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These bats carry the lethal Marburg virus, and scientists are tracking them to try to stop its spread

By Lena Sun
These bats carry the lethal Marburg virus, and scientists are tracking them to try to stop its spread
Jonathan Towner, a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, climbs out of a mining cave in Uganda. The Marburg virus claimed the life of one miner and infected several others working there in 2007. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.

BAT CAVE, QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK, UGANDA - By day, some of the most dangerous animals in the world lurk deep inside this cave. Come night, the tiny fruit bats whoosh out, tens of thousands of them at a time, filling the air with their high-pitched chirping before disappearing into the black sky.

The bats carry the deadly Marburg virus, as fearsome and mysterious as its cousin Ebola. Scientists know that the virus starts in these animals, and they know that when it spreads to humans it is lethal - Marburg kills up to 9 in 10 of its victims, sometimes within a week. But they don't know much about what happens in between.

That's where the bats come in. No one is sure where they go each night. So a team of scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traveled here to track their movements in the hopes that spying on their nightly escapades could help prevent the spread of one of the world's most dreaded diseases. Because there is a close relationship between Marburg and Ebola, the scientists are also hopeful that progress on one virus could help solve the puzzle of the other.

Their task is to glue tiny GPS trackers on the backs of 20 bats so they can follow their movements.

"We want to know where they're going on a nightly basis," said Jonathan Towner, 52, who heads a CDC team that specializes in how these deadly viruses are spread. If the animals are feeding on particular fruit trees, that information could identify communities most at risk and help prevent future outbreaks. "It's much easier to put together a picture and say to local authorities, 'Look, this could be potentially how the virus is spread, this is what the bats are doing.' "

U.S. officials are so concerned about Marburg becoming a global threat that the CDC is asking the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency to pay for the bat trackers, which each cost about $1,000. The CDC is hoping to track more of these Rousettus aegyptiacus bats in several other caves in Uganda.

Marburg's potential to spread was made clear a decade ago when a pair of tourists on separate trips walked into the cave looking for adventure and walked out with the virus. A Dutch woman died 13 days after her visit. The other visitor, an American woman named Michelle Barnes, survived after a long, painful illness. The cave was closed to tourists in 2008.

Marburg was first identified in 1967 when a shipment of infected African green monkeys from Uganda was sent to laboratories in Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany, and Belgrade, in then-Yugoslavia. Seven lab workers died within about a week. Since then, a dozen outbreaks have been reported, killing hundreds of people. Most took place near bat-infested caves or mines, including one last fall along Uganda's eastern border with Kenya. Of four family members sickened, only one survived.

For the CDC scientists, success hinges on getting the tracking units, which are half the size of a pen cap, to stay on a bat body that is only about six inches long. A practice run in Atlanta with the same device on the same kind of bat in a special CDC laboratory failed. Trackers slipped off or were chewed by the bats.

"I have no idea how well this is going to go because it's the first time we've tried it," Towner said. "It could end up in total flames."

- - -

Well before you see the bats - about 50,000 live in the cave - you hear their squeaks and chatter and smell the ammonia from their guano, which also covers the cave's rocky floor. One false step can lead to a fall into a stream underneath. Another could land the scientists on one of the African rock pythons or forest cobras that slither along the ground.

Towner and CDC colleague Brian Amman, 54, discovered a decade ago that this Egyptian fruit bat is a natural reservoir for Marburg. That means the virus can live and grow inside the bats without harming the animal, and be excreted in its urine, feces or saliva.

By comparison, more than 40 years and over two dozen outbreaks after Ebola emerged in Central Africa, researchers still don't know what animal or animals carry it, much less how it spreads to people.

The bat team includes CDC scientist Jennifer McQuiston and Luke Nyakarahuka, an epidemiologist at the Uganda Virus Research Institute, a longtime CDC partner. The CDC allowed a Washington Post reporter and photographer to accompany the team.

In a clearing of the Maramagambo Forest, the scientists' workstation is a table under a tent. Curious baboons perch on nearby tree stumps. Black-and-white colobus monkeys peer from overhead branches. On a drive through the park in search of other bat roosts, the scientists' Toyota Land Cruiser yields the right of way to a majestic waterbuck, its long, curved horns glinting in the sun.

Their task is to catch and glue trackers on 10 bats the first day, repeat the next day.

The tracking software has already prompted a stream of curses from Amman. To test it again, McQuiston and Nyakarahuka each cup a tiny unit in their palms and jog around the clearing to simulate bats on the move. That's supposed to trigger readings. But the screen on Amman's clunky CDC-issued laptop remains blank.

"If it comes back and says zero I don't know what we're going to do," Amman mutters. Several minutes pass in silence. Then, ever so slowly, data points start to show up.

Now they can head to the cave.

Towner and Amman suit up in special helmets and face shields connected to battery-powered respirators that muffle their voices. Underneath protective gowns they wear Kevlar-lined waist-high pants to guard against snake bites. On their hands are cut-resistant leather gloves, like those worn by law enforcement, over two pairs of medical gloves to protect against bat bites. Towner also had a video mounted on his helmet.

"Hey, Brian, right down there is a bunch of males. You see 'em?" shouts Towner in the cave, his voice muffled by the head gear.

The bats take flight, which is when they relieve themselves of what Amman calls the "rain of pee and poo."

Amman, holding a net, heads to where Towner is pointing, veering far away from an enormous python. He returns with two bats, which go into a pillowcase Towner is holding. Each pillowcase will hold about five bats since bats don't like to be alone.

Only males are caught; the scientists don't want to burden females carrying pups.

Catching the bats is the easy part. Getting the trackers on is trickier.

Amman dreads the prospect of using sutures because they are messy and complicated. But given the failure in Atlanta, he has brought the necessary kit. He hopes a last-minute purchase of different veterinary glue may do the trick.

Towner lifts the first bat out of a pillowcase, cradling it in his gloved hands. The bat is calm. Its big brown eyes blink, unaccustomed to the light. Towner places it stomach down, wings tucked in. One hand covers its head, the other its feet.

"Hello, big fella," Amman says to the bat. "You have been selected to take part in the GPS Price is Right sweepstakes."

He squeezes a thin line of glue on its back, another line of glue on the tracker and presses down gently but firmly.

For several long seconds, no one utters a word.

Towner breaks the silence. "That's on pretty good," he says softly, flicking at the device.

"WOO-HOO!" Amman shouts, relief washing over his face. Up go his arms, signaling a touchdown.

"I'm so happy, Jon," he gushes. "I didn't want to suture them. . . . I gotta tell ya. This is just better than Christmas."

They glue the remaining units and release the bats. One near miss occurs when two bats chew through a bag and almost escape.

"Okay, dude," Towner says to the last bat. He uncups his hands to free it. With a flap of its wings, the bat arcs slowly around the trees and glides into the forest.

Now the scientists wait, unsure whether the batteries will last, whether the signal will be able to break through cloud cover to reach the satellite, whether technology will be able to capture this crucial flight of nature.

Amman calls after the bat: "Bring us back some data!"

- - -

Barnes doesn't remember touching any rocks or boulders in the cave. She and her husband were on a two-week safari. The bat cave in Queen Elizabeth National Park was something a tour guide suggested to fill an afternoon, before a trip to see Uganda's famed mountain gorillas.

Barnes, her husband and seven others went inside on Christmas Day 2007. Barnes, then 44, was in the cave for about 15 to 20 minutes, in shorts and sandals. She remembers seeing the dark outlines of pythons and bats overhead.

"They were flying in and out and screeching and making all sorts of noise," she said. "And the smell was super powerful. Everybody had their hand over their noses."

A week later, she and her husband flew through London and then Iowa on their way home to Golden, Colorado.

Her symptoms started en route - headache, rash, nausea - and worsened when she got home. Initially, doctors gave her painkillers and nausea medicine. As her liver, kidney, lungs, gallbladder and pancreas functions slowed, she was rushed to the hospital.

