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With most campuses closed, this Virginia school enjoys its moment in the woods

By Hannah Natanson
With most campuses closed, this Virginia school enjoys its moment in the woods
Isaiah Reilly, 4, plays in the mud pit at ONE Forest School in Huddleston, Va., last week The outdoor school is staying open during the pandemic. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Heather Rousseau.

HUDDLESTON, Va. - It was time for school, but Malachi Reilly hesitated at the edge of a steep, tree-clotted hill.

In the forest below, his nine classmates were getting ready for morning yoga. Malachi clung to his mom, who brushed her hair behind her ears and bent to make one last plea.

"Go ahead," she whispered. "You're going to have a wonderful day."

"Malachi, I grabbed your swim shoes," teacher Catherine Eubank called from halfway down the hill, "so when we get to the creek, you can play."

With that, the 6-year-old slipped his thumb from his mouth and tumbled down a dirt path for his first week at the Organic Nature Experience (ONE) Forest School, a year-round, outdoor preschool and before-and-after-school program in rural Huddleston. Founded in the tradition of forest schools that dates to 1950s-era Scandinavia, the school teaches things such as the six ways to get a fire started, the difference between frogs and toads, and how to weigh the risks involved in swinging on a vine.

More than 250 nature-based preschools and kindergartens have sprouted across the country over the past decade or so, appearing in at least 43 states and serving approximately 10,000 children annually as of 2017, according to a national survey sponsored by several environmental education groups. Now, with traditional schools closed and more summer camps being canceled every day, the schools are "having a moment," said Eubank, 53. "I think that's the phrase?"

Other forest schools have closed because of the pandemic, including a once-a-week program in the nation's capital. But Eubank's Forest School was never required to close, because Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in late March issued an order classifying child-care centers as "essential businesses" that are allowed to continue operations. In line with federal guidance, Eubank has made adaptations - including asking families to attest that their children have not been sick or in contact with sick people - but not many.

Demand for enrollment at her school has risen 75 percent since the virus forced Virginia's schools to close, Eubank said, and she is scrambling to find more summer staffers. She has also formed a school-board committee to explore how Forest School can launch a school for kindergartners to sixth-graders in the fall.

"More and more parents are screaming for alternatives," Eubank said.

Social distancing is not difficult, given that classes typically max out at 12 students (with one adult teacher for every four kids) and children can roam throughout an eight-acre plot owned by Eubank and her husband. Although because the area has seen relatively few cases, distancing is not strictly enforced, she said.

And there's no need for disinfectant, staffers figure. "We just don't have surfaces," Eubank said.

Heidi Sutherland is a summer staffer who teaches eighth-grade history at a middle school during the year. "It feels so much safer here than in a classroom," she said.

The school, a nonprofit, costs $200 a week, though Eubank offers need-based and other discounts, and only one family currently pays full price, she said.

For stressed Bedford County families, the program has proved a godsend. Malachi's mom, Bethany Reilly, 27, was still mourning the loss of her husband, who died of a drug overdose in August, when the virus hit. She quickly grew desperate to get her children out of the house, to distract them from their grief and allow her to attend therapy.

Reilly figured ONE Forest School was closed. But in mid-May, she texted Eubank anyway - and swiped open the reply to find a thrilling surprise.

"It would be so much harder without this," Reilly said as she watched Malachi pick his way down the hill Friday morning. "If they offer it, I'd send my kids here for normal school in the fall, with all the virus craziness going on."

The "craziness," compounded by his father's death, has made life especially difficult for Malachi. He is struggling more than his younger siblings, who are 5 and 4, and things got worse when the pandemic forced the cancellation of his counseling sessions.

Shortly after yoga that morning, Malachi stood staring across the water at the other children, who had decided the first lesson of the day would involve building a dam.

"This is where the water should be flowing," said a boy with a floppy mop of dark hair.

"We need more mud," replied a girl in a black baseball cap.

Whooping and splashing, the others scrambled to comply, but Malachi held back. He looked at his swim shoes. He sucked his thumb.

Forest School students vote each morning to determine the day's curriculum. The vote often takes place at "Base Camp," a clearing in the woods that boasts three hammocks, a stone-lined fire pit and a tarpaulin shelter. No matter the weather - the school has canceled only once, for "extremely high winds," Eubank said - students gather by six wooden seats, fashioned from tree trunks, to ponder their options: Whittling lessons? Den-building? Collecting microinvertebrates from the river, then examining them in the "wet lab," an aquarium balanced on a picnic table?

Or should they tackle the rope course, a perennial favorite meant to teach balance and dexterity?

That course, like most everything else - Base Camp, the school kitchen - was hammered together by Eubank's husband, Danny Eubank, 67, a retired builder.

"She draws a picture of what she wants," he said, "and I do it for her."

Catherine Eubank got the idea for Forest School about three years ago, after spotting an ad for forest schools on Facebook. She had just finished a 30-year career in the restaurant industry and was looking for something to do beyond playing with her 14 grandchildren. She was also concerned about rates of violence in schools and about spiking drug use in Bedford County, which has been hit hard by opioid abuse.

Plus, research suggested forest schools are effective: One 2018 study found that elementary school children who attended forest school once a week demonstrated improved writing, reading and math skills over a three-year period, compared with peers who did not.

It took about two years to get everything ready: She paid for online courses and got certified as a forest school teacher. Her husband set to work slicing logs on the eight-acre plot, which has been in his family for three decades. The Eubanks' home is on the land. They launched a website and started advertising, on Facebook and through word of mouth. In total, the preparations cost less than $5,000, Catherine Eubank said, most of which came from their own pockets.

