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Can scientists build a blueprint for bluefin tuna?

By Tim Carman
Can scientists build a blueprint for bluefin tuna?
Brian Wyrwas, left, and Mike Selden, founders of Finless Foods. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Nick Otto for The Washington Post.

For several years, biotech companies have been promising "clean" meat, "cell-based" meat, "cultured" meat - whatever you want to call it - as a way to enjoy the taste of chicken, pork and beef without the brutality of animal slaughter or the environmental damage of big agriculture. But what about fish? What about something as prized as buttery bluefin tuna, a delicacy that has become the forbidden fruit of the sea because of the many threats that have landed the fish on threatened and endangered species lists?

Where are the Silicon Valley start-ups promising to free us from the guilt of gobbling down a finger of otoro sushi, the rich bluefin belly meat, without contributing to the decline of the fish or the decline of our own health via mercury that accumulates in the flesh of this apex predator?

Well, there is at least one scientific pilgrim: Brian Wyrwas is the co-founder and chief science officer for Finless Foods, a Bay Area biotech dedicated to growing bluefin tuna in a lab. He can tell you all about the difficulties of his task, starting with the bone-weary process of securing bluefin tuna samples, the pristine source material for much of the science that follows in this field known as cellular agriculture.

Unlike scientists who grow chicken or cow cells in a lab, Wyrwas can't exactly biopsy a living animal for tissue, given that bluefin tuna travel the world's oceans at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour. Nor can he grab a sample from one of the precious few bluefin tuna farms, which would view him as competition. Nor can he walk into a fish processing plant and request a sample. Bluefin tuna die on ship, many miles from shore, their cells slowly decomposing even when frozen or on ice.

No, to get an uncontaminated sample, Wyrwas has to head out to sea. Wyrwas, 26, and his Finless co-founder, Mike Selden, 27, don't like to talk specifics when it comes to sourcing bluefin tuna samples. In the competitive, tight-lipped market of cellular agriculture, no company likes to volunteer information that it earned the hard way: Through scientific trial and error or, in Wyrwas' case, through countless hours sitting on boats, fighting the elements and his sterile equipment to secure a quality sample that could, hopefully, provide healthy stem cells.

- - -

Even once he succeeded, Wyrwas and the Finless team had to learn how to culture, or grow, bluefin tuna cells without the actual animal. Without the fish's natural habitat. And without the fish's standard diet of squid, mackerel, herring and more. The scientists had few blueprints to follow.

"The cell culture would often die because we were sort of shooting in the dark in the beginning," says Selden, sitting in a conference room at Finless's offices in Emeryville, Calif. "We didn't know how to culture bluefin tuna cells because basically nobody knows how to culture bluefin tuna cells."

But if they can figure out the science from beginning to end and, perhaps more important, figure out how to scale up the process into a viable commercial venture, the folks at Finless Foods hint at an almost utopian reversal of fortunes for humans, fish and the environment.

Consumers could enjoy bluefin tuna above current recommended levels - one serving per month, says the Environmental Defense Fund; avoid altogether, counters the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch - without fear of ingesting mercury, plastic or other contaminants. Just as important, the three bluefin species could begin to recover from decades of overfishing, which has decimated wild populations mostly to cater to the Japanese market, by far the largest consumer of bluefin tuna. (The Pacific bluefin tuna population, for example, has dropped by more than 97 percent from its historical high.)

What's more, marine ecosystems could begin to restore the harmony that's disturbed when a top-level predator is removed in such large numbers. To cite just one example, scientists predict that jellyfish populations could explode without an apex predator, affecting both tourism and fishing operations. Plus, without the need for commercial fishing boats to chase after tuna, the oceans could see a drop in the pollution from these vessels, whether discarded plastics or dumped fishing gear.

So, has Finless Foods figured it out? Yes, in part.

The challenge ahead: to produce the fish in large quantities - and in a form that sushi lovers would recognize.

- - -

In 2013, when Dutch researcher Mark Post debuted what would become the world's most famous lab-grown meat - a five-ounce beef patty mixed with bread crumbs - the response from tasters was tepid. Which was not surprising. The beef was grown without any fat. Regardless, the tasting was designed more as a public-relations stunt to drum up interest in an emerging field that promised to give diners their meat with fewer of the harmful side effects - such as greenhouse gases, animal waste, reckless use of freshwater resources and animal suffering - of big ag.

But that staged burger tasting - especially the resulting photo - created a false impression about cellular agriculture, says Ben Wurgaft, a writer and historian who researched the industry for five years.

Post and his colleagues "left the media with the impression that you grew a burger in something that looked like a petri dish," says Wurgaft, author of "Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Futures of Food," set for release next year. "It's like imagining that rice grew in a bento box."

In reality, the scientists grew thin sheets of bovine muscle cells - thousands of sheets, each no wider than a strand of hair - which they essentially fused together with a kind of meat glue. The process is "obviously not scalable," Wurgaft says.

In a whitewashed room that smells like bleach, Jennifer Tung, a senior cell biologist for Finless Foods, actually does rely on something that looks like a petri dish. It's called a cell-culture flask, and Tung uses a lot of them to keep bluefin tuna stem cells alive. It's a standard part of the R&D process. Each flask contains a thin layer of grapefruit-colored liquid - it's the food, or "media" as its known in the trade - that allows the cells to grow. The only way to see the cells is under a microscope.

One vital step in culturing meat is to create an "immortalized" cell line, which theoretically can grow forever, meaning you never again need to go out to sea to capture fresh samples.

"We think our bluefin tuna line is immortalized," Selden says. "We're pretty sure."

As important as that development is, however, "it is not the same as being able to make meat," Wurgaft cautions.

In fact, growing stem cells into something that precisely mimics the fatty flesh of bluefin tuna is not considered possible yet. The technology for such a textured product is still years away from a commercial application, say Selden and others. At present, biotech firms can grow cells in devices called bioreactors, but the resulting meat is more paste than flesh. Which is why Just, the San Francisco company behind a plant-based version of mayonnaise, plans to first release cultured meat products that don't rely on firm, fleshy textures.

