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Migrants in Mexico united to practice their brand of democracy as they hope to move to U.S.

By Emily Kaplan
Migrants in Mexico united to practice their brand of democracy as they hope to move to U.S.
A young boy walks through a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico on Feb. 14, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Cesar Rodriguez

Editor's note: This story was reported before the coronavirus hit Mexico. There were no known cases of covid-19 in the camp at the time the story was published.

- - -

MATAMOROS, Mexico - The leaders sat in lawn chairs, slippery with dust, beside the Rio Grande. Above them, sagging clotheslines crosshatched the sky. They had arranged themselves in a circle. Here, at least, everyone was equal. As the council made its way through the day's agenda, the wind carried with it the sounds of the camp - children's laughter, a baby's cry, the call of the vendor with the rickety red cart: "Helados, helados, solo cinco pesos."

The council was meeting by request of Elizabeth Cavazos, a retired mental health professional who, as part of her volunteer work with the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, relayed information from officials here to the residents of the migrant camp that has arisen along the city's northern shore. All of the migrants had the same goal - to be granted asylum in the United States. They had fled violence, indigence and threats to their lives, and undertaken perilous journeys through the desert. They had turned themselves over to the U.S. Border Patrol and been given dates for preliminary hearings (which, because of the pandemic, have all been pushed back to late June at the earliest). And then - living in tents, surviving with donated clothes and food - they began to wait.

In late January, the migrants began to organize. By this point, they had arranged themselves more or less according to country of origin. Mexicans lived closest to the river; Hondurans, next to the Cubans, were farthest to the south; Guatemalans camped by the stadium stairs, and so on. They coordinated a political system, electing a leader from each national community to serve on a governing council that would oversee communication, resource distribution, a cleaning schedule and responses to campwide matters as they arose. The leaders set up groups on WhatsApp on their smartphones to provide alerts to everyone in their communities at once.

Maura Sammon, a Pennsylvania physician volunteering in the camp, described her impression of its organization. "They've created a spontaneous representative democracy," she told me. "I've never heard of anything like it before."

Today marked the first time that all of the elected representatives of each of the eight main countries represented in the camp - Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba - were coming together. Few of the representatives here have direct experience with leadership, let alone democracy; even the countries that are ostensibly democratic are known for their corruption.

Some of the leaders were fleeing gangs. Others, such as Perla, the Nicaraguan pharmacist, were known political dissidents and had been personally targeted by their nations' ruling parties. (All of the leaders I interviewed feared retribution against them or their family members, and spoke to me on the condition that they be identified by only their first or middle names.) It seemed to me that the consequences of a lack of true democracy motivated each of these council members to seek asylum in the United States - and to take their own experiment in self-governance so seriously.

Cavazos's Spanish is imperfect, but she was able to get her meaning across. Matamoros officials had noticed that the residents have been cutting branches off the camp's trees, and that they needed to stop immediately. Various leaders jumped in, arguing that firewood was a necessity. Without it, the migrants would freeze at night and would have no way to cook their meals.

"Yo sé," Cavazos said, nodding: I know. She doesn't make the rules, she emphasized, but the leaders had to convey this edict to their communities. "They say anyone who is caught cutting trees will be deported immediately."

The council members sighed. The Guatemalan leader whispered to the representative from Venezuela, They're not going to like this.

Cavazos moved to the next matter on her list. "And another thing: The government says food can't be sold here, because of the health code."

Iris, the Honduran, shook her head. "That simply won't work," she said. "People depend on the income." Iris was the council's líder de los líderes, the leader of the leaders, and often responded first to Cavazos's questions.

Vladimir, the Salvadoran, was standing, leaning against Iris's chair. He is a tall, serious man in his 40s, with a broad face and spiked, glossy hair. Among the leaders, he had been in the camp the longest.

"We'll discuss it," he said. "We'll come up with a solution. Just like for everything else."

- - -

When I first arrived in the camp, during an unseasonably cold week in February, I knew only what I had read in the news - that this dusty, roughly three-acre plot, contained by the Rio Grande and a beggar-bordered highway, had been allotted by the Mexican government for the 2,500 migrants waiting in Matamoros, right across from the South Texas city of Brownsville. At first, newcomers were setting up camp in the open, under the Gateway International Bridge; however, as tensions rose between migrants and locals, the Mexican federal government ordered the migrants to move to an empty stadium a stone's throw from the river and provided members of the nation's marines to protect them.

No one wanted the migrants to be in Matamoros - least of all the migrants themselves. They had been affected by a new Trump administration policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as "Remain in Mexico." Under this policy, enacted in January 2019, asylum seekers could no longer await their court dates on U.S. soil, a practice that administration officials such as Stephen Miller have termed "catch and release." Instead, they must return to Mexico, a country they passed through on their journeys north, to wait for their hearings. Wait times for each of the three steps of the asylum application process last several months; intervals, like migrants' legal fates, seem to be dictated by the whims of individual judges.

And it's not just bloated bureaucracy that contributes to the migrant camp's ballooning population. MPP dictates that to be granted asylum in the United States, applicants must demonstrate that they applied, and were rejected, for asylum in every country through which they passed on their journeys north. When I was there in February, this had resulted in protracted wait times for migrants, who were forced to navigate the bureaucracy of Mexican migration before they were even eligible to apply for asylum in the United States.

That is, the Trump administration's policies had created a situation in which many migrants were waiting in Mexico for eight months or longer, sustained only by the hope that they'd be among the lucky few to get a shot at the American Dream. In the meantime, they continued to eke out some semblance of normalcy amid nearly unfathomable uncertainty.

Before I arrived in the camp, I expected signs of life in transition: clotheslines, makeshift stoves, bags of belongings strewn between tents. What I didn't expect were the signs of community, of a structured society rising from chaos. Walking along dry, winding paths, I saw small businesses: a tortilla stand, pastries for sale, barber shops, a nail salon. (Nailed to a tree in the Mexican section was a cardboard sign with a message written in marker: "MANICURES - PEDICURES - ACRYLICS - CALL THE VENEZUELAN BY THE TENNIS COURT.") Next to a health clinic run by American volunteers was a preschool run by a migrant from Honduras and a pharmacy run by Perla, the Nicaraguan leader, and a migrant from El Salvador. Throughout the camp, six migrant-run tiendas (stores) distributed goods - tortilla flour, menstrual pads, shampoo - to anyone who needed them. On the ground not far from Tienda 2 was a square of dirt cordoned off by rope, with a handwritten sign tacked to a tree: "GARDEN FOR HONDURANS ONLY."

When the photographer for this story, César Rodríguez, joined me, he too was struck by the sense of underlying order. Walking through for the first time, he told me that, of all the refugee camps he'd been to, this one felt different. "It feels like . . ." He paused, watching a small child sail by on a tricycle, and smiled. "It feels like a village."

- - -

After the council meeting, Cavazos stood next to the pharmacy, reflecting on her time in the camp. She joined the Angry Tias and Abuelas in June 2018, she told me, about two weeks after the organization officially formed. (The "tías and abuelas" - Spanish for aunts and grandmothers - are seven women who live in Texas's Rio Grande Valley and volunteer to provide crucial services for migrants in the camp.) At the time, Cavazos said, migrants were still living under the bridge, and life was chaotic. Now, however, nonprofits working together have been able to provide food, shelter and clothing.

"I saw a shift in the camp once people's basic needs were met, when they didn't have to worry about where their next meal was coming from," she said. "It allowed for that mental energy to be used towards community-building."

Later, I commented to Cavazos that I found it interesting that of the eight leaders, two are women - and that the idea for the council came from a woman. Most of the countries the leaders come from are patriarchal, where the effects of machismo are significant. In many of the poorest, most remote regions of Central America, it's uncommon for girls to attend school, or even learn to read. In those societies, women are typically expected to be wives and mothers, not political leaders.

"The camp is an extension of home," Cavazos explained. And in the cultures these migrants are coming from, she told me, "there is patriarchy in society, but women rule the home."

I realized that it would be inaccurate to view the camp residents' situation, as I had been doing, up to that point, as predominantly political. Yes, every person there was seeking asylum. But what united them transcended politics. They were united by departure and loss. Amid fear and trauma and uncertainty, the council had tasked itself with carving out the contours of familiar life. And so, viewed this way, it made perfect sense that this work - the work of home building, of caring for the vulnerable - had been undertaken by women.

- - -

One of the most important services the council provides is communication - and the tamping down of misinformation. The migrants are desperate for good news and seize on hopeful reports they hear from Facebook and one another. "We're constantly having to combat rumors that their asylum case will only take nine days, or that MPP has ended," Cavazos said. Once the council formed, the leaders spent much of their energy stifling the false information that moved throughout the camp, swelling and shape-shifting as it spread.

The council owed its very existence to a rumor. In late January, word got around that the American government had issued a temporary declaration allowing all Guatemalans to enter the United States. No one I talked to was sure how the rumor started, or what - if any - seed of truth it might have contained. Some said it was related to the "safe third country" agreement the United States signed with Guatemala in July; others speculated that some migrants had misunderstood the noisy clamor generated by an activist protest on the Texan side of the bridge. Regardless of the rumor's origin, though, its result was clear: chaos.

"Everyone ran to the gate with their suitcases, their bags, their passports, everything," Iris, the leader of the leaders, recalled. Mexican border patrol agents struggled to contain the chaos, and local police arrived quickly. Edel, who is married to the Salvadoran leader, Vladimir, knew that if this kind of thing were to happen again, the migrants were at risk of angering the government - which had up to that point provided them with space, protection and resources such as portable toilets and water tanks.

Edel knew the Mexican government was keeping tabs on its citizens within the camp. An immigration official regularly came to update the list of Mexicans staying there, and as a result the Mexican community kept a census of its own population, sorted by date of arrival.

