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'You're a bunch of dopes and babies': Inside Trump's stunning tirade against generals

By Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker
'You're a bunch of dopes and babies': Inside Trump's stunning tirade against generals
President Donald Trump stops to talk to reporters as he walks fMarine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on Monday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

Editors: This article is adapted from "A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America," which will be published on Jan. 21 by Penguin Press.

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There is no more sacred room for military officers than 2E924 of the Pentagon, a windowless and secure vault where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet regularly to wrestle with classified matters. Its more common name is "the Tank." The Tank resembles a small corporate boardroom, with a gleaming golden oak table, leather swivel armchairs and other mid-century stylings. Inside its walls, flag officers observe a reverence and decorum for the wrenching decisions that have been made there.

Hanging prominently on one of the walls is The Peacemakers, a painting that depicts an 1865 Civil War strategy session with President Abraham Lincoln and his three service chiefs - Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. One hundred fifty-​two years after Lincoln hatched plans to preserve the Union, President Donald Trump's advisers staged an intervention inside the Tank to try to preserve the world order.

By that point, six months into his administration, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had grown alarmed by gaping holes in Trump's knowledge of history, especially the key alliances forged following World War II. Trump had dismissed allies as worthless, cozied up to authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere, and advocated withdrawing troops from strategic outposts and active theaters alike.

Trump organized his unorthodox worldview under the simplistic banner of "America First," but Mattis, Tillerson and Cohn feared his proposals were rash, barely considered, and a danger to America's superpower standing. They also felt that many of Trump's impulsive ideas stemmed from his lack of familiarity with U.S. history and, even, where countries were located. To have a useful discussion with him, the trio agreed, they had to create a basic knowledge, a shared language.

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So on July 20, 2017, Mattis invited Trump to the Tank for what he, Tillerson, and Cohn had carefully organized as a tailored tutorial. What happened inside the Tank that day crystallized the commander in chief's berating, derisive and dismissive manner, foreshadowing decisions such as the one earlier this month that brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. The Tank meeting was a turning point in Trump's presidency. Rather than getting him to appreciate America's traditional role and alliances, Trump began to tune out and eventually push away the experts who believed their duty was to protect the country by restraining his more dangerous impulses.

The episode has been documented numerous times, but subsequent reporting reveals a more complete picture of the moment and the chilling effect Trump's comments and hostility had on the nation's military and national security leadership.

Just before 10 a.m. on a scorching summer Thursday, Trump arrived at the Pentagon. He stepped out of his motorcade, walked along a corridor with portraits honoring former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, and stepped inside the Tank. The uniformed officers greeted their commander in chief. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford sat in the seat of honor midway down the table, because this was his room, and Trump sat at the head of the table facing a projection screen. Mattis and the newly confirmed deputy defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, sat to the president's left, with Vice President Mike Pence and Tillerson to his right. Down the table sat the leaders of the military branches, along with Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon was in the outer ring of chairs with other staff, taking his seat just behind Mattis and directly in Trump's line of sight.

Mattis, Cohn and Tillerson and their aides decided to use maps, graphics, and charts to tutor the president, figuring they would help keep him from getting bored. Mattis opened with a slide show punctuated by lots of dollar signs. Mattis devised a strategy to use terms the impatient president, schooled in real estate, would appreciate to impress upon him the value of U.S. investments abroad. He sought to explain why U.S. troops were deployed in so many regions and why America's safety hinged on a complex web of trade deals, alliances, and bases across the globe.

An opening line flashed on the screen, setting the tone: "The post-war international rules-based order is the greatest gift of the greatest generation." Mattis then gave a 20-minute briefing on the power of the NATO alliance to stabilize Europe and keep the United States safe. Bannon thought to himself, "Not good. Trump is not going to like that one bit." The internationalist language Mattis was using was a trigger for Trump.

"Oh, baby, this is going to be f---ing wild," Bannon thought. "If you stood up and threatened to shoot [Trump], he couldn't say 'postwar rules-based international order.' It's just not the way he thinks."

For the next 90 minutes, Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn took turns trying to emphasize their points, pointing to their charts and diagrams. They showed where U.S. personnel were positioned, at military bases, CIA stations, and embassies, and how U.S. deployments fended off the threats of terror cells, nuclear blasts, and destabilizing enemies in places including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Korea Peninsula, and Syria. Cohn spoke for about 20 minutes about the value of free trade with America's allies, emphasizing how he saw each trade agreement working together as part of an overall structure to solidify U.S. economic and national security.

Trump appeared peeved by the schoolhouse vibe but also allergic to the dynamic of his advisers talking at him. His ricocheting attention span led him to repeatedly interrupt the lesson. He heard an adviser say a word or phrase and then seized on that to interject with his take. For instance, the word "base" prompted him to launch in to say how "crazy" and "stupid" it was to pay for bases in some countries.

Trump's first complaint was to repeat what he had vented about to his national security adviser months earlier: South Korea should pay for a $10 billion missile defense system that the United States built for it. The system was designed to shoot down any short- and medium-range ballistic missiles from North Korea to protect South Korea and American troops stationed there. But Trump argued that the South Koreans should pay for it, proposing that the administration pull U.S. troops out of the region or bill the South Koreans for their protection.

"We should charge them rent," Trump said of South Korea. "We should make them pay for our soldiers. We should make money off of everything."

Trump proceeded to explain that NATO, too, was worthless. U.S. generals were letting the allied member countries get away with murder, he said, and they owed the United States a lot of money after not living up to their promise of paying their dues.

"They're in arrears," Trump said, reverting to the language of real estate. He lifted both his arms at his sides in frustration. Then he scolded top officials for the untold millions of dollars he believed they had let slip through their fingers by allowing allies to avoid their obligations.

"We are owed money you haven't been collecting!" Trump told them. "You would totally go bankrupt if you had to run your own business."

Mattis wasn't trying to convince the president of anything, only to explain and provide facts. Now things were devolving quickly. The general tried to calmly explain to the president that he was not quite right. The NATO allies didn't owe the United States back rent, he said. The truth was more complicated. NATO had a nonbinding goal that members should pay at least 2% of their gross domestic product on their defenses. Only five of the countries currently met that goal, but it wasn't as if they were shorting the United States on the bill.

More broadly, Mattis argued, the NATO alliance was not serving only to protect western Europe. It protected America, too. "This is what keeps us safe," Mattis said. Cohn tried to explain to Trump that he needed to see the value of the trade deals. "These are commitments that help keep us safe," Cohn said.

Bannon interjected. "Stop, stop, stop," he said. "All you guys talk about all these great things, they're all our partners, I want you to name me now one country and one company that's going to have his back."

Trump then repeated a threat he'd made countless times before. He wanted out of the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama had struck in 2015, which called for Iran to reduce its uranium stockpile and cut its nuclear program.

"It's the worst deal in history!" Trump declared.

"Well, actually . . .," Tillerson interjected.