After 11 days, she was sent home. Despite tests for multiple diseases, she had no idea what had made her so sick. For months, she suffered abdominal pain, exhaustion and what she calls "mental fog."

Astrid Joosten spent about 10 minutes in the cave six months after Barnes visited. Thousands of bats were flying around. "All were looking at us with very curious eyes," recalled her husband, Jaap Taal.

She developed a high fever after she flew home to the Netherlands. She got worse, and hemorrhaged. Three days after she was put in an induced coma, Joosten died, with a confirmed Marburg diagnosis.

In Colorado, Barnes read about the case and asked her infectious disease doctor to rerun tests for Marburg. This time, the results were positive, the first known case in the United States.

Barnes now has another distinction. Not only is she the sole American survivor of Marburg, but her immune system is helping to develop a vaccine.

"She has awesome antibodies," said James Crowe, a Vanderbilt University immunologist who is among the researchers who isolated one particularly powerful antibody from Barnes. An experimental vaccine is now in development.

For now, the most effective way to battle outbreaks like Marburg is stopping them at their source.

- - -

The bat cave had always been a popular tourist attraction. "We used to have tourists walk down there," said park veterinarian Margaret Driciru. "Health-wise, it really was not the right idea." Most likely, other Marburg cases have gone undetected because the disease symptoms are similar to malaria and typhoid fever, common illnesses across much of Africa.

Now the park has posted warning signs that bats can carry the Marburg virus. Visitors must stay in an enclosed observatory with glass windows about 65 yards away.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority, which runs the country's parks and is helping the CDC, also has an enormous stake in the project's success. Wildlife is the top tourist attraction, and tourism is Uganda's biggest source of revenue. But if wildlife carry diseases that kill humans and nonhuman primates, like the park's famed chimps, tourists will stop coming.

In a meeting with a park warden, Towner and Amman explain how the trackers may show bats traveling to nearby towns in search of fruit. Any fruit the bat bites can be smeared with Marburg; a person, monkey or other animal eating that fruit can get infected.

"So they move up into the community?" warden Robert Mbagaya asks.

Yes, Towner says. He shows him a video on his cellphone of the bats with their GPS units.

"You see them speeding somewhere and you don't know how far and for how long they go," Towner explains. "But now we will know."

After outbreaks of Nipah virus killed scores of people in Bangladesh over the past decade or so, scientists discovered that humans were getting infected from drinking virus-infected date palm sap. The sap is collected overnight from the trees. Bats were flying to the containers to drink the sweet sap draining from trees into collection pots. In the process, they were contaminating it with their saliva and excretions that are known to contain the virus.

Photographic evidence of bats urinating in the containers helped persuade villagers about Nipah's dangers. Scientists hope flight patterns of the Marburg-carrying bats could be similarly persuasive.

"We wouldn't be able to convince them to not sell the fruit, but we could make the argument to wash it first," Towner said.

During last fall's Marburg outbreak that sickened a cattle farmer's family, "a traditional healer told the family [the sickness] was because of family conflicts," Nyakarahuka said. Ugandan officials eventually met with nearly 150 community religious leaders and elders as part of outreach and education about the disease.

At the Kitaka gold mine, about 30 miles northeast of the bat cave, some residents also doubt that bats can cause serious disease despite a Marburg outbreak in 2007 that infected four miners, killing one. It was there that Towner and Amman discovered that the bats carried live Marburg virus. The mine was closed but has since reopened.

John Niwagaba, 53, searching for bits of gold outside the cave, said sick miners were bewitched. His proof: "I've been bitten by a bat but I didn't get sick," he said, during a break from pounding rocks.

At a nearby village, Monday Richard is the village's sole survivor of a 2012 Marburg outbreak that sickened 14 others in several districts and killed four, including his pregnant wife and toddler. Villagers nicknamed him "Marburg." His older children were not allowed to go to school for two months. He was no longer able to work as a motorbike taxi driver. Now he barely gets by as a banana farmer.

"Marburg has made me suffer," he said.

Investigators can't pinpoint how the outbreak began. But they strongly suspect the spillover was linked to bats in the Kitaka mine.

Richard's seven-months-pregnant wife died while being transferred from one hospital to another. "She started bleeding from the nose. Then blood came out of her oxygen mask. It was all over her face," he said.

He had to bury her and their 18-month-old son the same evening. There was no time for a funeral. On the side of the house, under a banana tree, their unmarked graves lie under a patch of red dirt.

- - -

It's the CDC team's last day in the forest. Time for the final test.

A female spider monkey and her baby look down from a tree as Amman and Towner huddle over a laptop. The lodge has no internet service. The only connection comes from a portable device that seems to take forever to connect. Finally, a green bar appears on the screen. A good sign. Then it grows longer, an even better sign that data is loading.

Then the numbers pop up. Amman can see that Bat No. 14 logged more than 3,000 data points in one night. That means he flew a good distance. So did Bat No. 11.

"Oh man, this is awesome! This dude moved!" Amman exclaims, grinning widely.

Days later, Amman would be able to tell that the bats flew in different directions, some traveling up to 15 miles. At least two flew southwest toward a spot near another town on the other side of the forest. That could mean a broader area of infection risk.

Perhaps the bats were headed to a big fruit tree. Or another cave. Travel between far-flung roosts could be one way the virus is transmitted to other colonies. GPS coordinates show the two bats flew to an area two miles due east from an existing road. That is definitely something to be investigated, perhaps on a future trip.

For now though, the pair of scientists are quietly thrilled that their effort, years in the making, had worked.

"Good job," Amman said quietly, giving Towner a high-five.

"Good job," Towner replied.


Video Embed Code

Video: A group of bats are kept in pillow cases while waiting to be tagged and tracked by a scientists who are studying Marburg virus in Uganda.(The Washington Post)

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Video: A team of scientists capture fruit bats outside a Ugandan cave in hopes of learning more about how the Marburg virus spreads to humans.(The Washington Post)

Embed code: <iframe src="" width="480" height="290" data-category-id="videoelements" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

Video: Researchers enter a cave in Uganda to capture bats with the hopes of better understanding Marburg virus.(The Washington Post)

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In America's hidden war, troops face peril on many fronts

By Liz Sly
In America's hidden war, troops face peril on many fronts
Sheikh Humaidi al-Shammar, third from left, the leader of the influential Shammar tribe, greets a guest at his residence in Tel Alo, Syria, on Oct. 12, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Alice Martins

RAQQA, Syria - This ruined, fearful city was once the Islamic State's capital, the showcase of its caliphate and a magnet for foreign fighters from around the globe.

Now it lies at the heart of the United States' newest commitment to a Middle East war.

The commitment is small, a few thousand troops who were first sent to Syria three years ago to help the Syrian Kurds fight the Islamic State. President Donald Trump indicated in March that the troops would be brought home once the battle is won, and the latest military push to eject the group from its final pocket of territory recently got underway.

In September, however, the administration switched course, saying the troops will stay in Syria pending an overall settlement to the Syrian war and with a new mission: to act as a bulwark against Iran's expanding influence.

That decision puts U.S. troops in overall control, perhaps indefinitely, of an area comprising nearly a third of Syria, a vast expanse of mostly desert terrain roughly the size of Louisiana.

The Pentagon does not say how many troops are there. Officially, they number 503, but earlier this year an official let slip that the true number may be closer to 4,000. Most are Special Operations forces, and their footprint is light. Their vehicles and convoys rumble by from time to time along the empty desert roads, but it is rare to see U.S. soldiers in towns and cities.

The new mission raises new questions, about the role they will play and whether their presence will risk becoming a magnet for regional conflict and insurgency.

The area is surrounded by powers hostile both to the U.S. presence and the aspirations of the Kurds, who are governing the majority-Arab area in pursuit of a leftist ideology formulated by an imprisoned Turkish Kurdish leader. Signs that the Islamic State is starting to regroup and rumblings of discontent within the Arab community point to the threat of an insurgency.