After the rush to the border that day, Edel, a soft-spoken woman with broad, angular features, decided that the rest of the migrants needed a system as well. "I said, 'Mexico has a list - why not us?' " she recalled. "I realized that we needed to be able to cooperate, to organize, to clean the camp. And if at any moment any lawyers arrived to ask for any piece of information, we would have it."

Edel is an organized businesswoman. Before they were forced to flee El Salvador, she and Vladimir made a good living running a shoe store in the city of Santa Ana. When they arrived at the camp, Edel set up the pupusa restaurant to earn money to start to pay off what her family owed to the smuggler who had transported them to Matamoros. The pupusería had become a community center of sorts, and Edel had gotten to know the other Salvadorans in the camp, as well as some migrants from other countries.

These connections came in handy. She went around the Salvadoran community, asking others to take the lead. "I said, 'I have a notebook. If no one else is going to take the initiative, I will make a list of all of the Salvadoran families who are here in the camp.' " After doing so, she offered up the list to her neighbors, who asked her to be their leader.

Edel declined. She was too busy running the restaurant, she said, and, after sending her 11- and 14-year-old daughters across the border alone, she didn't feel emotionally up to the task. Her husband became the Salvadorans' leader, but Edel continued to consider the idea of building a leadership structure that encompassed everyone in the camp.

One day, she mentioned the idea to Iris, who lived in a tent next to the pupusería. Iris had also recently sent two of her children across the bridge alone, and the two had increasingly sought out each other to share in their anxiety and grief.

Iris is a striking woman in her mid-30s, a former cosmetics salesperson who speaks in a low, raspy voice. Her olive skin is dotted with freckles, and her dark hair glows red in the sun. Her 19-year-old daughter, Asly, who chose to stay with her, described her mother as "very attentive, very caring, but she does have her character when she has to fight someone."

On the day I met Iris, she wore a strapless denim dress and dangly pompom earrings - a stark contrast to the people around her dressed in jeans and tattered T-shirts. She told me that after she sent her younger children across the border, she felt depressed and purposeless. "The place I was in psychologically, it was very dark."

That changed when a preacher arrived. "He met with us, one by one, to tell us our purpose in life," she told me, her blue eyes suddenly sparkling. "And he prophesied that I would be the Moses of my people."

Suddenly, Iris said, she understood that, like Moses, she was meant to lead her people out of desperation. God had chosen her to lead other migrants through the desert and into the promised land: the United States. Now she saw striking parallels between her own life and that of the ancient prophet. While Moses was found along a river as an infant, she was discovered in the Rio Grande, trying to cross with her children. And while Moses was found by rulers who made life in Egypt unbearable for the Israelites, Iris was apprehended by Border Patrol officers, who make life unbearable for migrants like her.

"Moses was a child of Pharaoh, and I, too, was among bad people," she explained. "God called me, just like He called Moses. I didn't know I was going to be the leader of the council; it hadn't been created yet. It didn't even come to my mind that this committee would form, and that I would be, apart from the leader of Honduras, the leader of the leaders." She said that her role had made her a target for kidnappers and thieves, and that she lay awake fearful every night as a result, reliving past traumas. Her left hand, she said, had been numb for three months.

Still, she is honored by the situation she has found herself in. When God speaks, she told me, you have no choice but to listen. In the end, she was sure that her faith would serve her - and all of the other migrants waiting for their asylum hearings. "God is like a lawyer for us. But in the end, He will be a judge."

- - -

Iris's lawyer in the United States, Jodi Goodwin, represents a number of the council's leaders. Many of her clients live in the camp; the rest are asylum seekers living elsewhere in Matamoros. (Though no one knows exact numbers, experts say there are thousands of migrants living in apartments and shelters across the city.)

Goodwin says the prospects for migrants like Iris and Edel are dismal. Overall, less than 1% of applicants are granted asylum. The acceptance rate is higher for political refugees from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and lower for those from everywhere else. This is due to the fact that, to qualify for asylum, people must meet two criteria: First, they must establish "credible fear" of their own government, and second, they must prove that they would be persecuted according to one of five "protected grounds"- race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. In other words, the circumstances that cause the majority of migrants to flee their countries - extreme poverty and violence at the hands of gangs and cartels - do not qualify them for asylum in the United States.

There were ways to get around this, though. While I was in the camp, the petition of a young Honduran man whose entire family had been killed by gang members was granted. Goodwin told me that the immigration system under President Donald Trump, however, is intentionally designed to keep migrants out.

Cathy Potter, another Rio Grande Valley-based attorney for a number of asylum seekers, says this represents a significant change from all past administrations. Jeff Sessions, Trump's first attorney general, "overturned literally decades of asylum law with elementarily-worded decisions," Potter told me. Furthermore, she says, many immigration judges - who, she emphasizes, are employees of the attorney general and risk being fired if they do not follow his orders - are fundamentally ignorant regarding even the most basic facts about petitioners' circumstances.

Goodwin explains that judges are required to view asylum applications "through the lens of the applicant." For instance, even if the State Department deems a particular country relatively safe, judges must consider whether an individual's circumstances put her in danger. Goodwin, however, believes that this is often not done.

Edel and Vladimir's situation, she says, was one such example of this. For years, their neighborhood had been controlled by the gang MS-13. In exchange for being left alone, the couple had agreed to three conditions: paying the gang $100 every month, letting gang members take anything they wanted from the shoe store, and ensuring that Edel's brother, a police officer, would never visit. The family lived a comfortable life. Their daughters went to a Catholic school, and the family often went out to dinner and took beach vacations. (When Edel showed me a picture from a beach trip just last year, I was shocked. Unlike the exhausted, sallow-eyed woman before me, the Edel in the picture was radiant, hugging her daughters and beaming as Vladimir kissed her on the cheek.)

In August, she told me, a gang took control of the area and kidnapped Vladimir. They eventually released him, but only on the condition that he not report them to the police. He did report them, though, and when they found out, they told him that they would kill him unless he gave them $20,000. (El Salvador's currency is the same as the United States', but a dollar's purchasing power is much higher there.) He and Edel didn't have that kind of money, but they also knew it didn't matter. They were sure Vladimir would be killed either way.

The gang gave them until Aug. 30 to leave the country. The family left on Aug. 29, two days after burying Vladimir's mother, who had died after a fever. Edel and Vladimir left everything in Santa Ana - their property, their business, all the members of their extended families - and arrived in the Matamoros camp penniless. "My daughters were walking around without shoes," Edel said, shaking her head. "Think of that! We ran a shoe store!"

The family thought its asylum application was strong - after all, it had proof of the kidnapping and the ransom demand. But on the third court appointment, the family was denied. "The judge here said, 'Why didn't you go to the city where your brother makes a living as a police officer?' " Edel told me. "But what they don't understand is that if you move to a new place, you call attention to yourselves. And they just kill you because they don't know you - you're in an area that you're not supposed to be." She wiped a tear from her cheek. "If we return, we will be killed. I am sure of it."

The people who are in the camp, she said, are the ones who cannot go back. "When the judge signs my deportation order, he is signing my death warrant."

She and Vladimir are appealing the ruling. Iris, with Goodwin's help, is doing the same. "Donald Trump is hurting all of us here," Iris said. "In my country, you see impunity everywhere, dead people everywhere. We are looking for a refuge. We think that the United States is a country of law, where values are respected."

- - -

In the meeting with Elizabeth Cavazos, a heated discussion broke out about the fact that some people have not been following the cleaning schedule. Perla, the Nicaraguan representative, had an idea. No one would get donations - of shoes, say, or new clothes for a child - until they did their mandatory cleaning. "It would be much better to have a system to motivate the people," she said. "If someone needs a pair of new shoes to go to court, they will certainly do their cleaning."

Cavazos jumped in. "But if someone doesn't have shoes? I mean, shouldn't they get priority?"

Perla shook her head. Others jumped in, talking over one another. Joel, the Cuban leader, suggested a ranked priority system, then Iris suggested a variation. After a few moments, the group decided to table the discussion.

Cavazos moved to the next agenda item. "Let's talk about what happens if the river floods, or if there's a fire," she said. "Do you think that the WhatsApp groups are sufficient to alert everyone in the case of an emergency?"

Everyone nodded. "This is why this group is so important," Joel said. "Because every leader has daily body-to-body, arm-to-arm contact with everyone in their communities." There were murmurs of assent.

And then, in a low, serious tone, Vladimir spoke up. He said to Cavazos, "We'd like to talk with someone who can tell us where to go in case we need to evacuate."

"To the United States," Perla said quickly. The tension broke; everyone laughed. And then, after a moment, there was silence.

- - -

Kaplan is a freelance journalist who mostly covers immigration and education.

She came to the U.S. legally and was trying to do everything right. Then came the coronavirus.

By Hannah Dreier
She came to the U.S. legally and was trying to do everything right. Then came the coronavirus.
Tatiana Angulo poses for a portrait in front of her home in Asbury Park, N.J., on Thursday, May 28, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Bryan Anselm

On her last legal day in the United States, Tatiana Angulo awoke before sunrise in her attic bedroom and listened for a few moments to the sounds of what her life had become. Her boyfriend, Pablo Ruiz, was still sleeping next to her. He would be up soon, telling her what she already knew, that when midnight came, "things are going to be different for you," but for now, what she heard was the unsettling sound of someone coughing in one of the bedrooms downstairs, and more coughing from the closet next to her room, where a man had recently begun living because he had nowhere else to go.

In all, there were eight people in the little house, eight people crammed together because of the coronavirus, including the man in the closet, the man coughing downstairs in the bedroom he shared with his nephew, and a husband and wife and baby running a fever in another bedroom.

Was it the virus? No one was sure. But it was something, so Tatiana waited. Everything had to be choreographed in the house now, and only when it was quiet did she go downstairs to make Pablo breakfast, hoping that no one would be there.

"You'll need to be more careful now," Pablo told her as he got dressed for work.

By 7 a.m., he was gone. Theirs was a densely packed neighborhood of immigrants, where the people still lucky enough to be working had jobs in construction and landscaping. As Pablo joined them, Tatiana saw him off from the front porch and then, mindful of his advice, returned to the attic.

