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Chesapeake Bay advocates say Trump's proposal to slash cleanup funding would cause dramatic backslide

By Marissa J. Lang
Chesapeake Bay advocates say Trump's proposal to slash cleanup funding would cause dramatic backslide
First Light, a boat belonging to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, heads toward the U.S. 50 bridge on the Severn River in Arnold, Md. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photos by Sarah L. Voisin

ARNOLD, Md. - He knows where the sea grass likes to grow, where the ospreys return to roost and the oysters have begun to form reefs - like back in the good old days before everything, it seemed, began to wither and die.

John Page Williams, a naturalist with the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, doesn't want to go back to those days. Those days when he could smell the rot of the river in the middle of winter, when chemical waste and oyster degradation ran unchecked, when the sturgeon disappeared and even the birds seemed to give up hope.

"I can take you out and show you stuff that will make you just grin from ear to ear, and stuff that will make you cry within 50 yards of each other," said Williams, 76. "After seeing what I've seen on these rivers over the last 35 years, I'll say this: I won't bet against anything. I won't bet against the Anacostia [River] being swimmable again within this century. But it's a long grind. And you have to keep supporting the programs and efforts that are actually helping to make that happen."

Williams and others credit the ecosystem's steady and significant recovery to a complex web of federal, state and private restoration efforts coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership among six states and the District that has existed since 1983.

President Donald Trump earlier this month released a federal budget proposal that would cut EPA funding for the program by 90 percent.

It is the third time the president has proposed a dramatic slash in funding for the Chesapeake Bay as part of EPA budget cuts. Last year, he recommended a similar 90 percent chop. In 2017, he suggested eliminating federal contributions to the Chesapeake restoration effort altogether.

In both cases, Congress rejected the president's proposals and restored funding to the program. Lawmakers say they expect a similar repudiation this year. But Will Baker, director of the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said "spending political capital" to convince members of Congress to fight for the program's survival has no guarantees.

The program received $73 million in federal funding for this fiscal year. The Trump administration's 2020 budget proposal would make that $7.3 million.

A cut that drastic would have dire consequences for the bay and residents of the Washington area, Baker and Williams said.

"It wouldn't happen fast, but once it started to degrade again, it would be bloody hell to turn back around," Williams said.

Those who work along the Chesapeake Bay estuary like to compare its recovery to a sick patient in the early throes of remission. Would you stop the patient's supply of lifesaving medicine, they ask? Eliminate doctors' visits? Cut their health insurance?

"Of course not," said John Flood, 63, a marine consultant and longtime environmental activist from Annapolis. "This patient is about to get up out of the hospital bed and get back to a functioning life again. This is the worst possible time to take funds away. It's time for all hands on deck."

Scientists say the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem is the healthiest it has been in generations.

Species thought to be long gone are making a come back. Signs of natural resiliency have returned. That means the nation's largest estuary is better able to recover on its own from setbacks - like last year's record-setting rainfall, which offset the natural salinity of many of the region's waterways.

But experts worry the Chesapeake Bay might not be able to weather a drastic budget cut on its own.

"The recovery is fragile," Baker said. "We certainly know that. We saw the impact of record-breaking rainfall last year. When a system is in recovery and the recovery is fragile, the worst thing to do is pull the rug out from under the very programs that are improving it and making it stronger."

More than two-thirds of the $73 million the program receives from the EPA goes toward supporting the efforts of state and local governments and other partners. The money is used for restoring and conserving healthy habitats, supporting sustainable fisheries and reigning in pollution and waste runoff, according to Chesapeake Promise, an effort to publicly track the program's progress and finances.

The remaining one-third goes toward in-house work by the Chesapeake Bay Program, including the collection of data, scientific research, monitoring, modeling and reporting on the state of the ecosystem.

In addition to EPA funding, the District and each participating state - Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia - contribute tens of millions of dollars annually. Other federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense and Department of the Interior, also provide funding or program-specific support.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have signaled support for the program and vowed to fight to maintain funding at or near current levels.

"As I have in the past, I will fight to restore funding so generations to come can enjoy this treasure and our thriving tourist, seafood and boating industry will continue to flourish," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wrote in a tweet.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican member of Congress, told the Baltimore Sun he supports current funding levels for the Chesapeake Bay Program and would work with the House Appropriations Committee to shift money back into it.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., went a step further and called on Congress to pass the Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act - a measure introduced in the House and Senate this year that would provide $90 million in funding for fiscal year 2020 and increase federal support by $500,000 a year for the next five years.

"When you break it down to individuals, personal relationships, petty politics falls aside and we all understand we need to keep this campsite clean," Flood said. "Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, we all want clean water, we all want our kids to have a healthy world and we'd like to think that we're doing a good job of protecting that. But this is their natural trust fund, and we have squandered it."

Out on the water, advocates say the consequences of ebbing federal support become less abstract.

Williams, who has roamed the Chesapeake Bay's waterways for more than 50 years, said before the program instituted an interstate dialogue, data sharing and unified priorities, efforts to clean up and preserve the bay were fragmented and ineffective.

He said he thinks the debate over dollars and cents misses the point.

"What's clean water worth to a city like Washington?" he said. "The cleaner the water is coming out of western Maryland, the less money the District has to spend cleaning up your drinking water. . . . What about tourism? Do you think tourists will want to go out and look at cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin when the water smells like sewage?"

Williams has seen over the past three decades what state, federal and private collaboration can do.

A few years ago, efforts to rebuild oyster habitats led a group of researchers, engineers, divers and watermen to install a concrete barge full of shell and baby oysters on the floor of the Severn River to see if they would stay and build a reef.

A single oyster can filter algae and other contaminants out of up to 50 gallons of bay water every day. If one oyster lived for five years, it could filter more than 91,000 gallons of water.