Without the presence of U.S. troops, these dangers would almost certainly ignite a new war right away, said Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Self-Administration of North and East Syria, as the self-styled government of the area is called.

"They have to stay. If they leave and there isn't a solution for Syria, it will be catastrophic," she said.

But staying also heralds risk, and already the challenges are starting to mount.

A Turkish threat to invade the area last month forced the United States to scramble patrols along the border with Turkey, which has massed troops and tanks along the frontier. Turkey regards the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party inside Turkey, as a terrorist organization and fears the consequences for its own security if the group consolidates power in Syria.

Syrian government troops and Iranian proxy fighters are to the south and west. They have threatened to take the area back by force, in pursuit of President Bashar Assad's pledge to bring all of Syria under government control. The government and Iran have been cultivating ties with local tribes, and the U.S. announcement of its intent to counter the Iranian presence in Syria may, in response, further encourage such ties.

- - -

Away from the front lines, the calm that followed the ejection of the Islamic State from Raqqa and the surrounding territory is starting to fray. A series of mysterious bombings and assassinations in some of the areas retaken from the militants up to three years ago has set nerves on edge. Most of the attacks are claimed by the Islamic State, and a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Sean Ryan, said there is no reason to believe the Islamic State is not responsible. "We know they're regrouping in those areas," he said.

But there are widespread suspicions that any one of the regional powers opposed to the U.S. presence and the Kurds' pursuit of self-governance may be seeking to destabilize the area, finding allies among disgruntled Arabs uncomfortable with the prospect of being governed long term by the Kurds.

The Kurdish forces have sought to include Arabs in their self-governance experiment but retain dominance over its structures at every level, Arabs complain.

This is a part of Syria where tribal loyalties often trump politics, and the tribes are being courted by all the regional players with an interest in ultimately controlling the area, according to Sheikh Humaidi al-Shammar, the head of the influential Shammar tribe.

At Shammar's outsize mansion, which rises improbably from the empty desert near the Iraqi border, dozens of tribal leaders gathered one recent Friday for his customary weekly divan, sweeping into his cavernous reception room dressed in gold-trimmed robes and flanked by pistol-wielding guards.

The guests ranged, Shammar confided, from sheikhs affiliated with the Assad regime and his ruling Baath Party to representatives of the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army rebels and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces - a spectrum of those competing for control in northeastern Syria.

Shammar has allied his tribe with the United States and the Kurds, and he has contributed fighters from his small Sanadid militia to battles against the Islamic State. But, he said, he has many concerns: namely, that the U.S. talk of countering Iran will suck the region into a new conflict and that the area's Arabs will be cut out of any deal that is eventually reached with the Kurds.

"Everything is uncertain. We are part of a global game now, and it is out of our hands," he said.

His son Bandar, who leads the Shammar militia, said the tribe supports some form of new arrangement for the Kurds in Syria "because they are our brothers and they sacrificed a lot," he said.

"The main concern of the Arab population is that one ethnicity, the Kurds, is going to build a state for Kurds and impose their authority on the others," he said. "The coalition created the SDF to be multiethnic, but really people see it is not like this. It is a solo actor which authorizes everything and controls everything."

- - -

Kurdish leaders say they are working hard to convince the Arab community that their plan for governing will include it. Education sessions are being held in Arab areas to try to bring Arabs around to the views of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Turkish Kurdish leader who inspired the YPG's ideology, said Saleh Muslim, a senior official with the Democratic Union Party, the political wing of the YPG.

"We are very sincere about living together," he said. "It's a matter of time. Maybe we need three or four years to make it stable."

Whether the Kurds have three or four years is unclear. U.S. officials hope the American presence will bring leverage in negotiations over an eventual settlement to end the Syrian war, with the aim of securing some form of autonomy for their Kurdish allies as well as rolling back Iranian influence.

But there is no such settlement in sight, and there may not be one. Assad has prevailed against the rebellion elsewhere in Syria and has shown no inclination to make concessions. The expectation among many residents, Kurds and Arabs alike, is that the government will eventually restore its authority over the area.

After Trump said the troops would soon be withdrawn, many here began planning for that eventuality, including the Kurds, who launched talks with Damascus for a direct, bilateral settlement. The talks went nowhere, and now the Americans are staying - but Kurdish officials say they are keeping open channels of communication in case Trump changes his mind again.

"Everything is very complicated and no one knows which way to turn. We don't know who is against whom and who is with whom," said Amjad Othman, an official with the SDF.

All the challenges and complexities of northeastern Syria seemed to be concentrated in the small, strategic town of Manbij. Located beside the Euphrates River, it was liberated from the Islamic State by Kurdish forces over three years ago. Now, to the north, lies territory controlled by Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army allies, and to the south by the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran.

In the middle are the Americans. It is one of the few places where the U.S. military has a conspicuous presence. There are three small U.S. bases in and around the town, supporting an American effort to keep apart Turkey and the Kurdish-affiliated Manbij Military Council, according to officials with the council. So far, diplomacy has worked to tamp down the tensions, and the U.S. and Turkish militaries recently began conducting joint patrols along the front line.

But attacks, carried out by assassins riding motorcycles and planting roadside bombs, are occurring with increasing frequency behind the front lines. Local officials believe groups affiliated with the Syrian government and Iran are behind some of these, according to Mohammed Mustafa Ali, who goes by the name Abu Adil and is the head of the Manbij Military Council. "We are surrounded by enemies, and they all want to come here," he said.

- - -

Frustrations are building, meanwhile, with the acute lack of funding for reconstruction, impeding the effort to win hearts and minds in Arab non-Kurdish areas, Kurdish officials say. Earlier this year, Trump cut the $200 million that had been earmarked for essential repairs to the worst damaged areas. Though that sum has been replaced by donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it is a fraction of the billions of dollars required.

It is in Raqqa, the biggest city in the part of Syria where U.S. troops are based, that the frustration is most keenly felt. The city was devastated by the U.S.-led airstrikes that accompanied the SDF's four-month offensive to drive out the Islamic State, and a year later the city is still in ruins.

Signs of life are returning, with shops and markets reopening in some neighborhoods. About half the population has returned, squeezing into the least damaged buildings, sometimes living without walls and windows. Most roads have been cleared of piles of rubble that were left by the bombardments, but blocks on end are wrecked and uninhabitable. The water was restored in September, but there is still no electricity.

Without more financial support, there is a risk that Raqqa will "devolve into the same vulnerability ISIS found when it first arrived, a 'fractured city ripe for extremist takeover and exploitation,' " a report by the Pentagon's inspector general said last month, quoting a State Department official.

The anger on the streets is palpable. Some residents are openly hostile to foreign visitors, which is rare in other towns and cities freed from Islamic State control in Syria and Iraq. Even those who support the presence of the U.S. military and the SDF say they are resentful that the United States and its partners in the anti-ISIS coalition that bombed the city aren't helping to rebuild.

And many appear not to support their new rulers.

"We don't want the Americans. It's occupation," said one man, a tailor, who didn't want to give his name because he feared the consequences of speaking his mind. "I don't know why they had to use such a huge number of weapons and destroy the city. Yes, ISIS was here, but we paid the price. They have a responsibility."

He spoke wistfully of life under the Islamic State, when, he said, the streets were safe. His business was good because foreign fighters flocked to him to get themselves decked out in the Afghan-style outfits of baggy pants and tunics that were favored by the Islamic State. Now the city is half empty and customers are few.

Everyone says the streets are not safe now. Recent months have seen an uptick in assassinations and kidnappings, mostly targeting members of the security forces or people who work with the local council. But some critics of the authorities have been gunned down, too, and at night there are abductions and robberies.

And there is graffiti, often appearing overnight, a sinister reminder that the Islamic State is trying to stage a comeback.