"I don't want to hear it," Trump said, cutting off the secretary of state before he could explain some of the benefits of the agreement. "They're cheating. They're building. We're getting out of it. I keep telling you, I keep giving you time, and you keep delaying me. I want out of it."

Before they could debate the Iran deal, Trump erupted to revive another frequent complaint: the war in Afghanistan, which was now America's longest war. He demanded an explanation for why the United States hadn't won in Afghanistan yet, now 16 years after the nation began fighting there in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Trump unleashed his disdain, calling Afghanistan a "loser war." That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were sworn to obey their commander in chief's commands, and here he was calling the war they had been fighting a loser war.

"You're all losers," Trump said. "You don't know how to win anymore."

Trump questioned why the United States couldn't get some oil as payment for the troops stationed in the Persian Gulf. "We spent $7 trillion; they're ripping us off," Trump boomed. "Where is the f---ing oil?"

Trump seemed to be speaking up for the voters who elected him, and several attendees thought they heard Bannon in Trump's words. Bannon had been trying to persuade Trump to withdraw forces by telling him, "The American people are saying we can't spend a trillion dollars a year on this. We just can't. It's going to bankrupt us."

"And not just that, the deplorables don't want their kids in the South China Sea at the 38th parallel or in Syria, in Afghanistan, in perpetuity," Bannon would add, invoking Hillary Clinton's infamous "basket of deplorables" reference to Trump supporters.

Trump mused about removing General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in charge of troops in Afghanistan. "I don't think he knows how to win," the president said, impugning Nicholson, who was not present at the meeting.

Dunford tried to come to Nicholson's defense, but the mild-mannered general struggled to convey his points to the irascible president.

"Mr. President, that's just not . . .," Dunford started. "We've been under different orders."

Dunford sought to explain that he hadn't been charged with annihilating the enemy in Afghanistan but was instead following a strategy started by the Obama administration to gradually reduce the military presence in the country in hopes of training locals to maintain a stable government so that eventually the United States could pull out. Trump shot back in more plain language.

"I want to win," he said. "We don't win any wars anymore . . . We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we're not winning anymore."

Trump by now was in one of his rages. He was so angry that he wasn't taking many breaths. All morning, he had been coarse and cavalier, but the next several things he bellowed went beyond that description. They stunned nearly everyone in the room, and some vowed that they would never repeat them. Indeed, they have not been reported until now.

"I wouldn't go to war with you people," Trump told the assembled brass.

Addressing the room, the commander in chief barked, "You're a bunch of dopes and babies."

For a president known for verbiage he euphemistically called "locker room talk," this was the gravest insult he could have delivered to these people, in this sacred space. The flag officers in the room were shocked. Some staff began looking down at their papers, rearranging folders, almost wishing themselves out of the room. A few considered walking out. They tried not to reveal their revulsion on their faces, but questions raced through their minds. "How does the commander in chief say that?" one thought. "What would our worst adversaries think if they knew he said this?"

This was a president who had been labeled a "draft dodger" for avoiding service in the Vietnam War under questionable circumstances. Trump was a young man born of privilege and in seemingly perfect health: six feet two inches with a muscular build and a flawless medical record. He played several sports, including football. Then, in 1968 at age 22, he obtained a diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels that exempted him from military service just as the United States was drafting men his age to fulfill massive troop deployments to Vietnam.

Tillerson in particular was stunned by Trump's diatribe and began visibly seething. For too many minutes, others in the room noticed, he had been staring straight, dumbfounded, at Mattis, who was speechless, his head bowed down toward the table. Tillerson thought to himself, "Gosh darn it, Jim, say something. Why aren't you saying something?"

But, as he would later tell close aides, Tillerson realized in that moment that Mattis was genetically a Marine, unable to talk back to his commander in chief, no matter what nonsense came out of his mouth.

The more perplexing silence was from Pence, a leader who should have been able to stand up to Trump. Instead, one attendee thought, "He's sitting there frozen like a statue. Why doesn't he stop the president?" Another recalled the vice president was "a wax museum guy." From the start of the meeting, Pence looked as if he wanted to escape and put an end to the president's torrent. Surely, he disagreed with Trump's characterization of military leaders as "dopes and babies," considering his son, Michael, was a Marine first lieutenant then training for his naval aviator wings. But some surmised Pence feared getting crosswise with Trump. "A total deer in the headlights," recalled a third attendee.

Others at the table noticed Trump's stream of venom had taken an emotional toll. So many people in that room had gone to war and risked their lives for their country, and now they were being dressed down by a president who had not. They felt sick to their stomachs. Tillerson told others he thought he saw a woman in the room silently crying. He was furious and decided he couldn't stand it another minute. His voice broke into Trump's tirade, this one about trying to make money off U.S. troops.

"No, that's just wrong," the secretary of state said. "Mr. President, you're totally wrong. None of that is true."

Tillerson's father and uncle had both been combat veterans, and he was deeply proud of their service.

"The men and women who put on a uniform don't do it to become soldiers of fortune," Tillerson said. "That's not why they put on a uniform and go out and die . . . They do it to protect our freedom."

There was silence in the Tank. Several military officers in the room were grateful to the secretary of state for defending them when no one else would. The meeting soon ended and Trump walked out, saying goodbye to a group of servicemen lining the corridor as he made his way to his motorcade waiting outside. Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn were deflated. Standing in the hall with a small cluster of people he trusted, Tillerson finally let down his guard.

"He's a f---ing moron," the secretary of state said of the president.

The plan by Mattis, Tillerson and Cohn to train the president to appreciate the internationalist view had clearly backfired.

"We were starting to get out on the wrong path, and we really needed to have a course correction and needed to educate, to teach, to help him understand the reason and basis for a lot of these things," said one senior official involved in the planning. "We needed to change how he thinks about this, to course correct. Everybody was on board, 100 percent agreed with that sentiment. [But] they were dismayed and in shock when not only did it not have the intended effect, but he dug in his heels and pushed it even further on the spectrum, further solidifying his views."

A few days later, Pence's national security adviser, Andrea Thompson, a retired Army colonel who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, reached out to thank Tillerson for speaking up on behalf of the military and the public servants who had been in the Tank. By September 2017, she would leave the White House and join Tillerson at Foggy Bottom as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs.

The Tank meeting had so thoroughly shocked the conscience of military leaders that they tried to keep it a secret. At the Aspen Security Forum two days later, longtime NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked Dunford how Trump had interacted during the Tank meeting. The Joint Chiefs chairman misleadingly described the meeting, skipping over the fireworks.

"He asked a lot of hard questions, and the one thing he does is question some fundamental assumptions that we make as military leaders - and he will come in and question those," Dunford told Mitchell on July 22. "It's a pretty energetic and an interactive dialogue."

One victim of the Tank meeting was Trump's relationship with Tillerson, which forever after was strained. The secretary of state came to see it as the beginning of the end. It would only worsen when news that Tillerson had called Trump a "moron" was first reported in October 2017 by NBC News.