There were so many ways the pandemic was changing lives, especially those of Latino immigrants, who have been getting sick and dying in numbers that increasingly outstrip their share of the population. Latinos now account for more cases of the coronavirus than any other group in cities across the country, and in immigrant-heavy states such as New Jersey, they make up 20% of the population but 30% of the infections. Because of the virus, they have been disproportionately losing their health, livelihoods and immigration status, all of which Tatiana could feel slipping away a year after coming to the United States legally on a visa with the intention of doing everything right.

Tatiana's luck: The state where she had moved was now one of the hot spots of the virus. The restaurant where she had found work had closed. The house in which she lived was filled with sick people. And, with only a few hours left to figure out how to stay in the United States, she was now sitting on her bed, coughing and sneezing and telling herself, "It's just some stress."

To calm her nerves, she did a set of deep-breathing exercises she had learned in yoga class.

More sounds from the house. The man in the closet should have been at work already, but she heard him walking up the narrow attic stairs. She waited until he shut his door. Then she went down to take a shower.

- - -

Thirteen months earlier, before the virus existed, she had been living in Colombia with no intention of ever leaving. Despite growing up poor, she had won a scholarship to one of the country's most elite universities and, after graduating, had found satisfying work on an anti-corruption task force. By 32, she was married, with three children and a large house. But her husband grew controlling, she said. He made her stop working and seeing friends. One day, she said, he slammed her into a wall in front of the kids. At the police station, Tatiana saw a poster listing indicators of domestic abuse. She realized she met every one.

She filed for divorce and was horrified when a judge granted her husband custody of the children, at least until Tatiana could show financial independence and provide a home for them. A job in Colombia would never provide the money quickly enough, so at the urging of a friend in New Jersey who offered a couch if she could get there, she applied for a tourist visa to the United States and soon was on her way to Asbury Park, a rapidly gentrifying beach town where a new version of possibilities quickly fell into place: a job in the kitchen at a white-tablecloth restaurant on the boardwalk, a co-worker with an attic to rent in a Victorian, a chef named Pablo who was sweet in a way her ex-husband never had been. He brought Tatiana flowers and appreciated her exuberance and curiosity. Together, they were making $2,000 a week, enough to send hundreds of dollars to her family each month and put more away as savings to buy a house in Colombia.

The attic was small, with no bathroom and just enough space for a bed, a dresser and a TV, but Tatiana enjoyed having the floor to herself and decorated the small window under the eaves with a couple of small American flags. Sometimes, she watched the baby downstairs and shared meals with the others in the house. In February, with three months left on her legal permission to be in the country, she realized that if she could get an educational visa and stay longer, she could earn what she needed to regain custody. She applied to a technical school that she thought would give her a visa, and while waiting to hear back, continued her routine of walking along the beach in the morning, working until midnight, coming home to the attic and watching CNN as a way to practice her English.

That was how she first heard about the coronavirus. Every day brought more stories, and she grew worried, but it wasn't until mid-March, when the virus forced her restaurant to close, that it became clear that the pandemic threatened everything she had been working to achieve.

With no income, her savings began shrinking. When her visa application hit a snag, she could not get anyone on the phone to help sort it out. When the couple who held the lease told the man with nowhere to stay that he could temporarily rent the attic closet for $300 a month, she moved her clothes out to make room for him. And when it became clear he wouldn't be leaving soon, she did not complain, because her options in life had now become no job, no income and nowhere to go except the attic, where she was now folding her clothes into a suitcase and laughing at the things she had brought to the United States a year before, a time when she was filled with so many expectations. "I didn't have a clue what to pack, so I brought my nicest clothes," she said, looking at the dress she had worn to her college graduation.

She closed the suitcase. The house rattled as a train passed and she looked out the window toward the nearby station. She unwrapped a fresh piece of chewing gum, which she was increasingly depending on to fight off hunger pangs that had been building since she lost her job. She noticed her passport and picked it up, flipping to her U.S. visa with its illustration of the Lincoln Memorial.

"When I first saw it, I thought it looked like money," she said.

Sixteen hours until it expired.

"When you get a chance like this, you have to take it. And I almost made it work," she said.

Through the wall came a wheezing sound. The man in the closet apparently was staying home from work for the day. He had introduced himself as Chucho when he moved in, and that was all Tatiana knew about him. Mostly he stayed in the windowless closet, which was just big enough for a piece of foam to sleep on. Sometimes he left the door open and Tatiana could see him in there, a shadow sitting on the mattress beneath the rod where her clothing had hung. Usually the door was shut and she knew he was in there only by the sounds coming through the wall. "Coughing," she said of what she had been hearing lately. And now wheezing.

- - -

More sounds as the morning passed.

"Shut up! Shut up!" Tatiana heard through the floor. It was coming from the bedroom below, where the baby's mother was talking on speakerphone to someone whose voice Tatiana could not make out.

"Shut up!" Tatiana heard again.

And then she heard the baby start to cry and the mother cooing, "What, baby? What?"

A week before, the mother and baby had both developed fevers. Because her husband was at work, the mother had asked Pablo to pick up medicine. He was home that day from his temporary job on a construction crew and had been happy to help, in part because he and Tatiana had not paid their share of the rent for more than a month. New Jersey had adopted an eviction ban, but their situation still felt precarious. The medicine had not seemed to work, though. A few days later, the mother was complaining of chills and a bad sore throat. She withdrew into her bedroom, and Tatiana and Pablo withdrew to the attic, promising each other that they would be disciplined about keeping their distance from the others in the house, who were still going to work and inviting people over.

"They're just not careful," Tatiana said to Pablo.

"It would be nice to be able to go down and cook, though," Pablo said.

He mentioned that the restaurant owner had called and said he was hoping to reopen in a month. "Possibly," Pablo said. "If it wasn't for all this, we'd be working seven days a week right now. We'd be going for a little night swim when we got off. How nice would that be?"

Through the wall, they could hear the man in the closet talking with his wife back in Mexico.

"And the baby with that fever," Tatiana said. "Did you hear her crying in the middle of the night?"

Pablo said he had, and then he fell silent and showed Tatiana his phone. The baby's father was texting him from downstairs, asking why they were talking about his family. Tatiana and Pablo exchanged a look, and Pablo turned up the volume on the TV.

Sometimes the attic could seem even smaller than it was. That day, Tatiana had felt desperate for space, so she'd left the house on her own for the first time since the restaurant had closed. She walked over the train tracks and kept walking past blocks of three-story mansions with wraparound porches, past bookstores and boutiques and art galleries with rainbow flags, until she reached the beach. She'd stood with her feet in the sparkling water, wearing disposable gloves from the restaurant and a painter's mask even though there was no one around, and spread her arms wide, enjoying the feel of the warm breeze. Then she stopped by the restaurant and cupped her hands around her eyes to peer through a window. She wanted to see the framed magazine article about Pablo's career as a chef and a newspaper clipping describing the restaurant as the most beautiful in Asbury Park.

A few days later, she'd gone back to the beach again, this time with a friend named Yesenia Sarria. Together, they walked along the miles-long waterfront, collecting smooth white rocks to decorate their rented rooms as they vented to each other about the rising tensions in their houses.

Tatiana showed her friend the text messages the baby's mother had sent her after her husband's message to Pablo. "Keep your head up. Know I always love you," the mother had written. "Me too," Tatiana had written back. But she still felt self-conscious about having missed rent.

"Morally, you feel bad when you know you haven't paid your share," she said. "I'm not used to being that person."

Yesenia nodded. She was also struggling to make rent without access to unemployment or stimulus benefits. "It's so uncomfortable," she said.

Tatiana wondered aloud whether she would have been better off returning to Colombia, where at least she could visit her children, prompting Yesenia to reassure her that she was doing the right thing by staying. Yesenia reminded her how amazed she'd been when Tatiana managed to get a visa.

"That's not an easy thing, to get to the U.S.," Yesenia said. "You have to try, because you've been given everything. Everyone in Colombia wants the American Dream."

They looked up and down the empty beach. Tatiana remembered how scared she had been when she first came.

"People always said there was lots of drug addiction here," she said.

"And crazy people, like in the movies," Yesenia said.

"But then you get here and it's just normal. Beautiful," Tatiana said.

Now, back in her room, the mother quiet, the baby quiet, the man in the closet quiet, she wondered whether she would still want to walk on the beach once tomorrow came. Would it feel too risky without legal status? She remembered the two policemen she had seen posted at the boardwalk entrance, there to monitor social distancing.

Perhaps there was still time to figure out a solution. Tatiana made a video call to her mother in Colombia and listened to the phone ring. "I am calling, and you don't answer me," she sang aloud to herself as the phone kept ringing, then she stopped, realizing her voice was carrying through thin walls and floorboards.

She dialed again, and this time her mother picked up. "And how are you?" she asked Tatiana.

"Good. Here at home," Tatiana said, mentioning nothing else about what home had become.

Her 6-year-old, Elah, was visiting and grabbed the phone. "Hi, Mommy. Where are you?"

"I'm here at home, my love," Tatiana said. "How are you? How did you sleep?"

Elah swung the phone around, showing a blur of a neat house. She told Tatiana she was doing her homework, making sure to wash her hands carefully and making plans for when Tatiana came back. "I'll hug you and ask you what presents you brought me," she said.

Tatiana felt like crying when she hung up. "It'll probably be two years now before I see them again. That's what I tell myself, anyway," she said. "I don't think I could take more." If only the educational visa had worked out, she said. If the offices she called again and again had not been closed because of the virus, or if the person who did answer by chance one time had been able to speak Spanish, she could have gone back to visit, but once tomorrow came, she would have to stay until she was ready to leave the United States for good, or until she was deported.

"Better not to think about it and just focus on right now," she said. But then on impulse, she decided to see whether she had enough money to fly back that day. Sitting on her bed, she looked up the website for Colombia's largest airline. "Wow," she said.