"Remaining in spite of you," said the writing scrawled in black paint on the collapsed wall of a destroyed building on one recent morning, a reference to the Islamic State's slogan, "Remaining and Expanding."

The paint was fresh.

Michael Flynn's transformation from storied officer to heated partisan

By Marc Fisher
Michael Flynn's transformation from storied officer to heated partisan
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn,from left, President Donald Trump and then Chief of Staff Reince Priebus walk out to speak to members of the media at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 21, 2016. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - What happened to Michael Flynn?

Before he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, before he became a folk hero to many of President Donald Trump's most loyal supporters, before he pivoted from accomplished military officer to purveyor of shocking stories about the evils of Islam, something changed in the tough kid who rose to be a three-star Army general.

His friends and critics agree that after winning a reputation as a master intelligence officer on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, Flynn broke with lifelong patterns of behavior. Once discreet and apolitical, he morphed into a highly partisan alarm ringer. A man once trusted to cautiously analyze information began touting wild hearsay as fact.

Flynn, 60, is expected to be sentenced in federal court Tuesday after having given prosecutors 19 interviews as part of their investigation into the Trump campaign's relationship with Russia. Whatever punishment the court imposes, the mystery of Flynn's transformation endures.

More than two dozen of Flynn's friends, superiors and colleagues - including some who see him as a heroic truth teller and others who wonder how he went off the rails - agreed in interviews that Flynn's public persona shifted dramatically. They remain at odds over why it happened.

Did he gradually absorb a new, conspiracy-minded worldview, in part inspired by his son Michael Jr.'s embrace of fringe ideas? Did he discard lifelong habits because he'd been enraged to his core when President Barack Obama's administration in 2014 removed him as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), his last and most senior military assignment? Or had Flynn, who retired as a lieutenant general, long harbored extreme views, successfully shielding his real opinions from those around him?

Although the explanations vary, the change is undeniable.

Flynn was, for many years, notably tough on Russia, saying that it and Iran were "the most active and powerful members of the enemy alliance" against the United States.

But over the past three years, Flynn took a fee from the Russian government-supported TV outlet, RT; sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at an RT-sponsored dinner; and spoke with Russia's ambassador before Trump took office - and then lied about those conversations to Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI.

For years, Flynn was a social media skeptic, writing that Facebook and Twitter must become "more socially responsible," adding "positive messaging campaigns about the betterment of humankind."

Then, after the 2016 election, Flynn insisted that social media were the key to building a pro-Trump, conservative "army of digital soldiers . . . irregular warfare at its finest." He said he'd seen proof on social media that Trump had actually won the popular vote in addition to the electoral college, which is false.

Throughout his career, those who had close contact with Flynn agree with remarkable unanimity, he strictly adhered to the military's standard of avoiding expressing partisan views. He praised superiors publicly for not tolerating criticism of American politicians by officers.

"He was as conforming to the tradition of nonpartisanship as anyone," said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who worked with Flynn for many years.

"The saw you hear all the time, that people in the military and intelligence don't know each other's politics, turns out to be surprisingly true," said Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department under Obama and now a scholar at Dartmouth College. "I had no idea what Mike Flynn's politics might be."

Soon after he was fired as head of the DIA, Flynn became a very political actor, even if he was "not a political sophisticate," said Michael Ledeen, co-author of "The Field of Fight," Flynn's best-selling book on the American failure to confront radical Islamists.

Flynn called Milo Yiannopoulos, the incendiary writer and speaker who marketed himself as a right-wing provocateur, "one of the most brave people I've met." Flynn went on Breitbart radio to claim that he had seen signs in Arabic along the U.S.-Mexico border that had been posted to guide "radicalized Muslims" into the United States - a false assertion.

Flynn has traced his leap into partisan politics to his first meeting with Trump, in 2015. A 30-minute appointment turned into an hour and a half, and, as Flynn told The Washington Post in 2016, "I got the impression this was not a guy who was worried about Donald Trump, but a guy worried about the country."

"I was sold," Flynn said in a later speech. "From that moment on, my direction in life completely changed."

And in July 2016, at the Republican convention in Cleveland, he used his prime-time speech embracing Trump to lead the crowd in a lusty shout aimed at Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"Lock her up!" Flynn cried, over and over, clapping along as the crowd's chant crescendoed. "Lock her up! You guys are good. Damn right! Exactly right! There is nothing wrong with that. . . . Crooked Hillary Clinton, leave this race now!"

Mullen had long found Flynn "extraordinarily capable, thoughtful - an out[side]-the-box thinker. People wanted to be around him. In the field, I saw a balanced guy."

Then Mullen watched Flynn at the convention. "I was as stunned as anybody else to see him on the stage and see him latch onto conspiracy theories," he said. "I didn't recognize the guy."

The episode at the convention was embarrassing, perhaps, but understandable, friends say.

"He was caught up in the moment," Ledeen said. "Hard to resist. I mean, I would have said, 'Calm down, calm down,' but if you're going to be on the campaign with Trump, you're going to say things that support him. And he's angry. He has reason to be angry."

The change in Flynn had been evident to some people for at least a year before the convention.

"I thought he was a really upbeat, can-do kind of guy - totally likable," Benjamin said. In 2015, he invited Flynn to speak at Dartmouth. In such appearances, the retired general railed against negotiating with Iran. He slammed Obama for touting the killing of Osama bin Laden as a turning point in the war against terrorism. He alleged that top U.S. officials were in league with Islamist extremists, trying to make sharia law part of U.S. legal codes.

"The Michael Flynn who showed up here was a very different person from the one I had seen in Afghanistan," Benjamin said. "He was saying stranger and stranger things. He seemed like he was becoming a bit unhinged."

- - -

Flynn was unapologetic about his new manner.

"I am smack dab in the middle of this arena," he said in 2016, "and I don't mind people up in the bleachers throwing rocks at me."

He pushed back against the tradition of nonpartisanship among retired military leaders. "What do you do when you get out of the military, you stop serving?" he said in a 2016 Post interview. "That means that you stop being an American?"

A friend who has advised Flynn for years said Flynn felt compelled to abandon the tradition of cautious neutrality to save his country. The friend, who like many interviewed for this article agreed to speak only without being named to protect their relationships with Flynn, said the general came to view Obama as head of a worldwide crime cartel supporting jihadist ideas.

After the 2016 election, in the only meeting between Obama and then-President-elect Trump, the outgoing leader warned against the hiring of just one person: Flynn. Obama believed Flynn was dangerous - because of his performance as head of DIA, because of his incendiary statements about Islam, and because Flynn had appeared at the Moscow event staged in 2015 by RT.

Trump ignored his predecessor's advice and made Flynn his national security adviser. Flynn lasted 23 days. The president forced him out after The Post revealed that Flynn had lied about discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country's ambassador to the United States.

Flynn did not respond to requests for an interview. Approached after a speech to a conservative group in St. Louis, he said: "I don't want to talk to you. I don't even want you here."

America may not survive this battle over its values, Flynn said in that speech. "This turning point is about the heart and soul of the United States," he said. "It's time to . . . stand ready to fight for our way of life and our traditions."

- - -

When Flynn's mother died in 2014, the family posted a memorial that described Helen Flynn - a lawyer and Democratic activist in Rhode Island - as a fiercely determined woman who "was fearless in expressing her informed opinions. . . . When Helen had it in her mind to do something, she found the way, embraced the challenge and stepped in with two feet firmly planted on the ground."

Friends said Flynn and his mother were alike in that way - certain in their worldview, bold about making sure others knew what they believed. When he was a child, they attended antiabortion marches together. Always, they argued their points hard at the dinner table.

"I detest those who distort the truth," he wrote.

Michael Flynn was never going to be one of those studious, intellectual military leaders who quote from Sun Tzu's "Art of War" and settle into Ivy League sinecures after taking off the uniform. The son of a veteran and brother of another senior military officer, Flynn described his young self as "one of those nasty tough kids, hellbent on breaking rules for the adrenaline rush and hard-wired just enough to not care about the consequences."

