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Attorney says Roy Moore supporters offered him $10,000 to drop client who accused the Senate candidate of sexual impropriety

By Shawn Boburg and Dalton Bennett
Attorney says Roy Moore supporters offered him $10,000 to drop client who accused the Senate candidate of sexual impropriety
Eddie Sexton became Leigh Corfman's attorney when her allegations about Senate candidate Roy Moore became public. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Dalton Bennett.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Days after a woman accused U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual impropriety, two Moore supporters approached her attorney with an unusual request.

They asked lawyer Eddie Sexton to drop the woman as a client and say publicly that he did not believe her. The damaging statement would be given to Breitbart News, then run by former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

In exchange, Sexton said in recent interviews, the men offered to pay him $10,000 and promised to introduce him to Bannon and others in the nation's capital. Parts of Sexton's account are supported by recorded phone conversations, text messages and people in whom he confided at the time.

The effort to undermine Leigh Corfman's allegations - beginning on Nov. 13, a month before the election - shows how far some of Moore's most fervent supporters were willing to go to salvage an Alabama campaign that many hoped would propel a nationwide populist movement and solidify Bannon's image as a political kingmaker.

In the phone conversations and texts, copies of which were obtained by The Washington Post, one of the men spoke of ties to Moore and Bannon while urging Sexton to help "cloud" the allegations, which included other women's claims that Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

"What they're saying, all they want to do is cloud something," Gary Lantrip, who attended at least one private fundraising event for Moore, said during a phone call recorded by Sexton. "They said if they cloud, like, two of them, then that's all they need."

Lantrip also made references to money - at one point speaking haltingly about "the ten [pause] dollars," a shorthand for the $10,000 offer, Sexton said.

"We got some chance to do something, make some quick little-bitty for you . . . and then, on down the line, we can go to D.C.," Lantrip said during the recorded call.

Sexton was initially reluctant to talk publicly about the alleged offer, because the men - Lantrip and Bert Davi, business partners in a small construction firm - are his clients in an unrelated court case, a dispute over a real estate venture. Sexton decided to speak publicly after repeated requests over months from Post reporters, who contacted him after obtaining one of the recordings.

Sexton vouched for the authenticity and accuracy of the recordings and messages.

In a statement, Moore said Thursday that Lantrip and Davi had attended rallies but that the campaign was not involved in any effort to pay Sexton. "I nor anyone else in the campaign offered anyone money to say something untrue, nor did I or anyone else authorize someone else to do such a thing," he wrote.

A spokesman added that, although Lantrip and Davi had met Moore, "they did not have any special access to Judge Moore, nor were they ever commissioned with any special tasks by the campaign team."

A spokeswoman said Bannon, who worked in the White House until August, could not be reached for comment.

In separate interviews on Monday, Lantrip, 55, and Davi, 50, acknowledged seeking the statement and arranging a meeting between Sexton and two Breitbart reporters but denied doing anything improper.

During a 20-minute interview at a construction site in Birmingham, Davi parried questions about money, saying his partner would know details of what was offered to Sexton. "That was between Eddie and Gary," Davi said. Asked where the money would have come from, he said, "Probably Gary."

Davi said he has known Bannon for years but declined to say how they met or describe the nature of their relationship. He added that Bannon never knew about any offer to pay Sexton.

"Our effort was really to let the truth come out," Davi said.

At one point, Davi suggested it was Sexton who raised the idea of payment, saying the lawyer indicated that if he were to issue a statement about Corfman, he "wouldn't do it for free." Sexton denied that.

Davi ended the interview but said he would talk later that day. He was not available at the scheduled time, however, and refused to talk to a reporter as he left the site.

Approached outside his home that afternoon, Lantrip declined to comment on whether Sexton was offered money or about his own references to money during the recorded call. He acknowledged telling Sexton, however, that if he made the statement he would get legal work from Bannon as part of a Breitbart expansion in Alabama.

"I'll protect what I did, because I know I didn't do nothing," Lantrip said shortly before ending the interview.

A spokeswoman for Breitbart said the two reporters were not aware of any offer to pay Sexton or provide him with legal work and did not know who penned a handwritten statement he says he was asked to sign.

Two people interviewed by The Post said Sexton told them about the alleged offer around the time it was made, including a lawyer he was consulting for advice. They provided time-stamped texts and private Facebook messages that show their discussions with Sexton as he considered how to handle the situation.

Also, Sexton said he reported the incident to a federal prosecutor in Alabama. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey told Sexton in a Dec. 5 email that the events Sexton had described by phone did not appear to constitute a federal crime.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

- - -

In October and November, Corfman told Post reporters that she met Moore in an Alabama courthouse nearly 40 years ago, when she was 14 and he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney. She said he later drove her to his house, where he took off her shirt and pants and touched her sexually.

Corfman asked Sexton to help manage the media scrutiny that would follow the story's publication, Sexton said in a recent interview. Sexton was an unconventional choice. A partner at a small firm outside Birmingham, he specializes in product liability cases and had spent most of the past decade on a class-action lawsuit involving defective drywall. But Corfman and Sexton were childhood friends from Gadsden, Alabama, Sexton said.

After the story broke on Nov. 9, Alabama website identified Sexton as Corfman's attorney and quoted him as saying she stood by the account she gave The Post. Amid the barrage of media calls, Sexton said a partner at his firm expressed angst about being associated with such a politically charged issue. Sexton said that, though they made no public announcement, he and Corfman privately agreed to part ways.

Two days later, on the campaign trail, Moore predicted that Corfman's claims would unravel under scrutiny. "There are investigations going on. In the next few days there will be revelations about the motivations and the content of this article," Moore said at a news conference.

Breitbart jolted into action, too.

The conservative website had a lot riding on Moore. Bannon had backed him in a primary against Luther Strange, the favorite of establishment Republicans. The website had heralded Moore's win in the primary as proof of Breitbart's "enduring power and reach."

On Breitbart's daily radio show, Bannon called The Post's report a "weaponized hit" during a segment with Matt Boyle, one of three Breitbart reporters he dispatched to Alabama after the story broke.

"We expect that there will come out evidence that demonstrates the collusion between the Democrat establishment, the Republican establishment and the media," Boyle said.

Lantrip reached out to Sexton that same day.

"Hey buddy call me if you can. It's important," Lantrip wrote.

