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Investigating the online enablers of child sex-trafficking

By John Anderson
Investigating the online enablers of child sex-trafficking

It's tough getting a consensus on anything these days, but child sex abuse and human trafficking are generally considered indefensible crimes. So who's defending them?

According to "I Am Jane Doe," that would be Google. And Microsoft. And Facebook. And Yahoo.

Directed by Mary Mazzio ("Lemonade Stories," "Underwater Dreams") and coming May 26 to Netflix after a theatrical run earlier this year, the documentary advocates for victims of online trafficking while taking principal aim at the classified-ad website, a notorious venue for sex ads and transactions, many involving children. In its indictment of and the tech companies that are indirectly supporting the website, the film may also give a public relations boost to members of Congress working to tighten laws surrounding internet liability. In doing so, "I Am Jane Doe" may be the rare social-issue documentary that has an effect on a social issue.

According to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, online service providers cannot be held liable for third-party content. But that means if someone sells a 13-year-old on its pages, Backpage says, it isn't responsible. And so far, court after court has agreed - to the relief of First Amendment absolutists, and the Silicon Valley companies mentioned above, which support, financially, organizations defending Backpage's position.

As the film explains - through the voices of victims, their mothers, their advocates and narrator Jessica Chastain - neither side is letting up.

Backpage was once part of Village Voice Media and is now owned by a Dutch firm, although founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin and chief executive Carl Ferrer have been named in the suits. "I Am Jane Doe" picks up the Backpage saga in 2010 with lawsuits filed by girls who were trafficked on its pages, and continues through a Senate subcommittee investigation led by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in January, as well as criminal charges of pimping and money laundering brought by then-California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, now a Democratic senator. It also focuses on the effort that has thus far made the most headway - a civil suit that continues in Washington state, piloted by lawyer Erik Bauer. Backpage will try to get that case dismissed during a summary judgment hearing Wednesday. A jury trial is scheduled for Oct. 9.

"I think we'll kick their a--," Bauer said from his office in Tacoma, Washington. His argument, which has since been adopted by other plaintiffs, was that because Backpage provided guidelines about how posters could sculpt their ads to evade law-enforcement scrutiny, it made itself culpable outside the scope of Section 230.

Some parties to the issue disagree vigorously - it's not about sex trafficking, but about liability.

"People looking at different legislative remedies are going to have to look at the other consequences of those proposals," said Emma Llanso, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the groups that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Backpage. She said those consequences could include online censorship, a disincentive for providers to actually monitor their content (lest they open themselves to legal liability), and an invasion of the social media "that we all use every day."

Google has contributed tens of millions toward eradicating human trafficking. So have many of the big tech companies. But according to a report issued by Consumer Watchdog, a public interest organization in California, many of the same companies - including Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, but Google more than any other - have also contributed to the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Dozens of scholars, institutions and public-interest groups, many supported by Google and other companies, have lobbied against an overhaul of Section 230, saying that it could change the nature of the entire internet. The report also alleges that Google makes $1 billion a year off postings for unlawful material and services, from pirated movies to child porn to prostitution.

"If there's going to be an amendment to keep websites from helping sex traffickers, the only way it's going to happen is if Google doesn't stand in the way" said Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog. "There's no reason they should except they fear it's a slippery slope and they'll be held liable one day for something less egregious than what Backpage is doing.

"What's Google going to do?" Court asked. "Be evil?" (Google's longtime corporate motto was "Don't be evil.")

Google would only say in an email, through a spokeswoman, "We have long contributed to many independent organizations because of their advocacy on a wide range of Internet issues, including privacy, surveillance reform and the open Internet. We will continue to use our technology to combat child sex trafficking and connect victims and survivors with the resources they need."

"I Am Jane Doe" is an unabashed victim-advocacy film and has followed a route previously traveled by "The Invisible War" (sexual assault in the military), "The Hunting Ground" (campus rape) and "Trapped" (the war against reproductive choice): It's taken its social-issue argument directly to Congress.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., had been working for a year to draft a bill that would exclude sex trafficking from Section 230 protections, but used the occasion of a February congressional screening of "I Am Jane Doe" to announce the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which now has bipartisan support.

"This is a criminal issue," said Wagner. "Opponents of this bill have been brilliant in shaping their opposition as a First Amendment issue, but that's bogus and they know it."

"Of course, we all believe in freedom of speech. At the time this (act) was written, people weren't selling kids online, let alone Backpage," said Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain and one of the anti-trafficking advocates who appears in the film, via email. "It's not a freedom-of-speech issue, it's a human rights issue."

Wagner said she thought "I Am Jane Doe" would be instrumental in "helping drive this bill across the finish line." Over the years, films like "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Food Inc." have probably left a considerable long-term impression on their viewers, but those viewers were likely to be sympathetic before they bought their tickets. Convincing lawmakers is a different thing entirely.