"I'm a maverick, an atypical square peg in a round hole," he wrote in "The Field of Fight."

From the start of his career, Flynn made it clear he would sometimes go his own way. In 1983, when he was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, members of his platoon were ordered to Grenada to help with the U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island.

Flynn was not included in the group that was deploying. He wanted in. He went to his superior officer and talked his way into the mission.

In Grenada, positioned along a seaside cliff, Flynn heard that two U.S. soldiers were in trouble in rough waters. A former lifeguard, Flynn leaped off the cliff, a 40-foot dive into roiling waters, swam out to the struggling men, and pulled both of them back to a ledge where they could await help from a helicopter.

Flynn initially got chewed out for staging his rescue without authorization, and "that established the legend of Mike Flynn," said an officer who served with him for two decades. "His reputation was as the guy who believed, 'You can't go to war without me,' and really, he's acted that way ever since."

- - -

In 2010, Flynn jolted the U.S. intelligence community when he co-wrote "Fixing Intel," a paper for a think tank that concluded that the nation's intelligence work in Afghanistan was "ignorant," "incurious," "disengaged," a massive waste of resources.

"Merely killing insurgents usually serves to multiply enemies rather than subtract them," the paper said.

Flynn's message read like something almost any counterintelligence professional from either party from President Bill Clinton through Obama might have said. What shocked many in the intelligence agencies was only that Flynn was the paper's lead author.

"A lot of people in high places were upset because it was signed by an active general who put this out in public rather than going through channels," a fellow officer said.

The paper did not halt Flynn's rise. It may even have helped establish him as a serious thinker. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the paper "exactly the type of candid, critical self-assessment" the military needed. Previously viewed by many as a crackerjack field commander but not executive material, Flynn was quickly moved to a top position in Washington. In 2012, the Obama White House nominated him to run the DIA.

Things did not go well, nearly from the start.

A DIA officer who regularly attended meetings with Flynn said the top brass welcomed him because "he was a legend to us, coming in as the shake-up artist."

But soon after Flynn's arrival, the officer said, "he started doing weird things, like bring his unsecured BlackBerry into the secure space, and he became unabashed about his beliefs. In meetings, he sounded like he was reading Breitbart and Alex Jones and random bloggers, alt-right stuff, and he'd just say, 'Well, I heard this . . .' "

"We saw a serious cognitive erosion," another agency staffer said, "like he couldn't inhibit himself from saying things, like the filters were off."

"He lost control of the building very quickly," Benjamin said.

Some officials began to call his forays into speculative or conspiratorial thinking "Flynn facts." When he decided to go to Moscow in 2013 to speak to officers at Russia's military intelligence agency, some top advisers told their boss the move was naive, even dangerous. Flynn insisted that the battle against Islamist terrorism made it urgent to seek common ground with the Russians.

A senior DIA staffer said several people "tried to push Flynn away from that stuff in a very cordial, diplomatic way, to move him away from his extreme ideas about not talking to Iran and about Islam. He'd just say, 'Well, you're wrong.' We talked all the time among ourselves about what was going on in his head. Like, was it PTSD, or was this who he was all along and now he finally had the authority to say it?"

- - -

By 2014, Flynn's bosses had had enough. They cut his tenure short and pushed him out.

Humiliated and incensed, Flynn started a private intelligence business and signed with a speakers bureau to deliver paid addresses about leadership and the fight against Islamist extremists.

He had a new battle in mind. "He decided to take his lance and point it at the administration," Benjamin said. "He fell in with a crowd that was out of the mainstream. His view of Islam was of it being almost a genetic failure."

At lunch one day in the Pentagon dining room, Flynn, visiting former colleagues, loudly complained that Obama and his aides had run him out of DIA because they weren't willing to fight the terrorists, said an official who witnessed the moment.

"Everyone knows who he is," the official said, "and there he was, in the Pentagon dining room, ranting and raving, totally unhinged."

In one of his first major TV appearances, on "Charlie Rose," Flynn asserted that Iran "has killed more Americans than al-Qaida has through state sponsors, through its terrorist network called Hezbollah."

Rose pushed back: "Hezbollah has killed more Americans than al-Qaida?"

Flynn doubled down. After the show, people who had been helping him establish his speaking career confronted him, telling him he had to be truthful.

"Well, I believe it to be true," Flynn replied.

It quickly became harder to book Flynn for high-profile, mainstream venues, according to two people who worked with him in that period.

Flynn began appearing instead before Trump supporters who applauded his diatribes against America's shifting demographic makeup. "Our lifestyle is changing," he said. "The demographics of our country, which has changed dramatically over the last 50 years - unbelievable."

It also became more difficult to talk to Flynn about political issues, a shift that friends said seemed to coincide with Flynn spending more time with his son Michael Jr.

"His son became much more important in the daily structure of Mike's life," a longtime friend said. "He was like Mike's chief of staff. They used the same slogans. They believed the same wild things."

The son, who did not respond to requests for comment, has a high profile on social media, where he uses more inflammatory language than his father, endorsing conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, the false notion that a Washington pizza place was home to a child sex-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton.

Michael Jr. began accompanying his father to events, including to Russia for the RT appearance, and has been perhaps his father's most devoted advocate, attacking the special counsel, campaigning for public support to clear his father's name, and raising funds for his defense.

As his son's rhetoric became more radical, the father, too, ratcheted up his attacks on the forces he blamed for destroying America. The father told a crowd that Obama "didn't grow up as an American." Two friends said Flynn told them he agreed with his son about Pizzagate.

Some of Flynn's old allies - including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, with whom Flynn had worked closely in Iraq and Afghanistan, and two other military leaders, according to two of Flynn's friends - asked him to tone it down. Flynn insisted he was doing what was right and necessary.

- - -

In late 2015, RT proposed to hire Flynn to attend its 10th anniversary bash in Moscow. He would be paid $33,750.

Author Ledeen's daughter Simone, who worked closely with Flynn as he crafted his post-military career path, tried to talk him out of the trip.

"Don't do this" to your friends in the Army, she pleaded, according to Flynn's associates. "Don't do this to yourself."

Flynn defended his decision on Twitter: "Know my values and beliefs are mine & won't change because I'm on a different piece of geography."

Simone Ledeen "saw what it would look like," her father said. "Whereas Flynn was surprised by the reaction."

At the RT dinner, Putin sat next to Flynn at the head table. Putin spoke, and when he was done, Flynn joined the crowd in standing to applaud.

Flynn would later emphasize that he never praised Putin, never wavered from his position that Russia was the enemy.

Whether it was naivete, a desire to build his career as a speaker or an urge to get involved in policymaking even though he was no longer in government, Flynn's decision to put himself in a room where he would be seated next to Putin proved problematic.

"He was playing with some very sophisticated players," said a senior U.S. official who worked closely with Flynn. "He got played."

Flynn didn't "know why people make such a big deal," he told The Post last year. "So I get asked by my speakers bureau to go do a speech. Here's the topic. Yep. Take it."

His tweets, speeches, TV appearances, bestseller and convention address all fed a campaign of agitation against Obama and Clinton. As he warned against the country's moral decay, Flynn became a folk hero to Trump's burgeoning base.

Flynn fixated on the damage Clinton could do. When he first "got into this political nonsense," he said at a Massachusetts synagogue, he felt compelled to warn against Clinton because "she has zero accountability." His audience cheered, his eyebrows bobbed, his forehead tightened. Over waves of applause, he pushed on: "She has none, she has none, she has absolutely none. She has no personal responsibility."

Last December, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn's friends say he admitted lying to halt the hemorrhaging of money from being on the wrong end of a federal investigation.

"His wife was miserable, his siblings were miserable," Ledeen said. "This was how he could stop it."