Now, there's an oyster reef where the barge went in, Williams said. And it's getting bigger every year.

As Williams navigates up and down the Severn on the old boat he named First Light, he gestures to the water's surface and remarks on the progress below.

The oysters, once nearly wiped out in the Chesapeake's waterways, have in some places become a "navigational hazard," meaning they're too big to safely sail over. In other areas, the sea grass gets so thick, Williams said, he can't drive his boat through it without getting stuck.

"There's life in this river," he said. "I cannot tell you what it's worth to actually watch some of it start to heal."

Sitting on a perch above one such patch of underwater vegetation this past week, an osprey let out a series of chirps. Williams looked up. It was the first osprey he's seen this year.

"Why, hello, pretty bird," he said. "Listen to that song."

Williams doesn't want the ospreys, which migrate to the Chesapeake Bay each spring, to dwindle and disappear - again.

In the mid-1970s, an estimated low of 1,450 breeding pairs called the Chesapeake Bay home. Today, as many as 10,000 breeding pairs live in the estuary, according to estimates from the Center for Conservation Biology.

Williams notes the bird sighting in his daily log, which includes water measurements, salinity readings and observations.

His records, kept in small yellow notebooks, tell the story of the bay.

Its oxygen levels and signs of life. Its fragile recovery, its uncertain future.

Their ancestors fled US slavery for Mexico. Now they're looking north again.

By Kevin Sieff
Their ancestors fled US slavery for Mexico. Now they're looking north again.
Juana Vazquez, a Mascogo, is leaving her home in Mexico to work on a ranch in Texas. Mascogos are the descendants of slaves who fled to northern Mexico. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten

NACIMIENTO DE LOS NEGROS, Mexico - Their ancestors were African-Americans who escaped from the United States to Mexico in the 19th century, fleeing the slave trade for a desert village at the base of the Sierra Madre mountains. They were called the Mascogos, roughly 60 black families who spoke and prayed in English as they hid from the white men who wanted to put them back in shackles.

That was six generations ago. Since then, their English vocabulary has dissipated, replaced by the Spanish of Northern Mexico. Droughts destroyed their farms. Drug cartels have inched closer to their village, whose name translates literally as "Birth of the Blacks."

Now members of this community of 300 are heading back to the United States. It's another vector in a history of migration, sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced, from slave ships across the Atlantic to the cross-border scramble for 21st-century jobs.

At a time of unprecedented debate over immigration, and the current surge in border crossings, the history of the Mascogos reflects the long view on human migration, the way a community can be pushed and pulled across borders over centuries, eventually returning to the place from which they fled.

Their relationship with the United States is fraught, but their reason for returning - both legally and illegally - is not unique: They're looking for work. Dramatic droughts have desiccated the corn and bean farms of Mexico's northern Coahuila state. More than half the village's livestock have died. Where there are agriculture jobs, they pay just a few dollars a day. New factory jobs in Mexico are hours away, and don't pay much more.

"There's one thing we all know now," Juana Vazquez, 50, said in Spanish. "If you want work, you cross the border."

This week, Vazquez was packing her bags for West Texas, where she's been hired to clean a ranch house in the town of Fort Stockton. She has received a temporary work visa. She expects to earn about $10 per hour.

Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans receive temporary work visas in the United States every year. Thousands more cross the border illegally in search of jobs. But for Vazquez and the other Mascogos traveling to the United States, those decisions come with a complicated subtext: How does it feel to return voluntarily to the country where your ancestors were enslaved?

"That was a different time," Vazquez said. "Yes, it makes us sad, but it's over. There is work in the United States, and I have no problem crossing the border to do it."

Other Mascogos have made deals with their children: They can work in the United States, but they must not settle there. That's the agreement that one of Vazquez's cousins, Julio Cesar Salazar, made with his five kids, two of whom are now in the United States.

"Over and over, I tell them, you don't abandon this place," he said. "You can work there, but this is your place."

Vazquez, like the rest of the Mascogos, grew up vaguely aware of her community's circuitous trajectory through history. The village celebrated Juneteenth, the holiday on June 19 that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the United States. Women wore dresses that had changed little from the Antebellum South. Her grandmother, Lucia Vazquez Valdez, still sings hymns in English; she attached her family's American name, Payne, to her Mexican one.

But even if Vazquez wanted to forget the history of the Mascogos or her connection to the group, it would be nearly impossible. Her dark brown skin and her hair are rare features in this part of Mexico. When she travels outside Nacimiento, people call her la negrita - the little black one. They look at her quizzically and ask: Where do you come from?

"I tell them, "There are black people in northern Mexico!"

- - -

The Mascogos descend from slaves who escaped from plantations in the American South during the 17th and 18th centuries. They fled first to Florida, which was then owned by the Spanish, who generally allowed escaped slaves to live as free men and women. Some lived alongside members of the Seminole tribe and eventually became known as Black Seminoles - or, in Spanish, Mascogos.

The United States took control of Florida in 1821. Nine years later, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which forced native tribes in the Southeast, including the Mascogos, along the Trail of Tears, to Oklahoma.

That move made them once again vulnerable to Southern slaveholders. So in July 1850, 309 Mascogos escaped to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished decades earlier, crossing the border near what is now Eagle Pass, Texas.

They settled in Nacimiento, in the state of Coahuila. But many returned to work as "Indian Scouts" for the United States, defending military installations in Texas from other tribes. In exchange, the Mascogos were offered land and citizenship in America, a pledge that apparently dissolved at the end of the 19th century.

For much of the 20th century, the Mascogos lived and farmed in Nacimiento, a two-hour drive from Eagle Pass. But by the 1990s, it had become increasingly clear that the job prospects in the United States were better.

"For a lot of the Mascogos, they don't look to the United States as a place where they were enslaved, but as a place they were able to escape as free people, a place they can now freely choose to return to. It's a narrative of resilience and strength," said Rocio Gil, who is completing her PhD dissertation on the group at the City University of New York.

