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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bloomberg's Andrew Mayeda and Joe Deaux contributed.

It's easy to hate Facebook, but it's much tougher to quit

By Abby Ohlheiser
It's easy to hate Facebook, but it's much tougher to quit
Broken Facebook logo to illustrate story about quitting Facebook. MUST CREDIT: The Washington Post

First, you have to know where the deactivation page lies in your account settings. To even see the page, you have to re-enter your password. Then, Facebook makes its final plea: "Are you sure you want to deactivate your account?" The deactivation page displays a mosaic of your friends' photos, each one accompanied by a message. "Susanne will miss you. Gene will miss you. Jessica will miss you." Instead of deactivating, Facebook suggests, would you like to send them a message?

Jessica Stapf visited this page a week ago, her cursor hovering over the deactivation button. She was tired of watching her friends fight each other over gun control, and felt overwhelmed and disheartened by the ugly arguments that dominated her news feed. Facebook has brought her close to leaving before: Once, in college, Stapf even managed to quit Facebook for a day or two, before bringing her account back online. She wished she could commit, press the button, and disappear from Facebook for good. This time, she couldn't. Maybe some day. She felt close to ready.

Work is what keeps Stapf, a 25-year-old communications professional in Washington, D.C., on Facebook. "While it pains me each day to look through my feed (and particularly use Facebook's horrid search function), I'm a captive audience," Stapf said. "I"m disappointed that a platform that I used to really like became something I can't stand. I was able to see what my friends posted, what my family was doing, all the things I wanted. And now it's everything I don't - everything is an advertisement, the algorithm feeds me everything it thinks I want and nothing I actually do."

According to a recent Pew poll, 68 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, three quarters of whom check the platform daily. When Facebook reaches a moment of crisis - and it's had a lot of them recently - there's a wave of those users who wonder why they are on the platform in the first place. With the news late last week that Facebook had suspended the data firm Cambridge Analytica for improperly collecting data from Facebook users, this viral discussion about quitting for good has started once again.

#DeleteFacebook was trending on Twitter on Tuesday. And Brian Acton, a co-founder of Whatsapp, was one of its supporters, tweeting, "it's time #deletefacebook" on Tuesday night. Acton began working for Facebook in 2014, when it acquired Whatsapp for $16 billion. He quit last year to launch his own non-profit. As of Wednesday morning, Acton's Facebook account appeared to be gone from the site.

But the idea of quitting always seems to spread further than the follow-through. Even as we learn more about what Facebook does to us, that knowledge comes into conflict with what Facebook has grown to do for us. For many, that moment of hovering over the deactivate button feels a lot like trying to leave a store that's giving away candy.

"The closest I got to deleting was maybe a year or so ago," said Laurel Brooks, a 27-year-old program assistant in D.C. She wanted to focus on grad school, and the political content on her feed was becoming draining. "I was on the deactivation page and then remembered I had all my family pictures on there."

Brooks' mother was killed six years ago. Some of those photos were on her mother's Facebook page, which she memorialized after her mother's death. "I know I could still technically view it as a non-user, I just couldn't do it," Brooks said.

Facebook, for Brooks, is also how she keeps in touch with family abroad, some of whom are otherwise hard to reach. She's made real friends through communities and groups on the platform. But that reach is a double edged sword, in Brooks' experience. Over the years since she joined Facebook in junior high school, her perception has shifted, and Facebook now feels more like a place that tries to "exploit" her personal information, even as it fails to, in her view, adequately address the harassment and hate speech she and her friends see on the platform.

"Quitting is a fine option. I just don't think it's a realistic option for so many people," said Ben Grosser, an artist and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has developed several tools you can install on Facebook to help you realize its psychological impact - like one that hides the number of likes on all posts. "I'm intensely critical of the way Facebook is designed, but the fact is, there's a reason 2 billion people are on Facebook and it's not simply advertising."

For some, Grosser said, quitting Facebook would be "devastating," professionally or personally. But for others, quitting is a relief.

