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The 24 films everyone will be talking about this summer

By Michael O'Sullivan
The 24 films everyone will be talking about this summer
(L-r) Mena Massoud and Will Smith in

Popcorn movie season kicks into high gear this weekend with the release of "Avengers: Endgame." But what are the other films to watch out for this summer? Read on for our recommendations of the buzziest monster movies, rom-coms, family films, horror flicks, superhero sagas and art house drama.

Opening dates are subject to change.

- "Long Shot"

(May 3, R)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen.

Most movies implicitly ask for our willing suspension of disbelief. "Long Shot" explicitly demands it.

Embedded in the very title is an acknowledgment of the far-fetched nature of its premise: that Theron's beautiful, brainy U.S. secretary of state, a high-achiever preparing for a presidential run, could fall in love with Rogen's chronically underemployed schlub, a wordsmith she hires to be her speechwriter, despite his gift for embarrassing himself - and her - in public.

OK. So she was his babysitter 25 years ago. And the actors do have a kind of on-screen chemistry. But the film, which was a crowd favorite at the recent South by Southwest Festival, may be more out of reach for some reality-based viewers. "I just want you to (make love to) me from behind and slap my (derriere) really hard," Theron's character says. "Choke me a little."

The political satire is just as blunt - a virtually unrecognizable Andy Serkis plays a media mogul who runs a Fox News-like cable network - but it's the romance in this rom-com that will determine whether you subscribe to it or not.

- "The Hustle"

(May 10, PG-13)

Starring: Ann Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp.

Hathaway, who some called the highlight of the ensemble caper comedy "Oceans Eight," partners with another reliable scene-stealer ("Pitch Perfect's" Wilson) in this gender-flipped remake of the 1988 comedy "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (itself a remake of 1964's "Bedtime Story"). Here, Hathaway and Wilson play odd-couple scammers: the first a cultured con artist, the other a crass grifter, in a battle to swindle a young tech billionaire (Sharp).

Chris Addison, a twice Emmy-nominated director of "Veep," makes his feature directorial debut.

- "John Wick: Chapter 3 -Parabellum"

(May 17, R)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Anjelica Huston, Asia Kate Dillon, Jason Mantzoukas.

"All of this for what? Because of a puppy?" That's the question Huston's mysterious character puts to the bloodied and beleaguered antihero of this hyperviolent, heavily stylized action sequel about an elite assassin (Reeves) named John Wick. In the first film, John is set on a path of vengeance after his dog is killed, and his beloved '69 Mustang stolen. But those inciting incidents took place two movies ago, and we don't yet know who Huston plays here, in what has been described as an origin story.

Fans of the hit films (soon to get a TV spinoff series on Starz) will remember that the last chapter ended with a cliffhanger, with Wick on the run from every hit man in the world and with a $14 million bounty on his head. Expect a story line that leads him to confront not just his future, but his past.

- "Aladdin"

(May 24, PG)

Starring: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari.

There was a bit of backlash when the first trailer dropped for Disney's live-action remake of its 1992 animated hit. Some internet wags compared Smith's Genie - described as a hip-hop take on the motor-mouthed character originally voiced by the late Robin Williams - to Tobias Fünke from "Arrested Development." But if the Mouse House's boldly revisionist "Dumbo" - the first of three live-action remakes of Disney classics this year - is any indication, such fresh thinking might not be a bad thing.

That's a sword that cuts both ways. This story of a ragamuffin (Massoud) in love with a sultan's daughter (Scott) is directed by Guy Ritchie, a filmmaker who has already proved, in adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes canon and Arthurian legend, that he has a sometimes unhealthy disregard for source material.

- "Booksmart"

(May 24, R)

Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever.

Feldstein, whose breakout supporting performance in "Lady Bird" dazzled critics, joins Dever of "Last Man Standing" in a buddy comedy about a pair of overachieving high school seniors named Molly and Amy. Trying to make up for lost time, these studious nerds vow to cram as much partying as they can into the last few days of the year. The movie - which has been compared to a female version of "Superbad" - is the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, working from a screenplay that first garnered buzz on the 2009 Black List, an annual compendium of the best unproduced scripts.

- "Godzilla: King of the Monsters"

(May 31, PG-13)

Starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Vera Farmiga.