Before the end of the year, Just expects to introduce a chicken product to some still-unnamed restaurants in Asia. It won't be a cultured chicken breast or thigh, but something closer to the consistency of a nugget, with fried-chicken skin and with plant-based materials serving as binder and flavoring agents.

"If you buy Tyson chicken nuggets, some percentage of the nugget is plant-based," says Josh Tetrick, co-founder and chief executive of Just, formerly known as Hampton Creek, a company with almost as many controversies as successes. "A chicken bite is much easier than bluefin tuna."

Then there's taste. The flavor of the chicken you now eat occurs naturally, in part, from the animal's diet. Tetrick and his team at Just say they have found a way to incorporate plant-based material into the food media so that when chicken cells are cultured into paste, they end up tasting like the real thing.

In an experimental kitchen at Just's headquarters in the Mission District, Chris Jones gets to play around with the plant-based materials and cultured meats that others in the company discover or create. A former chef de cuisine at Moto, the once-celebrated and now-closed restaurant in Chicago, Jones is vice president of product development for Just. Recently, he's been dehydrating cultured chicken paste so that it resembles skin, presumably for those nuggets.

"I actually think it tastes cleaner, and better, than real chicken skin," Jones says. He hands me a golden sliver of the lab-based skin. It crackles under tooth, both salty and savory. Most people would never know it was developed in a lab.

- - -

Over on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, where Finless Foods has its offices, the seven-person team has yet to determine the exact food media mix necessary to give their bluefin tuna the proper flavor, ruby-red color and healthful omega-3 fatty acids that consumers desire. But they do have one advantage over the researchers who produced that cultured hamburger five years ago: The Finless folks have figured out how to grow three kinds of tissues from bluefin stem cells: Muscle, fat and connective tissue. They even claim they can manipulate the amount of fat to mimic the lush flavor of otoro tuna.

Last year, Finless hosted a tasting of its first fish prototype, a cultured carp paste, which a local chef mixed with potato into a croquette. Selden and Wyrwas figured that, if they had produced a pound of this cultured carp, it would have cost $19,000, not including labor. A reporter for the Guardian sampled the croquettes and found them "both delicious and disappointing . . . I just about detect a pleasant aftertaste of the sea, though not fish as such."

Flavor profiles are just one obstacle. Fetal bovine serum, or FBS, is an essential ingredient in the culturing process. The serum stimulates cells to divide and grow outside the animal's body. The problem is, as the name implies, FBS is derived from fetuses removed from pregnant cows during slaughter, which, as Tetrick notes, connects "clean" cellular agriculture to a sometimes inhumane system that the start-ups are trying to disavow. Just, Tetrick adds, has developed its own plant-based serum to replace FBS.

Selden and Wyrwas with Finless say they're working on their own alternative serum, too, which they plan to have ready in time to launch their first bluefin tuna product - a paste that could be used in sushi rolls and other dishes - by the end of 2019 or beginning of 2020.

"Barring major regulatory shake-ups," Selden notes.

The small cellular ag community is still waiting to learn what U.S. agency, or agencies, will have oversight of the industry. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration can justifiably lay claim to the task. But Just's Tetrick, for one, isn't waiting around for the government; he's looking toward Asia. If the politicians in America, Tetrick says, can't clear a path to market for cultured meat, other countries will.

"And we will be buying our meat for the next 30 years from them," he adds.

Consumer acceptance is another hurdle. One study, conducted several years ago when cultured meat was just entering the public consciousness, indicated that only a quarter of the participants would be willing to try the product. One factor was cost, which Finless is working to reduce. Selden and Wyrwas say they already can produce a bluefin tuna paste that compares favorably to retail prices at California sushi restaurants.

But even if consumers are hesitant, some meat producers and fish processors are already on board. Cargill and Tyson Foods, two of the largest meat producers in America, have both invested in Memphis Meats, another Bay Area cultured meat company. In an email to The Post, Uma Valeti, co-founder and chief executive of Memphis Meats, said that "we believe that Tyson can help us on our journey to scale up production and bring products to consumers."

Henry Ichinose, owner of ABS Seafood in San Francisco, sees the potential of cell-based bluefin tuna. Standing in his warehouse on the famous Fisherman's Wharf, oblivious to the chilly temperatures required to process fish, Ichinose says: "The oceans are already taxed. Nobody really knows how bad it is out there." He thinks the seafood industry needs to embrace change to survive as the planet's population continues to grow and its resources continue to shrink. But will chefs, home cooks and diners accept cell-based fish?

"I don't see why not," Ichinose says. "Ultimately, it's cells dividing and growing, just like any other animal or plant."

Frozen out of China, American farmers refuse to sell their soy

By Shruti Date Singh, et al.
Frozen out of China, American farmers refuse to sell their soy
Bags of corn and soybeans sit in rows at Gingerich Farms in this aerial photograph taken over Lovington, Ill., on Nov. 9, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker.

Caught smack in the middle of the U.S.-China trade war, America's soybean farmers are taking a huge gamble.

Rather than selling the crop right away as they pull it out of the ground -- as they do almost every harvest season to pay the bills -- they are instead stashing it in silos, containers, bins, bags, whatever they can get their hands on to keep it safe and dry.

The hope is that over the next few months, trade tensions will ease, and China, the top market for the oilseed, will start buying from American farmers again, lifting depressed prices in the process. A bushel of soybeans fetched just $8.87 on Friday. Eight months ago, before trade tensions led to tariffs, it was about $2 more.

The risks are great. While futures trading indicates higher prices next year, that could change depending on trade negotiations and rising supplies. Moreover, the crop could go bad on them. Soybeans are not corn. They don't store nearly as well. If not kept super dry, they can take on moisture fast. Rot quickly follows, making them worthless -- and gross.