Steve Muscal quit Facebook in July. And once he made that decision, he just went for it. "I deactivated the account entirely without prior announcement or saving anything. If I'd spent time going through my page for things to save, I'd never have quit, and I knew it," he said.

Muscal, 34, is an assistant news editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. He decided to quit after becoming the administrator for his paper's Facebook page.

"'Don't read internet comments' is good advice, but it's part of my job," Muscal said. Because those comments were linked to his personal Facebook account, which he used to run the paper's page, "it sent all those comment notifications to my phone, my laptop, everywhere ... I spent too much of my day reading the worst the internet has to offer, and I wasn't getting paid for it."

Now, Muscal uses a work account to do the parts of his job that require Facebook access, and he only logs into that account during work hours. He's still on Twitter. But leaving Facebook (and also Tumblr, which he quit around the same time) has really made a difference for him: "I've found myself scowling less outside work, at least," he said. "I have more free time, and one less platform to worry about keeping up."

Like Muscal, Jamie Gambrell, 43, also took the rip-the-bandage-off approach to leaving Facebook a few months ago. "I didn't tell my friends." He said. He sent a short message to his family, and then followed the instructions he found in a Wired article to delete his account permanently.

That decision didn't come without some initial anxiety, just a few days before his birthday. "I remember having a moment of thinking 'will anyone wish me a happy birthday if I'm not on there?' and actually being a little angry at myself for thinking this!" he said.

"I can say for me, I do not miss it, I have not suffered in anyway, and I actually chat more with my family than before," Gambrell added. "I would strongly recommend quitting Facebook. ... If you really do feel the draw to go back, it will still be there - but give yourself a serious try."

Rebooted Roseanne is a proud 'deplorable' - can she be the Trump era's Archie Bunker?

By Hank Stuever
Rebooted Roseanne is a proud 'deplorable' - can she be the Trump era's Archie Bunker?
Roseanne finds herself at political odds with her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) in the re-booted

They wake in their creaky bed, as if thawed from cryogenic storage, and immediately begin telling jokes in a 2018 context. Mostly about age. He's wearing a CPAP mask for sleep apnea. "I thought you were dead," Roseanne Conner tells her husband, Dan.

"I'm sleeping," he snorts. "Why does everyone always think I'm dead?" (They think that because when "Roseanne" signed off 21 years ago after nine seasons, Dan had died. That and other Conner family denouement turned out to be fantasy, imagined by the aspiring novelist in Roseanne.)

At their kitchen table, more reckoning: Her knee hurts, her blood sugar is whack. Health-care costs are so high that Roseanne and Dan divvy up prescription pills between them - statins, anti-inflammatories, blood-pressure meds, a handful of opioids.

And so, sporting a fresh layer of relevance, ABC's groundbreaking sitcom "Roseanne" makes an engaging return to life next week with its superb original cast (Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sarah Gilbert, Lecy Goranson and Michael Fishman) happily intact. They're older and unhappier and, to a character, well acquainted with the demise of the American Dream.

"Roseanne" is back, in part, because everything else is back, because the 21st century turned out to be so thoroughly unappealing that our entertainment culture now regresses into old shows instead of finding new ones to love nearly as much. After "Roseanne's" era, broadcast network comedies got faster and smarter but somehow shallower, mastering the art of snark while losing an ability to resonate with a broad audience.

This new/old "Roseanne," however, is not just an opportunistic grab at nostalgia. Baked into its leftovers is an adroit and necessary reason for return: Our old friend Roseanne (both the fictional character and the resolute iconoclast who plays her) is a Trump voter.

It's an easy and possibly cynical move - and a plot point that has already brought the show a ton of press attention - but it's also kind of genius. "Roseanne" quickly asserts itself as the one sitcom that might stand a chance of humorously and empathetically portraying that bypassed half of the country that rallied in 2016 behind a candidate who broke the decency barrier (and the B.S. meter) and spoke directly to his constituents' fears of immigrants, terrorists, socialists and special snowflakes conspiring against American superiority.