Because of the pandemic, the company had filed for bankruptcy the day before.

"No more flights."

She shuddered and grabbed her stomach, which suddenly hurt.

"Butterflies," she said.

- - -

There was a rich, savory smell coming into the room. Someone was in the kitchen cooking. It was midafternoon, and Tatiana realized she hadn't eaten all day.

She waited again until it was quiet before going downstairs and was surprised when she ran into the young man who lived in the bedroom with his uncle. He was by himself, drinking a beer, leaning against a wall. Tatiana knew that he and the uncle had both fallen sick in the past few days. He had a feverish look, shiny-eyed and sweaty.

The little house was getting sicker and sicker. She tried to keep her distance from the nephew as she spooned out cold rice from a container. Before the pandemic, she had been on a health kick, eating egg-white omelets and tacos wrapped in lettuce instead of tortillas. These days, when they could afford groceries, she and Pablo bought rice and beans. The restaurant had let them take home some produce when it shut down, and she was surveying what remained - one last tomato, an onion, a single apple - when the nephew came up behind her. She tensed. He reached over her to get something in a cabinet, bumping her shoulder.

She ate the rice in her room, door closed, TV on, waiting for Pablo to come home. When a familiar commercial came on, she sang along with the jingle. "Liberty, liberty, liberty!" she sang. "Liberty." It was one of the ways she practiced English, a complement to the lessons she had been taking twice a week through a community center.

The virus had changed those, too. They were online now as video chats, but she had kept up with them faithfully, even the one a few days earlier that had started just after her ex-husband had called her from Colombia, berating her for falling behind on her remittances to the children.

"I thought you went to that country to make money," he had said.

"No one knew this was going to happen," she told him, trying to calm him down like she used to when they were together.

"You abandoned us," he told her before hanging up.

After the call, Tatiana hugged her knees to her chest and cried and decided she would transfer the last of her savings to Colombia that afternoon. "And then there will be nothing left," she said. She wanted to splash water on her face before joining the class but didn't want to risk going downstairs, so her eyes were still red when she signed on, red enough that another student noticed and asked whether she was OK.

"I need to work. My visa is about to -" she said, and made a throat-slitting gesture, mindful of the thin walls.

The class was about to begin. Other students were signing on from their own cramped bedrooms. One was in the back seat of a car. Quickly, Carlos mentioned that he worked as a maintenance man in a nursing home and that because of the pandemic, there were openings.

"But I don't have papers," Tatiana said.

"Right now, I don't know if you need papers," Carlos said. "We need workers. The manager for housekeeping? Coronavirus. The manager for the kitchen? Coronavirus. The manager for marketing? Coronavirus. Residents? Maybe 15 with coronavirus. Three or four pass away. More in the hospital. Me? No coronavirus yet. Or maybe, coronavirus, no symptoms."

Think about it, he said as the teacher appeared, and Tatiana was thinking about the chance for a work permit, or at least the ability to pay rent, as the teacher said to the class that the day's lesson would be about making purchases. "Let's practice the pronunciation of some words," she said.

"Please repeat: 'merch-an-dise.' "

"Merch-an-dise," Tatiana said, and then she sent Carlos her phone number, to be put in touch with his manager.

Now, as she sat on the bed, still waiting for Pablo to come home, door still closed, TV back off, her phone rang, but it was Carlos, not the manager. It turned out she did need papers after all.

"Thanks anyway for trying," she said.

She hung up and saw a message from someone who had been trying to help her sort out her visa problems: Yes, the government had received her request, but with everything on hold because of the pandemic, it was not going to be able to process a visa adjustment in time. In other words, her visa would be canceled the moment she overstayed, and if she was caught by law enforcement, she'd be deported and banned from coming back to the United States.

"Just telling you so that you know," the woman had written.

It wasn't a surprise, but it had been a last bit of hope, and with that gone now, Tatiana began going through the calculations of what her life was about to become. How would she pay taxes when she was undocumented? How would she be able to get a driver's license? "It's a whole world I don't understand," she said. She shivered and put on a sweatshirt. One thing she did know was that she could not use any kind of public service because of a Trump administration rule from February that blocked immigrants who used state benefits from getting visas and green cards. It was one reason the others in the house hadn't gone to the hospital to get their symptoms checked, and why she wouldn't go either, if it came to that.

"I can't get sick now," she said.

Sundown - and here came Pablo. She could hear him coming up the narrow steps. The door opened. He was smiling his shy smile and carrying a spray of blue flowers from the garden of the house he was working on. She made him dinner and set the flowers in a water glass by the TV, near the smooth stones from her beach walk. They turned off the lights. They watched some movies. They heard the man in the closet wheezing. They heard the baby crying. "I guess you're stuck with me now," she said to Pablo at one point. Eventually they stopped talking and fell asleep, and when she awoke, she was in the country illegally.

- - -

She listened in the dark to the house. It was quiet. She went downstairs to the kitchen. No one was there. She grabbed the last apple, which she had been saving as a treat for Pablo, and took it up to the attic.

"Where did you get this?" he asked when he woke up and saw it.

"I've been saving it for you," she said.

She packed it for him to take to work, and as he pulled on his construction boots, he mentioned that he was feeling achy.

She watched him finish getting dressed. Even if he was getting sick, they decided, he should go to work because they needed the money. Yesterday, she had watched him leave from the front porch. Now she said goodbye in the attic, closing the door when he left and looking around in silence at the place where her year in the United States had brought her.

Clothes in a suitcase. A fistful of flowers already starting to wilt. A view out a window of a street, in a city, in a country that yesterday was feeling normal and beautiful and today was feeling forbidding.

This was her life now, and as the morning passed, and the baby downstairs was once again crying and the man in the closet was once again stirring, she wondered what she could do with such a life, right up until it was time for her English class.

She decided to dial in. Just because. Just in case.

"Please repeat after me," the teacher was saying. "Bar-be-cue."

"Bar-be-cue," Tatiana said.

"Pic-nic," the teacher said.

"Pic-nic," Tatiana said.

Her voice sounded raspy. She got up to make sure the window was closed.

"I can't wait," the teacher said.

"I can't wait," Tatiana said, alone now, a woman in an attic.

Her palms were clammy. Her throat hurt. She felt her forehead and wondered if she had a fever coming on.

"Looking forward to it," said the teacher.

"Looking forward to it," repeated Tatiana.

Trump led month of distractions and grievances

By Robert Costa, et al.
Trump led month of distractions and grievances
A bug flies by the mouth of President Donald Trump during a news conference May 15, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic climbed toward the bleak milestone of 100,000 and nearly one-sixth of the nation's workers were unemployed, President Donald Trump's mind on May 18 was elsewhere. He welcomed two of his 2016 political soldiers, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, to the White House for a nostalgia tour reminiscing about how he had vanquished Hillary Clinton.

When Trump did address public health issues that day, he alarmed officials by saying he had been taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic - despite his own administration's warning that doing so could cause severe heart problems.

A day later, when Trump journeyed to the Capitol for the first time during the pandemic, he again allowed his personal concerns to eclipse the crisis engulfing the nation. Over lunch with Republican senators, Trump complained about "criminal" Democrats who had "unmasked my children." He accused his political opponents of "treason." He implored his party to "stick together" and "be tough." And he turned the floor over to his new White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, to deliver a campaign polling presentation aimed at persuading the lawmakers that the president was more popular than public surveys had indicated.

To some of the senators, Trump seemed obsessed not with saving lives but with appearing politically strong. Several privately concluded he was incapable of meeting the moment. But resigned to their belief that his conduct could not be changed, they did not share their unease with Trump or with the public. The following week, the number of dead passed 100,000 and the number of Americans filing for jobless claims went past 40 million.

Those two days in May encapsulate how Trump spent the fifth month of the coronavirus crisis: increasingly shaken by a pandemic he could not control; offering no more than fleeting expressions of grief or empathy; quick to assign blame to others; enraged by grievances and feuds; dismissive of health guidelines; and concerned, above all, about his diminished reelection prospects.

Facing in the virus an enemy he could not tweet into submission, Trump was desperate to change the subject. He fomented distractions by advancing baseless charges, from his "Obamagate" claim of a conspiracy by former president Barack Obama and others to sabotage his presidency to unproven allegations of widespread voter fraud from mail-in ballots to reviving a debunked accusation about the death of a former staffer to then-Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla.

And by month's end, Trump stoked racial tensions over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis by tweeting comments so incendiary that Twitter flagged them as violating the platform's rule against glorifying violence.

"He's been over coronavirus for a long time," said one veteran Trump adviser who described the president as focused instead on his desire to have "a fistfight" with former vice president Joe Biden, his presumptive Democratic opponent.

This report documenting Trump's month of diversion is based on interviews with 57 administration officials, outside advisers and experts with detailed knowledge of the White House's handling of the pandemic. Many of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount internal discussions or share candid assessments without risk of retribution.

White House officials defended Trump's leadership, pointing to the expansion of testing, progress in vaccine development, and procurement of ventilators, protective equipment and other needed supplies.

"This great country has been faced with an unprecedented crisis," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement. "And while the Democrats, do-nothing pundits, and the media shamelessly try and destroy this President with a coordinated, relentless, biased political assault, President Trump has focused in on the pandemic and risen to fight it head-on by taking aggressive historic action to protect the health and well-being of the American people."

Trump allies also noted that the average number of daily deaths from the coronavirus plateaued and began to fall during the month, providing further evidence that the administration's mitigation efforts were effective.

But critics inside and outside the government see May as another lost month in the administration's attempts to contain the coronavirus. Trump grew more adrift than ever from governors and health officials, and he was defiant and flippant as he encouraged Americans to resume normal routines, even when doing so violated his own administration's public safety guidelines. He stoked a still-simmering culture war by refusing to wear a face mask in front of cameras, and mocked those who did for being politically correct.