They started with nine students and eventually attracted a total of 50 over the past year - a number they expect to spike in coming months. They also hope to offer paid positions in the fall. Currently, all of Forest School's five teachers are volunteers.

Danny Eubank is continuing to tinker with the campus, including grand plans for an arts-and-crafts pavilion. But he is pretty happy with the theater, a wooden structure with turquoise curtains that hosted its first, chaotic production of the summer Friday.

"Theater Director" Angus Sutherland, 12 - who had scrawled his title across the back of his orange T-shirt in black Sharpie - had done his best. Five minutes before showtime, he gathered his classmates backstage and, his speech garbled by the lollipop stick in his mouth, exhorted them to follow instructions.

The three-act play was supposed to take place in the deep, dark woods, where one of the main characters would get dramatically lost. But when Angus twitched the curtains back, three actors immediately ran offstage.

A 10-year-old flung his arms wide in an irrelevant imitation of Superman. A 4-year-old girl popped her head from behind the curtains to yell "Peek-a-boo!" at the audience. An 11-year-old in a camouflage T-shirt proclaimed he didn't want to get lost.

As Angus shook his head, Catherine Eubank ended the madness the only way she could think of: "All right," she called out, "who wants to eat a bug?"

The children scrambled up a hill to munch on dried insects, which Eubank distributed one by one from a large plastic bag.

Bright-eyed and grinning, Malachi raced to get there first.

Is the MyPillow guy the future of the Republican Party, or is he just dreaming?

By Ben Terris
Is the MyPillow guy the future of the Republican Party, or is he just dreaming?
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell walks out ahead of President Donald Trump to speak with members of the coronavirus task force and reporters during a briefing in response to the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic from the Rose Garden at the White House. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

In these times of social isolation, Mike Lindell keeps appearing, unannounced, inside your home.

The CEO and founder of MyPillow pops up on your television with his Tom Selleck mustache and Minnesooota accent to sell you on the wonders of his machine-washable cushions or "Giza cotton" sheets. For millions of Americans he has something of an open invitation into their living rooms, beamed in by Fox News or Newsmax to gush about President Donald Trump. For the rest of the country, he's like the unwanted guest at the garden party - which in these uncomfortable times means he's popping up at a coronavirus briefing broadcast live from the Rose Garden.

"Boy, do you sell those pillows," Trump said, introducing him to the press at an appearance in late March. "It's unbelievable what you do."

Republicans have had more than three years to get comfortable with the type of player Trump tends to welcome into elite GOP circles - pitchmen, B-list TV stars, castaways who have no reservations about fluffing the president's ego for a seat at the table. Seeing the "MyPillow Guy" play a role in a Trump crisis or Trump campaign seems almost inevitable.

On the day of the Rose Garden briefing, Lindell had been welcomed to the White House as a member of the business community to discuss the private sector's role combating the spread of covid-19. And speaking from the lectern, his voice gravelly and his hair whipping around his forehead, the bedding magnate used his pulpit to pitch the public on a different kind of awakening.

"God gave us grace on Nov. 8, 2016, to change the course we were on," he said about Trump's election. Now, he said, with a little more prayer and the help of the president and his team, it wouldn't be long before America returned to its rightful spot as the greatest nation on earth.

His visit quickly became another predictable pillow fight in the culture wars, with critics calling it a PR stunt and Trump's foot soldiers denouncing the left for denouncing a patriot who had promised to retrofit his factories to manufacture face masks even if it cost him money to do so.

"It was all very surreal," Lindell said in a recent video interview from an undisclosed location, for "safety" reasons. "But I said what I said because I was led by God to say it. If I get attacked, so be it."

The blowback couldn't have been a complete surprise for Lindell. As an early supporter of the president he's faced backlash since 2016. He's now more than just a friend of Trump's: He's a donor, a rally opening act, and the recently named Minnesota chairman to the 2020 re-election campaign. As for his own political future, Lindell denies reports that Trump has been egging him on to run for governor in 2022, but admits he's giving the idea serious consideration.

"It's sure steering me in that direction, to run," he said about the coronavirus pandemic. "I believe that things could be done a lot better ... and I'm beginning to think I'm the guy to do that."

In the past, it might have been easier to distinguish the scam artists from the genuine power players, but now the distinction is blurrier than ever. Which means it's fair to ask: Is Mike Lindell the future of the Republican Party, or is he just dreaming?

- - -

Mike Lindell is what you might get if you took the political personalities of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, shred them down in a hammer mill, mixed the aggregate together, stuffed it in a linen case and sold the product between segments on Fox News.

He's a serial As-Seen-On-TV entrepreneur and an evangelical Christian who travels the country preaching the Gospel. He's also a mile-a-minute talker who used to own and tend a bar and is quite comfortable swapping stories for hours with anyone who will listen.

"When you hang out with Mike, he has that kind of hyperkinetic energy," said Matt Schlapp, who runs the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, at which Lindell has spoken. "You might wonder, 'Did this guy take too much cold medicine?' "

But Lindell swears he's not on anything. Not anymore. He's a former crack addict, a retired card counter with a history of bad debts, near-death experiences and soured marriages before fully accepting God into his heart. Such a past might be a liability for someone thinking about moving into a life of politics.

"I always advise people before they get into politics that they are going to get run through the washer and dryer," said former senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who thinks if Lindell does decide to run for governor he'd be a formidable candidate.