"The film definitely has created some additional leverage on the Hill," said Yiota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Virginia. "Mary gave a voice to what a lot of attorneys and nonprofit organizations have been working on for years."

Portman agreed. "We need to raise awareness about it, and that's what this film does," he said, adding that earlier this year, the members of his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, who include Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., "were able to show that (Backpage) knowingly tried to take out evidence of criminality to increase their own profits." He was looking forward to drafting legislation that "narrows" Section 230.

"I think the tech community is willing to work with us," he said, "but they are understandably concerned that if you go too far it will affect the ability to have a free internet. We all get that - we're not trying to shut down the internet. What we're trying to do is make it work better and safer."

Mazzio simply hopes her film will spare a few children the horrors recounted in the film.

"There's a cultural view of these crimes that says 'It's kind of sorta prostitution, and what's the big deal about prostitution?'" Mazzio said. "You hear about a kid found in a dumpster and you say, 'Oh, that poor troubled kid.' ... But the scope of this problem shows it's simply not reality."

Glowing heads of mice point to brain discovery

By David Kohn
Glowing heads of mice point to brain discovery
A brain scan from an older individual who had Alzheimer's disease shows patches of aquaporin-4 in red. In cognitively healthy people, the protein is more evently distributed. MUST CREDIT: Oregon Health and Science University.

Kari Alitalo had studied lymphatic vessels for more than two decades. So he knew that this network, which carries immune cells throughout the body and removes waste and toxins, didn't extend into the brain: This had been accepted wisdom for more than 300 years. "Nobody questioned that it stopped at the brain," says Alitalo, a scientist at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

Three years ago, Alitalo wanted to develop a more precise map of the lymphatic system. To do this, he used genetically modified mice whose lymphatic vessels glowed when illuminated by a particular wavelength of light. (The mice had been given a gene from a species of glowing jellyfish.)

When viewing the modified mice under the light, Aleksanteri Aspelund, a medical student in Alitalo's laboratory, saw something unexpected: The heads of the mice glowed. At first, he suspected that there was something wrong - with the animals, the lighting or the measuring equipment. But when Alitalo and Aspelund repeated the experiment, they got the same result. It seemed that the lymphatic vessels extended to the brain after all.

This was surprising, to say the least: In the 21st century, major findings involving basic human anatomy are rare. "These days, you don't make discoveries like this," Alitalo says. "But every once in a while in science, you stumble on something really unexpected. You open a new door, to a whole new world."

Alitalo is one of several scientists exploring this new world. Working independently, several other researchers, including Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester and Jonathan Kipnis of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, have also shown that lymphatic vessels extend into the brain.

The discovery is much more than a historical footnote. It has major implications for a wide variety of brain diseases, including Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Researchers have identified two networks: the vessels that lead into and surround the brain, and those within the brain itself. The first is known as the lymphatic system for the brain, while the latter is called the glymphatic system. The "g" added to "lymphatic" refers to glia, the kind of neuron that makes up the lymphatic vessels in the brain. The glymphatic vessels carry cerebrospinal fluid and immune cells into the brain and remove cellular trash from it.

Alitalo, Nedergaard, Kipnis and others have found evidence that when the systems malfunction, the brain can become clogged with toxins and suffused with inflammatory immune cells. Over decades, this process may play a key role in Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative illnesses, research suggests. "This is a revolutionary finding," Nedergaard says. "This system plays a huge role in the health of the brain."

Nedergaard describes the glymphatic system as like a dishwasher for the brain. "The brain is very active," she says, "and so it produces a lot of junk that needs to be cleaned out."

In hindsight, she says, the system should have been noticed long ago. When the skull and head are dissected, the vessels are visible to the naked eye. But no one bothered to really look: "Usually the brain is seen only as a bunch of nerve cells. We have come to think of the brain as a computer. And it's not. It's a living organ."

Nedergaard and Helene Benveniste, a scientist at Yale University, have found evidence linking problems in the lymphatic and glymphatic systems to Alzheimer's. In a study on mice, they showed that glymphatic dysfunction contributes to the buildup in the brain of amyloid beta, a protein that plays a key role in the disease.

Last year, Jeff Iliff, a neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University, and several colleagues examined postmortem tissue from 79 human brains. They focused on aquaporin-4, a key protein in glymphatic vessels. In the brains of people with Alzheimer's, this protein was jumbled; in those without the disease, the protein was well organized. This suggests that glymphatic breakdowns may play a role in the disease, Iliff says.

The vessels have also been implicated in autoimmune disease. Researchers knew that the immune system has limited access to the brain. But at the same time, the immune system kept tabs on the brain's status; no one knew exactly how. Some researchers theorize that the glymphatic system could be the conduit and that in diseases such as multiple sclerosis - where the body's immune system attacks certain brain cells - the communication may go awry.