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Trump once again gathered his generals and top diplomats in December 2017 for a meeting as part of the administration's ongoing strategy talks about troop deployments in Afghanistan in the Situation Room, a secure meeting room on the ground floor of the West Wing. Trump didn't like the Situation Room as much as the Pentagon's Tank, because he didn't think it had enough gravitas. It just wasn't impressive.

But there Trump was, struggling to come up with a new Afghanistan policy and frustrated that so many U.S. forces were deployed in so many places around the world. The conversation began to tilt in the same direction as it had in the Tank back in July.

"All these countries need to start paying us for the troops we are sending to their countries. We need to be making a profit," Trump said. "We could turn a profit on this."

Dunford tried to explain to the president once again, gently, that troops deployed in these regions provided stability there, which helped make America safer. Another officer chimed in that charging other countries for U.S. soldiers would be against the law.

"But it just wasn't working," one former Trump aide recalled. "Nothing worked."

Following the Tank meeting, Tillerson had told his aides that he would never silently tolerate such demeaning talk from Trump about making money off the deployments of U.S. soldiers. Tillerson's father, at the age of 17, had committed to enlist in the Navy on his next birthday, wanting so much to serve his country in World War II. His great-uncle was a career officer in the Navy as well. Both men had been on his mind, Tillerson told aides, when Trump unleashed his tirade in the Tank and again when he repeated those points in the Situation Room in December.

"We need to get our money back," Trump told his assembled advisers.

That was it. Tillerson stood up. But when he did so, he turned his back to the president and faced the flag officers and the rest of the aides in the room. He didn't want a repeat of the scene in the Tank.

"I've never put on a uniform, but I know this," Tillerson said. "Every person who has put on a uniform, the people in this room, they don't do it to make a buck. They did it for their country, to protect us. I want everyone to be clear about how much we as a country value their service."

Tillerson's rebuke made Trump angry. He got a little red in the face. But the president decided not to engage Tillerson at that moment. He would wait to take him on another day.

Later that evening, after 8:00, Tillerson was working in his office at the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters, preparing for the next day. The phone rang. It was Dunford. The Joint Chiefs chairman's voice was unsteady with emotion. Dunford had much earlier joked with Tillerson that in past administrations the secretaries of state and Defense Department leaders wouldn't be caught dead walking on the same side of the street, for their rivalry was that fierce. But now, as both men served Trump, they were brothers joined against what they saw as disrespect for service members. Dunford thanked Tillerson for standing up for them in the Situation Room.

"You took the body blows for us," Dunford said. "Punch after punch. Thank you. I will never forget it."

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Tillerson, Dunford, and Mattis would not take those body blows for much longer. They failed to rein in Trump's impulses or to break through what they regarded as the president's stubborn, even dangerous insistence that he knew best. Piece by piece, the guardrails that had hemmed in the chaos of Trump's presidency crumpled.

In March 2018, Trump abruptly fired Tillerson while the secretary of state was halfway across the globe on a sensitive diplomatic mission to Africa to ease tensions caused by Trump's demeaning insults about African countries. Trump gave Tillerson no rationale for his firing, and afterward acted as if they were buddies, inviting him to come by the Oval Office to take a picture and have the president sign it. Tillerson never went.

Mattis continued serving as the defense secretary, but the president's sudden decision in December 2018 to withdraw troops from Syria and abandon America's Kurdish allies there - one the president soon reversed, only to remake 10 months later - inspired him to resign. Mattis saw Trump's desired withdrawal as an assault on a soldier's code. "He began to feel like he was becoming complicit," recalled one of the secretary's confidants.

The media interpretation of Mattis' resignation letter as a scathing rebuke of Trump's worldview brought the president's anger to a boiling point. Trump decided to remove Mattis two months ahead of the secretary's chosen departure date. His treatment of Mattis upset the secretary's staff. They decided to arrange the biggest clap out they could. The event was a tradition for all departing secretaries. They wanted a line of Pentagon personnel that stretched for a mile applauding Mattis as he left for the last time. It was going to be "yuge," staffers joked, borrowing from Trump's glossary.

But Mattis would not allow it.

"No, we are not doing that," he told his aides. "You don't understand the president. I work with him. You don't know him like I do. He will take it out on Shanahan and Dunford."

Dunford stayed on until September 2019, retiring at the conclusion of his four-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of Dunford's first public acts after leaving office was to defend a military officer attacked by Trump, Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official who testified in the House impeachment inquiry about his worries over Trump's conduct with Ukraine. Trump dismissed Vindman as a "Never Trumper," but Dunford stepped forward to praise the Purple Heart recipient as "a professional, competent, patriotic, and loyal officer. He has made an extraordinary contribution to the security of our nation."

By then, however, Trump had become a president entirely unrestrained. He had replaced his raft of seasoned advisers with a cast of enablers who executed his orders and engaged his obsessions. They saw their mission as telling the president yes.

For female leaders, humor is a blessing - unless it's a curse

By Ellen McCarthy
For female leaders, humor is a blessing - unless it's a curse
Illustration for WOMEN-HUMOR story by Ellen McCarthy. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post illustration by Cece Pascual

It played like a well-rehearsed stand-up routine.

"Let's say you're on the campaign trail ...," the audience member begins.

"I have been, yeah, uh-huh" Elizabeth Warren nods, affecting exhaustion. The crowd at the televised CNN town hall titters with laughter.

The man asking the question continues: "A supporter approaches you and says, 'Senator, I am old-fashioned, and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.' What is your response?"

"Well, I'm going to assume it's a guy who said that," parries Warren, the senator from Massachusetts and presidential candidate. (More chuckles.) "And I'm going to say: 'Then just marry one woman! I'm cool with that!' "

Laughter and whooping fills the room. Warren leaves space for the laugh, coolly shrugging and cocking her head and resting for a few beats before twisting the knife:

"Assuming you can find one."

Uproarious laughter and applause. Warren, deadpan but victorious, turns and strolls back toward center stage.

Forget that the joke had been teed up - the person asking the question, Morgan Cox, was chair of the board of directors at the Human Rights Campaign and a Warren donor - it was a well-performed series of zingers, and many of the people who watched the exchange on YouTube after it happened in October seemed to agree.

Scroll down far enough, though, and you see a different kind of response.

"What a (preplanned) snarky, mean-spirited response she made," wrote one commenter.

"Scorn," wrote another, "mockery, contempt, self-congratulation ... but hey, worked for Hillary, amIright?"

The list of double standards women face on their path to public office is plenty long: They should be pretty, but not distractingly so. Assertive, but never aggressive. Maternal, yet devoted exclusively to their careers. And every word that passes their lips should be spoken in a tone, volume and cadence that is pleasing to the ever-alert ears of their audience.

But there's another quality on which women can be harshly judged that's almost always left out of the conversation: their humor.

"We often say that when women run for office they face a likability tightrope. They have to be so nuanced - and humor is a really good example of that," says Amanda Hunter, director of research at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. "In our likability advice we say that (female) candidates should use humor, but not too much humor."

Mountains of research have established the advantages of a sharp sense of humor. People perceived as funny are also perceived as being confident and competent and are more likely to be elected into positions of leadership.