Meanwhile, officials at the state and federal level kept warning of more outbreaks in areas with relaxed guidelines and of a possible fall surge that could lead tens of thousands more Americans to die. Cash-strapped states have strained to build effective contact tracing and testing systems to keep pace with businesses reopening, and to prepare for a second wave. Trump's claim of a vaccine coming at "warp speed" remains by all accounts an ambition rather than a reality.

Trump's shifting approach in May had tangible consequences. The White House's coronavirus task force, which Trump toyed with disbanding in early May, is now mostly idle and has scaled back meetings to once a week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention became increasingly isolated from the rest of the government, trashed privately by the president and ostracized by the White House. The government's top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, was largely kept out of the spotlight.

Despite leading other countries in total tests, the United States is still far short of the minimum of 1 million tests per day that experts say is needed to send people back to work safely. The administration submitted a legally required national testing plan to Congress on May 24, and it placed the onus largely on states to secure supplies and resources needed to test its residents on a large scale. Although officials had hoped to launch a national serology testing strategy by the end of May, the tests so far have proven too unreliable to be broadly used.

"What we have is a completely disjointed national response," said retired rear admiral Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist who led the National Security Council's biodefense and health security office in the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. "We have to open the economy, but there seems to be no central leadership on that."

"I don't understand how someone can take the responsibility of being leader of the most powerful nation in the world and then decide, 'Nah, that's not really my responsibility anymore, we'll leave that to other people and I have other things I'd rather do,' " Bernard added.

Trump's tolerance for bad news seemed to dissipate in May - and as the headlines worsened, he expanded his efforts to cast blame elsewhere, including to China, where the virus was believed to have originated. The president and some of his top administration officials also faulted the CDC for what they describe as an abdication of leadership and for not "getting their act together," in the words of one of these officials.

"He's never at fault for anything. It's Fauci's fault. It's China's fault. It's Obama's fault. It's always someone else, somewhere else," said David Lapan, a former Department of Homeland Security official in the Trump administration. "He doesn't want to hear the bad news, he doesn't take responsibility for the bad news and wants to gloss over it and change the subject. That does a disservice to the American public, who need the facts and the straight truth about what's going on."

For Trump, what occurred throughout May were not his customary cycles of rage. The president made a deliberate choice to try to divert the public's attention from bleak headlines on health and the economy toward a series of unrelated controversies in hopes that scrutiny of the failures of his administration would fade into the background, according to people familiar with his approach.

Another cost of Trump's distractions and volatility was cohesion inside the West Wing. Aides moved gingerly in and out of the Oval Office, wary of provoking their boss, who surrounded himself with loyalists who praised him and reminded him of his 2016 victory. When White House counsel Pat Cipollone resisted the president's wish to sue CNN over its news coverage, Trump lashed out at the lawyer. McEnany's fiery confrontations with reporters at White House briefings - including one in which she claimed reporters "desperately" want to see churches closed - appeared choreographed to win approval from the "audience of one," but were knocked by some White House officials as unhelpful and even offensively provocative.

Aides felt powerless to do more than nudge the president from time to time. So Trump carried on, lighting political fires and barreling ahead without a clear plan to revive the economy or to keep more Americans from dying.

On Wednesday - the day the U.S. death toll surpassed 100,000 - Trump veered from disregarding the pleas of a widower to again unleash a barrage of dark innuendo about Scarborough and threatened to shut down Twitter. He flew with his family to Florida to witness a space shuttle launch, only for it to be scrubbed 17 minutes before liftoff due to stormy skies. Night fell without the president acknowledging the number of dead, other than a statement in the name of deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere saying Trump was grieving.

"He didn't want to talk about the number. He just didn't want to hear the number," said another longtime Trump confidant. "You know how presidents usually don't go to space launches because there is such a risk of something going wrong? Well, he took the risk. Anything was better than talking about that number."

Trump registered his grief the next morning with a tweet about the "very sad milestone."

- - -

As many states started lifting restrictions allowing businesses to reopen on May 1, Trump decided to mark the occasion in signature fashion. He had defined his role during the pandemic as "a cheerleader for the country," so he figured what better stage on which to perform his cheers than the Lincoln Memorial, and what better format than a prime time Fox News Channel virtual town hall.

On the first Sunday evening in May, Trump climbed the memorial's hallowed steps and took a seat at the base of the imposing marble statue of Lincoln, dramatically lit for the evening's production. Under the watchful gaze of the country's 16th president, who had repaired the nation after civil war, Trump looked inward, casting himself as the true victim.

"Look, I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen," Trump said. "The closest would be that gentleman right up there. They always said Lincoln - nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse."

The disorienting scene set the tone for the month to come. The president focused on the crisis through the prism of himself - his image, his popularity, his election prospects. He complained to advisers about particular journalists he believed were out to get him. One of these advisers posited that Trump struggled because a pandemic requires a leader to place his ego secondary to the crisis.

Trump calculated that reopening the economy was paramount, irrespective of the health consequences.

"The coronavirus conversation that had dominated the media for the couple months leading up to this was in large measure not favorable to him," explained a former senior administration official briefed on internal discussions. "So continuing to have the same coronavirus conversations wasn't good for him. . . . He made a decision that the most important thing for him, from a policy basis but also for his reelection, was to push to get the economy humming as quickly and as robustly as possible, and that he would be all-in on that."

Health experts saw a jarring disconnect between Trump's handling of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the urgent calls, including from inside his own government, to stop the spread of the virus to prevent a second wave.

"Some people think, 'Oh, we're going back to how it used to be,' " said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. "If we do that, we're going to have a surge in covid in no time."

May also began with confusion over the discarding of the coronavirus task force in Trump's day-to-day management of the pandemic, even as he insisted that it was not being disbanded. As he toured a Honeywell mask plant in Arizona on May 5, Trump - who wore goggles but no mask, despite signs on the factory floor urging any visitor to do so - told reporters that he was eager to see the task force wind down.

This caught Fauci by surprise. The longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases wondered why he had not been briefed about the disbanding plan and privately asked several senior Trump officials variations of "What's going on here?"

The aides reassured Fauci that Trump was not unhappy with him personally, but wanted more command. "Welcome to Trump World," one of the officials later said of how aides explained Trump's behavior.

Fauci - who is known for citing the "it's not personal, it's strictly business" line from the first "Godfather" film - went about his work. White House officials, however, knew Trump's move was rooted in his aversion to sharing the spotlight, especially with a physician who was being lionized for his clear, factual explanations of the science and health risks.

"The killer for [Fauci] was when Brad Pitt played him on 'Saturday Night Live,' " said another former administration official familiar with the president's views. "Trump really can't stand it when you get bigger and more popular than him. . . . Getting you off TV is the way he brings you down."

Trump ribbed Fauci over his popularity in front of other aides, who said they did not see the president express jealousy or disapproval.

Governors on the front lines were startled. "People out there not only in Virginia but in this country, they need the truth," said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat. "Dr. Fauci, he talks about the science, he talks about data, and he's a straight shooter. And that's what we need right now."

Throughout March and April, a central part of Trump's daily routine was the lengthy, often hour-plus briefings he led with Vice President Mike Pence, Fauci, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and an evolving cast of officials.

Whatever helpful guidance was communicated to the public often was overshadowed by the president's rambling, contentious and at times disjointed performances. White House officials came to regard the briefings as counterproductive - "like a truck stuck with its wheels spinning," in the analogy used by yet another former official.

Trump's advisers reimagined his communications strategy in May, orchestrating themed appearances - such as a Rose Garden announcement on testing or a State Dining Room meeting of restaurant industry leaders - to help him tailor a reopening message. And the task force faded away, with Fauci, Birx and other members making only irregular public appearances with the president.

Agency chiefs shifted their priorities from expanding testing and fortifying the supply chain to the development of therapeutics and a vaccine, including preparations for mass production and distribution of the vaccine once one is found.

Top officials, including at the Food and Drug Administration, began weighing ethical considerations on just how quickly to move on a vaccine. They are establishing protocols for mass distribution, even if there is not enough time to conduct standard safety studies. The stakes are high: If the government moves too quickly and people get sick or die taking the vaccine, it will be blamed for making a rash decision, and if it moves too slowly, it denies people access to a vaccine.

In addition, officials considered whether an eventual vaccine should go first to the most vulnerable citizens, such as older people with comorbidities or living in nursing homes. Similar discussions occurred about grouping the workforce by age and letting younger people return to work first because they are considered to have a lower risk of getting seriously ill from covid-19.

"Perhaps where we didn't see that planning for test availability in February and March, there are promising signs for vaccine development," said Mark McClellan, a former FDA commissioner in the George W. Bush administration. "People are starting to think about these issues now because there is absolutely no time to wait."

These efforts were challenged by political pressures. Moncef Slaoui was appointed the vaccine czar, but a former senior administration official with knowledge of the inner workings of the operation speculated that he would have trouble succeeding because "he spends half the days fielding inquiries" from friends of Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. "All these people are sending their business plans for the cure for coronavirus," the former official said.

- - -

By early May, more than 30 million Americans were out of work, but most remained hopeful. According to a nationwide Washington Post-Ipsos poll at the time, nearly 6 in 10 said it was "very likely" they would get their old jobs back. Businesses, however, remained far less certain, with little direction from Trump about what he would do next.

Clarity was difficult to find inside the West Wing as well. Business executives who were frequent presences around Trump early on during the pandemic lost influence as a cadre of economic conservatives on staff accumulated power - economist Kevin Hassett, Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, known by some in Trump's orbit as "cheerleaders and wingers," a reference to their boosterism of the stock market and right-wing ideologies.

Some business executives named in April with great fanfare by Trump as members of advisory groups were no longer consulted. One prominent Washington lobbyist said that the "business councils are dead" and that it was nearly impossible to get Trump's attention unless "you have a personal relationship with Jared."