"It smells like road kill," said Wayne Humphreys, a farmer in Iowa. "It has the consistency of mashed potato, slick and mushy."

Still, Humphreys is going to put as much of his harvest in silos as he possibly can because he likes to time his sales to the market. "It gives you a certain amount of control," he said.

The scramble for storage comes just as soy production is reaching a record. American growers are trying to recover as overall farm income is projected to fall for the fourth time in five years. Chinese appetite for soybeans, used in everything from hog feed to cooking oil, had once been a bright spot. But with the onset of tariffs, the country's imports of the oilseed from the U.S. have plunged, falling almost 90 percent in September from last year.

For some farmers, there is little choice but to keep their harvest. Millions of bushels have nowhere to go. Terminals in Portland, a key outlet in the Pacific Northwest to ship to China, are rarely offering bids. Supplies are backed up at terminals and elevators, even as cold, wet weather in North Dakota has left many acres unharvested. The country's soybean inventories are expected to more than double to about 955 million bushels by the end of this crop year, according to the USDA.

Iowa grower Robb Ewoldt, who's been farming since 1996, is storing most of his soy for the first time in about 15 years. His crop usually floats down the Mississippi River, about a half mile from his fields, on barges for export through the Gulf of Mexico to China and other countries. This year he's stashing beans in his silos, making room for them by selling or storing his corn in commercial storage, to await higher prices.

"It's probably more advantageous to store this year than any year in the past," he said.

Soybean futures for delivery next July were about $9.27 as of Friday, indicating selling later may bring in more money. And traders are speculating that China-U.S. trade tensions may ease as the countries discuss a deal heading into the Group of 20 meeting in Argentina this month.

Space for all the extra soy is tight. That's leading to some rarely taken measures, such as piling beans on the ground -- risking their exposure to bad weather. More farmers also are stuffing them into sausage-shaped bags that can stretch the length of a football field.

"I've heard farmers and commercial companies putting corn and soybeans into tool sheds and caves," Soren Schroder, chief executive officer of Bunge Ltd., the world's largest soybean processor, said in an interview last month.

The tariffs have particularly hit exports from North Dakota, where the expansion of oilseed acreage was a direct result of the growth of Chinese demand. The state plants the fourth-highest number of soybeans in the U.S. and about 70 percent go to Asia, largely because of its geographic accessibility to western ports.

North Dakota farmer Mike Clemens is so in need of space that he's breaking out a dozen and a half bins built in the 1960s to store about 45,000 bushels of soybeans, which is half his farm's production this year. He expects to fill up his five new silos with 300,000 bushels of corn.

Sarah Lovas, a grower in Hillsboro, North Dakota, has drawn several diagrams to map out storage for her entire crop. Her current plan is to fill up her 400,000 bushels of on-farm storage with 50,000 bushels of soybeans and the rest with corn. She's renting grain bins for soybeans from a neighbor for the first time, to store about 68,000 bushels.

"I wish I had more bins," Lovas said.

Farmers belonging to the James Valley Grain cooperative in southeastern North Dakota are hauling in so much that it will store at least 2 million bushels of crops in bags this year, twice as much as last year. The cooperative has 400,000 bushels of soybeans in one-time-use plastic bags, twice as much as a year ago, at its Berlin site.

Gingerich Farms in Lovington, Illinois, has used 300-foot plastic white bags for the last seven to eight years to store corn and soybeans. This year, the family operation has gotten as many as 10 calls from neighboring producers asking about how to use the bags, compared with one or two inquiries last year, said Darrel Gingerich, vice president of the farm.

"Corn is kind of a given," he said. "They were calling us about bagging beans."

Illinois, the largest U.S. soybean producer, may have the biggest storage shortfall, needing as much as 100 million bushels for storing crops, said Tim Brusnahan, an analyst with agriculture brokerage and consulting firm Brock Associates.

As of the start of this month, the Illinois Department of Agriculture had received requests for 11.6 million bushels of emergency storage capacity, such as bags, nearly triple the amount from a year earlier. Requests for temporary storage such as structures with waterproof covers increased 4 percent.

While Illinois's crops are less dependent on China demand, today's low prices make storing the soy a better choice, Gingerich said.

"The markets tell us to store it," Gingerich said. "It's tight, very tight."

Dan Crenshaw started the week as a 'SNL' joke and ended it as a GOP star

By Dan Zak
Dan Crenshaw started the week as a 'SNL' joke and ended it as a GOP star
Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, was elected to Congress from the Houston area after running for office for the first time.

HOUSTON - Dan Crenshaw's good eye is good enough, but it's not great. The iris is broken. The retina is scarred. He needs a special oversized contact lens, plus bifocals sometimes, to correct his vision. Six years after getting blown up, he can still see a bit of debris floating in his cornea.

His bad eye - well, his bad eye is gone. Under his eyepatch is a false eye that is entirely deep blue. One solid color. At the center of it, where a pupil should be, is the gold trident symbol of the Navy SEALs. It makes Dan Crenshaw look like a Guardian of the Galaxy.

He can't catch a ball very well anymore. He misses plenty of handshakes; his arm shortchanges the reach, his palm fumbles the grip. And he has trouble with dumb little tasks - he needs to touch a pitcher to a cup to properly pour a glass of water, for example. But nothing major. Nothing that would prevent him from coming out of nowhere, unknown and underfunded, to vanquish seven opponents in a Republican primary, then squash a state legislator in a runoff, and then on Tuesday, at age 34, win his first-ever general election - to represent his native Houston area in Congress.

He'll join a freshman class with two dozen other new House members who are under 40 , and at least 15 who are veterans. Yet Crenshaw seems poised to stand out - his potent life story, his striking presence and his military and Ivy League credentials setting him up as a rising star for a Republican party in bad need of one, after losing what could turn out to be three dozen seats after the dust settles.