That Roseanne Conner is now a proud "deplorable" should come as no surprise, nor is it a surprise that some of Roseanne's loved ones oppose her politics, just as Archie Bunker was hectored by his daughter and son-in-law during the Nixon years.

Roseanne and her sister Jackie (Metcalf, donning her knitted pink hat and a "Nasty Woman" T-shirt) haven't spoken since Election Night. After a detente family dinner brokered by Roseanne's recently returned daughter Darlene (Gilbert), the sisters are at least able to hear one another's frustrations.

"He talked about jobs, Jackie, he said to shake things up," Roseanne says. "I know this may come as a shock to you, but we almost lost our house because of the way things were going."

"Have you looked at the news?" Jackie snaps back. "Because now things are worse."

"Not on the real news," Roseanne replies.

And rather than laugh, the studio audience emits a noise somewhere between an "Oooh" and a gasp, a sound that indicates that neither Hollywood nor the audience (nor even critics) knows how to go on loving a character who is that far outside their bubble.


There is a strong sense - even a giddy anticipation - that "Roseanne" is the sitcom that will at long last go there.

Television, which is overloaded with late-night comedians making hay with White House meltdowns, is in desperate need of a modern-day Archie Bunker in its prime-time lineup, a fictional character through whom the country's frustrations and opposing views are cathartically vented. Could Roseanne Conner fill that need?

It's true that some network sitcoms have peppered their scripts with a Trump-related joke or two to keep things saucy, but they still tend to give politics a wide berth. Since 2016, they've also doubled down on their disinterest in red states.

Nearly all sitcoms take place in New York or Los Angeles, featuring characters who seem to be doing economically fine and dandy. After "Roseanne" debuts, ABC is premiering another bubbly yet instantly forgettable new sitcom, "Splitting Up Together," about a couple named Lena and Martin ("The Office's" Jenna Fischer and "Rules of Engagement's" Oliver Hudson) who acknowledge the romantic death of their marriage and decide to divorce, yet remain in their lovely and enormous Craftsman home.

For the sake of the children, they each take turns living in the detached garage/guesthouse out back. I watched several episodes, chuckled a time or two, and kept waiting to discover what Lena and Martin do for a living, to be able to afford to coexist on the excruciatingly sunny side of the street. Aside from the mention of an unfavorably large mortgage, the show - executive-produced by that relentlessly spotless mind, Ellen DeGeneres - never tells us.

An oversupply of such cutesiness makes it an opportune time to return to fictional Lanford, Illinois, and see how the Conners are faring.

When it first premiered in October 1988, "Roseanne" was promoted as a long-overdue glimpse of life in a Reagan-era working-class family that barely got by amid factory closings, stagnant wages and other consequences of a trickle-down economy. The show was created for and built from the talents of Barr, who rose from the stand-up comedy circuit on a "domestic goddess" persona that both celebrated and lampooned such class signifiers as trailer parks, junk food, government assistance and hourly wages.

Barely a decade had passed since Norman Lear and his colleagues brought viewers into the rowhouses and apartments of such memorable TV families as the Bunkers ("All in the Family"), the Evanses ("Good Times") and the Romanos ("One Day at a Time"). Despite Lear's example, television immediately filled that void with yuppified sitcoms in which characters lived inwardly, in apathetic bliss and enviable creature comforts.

Back then, "Roseanne" subliminally answered the aspirational success promoted in "The Cosby Show," about a black family headed by an obstetrician father and an attorney mother who lived in a fine Brooklyn Heights brownstone. It wasn't a race thing - "Roseanne" simply sought to remind the viewing audience that most of America wasn't rich, or anything close to rich. Even then there was a sense, certainly to those of us watching TV in the Central and Mountain time zones, that a huge part of the country was overlooked by the arbiters of popular culture.


In its heyday, fights and personnel problems plagued the "Roseanne" set. Barr turned out to have a knack for a turbulent style of celebrityhood that was slightly ahead of its time - not only for what she did wrong (belting out an atrociously disrespectful rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a 1990 baseball game) but also for what she did right (asserting herself as a woman in charge of a show that bore her name as well as her comedic identity).