Some got tourist visas and overstayed them. Others took the short swim across the Rio Grande.

Starting in 1999, Servando Cervantes crossed the border illegally once a year to work on farms. Eventually, he says, he secured permanent residence.

He thought about what it meant to return to a country that had enslaved his ancestors. He didn't see the choice as a moral dilemma - it was strictly economic.

"I'm not going to blame a child for the sins of his father," he said.

He's back living in Nacimiento now. He says he lost his green card and was deported a few years ago, after being arrested for fighting in a bar. Now he watches as neighbors leave the village, one by one, to join what has become a torrent of migration.

Some are farmworkers who save up to $2,000 to pay smugglers to get them over the border. Some are students at John Horse Secondary School, named after the Mascogo who led the group to Mexico in 1850.

Enrique Salazar, a 17-year-old senior in a New York Yankees shirt, said: "As soon as I get the chance to go to the U.S., I'm out of here. I care about the culture of our tribe, but I also need to make some money."

- - -

A neighboring tribe with historic ties to the United States and Mexico, the Kickapoo, has been granted citizenship in both countries. The Mascogos have made several attempts, but so far have not been recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. A feud with the Seminoles, who argue that "Black Seminoles" aren't genuine members of the tribe, has made their chances of securing U.S. citizenship unlikely.

That has left Mascogos to weigh the same options as many in Northern Mexico: Wait for a visa, or take your chances with the river.

People here estimate that roughly half the village has moved to the United States, leaving an eerie quiet over the few paved streets. Half-built houses stand unfinished, awaiting more remittances. There are pickups with Texas license plates, lawn mowers purchased at Home Depot, clotheslines with Walmart T-shirts.

"This place is emptying out," said Evangelina Barnes, 50, a Mascogo who was born in Nacimiento but now lives in San Antonio.

This week, Barnes was one of several Mascogos back from the United States for a visit.

Corina Harington, 45, was a small child in the 1980s when her father took their family from Nacimiento across the border to San Antonio. She's lived there since, now as a U.S. citizen. Last week, she was back in the village with her cousin, Dina Rodriguez, also a Mascogo, who lives in Lubbock, Texas.

"I understand why they want to migrate," Harrington said. "I love this place, but the fact is, there's really not much here. This is not an easy place to make a living anymore."

During their visit, Harrington and Rodriguez sat down with Lucia Vazquez Valdez, the oldest living Mascogo.

At 86, Valdez is blind and has difficulty hearing. She remembers little of the English her parents and grandparents spoke fluently. But, like magic, she can sing the English words to the hymns and gospels her ancestors once sang.

This week, Rodriguez and Harrington sang with her, recording videos on their phones. When Vazquez Valdez sang, her voice was louder and more assertive than when she spoke, as if she was channeling an entire chorus.

"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done," she intoned in unaccented English.

"That's something we'll share back in Texas," Harrington said.

Former spa owner and frequent Mar-a-Lago guest sparks concerns about 'porous' environment at president's club

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee, et al.
Former spa owner and frequent Mar-a-Lago guest sparks concerns about 'porous' environment at president's club
Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago Club in December 2016 in Palm Beach, Fla. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti

Li "Cindy" Yang, a business owner and Republican donor, was a frequent visitor to Mar-a-Lago, turning up at last year's GOP Lincoln Day Dinner and snapping pictures there last month with actor Jon Voight. She recently attended the annual Super Bowl party at President Donald Trump's nearby golf club - posing for a selfie alongside the president.

Yang's activities at Trump's private clubs in Palm Beach, Florida, have attracted attention in recent days after a spa she once owned was the target of a widely publicized sex-trafficking sting involving the owner of the New England Patriots.

Scrutiny has also centered on a company Yang ran offering foreign visitors access to the president and other top Republican officials. According to an archived version of her company's Chinese-language website, which became inactive after recent news reports, the company offered VIP access to the White House and Mar-a-Lago, and autographed photos of Trump.

At the same time, Yang identified herself on the website as holding a position with the Chinese Association for Science and Technology. Experts in Chinese influence say that it and another group to which Yang has been tied have links to China's ruling Communist Party's efforts to spread influence in the West, though they noted that her roles do not necessarily suggest that she acted on behalf of the Chinese government.

Yang has not been accused of any wrongdoing. She was not named in connection with the sting last month at the Orchids of Asia day spa in Jupiter, Florida, which her attorney said she sold six years ago. It is not clear whether she successfully arranged for any visitors to attend events with the president or if she charged for the service.

But that Yang attended so many events at Mar-a-Lago and had such ready access to high-ranking U.S. officials has renewed questions about security at the seaside resort that serves as Trump's home away from Washington - and about who can gain the ear of the president and his allies for the price of a ticket to a Mar-a-Lago event.

"The fact that Mar-a-Lago is so porous is of concern," said David Kris, an assistant attorney general for national security under President Barack Obama and founder of Culper Partners, a national-security consulting firm. "The president is a unique foreign intelligence target for adversaries, and those in close orbit around him are also important targets, and Mar-a-Lago appears to be a very wide aperture for possible penetration."

In a statement, Yang's attorney, Evan Turk, said Yang has been unfairly smeared because of her support for Trump.

"At this time, the evidence indicates that our client has been falsely accused in a manner that she may never recover from," he said. "Her name, her reputation and her honor have been destroyed. Cindy Yang seems to be another casualty, as a supporter of our president."

Another Yang attorney, Michelle Merson, told ABC News Wednesday that Yang has been involved in politics and philanthropy and was "living a very quiet life, doing good things for herself, her family and our community, and all of a sudden this just has exploded into national" news.

"Ms. Yang loves this country," Merson said. That she is "a threat to our society" is "just so far from the truth," she said.