Everything old is new again. Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, the studios behind Gareth Edwards's 2014 resuscitation of the seemingly undying Japanese creature feature, have teamed up for a sequel. In "King of Monsters" the titular kaiju (literally, strange creature) faces off against monsters Mothra, Rodan and the three-headed King Ghidorah. The big lizard, who first appeared on screen in 1954 - and whose movies have always had themes of man's meddling in the natural world - will next go toe to toe with a big ape born in 1933, and last seen in 2017's "Kong: Skull Island."

"Godzilla vs. Kong" is due out next year.

- "Ma"

(May 31, R)

Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle.

"There's something off about Ma," says one of the teens who has been invited to party in the basement of this film's title character. Perhaps so, but there's something that feels perversely right about this unexpected change of direction for Spencer, who, in her first horror film, plays Sue Ann (aka Ma), a creepy loner who evolves from enabler to evildoer after a group of underage high-schoolers recruit her to buy booze for them. According to filmmaker Tate Taylor, who previously directed Spencer in "The Help" and other films, the Oscar-winner was ready for a change of pace after a career marked by sober-minded fare. As Tate told Total Film, "Octavia - who's just one of my best friends - had called me up and said, 'I am so sick of having to put on period wigs and costumes.' "

- "Rocketman"

(May 31, not yet rated)

Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Madden.

Bryan Singer received credit for directing "Bohemian Rhapsody," even though he was fired for erratic behavior. But now Dexter Fletcher, the filmmaker who stepped in - anonymously - to finish the Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury biopic, will get his own name on a project about a different gay 1970s rock icon: Elton John. Produced by John and his partner David Furnish, the drama "Rocketman" has been described by Egerton as a fantasy musical - less episodic that impressionistic.

"Rocketman" won't be Egerton's first go at performing John's tunes: In the animated film "Sing," the actor, voicing a gorilla named Johnny who dreams of becoming a pop star, delivered a nice rendition of "I'm Still Standing."

- "Dark Phoenix"

(June 7, not yet rated)

Starring: Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jessica Chastain, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp.

The latest episode in the X-Men franchise - said to be the last entry in the long-running saga - takes place in 1992. Is that date important? Maybe, maybe not. The series never followed an easy chronology, in recent years jumping around from the Cuban missile crisis to World War II to the year 2029. Making matters more confusing, "Phoenix" focuses on Jean Grey (Turner), a character who died in the 2006 film "The Last Stand."

Huh? It might help to imagine a giant reset button: The 2014 film "Days of Future Past," which involved time travel, erased the events of the 2006 film.

Here, Jean returns from a space mission with strange and dangerous new abilities, courtesy of something called the Phoenix Force. This puts her at odds with her mutant pals - Lawrence as the shapeshifting Mystique, Peters as the super-fast Quicksilver, etc. - as well introducing us to Chastain's new, otherworldly villain.

- "Late Night"

(June 7, R)

Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow.

Kaling, an Emmy-nominated TV producer and writer making her feature-film debut as a screenwriter, also happens to play a writer in this comedy, set in the backstage world of late-night talk TV. She's also plays foil to Thompson, who stars as a sharp-tongued chat host who, after 28 years in the biz, is about to get canned. (Kaling plays the new blood on the show's all-white, all-male writing staff.) Well reviewed at its Sundance premiere - where Indiewire called the film "funny as hell, and with something to say" - "Late Night" ought to be able to capitalize on such of-the-moment topics as inclusion and gender equality.

- "The Dead Don't Die"

(June 14, R)

Starring: Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny.

A zombie flick may seem an odd choice to open the Cannes Film Festival, but this one has serious art house pedigree. Directed by the ever-unpredictable auteur Jim Jarmusch ("Paterson"), this horror-comedy about small-town cops battling the undead stars, in addition to the above A-list actors: Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane and Rosie Perez. Keep an eye out for musicians - and Jarmusch regulars - Tom Waits ("Down by Law"), Wu Tang Clan's RZA ("Coffee and Cigarettes") and Iggy Pop (the subject of Jarmusch's 2016 documentary "Gimme Danger") There's a fresh face (Selena Gomez, making her Cannes debut) as well as an old friend: Eszter Balint, whose breakout role came 35 years ago, in Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise."

- "Men In Black: International"

(June 14, not yet rated)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson.