Sexton and Lantrip had been friends for decades, both men said. Sexton had represented him in several civil cases, including a bankruptcy and construction billing disputes, records show. Their kids, now grown, had been friends when they were younger, Sexton said.

The men spoke by phone on Nov. 12, a Sunday, and agreed to meet Monday at Sexton's law office in Hoover.

Lantrip brought Davi, his partner in the construction firm they launched in 2015.

The three chatted on a concrete slab behind the law office, Sexton told The Post. Davi mentioned that he knew Bannon, Sexton said. Davi said the Breitbart executive wanted to talk about whether Sexton would say publicly that he did not believe Corfman, Sexton said.

Sexton said he told them such a statement would not be credible, in part because he had already made supportive statements about Corfman on his Facebook page. He sent Lantrip images of those comments by text message early that afternoon, records show.

Sexton said Lantrip told him by phone a short time later that "Bannon's group" still wanted to talk to him.

Sexton said he doesn't recall whether money first came up during this phone call or at the meeting behind his law office, but he said Lantrip or Davi told him that he could collect $10,000 - and possibly more.

Sexton said he was pressed for money at the time, and Lantrip knew it. Sexton had told his friend about the pressure that built up as he invested years working on the drywall case, he said.

Sexton said he was disturbed by the offer but also intrigued by the prospect of meeting Bannon. He said he did not know how Lantrip and Davi got involved in the Senate race, and he did not ask.

In interviews with The Post, the men said they were courted by the campaign. Davi said they were asked to hang banners touting Moore at a construction site. Lantrip said they met Moore three or four times, adding that he was "trying to get us on his side to campaign for him."

More than a week before Corfman's allegations surfaced, Davi and Lantrip had access to the candidate's inner circle.

On Nov. 1, the pair attended a Moore fundraiser at a townhouse in Washington, D.C., arriving in a black SUV with an unidentified third man, video obtained by The Post shows. The private gathering, hosted by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., featured a handful of senators and other high-profile supporters. Moore was there, as were Bannon and Boyle, according to footage shot by operatives with the progressive group American Bridge.

Davi told The Post the third man was their business partner, whom he declined to identify but described as "more involved politically." Shown images of the three of them outside the Capitol Hill fundraiser, Lantrip said he did not recognize the man.

Davi said during the interview that he has long known Bannon but would not say how. "Let's just say that I know Steve," he said. "I've known him for a while."

Davi has the kind of background that most campaigns try to avoid.

He spent years in state and federal prison in the 1990s, convicted of multiple felonies including auto theft in both Colorado and California, forgery in Wyoming, and a federal charge in Louisiana for being a felon in possession of a firearm, records show.

Davi had claimed to be a former member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, federal prosecutors wrote in the 1997 weapons possession case. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. In 2005, he pleaded guilty in San Diego for distributing methamphetamine, identity theft and firearms violations, records show. He was sentenced to five years in state prison.

"My past has nothing to do with any story," Davi wrote in a text message.

- - -

After their conversation behind the law firm, Sexton agreed to meet that afternoon at the office where Lantrip and Davi run their construction business, in a low-slung industrial building at the end of a cul-de-sac in Pelham, south of Birmingham. Before he went inside, Sexton called a friend and told him what was happening.

"He told me that he had been asked to turn on his client, to state that he didn't believe his client, and he would be paid to do it," Kevin Hodges, who met Sexton through their children's rodeo competitions, said in an interview. "He was concerned about what he needed to do, and he was calling for my advice."

Hodges said that he told Sexton not to go to the meeting but that Sexton wanted to confirm the offer. Hodges said Sexton told him he was considering recording it. Hodges provided a partial billing statement for his cellphone, at The Post's request, showing a 24-minute call with Sexton starting at 2:16 p.m. that day. Hodges said he leans Republican and supported Moore. He did not vote in the December election, state records show.

Sexton said he arrived at the Pelham office and joined Lantrip and Davi in a conference room. He said Lantrip told him that they had the money for him. Boyle, Breitbart's Washington bureau chief, soon joined them, he said. Minutes later, Aaron Klein, Breitbart's Jerusalem bureau chief walked in, Sexton said.

Sexton said he was too nervous to record the meeting from his phone.

On the table was a notebook, he said, opened to a page that contained the handwritten statement he was expected to sign. There was little small talk, Sexton said. He said they began discussing the possibility of issuing a statement about Corfman's credibility.

Sexton said he told them he didn't see any way he could make a statement disparaging his client - that he would lose his law license if he did - and besides that, he hadn't even asked Corfman about the details of her allegations against Moore.

"I don't know how y'all, or how anybody, would ever believe me," Sexton said he told them. "And Matt and Aaron kind of tell me, 'Well, that's not really the point of whether or not anybody believes you. It's just, you know, getting other information out there.' "

Sitting to the left of Sexton, Davi put his head down on the table in apparent exasperation, Sexton said.

"And I kind of started getting, I guess, maybe irritated and agitated, or I think everybody kind of did when they realized that I wasn't going to sign a statement," Sexton said. "I said, 'I don't know what I could say.' I said, 'This is a pretty big deal.' And I said, 'I just need to go. I'm going to think if I can do anything at all. I will let you all know.' "

Sexton said he ripped the page with the handwritten statement from the notebook as he left the meeting. He says he does not know who wrote it.

The statement, which Sexton provided The Post, says: "After reviewing the allegations, after taking Leigh Corfman as my client, I believe there is not sufficient evidence to back up the allegations and that the case lacks credulity. I decided that since I would have difficulty representing a client that I don't believe I have to recuse myself from this case. I hope the best for Leigh."

As he backed his truck out of the parking lot, Sexton aimed his phone out the window and recorded a shaky video of a man he says is Boyle.

Boyle did not respond to a request seeking comment, and Klein did not respond to an email.

"Hey brother sorry if I was a dick. If you weren't comfortable you were right to leave," Davi texted Sexton at 5:24 p.m. "it's a big deal and you have to make smart decisions. I understand"

- - -

Sexton said he decided to begin recording his subsequent interactions with Lantrip and Davi because he was concerned they might mischaracterize the meeting as his attempt to solicit a bribe. He recorded an eight-minute phone call with Lantrip later that evening.

"Where in the hell did you get these guys?" Sexton asked Lantrip, referring to the Breitbart reporters.

"That's the first time I met them today, and we just been talking with Bannon and then with Roy Moore and then with Rand Paul. We never met those guys until today," Lantrip said in the recorded call, a copy of which was obtained by The Post. (A spokesman for Rand Paul said the senator does not know Davi or Lantrip and had no involvement in seeking the statement.)