Even after he admitted lying, pleaded guilty and cooperated with the investigation, Flynn remained a folk hero to many in Trump's base. A singing trio calling itself The Deplorable Choir recorded a country tune, "Our General Flynn," that paid tribute to his loyalty, with proceeds going to his defense fund.

But last week's revelation that Flynn repeatedly met with special counsel Robert Muellers prosecutors - for a total of 62 hours - challenged the notion that Flynn has stood firmly with Trump.

Flynn "made a serious error in judgment, for which he has shown true contrition," his lawyers wrote in a memo to U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on Tuesday. But the lawyers also contended that Flynn was lulled into lying by FBI agents who wanted him "to be relaxed" and therefore didn't warn him that making false statements to investigators was a crime.

To family and friends, Flynn remains an unrepentant hero, standing tall against political correctness, liberal folly and media bias.

Flynn's brother Joseph tweeted in October: "Thank God for Patriots like @GenFlynn who sacrificed everything to ensure @HillaryClinton did not get elected . . . with absolutely NO REGRETS."

His supporters viewed the special counsel's recommendation last week that Flynn serve no prison time because of the "substantial assistance" he provided not as a sign that their man had been flipped, but that he had been vindicated.

"The judge should just throw the thing out," Flynn's friend Michael Ledeen said. "Give him a medal and be done with it."

- - -

The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung in Washington and Kurt Shillinger in St. Louis contributed to this report.

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

Who should decide what topics are off-limits?

By megan mcardle
Who should decide what topics are off-limits?



(For McArdle clients only)


Noah Carl, a young British social scientist, stands accused of peddling "racist pseudoscience." And as I discovered, even asking whether the accusation is true invites the same sort of unwelcome attention.

Hundreds of academics have signed an open letter about Carl's work, calling on his employers to publicly disassociate themselves from his research and investigate his appointment to a Cambridge University fellowship. The letter, released earlier this month, cited Carl's attendance at a much-criticized conference on intelligence in London, but it didn't go into detail about his research.

Carl's published papers address sensitive subjects such as Islamist terrorism and immigration. More provocatively still, he has argued in favor of researching race and IQ. But since the open letter didn't cite specifics, defenders of Carl's academic freedom could only guess at what had provoked it.

That is not, critics of the open letter said, how academia should work. Jonathan Haidt, a research psychologist at New York University, told me, "Academic norms are very clear, which is that you're supposed to rebut arguments; you don't use guilt-by-association."

I wrote to signatories asking for more-specific critiques. Many responded thoughtfully. But the sheer number forced me to send group emails, which turned lively when a member of the Cambridge English faculty promptly warned the others that Wikipedia placed me on the political right.

I protested that while the description was accurate, I was simply trying to understand their case. In a flurry of replies, she said that "It would be horrible to respond in good faith and then find out you were mugged," delved into a decade-old blog argument I'd had about Obamacare, and shared correspondence from someone else condemning the "racist banality" of my writing. Further protest from me was obviously useless; my political inclinations were proof enough of my ill intention.

Investigating links between race, IQ and genes has long been anathema; Carl's case suggests that it is now anathema even to ask whether those investigations should be forbidden. And I seemed to be proving that it is anathema to ask whether it should be anathema to ask ...

All somewhat ironic, considering that I already leaned toward believing that research into race and IQ should be off-limits. And that the defenders of Carl's academic freedom were the ones who had best made that case.

While some signatories provided detailed methodological criticism, research psychologist Lee Jussim argues that his critics are using excessively high standards that wouldn't apply if he had come to different conclusions. But I asked Jussim to respond to a deeper critique I've long been worried about, one concerning Carl's most controversial paper.

There's a history, I said, of scientists finding whatever they expect, from scientists insisting that humans had 48 chromosomes, even as their experiments kept showing 46, to the eugenics that fueled the Holocaust. One of Jussim's own papers shows that left-leaning social psychologists have long been inadvertently biasing their research toward answers the left finds congenial.

Given flawed scientists and imperfect scientific methods, and given the fraught history of Western racism, isn't the likelihood of getting it wrong just too high? And the potential cost of those particular errors simply too catastrophic to risk? All societies place some questions out of bounds because they're too toxic; we don't debate whether child molestation or spousal murder are acceptable.

Without hesitation, Jussim agreed. Carl wasn't endorsing a link between race and IQ, Jussim pointed out, just starting a discussion about whether we should study it. "If we had that discussion" he said, "I would personally advocate for a moratorium for all the reasons you just described."

"The question is not 'Should we have third rails in science?'" Haidt said. "That's a valid argument. But the question now is 'Should we randomly shoot anyone who gets within an unspecified distance of a third rail?'"

My own experience illustrates why the answer to that second question should be "no".

The Cambridge English professor wasn't the only one who seemed to assume my reflexive agreement with Carl, making reasoned argument fruitless. In fact, I've long suspected the impossibility of doing such research with what historian and signatory Daniel Cleary calls an adequate "duty of care." But I wasn't better persuaded by implicit accusations of bad faith. Instead my conviction was bolstered by people like Jussim and Cleary, who argued methods rather than character.

In fairness, however, I did emerge with two prior beliefs basically confirmed: first, that research into race and IQ should stay off limits, but, second, that those limits are better established by debate than denunciation.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

One of America's most successful exports is in trouble

By catherine rampell
One of America's most successful exports is in trouble



(For Rampell clients only)


WASHINGTON -- One of America's most successful exports is in trouble.

For decades, the U.S. higher-education system has been the envy of the world. We "sell" much more education to other countries than we "buy" from them; nearly three times as many foreign students are currently studying here as we have abroad.

In trade terms, this means we run a massive surplus in education -- about $34 billion in 2017, according to Commerce Department data. Our educational exports are about as big as our total exports of soybeans, coal and natural gas (BEG ITAL)combined(END ITAL).

But all that may be at risk.

A recent report from the Institute of International Education and the State Department found that new international student enrollments fell by 6.6 percent in the 2017-2018 school year, the second consecutive year of declines. A separate, more limited IIE survey of schools suggests that the declines continued this fall, too.

To be sure, some of the forces behind these decreases are beyond our (or President Trump's) control. Some foreign governments, such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia, have reduced the scholarships that previously sent significant numbers of students to the United States, according to Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at IIE.

China, whose students represent about a third of U.S. international student enrollment, has been investing in improving its own domestic university system, too.

But according to the schools that are now watching the trend, the biggest forces deterring international students are U.S. policy and U.S. culture.

"They see the headlines and they think that they're no longer wanted in the United States," said Lawrence Schovanec, president of Texas Tech University, whose foreign student enrollment declined by 2 percent this year. Sixty percent of schools with declining international enrollment, in fact, said that the U.S. social and political environment was a contributing factor, according to the IIE survey.

The most frequently cited issue, however, was "visa application process or visa issues/delays." In the fall 2018 survey, 83 percent of schools named this as an issue, compared with 34 percent in fall 2016.

Problems began -- but didn't end -- with Trump's Muslim ban. Schools have seen students trapped abroad and have since advised some students not to go home before graduation lest they get stuck trying to come back. Said Bennington College President Mariko Silver, "We've seen individual students who have contacted us with the desire to come and have pulled out of the process."

Boo-hoo, Trump supporters might say. What's the big deal if some foreigners stay home?

Forget the feel-good explanations about how international students enrich the campus environment (which I don't dispute). The students who come here also spend cold, hard cash: on tuition, travel, books, food, housing.

A lot of jobs depend on those students. American colleges and universities alone employed 3 million people in 2017. For context, that dwarfs the entire agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector.

And contrary to perceptions that foreign students take spots that belong to Americans, at many schools they're enabling (BEG ITAL)more(END ITAL) American students to get a degree.

In the years after the financial crisis, as states slashed budgets for higher education, schools helped make up the shortfall by enrolling more out-of-state and international students. These students generally pay full tuition, and their higher fees are used to cross-subsidize lower, in-state tuition rates (and scholarships) of American classmates.