It's no wonder then that the actress, who once ran for president herself, was drawn to support Trump's presidency: They are similar, born of tabloid acrimony, insistent on their own versions of the truth. The years have not mellowed Barr's disdain for media. When the "Roseanne" cast sat for a Q&A with critics and reporters in January, Barr was particularly evasive when questioned about her support for Trump and how that influenced the show.

Sara Gilbert, who is co-producing and co-starring in "Roseanne" while co-hosting a daily talk show on CBS, spoke about how the fictional Roseanne's vote is a way to show families disagreeing yet still loving each other, "And what a great thing to bring to the country right now," she said.

Impatiently, Barr finally pointed out the obvious: Working-class people voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump. That's exactly who Roseanne is. The polarization of families deserves to be portrayed on TV, she said: "People actually hating other people for the way they voted, which I feel is not American."

She went off from there - as her cast mates and producers and network publicists braced themselves for disaster: "And speaking of racism, I'm just going to say it" -

"Um, are you sure?" Gilbert asked, causing the reporters to laugh.

"I appreciate your concern," Barr said, "but I am going to say that a large part of why I couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton is because (of) Haiti."

"And we're out of time," an ABC publicist stood to announce.

This slightly unhinged, Fox News-fed Roseanne persona would make "Roseanne" even more interesting, but, for some reason, the show loosens its bite.

Three episodes shown to critics (there are nine in this new season) certainly do an entertaining job of updating the characters, like getting a long Christmas letter from family friends who fell out of touch. Darlene, frustrated by a failed writing career, has moved back home (ostensibly to care for her parents), bringing along her teenage daughter, Harris (Emma Kenney from Showtime's "Shameless") and 11-year-old son, Mark (Ames McNamara), who likes to wear pastels, skirts and nail polish. ("I like your nail color, Grandpa," Mark tells Dan one morning. "What shade is it?" "Drywall," Dan answers, disapprovingly.)

A gender-exploring grandson is one of several ways that the producers and writers (who include comedian and sitcom veteran Whitney Cummings) have checked off some current (and increasingly cliche) boxes, so that "Roseanne" will not only look like a show in 2018, but will give Roseanne and Dan an opportunity to examine their beliefs. It's "Granny Rose," therefore, who accompanies Mark to the first day at school to warn potential bullies that she's got her eyes on them.

Meanwhile, the Conners's oldest daughter, Becky (Goranson), is a 43-year-old widow who waits tables at a Mexican restaurant - and has decided to offer her services as a surrogate mother. The show cleverly brings in Sarah Chalke, who played Becky for 1-1/2 seasons when Goranson left the show, as the woman who wants to pay Becky $50,000 to carry a child.

Finally, sweet D.J. (Fishman) is back from military duty, caring for his daughter, Mary (Jayden Rey), while his wife continues to serve overseas. (Check two more boxes: military families and a mixed-race families.) And where, one may ask, is the baby of the family, Jerry Garcia Conner? (You forgot Roseanne had a baby in season 8?) Off on a fishing boat, somewhere, and he never calls home.

These family matters and new additions are all well and good - proving there are many ways to take "Roseanne" from here, including a future story line that involves an opioid addiction for someone in the family. Still, once Jackie and Roseanne bury the hatchet, there's a sinking feeling of lost promise.

"Roseanne" needs to do more than acknowledge that a Trump-voting grandmother can get along with her liberal-leaning sister and adore her sparkle-riffic grandson. It should courageously allow the Conner family to more tumultuously grapple with the idea that America is coming apart and changing profoundly.


"Roseanne" (one hour, two episodes) premieres March 27 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.

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Why conservative Christians are sticking with Trump

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


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

(For Thiessen clients only)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

Could this Trump nominee interfere with Mueller?

By david ignatius
Could this Trump nominee interfere with Mueller?