The Secret Service declined to comment on its protective operations, citing security concerns.

Yang's former ownership of the spa and her visits to Mar-a-Lago, and her connections to the Chinese government-linked groups, were first reported by the Miami Herald and Mother Jones.

Yang has been a fixture at black-tie galas at Mar-a-Lago, at Trump's golf course in Jupiter, Florida, and at other GOP events in the state since Trump took office in 2017, local GOP activists said. That year, federal records show, Yang made her first political donation: $37,000 to Trump Victory, the committee that raises money for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.

She is not a member of Mar-a-Lago but attended events there as a guest of a friend who is a longtime member, Merson told ABC News.

Yang posted photos of many of the events on her Facebook page, which were captured by other media outlets before the account was disabled. She was shown posing alongside top Republican officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott, and celebrities such as Voight, the guest of honor at last month's "Country Comes to Mar-a-Lago" bash hosted by the Trumpettes, a Trump fan club.

Yang bought two tickets to the Trumpettes event, at a cost of at least $2,000, the organizer said.

"I don't remember meeting her, but she was there. She was in the VIP section," Trumpettes founder Toni Holt Kramer said. "She actually inquired about buying a table."

Yang's website claimed to offer access to events at Mar-a-Lago and elsewhere, including two fundraising dinners at the resort last May. One invitation circulating online that lists Yang's name and cellphone number offered a "perfect experience" and VIP treatment at an upcoming event featuring one of Trump's sisters, Elizabeth Trump Grau.

"President Trump's private estate - 'the White House of the South,' " the invitation said.

Grau did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Michael Barnett, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, said that Yang's business of trying to sell access to Trump is hard to figure out, because anyone can buy a ticket to any of the fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago without having to know someone with connections.

And there is no way to guarantee that Trump will be at Mar-a-Lago when a gala such as the GOP's annual Lincoln Dinner is held. Trump has not attended the dinner since 2016.

"You take your chances when you purchase your tickets and hope that he shows up," Barnett said about Trump. "Nobody can promise that he will."

Among the many photos previously posted on Yang's Facebook was a selfie with Trump at this year's Super Bowl viewing party at Trump International Golf Club West Palm Beach - where the president cheered on his friend, team owner Robert Kraft, on the night the Patriots won their sixth title.

Kraft was charged in connection with the sprawling anti-trafficking investigation involving a string of day spas. Kraft has denied the charges, and Yang has not been implicated.

Some experts on Chinese influence noted Yang's apparent roles in two Florida-based organizations they say are linked to China's ruling Communist Party's efforts to promote its interests abroad and quash dissident views.

Yang identified herself on her company's now-archived website as the vice president of the Miami chapter of the U.S. arm of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology. Xiao Ling, who runs the Florida chapter of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology, did not respond to a request for comment. A representative from the group's main office in China declined to comment.

In an article in a Chinese-language technology outlet, Chinese Voice of America, Yang is also identified as deputy director of the Florida branch of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China.

The council, which has chapters around the world, advocates for Taiwan to be absorbed into China. The chapters are overseen by a wing of the Chinese Communist Party.

A representative for the council's office in China could not confirm whether it has any contacts or an office in Florida.

Both groups are a part of the Chinese Communist Party's effort to exert influence outside of China, according to several experts.

Yang's lawyers did not respond to questions about her positions with the groups.

Through the influence effort, known as the "united front," China's Communist Party seeks to "co-opt and control" diaspora communities to spread pro-China views, said Matt Schrader, a Washington-based China analyst for the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.

"It's potentially concerning. If the whole purpose of the united front is political mobilization abroad . . . you don't really want people enmeshed in that network close to your own political system," said Peter Mattis, a fellow in the China Program at the Jamestown Foundation.

This is not the first time that someone has been said to have been selling Chinese nationals access to Trump. Last year, invitations circulated among wealthy entrepreneurs in China purporting to offer "VVIP" trips to be photographed with Trump at a Republican Party fundraiser.

There is relatively light screening of guests at Mar-a-Lago, according to two former senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters. Though it is private and available primarily to dues-paying members, it is also a social hub in Palm Beach and frequently a venue for GOP events.

Traditionally, for public events where the president appears, the Secret Service obtains the names of all guests and employees who might come into close contact with him.

The Secret Service's protective intelligence division then runs those names through a national FBI database to determine whether anyone is wanted on a bench warrant or has any history of arrests or convictions for drugs or violent crimes. The service also can choose to check names in a CIA database to determine whether anyone has been flagged as being a concern to the intelligence community.

The Washington Post recently reported that some employees at Trump's golf club in New Jersey asked not to have their names provided to the Secret Service in planning for a Trump visit because they feared being outed as undocumented immigrants. They said they think they were never screened by the service.

At Mar-a-Lago, guests must produce their IDs and pass through metal detectors to be checked for weapons. Their cars are inspected by the Secret Service upon entry to the club. Guests are told the entire screening process will take 10 minutes, according to security protocols sent to guests attending a March 2018 event there.

But any member can take guests for dinner or lunch at the club. No specific list is given to White House aides to describe who will be there or at the golf club. And Trump often dines in the main dining room - though there is sometimes a rope around his table - or strolls around the patio.

Trump always tries to be there for certain events - such as the Super Bowl party, Easter weekend, New Year's Eve and Thanksgiving - so those seeking to corner him often home in on those weekends, former aides said.

The aides said certain members always try to be there when Trump is present and introduce their friends and guests to him. Often, guests would give Trump ideas that he would later raise with White House aides.

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

Steven Ledewitz, a member of the executive committee of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, said it would be a stretch for someone to guarantee access to Trump at Mar-a-Lago, given that the president's schedule is not always known in advance and because there is no easy way to approach him at the club.

"I don't see how anybody could promise access to the president," Ledewitz said.