No wonder that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently paid $424,000 to insure itself against a significant drop in tuition revenue from Chinese students.

More significantly, a continued drop-off in international students could cause serious pain beyond academia.

Foreign students come here in part because they're interested in staying after graduation and working here. They disproportionately study fields that U.S. employers demand, and that U.S. students avoid. Foreign students now represent a majority of computer science and engineering graduate programs at U.S. universities, for instance.

That talent pipeline may be drying up.

Foreigners are experiencing more visa issues not only when they apply to study but also when they apply to stay and work. That might be one reason more than half of the decline in total enrollment last year was due to fewer students from India in computer science and engineering grad programs.

Our loss has become other countries' gain. We're still the top destination for foreign students, but Australia and Canada have each seen their international enrollments rise by double-digit percentages in the past year. They're enticing students in word and in deed, with messages of welcome and expedited visas.

Trump likes to say that our allies are taking advantage of us on trade. In this case, would you really blame them?

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump has been walking a tightrope of lies, and now he is teetering

By eugene robinson
Trump has been walking a tightrope of lies, and now he is teetering


(Advance for Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Robinson clients only)

WRITETHRU: Last graf, first sentence: "Allen" sted "Alan"


WASHINGTON -- There was plenty of awful legal news for President Trump this week, but the worst may have come from an official who hasn't yet been sworn in.

Letitia James, who will become the New York state attorney general next month, told NBC she plans to "use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well." James also said she hopes to pursue state charges against Trump associates whom the president might pardon for federal crimes.

No wonder Trump was so untethered when Chuck and Nancy dropped by.

Trump has been walking a tightrope of lies all his adult life, and now he is teetering. He has inflated his wealth. He has aggrandized his business acumen. He has managed to convince supporters that he is a respected businessman who brilliantly commanded a vast real estate empire. In a fanciful 2015 statement of his net worth, he claimed that his brand alone -- just the name Trump -- was worth $3 billion.

I wonder what it's worth now.

In reality, Trump has never come anywhere near the top rank of New York real estate developers. He ran not a huge, sprawling enterprise but a small family firm in which he and his children had direct control. He was seen as so unreliable that genuine moguls refused to have anything to do with him. When he tried to go big -- risking everything on casino development in Atlantic City -- he failed miserably, despite his father's efforts to bail him out. His bankers were left holding the bag, and now most major financial institutions won't lend the Trump Organization a dime. It was Trump's undeniable skill as a television performer on "The Apprentice" that saved him from total ruin.

Now the law is beginning to squeeze him from all directions. His former consigliere, Michael Cohen, was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison. One of the crimes Cohen confessed to committing was violating federal campaign-finance laws by orchestrating six-figure payments to a Playboy model and a porn star, in the weeks before the 2016 election, to ensure their silence about sexual encounters they say they had with Trump. Cohen says he did this at Trump's direction.

Trump's see-no-evil allies dismiss Cohen as a proven liar about other matters. But also Wednesday, the company that owns the National Enquirer -- American Media Inc. (AMI), which is run by Trump's close friend, David Pecker -- admitted playing a major role in that same hush-money scheme. The aim, according to the company, was to help Trump win the election.

Trump responded by tweeting that "I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law." But in the past, the president has also said that there weren't any hush-money payments; that if such payments were made, he didn't know about them; and that the payments, which totaled $280,000, were a "simple private transaction."

The bottom line is that two witnesses, Cohen and AMI, independently now implicate the president of the United States in the commission of two felonies.

The campaign-finance case is being brought by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. Back in Washington, meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller has been busy as well.

We learned this week that Michael Flynn, Trump's short-lived national security adviser, has met with Mueller's team 19 times to tell them what he knows. We also learned that Cohen has been eagerly cooperating with the Mueller probe. This means that at least two people in a position to know whether collusion with the Russians took place are singing like songbirds.

Potentially more serious for Trump and his family in the long run, however, is what the New York state probe might discover.

How much of the Trump Organization's revenue has come from the sale of luxury real estate to oligarchs from Russia and other kleptocracies? Where did these buyers' money come from? Why was Deutsche Bank -- recently raided by German authorities and under investigation for money laundering -- the only major financial institution willing to lend money to Trump in recent years? Where did Trump's company get the large amounts of cash used in several transactions that Washington Post reporters uncovered? How much commingling of funds was there between Trump's company and his eponymous foundation?

Trump's longtime accountant, Allen Weisselberg, has turned state's evidence. He may be the Virgil who guides federal, state and local prosecutors through a Trumpian inferno of shell companies and opaque transactions. The outlines of Trump's fate begin to emerge.

Eugene Robinson's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Urban-rural chasm defines new Western political divide

By fareed zakaria
Urban-rural chasm defines new Western political divide


(Advance for Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Zakaria clients only)


NEW YORK -- For Steve Bannon, the way to create an enduring populist majority is to combine forces on the left and right. That's why he was in Italy earlier this year, where parties representing those two sides joined together in a governing alliance. That's why Bannon hopes to wean some of Bernie Sanders' supporters away from the Democratic Party. But the next place where we might be watching the rise of a new left-right populism is France.

Thus far, the "yellow vest" protests in France have lacked a party, structure and leadership. But lists of demands have been circulating. At their heart is an unworkable fantasy, such as a constitutional cap on taxes at 25 percent coupled with a massive increase in social spending. What is striking about these manifestos is that they combine traditional wish lists from the left and right. No wonder, then, that nearly 90 percent of people who back the major far-left and far-right parties support the movement, compared with only 23 percent of people in Macron's centrist party.

The "yellow vest" uprising has also spread to Belgium, where the fragile governing coalition has collapsed, largely over the issue of immigration. But there again, the protests have a feel of generalized discontent coming from left and right. Just as in France, America and Britain, it appears to be a rural backlash against urban elites.

The fissure between relatively better educated urbanites and less educated rural populations appears to have become the new dividing line in Western politics. Everywhere, the "outsiders" feel ignored or looked down on; everywhere they feel deep resentment toward metropolitan elites. It's part class, part culture, but there is a large element of economics to it as well.

The Brookings Institution has shown that since the financial crisis of 2008, 72 percent of the gains in employment have accrued to the country's top 53 metropolitan areas. To understand the structural division this causes, keep in mind that all U.S. cities together contain 62.7 percent of the population but occupy just 3.5 percent of the country's land. The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that the fate of urban vs. rural America has been turned on its head. In 1980, cities were dysfunctional, crime-ridden and struggling to keep people from leaving. Today they are thriving, growing and relatively safe, while rural America is wracked with problems. This urban-rural chasm is also true in France, Italy, Britain and many other Western countries.

And it's likely to get worse. Research by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo suggests that the use of robots does in fact reduce employment, by about six workers for one machine. Further, Acemoglu and Restrepo find that, in the U.S., robots have been largely deployed in the Midwest and the South. While metro areas usually have rich and growing creative and service industries, rural America is less likely to be home to centers of technology, entertainment, law and finance. If you go to a rural part of the Midwest, typically the main sources of employment are government and health care (which is also partly funded by government).

People in these areas are often described as being irrational at the ballot box. In America, they vote against the programs that would help them and for a party that promises tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the working class (i.e., them). The New York Times' Thomas Edsall points out that the 2017 Republican tax law essentially subsidizes companies to automate. In Europe, they adopt contradictory proposals from the left and right. But this might simply reflect a more generalized anxiety, a blind search for someone, somewhere who promises them a better future.

Tom Brokaw's 1998 book "The Greatest Generation" is packed with stories of non-college-educated men who lived far from big cities. This was the "real America." Similar regions across France were once called "la France profonde." Today they are places of despair.