The system may also play a role in symptoms of traumatic brain injury. Nedergaard has shown that in mice, the injuries can produce lasting damage to the glymphatic vessels, which are quite fragile. Mice are a good model, she says, because their glymphatic systems are very similar to humans'. She and Iliff found that even months after being injured, the animals' brains were still not clearing waste efficiently, leading to a buildup of toxic compounds, including amyloid beta. Nedergaard returns to the dishwasher analogy. "It's like if you only use a third of the water when you turn on the machine," she says. "You won't get clean dishes."

Recent research has also found evidence that the glymphatic system may extend into the eye. For decades, scientists have noted that many people with Alzheimer's disease also have glaucoma, in which damage to the optic nerve causes vision loss. But they struggled to find a common mechanism; the glymphatic system may be the link.

In January, Belgian and Swiss researchers identified a rich network of glymphatic vessels within the optic nerve. The scientists also found that when these vessels malfunction, they seem to leave behind deposits of amyloid beta as well as other neurotoxins that damage the optic nerve.

And in March, Harvard University researchers reported that glymphatic flow is significantly decreased in the period just before a migraine. The intense pain in these headaches is caused largely by inflamed nerves in the tissue that surrounds the brain. Neuroscientists Rami Burstein and Aaron Schain, the lead authors, theorize that faulty clearance of molecular waste from the brain could trigger inflammation in these pain fibers.

One key to glymphatic performance seems to be sleep. Nedergaard has shown that at least in mice, the system processes twice as much fluid during sleep as it does during wakefulness. She and her colleagues focused on amyloid beta; they found that the lymphatic system removed much more of the protein when the animals were asleep than when they were awake. She suggests that over time, sleep dysfunction may contribute to Alzheimer's and perhaps other brain illnesses. "You only clean your brain when you're sleeping," she says. "This is probably an important reason that we sleep. You need time off from consciousness to do the housekeeping."

Nedergaard and Benveniste have also found that sleep position is crucial. In an upright position - someone who is sitting or standing - waste is removed much less efficiently. Sleeping on your stomach is also not very effective; sleeping on your back is somewhat better, while lying on your side appears to produce the best results. The reason for these differences remains unclear, but Nedergaard suspects that it is probably related to the mechanical engineering of the lymphatic vessels and valves; she suggests that the healthiest approach may be to move periodically while you sleep.

Sleep is probably not the only way to improve glymphatic flow. For instance, a paper published in January by Chinese researchers reported that in mice, omega-3 fatty acidsimproved glymphatic functioning.

Benveniste is examining dexmedetomidine, an anesthetic that may have the ability to improve glymphatic flow. And in a small human study, other scientists have found that deep breathing significantly increases the glymphatic transport of cerebrospinal fluid into the brain.

Alitalo is experimenting with growth factors, compounds that can foster regrowth of the vessels in and around the brain. He has used this method to repair lymphatic vessels in pigs and is now testing the approach in the brains of mice that have a version of Alzheimer's.

"Right now there are no clinical therapies in this area," he says. "But give it a little time. This has only just been discovered."

'A place of healing, respect and tranquility'

By Kellie B. Gormly
'A place of healing, respect and tranquility'
Volunteers plant trees Saturday at the site where Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The

SOMERSET COUNTY, Pa. - A few dozen people spread out on a bumpy, bulldozed hillside, piercing the ground, twisting up the dirt, digging holes and planting delicate seedlings.

Someday this rocky former mining site will be covered with tens of thousands of baby trees rising out of the ground. But volunteer efforts to plant along this Southwestern Pennsylvania expanse aren't meant to cover up what happened here. Instead, the trees are meant to help people remember.

On Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into this field, a hijacked San Francisco-bound jet ultimately felled after passengers and crew members revolted, preventing terrorists from reaching their intended target in Washington, D.C. Officials believe the terrorists wanted to crash into the U.S. Capitol Building - but ultimately hit the ground in Pennsylvania at more than 500 miles per hour rather than fully lose control of the hijacked plane.

The "Plant a Tree at Flight 93" project - which has provided thousands of volunteer-planted baby trees in designated spots at the 2,200-acre site since 2011 - aims to honor the victims of Flight 93 with something beautiful and beneficial, officials said. This year, some 500 volunteers came out on Friday and Saturday to plant more than 11,000 new seedlings among 17 acres. By 2020, leaders hope to have 150,000 trees.

"It will help heal this scarred land where the crash site is, and where the mine used to be," said Henry Scully, executive director of the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial. "It is all part of the healing process."

The trees - including 15 species, such as black cherry, black locust, American chestnut, red oak and white pine - will help make the memorial site "a place of healing, respect and tranquility," Scully said. The Pittsburgh native lost several friends in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

Flight 93 was one commercial airplane out of four that were hijacked in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, with al-Qaida terrorists taking control of the plane after it left Newark on its coast-to-coast flight. Because its takeoff was delayed, it was still airborne after airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Passengers and crew, learning of the attacks and a national grounding order for all aircraft, worked to thwart the hijackers' plans to use Flight 93 in a similar attack.