"I mean, have y'all - have they already paid y'all money?" Sexton asked.

"No, just what I'm about to give you," Lantrip replied.

"We got the 10," Lantrip said, pausing briefly, "dollars. We got that, but it, it don't matter."

Sexton told Lantrip that he'd like to help, but making a statement - they did not specify about what - would be "bombastic." He reiterated his concern that it could also lead to the loss of his law license.

"I'm just going to say you called and you need a little more time," Lantrip said. "You're gonna think about, you ran into some problems and you'll call us tomorrow."

During the call, Lantrip also assured Sexton he would meet Bannon one day.

The next day, Sexton discussed the alleged offer with a lawyer and friend, Michael J. Evans, who gave The Post copies of private messages showing that Sexton told him about the meeting and phone call with Lantrip. Evans was politically active during the campaign. He started a Facebook group that created memes critical of Moore and supportive of Moore's opponent, Doug Jones. He said he also made multiple small contributions to the Jones campaign.

The overtures from Lantrip continued.

"Hey buddy we'll be with Roy Moore tonight if you come up with anything. Thx," Lantrip wrote to Sexton at 2:29 p.m. on Nov. 14, 28 days before the election.

That evening, Moore was set to appear at a church in Jackson, three hours southeast of Birmingham. When Moore arrived, he and his wife, Kayla, were trailed by Lantrip and Davi, video of the event shows. They walked down the aisle behind Moore as he shook hands.

Lantrip and Davi took seats in the front row, near Moore and his wife. At one point, Davi motioned to someone in the audience, the video shows. Soon after, Boyle took a seat next to him.

Davi leaned in and whispered to Boyle several times as the church choir sang. After Moore's speech, Lantrip and Davi huddled with him and his wife, along with several other people, just off the stage. Later, Davi held back television cameras as Moore ducked into a car, according to video of the event.

At 9:49 p.m. that evening, Lantrip sent Sexton another text: "Hey brother just got done with that meeting. Call me when you can"

As Lantrip made the late-night drive back to Birmingham, he also left a voice mail, asking Sexton to call him "first thing in the morning."

"We got some business to talk about," Lantrip said in the message.

- - -

Sexton, who was in New Orleans for the drywall case, didn't respond to multiple text messages sent by Lantrip and Davi over the next few days.

"Ok buddy call me in the mourning before you get started got some important info from Bannon," Lantrip wrote on Nov. 15.

"Maybe you could respond to Gary even to say can't help you," Davi wrote later that day.

Sexton was silent, according to the string of messages reviewed by The Post.

"Hey Eddie call me it's real important I've got some info that benefits you and me," Lantrip pleaded two days later.

The men persisted until Nov. 25, when Sexton wrote in a text message that he would be at his farm if they wanted to meet him.

"We are heading out to see ya brother," Davi wrote.

At the farm, Sexton said, Davi pressed him on why he wouldn't make a statement. Sexton said he did not record the conversation.

Sexton said he challenged Davi to "call Bannon's lawyers and get them to indemnify me and hold me harmless and support me the rest of my life if something happens and get them to tell me what they think I can say."

The next morning, on Nov. 26, Davi sent Sexton a text message: "DC attorneys agree with you. You cannot say anything further than you declined to represent her. Nothing more, no reasons, no explanations."

Davi told The Post that the attorneys referenced in the text were his lawyers. He declined to identify them.

As Sexton played coy, he and Evans were weighing the options.

Go public? Sexton said that possibility was complicated by the fact that Davi and Lantrip were his clients. Plus, Evans and Sexton said, Corfman had told them she preferred if they waited until after the election because it might otherwise look like an attempt to influence the results in the final days.

Sexton and Evans said they decided to report it to federal authorities.

"I think I slept well because you are going to FBI today," Evans wrote on Nov. 29 in a private Facebook message he provided to The Post. "I feel like that is the right move."

The following day, Sexton contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Alabama, according to an email.

"Do you have a few minutes to discuss something?" he wrote to Posey, an executive assistant U.S. attorney. They spoke later that day, Sexton said, and Posey said he would be back in touch.

The election was less than two weeks away.

Lantrip called Sexton on Dec. 4, the day before Bannon was to appear at a Moore campaign rally in Alabama.

"On that other thing we've been talking about, with Bannon and them," Lantrip said during the recorded call. "They was wantin' to see if you'd make a statement saying you declined . . . to take the case and don't represent her anymore. Period."

Sexton demurred.

The following day, Posey, the federal prosecutor emailed Sexton back.

"We don't find any applicable criminal provision in federal election law," he wrote.

On Dec. 8, Boyle reached out to Sexton directly.

"Hey Eddie," he texted. "Give me a call when you get a second."

"Only need a few minutes of your time," he wrote the following day.

Sexton said he didn't respond.

On Dec. 12, Moore lost the election. The stakes for Bannon and Breitbart were soon clear.

"Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans," Trump said in a statement on Jan. 3.

Less than a week later, Bannon was pushed out of Breitbart News.

During the interview Monday, Davi said he and Lantrip initially did not believe Corfman's claims but do now.

"At the end of the day we came to believe the allegations," Davi said. "We stepped away from Roy Moore."

- - -

Alice Crites and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.


Video Embed Code

Video: Alabama lawyer Eddie Sexton alleges two of Roy Moore's supporters worked to discredit one of his accusers during his Senate campaign.(Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Embed code: <iframe src="" width="480" height="290" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

Video: In a phone call recorded by Eddie Sexton and later obtained by the Post, the Alabama lawyer is heard speaking with friend and client Gary Lantrip about attempts to undermine Roy Moore accuser, Leigh Corfman. Sexton alleges Lantrip offered him $10,000 to discredit accusations of sexual impropriety against the then Republican Senate candidate.(Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Embed code: <iframe src="" width="480" height="290" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

She started acting at 88; 4 years later, she's recognized everywhere for 'Black Panther'

By Kelyn Soong
She started acting at 88; 4 years later, she's recognized everywhere for 'Black Panther'

Dorothy Steel, 92, starred as a merchant tribe elder in the blockbuster film, "Black Panther." (Photos courtesy of Cindy Butler and Matt Kennedy)[/caption]

Dorothy Steel's mind was made up. She had been acting for only three years and didn't want to audition for some "comic strip" movie she'd never heard of. And at 91, Steel told herself, there was no way she could learn to speak with the African accent the role required.