Trumpettes founder Kramer agreed. "You can't just sell access to the president. When he's at Mar-a-Lago, even his close friends, people he's known for years and years, are kept away from him," she said. "You can't just go up to him the way we used to, no matter how long we've known him."

Trump was not at her event, which attracted more than 700 guests from around the world, she said.

"He wasn't there, but bless him, he did a beautiful video. He thanked me, he thanked Jon Voight, he was wonderful," she said. "But that's as close as anybody got to the president."

- - -

The Washington Post's Amy B Wang, Lyric Li, Shane Harris, Carol Leonnig, Alice Crites and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.

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

The cultivation of desperation

By michael gerson
The cultivation of desperation


(Advance for Tuesday, March 19, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, March 18, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- As politics has become a religion in so many lives, political discourse has taken on theological overtones. I am not referring to President Trump's accusation of a "witch hunt," which places the FBI in the role of Puritan divines. This is merely an absurd metaphor.

What I am talking about is the appropriation -- really the profanation -- of religious ideas to serve ideological purposes. In the 20th century, this was often the preserve of the left. Marxism provided a soteriology -- a theory of salvation -- that caused people to die and kill in service to a redemptive ideal. It is what made communism so appealing -- and so dangerous. It gave oppression the veneer of idealism.

The right's response in the latter half of the 20th century was to reject the whole idea of politics as salvation. Conservatism sought to lower the sights of the political enterprise to serve humbler conceptions of individual liberty and the common good. The proper work of politics was seen as reform rather than redemption -- working with the existing fabric of society rather than ripping it up and starting over.

More recently, however, the populist right has taken on a distinctively religious tone. Rather than offering a vision of salvation, it has embraced a certain eschatology -- a theory of the end times. The threat of liberalism, in this view, has become so dire that the wrong outcome of a presidential race could mean the end of American civilization. One appalling defense of Trump dubbed 2016 the "Flight 93 election," on the theory that conservatives have but two choices: "charge the cockpit" or "die."

There is much wrong with that metaphor, which employs a unifying symbol of American courage as the method to encourage tribal hatreds. That involves a type of desecration, comparable to spray-painting "MAGA" on the Lincoln Memorial. But the September 2016 essay by Michael Anton, who subsequently found temporary employment in the Trump administration, went further than a vague reference to the apocalypse. The threat was defined as liberal activism to promote "the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty." This was designed, Anton argues, to make America "more Democratic" and "less traditionally American."

In this secularized eschatology, alarmism is combined with nativism. The Antichrist, apparently, will speak Spanish.

In this light, the attraction of so many evangelicals to the cause of Trump makes more sense. Before the Civil War, many evangelical Christians held a postmillennial eschatology. They believed that society, through acts of mercy and grace, would become better and better, eventually ushering in the benevolent rule of Christ. Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, however, more Christians adopted a premillennial eschatology -- a belief that the world would get worse and worse until Christ intervened to save it. "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel," said evangelist Dwight Moody. "God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, 'Moody, save all you can.'"

The use of apocalyptic language in a political setting is hardly new. Theodore Roosevelt ended a speech on the eve of the 1912 Republican Party convention with: "Fearless of the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!"

But the appeal of Trump and his supporters is distinctive. It is used as a mental preparation for extreme measures. If the political world is really headed toward disaster, then the normal political tools -- things like civility, persuasion and governing skill -- are outmoded. If it is really just minutes to midnight for America, then maybe the situation requires an abrasive outsider willing to fight fire with napalm. Desperation increases the appetite for political risk.

There are serious dangers to the cultivation of desperation. It transforms opponents into enemies. It turns compromise into heresy. And it paves the way for authoritarian thinking and measures.

It is also not an accurate description of a flawed but wonderful country. There are disturbing trends in modern liberalism -- a secularism that sometimes slips into intolerance of religious people and institutions; a form of multiculturalism that despairs of unifying American ideals; the elevation of human autonomy above other humane values.

But we are not in America's political end times. And the country's problems are not rooted in the ethnic makeup of its people. Our challenges -- from government debt to educational failure -- require reform, not revolution. And this cause is not served by the second coming of Donald Trump.

Michael Gerson's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Biden and Sanders have waited too long to be president

By richard cohen
Biden and Sanders have waited too long to be president


(Advance for Tuesday, March 19, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, March 18, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cohen clients only)


The joke among people my age is that every dinner party starts with an organ recital: Who's lost a gall bladder, got a new kidney, or maybe just replaced a knee? What's the pain of the day and who sleeps through the night? Charles de Gaulle said old age is a shipwreck, so the question for America is whether it should consider the age of likely presidential candidates who, statistics and experience tell us, stand a pretty good chance of foundering on the rocks of old age. I'm talking Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Sanders and Biden are about the same age. Sanders is 77 and Biden 76, and since the next president will be inaugurated in 2021, I can say without fear of persnickety fact-checkers that both men will be almost two years older by then. It is not unlikely, therefore, that the next president of the United States will be well into his 80s before his first term is up. That's a shocking figure.

Both men are now at about the age when the indomitable Winston Churchill started to hit the wall. He was a mere 77 when King George thought of approaching him to suggest he step down. Churchill did not -- until a stroke forced him to. The argument here, of course, is that neither Biden nor Sanders lives a Churchillian life -- no cigars, no whiskey for breakfast. On the other hand, they are not nearly as articulate.

Government statistics tell us that a man Biden's age will live an average of 11 more years. He won't, however, outlive Sanders, who is scheduled to kick five months later. These, though, are statistical averages and neither Sanders nor Biden is anything of the sort. They are both white, middle class by birth, not likely to overdose on drugs, drive drunk or get into a bar fight with someone wearing a MAGA hat, the dunce cap of our times. I am not sure if Sanders works out, but Biden sure does. I have been to the gym with him.