But there's emerging evidence - which jibes with the sneaking suspicions of many women who've tried to laugh their way to the top - that's it's not so clear-cut. Not for them.

"Every time they display humor," says Alyssa Mastromonaco, former deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House, of female politicians, "they're called inauthentic or they're trying too hard."

It's not limited to politics. Men are rewarded for using humor in work presentations, but women can be punished for their jokes, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Researchers asked a man and woman to each give two versions of a speech to employees. When the man included humor, he was rated higher in terms of status, performance evaluation and leadership capability. When the woman included the exact same jokes in her speech, she was rated lower on all three fronts.

Jon Evans, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona who led the research, theorizes that the bias is rooted in outdated standards of femininity and the idea that women can't be as serious about their work as men because they have families to care for and that telling jokes somehow undercuts their perceived dedication to their professional mission.

At Maggie's List, a political action committee that works to increase the number of conservative women elected to federal office, humor is seen as so risky for women that the group advises female candidates to tell jokes that would be appropriate only for a grade-school audience - or forgo trying to be funny altogether.

"Women's humor, if taken out of context, is usually unforgiven and held against them," says Jennifer Carroll, Maggie's List's spokeswoman and the former lieutenant governor of Florida. "As if to say, 'Women should know better' " - that they should avoid cracking wise out of some puritan sense of what is good and proper.

But choosing to not use humor - especially if a candidate is inclined to be funny - risks endangering a whole other dimension of a candidate's likability. People judge prospective leaders on two main characteristics, says John Neffinger, a media coach: strength and warmth. These need to be calibrated just so. Too much strength and they're a jerk. Too much warmth and they're weak.

Humor is one of the rare forms of communication that strikes both chords, he says.

"If you tell a joke and get better than crickets - a real laugh - first of all, you just took control of the emotional state of the room. You made that happen, so that's a check for strength," says Neffinger. "And for warmth, what you're doing is getting everybody on the same emotional page."

It is possible for women to pull this off, he says. Neffinger points to former Texas governor Ann Richards - who once quipped that George H.W. Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth - as an example of a woman who wielded humor to great effect. The fact that she was older and white-haired may have made her barbs more palatable, he speculates, and she did it with "the big ol' Texas grin to take the edge off it."

Here's the catch, though: When women do use humor, says Neffinger, they should also be aware that it may be received differently than if she were a man. "The most common danger," he says, "is a female candidate using self-deprecating humor to project warmth and totally undercutting her strength."

So, yeah. Just balance all that perfectly and you should be fine.

Unless, of course, your constituents just don't like your jokes and don't know why, in which case, well ... good luck out there!

Understanding the bias against women using humor is tricky because the prejudice is so subtle, even unconscious. Few people would ever say that they don't like women with a sense of humor. But social conditioning around humor may run deeper than most people realize. Being funny is a type of peacocking, a way to display intelligence, and research has shown that both men and women are more likely to laugh if a man is talking to them.

Dianne Eldridge is an energy executive who manages a $250 million portfolio of factories. She's spent 20 years rising through the ranks of an oil and gas company and, when it comes to humor, has learned to self-censor.

In one-on-one conversations and casual settings, Eldridge turns it on. "I use it to make people like me personally and say, 'OK, she's not uptight,'" Eldridge explains. Once, at a steakhouse, a male colleague began making cracks about her ethnicity and asked how her dry-cleaning business was doing. "I still had a smile on my face, and I said, 'Those are Koreans. I'm Chinese. If you're trying to be funny, you should at least get your Asian insult right,' " she recalls. It diffused the tension and earned her the respect of everyone at the table.

But when Eldridge finds herself speaking in front of larger groups or presenting to senior executives, she shuts off her humor entirely. It was her female mentors who advised her to do so.

"It kills me that I have to switch it off," she says. But she can't risk undercutting her message, even if her male counterparts are working with more slack. "Guys can go there and do a horrible joke and people let him get away with it because they trust him enough to switch and be serious," Eldridge says. "If I do it, there's no way."

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., who says she has found humor useful for developing relationships with colleagues, worries that women seeking office "often get excessively coached."

In 2018, Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, cut a campaign video where she read mean tweets about herself and offered some snappy retorts. ("I hope you didn't spend all night thinking that one up, Gary," she told someone who tweeted that she should get back in the kitchen.) The governor thought that kind of breezy humor was a good look for her. But when it came time to hit the debate stage, a (male) consultant told her to draw a smiley face on her notecard so she'd remember to smile.

"That's so saccharine and it irritated me," Whitmer says.

She drew a shark instead. That made her laugh.

Two of the women still in the 2020 presidential race have routinely deployed humor throughout their campaigns. Amy Klobuchar almost always lands a laugh when she talks about how much money she's raised from ex-boyfriends. And Warren has demonstrated the ability to deliver a one-liner. At a debate last month, when a moderator mentioned she'd be the oldest person ever inaugurated, she clapped back, "I'd also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated."

Hillary Clinton has said she regrets not injecting more laughs into her 2016 campaign. "I really believed that my job, especially as a woman and as the first woman to go as far as I did, that I had to help people feel good about a woman in the Oval Office, a woman commander in chief" she said on "The View." "I may have overcorrected a little bit."

Still, says Mastromonaco, the former Obama staffer, "It's hard to envision a world where (Clinton) wouldn't have been criticized if she'd been a real cutup on Jimmy Kimmel."

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump gives campaign speeches laced with laugh lines - and little regard for equanimity or truthfulness.

"When you think about it," says Mastromonaco, "his events are nothing but a stand-up routine." (Though not a very funny one, she adds.)

The good news, says Amanda Hunter of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, is that more women are running for office, and they're running as their full, authentic selves. That often means using humor, whether their audiences like it or not.

Jon Evans, the University of Arizona researcher, will be glad to hear that. His report didn't conclude that women should stop cracking jokes. It concluded that audiences should recognize their tendency to punish women for it. Because if women don't feel free to use humor to connect with audiences, he says, "it's one less tool in their toolbox" that could help them win.

And for everyone who wants a full sense of the people who would lead them, it's one more loss.

Australian community razed by fire dreads a sequel to its darkest hour

By Kate Shuttleworth
Australian community razed by fire dreads a sequel to its darkest hour
A landscape view in Kinglake National Park shows regenerated forest and dead trees and branches after the Black Saturday bush fires, in Victoria, Australia. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Alana Holmberg/Oculi.

KINGLAKE, Australia - Low cloud hugs the hillside as the road curves, revealing a blue-hued forest punctuated with dead silvery-black branches - symbols of a scarred but resilient landscape and a community forever changed.

A sign comes into view: "Respect, Remember, 2009."

Forty miles from Melbourne, Kinglake was at the epicenter of one of Australia's worst disasters, the Black Saturday bush fires. Eleven years ago, an inferno tore through here, killing 120 people in the immediate vicinity and another 53 in the wider area. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed.