In late November 2016, Steel asked her agent to kindly decline the invitation, and went about her day.

When her grandson called, Steel casually mentioned the offer. Niles Wardell, 26, was stunned. This is not just comics, he told his grandmother: This is "Black Panther." This is a big deal. When she still wasn't convinced, he decided to turn the tables on the woman who has been his source of wisdom.

"My grandson said to me, 'You're always talking about stepping out on faith. I either want you to man up or shut up,' " Steel recalled, laughing at the memory.

Steel would get another audition and took the chance. And now millions of people worldwide have seen her in the role of a Merchant Tribe elder in the 14th-highest-grossing movie of all time.

At 92, Steel has become a celebrity in ways she couldn't have imagined even a year ago. Anytime she steps outside in her home of College Park, Ga., she is greeted with fans asking for a selfie or autograph.

"Hopefully, somebody who at 55 or 60 has decided, 'This is all I can do,' they will realize they have 35 more years to get things together," Steel said. "Start now. It's never too late. ... Keep your mind open and keep faith in yourself that you can do this thing. All you have to do is step out there."

Nearly a decade ago, Elaine Jackson met Steel at the Frank Bailey Senior Center in Riverdale, Ga., and was immediately impressed. Jackson, now the center's manager, wrote and directed productions there and asked Steel to act the part of a teenager in a series of plays called "It's Christmas." During rehearsals, Steel would ad-lib. Her interpretation of the character had people hunched over in laughter.

Jackson realized she had a star on her hands. At 89, Steel got an agent and began acting in television shows and commercials. She has made multiple appearances on the soap opera "Saints and Sinners," broadcast on Bounce TV.

"I always told her she should be in movies," Jackson said. "Just because of her personality and in the way she portrays her characters. Everything we gave her to do, she just became that particular character."

Steel poured this same passion into her character for "Black Panther." She listened to Nelson Mandela speeches on YouTube for several hours a day. She immersed herself into the character: Where was this woman educated? How did she become so powerful? What had she done for her country, the fictional land of Wakanda? Steel knew all those answers.

An hour after seeing Steel's audition tape, the Marvel casting producers called her agent, Cindy Butler. Within a day, she had the offer.

"Everyone wanted to be on 'Black Panther,' " Butler said. "I knew it was going to be a black cast. I knew it was going to be major. Once she realized what was going on, I knew it was going to be big for her."

Born and raised in Detroit, Steel eventually worked as a senior revenue officer for the IRS for decades before retiring on Dec. 7, 1984 -- a date she rattles off with impeccable memory. Steel also lived in the Virgin Islands for 20 years before moving to Georgia to be closer to her son, Scott Wardell, and grandson.

She has lived a life full of adventure and travel - she bounced around the world as part of her job and was a bowler until age 86.

She never thought of acting as a career. But from a young age, Steel enjoyed escaping into the make-believe worlds of her books, something that acting allows as well.

"I can be whatever it is I'm supposed to be at the time," she said. "I love it. . . . While you're acting, you're in this protected cubicle that people call the stage. You're protected from the world. And that's the first time in my life I felt absolutely secure. . . . You can just be whatever it is the character is supposed to be."

For three weeks last March, Steel got to experience what it's like to be a big-time actor. A driver would pick her up at 5:30 in the morning and she would arrive on set about 7.

Her makeup took almost an hour to apply and then she was off to her trailer, where she would dress in her elaborate tribal elder costume -- heavy boots, thick socks, large headpiece and layers of clothing -- a process that took several hours.

Then it was time to shoot. Each scene needed shots from various angles, and she repeated her memorable line ("We don't need a warrior. We need a king!") dozens of times.

On some evenings, Steel would not get home until 9 or 9:30. But she didn't mind the long hours. She called director Ryan Coogler "the nicest man in the world," and actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays the main character, would come up to Steel every morning and give her a hug and kiss.

She befriended Angela Bassett and was impressed in particular by the women on the set ("Their physical shape was just remarkable," she marveled) and the movie's positive and inspiring message. "This was a black nation [Wakanda] that was able to bring peace to the world," she said.

Through it all, Steel was every bit a part of the "Black Panther" family as the A-list stars gracing the cover of magazines. Occasionally, when she gets stopped in the grocery store by autograph-seeking fans, she will think about that phone call with her grandson. It took getting out of her comfort zone to realize a dream she didn't know she had.

"Keep your mind open and keep faith in yourself that you can do this thing," Steel said. "All you have to do is step out there and try it. And if you don't make it on the first step, step out there again and you'll find something you can step out on. But don't just sit back. Life is not just about sitting back. Life is about stepping out."

At 5 minutes to tariff midnight, a steel boss battles with chaos

By Katia Dmitrieva
At 5 minutes to tariff midnight, a steel boss battles with chaos
A monitor displays U.S. Steel Corp. signage on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York on March 5, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Michael Nagle.

Somewhere in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, cargo ships bound for the U.S. are carrying 5,000 tons of steel ordered by David Wolff's Michigan-based distribution company.

Somewhere in the American Midwest, Wolff -- the chief operations officer at Peerless Steel Co. -- is racing from client to client, offering what guidance he can in the last hectic days before President Donald Trump's steel tariffs take effect on Friday. But Wolff himself admits he doesn't have much of a clue what happens next.

He doesn't know if his shipments will clear customs before the midnight deadline, saving the company millions of dollars ("we're praying"). More generally, he doesn't know how much he'll have to hike prices by, or for how long. In three decades in the industry, Wolff says he's never seen such chaos. "It's a mess," he said by mobile phone on Tuesday. "It's the Wild West."

Peerless and most of its customers are based in Trump country, the Rust Belt states that propelled the president to a long-shot election win. He pledged to bring jobs back to a once-proud industrial region hollowed out by free trade. For supporters, this week's measures -- a 25 percent charge on steel, and 10 percent on aluminum -- are a down payment on that promise. For most economists, they're a perilous step down a road that could lead to trade war, putting at risk many more jobs than they can create.

For Wolff, they're a practical headache. Based in Troy, a 30-minute drive north of Detroit, Peerless buys steel from Europe and Asia. It delivers the metal to manufacturers who turn it into everything from car pistons to construction cranes. About two-thirds of the company's purchases may be subject to the tariffs.