All 44 people aboard were killed - 33 passengers, seven crew and four hijackers - but no one on the ground was injured.

The memorial, part of the National Park Service, surrounds the area where the flight hit in a rural part of Pennsylvania, which by flight time is about 20 minutes from Washington. The tree-planting effort is intended to reforest the area and provide a windbreak for the memorial.

Volunteers broke off into teams of 20 Friday, with each member pairing up with a partner, one to do the digging, another to do the planting. The seedlings have about a 75 percent survival rate, with the rest succumbing to damage from winter weather or deer, Scully said. The baby trees stand about 1 to 3 feet tall, but after several years of growth, they will serve as a shield against the strong winds that blow across the memorial site.

The planting event attracted many people in conservation lines of work, like biologist Natalie Shearer, 39, of Pittsburgh. She squatted down with a seedling, while her co-worker and planting partner - Jesse Killosky, 29, of Finleyville, Pa., - stomped on a dibble bar to carve out the dirt. Both women work for AECOM, a Pittsburgh-based engineering firm that does environmental consulting.

"It's really a good experience," Shearer said. "It's such a sacred site."

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

An orb, a sword and a slap

By kathleen parker
An orb, a sword and a slap

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- By now you’re exhausted by all the head-swiveling news -- the terrorist slaughter in Manchester; the president’s trip to Everywhere; and investigation upon investigation of the possible collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice, and liars by the dozen.

Which is why I’m sitting in Palm Beach practicing Lilly Pulitzer’s dictum: “Being happy never goes out of style.”

Also, President Trump is not here, which seems to please everyone since his frequent forays to his “southern White House” have meant nothing but roadblocks, impenetrable traffic and lousy retail sales.

The otherworldliness of the nation’s most glamorous beach town makes current events seem at times remote. This sense was magnified recently by visions of Trump’s sword-dancing, orb-fondling, and demonstration of ugly Americanism in its latest iteration of massive wealth, arms deals and blind-eye talking -- the president’s uncanny ability to see only what he chooses and to speak in terms compatible with that vision. Witness: His condemnation of Iran, which recently re-elected a moderate president, while schmoozing in autocratic Saudi Arabia, whence came 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists.

Other-awareness has never been Trump’s strong suit, especially as concerns his wife, Melania, who forever-famously appeared to flick away the president’s hand when he reached toward her, seemingly trying to mimic Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was holding his own wife’s hand.

Captured on film, it was the flick (or slap?) seen ‘round the world -- and in many cases, cheered. In that instant, the first lady became every American woman who donned a pink-kitten hat to protest the then-new president -- and cemented her status as star of the show: “Melania of Arabia, High Priestess of the Testosterone-Intoxicated, Tiny-Hands Revue.” Or something like that.

All politics aside -- Melania and Ivanka Trump stood as beacons of light in a part of the world that remains cloaked in the darkness of religious fundamentalism and oppression. Preternaturally beautiful, they seemed to glide as apparitions above the sea of dark suits and white robes and must have struck fear in the hearts of men whose culture demands that women be publicly invisible.

Yes, they were relegated to traditional role-playing in Saudi Arabia. Some might have wished they’d had more significant roles, though surely Melania and Ivanka were grateful to be excluded from the all-guy Toby Keith concert. Otherwise, the importance of adhering to protocol can’t be exaggerated in diplomatic relations.

Many also noted that Melania declined to cover her head, which isn’t required of visiting dignitaries. Nor is going bare-headed considered insulting despite citizen Trump’s tweet criticizing Michelle Obama when she chose to leave her head uncovered. For the record, Laura Bush didn’t cover her head either while in Saudi Arabia 10 years ago, despite breathless headlines to the contrary. Both Greta Van Susteren and I were present and can attest that Bush only briefly donned a black scarf festooned with pink ribbons as a gesture of gratitude for the gift. It came from Saudi women showing their appreciation for the first lady’s efforts to raise awareness for breast cancer prevention and treatment in the Middle East, where, at the time, 80 percent of women with breast cancer died of the disease.

It is true that Western women are encouraged to dress modestly, as Melania and Ivanka did. It helps that both are beautiful and have fathomless wardrobe budgets. Despite their apparent ornamentalism, there’s little doubt both women made a lasting impression on Saudi women, who would have recognized and identified with their feminine power. Wordlessly, they projected strength, intelligence, grace -- and a timeless wisdom that all women share.

This was also the impression of a Palm Beach image consultant I interviewed here, Susan Bigsby, who for 30 years has dressed an elite, diverse clientele -- from a transgender executive to first ladies to a Syrian Muslim seeking to Westernize her wardrobe with attention to her cultural modesty. Following the petite Bigsby up and down Worth Avenue as she shopped for a client was like tracking a hummingbird on a sugar spree.