Lindell, who markets his pillows as being able to go through the laundry and still maintain their shape, says this isn't a cause for concern for him. He's open about his past; so open that he wrote a memoir, paid to preprint 3 million copies out of his own pocket, and has just begun marketing it nonstop on television. It's called: "What are the odds? From Crack Addict to CEO."

"Who doesn't like salvation?" he said, when asked whether the book could be a political liability. "Who doesn't like a redemption story? Who doesn't like the American Dream?"

His memoir is just that: the story of a kid who grew up in a trailer park and after various run-ins with knife-wielding drug dealers and angry bookies, went on to start a company that he says has sold 47 million pillows. The idea to get into the cushion game, he said, came to him in his sleep, divine intervention from a God who he was coming to realize had allowed him to walk away from car wrecks, seven-day drug benders and violence-backed loans from his bookies.

If parts of Lindell's story seem like hyperbole (did his drug dealers really stage an intervention to get him to stop using?), you should know that he's been accused of exaggeration before. In 2016, he agreed to pay $1 million after 10 district attorneys from California sued his company for engaging in deceptive and false advertisements, by implying their pillows could prevent sleep loss associated with insomnia, restless leg syndrome, neck pain, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea and migraines. And in 2017 the Better Business Bureau gave MyPillow an "F" rating, after a "pattern of complaint" from users.

"It was a political hit job," Lindell said. "It was for sure because I went all in for Donald Trump."

- - -

Before Lindell ever met Trump in person, he met him in a dream. Naturally.

"I had a very weird, very vivid dream," he writes in his book. "Donald Trump and I were in some kind of room. It was an office with pictures on the wall behind us, and we were standing next to each other posing for a picture."

Later, in the real world, he would snag an invite from a friend to the 2016 Republican convention to take in the proceedings near the Trump family VIP section and hit it off with Ben Carson before receiving an invitation to talk business and politics with the candidate himself in Trump Tower.

They talked about religion, about the need to build a wall and bring manufacturing jobs back to America. Lindell says he'd never really been all that political before, but everything this businessman-turned-candidate said made perfect sense to him.

"I knew right away I'd be supporting him," he said. At first it meant writing a news release announcing his support. Then, it meant traveling to the third presidential debate, on the heels of the "Access Hollywood" tape scandal, taking a go in the media spin room even as members of Trump's party had begun distancing themselves from the candidate.

"I was a crack cocaine addict for years," he remembers telling one journalist. "Then by the grace of God, I quit overnight. ... Recently I met Donald Trump. He was so different from the man in that video."

For a president who prizes loyalty above all else, he was bound to like Lindell, who would go on to open for him at rallies, travel with him to Iowa and New Hampshire during his re-election push and accept the role of campaign chair for Minnesota, a state that Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning in 2016 and which he's told associates he expects to win this time around.

For now, Lindell says his campaign job is mostly dormant. There's just too much else to do: His company has made hundreds of thousands of masks and donated them to hospitals and first responders, he said, at a personal loss of $1.5 million. He's been in touch with Peter Navarro, Trump's national Defense Production Act policy coordinator, to coordinate, and he wholly supports a president who he believes is doing "the best job that any president in history could have ever done."

Sure, there have been problems. Lindell attributes them to Trump being up against a power-crazy doctor who is keeping the public awake at night with unjust fears: "Fauci? Are you kidding me? Who is he to decide what we should be able to do?"

And, Lindell says the president's got Democrats trying at every move to make him look bad: "They want to keep everyone locked down so they can have mail-in voting and steal the election."

This is why, even in the midst of a worldwide crisis, Lindell isn't about to forget about the importance of politics. After giving his speech in the Rose Garden in March, Lindell returned to the Oval Office. He and the CEOs from Honeywell, Jockey, Procter & Gamble and United Technologies had been invited back to get their photos taken with the president after the event, but only Lindell took him up on it.

"Maybe they had a schedule to keep or something," Lindell recalled. "So I got my picture with him and he said: 'You can use this when you go on the campaign.' "

Some see the pandemic and Trump's self-promotion and campaigning - even in the midst of the crisis - as a national nightmare. But in that moment for Lindell, it was a dream come true.

LGBT refugees in Kenya living in fear amid resettlement halt

By Max Bearak
LGBT refugees in Kenya living in fear amid resettlement halt
Chris Wasswa, left, and Raymond Brian shop for groceries at a roadside stand in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 14, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Khadija Farah

NAIROBI, Kenya - After four years of waiting, he had the ticket booked: Nairobi, Frankfurt, Toronto. He had fled Uganda's violent homophobia, survived in neighboring Kenya, where it's only a little better, and allowed himself to fantasize about what he'd wear when he went out at night in Canada.

"Some of us had sold our mattresses, you know. We were so ready," said Chris Wasswa, who goes by the name Tina and does not care which pronoun is used to refer to him.

He's one of nearly 500 migrants in Kenya, more than 3,000 across Africa and 10,000 worldwide - most of whom are refugees - whose approved resettlement to third countries has been put on indefinite hold by the novel coronavirus, according to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM.

Once a country approves a refugee's resettlement, the IOM - part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR - controls their travel. It suspended those processes on March 17. For some refugees who were on the verge of travel, it's a relatively minor blip after years of trauma - just a few more months appended to years of waiting. For others, such as gay and transgender Ugandan refugees in Kenya, the delay comes with immediate risks.

"Now it's like, how do we even get to tomorrow?" said Wasswa, 26.