Spencer Zwick, a Republican financier who is close to Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, added, "People I know who are involved feel like they're being underutilized. It's like a lot of blue-ribbon-panel-type groups that get put together and business leaders get asked for advice, but it isn't sustained."

Aides to governors in both major political parties said their bosses felt stymied and politely ignored by conservative players in the administration in terms of securing federal financial support. The Trump team, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., emphasized additional tax breaks and resisted pleas from states for billions of dollars in federal aid to support their budgets, which had been battered by collapsing revenue because of the economic shutdown.

Trump had also grown weary of some Democratic governors, such as Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois' J.B. Pritzker, who had rapped him over his leadership in the pandemic and his encouragement of protesters in their states. Several White House aides said Trump's umbrage over those comments made him more inclined to "let them twist in the wind" about additional funds, as one official described his view.

Even New Jersey's Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and one of the rare Democratic governors Trump personally liked, received no guarantees from the president when they met on April 30 - not even after Murphy outlined his state's commitment to fiscal discipline. Trump told Murphy any new funding would be "tough" and left it at that, according to officials close to Trump and Murphy who were familiar with the exchange.

After Trump signed a $2 trillion stimulus package this spring, conservative groups brought additional pressure to shrug off calls from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for additional spending. "We're weighing in heavily, saying, 'Don't spend trillions on Nancy's wish list,' " David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group, said of his engagement with the White House.

A jolt came May 19, when Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testified before Congress that much more stimulus may be needed to revive the economy, and the White House vaguely signaled that it could be open to supporting additional aid for states. But the moment did little to spark negotiations. Trump, who had farmed out past talks to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Pelosi, continued to all but ignore Congress as an available economic tool and turned his attention elsewhere.

While the conservatives at Trump's side were effective in delaying additional spending, they found themselves delicately navigating the president's private rages over his bitterness that the economy he thought would secure him a second term had cratered so suddenly, as well as his public bravado that did not correspond to economic data. Trump predicted a "V-shaped" economic recovery, in which the economy quickly bounces back to its prior state, though most economists forecast a far more gradual recovery.

In an Oval Office meeting in early May, Trump chastised Hassett for using the phrase the "biggest shock since the Great Depression" in a television interview and told him to stop using such dire and dramatic terms, according to two people familiar with the exchange. Hassett has since adopted a more positive tone.

Kudlow said in an interview that he agreed with Trump's prediction of a V-shape recovery, but also hedged his forecast by saying the "V" could come in different forms. "You can have your own V's. There's V's. There are lesser V's," Kudlow said. "There are combos of U's and V's."

Several Trump associates pointed to a May 19 exchange with CBS News correspondent Paula Reid as revealing of Trump's mind-set throughout the month. The president snapped at Reid after she asked, "Mr. President, why haven't you announced a plan to get 36 million unemployed Americans back to work?"

"Oh, I think we've announced a plan. We're opening up our country. Just a rude person you are," Trump said. "We're opening it up very fast."

The next day, the Labor Department reported that 3 million Americans had filed for unemployment insurance over the past week. And on May 27, another 2.1 million were reported to have filed jobless claims, bringing the total during the pandemic to more than 40 million.

- - -

As Trump fixated on his domestic troubles, he retreated from the global stage. A meeting of the World Health Organization in mid-May that in any other pandemic under any other presidency probably would have served as a venue for global cooperation in defeating a common enemy instead was a testament to America's isolation under Trump.

Trump had made a punching bag out of the WHO, accusing the organization of favoritism to the Chinese and of not taking adequate actions early on to stop the spread of the virus to other continents. In a fit of pique, Trump cut off U.S. funding to the organization.

Anthony Scaramucci, a former senior administration official who is now an outspoken Trump critic, said, "What are his political instincts here? I want to distract you from what's going on. I want to deflect away from the reality. And oh, by the way, I want to remind you that the pandemic is not my fault, and it's us against them."

For nearly a century, the United States played a leading role internationally at moments of crisis by lending its considerable resources and knowledge in shared efforts to save lives. But Trump saw little use for international collaboration, leaving a void for China to fill.

Chinese President Xi Jinping piped into the WHO meeting by satellite and committed $2 billion to the organization to combat the coronavirus, a move that exacerbated U.S.-China tensions and established China at the forefront of the world's pandemic response.

"The United States has been kind of AWOL," said William Burns, a career diplomat and former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. "It's not to say that we have all the answers and all the influence, but there is not a disciplined American leadership role like you saw after the global financial crisis and after previous global health challenges."

Trump's blaming of China paired neatly with his campaign strategy to go after Biden over the former vice president's outreach to China as part of the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia."

Trump was influenced on May 15 by two Fox broadcasters, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, who mused about reports that the Trump administration was on the verge of restoring its funding to the WHO. "Top WH Advisors are working for whom exactly?" Dobbs tweeted. "Surely not for our historic President or this great nation."

The next day, during a gathering at Camp David, a group of Republican lawmakers urged Trump to take a hard-line stance against the WHO and keep funds frozen, or cut off entirely, and Trump listened intently.

On May 18, Trump issued a scathing four-page letter to the WHO continuing the freeze and threatening to permanently withdraw U.S. membership if the organization's leadership did not agree to unspecified terms. The move revealed the power of Fox hosts and House Republicans to persuade the president to choose the more adversarial approach.

On Friday, Trump followed through on that threat, announcing from the Rose Garden that he was "terminating" the U.S. membership in the WHO.

- - -

In the early months of the pandemic, the coronavirus felt to Trump like a distant threat. The president said that he was healthy and that everyone around him was healthy. Surely, he must have figured, the virus could not penetrate the secure presidential bubble.

Until May 7. Officials revealed then that one of the president's valets, a military staff member who served meals to Trump and looked after his personal needs, tested positive for the coronavirus. The next day, Pence press secretary Katie Miller also tested positive.

In the tightly configured and cramped West Wing, where the president and his staffers had flouted health safety standards such as social distancing and mask-wearing - sometimes flagrantly so - the twin infections set off a frenzy.

In this moment, Trump's isolation was intensified. Aides took the rare step of closing the door to the outer area of the Oval Office to stop people from lingering. Common areas were cleaned five times a day. Masks were required for anyone other than the president. Meetings with Trump became smaller, and only attended by people who had been tested for the virus that day. And aboard Air Force One, the president told visitors to stay a bit back from his private cabin.

Trump took another precaution as well, one that the public and most of his staff did not learn about until he revealed it about two weeks later. The president said he started taking hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug that Fox News host Laura Ingraham had talked up with him in a private White House meeting in April.

The president knew that the FDA as well as Fauci and other physicians and public health officials had publicly warned of the heart problems it causes in covid-19 patients, but he said he decided to take the drug because "I get a lot of positive calls about it."

"I have taken it for about a week and a half now, and I'm still here," Trump quipped to reporters.

Trump did not give a heads-up to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn about his personal use of the drug, though officials at the agency figured the president was acting out of concern of potential exposure from his valet.

Another way Trump sought to galvanize his political base was by stirring conspiratorial allegations under an umbrella he called "Obamagate," which advisers and friends said was as much an exercise in personal and political release for the president as it was a serious pursuit of justice.

Trump found comfort in vengeful discussions with allies about the Justice Department's move to dismiss criminal charges against his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. And Trump sought without evidence to cast Biden, whom nearly every poll in May showed defeating Trump in swing states and nationally, as a villain and criminal conspirator seeking along with Obama to sabotage his presidency.

When Trump visited the Senate luncheon on May 19, one Republican senator said that the president talked "nonstop" about Flynn-related matters and that the rest of the room was "pretty much silent" or nodding along.

Silence among many Republican lawmakers also greeted Trump's efforts in late May to malign Scarborough - whose critical commentary on his MSNBC show, "Morning Joe," has long infuriated the president - by spreading a baseless conspiracy theory implicating Scarborough in the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a 28-year-old aide in Scarborough's office when he was a Republican member of Congress from Florida.

A senior White House official said of Trump's fixation on Scarborough, "The president always decides on what he wants to focus on and when he wants to focus on it, but it's not at the exclusion of getting his objectives accomplished."

Trump's objective throughout was to position for the November election. His reelection campaign, led by Brad Parscale and guided by Kushner, was a near-constant interest of Trump, who saw himself not only as the candidate but the chief strategist - the conductor of tweets and the sole person who grasped exactly what to do, aides said.

Trump closely tracked polls daily and tested attacks on Biden with friends, while telling advisers that you can "always add 10 points to my polls." He toyed with changing the site of the Republican National Convention from North Carolina, where a Democratic governor declared pandemic restrictions, to a state with a Republican governor who was loyal to him.

But angst and exasperation remained. From time to time, officials said, Trump wondered aloud to aides, "Why am I not beating Joe Biden?"

By late May, in quiet talks with senior aides, Trump asked about whether Parscale was being effective in getting his message across. Lewandowski and Bossie in their meeting with Trump were frank: The campaign is struggling, and your presidency is at risk. They told him to get back to rallies as soon as he can - and Trump agreed with July as his goal for when he can start having major events again.

"The president wants to get out and do what he does best, these rallies," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally.

But Graham said arena shows can only go so far in drawing attention away from the collision of crises facing Trump.

"I think the president knows you're not going to change the subject when you have a virus that has affected our lives in such a dramatic way," he said.

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

Police mistake nationwide protests as demanding more brutality

By alexandra petri
Police mistake nationwide protests as demanding more brutality

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Petri clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Alexandra Petri

WASHINGTON -- Seeming to think that the nationwide protests over police brutality were actually a request for more of it, police around the country arrived at peaceful demonstrations Monday night clad in riot gear and bristling with shields, pepper spray and flash-bang grenade launchers. They fired tear gas into a crowd of protesters peacefully assembled outside the White House. They kettled more protesters in a small residential street elsewhere in Washington D.C. and sprayed them with tear gas before residents offered them shelter. They continued dispensing gas and flash grenades, and the president cheered them on.