Thirty-six hours after his election-night triumph, Crenshaw still hadn't caught up on sleep. There was some stale cake sitting in his campaign office, and he was juggling phone calls and a haircut he was going to be late for. He just left a luncheon with business leaders and was due early the next morning for a veterans ceremony. In two days he would make a surprise appearance on "Saturday Night Live," before heading to Capitol Hill for a two-week orientation.

A whirlwind to everyone else, it seemed, but him.

"It's life," Crenshaw said, sitting at a conference table in his Houston office last week. "It's not a challenge." He was the picture of calm. The eyepatch was off. The gold trident sparkled. Behind him was a large framed photo of Ronald Reagan. Ahead of him was the next mission.

Weirdly, his election wasn't the biggest news in Crenshaw's life last week. That came in the first minutes of Sunday, Nov. 4, during the "Weekend Update" portion of "Saturday Night Live," when cast member Pete Davidson, riffing on the midterms, presented a photo of Crenshaw, eyepatch on.

"You may be surprised to hear he's a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hit-man in a porno movie," the comedian joked. "I'm sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever."

The studio audience laughed, but everyone else took to their soapboxes. How dare liberal jokesters malign an American hero! How dare conservatives put constraints on comedy! A wave of national media came his way and Crenshaw, appearing on CNN and Fox News, was cool as a cucumber. He wasn't offended. He was just disappointed that the joke was so lame and unfunny.

Then, he says, "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels called to apologize and invite him on the show. Crenshaw hesitated. He's not an entertainer. And he had Veterans Day events over the weekend. But he saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share a clear message with a national audience.

After roasting Davidson in classic "SNL" fashion ("This is Pete Davidson. He looks like if the meth from 'Breaking Bad' was a person"), Crenshaw took a moment.

"But, seriously, there's a lot of lessons to learn here," Crenshaw said, addressing the camera as he sat next to Davidson. "Not just that the left and right can still agree on some things but also this: Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country." He encouraged Americans to connect with veterans by telling them, "Never forget," instead of just "thanks for your service."

"When you say 'never forget' to a veteran, you are implying that, as an American, you are in it with them. ... And never forget those we lost on 9/11 - heroes like Pete's father," a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center. "So I'll just say, Pete? Never forget."

"Never forget," Davidson replied.


Crenshaw's father's career in the oil-and-gas industry took the family to Ecuador and Colombia, where Crenshaw went to high school and learned Spanish. Captivated as a child by the SEAL memoir "Rogue Warrior," he was commissioned as a naval officer in 2006 and underwent SEAL training, fracturing his tibia during hell week but completing the challenge on his second go-round. He deployed twice to Iraq and then, in 2012, to Afghanistan.

On June 15, 2012, when Crenshaw was 28, he and his platoon choppered into Helmand Province on a last-minute mission to support Marine special ops. At the time, Helmand was littered with improvised explosive devices. Bombs were so ever-present that it was safer to crouch in place during oncoming fire - and wager on a sniper's uncertain aim - than to dive for cover onto uncertain ground.

While Crenshaw's platoon moved to secure a compound, an Afghan interpreter named Raqman, who wanted to become a Navy SEAL himself, responded to a call and crossed in front of Crenshaw. Raqman stepped on a pressure plate, triggering 15 pounds of explosives and suffering fatal injuries. A couple paces back, Crenshaw felt like he was hit by a truck while being shot at by a firing squad. On the ground, his eyes were numb. The rest of his body screamed like it had been scratched open and doused in Tabasco. He reached down and felt his legs. Good sign. He had no vision, but assumed his eyes were just filled with dirt.

A medic friend began assessing the damage.

"Dude, don't ever get blown up," Crenshaw said to him. "It really sucks."

He refused to be carried on a stretcher, because he didn't want to expose comrades to enemy fire for no good reason. He walked under his own power to a medevac, where he was put into a coma. He woke up in Germany a few days later, blind and swollen. The remains of his right eye had been surgically removed; eventually a copper wire would be pulled out of his left. Doctors said there was a chance he might see again, but for Crenshaw it was a certainty.

Seeing again became his mission, and that sense of mission helped him endure the hallucinations, the surgeries, the weeks he had to spend - face down and sightless - while his eye healed, and the two years it took for a medical bureaucracy to get him to a place of relative comfort. He remembered how his mother, who died of cancer when he was 10, never complained during her five-year struggle with the illness. He held fast to his sense that life is about mission; you need one in order to live, and to live productively.

Just over a year after his injury, he married his longtime girlfriend, Tara.

He deployed twice more, to Bahrain and South Korea, as troop commander of an intelligence team.

In various commendations, the Navy cited him for his "zealous initiative," "wise judgment" and "unswerving determination." Medically retired in 2016, Crenshaw then earned a master's degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

In 2017 he returned to Houston - for the first significant chunk of time since he was a child - to help with recovery after Hurricane Harvey.

And then, while Crenshaw was looking for a policy job on Capitol Hill, an adviser to Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., took one look at him and, before they even sat down to talk, told him to run for office. The day before, Rep. Ted Poe, R, had announced his retirement from Texas' second district, which starts in Houston and curves around the city like a sickly tadpole. It was kismet.

"He said he wanted to run for office one day, but wanted to get policy experience first," says a Capitol Hill aide who ended up advising the campaign (and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly). "I was like, 'Have you paid attention to some of the people we have up here? You don't need that.' ... And he went all in. It's the SEAL ethos. It was amazing to watch."


The campaign started last November, four months before the Republican primary.

"I had never heard of him before he arrived. I would venture to say most people had never heard of him," says Vlad Davidiuk, communications director for the Harris County Republican Party. "The district has changed demographically, and is no longer as solid red as it used to be. It required a candidate who was willing to campaign hard. ... What distinguished Dan Crenshaw most is his ability to engage with voters."