As Australia confronts renewed tragedy in a wildfire emergency of unprecedented scale, the people who rebuilt their lives in Kinglake after losing everything fear a repeat.

"It's triggering for so many people," said Michelle French, 53.

That February day in 2009, she and husband Colin and their children Darcy and Vanessa - then aged 11 and 10 - had an hour to gather their belongings. They packed into two cars with their dog and guinea pig and fled. The fire almost trapped them, she said, as they made a six-hour escape along blocked and dangerous roads.

All that remained of the Frenchs' property - where they operated a school-camp business - was a swimming pool and a trailer stacked with canoes. A toilet block was standing but was close to collapse. In all, they lost 15 buildings. The only household items to survive were a red cast-iron pot and one of Colin's shirts, which hung on a clothesline alongside melted pegs.

The Frenchs have rebuilt the camp facilities and opened an adventure-tourism business. But the fires are never far from their lives; in recent weeks, Michelle French has arranged temporary accommodation for evacuees from fire-ravaged areas elsewhere in Victoria state. Among them was a mother with two children - one with asthma - seeking respite from smoke-filled air.

"I know how hard it is to accept help and generosity, but this is also about me - helping someone and doing my bit by paying forward. I got help when I needed it," French said. "It's about my healing process too."

On one recent day they closed the camp due to smoke haze, with the air quality deemed hazardous by environmental officials.

- - -

Sitting at a picnic table with her Hungarian Vizsla dog called Nico, French recounted her family's recovery.

Her resilience and humor stand out. Nico's dog tag reads, "Get your people to call my people," with a contact number on the back.

"I can't complain, my kids are killing it," she said.

Darcy, 22, is studying international relations in Paris. But he's home for the Australian summer, helping out with his parents' business.

Wearing a helmet and harness for treetop climbing and ziplining, he refuses to be defined by the fires. He has a tattoo on his thigh with the words "back yourself."

As a child, Darcy didn't comprehend the enormity of Black Saturday, which at first he thought was an adventure.

"It was only that night and into the next days that I realized that it was a horrible tragedy," he said. "At that age, when you find out that people from your school that you were talking to just days earlier had died, and that the dad of one of your best friends has died, you don't know how to deal with it."

While the Frenchs have picked up the pieces, others have not.

"There are people at the moment in the community who are at the lowest of the low - I don't think they can get any lower - and you can trace so much of that back to Black Saturday," Darcy said.

A University of Melbourne study found 26 percent of people in the worst-hit areas -around double the national rate - showed signs of mental health problems in the four years after the fires, including post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress and depression.

- - -

On the road to Kinglake, the flag on the new Country Fire Authority station flies at half-staff out of respect for those that have lost their lives, including firefighters.

Some 1,500 firefighters are battling blazes in Victoria as fires that have killed at least 27 people burn across southeastern Australia. The state's leader, Daniel Andrews, has pledged around $2 million to review preparedness, relief and recovery procedures ahead of the next fire season.

"This is perhaps our new normal - where we're going to see more and more of this ferocious and unprecedented fire activity coming to us much, much earlier," he told a news conference in Melbourne on Tuesday.

Kinglake has been rebuilt. There are new brick houses, kindergartens, an architecturally designed church, restaurants and a shopping strip. The community-owned gas station that exploded on Black Saturday has been replaced by a larger, glossy-looking one.

Resident Kym Smith, 56, said her daughter Mykaela, who is now 21, went to 14 funerals after the fires.

"My daughter was a stubborn child, she didn't want to go to any psychologists," she said. It wasn't until an incident much later that she agreed to speak to someone. Mykaela was alone at her boyfriend's house when a refrigerator caught fire, leaving her inconsolable for hours, she said.

On Black Saturday, Smith, her husband Brendan and Mykaela had minutes to flee.

With the power out and the temperature hitting 113 degrees Fahrenheit, they were inside with the blinds down, playing Scrabble by candlelight.

Stepping outside for a cigarette, Brendan heard a sound like a thundering jet, Smith said, and saw flames jump 300 feet into the air as trees exploded along the street.

He ran inside and told his wife and daughter to grab their keys. They fled with no shoes - just the clothes they were wearing, and their dog and rabbit - as they drove away.

"If Brendan hadn't gone out for a cigarette we would have been dead," said Smith.

Smith said her husband was the most traumatized of the family. Defying roadblocks a day later, he passed burned-out cars where people had been trapped and perished.

Back in the town, people gathered, their faces covered in soot. Goats and other animals were tied up to toilet blocks on the main street.

"It looked like a scene from a black and white war movie, there was no color - only shades of gray, even the white lines on the road were gone," she said.

Smith said some people urged her to leave Kinglake, but her attachment to the landscape here is strong. The town lies beyond the urban fringe and is bordered by bushland, an environment she said she cannot leave after 33 years.

- - -

In Kinglake West, Deb and Mark Morrow, who lost their house on Black Saturday, say they are again living in a tinderbox.

Regenerated bushland next to their rebuilt home is bone-dry. Between the dead timber and the new growth, Deb worries there is more fire fuel than before Black Saturday.

"The undergrowth is three times as bad as it was in 2009," she said.

They have a dam that is always full of water. They installed a bore and maintain a buffer zone at the rear of the property, along with firefighting pumps and solar batteries.

They are almost self-sufficient, with chickens and a garden filled with corn, pumpkin and zucchini.

But the fear is always there. The threat of the return of fires has unnerved people in Kinglake. They've worked hard to put their town back together.

"We think we can save the property if there's another fire, but we do still live in fear," said Deb.

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

Sure, whatever, let's have witnesses. Maybe that'll finally convince me Trump is guilty.

By alexandra petri
Sure, whatever, let's have witnesses. Maybe that'll finally convince me Trump is guilty.

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Petri clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By ALEXANDRA PETRI

Honestly, send me the witnesses! Sure! Screw it!

I thought I was at a point where no fact, however compelling, could possibly break through my blissful fog of ignorant support for President Trump, but -- I'd love to be proved wrong! I'd love to feel anything at all at this point, other than the warm and spreading conviction that President Trump is the only good, that President Trump is identical with Right, that there is no party but the Donald.

So, why not have witnesses! Sure, let's hear from John Bolton! Let's hear from Lev Parnas! Maybe reading a note on some Ritz-Carlton stationery describing the president's involvement in withholding aid in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into his political rival will turn out to be the thing that changes my mind. If nothing up until this point has, I don't think it's likely, but, hey, you never know! Maybe a rogue associate of Rudy Giuliani will turn out to be the thing that really convinces me where all the other bits of evidence -- from President Trump's own mouth, from the mouth of Mick Mulvaney -- have failed! Weirder things have happened at sea!

At this point, I'm just curious in a kind of a detached way. I keep watching and thinking: (BEG ITAL)Something(END ITAL) is bound to reach this guy. How can it be that he's just going about his day as if there's nothing wrong with the president? How securely swaddled in a thick cocoon of fabrications and ignorance can this guy be?