“Perfect and stunning,” she said of Ivanka and Melania. “Muslim women, while respecting their religion, also love glamour. You can be sure they were studying -- and appreciating -- Melania and Ivanka. ... They represented the American woman with appropriateness, elegance and style.”

Thus, as your long-suffering Palm Beach correspondent, I propose a toast to America’s first ladies for showing the world that despite our coarse, ham-fisted president, we have not completely forsaken class.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

The midterms might become the ‘impeachment election’

By david ignatius
The midterms might become the ‘impeachment election’

WASHINGTON -- President Nixon was heading for a big re-election victory in November that would confound his critics. He had just returned from a pathbreaking visit to China and had big transformative ideas for foreign policy. Yet he felt hounded by his enemies and a media elite that opposed him at every turn.

And there was that pesky FBI investigation into a “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate office building, about which the media were asking meddlesome questions. Nixon wrote in his diary after a later, revelatory Washington Post scoop about Watergate that this was “the last burp of the Eastern Establishment,” recalls Evan Thomas in a recent book. Nixon was trying to do the people’s business, but he felt angry, isolated and embattled.

Then Nixon did something very stupid. On June 23, 1972, he instructed his chief of staff to contact the CIA and have its deputy director, Vernon Walters, tell the FBI to back off on its investigation: “They should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case, period.” The tape recording of this conversation became known as “the smoking gun.”

President Trump, it’s said, doesn’t read presidential biographies. That’s a shame. For he appears to be making the same mistakes that destroyed Nixon’s presidency. That’s the thrust of the Post’s big story Monday night reporting that Trump asked U.S. intelligence chiefs to challenge the FBI’s investigation of possible links between his campaign and Russia.

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” writes Timothy Snyder in his new book, “On Tyranny.” Some people, apparently including Trump, just don’t learn.

The world is probably baffled by Washington’s obsession with the Russia scandal. Trump seems popular abroad, as Nixon was. That’s especially true in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China where leaders are tired of being lectured by America and the public is fascinated by the cartoon-like “big man” character that Trump projects.

Give Trump credit for the unlikely foreign policy success he’s had: His trip to Saudi Arabia embraced a Muslim monarchy that is trying to break with its intolerant past. He convinced the Saudis and other Gulf States to ban financing of terrorists, even by private citizens. That’s a “win” for good policy. Earlier, he cajoled China into playing a stronger role in dealing with North Korea. Yes, these are “flip-flops” -- reversing his earlier, inflammatory anti-Muslim and anti-Beijing rhetoric -- but so what? They’re smart moves.

Yet no foreign or domestic success will stop the slow unfolding of the investigation that is now underway. That’s the importance of last week’s appointment of the impeccable Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Russia matter. The process can’t be derailed now. If the president or his associates are guilty of wrongdoing, Mueller will find it. If they’re innocent, he’ll discover that, too. From what we know about the former FBI director, he won’t tolerate leaks about his investigation.

For all Mueller’s probity, this investigation has an inescapable political destination. Mueller must refer any evidence of wrongdoing by Trump himself to the House of Representatives as evidence of possible “high crimes and misdemeanors” that might warrant impeachment. Would this GOP-dominated House begin impeachment proceedings, even on strong evidence of obstruction? Right now, you’d have to guess no.

The real collision point ahead is the 2018 midterm election. This will be the “impeachment election,” and it may be as bitterly contested as any in decades. Trump seems unlikely to take Nixon’s course of resigning before the House votes impeachment. He’ll fight all the way -- a combative president trying to save his mandate from what he has described as a media “witch hunt.” This appeal would resonate with a populist base that already feels disenfranchised by jurists and journalists.

As Mueller proceeds with his investigation, the world of Washington needs to be level-headed. The politics of polarization is only beginning. Trump’s war on the media and its sources will get nastier. How do citizens hold Trump accountable without the process seeming like vengeful payback from media and political elites? Graham Allison, the founding dean of Harvard’s Belfer Center, notes that elite opinion may already see Trump as “unfit for office,” but he cautions: “When I contrast this with what many fellow citizens believe about elites, yikes.”

Under our Constitution, the House and Senate are prosecutor and jury, respectively, for serious presidential misconduct. But this legal process probably won’t be triggered without a poisonously divisive election. If recent history teaches anything, it’s unfortunately this harsh fact: In the battle for America’s soul, Trump could win.

David Ignatius’ email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN for May 24, 2017Page 2

Trump could use a history lesson on NAFTA

By ruben navarrette jr.
Trump could use a history lesson on NAFTA

SAN DIEGO -- President Trump is an expert on some things. The North American Free Trade Agreement is not one of them.