Over five days in February, Crenshaw laced up his sneakers and ran 100 miles through the district, campaigning along the way. Thanks to a surge in day-of voting for the crowded primary, he snuck into second place by 155 votes, besting an opponent who had spent millions of her personal fortune. By then, his personal story was resonating. His face was both recognizable and symbolic.

Most Texas Republicans aren't very exciting, says Mark P. Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University, in Crenshaw's district. "None of them are very compelling or appealing. They're just sort of random old white dudes. And Dan Crenshaw was something new and different."

He had schooled himself on border security, health care and flood-control issues - a big concern for a region still smarting from Harvey. He met with engineers to discuss infrastructure and with young Republicans to energize new voters. More than one yard in the district was adorned with both a Crenshaw sign and a "BETO" sign, in allegiance to Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (whom Crenshaw outperformed by 12 points in Harris County).

"He's just tenacious," Rep. Poe says of his successor. "I don't think folks are going to know what to do when he gets (to Washington), and I mean that in a good way."

In a 2015 Facebook post flagged by one of his opponents, Crenshaw called then-candidate Donald Trump an idiot and referred to his rhetoric on Muslims as "insane," according to the Texas Tribune. Three years later, Crenshaw says he supports the president's policies, save for the trade warfare, but prefers to comport himself in a manner that is the total opposite of the commander-in-chief's.

"His style is not my style," Crenshaw says now. "I'll just say that. It's never how I would conduct myself. But what readers of The Washington Post need to understand is that conservatives can hold multiple ideas in their head at the same time. We can be like, 'Wow, he shouldn't have tweeted that,' and still support him. ... You can disapprove of what the president says every day, or that day, and still support his broader agenda."

On Tuesday, he was the only true bright spot for the GOP in Harris County, where O'Rourke's candidacy brought Democrats to the polls and flushed out Republicans down ballot. Crenshaw won 53 percent of the vote, but reached out to the other 47 percent during his victory speech in downtown Houston.

"This life, this purpose, this American spirit that we hold dear - we are not alone," he said then, sharing the mission. "We do it together."


The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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All quiet on the western Trump

By alexandra petri
All quiet on the western Trump



(For Petri clients only)


(BEG ITAL)When asked about his favorite books, Donald Trump frequently cites Erich Maria Remarque's classic World War I novel "All Quiet on the Western Front." He told Michael Wolff he was rereading it. He told Megyn Kelly it was his favorite. Given his apparently boundless passion for this book, it may be surprising he could not muster the fortitude to show up at a rainy event commemorating the end of World War I. However, anyone who has read "All Quiet on the Western Front" even once will remember how often they had to call the war on account of weather. Below are some excerpts. Thanks to my chatter who suggested this!(END ITAL)

Kemmerich has lost his foot. He looks ghastly. His voice sounds like ashes. As soon as the rain stops, we will go and get his foot back for him. We can't risk it before.

Katczinsky and I leave him on the stretcher and go to the mess tent. The rations have not come up yet. As long as it rains, they cannot risk the cook getting damp. If the cook were damp, no one would know what to do.

"It's no good," Kat says. Kat is an old soldier.

I know better than to ask him if it will be long.

A hideous and noxious mist begins to rise and billow toward us across No Man's Land. Fear clamps my chest like a cold hand. But soon the word goes down the line, "It's only gas." "It isn't fog." We put on our masks and give thanks. So far I have escaped the weather altogether.

I am young. I am 20 years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. But I have not been caught in a chilly mist with nothing but an umbrella to protect me. I have been spared that.

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

I am home on leave. I go to my father's house. I do not recognize him any longer. He wants me to wear the uniform to impress his friends. He reads in the paper about the war, but what the paper says cannot hope to tell him what I know from experience. There is an impassible gulf between us, as impassible as when it is drizzling and you are standing beneath an awning and dare not venture to the next awning. Like that, but made by war.

I wish I could speak to him. How wrong our schoolmasters were, I would tell him. This war is the work of old men who profit by it and turn us boys against each other, instead of our true enemy: weather.

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

I hear the murmurs. They are going to make us go over the top. Unless it rains. They would not send us out in that.

Night falls while we are still waiting.

Then, slowly, we make our way up and into the open. British shells whiz overhead. Shrapnel enters my leg. I can still crawl a little. A passing ambulance wagon picks us up. Kat and I are both wounded in the leg. My trousers are bloody and my shirt, too. But that is nothing. Out across No Man's Land we see the men there where it is still lightly misting, and shudder. Kat may lose his leg, but it is nothing compared with what they face.

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

Our stretchers stand on the platform. We wait for the train. The station has no roof. Our blankets are thin. It begins to rain. The nuns come rushing out. "Hurry, hurry!" Sister Libertine cries. "These men are getting slightly damp!" There is a great commotion. We are bundled up and off the platform in the nick of time.

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

He fell in October 1918 on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All Quiet On The Western Front.

He was out with an umbrella in the drizzle. A side-draft caught him. Turning him over, one saw on his face -- what was still visible of it beneath the drops of water -- that he could not have suffered long. His wet face had an expression of calm, almost glad the rain had come.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Will the GOP keep dancing with autocracy?

By e.j. dionne jr.
Will the GOP keep dancing with autocracy?


(Advance for Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)


WASHINGTON -- When a national leader urges that votes be ignored or that an election result he doesn't like might best be set aside, we label him an autocrat or an authoritarian.

When it's President Trump, we shrug. Worse, many in his party go right along with baseless charges of fraud.

We are in for a difficult two years. Surviving them will require that Republican senators take seriously the pledge they make in their oath of office to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." What we have seen so far is not encouraging.

Florida brings out the worst in Republicans. They find it hard to break bad habits developed during the presidential election in 2000, when they were willing to use any means necessary (including a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision rooted far more in partisanship than law) to prevent Democrat Al Gore from getting a recount. The contest was ultimately settled by 537 votes.