But while looking good may be the best revenge, it isn't the whole story. The brain ages. It slows down. It forgets. I know men in their 90s -- Henry Kissinger comes to mind -- who seem as sharp as they've ever been, but they are not the rule. It is not necessary to have great mental energy to get elected -- Donald Trump is an intellectual sloth -- but it helps. Old age can turn the delight in doing certain tasks into a plodding burden.

The old seek their own comfort zones. I wouldn't be surprised if Biden thinks Snapchat is a breakfast cereal. I wouldn't be surprised if Sanders thinks Drake is the English pirate who defeated the Spanish Armada. (How's that for being an influencer?) It's fine not to know these things, but it suggests an unfamiliarity with a world that is ever-changing. The zeitgeist is forever on the move. When you're over 70, it may well have passed you by.

Of course, a president need not be intimately familiar with youth culture. But he ought to feel at home in the world and feel that the culture is his, that he need not have to pause to translate a thought into politically acceptable language. I don't know if either Biden or Sanders feels that way, but if they don't occasionally hanker for a Beatles' tune, they already lack all memory.

Most presidents were in their 50s when elected -- mere youths, by today's standards. Most lived many years after leaving office. (Jimmy Carter, at 94, has been out of office for almost 39 years, a record.) John F. Kennedy was the youngest ever elected at 43, and Trump the oldest to be elected to a first term at 70. The rule here is that there is no rule.

Still, "September Song" has to precede "Hail to the Chief." It is the lament of an old man for a young woman. It is about the passage of time, about how "the days dwindle down to a precious few." It is about lost opportunities, about summer turning to autumn and "one hasn't got time for the waiting game."

Biden and Sanders have waited too long. A pledge to serve only a single term will not reverse the clock. It will only hobble the president, making him a lame duck before his time. Of course, the ultimate decision is their own, but they have to know they will probably decline. If they don't think so, they have gotten old without getting wise.

Richard Cohen's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

A possible way to stop mass shootings

By megan mcardle
A possible way to stop mass shootings



(For McArdle clients only)


What makes a man walk into a house of worship and slaughter innocents under the eyes of God? We should perhaps be grateful that we'll never really understand it; glad that the ordinary human mind cannot even imagine the urge toward such wanton brutality.

All we can really do is grieve with the families of the 49 people who lost their lives Friday in the mass shootings at two New Zealand mosques -- and, of course, ask ourselves what we can do to ensure that the rare evil sociopaths who can conceive such desires never get a chance to carry them out.

If the attack had happened in the United States, the conversation would have quickly turned to gun control. But New Zealand already has a gun-control regime that is much stricter than anything proposed in the wake of American mass shootings. Undoubtedly it will get stricter still, and perhaps this will make some marginal difference. But that will still leave us asking "What else can we do?"

There is an answer to that question, but it is uncomfortable, and perhaps unworkable: Stop publicizing mass shootings.

Every time a mass shooting makes the news, the news media are quick to hunt for root causes. Coincidentally, these almost always mirror the reporters' and editors' ideological preoccupations: gun-control laws and gun culture, the inadequacy of resources for treating mental-health problems, Islamic fundamentalism or white nationalism, the alienation of young men cast adrift in modern society. Strangely, the media's own role in perpetuating this unholy cycle of violence seldom comes up.

It's long been known that acts of violence inspire copycats, and the more the murders capture the public's attention, the more copycats they can and will inspire. Many mass shooters have been inspired by the media trail left behind by earlier psychopaths. They pore over the endless video record, the lengthy profiles, the anxious chatter on social media. And instead of being sickened by the carnage, they're attracted to what it offers them: power over cowering victims; a face and a name that inspire terror in millions; an infamous legacy.

Many commentators, wondering why mass shootings became so common in the late 20th century, have pointed to various cultural and economic developments. They might better have pointed to cable news, which ensured that disaffected losers with hypertrophied egos and shriveled souls became the non-stop talk of the nation -- in every nation, and most of the world's 6,500 languages. The wall-to-wall coverage teaches men who may not be able to get a job or a girlfriend that nonetheless, in something under an hour, they can become Genghis Khan.

And when they pick up a gun and turn themselves into a one-man barbarian horde, we in the media rush in with the cameras, the profiles and the non-stop commentary that will inevitably inspire some future Attila the Hun.

No matter your opinions about gun control, or funding mental-health treatment, or softening the anomie of the modern world, here's an intervention to consider: Stop giving them what they want.

Don't watch their videos, or even speak their names. Media companies should decline to give their horrible crimes extensive coverage, and audiences should decline to consume it. Give their atrocities no more attention than a highway car wreck, and let their deeds disappear onto two column inches on page A24 of the newspaper or, better yet, into the transcripts of an unremarked court trial.

In other words, let's pretend it's not happening: While the axioms against ignoring elephants in the living room may be generally wise, this is the rare case where strategic obliviousness might actually cause the beast to leave, or at least visit much less often.

There are, of course, many objections to this idea. One is that refusing to cover these shootings as the major outrages they are would slight the memories of the victims. Another is that in America, at least, it would deprive activists against gun violence of a message that's an effective tool in galvanizing public opinion. Then there's the problem that, given modern communications technology, it might be impossible to mount a successful tacit conspiracy against the barbarians.

I don't dismiss any of these objections; all are valid, and perhaps overwhelming. But I will observe that we should do everything we can think of to stop mass shootings, and what we've done so far obviously haven't worked as well as we'd hoped. If we want to prevent the unthinkable, we need to be willing to at least think about the merely uncomfortable.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The Internet just turned 30. We're celebrating with anti-tech fervor.

By catherine rampell
The Internet just turned 30. We're celebrating with anti-tech fervor.



(For Rampell clients only)


Happy 30th birthday, World Wide Web. Who knew that we'd be celebrating this three-decade tech milestone with such a frenzy of anti-tech fervor?