He understands human nature better than most. He knows how we like to blame our problems on external forces, how indifferent the elites can be to working-class struggles, and the strain that immigration and trade can place on low-skilled American workers who feel besieged and displaced. He also understands how to cynically mix together those ingredients, add a dash of fear with racial undertones, and whip up a magic stew capable of transporting a carnival barker to the White House.

But the president has much to learn about the history of NAFTA.

He’d better study up fast. Last week, the Trump administration formally notified Congress of its intent to renegotiate the agreement. While it’s unlikely that Americans will ever see a brick-and-mortar wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump is well on his way to keeping at least one campaign promise.

In a letter to congressional leaders, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said that the administration wants NAFTA to be “modernized.”

I’m worried that “modernized” is Trump-speak for “gutted.”

Now, the meter is running. In less than 90 days, the United States can start renegotiating the agreement with its partners -- Mexico and Canada. The idea is for Congress and the White House to spend these next three months conferring about how to change NAFTA in order to benefit American workers.

Trump is convinced -- probably because he says it so often -- that NAFTA is unfair to Americans. He has it backward.

NAFTA should in fact be renegotiated -- because it has traditionally been unfair to Mexicans. The truth is that, in the past, the trade agreement has been unfair to Mexicans.

Consider the illuminating example of Mexican trucks, which were largely kept off U.S. roadways -- in violation of NAFTA -- during much of the Clinton and Obama years.

This was all to please the Teamsters. You see, union truck drivers don’t want to compete with Mexican drivers for lucrative long-haul contracts in the United States, even if the jobs originate in Mexico. And they have the political muscle to make themselves a monopoly.

So, for years, U.S. drivers benefited from this crazy system where Mexican trucks were barred from going beyond 25 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican truckers would have to pull over and transfer their cargo onto U.S. trucks, which would then complete the journey to cities like Milwaukee, Seattle or St. Louis.

That’s not fair, and it’s harmful for commerce. How do unions defend something like that? Technically they don’t have to. That’s why they line the pockets of Democratic politicians, who then make the argument for them on the House floor or Senate chamber.

And that’s where things got ugly. In the immigration debate, it’s usually Republicans who flirt with racism and demagoguery to serve their narrow political interests. But in the debate over NAFTA, and the Mexican trucks, it was Democrats who played that game as they shamelessly attempted to camouflage their errand for the unions as a public-safety issue.

All through the 1990s, Americans were told how rickety and unsafe these Mexican trucks were, and how Mexican drivers were likely hauling drugs or were themselves operating under the influence of drugs. The idea was to scare Americans into maintaining the 25-mile prohibition -- despite the fact that people living in U.S. border communities such as Brownsville, Texas, or San Diego shared their highways with Mexican trucks every day and never had much trouble.

President Obama finally lifted the ban and granted the Mexican truckers permanent access to U.S. roadways, but that didn’t happen until January 2015. That was more than 20 years after NAFTA went into effect. By then, Obama was closing out his second term and no longer had to worry about carrying water for the Teamsters and labor unions.

Now there’s a fear that Trump will use the NAFTA renegotiation to scrap that order, and take us back to the dark days of the Clinton administration. If Trump succeeds in running Mexican trucks off U.S. roadways, how strange would that be? A Republican president adopting the pro-union protectionist policies of a Democratic predecessor.

It makes you wonder. Democrats are implying that Trump works for Russia. We should be asking if he really works for them.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

Like the Tinman, the president’s budget proposal has no heart

By michelle singletary
Like the Tinman, the president’s budget proposal has no heart

WASHINGTON -- Apparently the Trump administration wants to balance the federal budget in part on the backs of the poor, the sick and the marginalized.

In the budget proposal released Tuesday by the White House, the deepest cuts come at the expense of the most needy.

Taking major hits would be Medicaid, food stamps and other public aid for low-income children and families. The budget also calls for an end to subsidized federal student loans and the public-service loan-forgiveness program.

It’s a wildly overreaching proposal that is likely to look tremendously different by the time it’s signed into law. Much of what’s in it probably will get stripped out by Congress. Still, the budget speaks volumes about what the administration thinks of struggling low- and middle-income people.

It’s an affront to Americans who seek a better life but have fallen.

I’ll brace myself for the onslaught of hate-filled, name-calling vitriol from people who believe President Trump’s budget is right on the money. Many people think their fellow citizens find themselves in need because they haven’t tried hard enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Or because they are lazy or financially irresponsible.

It is not without truth that many people experiencing money troubles have made monumentally bad decisions. But that does not mean -- if we aspire to be a civil and caring society -- that we don’t put in place safety nets to help people recover and rise above their circumstances.

I have a front seat in the struggle to help people get back on their feet. I run a volunteer ministry at my church in which we spend a year helping folks budget better, get out of debt and save. I also work with prison inmates, teaching them how to manage their finances once released. So I think I have the in-the-trenches credibility to comment on the underlying tone of the administration’s budget.