Peerless plans to absorb part of the additional cost, and pass the rest on to clients who employ tens of thousands of people. Some of those companies are already making contingency plans that involve moving or closing plants, he said.

That illustrates why economists are so united in hostility to Trump's plans. They'll create jobs in steel and aluminum production, an industry that employs about 140,000 Americans -- and put the squeeze on businesses that use the metals in manufacturing, which provide jobs for more than 30 times that number.

The good news is already coming in, as companies from U.S. Steel Corp. to Republic Steel announce they're reopening plants. And it's welcome in places like River Rouge, just south of Detroit, where Jim Allen is president of the local United Steelworkers union.

Allen campaigned for Hillary Clinton, but he supports the tariffs. "It's a lot more upbeat here now," said the 24-year industry veteran. "It's always seemed like there's something hanging over our heads, because we were facing competition from goods brought into the country for cheaper than we can produce."

The bad news will be more geographically spread-out, and may take longer to arrive. And there's no way of knowing how bad it will get, until the global response to Trump's America-first measures becomes clear.

Companies using the metals that Trump's targeting say they expect costs to rise. Even if they don't source from abroad, the rush to buy American is likely to strain local capacity and push prices up.

The tariffs will take an annual $347 million toll on America's brewers, for example, and kill more than 20,000 jobs, according to trade association the Beer Institute -- by adding a fraction of a cent to the cost of each can.

In a more niche market there's Avalon Pontoon Boats, based in Alma, Michigan, which makes 4,700 vessels a year. It already uses U.S.-made aluminum, but is bracing for higher costs.

Avalon's cheapest boats sell for about $40,000. "Our customers are doing well," said Cliff Crowe, its senior supply chain manager. "But I tell ya, if I have to raise the price $600 to $700 in line with the increase in materials, they're probably not going to buy." As a result, Crowe says the company has shelved plans to hire more workers, and it'll offer customers some lower-cost options.

And if that's all the Great Trade War of 2018 amounts to, it's hardly apocalypse now. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that, taken in isolation, the Trump tariffs won't do much damage to an economy that's picked up steam lately and probably isn't far from full employment. Deutsche Bank saw no need to change its growth forecast; Barclays predicted a hit of no more than 0.2 percent of GDP this year.

But what if America's trade partners and rivals fight back? "If other countries, particularly the European Union, reciprocate with higher tariffs -- that's the scenario that is scary," said Dany Bahar, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The EU is threatening retaliatory 25 percent tariffs on a range of U.S. exports. China is preparing levies that will hit industries and states where Trump supporters work and live, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Adding to the uncertainty, companies can apply for product exclusions, while the Trump administration is dangling the prospect of exemptions for America's friends. But it's not clear who'll get them, or when. That could affect what Wolff at Peerless pays for his supplies, and what he charges customers. Right now, "I don't have a good answer for them," he says.

Wolff is a Republican who voted for Trump. He acknowledges that the president is making good on a promise given to the steelworkers who voted for him. But "long-term, it's going to hurt things," he says. "I don't think this has been thought through."


Bloomberg's Andrew Mayeda and Joe Deaux contributed.

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

Trump embraces the dumb way to deal with China

By catherine rampell
Trump embraces the dumb way to deal with China



(For Rampell clients only)


Look. The Trump administration isn't (BEG ITAL)entirely(END ITAL) wrong about China and trade.

For years, U.S. companies -- as well as foreign ones -- have been victims of Chinese intellectual property rights policies, including being forced to hand over their technology if they wanted access to the Chinese market.

But there's a smart way and a dumb way to deal with this misbehavior. Unfortunately, in its pursuit of sweeping new tariffs on Chinese imports, the Trump administration is once again choosing the dumb way -- as markets suggested when they closed down nearly 3 percent on Thursday.

Let's talk first about the smart way to confront China.

That would involve banding together with allies. And, in fact, lots of our allies have been asking for our help keeping China in line.

Yet we have, repeatedly, rebuffed such entreaties. Or worse: accepted and then reneged.

That includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade pact that we signed in 2016. The pact specifically excluded China to make sure it didn't "write the rules of the road for trade in the 21st century," as then-President Barack Obama put it.

Among Trump's first actions as president, however, was to pull out of the deal.

As time goes on, this decision looks worse and worse, and not only because of the leverage lost over China. Two weeks ago the remaining 11 countries signed their own version of the pact, without us. That deal stripped out provisions the United States had fought for on behalf of American companies -- including, somewhat ironically, increased intellectual property protections (in this case, for pharmaceuticals).

Another smart, multilaterally approved way to confront China would be through dispute proceedings at the World Trade Organization. The United States has been unusually successful there, but China hasn't.

Some of the people around Trump, at least, seem to understand the value of such measures.

Last week, the incoming National Economic Council director, Larry Kudlow, said he'd like to see the United States and allies join forces against China in a "trade coalition of the willing" -- which sounds an awful lot like the TPP.

And the White House did include pursuing WTO dispute settlements "in cooperation with other WTO members" in the actions it said will take over China's intellectual property rights violations.

And yet, and yet. Trump clearly prefers, and emphasizes, the dumb way to deal with China.

By which I mean tariffs.

This month, Trump announced new steel and aluminum tariffs. The administration initially came out with guns blazing, declaring no exceptions whatsoever -- even for the allies that (BEG ITAL)actually(END ITAL) produce most of our steel and aluminum imports. Over subsequent weeks, however, the administration exempted more and more countries from the once draconian-sounding measures.

First we shielded Canada and Mexico. Now, according to U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer's Senate testimony on Thursday, we've given a reprieve to Europe, Australia, South Korea, Argentina and Brazil. China's still in there, but it supplies only 2 percent of our steel imports.

Why did we pluck all the teeth from this supposedly fearsome policy?

Probably because allies, economists and even industry groups almost universally condemned it as likely to alienate friends, raise prices on U.S. consumers and destroy jobs in industries that either use these metals or might face retaliatory tariffs. Plus Republicans lost a special election in a deep-red Pennsylvania district that should have been especially sympathetic to steel tariffs.

If you thought all this meant Trump had learned his lesson, you'd be wrong.

In remarks ahead of signing the memorandum about the U.S. response to China's intellectual property violations, he completely left out the memorandum's directive to work through the WTO with our allies.

Instead, he called WTO proceedings "very unfair" and talked up tariffs, which the memorandum instructs the trade representative to soon propose. The White House says these will include about $60 billion worth targeting the Chinese aerospace, information communication technology and machinery industries.