The attorney general is paying to have his personal celebration at the president's hotel! That seems like the kind of thing I used to care about? Maybe that will make me feel something? I wait and watch and -- nothing. It's like blasting an electric current through a dead frog. Even the leg doesn't twitch any longer.

I used to care about these things, I think. I used to be mad when the president let anyone down, even in a minor way, even if it turned out not to have happened at all. And now, it's like I just walk around in a gauzy limbo, noticing nothing, perceiving nothing. It almost seems as though there could be something seriously wrong!

Am I okay? Shouldn't I feel something? I think I'm angry? Or am I happy? Or is it gas?

I look at pictures of myself from the past and I almost don't recognize them. Did I have a standard below which President Trump could fall? Me? I don't rightly know. I guess I must have, once. Now I feel as if I'm in a cave many ells below ground and only echoes reach me. To be convinced -- by hearing a fact -- that would be, at the very least, a new sensation.

So have a whole trial, why don't you! Let's see what happens! Maybe this will be what does it. Not all the receipts for official travel to his own properties. Not the Mueller report. Not the testimony I've already heard on the House side. Not -- the past three years.

Maybe (BEG ITAL)this(END ITAL) will break through. So, sure, try it! Why not! Besides, what's the worst that could happen if we realize he's guilty? It's not like we're going to remove him.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

The soundtrack of corruption

By dana milbank
The soundtrack of corruption

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, and thereafter.)

(For Milbank clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By DANA MILBANK

WASHINGTON -- The impeachment of President Trump now has a soundtrack.

In response to Trump's claim that he doesn't know Lev Parnas, the now-indicted crony of Rudy Giuliani, Parnas's lawyer issued a musical montage this week of Parnas in various poses with Trump, three Trump children and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The background music: "We are Family."

Trump continued his denials Thursday, claiming "I don't know him at all," "I know nothing about him" and "I don't believe I've ever spoken to him."

Out came a new video from the lawyer, this one showing Parnas chatting with Trump at a reception and apparently introducing people to him -- set to Janet Jackson's "Together Again":

(BEG ITAL)Everywhere I go

Every smile I see

I know you are there

Smilin' back at me(END ITAL)

"Every time he says it, I'll show them another picture," Parnas told CNN.

Clearly, Trump needs to respond with his own musical message to Parnas. May I suggest the Dan Hicks oldie? "How Can I miss You When You Won't Go Away?"

For months, Trump and his defenders kept singing a refrain: "There was no crime," as Trump put it, and many variations ("not even a little tiny crime" "No crime!"). Republican lawmakers decried the absence of a statutory crime, as did Ken Starr, who, with O.J.-Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz, successfully auditioned on Fox News to represent Trump in the impeachment trial.

But after this week, 2020's "there is no crime" is beginning to sound as convincing as 1973's "I am not a crook."

Parnas alleged (and furnished some evidence) of the surveillance of a U.S. ambassador; attempting to solicit a bribe; cancellation of a vice presidential visit as part of the pressure campaign; efforts to secure a visa for a corrupt official; and close attention by Trump himself.

Simultaneously, the Government Accountability Office issued a legal opinion that Trump's budget office violated the Impoundment Control Act when it withheld Ukraine military aid -- and stonewalled the GAO at a level of "constitutional significance."

The two came from opposite ends of the credibility spectrum: a shadowy figure under indictment and the nonpartisan GAO. But both found that Trump, or those representing him, broke the law in Nixonian ways. The 1974 impoundment law was enacted to avoid a repeat of Nixon's constitutional abuses, and the accounts of Rudy Giuliani's street thugs in Kyiv are reminiscent of Nixon's plumbers and burglars.

Yet Trump and his mouthpieces denied all -- and set out to dismantle the credibility of Parnas and the GAO alike.

"The GOA got it exactly backwards," Trump tweeted Friday morning, sharing something he heard on Fox News. He probably meant the GAO, not the Indian state of Goa.

To distance himself from Parnas and fellow Giuliani sidekick Igor Fruman, Trump simply pretended that "I don't know those gentlemen."

This has been a pattern throughout impeachment. Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador Trump removed? "Really don't know her," he said. Bill Taylor, the man Trump sent to replace her? "I don't know who Taylor is."

Gordon Sondland, the donor Trump picked as ambassador to the European Union? "I hardly know the gentleman." Kurt Volker, another ambassador in the scandal. "Don't know him." Same with State Department official George Kent, vice presidential aide Jennifer Williams and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

Criminal amnesia has helped Trump through previous scandals. His convicted former lawyer, Michael Cohen, convicted former campaign chief Paul Manafort and fallen National Security Adviser Michael Flynn all became distant acquaintances in Trump's retelling. Same with other figures in the Russia inquiry such as Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Felix Sater, Jim Comey and even a man he once said he knew "very well," Vladimir Putin: "I don't know him."

But the defense has met its end with Parnas' plentiful collection of photos and videos of himself with Trump officials and congressional Republicans. Trump's "no-crime" defense has likewise become untenable with the GAO ruling and Parnas allegations, atop a growing list of proven or alleged violations of campaign-finance law (Stormy Daniels), the Hatch Act, obstruction of justice and more.

Perhaps Trump could set this montage of misbehavior to music, Parnas style. For this, I suggest some Warren Zevon:

(BEG ITAL)I went home with the waitress

The way I always do

How was I to know

She was with the Russians, too? ...

Now I'm hiding in Honduras

I'm a desperate man

Send lawyers, guns and money

The s -- has hit the fan.(END ITAL)

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Pushing back against China is about staying true to ourselves

By megan mcardle
Pushing back against China is about staying true to ourselves

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By MEGAN MCARDLE

WASHINGTON -- The past few years have seen a remarkable shift in the opinions of Western elites. In 2016, I sat in rooms where powerful people reassured each other of two things: First, that President Trump couldn't possibly be elected, and second, that ― warning signs not withstanding -- China would inevitably liberalize as it got richer and more deeply involved in trade.

Even then they should have known better. Trump had, after all, won the Republican primary when everyone thought the thing impossible, and China had already tamed the internet, which was supposed to be kryptonite to authoritarians. In due course, the triumphalists were humbled: Trump was elected, while China not only failed to further liberalize, but went in the other direction.

All this has left elites both humbled by their poor prognostication and deeply wary of China -- not just its prospects for democracy, but its industrial espionage and its aspirations toward regional hegemony. And especially, what they suspect is China's drive to export their surveillance regime abroad through tech companies such as Huawei.

Yet these opinions still don't get voiced as loudly as they might otherwise. People who supported free trade, and opposed Trump, it's nigh-unbearable to say anything that sounds even vaguely like "Trump was right" -- and I include myself in their numbers; I am wincing as I write this. So there's little love to be found for the new China trade deal, even though I agree with economist Tyler Cowen that the past few years probably enhanced America's credibility as a counterweight to China, without necessarily immediately improving our terms of trade.