Not so long ago, the tech sector was the jewel in the crown of the U.S. economy, a vibrant industry that non-tech companies envied and other countries were desperate to replicate. Tech was where America's best and brightest went to dream big, to move fast and to break things -- to "disrupt" the bloated and lazy analog-economy incumbents.

For the grads (and dropouts) of elite universities, going to Wall Street meant selling out. Going to Silicon Valley meant (BEG ITAL)changing the world(END ITAL). For our common good, presumably.

This cultural adoration of all things "tech" -- and "tech" grew to encompass almost any company supposedly in the business of "disruption" (including, somehow, selling fake mayonnaise) -- was ubiquitous. The sycophancy of the tech press defied parody. Hollywood, too, lionized the founder-genius, the socially awkward kid who finally got his social due (and payday). And politicians went to Silicon Valley to kiss the rings of these flip-flop-and-free-T-shirt-wearing, newly zillionaired nerds, in hope of coaxing a few pennies from their Venmo accounts.

The political pilgrims came from both parties. Democrats praised the open-mindedness and social liberalism of Silicon Valleyites; Republicans championed their entrepreneurial mettle and contempt for regulations.

But sometime in the past couple of years, disillusionment set in. Quantifiably so: In Gallup's sector-by-sector polling, the "Internet industry" was viewed very or somewhat favorably by 60 percent of respondents at its peak in 2015. That plummeted to 45 percent by last summer.

What happened? In some ways, anything hyped as high as the Silicon Valley fairy tale was bound to face a reputational fall eventually. But the blemishes driving that backlash were also plentiful, and varied.

There was bro culture, sexism and sexual harassment. Data breaches -- lots of data breaches. Broken laws. Allegations of theft. Ripped-off employees and independent contractors. Privacy violations, disinformation, fake accounts and other user abuses, and changing stories about how much firms knew about them. Lobbying. Lying. Leaching.

There was too little gatekeeping in toxic social-media environments. Or too much of the sort of gatekeeping that threatens free speech, depending on your political persuasion. The amplification of outrage culture, but also of white nationalism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories. The radicalization of young men worldwide into terrorists, evidenced most recently -- though hardly exclusively -- in the horrific mass-slaughters at two New Zealand mosques.

The list goes on, and the outcome is plain. A sector once seen as a bunch of plucky underdogs has become viewed by many as a greedy, parasitic monolith, indifferent to its effects on democracy, civility, human rights. Or, in any event, it was recognized for what it was: a sector at least as inclined to bad behavior as any that came before it, except it exists within an overmatched regulatory environment that has been ill-equipped to impose consequences.

Politicians smelled blood. And now, rather than competing over who could more closely align themselves with Silicon Valley, they vie for the role of toughest on tech.

President Trump, who wears his technological illiteracy on his sleeve, was ahead of the game here, having pledged way back in 2015 that he would enlist Bill Gates' help in "closing that Internet up," whatever that meant.

When it comes to actual policy changes, though, both parties have fallen short. The most ambitious proposal of late comes from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who wants to break up the tech companies. But that just seems like a solution to the wrong problem. Large tech firms have certainly harmed consumers, but it's not clear how consumers would be served by, say, forcing Google to surrender Nest. If Facebook sold off WhatsApp, the colonies of Russian trolls wouldn't miss a beat.

European regulators have also aimed their firepower on antitrust issues, though it's not always obvious that these efforts are about improving experiences for consumers so much as extracting money from deep-pocketed U.S. companies. Europe's vaunted data-privacy rule -- whose most visible change requires everyone to click yes to cookies when visiting a new website -- doesn't seem to have moved the needle much either.

Certainly consequences for data breaches or other privacy violations could and should be more severe. But fixing the tech sector's systemic problems remains a thornier problem. Perhaps the real lesson of 30 years of webbed connectedness is that a "disrupted" economic model is every bit as vulnerable to human failings as the one it supplants. Neither our tech overlords nor their supposed overseers are capable of saving us from ourselves.

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

This is what happens when corporations run the government

By dana milbank
This is what happens when corporations run the government


(Advance for Sunday, March 17, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, March 16, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Milbank clients only)


This is what happens when corporations run the government.

As the world was grounding 737 Max airliners this week, following the second crash involving the new jet in five months, the Trump administration, serving as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing, declared "no basis to order grounding."

This from an administration and president that claim climate change is a hoax, radiation and pesticides are healthy, and that "raking" prevents forest fires.

When President Trump finally buckled to pressure and grounded the 737 Max Wednesday, he said he "maybe didn't have to" but thought it important "psychologically."

And why shouldn't everybody trust the judgment of a guy who didn't know the difference between HIV and HPV, proposed that exercise is bad for you, and claimed that vaccines cause autism? Trump says he has a "natural instinct for science" because an uncle taught at MIT.

But Trump's late uncle didn't tell him to protect Boeing. That was Boeing's chief executive, a frequent visitor to Trump properties, phoning Trump with a plea not to ground both the 737 Max 8 and Max 9.

That corporations make safety decisions for Trump (himself a failed airline owner) isn't surprising. The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration is formerly of American Airlines and of the Aerospace Industries Association, of which Boeing is a prominent member. Trump is expected to nominate a former Delta Air Lines executive for the top FAA job. His acting defense secretary is a former Boeing executive.

In Trump's broader corporatocracy, fully 350 former lobbyists work, have worked or have been tapped to work in the administration, the Post's Philip Bump reported, using data from the liberal group American Bridge 21st Century. The 24 at the Transportation Department lag behind only the 31 at HHS and 47 in the executive office of the president.