The fourth film in the franchise about alien-hunting secret agents will be lucky if it can replicate the witty repartee between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith - the partnership that carried the first three films. Here, the jaded veteran is played by Hemsworth, and the fresh face is Thompson, a trainee with a hidden history with the Men in Black Agency.

"International" centers on an investigation into the assassination of an emissary from an alien government - a global hunt that is compromised by a mole in the agency. In a series that has always grappled with the themes of immigration and otherness, look for performances by Kumail Nanjiani, as an alien disguised as a chess pawn, and Rebecca Ferguson, as an extraterrestrial with three arms.

- "Shaft"

(June 14, R)

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse T. Usher, Richard Roundtree.

The tagline for the new "Shaft" movie - "More Shaft Than You Can Handle" - is more than a naughty double-entendre. It's also a plot description of sorts.

"Shaft" is a sequel to the 2000 film of the same name, in which Jackson played detective John Shaft II, the nephew of Roundtree's John Shaft (a cool-cop character originated by the actor in the 1971 blaxploitation classic). In this new chapter, there aren't just two generations of Shaft, but three - with the addition of Shaft II's grown son, John Jr. (Usher), an MIT-educated FBI agent with a specialty in cybersecurity who recruits his father in the investigation into a friend's death.

The tagline also sends a message: Directed by Tim Story ("Barbershop"), this "Shaft" promises to take itself a lot less seriously than either of the earlier films.

- "Toy Story 4"

(June 21, G)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Patricia Arquette, Joan Cusack, Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele.

Cowboy Woody (voice of Hanks) and his toy-box pals take a road trip with Bonnie, the little girl who inherited a carton of secondhand playthings from the now-college-age Andy at the end of Pixar's "Toy Story 3." But while traveling with her family, Bonnie's new favorite "toy" - a reluctant craft project named Forky (Hale), fashioned from a disposable plastic spork - runs away. This leads Woody, ever the champion of children and their tchotchkes, to go after him.

In the trailer, a surprisingly dark and ambiguous tease that features creepy ventriloquist dummies, Woody reunites with Bo Peep, a porcelain doll (and old flame) who disappeared between the second and third film. Bo's return raises issues that call into question our hero's values.

- "Yesterday"

(June 28, PG-13)

Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon.

The new rom-com from Danny Boyle ("T2 Trainspotting") looks - and sounds - like nothing else you'll see this summer: A struggling singer-songwriter and Beatles fan named Jack (Patel) wakes up after a global blackout to discover that he's living in a world in which no one has ever heard of the Fab Four, except him. This puts Jack in demand as a creative genius, while driving a wedge between him and his childhood friend (James), the only person who has always believed in him.

With a screenplay by the writer-director of "Love Actually," "Yesterday" could be the charmer that fans of old-fashioned love stories have been waiting for.

- "Spider-Man: Far From Home"

(July 2, not yet rated)

Starring: Tom Holland, Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Wait - Spider-Man is back? He wasn't looking so hot at the end of "Avengers: Infinity War," as you may recall. That's one mystery that is sure to be addressed by this week's "Avengers: Endgame." But there are others, such as:

Is Gyllenhaal's Mysterio the bad guy or the good guy? A villain in the comics, the character - an expert in illusion and special effects - is said to join forces with Spidey in the fight against several "elemental" entities representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

- "Midsommar"

(July 3, not yet rated)

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter.

Filmmaker Ari Aster ("Hereditary") has been tight-lipped about his follow-up to his 2018 debut, a psychological horror film as deeply unsettling as it was artful. "Midsommar" is a "breakup movie," Aster told Vulture, "in the same way that 'Hereditary' is a family tragedy." (Thanks. He also called it, perhaps tongue in cheek, "a 'Wizard of Oz' for perverts.")

Set in a rural community outside Stockholm, Aster's sophomore effort centers on an American couple (Pugh and Reynor) who join in on a traditional Scandinavian folk festival whose cultlike rituals gradually turn dark and menacing. As scary as it looks, perhaps it's a good thing that Aster says it will be his last horror film for a while.

- "The Lion King"

(July 19, not yet rated)

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Oliver.

There are no human beings in this remake of Disney's 1994 animated classic - just a bunch of CGI animals, including a talking, singing meerkat and warthog (voiced by Eichner and Rogen, respectively). So it's a bit strange that people, even Disney executives, are referring to the CGI film as "live action." ("The Lion King" was produced by Walt Disney Pictures, its live-action branch, not Walt Disney Animation.)