This plan is cruel.

And by issuing it, the White House is basically saying to people: You are on your own.

I often preach that families should borrow as little as possible for college. But the Trump budget would eliminate subsidized loans, which make borrowing less expensive for needy students.

Also gone would be the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program available to borrowers who take jobs with the government or nonprofit organizations. Many of these people chose to work for us -- the public -- making less than they might in the private sector and under the assumption that they could get some debt relief.

Trump’s budget essentially says: How dare people be born to addicted, alcoholic or financially challenged parents who can’t take care of them. The proposal would slash various public assistance programs.

How dare people not be able to find a job that pays enough to allow them to eat every day.

The budget calls for more than $193 billion in cuts from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps. And the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would be scythed by almost $22 billion.

How dare you get sick and not have a job that provides health care.

The budget proposal calls for a piercing cut of more than $800 billion over the next 10 years in Medicaid, which provides health coverage to low-income Americans. The Children’s Health Insurance Program would see $3.2 billion in cuts compared to the previous year’s budget.

Don’t become disabled, because it’d be tougher to get help under this plan. The White House estimates it can reduce funding to federal disability programs by reducing program participation.

And how dare the country’s most vulnerable believe the president when he said that Mexico will pay for a wall to seal off the border.

Under the budget Trump put forth, American citizens would have to make do with weakened safety-net programs so that he can spend $1.6 billion (BEG ITAL)of our money(END ITAL) to start construction of a wall.

There is some hope. This brutal budget has several steep obstacles to overcome.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement: “In our system of government, the president proposes and Congress disposes. Congress has the power of the purse strings. I’ve never seen a president’s budget proposal not revised substantially.”

In a briefing, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney tried to summarize the rationale behind the proposal.

“What’s the heart of this?” he said. “I’m trying to figure out a way to articulate this the best.”

Let me help you, Mr. Mulvaney.

The federal budget should be tighter, and we do need to reduce the deficit. But not like this.

This is a budget that needs the Wizard of Oz, because it doesn’t have a heart.

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

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump’s house of betrayal

By michael gerson
Trump’s house of betrayal

WASHINGTON -- It is another stomach-turning development in the vast, unfolding scandal that is the Trump administration: President Trump’s denigration of former FBI Director James Comey to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office. In a New York Times story, Trump is quoted as saying, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” Aside from the irony of the statement itself, it is appalling that an American president should be caught boasting about obstructing justice to the representative of a power that is so expert on the topic. Such is the mindset of our (BEG ITAL)Erdogannabe(END ITAL).

“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump went on. “That’s taken off.” So the president is delusional as well as dishonorable.

And yet. How in God’s name did the reporter gain access to a discussion in the Oval? According to the story, the memcon -- the memorandum of conversation -- was “read to The New York Times by an American official.”

Let that sink in. This is a document of very limited distribution. According to sources I consulted, it typically would not have even been given to the director of the CIA. This was a leak of an extremely sensitive and highly classified document by a very senior person.

There are a number of explanations for why leakers leak. They may be trying to kneecap a rival. Sometimes leakers are embittered or just want to look and feel important. The “nut job” leak suggests something different: a real attack on the president from within his inner circle. It was designed to reveal Trump as a foolish figure and expose him to charges of obstruction. Whoever read this material over the telephone to a reporter was playing for the highest stakes.

He or she was also risking not only a career, but a prison term. If the leaker is exposed, this administration would give no quarter.

As someone who handled classified material during the George W. Bush administration, I can attest to the deadly seriousness of these matters. This type of a high-level leak leaves the president and his inner circle unable to trust his team. It leaves foreign officials unable to feel confident in the confidentially of the highest-level diplomatic discussions. And it points to a foreign policy establishment that is making political judgments, which involve serious dangers.

I have no doubt that Trump himself created the snake-pit atmosphere in which leaks are incessant. He raises questions about his own staff in public, presumably to keep them on their toes. He sends out representatives to provide cover -- putting their own credibility on the line -- and then undermines them (see H.R. McMaster). He is, according to press accounts, a yeller who has staff hiding in their offices. He fires people in a humiliating fashion (see Comey). He belittles proud professionals (see the whole CIA). His administration is comprised of fiefdoms engaged in more or less open warfare. It is likely that some on the White House staff are only staying to collect material for the inevitable tell-all books.

The moral tone of the Executive Office of the President is set by the president, and this one is morally stunted. In Trump’s house of betrayal, leaks must seem the normal way of doing business. And leaks against the president probably come from officials reaching the limits of their patience with dysfunction.

All true. But still: A leak of classified material to damage the president is the abrogation of a professional standard, and the arrogation of democratic authority. It can lead to a very bad place, in which national security and law enforcement officials are engaged in payback or (worse) pursuing political goals beyond their remit. This undermines the authority of the institutions they serve by confirming the view, held by a significant number of Americans, that the “system” is somehow rigged.