The corporate hold over the government hurts U.S. credibility overseas. After the crash of one of its Max 8 airliners, Ethiopian Airlines opted to send the doomed plane's black boxes not to the United States but to Europe. U.S. resistance to grounding the 737 Max raised worldwide concern about a "defiant" United States (Bangladesh), its credibility "eroded" because government is "too cozy" with business (Hong Kong) and is swayed by "corporate interests … to ignore reality" (Australia).

Nobody yet knows whether the Ethiopian Airlines crash had the same cause as October's similar Lion Air crash in the Java Sea near Indonesia. But, clearly, the procedural fix circulated by the FAA in November was inadequate, and a Boeing software update, which government officials planned for January, never came. The Wall Street Journal reported that the delay was caused, in part, by the government shutdown. The corporate FAA chief denies this, but the pilots' union had warned that the shutdown suspended safety oversight.

Trump facilitates the corporate takeover by running his administration on autopilot. A disproportionate number of "acting" officials -- they hold the FAA's top three positions, run the Pentagon and interior department, and serve as Trump's chief of staff and budget director -- reduces congressional oversight and weakens enforcement.

In addition, the billions of dollars that corporate executives invest in lobbying and campaign contributions have generated healthy returns: a corporate tax cut, an assault on regulations and unrelenting efforts to shrink enforcement. The president, who previously attempted to privatize 30,000 FAA jobs, again proposed slashing the FAA in his budget this week.

Corporate victories keep coming. The Los Angeles Times just obtained emails showing EPA officials moved to block NASA from monitoring pollution levels. Politico recently obtained data which showed that the Interior Department gave oil drillers nearly 1,700 waivers of safety rules implemented after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented more than 70 "attacks on science," many benefiting corporations: censoring scientific language, suppressing studies, weakening advisory panels and such. The group suspects "inappropriate corporate influence" in rolling back fuel efficiency, chemical and methane standards, repealing the Clean Power Plan, suppressing known health risks, expanding oil and gas leasing and bailing out the coal industry, among others.

The American consumer pays the cost. Three days before the crash in Ethiopia, I took a Southwest 737 Max 8 flight to Denver. I knew it was the same model that had crashed in October, but I trusted federal officials' claims to have addressed the problem with new pilot instructions (which were insufficient) and the promised software fix (which never came).

Like millions of Americans, I long trusted that the federal government tried to protect food, air, water and safety. Trump's corporatocracy broke that trust.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The autocratic Trump and 'constitutional conservatives'

By e.j. dionne jr.
The autocratic Trump and 'constitutional conservatives'


(Advance for Monday, March 18, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, March 17, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)


WASHINGTON -- President Trump's opponents typically treat him as a clown, a fool and a garden-variety bigot. They only occasionally pay enough attention -- usually when he praises some foreign dictator -- to the side of him that relishes autocracy and undercurrents of violence.

He really doesn't seem to believe in democracy very much. For him, politics is always a clash between power on one side and power on the other. The institutions we have created to mediate conflicts matter not a whit.

There should be no more minimizing this side of Trump after the interview the president gave to Breitbart last week in which he suggested a willingness on the part of his enthusiasts to resort to force against his enemies on "the left."

"I can tell you, I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump -- I have the tough people, but they don't play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad," Trump said. "But the left plays it cuter and tougher."

Was this a form of incitement? Was Trump thinking about Spain in the 1930s, or Chile in 1973?

Quite suddenly, Trump's interview came to wider attention after the slaughter of at least 49 people in two New Zealand mosques Friday morning by a white supremacist.

Trump, it should be said, went on Twitter at 7:41 a.m. Friday to express his "warmest sympathy" to "the people of New Zealand," although he mentioned nothing about the ethno-nationalist motivations of the terrorist. And this came only after the president had posted a link to the Breitbart homepage on Thursday night, U.S. time, just as news of the New Zealand attack was breaking.

It was unclear exactly what Trump was promoting in pushing Breitbart, known for its anti-Muslim commentary. And he deleted the Breitbart tweet early on Friday as the scale of the horror became known.

The New Zealand killings are generating widespread soul-searching about the role of social media in spreading hatred.

But what needs immediate attention is Trump's willingness to play fast and loose with authoritarian sentiments and intimations of violence. Trump's deleted tweet should put his Breitbart interview front-and-center in our politics.

His provocations constitute a call to conscience in the Republican Party.

There was much celebration last week because enough Senate Republicans stood up to Trump to hand him twin defeats.

The 12 Republican senators who opposed the president's abuse of national-emergency powers to pay for his border wall -- despite Congress' previous refusal to fund it -- deserve our appreciation. So does the even hardier band of seven Republicans who voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

But the real takeaway here is the support Trump still won from the vast majority of Republicans -- and, in particular, the abject capitulation of many who had suggested or said outright that they would oppose his invocation of emergency powers. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., wrote in The Washington Post last month that "I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress." Yet, when the roll was called, he did exactly that, supporting Trump's "emergency." The Post's Aaron Blake rightly called it "a flip flop for the ages."

The most disappointing vote came from Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a principled Trump opponent from the earliest days of the 2016 primaries. Sasse issued an intellectually vacuous statement saying that as a "constitutional conservative," he thinks the president's emergency powers are too broad. But he justified his vote to go along with Trump by trashing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and "bare-knuckled politics." This sounded like projection, since the "bare-knuckled politics" was on Trump's side. Sasse, like Tillis, is on the ballot in 2020.

My first encounter with Sasse was in January 2016. He was in Iowa to speak on behalf of every major Republican running against Trump. I respected his gutsy willingness to see Trump as exactly who he is. "He's a strongman with a will to power," Sasse told me then. "Trump has been the only guy on the Republican side of the aisle that regularly campaigns and says things like, 'If I'm elected president, I'll be able to do whatever I want.'"

Three years on, we know that Sasse was right from the start. But what are he and his Republican colleagues willing to do about it? For a majority of them, sadly including Sasse himself, the answer is: precious little.

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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