Sexual minorities are persecuted in Uganda, where lawmakers have made tried to institute the death penalty for gay sex. In Kenya, those acts also are illegal and theoretically punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

More commonly, the law is used by the police as a pretext to extort and harass members of the LGBT community. In Kenya, as in Uganda, outspoken local Christian ministers and foreign missionaries have used their pulpits to denounce homosexuality.

Wasswa and almost 30 others lived in a safe house in a Nairobi suburb until the pandemic hit. Afraid that their numbers would draw police enforcing social distancing measures, they split into two houses of about 15 each, doubling the amount each had to pay for rent. Almost none had jobs. They said Kenyans will not hire them, either because they are refugees or because they are effeminate.

"So, yeah, it's sugar daddies or nothing for many of us. But even that is much harder now," Wasswa said. "How are you supposed to meet someone if bars are closed and there's a curfew? And if you met them, what if you are putting yourself at risk to get the virus? I can't bring someone home because that puts the whole house at risk."

Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese and Somali migrants have sought asylum in Kenya. About half a million have been registered as refugees and live in two vast camps, Kakuma and Dadaab, from where the UNHCR can help them apply for resettlement to third countries. Discrimination and assaults in the camps have driven almost all the LGBT refugees from Uganda to relocate to Nairobi.

Here, they face a quandary: If you are Ugandan and you are a refugee, police assume that you are gay, bisexual or transgender - a criminal under Kenyan law.

This month, police raided a different safe house where six Ugandan refugees at various stages in the resettlement process live.

"There is no war in Uganda," Caitlyn Lubega recalled a policeman saying as he rifled through her bedroom's drawers, where he found lubricant. "You are not a refugee."

Lubega, 27, who is transgender, said she and a roommate were taken to a police station and told they could either "buy their freedom" or be charged for sex crimes, with the lubricant as evidence. She paid about $250, she said.

Godfrey Gichuhi, the head of the police station in the Nairobi suburb of Ongata Rongai, said he was not aware of the house raid and arrest, but acknowledged that "there are so many petty cases that I cannot be aware of them all." He declined a reporter's request to view the registry of arrests. In his office, another officer repeated the line about there being no war in Uganda and cast doubt on Lubega's refugee status.

Dana Hughes, a UNHCR spokeswoman at the agency's global headquarters in Nairobi, said that in general it "takes any allegations of mistreatment seriously and will raise any concern with government and law enforcement officials to ensure the rights of refugees under international and national law are upheld."

Lubega and her roommates keep chickens and sell the eggs to get by. When Lubega returned home from the police station, she found one chicken hanging dead from a tree, like a warning. A few days later, she found another strangled. She thinks her neighbors are responsible for the dead chickens and for reporting her to the police. She's looking for a new place to live.

"If we keep moving around, the problem will be the same everywhere we go," she said. "I'm not hopeful."

For refugees such as Lubega who are at the interview stage in the resettlement process, the suspension of all resettlement activity has dampened dreams even more than for those who have already found accepting countries. The UNHCR said it hopes receiving countries can revive resettlement procedures even if the coronavirus keeps borders closed and flights grounded.

"UNHCR is encouraging more resettlement countries to adopt dossier processing and conduct remote interviews, as well as accept critically at-risk refugees for emergency resettlement departures," Hughes said.

The process is grueling, and often years can pass between interviews and other mileposts. Sulah Mawejje, another Ugandan refugee who lives with Wasswa, said that the U.S. Embassy was processing his application but that the suspension of the process meant he could be in Kenya for many more years than he'd hoped.

"It tortures you psychologically," he said. "The others leaving was a sign of hope for us. Now everything is back to normal, and that normal is not good."

Mawejje fled Uganda at 21 after his parents died of AIDS and his extended family, repulsed by his rejection of traditional masculinity, disowned him. An uncle tracked him down in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and shouted that Mawejje was gay in front of a large crowd, which then beat him severely. When he got to Kenya, he slept outside UNHCR headquarters for two weeks.

"Part of me feels like there's no hope. The process is already so long and hard to understand. The U.S. Embassy tells us things like you only have a 1% chance anyway," he said. "But here at least I have a family who accepts me for who I am."

- - -

Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.

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Trump shreds another Republican's life's work

By dana milbank
Trump shreds another Republican's life's work

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Milbank clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON -- It has become a hallmark of the Trump era: the shameful end to a distinguished career.

Now it's Sen. Chuck Grassley's turn. For 40 years in the Senate, the Iowa Republican has been a champion of accountability, defending the oversight that exposes government corruption. But now the 86-year-old is watching, weakly, as President Trump shreds Grassley's life's work.

In just two months, Trump has:

-- Fired the inspector general at the State Department who was looking into possible improprieties by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

-- Replaced the acting inspector general at the Transportation Department who was investigating allegations of favoritism by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao benefiting her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

- Dismissed the inspector general of the intelligence community who forwarded to Congress the whistleblower complaint that kicked off impeachment, while firing or punishing others who participated in the inquiry.

-- Ousted the inspector general of pandemic relief spending and replaced him with a loyalist from the White House legal staff who developed the White House strategy of denying information to Congress during the impeachment probe.

-- Replaced the acting inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services after publicly blasting her report documenting critical shortages of protective equipment at hospitals.

But don't worry. Chuck Grassley has written a letter!

In fact, he has written two. And they contain stern phrases about how the administration "appears to have circumvented Congress's role" and its "obvious conflicts that unduly threaten the statutorily required independence of inspectors general."