We can all imagine circumstances in which whistleblowing is justified, involving the prevention of immediate and irreparable damage to the country. But there is a proper sequencing for such actions. They should come after normal processes fail. America currently has regular-order processes -- involving a special counsel and congressional investigations -- in place. We are at the start of Trump’s reckoning, not the end.

Public officials should not respond to the fraying of democratic norms by further unraveling them. The proper answer to Trump’s assault on institutions is to adhere to them more strongly. And the proper response of a staffer pressed beyond the limits of his or her conscience is not to leak but to resign.

Michael Gerson’s email address is

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump’s cruel budget is just more propaganda

By dana milbank
Trump’s cruel budget is just more propaganda

WASHINGTON -- So it has come to this: A Russian government-funded propaganda outfit schooling the Trump administration on the cruelty of its proposed federal budget.

Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s budget director, unveiled Trump’s ghastly 2018 budget proposal Monday afternoon in the White House briefing room, and one point of pride was that it proposed that the child-care tax credit and the earned-income tax credit -- benefits for working families -- be denied to illegal immigrants. “It’s not right when you look at it from the perspective of people who pay the taxes,” Mulvaney declared.

But Andrew Feinberg, a reporter with Russia’s Sputnik news outfit, pointed out that many of the children who would be cut off under Trump’s proposal are U.S. citizens. “Whether they’re here illegally or not,” Feinberg noted, “those families have American-citizen children.”

Mulvaney, who probably didn’t know he was being interrogated by Sputnik, argued back, saying that Feinberg wasn’t duly considering taxpayers and that “we have all kinds of other programs” for poor kids.

At this, another reporter in the room interjected: “You’re cutting that, too.”

It was a bizarre scene: An organization financed by Vladimir Putin’s regime, in the White House, lecturing a Trump administration official. (Maybe they aren’t “colluding” after all.) But Trump’s budget is such that it leaves this White House’s credibility on a par with (or perhaps below) that of a Russian propaganda outfit.

The budget claims it balances the budget over a decade without touching Social Security and Medicare, while spending more on national security, the border, infrastructure and more.

How? The budget would eviscerate aid to the poor, and it makes preposterous assumptions about future growth. In other words -- a cruelty wrapped in a lie. Mulvaney acknowledged it’s a “fair point” that Congress will ignore the proposal. But this outrage deserves attention.

Trump, who once vowed “no cuts” to Medicaid, would now cut Medicaid by more than $800 billion, denying support to 10 million people. He lops a total of $1.7 trillion off that and similar programs, including food stamps, school lunches and Habitat for Humanity.

Mulvaney, in defending the budget, made a frank admission: “This is, I think, the first time in a long time an administration has written a budget through the eyes of people who actually are paying the taxes. Too often in Washington I think we often think only on the recipient side.”

Exactly. The rich pay the most in overall taxes (even if not by percentage), and they get the lion’s share of benefits from Trump’s budget. The poor and working poor pay little or nothing in federal income taxes -- and they would get little or nothing.

But even taking all benefits from the poor and the working class wouldn’t make a budget balance, particularly if Social Security and Medicare aren’t chopped. Even Mulvaney said he was “honestly surprised” he could balance the budget. How? By making magical assumptions.

Mulvaney said the annual growth the Obama administration and Congressional Budget Office forecast was “pessimistic.” A better word might be “responsible,” but the Trump administration realized what Mulvaney called an “ugly truth”: “You can never balance the budget at 1.9 percent” growth.

And so -- voila! -- the Trump administration assumes 3 percent growth for the next 10 years, a level not seen in decades. Magical assumptions make budgets magically balance.

Many of the press corps regulars were traveling, so Brian Karem, from the Montgomery County Sentinel in Maryland, called out the first question: “What about critics who say this budget is incredibly hardhearted, especially for the least of our brothers?”

Mulvaney said it was “hardhearted” to take money from taxpayers for ineffective programs.

CNBC’s John Harwood asked about Trump’s promise not to touch Medicaid. Mulvaney’s response was about Obamacare.

Another reporter asked whether there would be anything to replace cuts to medical care for pregnant women or preventive-care services. “The short answer is I don’t know,” Mulvaney said.

The budget director employed creative euphemisms, saying cuts to food stamps were part of a “cost sharing” plan with states. But he wasn’t really fooling anybody -- certainly not the man from Sputnik. Feinberg, an American, explained while smoking a Camel outside the briefing room that he was a freelancer who took the job because it was a paying gig. He filed two items for Sputnik, including one noting that Trump’s budget would deny tax credits to “parents who aren’t legally in the United States even if their children are American citizens.”

Feinberg’s reports were true. It’s the Trump budget assumptions and justifications that amount to propaganda.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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