But there are a lot of elites who have a more pressing reasons to keep any reservations about China silent: 1.2 billion consumers, and a global manufacturing supply chain that increasingly starts or ends in China. Hence the pathetic spectacle of a major American sports league expelling fans from basketball games for signaling their support for the Hong Kong protesters -- and coming down on a team's general manager who dared to express the same sentiment.

The NBA is hardly alone in their craven collaboration with Beijing's tyranny. Companies are busy scrubbing Taiwan from their maps, while Hollywood allows itself to be used as a de-facto export arm of China's censorship regime. This obeisance occasionally veers from the merely cowardly to the utterly daft: I have personally encountered executives who I am quite sure would never make a sensitive call on a Huawei cellphone (since they're well aware that the company has intimate ties to the Chinese government, and also, that hidden backdoors have been discovered in some of its equipment) yet merrily suggested it would be just fine for America to build its 5G networks on a Huawei backbone.

Their complicity isn't admirable, but it is understandable; they are businesspeople, not democracy activists, and that demands a steady attention to the bottom line. They are never going to violate the business imperatives to stay sweet with Beijing unless their relationship with China disintegrates, or the rich-world public pushes back.

But should they push back? I was asked that question recently by someone who had read the critical column I'd written about the NBA's Chinese adventures. And it's a fair question. The old consensus was undoubtedly wrong, but that doesn't necessarily mean the new paranoia is better; perhaps Chinese liberalization is just on pause and more likely to restart if we stay friendly. But even if you're skeptical, you should also be skeptical of any idea that we can force them to liberalize by lecturing them about their bad behavior. If anything, I suspect the reverse is true: getting sermonized by foreigners tends to activate a patriotic reaction that probably makes the Chinese less friendly to our ideas, not more -- if they are allowed to hear them at all.

Why, then, should we hammer all the other companies that just want to quietly go along to get along? Not from any illusion that we are furthering democracy in China -- but then, China isn't the only important player. We have another country to worry about, our own. It may not make a whit of difference to the Chinese what we say about democracy, but it makes a great deal of difference to Americans whether we live in the kind of country that believes in fundamental liberties, and says so, loudly -- or one that thinks of those values as commodities that can, if the price is right, be bought and sold.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump's low-grade chums

By kathleen parker
Trump's low-grade chums

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, and thereafter.)

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

WRITETHRU: 4th graf, 3rd sentence: "Parnas, who pled not guilty to charges" sted "Parnas, facing charges of"; Penultimate graf, after 2nd sentence insert: "Both Barr and Pence deny it."

By KATHLEEN PARKER

WASHINGTON -- Thanks to President Trump, we are living in a world of sleaze.

It's tough enough keeping count of the former Trump associates who've been indicted, convicted or imprisoned. With startling regularity, new names emerge on what seems a bottomless list of scoundrels and grifters.

We began this presidential caper, after all, with revelations of a porn star paid off to keep silent about an alleged affair with Trump shortly after Melania Trump had given birth to their son. Never wonder why so many Americans are disgusted by this president. But what finally brought Trump down were not alleged sins of the flesh but abuse of power and obstruction of Congress -- the two charges laid out in articles of impeachment now before the U.S. Senate.

Last week, following the slow tortures of the House impeachment inquiry, a new character emerged in the nick of time to bestir the swamp. In a perverse deus ex machina, this time surfacing from the bowels of the stage, Lev Parnas was last week's man of the moment.

You remember ol' Lev. He and Igor Fruman are the two Rudy Giuliani "associates" who were arrested last October as they were about to board a flight to Europe with one-way tickets. Parnas, who pled not guilty to charges of conspiracy, false statements and falsification of records, is now suddenly the voice of reason and moral authority as he makes the cable-TV rounds. During an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, he nearly glowed with virtue as, referring to Trump, he helpfully intoned, "He's not king," as if America required someone of Parnas' elevated stature to illuminate the masses.

Yes, he told Cooper, he would be willing to testify if the Senate should call him as a witness. Yes, he would definitely connect all the dots. What a genuine, humble guy, no one was thinking.

Parnas must have taken acting lessons during his hiatus. Soft-spoken and almost contrite, it was briefly hard to remember that he was the same guy who says he traveled abroad on behalf of Giuliani and Trump to convey to President Zelensky that there would be no military-aid funds until he announced an investigation into Joe Biden and Biden's son, Hunter.

The funds, of course, were held up and released only after Trump learned of the whistleblower complaint that triggered the impeachment inquiry. After so many months of proceedings, posturing and the usual political hokey-pokey on the Hill, one is almost tempted to query: (BEG ITAL)Is that all you got?(END ITAL) Not to minimize the seriousness of essentially inviting a foreign country to join the Trump campaign or bartering military aid for personal gain. But the answer, if we're honest, is that Democrats will do whatever it takes to eradicate The Don and his minions.

Trump has inflicted his own crude, self-aggrandizing pathologies on the nation, and he brought along a revolving cadre of sycophants and criminals to enable his delusional ambitions. Parnas is but the latest. Parnas was sent abroad to make an offer Zelensky presumably couldn't refuse, plausibly delivered with the finesse of a gangster -- Giuliani- if not Corleone-style.

If Parnas is going down, he apparently doesn't plan to be lonely. He has also implicated Attorney General William Barr and Vice President Mike Pence, who, Parnas says, were all in the now-storied "loop." Both Barr and Pence deny it. And, of course, there's Giuliani, who has been tangled in his own web of weirdness for some time. Whatever legacy he once had as America's mayor following 9/11, he has surrendered it to ego and a rapacious appetite for relevancy.

Whether Parnas will be invited to tell his tale under oath before the Senate seems doubtful, but he'll find plenty of company among his predecessors in the presidential purgatory he has now entered. In Trump's underworld, disloyalty is usually rewarded with some fresh, new hell.

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

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

A dispiriting legal skirmish in the pronoun wars

By ruth marcus
A dispiriting legal skirmish in the pronoun wars

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

(Advance for Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, and thereafter.)

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By RUTH MARCUS

WASHINGTON -- "I am a woman," wrote federal prisoner #18479-078. "Can I not be referred to as one?"

Apparently not, according to a ruling this week from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Dividing 2-1, with President Trump appointee Stuart Kyle Duncan writing the opinion, the panel not only rebuffed inmate Norman Varner's petition for a name change in the prison system to Kathrine Nicole Jett -- it rejected her request that the court use the female pronoun in referring to her.

This is a single, obscure skirmish, although a particularly dispiriting one, in the larger pronoun wars. As the country struggles with questions about the legal and social status of transgender individuals -- and with the parallel, emerging understanding that others may not fit into a binary, either/or gender category -- pronouns have become an unexpectedly and unnecessarily heated area of contention.

For one camp, the demand for ever more bespoke pronouns encapsulates political correctness run amok; for the other, the refusal to accommodate their pronouns of choice signifies a deeper lack of respect.

There are any number of questions surrounding the treatment of transgender individuals, and this being America, they all seem, as de Tocqueville observed about the American tendency toward litigiousness, to end up in court. Does federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex protect transgender workers, a case now before the Supreme Court? May transgender service members serve openly in the military, as Barack Obama permitted and President Trump has reversed?