Trump predictably ignored Grassley, then finally had the White House counsel respond Tuesday by telling Grassley to pound sand. Grassley noted that the response did not offer a "good reason" for Trump's actions and said "the American people will be left speculating whether political or self-interests are to blame."

Ya think?

But Trump can safely stiff Grassley because he knows the senator won't back up his words. He'll support fig-leaf legislation (blocking political appointees from serving as acting IGs) that won't prevent Trump from firing inspectors who hold him to account.

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, could stop Trump in his tracks by blocking his nominees or threatening to discontinue his investigation, at Trump's behest, into the Bidens.

But few Republicans can withstand the public abuse that comes with defying Trump, and Grassley says he might run for reelection in 2022, when he'll be 89. In a moment that demands courage, Grassley so far is choosing political self-interest.

"I truly was fooled by Grassley into thinking he cared about this stuff," Walter Shaub, who resigned as head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics after clashing with Trump, told me Wednesday. "He would have ended his career as a true defender of inspectors general and now he's going to end his career being complicit in the greatest purge of inspectors general of all time." And now the White House counsel is "sticking his thumb in Grassley's eye."

It's hard to believe this is the same man who, when President Barack Obama fired the inspector general of AmeriCorps (Obama's highest-profile IG dismissal and the one most comparable to Trump's) railed against the White House even after it gave an exhaustive justification, and led a months-long investigation.

Now Trump is coercing acting inspectors to refrain from investigating his administration, dismissing them if they do. The Project on Government Oversight counts 15 inspector-general vacancies, which are filled by acting officials. When the Department of Homeland Security's acting IG issued reports critical of the administration, Trump replaced her with an inspector who scaled back the office's audits and reports by about 75%.

Worse, Trump's choices for the IG positions at Transportation and State are senior managers in those departments who would continue in their previous roles - allowing them to police themselves, with the power to learn the identity of whistleblowers.

The attempt to skirt accountability goes further. The administration demoted Rick Bright, who had led the government's vaccine research, when he raised concerns about the pandemic response. Trump forced out two national intelligence directors in an effort to find a more pliant one and he ousted an FBI director and an attorney general because they didn't block probes of his advisers. The White House attacked one of the president's own ethics appointees for recommending Kellyanne Conway's dismissal for violating the Hatch Act.

During impeachment, Republicans upheld the White House refusal to provide documents and testimony to Congress, and the Supreme Court has delayed a decision on Congress's demands for information from the administration until after the election.

This leaves the fate of government accountability to Grassley. He says the White House has "failed" to meet the IG statute's requirements, and he protests the "glaring conflict of interest" that could make watchdogs "agency lapdogs."

Good words. But they mean nothing if Grassley won't risk political heat to protect his 40-year legacy.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

The dangers of Trump's Brand X populism

By e.j. dionne jr.
The dangers of Trump's Brand X populism

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

(Advance for Thursday, May 28, 2020, and thereafter.)

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By E.J. DIONNE JR.

(c) 2020, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- My nominee for the most misleading and hazardous sentence in American politics: Donald Trump is a populist.

Yes, he loves to sound like a populist. He draws angry lines of division between a nasty, mask-wearing, church-hating, science-worshiping elite and the good, plain folks who support him. But this man who spends a lot of time in a golf cart at his resorts for the ultra-rich is about as populist as the people paying his membership dues.

It has been widely and correctly observed that Trump is doing all he can to distract attention from his mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. But much of what he's up to is consistent with a longer-term effort to mask the truth about his presidency: His policies resolutely favor the wealthy and the connected over the working class whose banner he claims to carry. He wants the media and the public to talk about anything except the main story line.

He would have us argue incessantly about mask-wearing and pay no attention to reports such as Pro Publica's revelation last month that, even as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration "has been inundated with COVID-19-related complaints, the agency has issued a series of guidelines that roll back safety standards and virtually eliminate non-health care workers from government protection."

"Opening up the economy" sounds good. But in Trump's hands, it means: "Go back to work, and don't expect anyone in our administration to worry about your health -- or your life."

He would much rather have us fighting about whether houses of worship should be open than focusing on the rise of hunger and his party's resolute refusal to expand the food stamp program to alleviate suffering.

Trump and his supporters love to demonize -- falsely, it should be said -- scientists and other "experts" for their alleged indifference to unemployment even as he and his party slow-walk further action to save jobs. Congress should be rushing aid to states and localities to prevent mass layoffs of teachers, first responders and other civil servants. But Trump and the GOP Senate act as if there is all the time in the world.

And he surely doesn't want Congress or the Inspectors General he keeps firing to look into cronyism or failures in the business rescue programs. Nor does he want states to make it easier for people to vote in the middle of a pandemic. So he issues wildly indecent (and debunked) smears against MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and threatens social media companies that call out his lies.

Let's call it Brand X populism. It sometimes looks and sounds like the real thing. But, like Brand X in the old television commercials, it is a defective product, as dangerous to our collective well-being as hydroxychloroquine is to victims of COVID-19.

Trump needs to be called out for both forms of hucksterism. And those who would advance policies that are genuinely beneficial to workers, the middle class, the excluded and the marginalized also need to stop playing Trump's game.

There's a habit among some liberals, partly imported from Europe, to use the word "populist" as a synonym for "authoritarian." But this ignores the history of democratic and progressive forms of populism. It also concedes to those on the radical right exactly what they want: the mantle of representing "the people" against "the elites" -- even when they, like Trump, defend the privileged and the plutocrats.