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

(For Ignatius clients only)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

A hard rain's gonna fall in Silicon Valley

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


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

(For Zakaria clients only)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fareed Zakaria's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

We should not reward the authors of torture

By eugene robinson
We should not reward the authors of torture


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

(For Robinson clients only)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugene Robinson's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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

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


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

(For Gerson clients only)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Gerson's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Deleting Facebook? Don't worry, I'll replace it for you.

By alexandra petri
Deleting Facebook? Don't worry, I'll replace it for you.



(For Petri clients only)


[BEG ITAL]I can understand why you might wish to delete Facebook, especially given that the company responded to the news about Cambridge Analytica by saying, oh, no, the problem was not that someone had access to the data of 50 million people, most of whom had no idea that their information was being shared, that part was okay; the problem was they sold it.

That is why I have this special offer: If you want to delete Facebook, but are worried that you will miss it, I am happy to become your personal Facebook and do everything that Facebook used to do.[END ITAL]

First, I will tell you any time anyone you went to high school with gets married or engaged. I will accompany this information with uncomfortable pictures of them standing on a beach, squinting into a bright light.

I will be sure to let you know any time your friends' parents have political opinions. I know how much this matters to you.

I will make a terrible slideshow of pictures of you with someone you haven't spoken to since college, and will leap out at you unexpectedly in the morning to tell you that There Are Many Friendships In The World, But None Of Them Are Quite Like Yours. You will never think this is worth sharing, but that will not stop me from doing it every day.

Some days, without warning, I will surprise you with a painful reminder of a lost loved one that you weren't prepared for at all. We Thought You'd Like To Remember This, I will hiss.

I will show you one video, which you were never terribly interested in in the first place, over and over and over again. You will be trapped in the world of this video forever. It will be the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you see at night. You will beg me to stop showing it to you, but I will be merciless.

I will bring you several hours' worth of video of Mark Zuckerberg grilling something.

Some days, for no reason, I will remind you that once, seven years ago, you took a badly focused picture of a Smirnoff Ice. I will act as though this is something you want to remember.

If you try to get help with a recipe from friends, I will alert none of your friends that you want help with this recipe, and instead bring you a man you once met at a conference years ago to make a controversial statement about the #MeToo movement.

I will tell you essay-length things about personal struggles your friends are having, ones they would not share with any one person directly. You will never speak of this in person.

I will give you a reason to hate everyone you love.

I will bring you hundreds and hundreds of pictures of babies. Strangers' babies. Friends' babies. Stray unaffiliated babies. I will never tire of bringing them to you. You will drown in babies, and the babies will keep coming, and you will die and be reborn and yet they will not cease. You will say you like all of them, even though you only like some of them.

I will bring you information that is bad. Do you want some information about how bad things are these days that has not been properly checked? I have that in spades, as much as you need, to make you as upset as you would like to be.

I will gladly provide all these services, while recording everything you do and sharing this information with random unscrupulous strangers, if you or any of your friends has ever succumbed to the desire to take a personality quiz. Sorry!

In exchange for the ability to learn what your high school friend's mother thinks about the Black Lives Matter movement (she is not in favor), please know that you are giving me your data forever so that I can give it to, honestly, anyone. Could be Cambridge Analytica. Could be the Obama team! I don't really care! I am moving fast and breaking things, like a startled cat!

I will repeatedly reassure you that your privacy is very important to me. Thus, every so often, without asking your permission first, I will automatically let everyone in your social network see absolutely everything and require you to go through several complicated steps to change this back.

You're welcome!

But with me in your life you will never have to remember a birthday again. With me in your life, you can rest secure in the knowledge that everyone you have ever loved or met is wrong about politics in some alarming way. Aren't you glad to know this? Here is another picture of those shoes you didn't buy. Here is a baby. Here is another baby. This is what you want.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group


Video Embed Code

Video: The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending on Twitter as Facebook faces serious scrutiny over the Cambridge Analytica controversy. Here's a guide on how to leave the social media site.(Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

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