proceeds for whatever purposes they chose, while deducting interest payments on their federal taxes. That provision of the new tax law took effect Jan. 1, so it’s logical to assume that popular tax-deductible HELOCs no longer will be available.

They’re dead. Right? Not quite! To borrow a phrase from Miracle Max in “The Princess Bride,” the traditional uses of HELOCs may be “mostly dead” -- but not all dead.

A close reading of the final language rushed through Congress last month reveals that interest-deductible HELOCs and second mortgages should still be available to homeowners provided they qualify on two criteria: they use the proceeds of the loan to make “substantial improvements” to their home, and the combined total of their first mortgage balance and their HELOC or second mortgage does not exceed the new $750,000 limit on mortgage amounts qualified for interest deductions. (The previous ceiling was $1.1 million for the first mortgage and home-equity debt combined.)

“The key here is (how) you use the proceeds” of the HELOC or second mortgage, Ernst & Young tax partner Greg Rosica told me in an interview. You can’t buy a car anymore. You can’t spend the money on student loans, business investments, vacations or most of the things you used to be able to do. Now, to take deductions on the interest you pay, you’ve got to limit expenditures to capital improvements on your house, or -- less likely -- buying or building your principal residence.

The reason, said Rosica, a widely recognized expert on real estate tax law, is that although Section 11043 of the new tax law eliminated home-equity debt interest deductions, it left virtually untouched interest deductions for primary home mortgage debt (”acquisition indebtedness”) that is used to buy, improve or construct a new home. As long as you follow the rules on what constitutes a capital improvement -- spelled out in IRS Publication 530 -- and do not exceed the $750,000 total debt limit, “it is deductible,” said Rosica.

Banks and other lenders active in HELOCs and second-mortgage arenas agree with this interpretation and plan to continue offering home-equity products. Bob Davis, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association, told me “HELOCs will still be in the mix,” despite widespread concerns that they might disappear after the elimination of the home-equity section of the tax code.

Michael Kinane, head of TD Bank’s extensive second-lien product offerings, said in a statement for this column that HELOCs and home-equity loans remain available and popular, whether interest is tax-deductible or not, and can be “the best, lowest cost option for homeowners.” In mid-January, TD’s rates for owners with solid equity and good credit on a $100,000 HELOC were 3.99 percent APR, about half a percentage point below the prime bank rate.

A survey of HELOCs and second-lien lenders active on the loan-shopping network conducted for this column found a “consensus” that not only will lenders continue to offer such financing, “but more lenders will offer them as home prices [and] values rise,” according to spokesperson Megan Grueling.

Lenders generally won’t advise you on interest deductibility, urging instead that you consult your tax adviser. Also, the final word on interest deductibility will need to come from the IRS. But the attorneys, CPAs and legislative tax experts consulted for this column were unanimous in their belief that the IRS will agree with their interpretation of the law changes.

Bottom line: Despite rampant rumors to the contrary, home-equity-based lending won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Borrowers who want to deduct interest will need to restrict their expenditures to qualified home improvements. Others who simply want to tap into their equity they’ve built up at attractive interest rates and use the money for whatever they choose will be able to obtain HELOCs or second mortgages, just as they did in the past.

And for those owners who now plan to opt for the standard deductions of $12,000 or $24,000, there’ll be no issue at all. Since they will no longer be itemizing, no big deal. They won’t be thinking about interest deductions anyway.

Ken Harney’s email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

An administration with no credibility cannot lead

By eugene robinson
An administration with no credibility cannot lead

WASHINGTON -- The rude, petulant man-child in the Oval Office is reeling ever more wildly out of control, and those who cynically or slavishly pretend otherwise are doing a grave disservice to the nation -- and to themselves.

How do you like him now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? President Trump convened a made-for-television summit at the White House and said he’d sign any immigration bill Congress passes. “I’ll take the heat,” he boasted. So a bipartisan group of senators came up with a deal -- and he rejected it out of hand, launching into an unhinged rant about “shithole countries.”

What about you, House Speaker Paul Ryan? You came up with a clever way to get Democrats to agree to a stopgap funding bill, dangling the possibility of a long-term renewal of the vital Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). But the president tweeted that “CHIP should be part of a long term solution” and not a short-term measure to keep the government from shutting down.

Is this what you signed up for, chief of staff John Kelly? In a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, you said that some of Trump’s campaign positions on immigration were “uninformed” and that there will never be a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. You reportedly added that whatever partial barrier gets built, Mexico won’t pay for it. But the president slapped you down with another series of tweets, claiming that his promised wall “has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it” -- and that Mexico will, too, pay for the wall, “directly or indirectly.”

How was your week, White House physician Ronny Jackson? You did what is expected of everyone who stands at the podium in the briefing room: lavish the president with flowery, over-the-top, Dear Leader praise. He is in “excellent health,” you announced. But the test results you released, according to many other doctors, indicate that Trump suffers from moderate heart disease and is on the borderline between overweight and obese. In your view, the next step down from “excellent” must be “deceased.”

Having fun, Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowski? As bigwigs in the Trump campaign, you helped a manifestly unfit blowhard get elected president. This week, you did the White House a favor by stonewalling the House Intelligence Committee in a way that angered even the Republicans on the panel, which is hard to do. But you remain in the crosshairs of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and the best-case scenario is that you emerge unindicted but saddled with mountainous legal bills.