It's also a mistake to pretend that the issue of wearing masks divides us by party or ideology. Actually, it splits only the Republican Party, as Michael Scherer helpfully pointed out Wednesday in The Washington Post. Yes, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 89% of Democrats favor mask-wearing outside the home -- but 58% of Republicans do, too.

So when Trump mocked former Vice President Joe Biden for wearing a mask, his Democratic foe dubbed the president "an absolute fool." Biden was speaking not only for his own party, but for our country's vast majority.

And can we please exercise some care in talking about the yearning of many religious people to return to their houses of worship? It's absolutely true that crowded church services are, for now, very dangerous. It's also true that, in large numbers, pastors and other religious leaders know this.

The Bishops of the Washington State Catholic Conference, for example, issued a statement last Friday saying they had suspended the public celebration of Mass "not out of fear, but out of our deepest respect for human life and health." Don't let Trump, of all people, polarize the religious against the secular.

The most resonant words in our constitution are the first three: "We the people." No demagogue should be allowed to hijack them.

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

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Why aren't Republicans making America safe again?

By megan mcardle
Why aren't Republicans making America safe again?

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- If you had asked me six months ago to predict which party would display extreme levels of concern about a deadly pandemic and which party would downplay the risk, I'd have thought you were tossing me a softball question.

A disease that makes China look bad for a hapless initial response that let a new virus get established, followed by a coverup that let it infect the world?

A disease that exposed the dangers of sourcing essential goods such as medical protective gear from a strategic rival?

A disease that has restored and hardened borders, halted migration, and demonstrated how toothless and ineffective transnational institutions are at dealing with mortal threats?

A disease that has killed almost 100,000 Americans -- which is approximately 100,000 more than the 2014 Ebola outbreak that Republicans thought President Obama didn't take seriously enough?

Republicans, I'd have said, will be the party of total war against the virus. How could it be otherwise?

Yes, well, I'm still trying to figure that out, too.

I am struggling to understand how the conservative movement got to this point. Even the most hard-core conservatives and libertarians have always recognized that all liberties have some limits -- your right to roam ends at my property line. For years, conservatives have explained that public health efforts are a legitimate exercise of government power.

Sure, this was usually a prelude to complaining that public health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were neglecting this vital mission in favor of paternalistic nannying. But given the CDC's many boneheaded errors over the past six months, conservatives were in a position to score some political points by shouting: "CDC, you had one job!"

Instead, far too many Republicans are suddenly arguing that public health efforts are not a legitimate exercise of power. The government, they complain, has no right to tell them what they can do, even if what they plan to do comes with some risk that a deadly disease will spread.

I'm not talking about the people who simply make the reasonable, indeed indisputable, argument that we cannot shut down the whole economy until a vaccine is developed. I'm talking about the ones who refuse to make even small compromises for public safety, such as wearing a mask -- and especially conservatives who complain when store owners exercise their right to require them on store property.

This doesn't just eviscerate generations' worth of arguments about public health. It also undercuts a more central claim of conservatism: that big, coercive government programs are unnecessary because private institutions could provide many benefits that we think of as "public goods." For that to be true, the civic culture would have to be such that individuals are willing to make serious sacrifices for the common good, and especially to protect the most vulnerable among us.

If conservatives actually want a smaller, less-intrusive government, then they cannot talk only about liberty and rights; they also have to talk about duty and obligations.

Conservatism has always understood that duty without liberty is slavery, but liberty without duty is a Hobbesian war of all-against-all; indeed, this has been one of their major arguments against the steady relaxation of sexual mores and familial obligations. But this principal applies equally well to government, because people will always demand safety, predictability and security, and if the private sector isn't providing them, they will turn to the state. That's why shrinking the government leviathan requirescitizens who worry more about the welfare of their fellow citizens and are more willing to sacrifice for strangers who share their flag than those who outsource those duties to a professional bureaucracy with enforcement powers.

Reasonable people can of course argue about how much economic sacrifice citizens can be asked to bear for the common good, or whether that good is best served by lockdowns. But I submit that if you are not willing to endure the minimal inconvenience of wearing a piece of cloth across your nose and mouth while shopping, you're unlikely to make the really big sacrifices that a smaller government would require.

Conservatives would have many responses to this: that the fault really lies with the experts who have flip-flopped about the virtues of masks; and with the media, whose endless gotcha games have vaporized any credibility they had left with President Trump's supporters; and with the social media hysterics who hurl obscene charges at anyone who questions the wisdom of lockdown. How could I expect conservatives to put on a mask just because those people say so?

I'd answer that conservatives have always insisted that it was a left-wing pathology to believe that people merely react mindlessly and helplessly to environmental stimuli, like amoeba. We of the right believe in small government and a robust civic society sustained by the private actions of free and equal individuals. So of course I thought that whatever the left might get up to, conservatives would take personal responsibility for doing what needs to be done to make America safe again. Thus far I've been unhappily surprised.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

The IRS isn't taking your calls now -- but it's happy to take your money

By michelle singletary
The IRS isn't taking your calls now -- but it's happy to take your money

THE COLOR OF MONEY COLUMN

(Advance for Thursday, May 27, 2020, and thereafter.)

(For Singletary clients only)

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY

(c) 2020, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, the IRS was processing federal returns with few problems -- nearly 138 million by the third week in May. This year, with staff sent home because of the novel coronavirus, the agency has only processed 117 million returns, down 14% from last year, according to the latest statistics for the 2020 filing season.

The average refund is $2,778, about the same as last year at this time.