With a margin that close, a recount would have been routine in a race for agriculture commissioner. But not for the country's most important office. The GOP stopped the recounts, and George W. Bush became president.

To its credit, Florida now requires automatic recounts when races are decided by narrow margins. And this year, Republicans shouldn't have much to worry about. In the U.S. Senate contest, as of Wednesday morning, Republican Gov. Rick Scott enjoyed a 12,562-vote lead over Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. In the governor's race, Republican Ron DeSantis led Democrat Andrew Gillum by 33,684 votes. Unless something is badly amiss -- in which case a recount is imperative -- such margins would typically survive close scrutiny.

But Trump would have none of it. "The Florida election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged," he tweeted on Monday. "An honest vote count is no longer possible--ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!"

Well. For starters, as The Washington Post Fact Checker noted, overseas and military ballots postmarked by Election Day are accepted as long as 10 days after the voting. So Trump, on Veterans Day, was suggesting that many of the ballots sent in by our service members not be counted at all. The Post also found no evidence for Trump's "missing or forged" charge. And what, pray, is an "infected" ballot?

Then there was Trump's tweet last Friday suggesting that "a new Election" might be required in Arizona as Democrat Kyrsten Sinema passed Republican Martha McSally in the vote count. With her golden retriever Boomer at her side, McSally ignored Trump and graciously conceded to Sinema in a video. McSally is clearly thinking beyond the Trumpian present.

All this is about more than Trump's obvious meltdown since an election that was bad for him and his party and gets worse as more votes are tallied. It is about whether Republicans are willing to contain and, when necessary, oppose a man who repeatedly demonstrates hostility to the rules, norms and constraints of constitutional democracy.

It was thus good news this week when 14 conservative and libertarian lawyers announced the formation of a new organization called Checks and Balances. Their ranks include George Conway, who happens to be the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and former Homeland Security Secretary and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Their organizing statement declared the group's dedication to "the rule of law, the power of truth, the independence of the criminal justice system, the imperative of individual rights, and the necessity of civil discourse."

Tellingly, they insisted that their commitment to these principles applied "regardless of the party or persons in power" and reflected their faith in "free speech, a free press, separation of powers and limited government."

Up to now, conservatives opposed to Trump have had little impact on their party. Too many, especially among elected officials, have pulled their punches in the crunch and fallen silent under pressure.

The test will be whether four or five GOP senators prove willing to break with Trump's apologists in their party's leadership when it matters -- and when it's hard. Defending the Florida recount as legitimate and necessary would be a good start. So would supporting a bill protecting special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and insisting that his findings be made public. Lovely words about the truth and the rule of law are powerless against a president who respects neither.

E.J. Dionne's email address is Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Matthew Whitaker is steeped in time travel and Bigfoot. He's the right man for the job.

By dana milbank
Matthew Whitaker is steeped in time travel and Bigfoot. He's the right man for the job.



(For Milbank clients only)


WASHINGTON -- My colleague Ruth Marcus writes: "The acting attorney general of the United States is a crackpot."

As though that's a bad thing.

Which it isn't.

The "crackpot" bit is not in dispute. In addition to his exotic legal views and his lack of relevant experience, Matthew G. Whitaker was already known to have hawked hot-tub seats for a business that shut down this year after reaching a $26 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for defrauding customers. But that's just the beginning of the crackpottery.

During the current U.S. attorney general's time on the company's advisory board, from 2014 onward, World Patent Marketing:

-- Claimed that "DNA evidence collected in 2013 proves that Bigfoot does exist," had a website selling Bigfoot paraphernalia and planned a celebrity event called "You Have Been Squatched!"

-- Asserted that "time travel" could be "possible, perhaps within the next decade" and tried to raise money using bitcoin for time-travel research by one of Whitaker's fellow board members. The company suggested users might "relive moments from your past" or "visit your future."

-- Announced, in the same media release heralding Whitaker's appointment to the board, a patent application for an extra-deep "masculine toilet" for the well-endowed. Specifying the size of "average male genitalia," the release said "this invention is designed for those of us who measure longer than that."

Some think Whitaker's association with the company (he did legal work for World Patent Marketing in addition to lending his name and hawking its wares) makes him patently unfit to serve. To the contrary, it is patently obvious he is the right man for this moment.

Only a man steeped in time travel and Bigfoot could successfully sell the notion that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's inquiry is a "hoax" that should be shut down. In tapping, as the nation's top law enforcement officer, a man with experience with hucksterism and conspiracy theories, President Trump has embraced his inner crackpot.

And the crackpots embraced him.

An August 2015 video by World Patent Marketing, "Eight Lessons Entrepreneurs Learn From Donald Trump," associated the company with Trump's methods. "If you know your target market and speak to their concerns, you'll get the feedback you're looking for," it said, over images of Trump.

True -- in politics, or time travel!

Trump has a history of promoting the extravagantly unqualified. After the White House doctor gushed about the overweight president's excellent health, Trump tapped him to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. Trump's choice to be chief scientist at the Agriculture Department was not a scientist. Trump gave other powerful positions to a Mar-a-Lago member, a Meineke Car Care manager, a bartender, a cabana attendant, a truck driver and Eric Trump's wedding planner.

Whitaker fits well in this group. On his Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire in 2003, when he was tapped to be a U.S. attorney, he was asked to list the "most significant cases" he litigated. The top two:

"Personal injury claim resulting from driver of automobile driving over Mr. Harkness' leg."

"Breach of Contract and Negligence Claim arising out of dry cleaning performed by Lenox Cleaners that operated out of a Hy-Vee store in Creston, Iowa."

So his experience with World Patent Marketing really comes in handy. As The Washington Post's Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman reported, Whitaker wrote "a series of letters" on behalf of the company. The Justice Department said Whitaker has said "he was not aware of any fraudulent activity."