Seeming to think that the crowds pleading for police accountability were clamoring for the streets of American cities to be treated as a "battlespace" (Defense Secretary Mark Esper's words), law enforcement hovered helicopters low over the streets of downtown Washington, kicking up enormous gusts to get people to disperse. The president demanded that governors "dominate," and volunteered to send in the military if they did not live up to his standards, as though this was what the people were pleading for.

And this followed a week in which police officers throughout the country must have been similarly bewildered by what protests against their abuses were seeking to point out; they responded to the gatherings by releasing tear gas, firing pepper balls and rubber bullets at journalists, and handcuffing black store owners flagging them down for help. Seemingly baffled why the German foreign minister would call the protests "understandable" and "more than legitimate," police in Washington struck a reporter and a cameraman with a baton and a shield, police in Brooklyn drove an SUV into a crowd, and police in Salt Lake City pushed over a man with a cane. Laboring under the misapprehension that they were serving and protecting someone, they pulled down the mask of and pepper-sprayed a man protesting with his hands up.

Unable to comprehend what the crowds of people clearly demanding accountability after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a miserable litany of others could possibly be demanding, police officers in Louisville fired into a crowd and killed barbecue restaurant owner David McAtee.

How monstrous they will feel when they realize what people were complaining about!

Imagine how hideous they will seem to themselves when they realize people were asking for them to stop.

And if they are not confused, I would hate to think what they were doing.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

America's racial problems are not as simple as black and white

By ruben navarrette jr.
America's racial problems are not as simple as black and white

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Navarrette clients only)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

(c) 2020, The Washington Post

SAN DIEGO - America's racial hang-up is black and white. And, as a Latino, I've never been more grateful to not belong to either group.

Because I'm neither black nor white, I see things clearly. I don't play favorites. Both groups are whacked.

I want everyone held accountable for their actions - from police officers who abuse their authority to vandals who loot and destroy.

And I see racism in all forms - whether it's coming from white conservatives who expect people of color to put up with so much, or from white liberals who have come to expect so little from them.

White conservatives essentially tell black people: You can stand near me, just don't get angry, violent or destructive. White liberals tell them: You can get angry, violent and destructive, just don't do it near me.

As long as protesters are rioting, looting and setting fires in black neighborhoods, city officials in Democratic cities like Los Angeles let the mayhem run its course. But the minute that protesters cross the freeway and break into the Gucci store on pricey Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, those same officials call out the National Guard.

Once more, America has descended into madness. This black-and-white movie has played before - in Watts 1965, Miami 1980, Crown Heights (New York) 1991, Los Angeles 1992. We know how it ends. There will be spilled blood, mutual distrust and hurt feelings but no solution.

Yet, at the same time, so much of what we're going through feels like uncharted territory. People have never been this angry, or this divided, since the Civil War. Everyone, it seems, hates everyone.

One minute, we're told by media liberals and do-gooder Democratic politicians that the riots and looting are understandable expressions of rage over centuries of African Americans being mistreated - and then being made to feel as if they're crazy and imagining the whole thing.

The next minute, a Seattle television station airs footage of a young white woman exiting a closed Cheesecake Factory that has been looted. She is holding an unboxed medium-sized cheesecake topped with strawberries in one hand and a champagne flute in the other.

What historical grievance does this woman have, I wonder. Or maybe she just has guests coming for brunch, and she needs dessert.

Much of the outrage that African Americans feel over the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd by four former officers of the Minneapolis Police Department has been hijacked by young white kids who use the wheels of skateboards to break windows.

Of course, white people are opportunistically appropriating the outrage of black America. That's not new. For generations, white folks have shamelessly co-opted black folks' music, fashion, food.

But that's not the whole story. Bored young people from the suburbs - some of them home from college because of COVID-19 - are going to the downtown areas of major cities to wreak havoc and break things.

These aren't thugs. They're punks. And they're angry. They've been angry for more than 20 years, dating back to the protests in Seattle in 1999 over the World Trade Organization. Interestingly enough, they don't seem angry at police - except when police get in their way.

They're angry at corporations - particularly the companies they've grown up with. Why else would they shatter the windows of so many Starbucks shops? To get inside and steal coffee?

Wrong. Look at the companies whose offices and stores have been attacked. CNN. Apple. Chase Bank. The more familiar a brand is to young people, the more of a target it becomes. Google, watch your back.

This mysterious "white rage" - which is especially loud and violent, among young men -- has been there, and we've turned a blind eye.

On Twitter, there are videos of black people pleading with white kids to not destroy stores in black neighborhoods. The kids ignore them.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, someone fired a shot into the federal building and killed a law enforcement officer. The dead officer - 53-year-old Patrick Underwood - was black.

To understand race in America, take a crayon box and empty out all the colors except for two. Just as it has been for 400 years, America's dominant racial paradigm is still black and white.

Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Latinos, we all accept that as a fact of life. Some might think that ONW's (other non-whites) want to horn in on that racial dynamic to get our share of attention.

No thanks. You can have it. These crayons are poison.

---

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

Trump's vain attempt to outsource strongman rule to the military

By david ignatius
Trump's vain attempt to outsource strongman rule to the military

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

(Advance for release Wednesday, June 3, 2020, and thereafter)

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By DAVID IGNATIUS

(c) 2020, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON-Military leaders don't like using troops for domestic purposes. It violates every rule they're taught. You could see that wariness in the face of Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, on Monday night after President Trump told governors that he'd just put Milley "in charge" of cracking down on protestors.

Following Trump's exhortation to the governors to "dominate" those in the streets, Trump walked across Lafayette Square to St. John's Episcopal Church, where he was photographed holding a Bible in an area that had just been cleared by police. Milley wasn't in the group picture. Like previous chairmen, he tries to keep the military out of such photo opportunities.

Then Milley did something unusual, which ought to reassure a nation whose nerves are badly frayed by a season of pandemic, police brutality and sometimes violent protest. In the lowering dusk, dressed in a baggy camouflage uniform, Milley separated himself from the president's entourage to talk with some of the National Guard troops here. A television reporter asked what he would say to the demonstrators.

"Everybody's got a right to protest," Milley answered. "The First Amendment is sacrosanct. It's a right of the American people to protest. But protest peacefully." Amen to that.

Milley is a throwback to an earlier age of military leadership. He's a beefy, sharp-tongued commander who looks more like a gruff master sergeant than a buffed four-star general. As the president's chief military adviser, he has the delicate task of telling Trump things he doesn't want to hear, especially now, in a moment of turmoil and division.

The chairman's advice this past week has been that, despite the fires raging in some cities, the situation doesn't warrant federalizing the use of military force, according to several of Milley's associates. Instead, Milley has argued, governors should continue to oversee the use of the national guard troops, where necessary.

"Gen. Milley is caught in a very difficult spot," argues Jeffrey H. Smith, a West Point graduate who served as CIA general counsel. "If he stands up for what has been engrained in him since he was commissioned, he risks being fired." Hopefully, it won't come to that. But Milley's oath was to uphold the constitution, and he's not a man who would carry out illegal or improper orders.

Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, is the person who should check Trump's desire to militarize the response to protests. But Esper's response has been low-key and, at least in public, deferential to the president.

Esper's comments to the governors in Monday afternoon's conference call seemed almost as inflammatory as Trump's. After Trump had said of the protestors and looters, "These are terrorists. They're looking to do bad things to our country," Esper said: "We need to dominate the battlespace."

You could almost hear the groans of dismay from the corridors of the Pentagon. People in uniform want the defense secretary to protect the military from being drawn into political free-fire zones, not encourage it.

A senior Pentagon official said that Esper, like Milley, hopes to avoid calling out the troops. "We have the resources - local and national law enforcement and national guard, to restore peace in these communities, without having to use active-duty forces. At this time, it's not necessary," the official said.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R.-S.C., is a close confidant of Trump's, but he's also a longtime lawyer in the Air Force reserves who understands the military's skittishness about domestic conflict. He explained in an interview Tuesday: "It's in our DNA as a nation not to use the military for domestic purposes until we absolutely have to. ... Countries that use their militaries for domestic law and order, those militaries are seen by the public as more an enemy than a friend."

The military should be deployed under the Insurrection Act of 1807 only as a "last resort," Graham said. "The best way to avoid that is to get control of the situation" using the authority of state governors.

America has been living a fever dream these last months. The pandemic has threatened our social cohesion, as well as our bodies. The brutality of George Floyd's killing has shocked the consciences of citizens, black and white. And now our cities are burning, as people express their rage and frustration.

It may not feel that way, but America isn't as hapless or pitiful as it sometimes seems these days. One reason why is the power and professionalism of our armed forces. The military is a precious asset that can't be squandered in a misguided effort to "dominate" public protest.

Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

A spiraling nation cries out for steady leadership. Trump offers empty threats.

By dana milbank
A spiraling nation cries out for steady leadership. Trump offers empty threats.

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Milbank clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON -- President Trump says he'd send in the troops to fight American citizens on U.S. soil over the objections of governors.

When pigs fly.

He says he'll shut down Twitter.

When hell freezes over.

He says he will bring the unrest to an immediate end.

On the 12th of Never.

He says he'll withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization.

When the sun rises in the west.

He says he'll label antifa a terrorist organization.

When fish climb poplar trees.

He says he'll force states to reopen, or to close.

When the hen grows teeth, the frog grows hair and the crawfish whistles on the mountain.

This has always been a presidency of empty threats. But as the country spirals into ever lower depths of disaster -- health crisis, economic collapse, racial strife, violence in the streets -- Trump's trademark combination of tough talk and woefully ineffective action has become his standard M.O.

Americans are crying out for a steady hand, not the gassing of peaceful demonstrators so a Bible-waving president can stage a churchyard photo op. All Trump offers in answer to the nation's epic calamities are bluster and weakness. What problems he doesn't cause he makes worse.

"Preening" is how his presumptive opponent, Joe Biden, accurately described him Tuesday. Preening and impotently bullying while the nation reels.