Once again, these tariffs would be against the advice of economists and U.S. industry groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Once again, the announcement rattled markets, fearing that it could be the opening salvo of a trade war; China is reportedly preparing countermeasures against U.S. agricultural products, according to the Wall Street Journal. And once again, in acting unilaterally, the action will likely further alienate our allies.

Our best hope is that Trump doesn't actually mean to follow through on these tariffs -- or, alternatively, won't notice if his own administration gradually walks them back.

Not exactly where you'd like U.S. global economic leadership to be.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Why conservative Christians are sticking with Trump

By marc a. thiessen
Why conservative Christians are sticking with Trump


(Advance for Friday, March 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, March 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Thiessen clients only)


WASHINGTON -- As "60 Minutes" prepares to air its interview with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, conservative Christians are being accused of hypocrisy. How can so-called "values voters" continue to stand with President Trump despite revelations that he allegedly had affairs with a porn star and a Playboy model, and paid them for their silence?

No doubt some Christian leaders have gone too far in rationalizing Trump's past personal behavior and excusing his offensive comments while in office. He is a deeply flawed man. But Trump does have one moral quality that deserves admiration: He keeps his promises.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump pledged to defend religious liberty, stand up for unborn life and appoint conservative jurists to the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts. And he has done exactly what he promised. The abortion-rights lobby NARAL complains that Trump has been "relentless" on these fronts, declaring his administration "the worst ... that we've ever seen." That is more important to most Christian conservatives than what the president may have done with a porn actress more than ten years ago.

Trump's election came as religious liberty was under unprecedented attack. The Obama administration was trying to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their religious conscience and facilitate payment for abortifacient drugs and other contraceptives. During oral arguments in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, President Barack Obama's solicitor general told the Supreme Court that churches and universities could lose their tax-exempt status if they opposed same-sex marriage.

Hillary Clinton promised to escalate those attacks. In 2015, she declared at the Women in the World Summit that "religious beliefs ... have to be changed" -- perhaps the most radical threat to religious liberty ever delivered by a major presidential candidate. Had Clinton won, she would have replaced the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia with a liberal jurist, giving the Supreme Court a liberal judicial-activist majority.

The impact would have been immediate, as the court prepares to decide two cases crucial to religious liberty. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court will soon determine whether the government can compel a U.S. citizen to violate his conscience and participate in speech that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs. In National Institute of Family Life Advocates v. Becerra, the Court will decide whether the state of California can compel pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to advertise access to abortion to their clients, in violation of their conscience. Those cases are being heard not by five liberals, but five conservatives, including Justice Neil M. Gorsuch -- because Trump kept his promise to "appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not legislate from the bench."

The president is moving at record pace to fill the federal appeals courts with young conservative judges who will protect life and religious freedom for decades. He also fulfilled his promise to defend the Little Sisters from government bullying, by expanding the religious and conscience exemption to the Obamacare contraception mandate to cover both nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

Trump ordered the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health and Human Services to protect the civil rights of doctors, nurses and other health-care workers who refuse to take part in procedures such as abortion, reversing an Obama-era policy that required them to do so. And his Justice Department issued 25-page guidance to federal agencies instructing them to protect the religious liberty in the execution of federal law.

While Clinton promised to repeal the Hyde Amendment barring federal funds for abortion, Trump has been a pro-life champion. He became the first president to address the March for Life when he spoke by satellite video from the White House's Rose Garden. He reinstated and expanded the "Mexico City policy" -- which prohibits U.S. foreign aid from going to groups that perform or promote abortion. He signed legislation overturning an Obama-era regulation that prohibited states from defunding abortion service providers.

Indeed, Trump has arguably done more in his first year in office to protect life and religious freedom than any modern president. Little wonder that religious conservatives stick with him despite the Daniels revelations. This is not to say that Christians don't think a culture of fidelity is important. But the culture of life is important too. So is a culture that is welcoming to religious believers rather than waging war on them.

No one upholds Trump as moral exemplar. He is not the most religious president we have ever had, but he may be the most pro-religion president. Christian conservatives are judging Trump not by his faith, but by his works. And when it comes to life and liberty, his works are good.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

Could this Trump nominee interfere with Mueller?

By david ignatius
Could this Trump nominee interfere with Mueller?


(Advance for Friday, March 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, March 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Here's a new twist in the Robert Mueller saga: A former top Senate staffer for Attorney General Jeff Sessions is nearing confirmation to head the Justice Department's Criminal Division. Should his appointment worry people who want to protect the special counsel's independence?

As with any issue involving Mueller and the Trump White House, the answer reflects the supercharged atmosphere surrounding the Russia investigation. This may seem like a routine bureaucratic appointment. But because the stakes are so high in any matter that affects Mueller's status, it's worth reviewing the basic questions before the Senate votes on confirmation.

The nominee is Brian Benczkowski, who served as head of the Trump transition team at Justice and was staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Sessions was the ranking member. Supporters praise his performance in the George W. Bush administration. "I've never seen Brian do anything unethical, nor do I think that he ever would," says Michael Mukasey, who made Benczkowski his chief of staff when he was Bush's attorney general.

Critics fault Benczkowski for his 2017 legal representation of Alfa Bank, a Russian financial giant that has prospered under the Putin government, after he ran the Trump transition operation. News reports in 2016 had explored the bank's possible computer communications with Trump Tower, but Benczkowski told senators that two independent investigations later found no connection between the bank and the Trump Organization.

Benczkowski now says he wouldn't have taken Alfa Bank as a client had he anticipated his nomination to head the Criminal Division. But when asked by the Judiciary Committee if he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation because of the Alfa connection, he answered: "I cannot commit to such a recusal at this time."

Benczkowski also told senators that in a December 2016 conversation with Sessions, he had criticized "mistakes" by James Comey, then FBI director, in handling the Hillary Clinton email investigation, "converting his role as FBI director into that of a prosecutor." This was one of the rationales Trump initially gave for firing Comey last May.

The leading skeptic about Benczkowski's nomination is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a Judiciary Committee member who voted against Benczkowski in the 11-10 party-line vote that sent his nomination to the floor in January. Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney, worries that as Criminal Division chief, Benczkowski could have a "window" on the Mueller investigation.

Whitehouse bases his concern on a previously undisclosed Dec. 11 letter he received from Stephen Boyd, who heads DOJ's Office of Legislative Affairs. That letter acknowledged that Benczkowski might consult with Mueller, as he could with a U.S. attorney.