World Patent Marketing websites, in addition to selling Bigfoot, also offered phone cases featuring photos of nearly nude women. A promotional video features Whitaker's advisory-board colleague kicking and punching people in kickboxing matches. Whitaker, in Home Shopping Network style, promoted a razor blade that "easily folds into itself."

The current attorney general evidently had no qualms about associating himself with World Patent Marketing chief executive Scott Cooper, who claimed that its Sasquatch pursuits would "be a billion-dollar brand" -- particularly once Bigfoot was found. (In this, Cooper might get support from Rep.-elect Denver Riggleman, a Virginia Republican, who trafficked in "Bigfoot porn.") Nor, apparently, did Whitaker have concerns about the company he advised claiming there was "growing support from scientists" for time travel by 2026.

Too bad the company was shut down before then. Otherwise, Whitaker could go back to 2017, stop Mueller's appointment before it happened and, before anybody noticed his absence, be back in the attorney general's office -- which had been outfitted with an extra-large toilet from the future.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Newsom will have to prove he can lead Golden State

By ruben navarrette jr.
Newsom will have to prove he can lead Golden State


(Advance for Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Navarrette clients only)


SAN DIEGO -- How fitting that California, home to Hollywood, would elect a governor who looks like he stepped out of central casting.

I'm sure my female friends in the Golden State won't mind seeing a lot of Gavin Newsom over the next four years. The 51-year-old lieutenant governor, and former San Francisco mayor, stands 6'3" with a handsome face and a thick crop of hair that, oddly enough, always seems both in-place and naturally ruffled. He also has a beautiful wife and adorable kids.

If you haven't seen him yet, you'll get your chance. You could always stake out Iowa and New Hampshire. The Democrat will surely be visiting there soon enough, campaigning for other candidates in 2020 -- and, you can bet, for himself four years later in 2024.

And yet, voter beware. In the land of make believe, things are rarely as they seem. More often, we see what we want to see.

That's doubly true in politics, where the game has become about taking the support you already have and turning yourself inside out to get additional votes wherever you can find them. You need to be flexible. Conservative politicians may find themselves having to be more liberal, while liberal politicians might decide they need to be more conservative.

You also need to be comfortable lying to your constituents. The 2018 midterm elections were significant not because of what candidates said but because of what they refused to say. Many Democrats were reluctant to talk about immigration, and many Republicans were just as resistant to talk about health care. No matter whom you voted for, you're bound to be surprised at how they vote down the line.

As a native Californian who moved back home 13 years ago, I've watched Newsom for a while. I still don't know who he is, or what he stands for. I'm not sure he does either. Every politician needs to be able to tell at least one story -- his or her own.

Newsom doesn't do that very well. Although he had previously mentioned it, it wasn't until recently that I learned that the new governor-elect had dyslexia. The term refers to a difference in how the brain functions that can make it difficult to process information in written form. In October of last year, during Dyslexia Awareness Month, Newsom wrote a short essay explaining how his experience gave him empathy for those who struggle.

As someone whose wife is a dyslexia specialist, that part of Newsom's personal resume made him more interesting to me. So why did I not hear about it again until around the time of the gubernatorial election a year later?

Newsom plays it close to the vest on most issues. He can discuss just about any topic you throw at him, but he tends to leave himself out of the discussion -- perhaps out of an abundance of caution. He wanders through public life -- successfully -- like someone who doesn't want to anger a single voter. That can be a roadmap for winning elections, but it's not a good recipe for leading people.

As the most populous state, and the world's fifth-largest economy, California is in dire need of leadership. Wildfires. Drought. Mediocre public schools run aground by self-serving teachers' unions. Mounting health care costs. Businesses leaving. Soaring cost of living. People who hire illegal immigrants with an open hand, and chase them off with a clenched fist.

And, as he tries to tackle some of that -- hopefully -- Newsom has at least three struggles of his own. He needs to reach out beyond his liberal base to moderates, independents and even Republicans so he isn't simply a Democratic governor trapped within the bubble of a deep-blue state. He needs to differentiate himself from his Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown, and carve out his own style and agenda -- which won't be easy because Brown could be both liberal and conservative on the same issue. And he needs to avoid the trap that has ensnared other Democratic governors here -- most notably, Gray Davis, who was elected in 1998 and recalled five years later -- where he focuses so much on aspiring to be president that he avoids controversy and loses sight of the job at hand.

Newsom has said that growing up with dyslexia taught him to overcome obstacles. That's good. Because, in the Golden State, the road ahead is filled with them.

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

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

It's time to give millennials a break

By esther j. cepeda
It's time to give millennials a break


(Advance for Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- It's a terrible idea to make too much of the campaign victory of any politician, but an exception is in order now that New York has elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress: It's time to drop the snarky jabs about millennials.

There's no question that the fact Ocasio-Cortez is 29 is worth celebrating. Young people are woefully underrepresented in governing roles, and their exuberance, fresh ideas and open minds could help them connect with a more diverse demographic.

Yet in a society that is obsessed with being youthful and on the cutting edge, we sure look down our noses at even the most accomplished young person if he or she has the temerity to like avocados, toast or -- insert patronizing tone here -- avocado toast.

Just set the food preferences aside and note that the disparagement that Ocasio-Cortez's detractors heap upon her centers mostly on her democratic socialist political beliefs but also leans heavily on her age.

Adjectives like "spoiled," "entitled," and "vacuous" are appended to "millennial" and deployed to heighten the fiction that, if you're to believe the criticism on newspaper-website comment sections, Ocasio-Cortez is so post-internet ignorant that she believes money falls from the sky and that everyone should get everything for free.

Let's be clear: The woman graduated from Boston University with degrees in international relations and economics. I'm pretty sure she knows more about where money comes from than 98 percent of the adult U.S. population.

A less charitable reading would be that Ocasio-Cortez's membership in a generation that is frequently mocked was a gift to those who want to root against a woman trying to gain political power but don't want to appear openly misogynist.