Withdrawing the United States from the WHO? He hasn't met the legal standards, which require him to wait a year, among other things.

Labeling antifa a terrorist organization? No law allows for a domestic organization to be so designated.

Asserting the "absolute authority" to force states to open commerce (and churches) during the pandemic? No such power exists.

Calling expanded voting by mail "illegal" and threatening to withhold federal funds if states do it? States run elections, not presidents.

Shutting down Twitter because it pointed out he was factually inaccurate? Overruling state governors and sending in U.S. troops to police U.S. citizens on U.S. soil?

Believe it when you see it.

But first he'll have to make good on his threat to pull the Republican convention from North Carolina. The deadline for his decision is Wednesday.

Maybe he'll make good on his threat; occasionally he does. Based on his history, the far likelier outcome is he'll do nothing. He threatened a quarantine on the New York metropolitan area, then backed down. He threatened to adjourn Congress, then retreated. He threatened to cut off "ungrateful" governors; he didn't. He threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act; nobody's quite sure what he did.

As The Washington Post's JM Rieger pointed out a year ago, Trump had by that time made at least 32 threats for which he wound up with little or nothing to show, including: placing tariffs on certain Mexican, Chinese and European goods, closing the border with Mexico, demanding General Motors open a new plant in Ohio, taking away NBC's broadcast license, changing tax law for the NFL, withdrawing from NAFTA and NATO, pulling troops out of Syria and South Korea, boycotting AT&T, cutting fire aid for California and ending foreign aid.

And before all that, Politico's Jack Shafer reminds us, Trump directed Michael Cohen to make at least 500 threats to businesses and journalists over 10 years, according to his convicted former lawyer's congressional testimony.

Friends and foes alike have learned that his threats are hollow. When Trump in 2018 threatened Iran with "CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED," the Iranian president said there was no need to respond to "empty threats." North Korea continues its nuclear program without Trump's threatened "fire and fury." During trade negotiations, Trump said a deal with China was contingent on respecting Hong Kong's status. China made the trade deal and is now quashing Hong Kong's autonomy.

When Trump declared that "American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China," nobody paid him much mind. And when Trump said he has "the absolute right" to send illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities and "we hereby demand" that they be taken in, states and cities ignored him, and nothing came of it.

He seems to derive satisfaction from verbally asserting his unlimited authority rather than actually using his limited authority. He claimed the "absolute authority" to overrule governors on stay-at-home orders, to interfere in criminal proceedings for cronies, to close the southern border, to fire Robert Mueller and to end, by executive fiat, the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship. He didn't do any of it.

"And yes," he said, "I do have an absolute right to pardon myself."

Sure he does. The question is whether his countrymen will pardon him for his failure during this hour of need. When we most need strong and steady, he has given us weak and mouthy.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Nightmare on Main Street

By kathleen parker
Nightmare on Main Street

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, June 3, 2020, and thereafter)

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By KATHLEEN PARKER

(c) 2020, The Washington Post

(BEG ITAL) You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know. (END ITAL) - William Wilberforce

WASHINGTON -- Everyone has had some version of this nightmare: You forget to study for an exam or write a paper that's due in the morning -- or, you are running from a monster in hideous pursuit, and you keep falling down.

Relief comes upon waking and realizing that it was all just a bad dream. You are long past the days of term papers and tests and monsters, everyone knows, aren't real.

Except when they are. We hear the words of Stephen King: "Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win."

Now we wake, if we sleep at all, and the nightmare is real -- and the monsters have names.

We don't have to second-guess what happened to George Floyd. We saw the video and recoiled in horror. Nor do we have to deploy euphemisms or dodgy words like "apparently" or "allegedly" to recount how Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nine minutes, cutting off blood and oxygen as the prone and cuffed man begged for air and his life.

Chauvin, charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, is surely the loneliest man on the planet. How does he sleep at night? I try to imagine what he thinks about in those dark hours when the wolf closes in, sniffing the hollowness at the threshold of his cell. Does he replay those nine minutes trying to understand why he did what he did? Does he even care?

From the video, it's easy to see that Chauvin not only kept his knee in place despite outraged pleas from onlookers; he pressed his full-body weight into Floyd's neck. Why didn't the other three officers stop this horror? What fear or evil allowed them to look away? Why didn't the people taking video compel Chauvin or his brethren to stop? That's impunity, incarnate.

The minds of monsters are hard to read. They are not like us. Monsters are without qualms, hesitations, empathy or remorse. Certitude animates the beast; power feeds its lust for more.

So it has been throughout history, including our own. When we say we can't believe this is happening in the United States of America, we ignore our past, which, the great writer William Faulkner reminded us, is "not even past." From genocide and slavery to Jim Crow, lynchings and the bloody beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the breath-shunting knee to George Floyd's throat - mayhem is part of our legacy. Eventually, the boil created by centuries of torture, oppression and hatred - and routinely ignored and explained away - must burst again and again.

History suggests that both sides overplay weak hands, and some of that is happening here. We can't let Floyd's death be in vain, goes the refrain. True enough, but what does it mean if, as Atlanta-born rapper Killer Mike tearfully implored, we burn our own houses to the ground? The absurdity of rioters destroying public property was clarified with graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial.

By the same measure, President Trump's vow to use the military against U.S. citizens, if realized, will only pour kerosene on the flames. His awkward pose with a Bible in front of a church after dispersing peaceful demonstrators with tear gas makes Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry seem like Moses.

If I may take a moment?

Four years ago, I wrote on Election eve that we'd survive no matter who won. It wasn't an endorsement of either candidate but was an exercise in optimism based on my faith in our institutions and our system of checks and balances. Trump, whom I'd previously described as a hot-air buffoon surely wouldn't keep his tyrannical campaign promises, I declaimed.

How wrong I was. Our Democratic Republic was always an experiment without guarantees or necessarily an expectation of its success. "A Republic, if you can keep it," Benjamin Franklin once quipped. Today, as anarchists infiltrate peaceful demonstrators and wreak havoc from sea-to-sea, the joists of our foundations are being tested.

George Floyd surely never wanted to be a martyr. But, perhaps, he can rest in peace if his unjustified and unmerciful death prompts Americans to reflect and march peacefully across the Pettus Bridge of our collective memory to cast our ballots. The monsters in this nightmare are real, sure enough. But we know their names.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Two Americas get opposite police treatments

By catherine rampell
Two Americas get opposite police treatments

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Catherine Rampell

There are two Americas.

There's the America where people can storm a statehouse with long guns, threaten elected officials, scream into the faces of cops and still walk away unscathed. And then there's the America where citizens can march peacefully, or stand watching from their own front porches, and get sprayed with rubber bullets and paint projectiles. All while cameras roll.

There's the America whose citizens the president praises as "very good people" when its members cosplay soldier or armed rebel, people with whom officials are urged to "make a deal." And there's the America whose citizens the president decries as "THUGS" whom law enforcement must "dominate" when they grow unruly.

There's the America whose citizens can go birding, handle a cellphone in their grandmother's backyard, lawfully carry a weapon or relax in their own homes with negligible risk. And there's the America where such banalities can turn deadly.

There's the America where people refuse orders to wear cloth masks and the America where people are desperate for gas masks.

In short: There's the white America, where citizens can expect to be served and protected -- and the black America, where they can't.

We now have daily video evidence of the disparate police treatment of the two Americas, though the divide predates cellphones. Law enforcement's trigger-happy use of lethal force against minorities, especially black men, dates back centuries. Given this long history, perhaps it's easy for Americans to become resigned to its permanency. Such fatalism can elicit indifference from those of us within the served-and-protected America and provokes the increasingly hopeless contingent, those outside its confines, to lash out.

But this differential treatment is not a fait accompli. It is the result of policy choices our country has made and continues to make. The good news is: We can make different ones.

Obviously, "no more racism" isn't a change that can be executed overnight. Especially when racial inequality was built into the nation's foundations. Systemic racial inequities pervade American life beyond law enforcement and will require systemic change across our economy and culture. Moving the country toward that goal will require complex tools of both law and moral suasion in a project that will take decades of work across many generations.

But reducing police violence, including the violence that disproportionately kills one race more than others? That is likely to be an easier lift.

Other industrialized countries, after all, have figured out how to have many fewer killings by law enforcement, even in places that struggle with prejudice and discomfort with diversity. In the United States last year, police shot and killed more than 1,000 people; by comparison, across England and Wales, fewer than 100 died in police shootings over the past two decades. When measuring police-caused firearm fatalities in per capita terms, the United States doesn't look like a developed nation.

Part of the problem is the general availability of guns. (Most British law enforcement officers, for instance, generally don't carry firearms.) Although disarming U.S. cops is highly unlikely to happen, other policies are available.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights,Campaign Zero and other organizations have assembled policy toolkits, model legislation and police manuals, with many recommendations backed by social science research.

The policies emphasized aren't necessarily the ones that appear most obvious. Evidence on the efficacy of police body-worn cameras remains mixed, for example.

There is more research supporting other changes, such as demilitarization. This makes sense: Outfit cops with tanks and other weapons of war, and they will use tanks and other weapons of war. Similarly, studies suggest that outcomes are improved by greater community oversight, reduced barriers for reporting police misconduct and other accountability measures.

That includes striking language from police union contracts that shields officers from facing consequences for misconduct. If officers are told they can act with relative impunity, some will.

More important, explicit limits should be placed on the use of lethal force, including bans on chokeholds and other tactics that restrict oxygen or blood flow to the head or neck. Protocols should be established for the very few occasions when force may be deployed. And alternatives to armed police interventions should be used when possible, particularly in confrontations involving mental illness. Such measures have been modeled successfully in some police departments around the country.

Policing can be a difficult, stressful, dangerous job. Officers have proved relatively able to restrain themselves when dealing with difficult, stressful, dangerous situations in one of the Americas. Now the country must make policy choices that force law enforcement to serve and protect the other America with at least as much restraint.

---

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

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

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