Boyd's letter noted that the Criminal Division chief "has no supervisory role with respect to the special counsel ... However, it is possible that the SCO [special counsel's office] will seek approvals from the Criminal Division as required by statute, regulation, or policy, or may simply want to consult with subject-matter experts in the Criminal Division as appropriate in the normal course of department investigations."

Boyd explained that if confirmed, Benczkowski would talk to "appropriate ethics experts" at Justice "prior to his participation in or supervision of the SCO's interaction with the Criminal Division." Boyd stressed that Mueller's boss would be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (because of Sessions' recusal), but he left room for Benczkowski to advise.

Whitehouse worries that by sanctioning even a limited role for Benczkowski, Justice has opened a backdoor. He outlined his concern in an email Wednesday. "We still don't have a clear view of how the Justice Department protects special counsel Mueller's investigation," Whitehouse cautioned. He continued:

"If, as Justice officials have told me, the special counsel clears matters through the Criminal Division, that could give Benczkowski a window into the investigation. I remain concerned he could provide a back channel to his old boss and to the man in the Oval Office who's declared open war on the Mueller investigation, and that procedures in place are not adequate to detect or prevent this."

Benczkowski wouldn't comment publicly, because of the pending vote on his nomination. Sarah Isgur Flores, the Justice Department spokesperson, said Benczkowski is "a talented and well-regarded lawyer with extensive experience" and that Justice is "eager for the Senate to confirm him."

The Benczkowski nomination may seem like small potatoes. But we should examine every issue that affects Mueller's independence right now. In the Benczkowski nomination, Justice has summarized the rules, Whitehouse has voiced his worries, and the nominee appears to recognize proper limits. If these checks and balances hold up, they can help protect the rule of law as Mueller's investigation proceeds.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

A hard rain's gonna fall in Silicon Valley

By fareed zakaria
A hard rain's gonna fall in Silicon Valley


(Advance for Friday, March 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, March 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Zakaria clients only)


NEW YORK -- We might look back on 2017 as the last moment of unbridled faith and optimism in the technology industry. The revelations about Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook data -- mining more than 50 million users' personal information -- came at a time when people were already considering appropriate ways to curb the handful of powerful tech companies that dominate not just the American economy but, increasingly, American life.

As the information revolution took off in the 1990s, we all got caught up in the excitement of the age, the novelty of the products, and their transformative power. We were dazzled by the wealth created by nebbishy 25-year-olds, who themselves became instant billionaires, the ultimate revenge of the nerds. And in the midst of all this, as America was transitioning into a digital economy, we neglected to ask: What is the role for government here?

The image of technology companies springing forth from unfettered free markets was never quite accurate. Today's digital economy rests on three major technologies: the computer chip, the internet and GPS. All three owe their existence in large part to the federal government. The latter two were, of course, developed from scratch, owned and run by the government until they were opened up to the private sector. Most people don't realize that GPS -- the global positioning system of satellites and control centers that is so crucial to the modern economy -- is, even now, owned by the U.S. government and operated by the Air Force.

And yet, as these revolutionary technologies created new industries, destroyed others and reshaped communities and cities, we simply assumed that this was the way of the world and that nothing could be done to affect it. That would be socialist-style interference with the free market.

But the result does not seem one that a libertarian would celebrate. We now have a tech economy dominated by just a few mammoth companies that effectively create a barrier to entry for newcomers. In Silicon Valley today, new startups don't even pretend that they will ever grow to become independent companies. Their business plan is to be acquired by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft or Apple. The situation looks more like an oligopoly than a free market. In fact, through the age of big tech, the number of new business startups has been declining.

The other noticeable consequence has been the erosion of privacy, highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal. Because technology companies now deal with billions of consumers, any individual is a speck, a tiny data point. And since for most technology companies the individual consumer is also a product, whose information is sold to others for a profit, he or she is doubly disempowered. The technology companies would surely respond that they have democratized information, created products of extraordinary power and potential, and transformed life for the better. All this is true. So did previous technologies like the telephone, the automobile, antibiotics and electricity. But precisely because of their power and transformational impact, it was necessary for the government to play some role in protecting individuals and restraining the huge new winners in the economy.

Change is likely to come from two directions. Regulatory action in the West will provide protections for the individual to better control his or her data. The European Union has established rules, which will come into effect on May 25, that will make it much easier for individuals to know how their data is being used and to limit that use. It is likely that the U.S. will follow suit.

The second direction is even more intriguing and comes from the East. Until recently, as Indian entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani pointed out to me, there were just a handful of digital platforms with more than 1 billion users, all run by companies in the United States or China such as Google, Facebook and Tencent. But now India has its own billion-person digital platform: the extraordinary "Aadhaar" biometric ID system, which now includes almost all of the nation's 1.3 billion citizens (and whose creation Nilekani oversaw). It is the only of these massive platforms that is publicly owned. That means it does not need to make money off user data. It's possible to imagine that in India, it will become normal to think of data as personal property that individuals can keep or rent or sell as they wish in a very open and democratic free market. India might well become the global innovator for individuals' data rights.

Add innovations in blockchain technology, and we are likely to see more challenges to the current gatekeepers of the internet in the near future.

Whether from East or West, top down or bottom up, change is coming to transform the world of technology. Properly handled, it can produce freer markets and greater individual empowerment.

Fareed Zakaria's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

We should not reward the authors of torture

By eugene robinson
We should not reward the authors of torture


(Advance for Friday, March 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, March 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Robinson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- President Trump vowed during his campaign to bring back torture as a weapon against terrorism. Now the Senate must stop him from installing as CIA director a woman whose resume includes overseeing a disgraceful episode of torture -- and then joining in a cowardly effort to cover it up.

This should not be a close call. In other respects, Trump's nominee, CIA veteran Gina Haspel, seems to have been an exemplary public servant. But that's like saying that except for one unfortunate incident, Mrs. Lincoln had a lovely night at the theater. The torture of suspected terrorists was a singular transgression of this nation's values -- as well as a violation of U.S. and international law -- and it simply cannot be rationalized or ignored.

This obscene chapter in our history took place during the George W. Bush administration. For a time, Haspel was in charge of one of the CIA's secret overseas prisons -- a "black site" located in Thailand. She is credibly reported to have been the boss there when a detainee named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged planner of the deadly attack against the USS Cole, was subjected three times to the torture known as waterboarding.