Should government programs like Medicare, or institutions like the military or prisons, be required to cover or fund gender reassignment therapy? Last year, a different panel of the same appeals court rejected a claim by a transgender prisoner that Texas prison officials violated her constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment by refusing to cover gender reassignment surgery.

Pronoun disputes are both a byproduct of these larger fights and a separate field of battle. In one of a number of similar cases, a Virginia high school teacher was fired for refusing to use the male pronoun to refer to a transgender student who was biologically female; the teacher used the student's preferred, male name, but said his religious convictions prevented him from referring to "him" as "her." The teacher is suing, claiming that the firing violated his rights to free speech and religious liberty.

Federal judges hearing these cases have generally treated the transgender litigants with courtesy, which is to say they have used the individual's preferred pronoun. Not Duncan. He cited the example of his fellow Trump appointee James Ho in the Texas transgender prisoner case, who said he would refer to the transgender female prisoner by the male pronoun, "consistent with" the policy of Texas prison officials.

In the latest case, Jett was an unsympathetic plaintiff who, in Duncan, faced a judge particularly unsympathetic to her plight. She pled guilty to attempted receipt of child pornography and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, a lengthy sentence that reflected an earlier state child pornography offense.

And she found herself before an appellate panel that included Duncan, who in private practice had argued against same-sex marriage and represented a Virginia school board in a lawsuit brought by Gavin Grimm, a transgender student seeking access to the boy's bathroom. (A federal court later ruled that the school board violated Grimm's constitutional rights.)

Despite his previously expressed hostility to transgender rights, Duncan made the astonishing argument that the court was compelled to deny Jett's request precisely to avoid "delicate questions about judicial impartiality." Duncan was joined by Reagan appointee Jerry Smith; a Clinton appointee, James Dennis, "emphatically" dissented.

In accommodating a litigant's request to be addressed by the pronoun of her choice, Duncan wrote, "the court may unintentionally convey its tacit approval of the litigant's underlying legal position. Even this appearance of bias, whether real or not, should be avoided."

Oh please, as if not accepting the request sends no signal whatsoever.

Then Duncan conjured fears about the slippery slope of potential pronouns, going so far as to reproduce a University of Wisconsin chart of possibilities. "If a court orders one litigant referred to as 'her' (instead of 'him'), then the court can hardly refuse when the next litigant moves to be referred to as 'xemself' instead of 'himself')," Duncan warned. "Deploying such neologisms could hinder communication among the parties and the court."

Oh please, again. Surely federal judges are capable of managing such a pronoun crisis, if it were to arise.

"I am a woman," Jett wrote. Even in an uncivil, unyielding era, all of us -- certainly federal judges endowed with enormous power and lifetime tenure -- should be able to summon the grace to grant her simple request to be described that way.

Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Trade was supposed to be Trump's signature issue. His efforts have fallen flat.

By catherine rampell
Trade was supposed to be Trump's signature issue. His efforts have fallen flat.

THE MILLENNIAL VIEW

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT RELEASE)

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

Trade was supposed to be President Trump's signature issue. He was going to get us the best, biggest, America-First-iest trade deals ever.

We're now two years into his multifront trade wars. They've fractured our international alliances, imposed tens of billions of dollars of new taxes (BEG ITAL)on Americans(END ITAL), resulted in two expensive agricultural bailouts, multiplied farmer bankruptcies and landed the manufacturing sector in a recession.

Today, we're left to ask: Is that all there is?

This week, Trump proclaimed two "historic" trade victories. On Wednesday, he signed a so-called phase one deal with China. On Thursday, the Senate passed the revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Unlike past trade deals, these plans largely raise, rather than remove, barriers to trade. And whatever meager benefits they offer hardly look worth the pain we endured getting here.

Take the USMCA.

It's about 90% identical to the North American Free Trade Agreement it replaces, which Trump once dissed as "the worst trade deal ever made." The remainder largely cribs language from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era deal Trump tore up because it was a "disaster" and a "rape of our country."

The USMCA also included some other minor, mostly protectionist changes, whose significance has been inflated by Trump and House Democrats alike. In fact, the agreement's protectionist new auto provisions will raise prices and therefore (BEG ITAL)hurt(END ITAL) U.S. auto industry production, according to the government's own analysis.

What about that China deal?

Once upon a time, the GOP was supposedly anti-tax and pro-market. Despite effusive praise from Republicans, this agreement is neither.

For one, despite some modest rollbacks, the deal actually leaves in place U.S. tariffs (aka taxes) on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods. Regardless of whatever nonsense Trump claims, his import taxes are being paid almost entirely by Americans. That is the conclusion of at least four separate studies, conducted by respected academic and government trade experts.

These tariffs raise the cost of doing business for U.S. companies and put American jobs at risk. That's because the Trump administration has primarily taxed the inputs that U.S. manufacturers need to make their (BEG ITAL)own(END ITAL) goods. Not surprisingly, manufacturing has been in recession for the past five months.

Trump's tariffs have also, of course, led many trading partners to retaliate, disproportionately targeting one of the president's key constituencies: American farmers. Despite the pain he's caused them, and a 24% spike in farmer bankruptcies last year, Trump has somehow still cast himself as the farmers' savior.

First, he gave farmers Soviet-style bailouts more than double the size of the 2009 auto bailout. Now, as part of Wednesday's deal, he has gotten China to commit to major purchases of American agricultural products.

Well, maybe.

If the commitments actually happen, they'd signify a strange turn of events. For years, a core U.S. objective was to get the Chinese economy to become more market-oriented and less centrally planned. Now, Trump has demanded that China commit to huge new centrally planned purchases of soybeans, pork and other American goods, regardless of what market demand requires.

But in any case, it's not clear China sees these state-directed purchases as binding, despite what Trump (and the text of the agreement) says.

Chinese leadership and state-run media have suggested they won't make the purchases if "market conditions" dictate otherwise, or if they decide U.S. product quality isn't up to snuff.

U.S. soybean prices fell on this news, reflecting skepticism that China will follow through. Trump did not appear to notice.

"These commitments from China are more of a 'Yes, dear' reaction to the U.S.," said Benn Steil, director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The deal is flimsy in other ways, too. On sensitive issues such as currency manipulation, it merely reiterates commitments China had already made. It completely ignores one of the main issues that led to the trade war, which Trump has left for his still-hypothetical "phase two" deal: China's industrial policy.

To be fair, the provisions on financial market access and forced technology transfer do look promising. But the agreement's bizarre new enforcement mechanisms do not seem likely, at first blush, to be effective in making sure they stick. If we accuse China of cheating (or vice versa), there's no neutral adjudicator in the dispute; either side can just pull out unilaterally.

Which, again, looks an awful lot like what we'd have (BEG ITAL)without(END ITAL) this deal.

The best thing you can say about either of these agreements is that at least, for the time being, they mean Trump is unlikely to make the trade wars worse. But if that's really all there is, it's not much.

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

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