This year's tax deadline has been pushed back to July 15. That's a good thing, because the agency has been preoccupied with getting out tens of millions of stimulus payments -- up to $1,200 per qualified individual -- through the Cares Act.

With just about a month and half to go, a challenging tax season will only get more stressful for taxpayers with problems that can't be solved by going to irs.gov.

It probably won't end your frustration, but the following list may explain why you aren't getting the help you need right now. Here's what the IRS (BEG ITAL)can't(END ITAL) do because of the pandemic:

-- (BEG ITAL)Process paper returns(END ITAL). The IRS is not processing individual paper tax returns. The agency says if you've already filed a paper return, don't file a second one for fear the first one got misplaced. Returns received through the mail will be processed once processing centers have reopened. The IRS hasn't told the public when this might occur. And even when the centers open, the pace of work is likely to remain super slow. Like so many other employers, the IRS must comply with social distancing guidelines, which means the processing centers may not be fully functioning for months.

-- (BEG ITAL)Mail tax forms(END ITAL). The National Distribution Center, the IRS office that would normally send out forms or publications, is closed. You can, however, download most forms at irs.gov/forms.

-- (BEG ITAL)Respond to mail or email correspondence(END ITAL). The IRS says don't bother writing to inquire about your return, refund or stimulus payment. The agency doesn't have the staff to respond to taxpayer questions.

-- (BEG ITAL)Answer your call(END ITAL). The IRS has for years struggled to handle the high volume of calls from taxpayers. If you have a question about your stimulus payment, the IRS is providing live assistance. Callers must first navigate past the recorded messages. Even then, the help is very limited, often referring people back to irs.gov for answers. "It doesn't provide direct access to someone who can check a taxpayer's account," said IRS spokesman Eric Smith.

Here's what the IRS (BEG ITAL)can(END ITAL) do, and is doing, as the new July 15 tax deadline approaches:

-- (BEG ITAL)Process electronic tax returns(END ITAL). Even during the best of times, it's better to file your return electronically, especially if you are expecting a refund. This year, more than 90% of taxpayers have filed electronically. If you are able, you can prepare your own taxes by using the IRS's Free File Fillable Forms.

-- (BEG ITAL)Collect taxes due(END ITAL). Don't believe for a second that because the agency is not fully operational you get to put off paying your taxes. Unless the deadline is pushed out further, if you owe the IRS, you need to make an electronic payment by July 15 or have your paper return postmarked by that date. Eventually the IRS will process your paper return, and you don't want to be hit with interest and penalties for failing to file on time and pay what you owe.

-- (BEG ITAL)Provide tax transcripts(END ITAL). The IRS is not processing transcript requests by mail. But if you need information from a recently filed return, you can set up an IRS online account, which will give you access to the tax tool "Get Transcript." To e-file, you may need your prior year adjusted gross income, or AGI, and the Get Transcript tool will provide this information. Once you sign into your account, click the link for "Tax Records" to view key information from your most recent tax return and download tax records.

-- (BEG ITAL)Send refunds(END ITAL). If you haven't filed and you're due a refund, file as soon as you can and request direct deposit, which will speed up your payment.

-- (BEG ITAL)Create payment plans(END ITAL). If you owe but can't pay, you can apply online for a payment plan. You can apply for a short-term plan that gives you 120 days to pay your tax balance in full or for a long-term installment agreement that allows you to make monthly payments on your balance.

-- (BEG ITAL)Answer the question, "Where's My Refund?" (END ITAL) The online service to track your refund remains available, just as it was before COVID-19.

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

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

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Hell hath no fury like a president suckered

By dana milbank
Hell hath no fury like a president suckered

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Milbank clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON - Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Anger Management Class, followed the plan to the letter.

The House Oversight Committee held a video Q&A Tuesday with Christi Grimm, the civil servant who earned a verbal lashing from President Trump, and got replaced from her position as top in-house watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services after she documented critical shortages of protective equipment at the nation's hospitals.

As the ranking Republican on the panel, Jordan couldn't very well defend Trump's quashing of yet another whistleblower, and he didn't try. Instead, he did what president and party demand of him: He blamed China.

"I'm hopeful that the majority will stop playing these partisan games," he protested, and instead "conduct meaningful oversight to hold China accountable for this pandemic."

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., took the baton. He declared that "a significant cause of the shortages was China's efforts to cause our PPE shortage." He asked about allegations "that the Chinese government hid the severity of the pandemic," and thereby caused "a delay in the administration's ability to respond."

Following Comer's remarks, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said the China pivot "is fascinating to me because I count at least 37 different statements by President Trump in January, February, March and April praising the Chinese government and defending the performance of General Xi."

Therein lies the trouble with Trump's, and Republicans', plans to make attacks on China the focus of the election. Probably no U.S. leader has praised China's government as effusively and as often as Trump. There's no way to campaign against that same government without acknowledging Trump was played for a fool.

The Senate Republicans' campaign arm has advised candidates: "Don't defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban -- attack China." Republican incumbents have attacked Democratic challengers for alleged ties to China. Pro-Trump groups have tried to link "BeijingBiden" with China. Trump spent the past few days denouncing China ("it should have been stopped at its source," "ban on Chinese people," "Chinese virus," "China doesn't want me to win," "Nobody in 50 years has been WEAKER on China than Sleepy Joe Biden").

But on Jan. 15, when the virus was already spreading from China to the rest of the world, Trump stood in the East Room of the White House celebrating a now-doubtful trade deal with China. "I want to thank President Xi [Jinping], a very, very good friend of mine," Trump said, adding that the two had "developed an incredible relationship" through "honest" negotiations.