Surely there's some of that. But, most likely, some older people openly despise millennials because they are free-spirited and possessed of the idealism and naivete that every young person deserves to indulge in before the realities of a life's difficulties grind away a little bit of the optimism.

Sadly, as it has been noted time and again, millennials don't have it as easy as everyone assumes. They aren't all trust-fund recipients who took gap years in Europe on their parent's dime. And when they fail to live up to those easy stereotypes, they're mocked for not being as wildly rich and successful as they're made out to be.

Case in point, there was a media uproar when it came out that Ocasio-Cortez can't afford to put down a deposit, and first and last month's rent, in the nation's capital, one of the most expensive cities in the country (one-bedroom apartments average about $2,200), plus pay moving and living expenses before getting the first paycheck from her new job.

Neither could most of America, never mind a young person who has been open about having student loans she's still paying. Someone who, until recently, was working as a server in a bar.

At least in this instance, level heads, even from opposing camps, came to Ocasio-Cortez's defense.

"It's perfectly appropriate to criticize the kinds of anti-market policy prescriptions a socialist like Ocasio-Cortez is likely to recommend. But let's not beat up on her for failing to have as much access to wealth as the average member of Congress," wrote Robby Soave, an associate editor at "This problem should inspire sympathy, not scorn."

Sure, we can have sympathy and even chalk up Ocasio-Cortez's "first-world problem" to folksiness or "relatability."

Better yet: Cut out the millennial condescension.

By most measures the youngest millennials are 22 and the oldest are 41. It's a range so incredibly wide, a populace so diverse and heterogenous across geography, race, ethnicity and socio-economic class, that lumping them all into one category of detached, internet-obsessed narcissists is every bit as offensive as the religious, racial and gender-based stereotypes we all know are both in poor taste and off-limits in polite company.

Young people are America's present and future. If we don't like them, we should point the finger of blame toward ourselves -- and (BEG ITAL)who (END ITAL) bought all those pre-teens their internet-enabled smartphones and laptops for their bedrooms and didn't set limits? -- instead of piling on.

Just be nice! Remember, we need those idealistic young people to pay into Social Security and take care of us in the not-too-distant future.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The GOP's woman problem

By kathleen parker
The GOP's woman problem


(Advance for Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)


WASHINGTON -- It has been long rumored that the Republican Party has a woman problem, so much so that a few years ago GOP congressmen sent aides to classes on how to talk to and about women.

Republicans didn't learn much. Their articulation issues just got much worse, and there's a name for it: Donald Trump. In addition to his many dubious accomplishments, Trump has succeeded in nearly purging Republican women from the House of Representatives.

If this was supposed to be the year of the woman, it has been the year only of Democratic women. The blue wave washed away a significant number of strong female candidates on the GOP side, both incumbents and newcomers, likely leaving just 13, down from 23. (Although three races were still pending Tuesday, Republicans had little hope that their candidates would win in two of them.)

According to Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman, of the projected 31 members of the rising Republican freshman class, only one is a woman, compared with the Democrats' projected freshman class of 61, of which 35 are women. Which means the Republican House just became a lot more of what it didn't need to be -- more male.

Democratic women cleaned house in suburban districts. With just over a dozen women, this also means several committees and subcommittees will have no Republican women on them.

Trump, naturally, has blamed Republican losses on some candidates' failure to accept his "embrace." At least they weren't asked to kiss his ring, yet. In post-election remarks last week, the president mocked those who "lost" their races, naming, among others, Utah Rep. Mia Love (who hasn't officially lost yet), and Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock.

Of Love, he ickily said she "gave me no love. And she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that Mia." For the record, votes were still being counted as Trump was making these remarks. Love waited until Election Day to use a phone recording he had made for her campaign.

Comstock, who won in 2016 in a district that went for Hillary Clinton, inarguably lost this time because of the president. Her opponent, Democrat Jennifer Wexton, waged her campaign primarily on an anti-Trump platform.

If anything, Love and Comstock's good judgment probably made their races closer than they otherwise would've been. Let there be no doubt, the midterms were about one thing -- Trump -- and Republican losses should be chalked up to him. He owns this election.

Embracing the president was by no means a fast track to victory. In some cases, when candidates did accept Trump's love, they might as well have received the kiss of death, too. Many lost, anyway. Rep. Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot (and dog lover), wore Trump like a medal of honor in Arizona, yet lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in their Senate race. Although Sinema's was a squeeze-by victory, as so many races were, Trump was plainly no help to her opponent.

The House seat McSally relinquished to run for the Senate also went to a Democrat -- former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.

Republican men, too, suffered losses after accepting, presumably, a man-hug from Trump. Rep. Dave Brat lost in Central Virginia; Kris Kobach, who was endorsed by Trump in the Kansas governor's race, came up short. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California and Rod Blum of Iowa, both supported by Trump, also lost.

Thus, it would appear that the Trump embrace carries about as much magic as a blind-worm's sting. If Midas turned everything to gold, Trump seems to turn things blue. He may have noticed this himself, which may explain his petulance last week and his familiar dismissiveness toward "losers," or those who reject his affections. He mocked men, as well, including Republican Reps. Erik Paulsen and Peter Roskam, who lost races in Minnesota and Illinois, respectively.

Ultimately, though, this election was about women and Trump, a verdict that likely only feeds his narcissism. But this analysis would be incomplete without also mentioning the media's role as Trump's creators and enablers, with the Democratic Party as beneficiaries. Every time Trump does what he does, which is to provoke, the media sets its 24-hour news cycle on auto-pilot, and Democrats count their blessings. Trump (BEG ITAL)is(END ITAL) the Democrats' biggest fundraiser.

He essentially financed the blue-and-pink wave to the detriment of his own party, especially women. Contrary to town criers coast-to-coast, the future doesn't belong to women at all. It belongs to Democratic women -- and Trump owns that, too.

Kathleen Parker's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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