You will recall that the Bush administration used the Orwellian term "enhanced interrogation techniques," perhaps in an attempt to convince those implementing the policy that what they were doing was legally and morally acceptable. But the euphemism is a despicable lie. Waterboarding is torture, and it is clearly against the law.

After World War II, at the Tokyo war crimes trials, a number of Japanese soldiers found guilty of waterboarding prisoners of war were hanged or given long prison sentences. U.S. victims testified to the gruesome horror of these episodes of simulated drowning. No one questioned the fact that waterboarding was a particularly sadistic form of torture. No one should question it now.

The torture of al-Nashiri was videotaped. Acting on orders from her CIA supervisor, Haspel wrote a cable ordering the destruction of those tapes -- even though she and the supervisor had been told to preserve them as evidence in an ongoing investigation. The videotapes were indeed destroyed.

A stopped clock is right twice a day; Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., somewhat less often. But Paul is a hero for raising a racket about the torture issue and announcing his opposition to Haspel's nomination.

"What is known is that Haspel participated in a program that was antithetical to the ideals of this country. She destroyed evidence in defiance of our ideals," Paul wrote in a Politico op-ed. "I simply do not believe she should hold the post to which she has been nominated."

Initial reports that Haspel oversaw even more torture appear to have been wrong, and her supporters will try to make the debate about that error -- thus diverting attention from the central issue. But the al-Nashiri torture has not been disputed, and Haspel clearly ordered destruction of the evidence. That is reason enough for the Senate to vote no.

It is unclear what other mistreatment Haspel may have overseen in Thailand -- depriving detainees of sleep, subjecting them to extreme temperatures, forcing them to remain in painful positions for extended periods of time. Some of these "techniques" probably also qualify as torture, in my view. About waterboarding, however, there is not really a question.

Given the overall chaos of the Trump administration and the president's erratic conduct of foreign policy, it would be good to have an experienced, internally respected CIA veteran at the helm of the agency. And it would be a milestone for the CIA to be run, for the first time, by a woman. But these pluses are outweighed by one big minus: torture.

It can be argued that Haspel was just following orders, but she should have known that those orders were illegal. And if she and others who played a role in waterboarding did nothing wrong, then why did they destroy the videotapes of those supposedly legitimate "enhanced interrogation" sessions? In most U.S. courts, such action would be seen as an indication of "consciousness of guilt."

Despite Trump's bluster, his outgoing CIA director, Mike Pompeo, flatly ruled out any return to torture during his confirmation hearings. It is understandable that agency officials would want to put the whole sordid affair behind them. We may never be able to hold the authors of torture accountable, but we can, and should, insist that they not be rewarded.

I hope Haspel is at peace with the choices she has made. The Senate's choice should be to say no.

Eugene Robinson's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Is Trump's coziness with Putin causing the White House to panic?

By michael gerson
Is Trump's coziness with Putin causing the White House to panic?


(Advance for Friday, March 23, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, March 22, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- As a former presidential staffer, I have little patience for leaks. Any president deserves and requires the ability to conduct policy discussions in private. Leaks are an abuse of power and position, generally by people who are unelected and self-serving.

But motivations matter, and the taxonomy of White House leakage is a worthy study. A surprising number of leaks are the result of simple vanity -- the desire to appear in the know. Other leakers are trying to embarrass or sabotage a rival. Some leaks result from deviousness -- the attempt to box the president in on a policy matter.

The exposure of a White House briefing document telling President Trump "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" Russia's Vladimir Putin on his sham election victory -- leaked after Trump congratulated Putin on his sham election victory -- falls into a different category. It seems to have been motivated by desperation.

The circle of aides with access to the president's briefing book -- in the George W. Bush administration, a big, black binder sent along with the president to the residence each night -- is small. The disclosure of an important briefing memo makes a leak investigation inevitable, and more likely to produce the culprit.

Someone at the White House, presumably on the national security team, has taken a large personal risk to call attention to Trump's mysteriously cozy relationship with a strategic rival. This is just extraordinary -- and extraordinarily frightening. In most administrations, the aides closest to the president have the greatest sense of loyalty. In this case, an aide close to the president is expressing panic. He or she cannot explain the hold that Putin has over Trump. This leak is a cry for help from within the White House itself.

It is not that the Trump administration has been entirely unwilling to take steps to counter Russian aggression. The provision of arms to Ukraine, for example, indicated a foreign policy apparatus still capable of pursuing American interests. The problem is Trump's strange inability to confront Putin personally -- about his oppressive rule, the disruption of America's electoral process, human rights violations and even attempted murder on the soil of a NATO ally. Trump's initial instinct is to explain such abuses away.

It deepens the mystery that all of Trump's political interests push in the opposite direction. A president pulled into an investigation of improper ties to Russia might be expected to distance himself from disturbing Russian behavior. Such public criticisms are an easy and cheap form of damage control. But at every stage, Trump has been dragged kicking and screaming into the pursuit of self-interest.

Trump has not provided an adequate explanation for his radical departure from the diplomatic norm. It is not enough to say, as he did in a recent tweet, "Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing." Ronald Reagan's diplomatic engagement of the Soviet Union did not translate into fawning subservience toward a dictator. Such self-abasement actually emboldens dictators. And it is rich for Trump to accuse other presidents of lacking "smarts" about U.S./Russian relations in the course of a foreign policy explanation at the length and level of a fortune-cookie saying.

Into this vacuum of plausible explanation have flooded other theories. "I think he is afraid of the president of Russia," former CIA Director John Brennan recently speculated. "The Russians may have something on him personally that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult." This might seem incredible, except for the fact that Trump's first national security adviser (Michael Flynn) was forced out over blackmail fears, and one of his principle foreign policy advisers (Jared Kushner) has been denied top secret security clearance because he might be susceptible to undue influence.

It says something that the most innocent explanation for Trump's attitude toward Putin is authoritarian envy. Trump seems to admire the strength and efficiency of personal rule. "At least he's a leader," Trump once said of Putin, "unlike what we have in this country." A Trump adviser once leaked to The Washington Post: "Who are the three guys in the world he most admires? President Xi [Jinping] of China, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Putin."

This now covers the range of likely options -- from the influence of a foreign power to the thrall of a foreign ideology. In the absence of adequate explanation from Trump himself, it is up to Robert Mueller to provide clarity.

Michael Gerson's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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