It was one of dozens of times Trump extolled the virtues of his "friend" Xi, whose regime now is moving to end political freedoms in Hong Kong and to threaten Taiwan with warships. "My respect and friendship with President Xi is unlimited," he said a year ago. "I like President Xi a lot," he said at another point, calling him a "gentleman." Another time he attested: "President Xi is a good man. He's a friend of mine." In late January, Trump proclaimed that "our relationship with China now might be the best it's been in a long, long time."

There's abundant evidence that China hid early signs of the coronavirus, and that it didn't move quickly enough. But here again, Trump looks like a dupe for saying so. Among his statements praising Xi's government:

"China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency . . . I want to thank President Xi!"

Xi "is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus . . . Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation."

"I think they've handled it professionally and I think they're extremely capable and I think President Xi is extremely capable."

"I know this: President Xi loves the people of China, he loves his country, and he's doing a very good job with a very, very tough situation."

As recently as last month, Trump was talking about his "great respect for President Xi. I consider him to be a friend of mine."

What's Trump to do now that it's obvious he fell for a dictator's charms, much like when he "fell in love" with North Korea's Kim Jong Un? Now his friend's government is talking about a "new Cold War" with the United States. The president is so "miffed" that even the trade deal that blinded him to Xi's intentions is no longer "as important to him," economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Fox News Tuesday.

Just miffed? Trump, perhaps compensating for being hoodwinked by China, has now gone full xenophobe, lashing out at an Asian American journalist for CBS News by telling her to "ask China" her question.

Hell hath no fury like a president suckered.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Many Americans can't handle the freedom -- to leave quarantine

By ruben navarrette jr.
Many Americans can't handle the freedom -- to leave quarantine

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, May 27, 2020, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, May 26, 2020, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Navarrette clients only)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

(c) 2020, The Washington Post

SAN DIEGO -- We Americans sure do love our freedom. Unfortunately, this includes the freedom to act like idiots. And lately, that particular freedom has been exercised enthusiastically by members of the anti-shutdown militia.

Apparently, Americans don't have to obey laws that they don't agree with. If you listen to talk radio or watch Fox News, you've probably heard about how the governors of all 50 states -- both Democrats and Republicans - conspired to violate the Constitution with a blatant power grab.

You remember studying the Constitution in middle school. Who could forget the preamble, with its intent to "secure the blessings of liberty" ... to play golf, get haircuts, lounge on the beach or eat in restaurants?

I miss the strict constructionist Republicans. They talked a good game about interpreting the Constitution as written without getting creative. Where did they go?

These days, in our self-serve culture, everyone is a constitutional scholar. The duty of determining which laws are legitimate falls not on the courts but on us. It's up to citizens to decide whether to follow laws. We decide which executive orders -- at the federal or state level -- have the force of law.

This new order suits well the scofflaws previously known as law-and-order conservatives. These are the whiners who think the rules don't apply to them, just to everyone else. These are the folks who are dying to get back to making money, even if we move too quickly and more people die. These are the folks who think the only laws worth following are the ones they agree with.

In California, which is inching toward reopening, we actually have county sheriffs who must have been absent the day they taught "law enforcement" at the academy. Eager to side with the anti-shutdown mob, perhaps with an eye toward reelection, these sworn officers recently declared that they will no longer enforce the March 19 shutdown order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

What a splendid example they're setting. This is a spectacle we'll remember the next time these local sheriffs -- who are, because they have to run for office, part cop and part politician -- want to tell the rest of us that we have a moral obligation to follow other laws, even if we don't consider them valid.

Some of the renegades even quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about how we all have a moral responsibility to defy an immoral law.

Of course, they always forget that King wrote those words from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s. The good reverend went to jail for that principle, just as Henry David Thoreau did a century earlier when he refused to pay the Massachusetts poll tax to protest The U.S.-Mexican War. Civil disobedience was never intended to be a "get out of jail free" card.

This isn't just some harmless academic debate. Idiocy has consequences. Some people are so stubborn, and so self-centered, that their pride won't let them accept the obvious:

When everyone thinks they're an expert on infectious diseases because they took biology in high school, you're going to see a lot more spreading of those diseases. When everyone thinks they're a doctor because they never miss an episode of "Chicago Med," we're going to wind up with a lot of sick people.

That's where we are.

Pro-business conservatives are touting Georgia as a success story because, a month after reopening much of its economy, the state has not experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases. In fact, the curve has flattened.

Those folks aren't as eager to talk about states like Texas and North Carolina, where the number of coronavirus cases is increasing. That happens when people don't wear masks or maintain social distance.

Nor will you hear folks on the right talk about Arkansas, where a recent high school pool party that "everybody thought was harmless" -- as Gov. Asa Hutchinson put it -- has fueled what the governor acknowledges is now a second peak of coronavirus cases in the state. Again, no masks and no social distance. Going forward, Hutchinson is urging Arkansans to be safe and "disciplined" at the same time.

Speaking of idiots. Discipline? If those who chomped at the bit to break out of quarantine knew anything about discipline, they would not have busted down the barricades to begin with. They'd still be watching Netflix and ordering takeout.

Get ready for "Coronavirus, The Sequel." Just when you thought it was safe to leave the house, it's not. Because this was never about the government. It's always been about the individual. And wherever you go, there you are.

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

(c) 2020, The Washington Post Writers Group

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