In Yuval Harari's new book, "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," the Israeli historian makes the point that the three most powerful 20th-century ideologies -- fascism, communism and democratic capitalism -- put the ordinary person at the center, promising him or her a glorious future. But today, we seem to need a handful of brainiacs who will, with computers and robots, chart the course for the future. So in France, in Britain, in the United States, the ordinary person, who doesn't have a fancy degree, who doesn't attend TED Talks, who doesn't have capital or connections, will reasonably wonder -- where does that leave me?

To that question, no one has a good answer.

Fareed Zakaria's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Republicans failed to govern, but Democrats have a chance to succeed

By david ignatius
Republicans failed to govern, but Democrats have a chance to succeed


(Advance for Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)


WASHINGTON -- This week was a vivid demonstration of the inability of conservatives to deliver results after the great populist revolts in 2016 in Britain and America. And it showed that there is a golden opportunity for liberals in both countries to tackle the public concerns that motivated the mistaken decisions to vote for Brexit and Donald Trump.

To put it bluntly, the Tories under Prime Minister Theresa May and the Republicans under President Trump have failed as governing parties. That's because they can't reconcile their inflammatory rhetoric with the practical realities of economic and social policy in the 21st century. The conservatives talked big to aggrieved voters, but they have come up empty.

This past week offered a rare chance to test the propositions on trade, immigration and other issues that have been polarizing British and American politics. Conservatives presented easy solutions -- for Britain, a Brexit escape from a meddlesome European Union; and for America, a border wall (and other symbols) to address the real strains caused by immigration.

But the conservative quick fixes didn't work. They were ill-planned, half-baked, jingoistic responses to serious issues. Rather than remedy the inequities that bothered middle-class Brits and Americans, they instead sought to turn back the clock with proposals that simply didn't fit today's globalized world.

May's Brexit plan was an attempt to negotiate an exit from the EU that she never fully believed in herself. She had to compromise to the point of incoherence because a hard Brexit and total separation would have been unworkable for Northern Ireland and unacceptable for Scotland, risking the potential breakup of the United Kingdom, not just its departure from the EU.

Trump's border mania was different. It has been political demagoguery dressed up as policy. The inflammatory campaign seemed to work the first time in 2016, helping Trump get elected, but not the second, in the midterms.

When Trump tried real policy to deal with immigration and trade over the past 18 months, he produced little. His fire and fury toward Mexico produced only modest revisions in NAFTA, and his separation of migrant families as a deterrent to seeking asylum shocked the conscience of the country and the courts, and has mostly been shelved.

And finally, Trump's tantrum this week, threatening to shut down the government if he didn't get his promised wall, embarrassed even Republicans. It was a sign of how empty Trump's cupboard has become, that political leverage is the threat to implode his own administration. Whatever else the past two years have shown, it's that the Republicans under Trump cannot govern effectively, even when they controlled both houses of Congress.

Well, those days are over. They lost their chance. What about the Democrats?

Now that Steve Bannon's nativist road map has led to dead ends in Britain and America, it's tempting simply to see this as vindication -- and take comfort in the shambolic predicament of the other side. But I'd argue that it's a perfect moment to revisit the issues that fueled the populist revolt in the first place, and offer policies that actually help angry middle-class voters, but don't offer false hope that it's possible to escape the realities of the 21st century.

Any party that wants to govern Britain must embrace the reality that "leave" voters were right in their dissatisfaction with a feckless, over-bureaucratized EU system that's better at delivering rules than results. "Brussels" has become a code word for a kind of elitist, we-know-better rule by unelected masters. The diktats of Brussels are as resented among working-class voters in France, Spain, Italy and the rest of Europe as in England. Every poll I've seen shows that broad dissatisfaction.

A new "Revote/Remain" campaign should begin with a pan-European alliance for reform -- one that urges Britain to remain in a better "more perfect" union. The British Labor Party won't be a plausible governing party, alas, as long as it's led by the old-left relic, Jeremy Corbyn. He's a big reason why the Tory Party remains in power despite its current nervous breakdown.

What should the resurgent Democrats do on immigration after their midterm capture of the House? A modest proposal: Democrats should make clear that it's not unethical or un-American to want a clear, enforceable border -- and that not every migrant who wants to come to America can do so.

Many Trump voters think the Democrats are an elitist party captured by identity politics. Now, with the Republicans in disarray, is the Democrats' moment to show that they can do what the GOP can't -- govern America fairly and equitably for all its citizens.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

White House brawl over the wall amounts to theater of the absurd

By ruben navarrette jr.
White House brawl over the wall amounts to theater of the absurd


(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE. Normally would be advance for Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

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SAN DIEGO -- The media is still buzzing about this week's televised 17-minute confrontation between President Trump and Democratic leaders over a possible shutdown if Congress doesn't approve additional funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Yet, people are talking about the wrong thing.

The narrative is that soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stood up to President Trump.

But, as absurd as it is, the real story is how the standoff was over something that usually unites the parties: border security.

After leaving the White House, Pelosi was asked by reporters why she kept insisting that the discussion be held behind closed doors and not "in the public view." She claimed that it was to protect Trump from further embarrassment because he didn't know what he was talking about. The reporters seemed to buy it.

But the actual reason that Pelosi didn't want to have that discussion out in the open was probably because she didn't want to publicly oppose the border wall and set up Democrats for accusations of being soft on illegal immigration. She also didn't want to expose the fissure between Democrats who oppose the wall and those who would go along with it because they fear a backlash from voters.

Meanwhile, Schumer seemed pleased that he goaded Trump into claiming the mantle of border-protector-in-chief. To political observers, it looked like Schumer scored a tactical win by getting Trump on tape threatening a shutdown.

But, in truth, Schumer's stunt was a hollow victory. The refugee caravan changed the equation, turning many Americans against a more lenient approach to border enforcement.

Last month, with the caravan story front and center, a Gallup poll found that the number of Americans who think immigration is the top problem facing the United States jumped to 21 percent from 13 percent the previous month.

Schumer told Trump that "experts say you can do border security without a wall." But, of course, these are the same experts who got us to this point by tolerating illegal immigration.

Besides, Pelosi and Schumer could afford to be smug as they exited the White House. Pelosi is from California, Schumer from New York. Those are blue states. They could vote "no" on a border wall, and not pay a price. That's not the case with centrist Blue Dog Democrats, who might conclude the safer course of action is to simply vote for Trump's wall.

Welcome to the politics of immigration, where Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to take a hardline on the border.

The debate is a headache for both parties. Republicans have to make peace between nativists who want fewer immigrants and business, which wants more; Democrats have to referee a tug-of-war between Latinos who are fine with more immigration, and organized labor, which wants less.

No wonder so many politicians avoid tackling immigration for decades at a time.

And no wonder the media clings to familiar narratives. Why not report that, when it comes to erecting barriers on the border, Democrats and Republicans are more aligned than either side wants to admit?

Democrats love imposing structures, and drones in the sky, and extra border patrol agents, and National Guard troops on the border, and what some call "virtual walls" of electronic sensors.

The Democrats' love affair with border security started in 1994 when President Bill Clinton militarized the U.S.-Mexico border through Operation Gatekeeper. It continued to 1996 when Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which empowered the U.S. attorney general to order barrier construction on the U.S.-Mexico border and authorized the construction of yet another layer of border fencing.

The infatuation continued to 2006 when 26 Democratic senators voted to support the Secure Fence Act, which authorized construction of about 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border and the use of satellites, drones and checkpoints. Democrats who voted "yes" included Schumer, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

The left says that there is a difference between a fence and a wall. But, actually, when the fence has multiple layers, the difference is negligible.

The Democrats' fascination for border security continued to 2010 when, as a president, Obama signed the Southwest Border Security Bill, which spent $600 million to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. Among the bill's loudest proponents were Pelosi and Schumer.

Now liberals are making a big spectacle of opposing Trump's border wall. They say it won't work. But maybe they're afraid it would.

Besides, who are Democrats kidding? They appreciate a good border barricade as much as the next party.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

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