No one should feel sorry for those who choose to aid and abet this travesty of an administration. They made their choices. They elected to trust a man they know to be wholly untrustworthy, and to lie shamelessly to massage his swollen ego. At this point, I wouldn’t believe Sarah Huckabee Sanders if she told me that water is wet and the sky is blue.

But the larger impact is something we all must worry about: One year into the Trump presidency, we effectively do not have a presidency at all.

As McConnell noted in frustration Wednesday, he can’t orchestrate passage of an immigration bill unless he knows what Trump is willing to sign. Likewise, Ryan can’t pass spending legislation unless he knows what Trump will and will not accept. But the president has no fixed positions. His word is completely unreliable. How are congressional leaders supposed to do their jobs?

Regarding foreign policy, how can other nations take seriously anything Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says when he is subject to being countermanded on Twitter at any moment? What is the point of Jared Kushner’s diplomacy, if you can call it that, in the Middle East? Does “America First” really mean anything, or is it just Trumpian hot air?

And why, at this point, do reporters even bother to attend Sanders’ briefings, unless perhaps for the entertainment value? Past press secretaries all delivered pronouncements that were loaded with spin, but Sanders concocts laughable fantasies out of thin air -- usually to “justify” crazy things Trump has said or tweeted.

The nation has never before faced a situation like this: It is unwise to take literally or seriously anything the president and his official spokespersons say. An administration with no credibility cannot possibly lead.

Trump is incapable of growing into the job; if anything, he is becoming more erratic. I fear the day when a crisis arises and we must face it with a bratty preteen at the helm.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Is Trump’s doctor OK?

By dana milbank
Is Trump’s doctor OK?

WASHINGTON -- Examining the White House physician’s briefing on President Trump’s physical, I was alarmed -- not about the president’s health, but the doctor’s.

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson was so effusive in extolling the totally amazing, surpassingly marvelous, superbly stupendous and extremely awesome health of the president that the doctor sounded almost Trumpian. “The president’s overall health is excellent,” he said, repeating “excellent” eight times: “Hands down, there’s no question that he is in the excellent range. … I put out in the statement that the president’s health is excellent, because his overall health is excellent. … Overall, he has very, very good health. Excellent health.”

And just how excellent is His Excellency’s excellent health, doctor? “Incredible cardiac fitness,” was Dr. Jackson’s professional opinion. “He has incredible genes. … He has incredibly good genes, and it’s just the way God made him.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN, making a rare house call to the White House briefing room, offered a second opinion. “He is taking a cholesterol-lowering medication, he has evidence of heart disease, and he’s borderline obese,” Gupta pointed out, citing Jackson’s own findings. “Can you characterize that as excellent health?”

Jackson replied that Trump’s heart is “in the excellent category.”

And not just his heart! The doctor rhapsodized about Trump’s vision, his stamina (“more energy than just about anybody”) and above all his mental acuity, which, Jackson made sure to note, he examined only “because the president asked me to.” Trump is “very sharp, and he’s very articulate. … Very, very sharp, very intact. … Absolutely no cognitive or mental issues whatsoever. … The president did exceedingly well.”

Sure, the guy could exercise and lose a few pounds. But “if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old,” the White House physician proclaimed. Jackson even blessed Trump’s habit of sleeping only four or five hours a night -- “probably one of the reasons why he’s been successful” -- and his couch-potato tendencies: “He can watch as much TV as he wants.”

And that time when Trump slurred his speech? Jackson blamed himself, for prescribing Sudafed. It was dry throat -- exactly the diagnosis offered by the White House spokeswoman!

Jackson, nearly equaling the prediction of Trump’s personal doctor that he would be the healthiest president ever, predicted Trump would remain healthy “for the remainder of another term, if he’s elected.”

Jackson has been a well-regarded doctor. But since finding himself in Trump’s orbit, he has adopted the hyperbolic style and excessive flattery of the boss that we see in other, previously respectable members of Trump’s court.

We see it in the once-dignified Sen. Orrin Hatch suggesting Trump is on his way to being a better president than Lincoln or Washington, in Rep. Kevin McCarthy collecting pink and red Starburst candy for Trump, in the lies told by Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to cover for Trump’s racist outburst, and in the fawning public performances by White House officials Stephen Miller and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. What makes them trash their dignity?

I put the question to Bandy X. Lee, the Yale Medical School psychiatrist who compiled the controversial book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” raising doubts about Trump’s mental fitness.

Lee said the screening test Jackson gave Trump “gives the public a false sense of reassurance.” Indeed, Donald Trump Jr. used the results of the test in a tweet: “More #winning. 30 out of 30.”

She said the test, though useful for detecting Alzheimer’s and the like, indicates little about “his high functioning, his frontal-lobe functioning, that we’re questioning.” To figure out what causes the worrisome traits President Trump exhibits -- disordered decision-making, an insatiable need for affirmation, little impulse control, confusion about facts, difficulty foreseeing consequences -- you’d need more extensive tests, a psychological exam and an MRI.

But, in a sense, you don’t need a doctor’s diagnosis to see that there’s a lot of chaos and volatility in the presidential brain.

That, Lee speculates, could explain powerful sycophancy that overcomes those who get close to Trump. “Those close to him are sensing this level of appeasement is necessary,” Lee speculated. They “feel they need to step in as a way to diminish his volatility and rage.”

The danger, Lee said, is that Trump’s courtiers do this for too long and succumb to “shared psychosis,” in which they come to “share his view of the world and lose touch with reality.”

They might even come to believe that a sedentary 71-year-old with significant plaque in his coronary arteries, high cholesterol and borderline obesity is the very picture of health.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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