Call it what you like. It will almost certainly look as gorgeous as the studio's CGI "The Jungle Book." A better question is whether the story will live up to the charm of the first film, the highest-grossing hand-drawn animation film of all time, which spawned TV spinoffs, video games and a long-running Broadway show.

- "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

(July 26, not yet rated)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning.

Rumored to be Quentin Tarantino's penultimate film, this story, set in 1969 L.A., focuses on two characters inspired by the late Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham: a cowboy actor who aspires to move from TV to movies (DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Pitt). Like "Pulp Fiction," the film weaves together multiple threads, including the Tate-LaBianca murders by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and subplots involving movie stars Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis).

Sounds like a simultaneous meditation on the filmmaker's long-standing obsessions: sex, violence, machismo and the mythology of moviemaking.

- "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw"

(Aug. 2, not yet rated)

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby.

The enduring "Fast & Furious" action franchise jumped - like a nitrous-oxide-burning car - from stories about illegal street racers to the tales of international espionage around the fifth film. This ninth installment is not a sequel per se, but a spinoff, built on the sturdy backs of two of the series' recurring characters: Johnson's lawman Luke Hobbs and Statham's outlaw Deckard Shaw. (If you're coming late to this party, the two antagonists have been bickering with - and battering - each other since movie No. 7.)

Here, Hobbs and Shaw are forced to become unlikely allies, partnering with an MI6 agent (Kirby), who just happens to be Shaw's sister, when a genetically enhanced anarchist (Elba) obtains a biological weapon that - wait for it - threatens the fate of the world. The globe-trotting action includes a sojourn in Hobbs's native Samoa.

On top of the familiar premise, fans of F&F can expect gleefully physics-defying mayhem and unabashedly cliched dialogue: "Let's do this," Hobbs says in the trailer, as well as, even more predictably, "We're going to need cars - and guns."

- "Artemis Fowl"

(Aug. 9, not yet rated)

Starring: Ferdia Shaw, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell.

Fans of beloved books are the toughest audience when their sacred texts are made into movies - especially ones that deviate even slightly from the source material. (Remember "A Wrinkle in Time"?)

Does that bode ill for this Disney adaptation of Eoin Colfer's wildly popular Y.A. fantasy novel, the first of several books about a 12-year-old criminal genius (Shaw)? One male character, who in the book acts as a father figure to a supporting character, will be played by a woman (Dench). That may be well and good, but some fans on Twitter have expressed concern about the film maintaining the integrity of the book. There are rumors that the title character, who in the books is characterized as something of a psychopath, may have been cleaned up a bit too much, in an effort to make him - gasp - more likable.

- "The Nightingale"

(Aug. 9, not yet rated)

Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr.

Set in 1825 Tasmania, Jennifer Kent's second film is a stark departure from her 2014 debut, "The Babadook." Unlike that contemporary psychological thriller about a monster terrorizing a disturbed child and his mother - or is it a disturbed mother and her child? - "The Nightingale" is a more clear-cut revenge drama, described by Variety as a "good-versus-evil Western."

There are three central characters: an Irish convict (Franciosi); the army officer who raped her and murdered her family (Claflin); and an Aboriginal tracker (Ganambarr). Kent's switch from supernatural horror to the real-world kind makes for what Variety calls "a pretty magnificent mass of movie."

- "Where'd You Go, Bernadette"

(Aug. 16, PG-13)

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig.

Former TV writer Maria Semple's 2012 bestseller is a comic pastiche of emails, letters, FBI files, medical bills and other ephemera that tell the story of an agoraphobic architect (Blanchett) who disappears on the eve of her family's trip to Antarctica. Richard Linklater ("Everybody Wants Some!") has been kicking around the idea of a film adaptation since 2015. And now it's here.

The quirky premise, along with Linklater's reputation for intimate, closely observed drama, suggests this could be a nice counterpoint to the noisier films that normally crowd theaters this month.

- "It: Chapter Two"

(Sept. 6, not yet rated)

Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Skarsgard, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Jay Ryan, Andy Bean.

Stephen King's nearly 1,200-page novel "It" was the inspiration for the 2017 horror movie that followed a group of children - known as the "Losers Club" - as they were terrorized by an evil clown called Pennywise in 1989. Set 27 years later, "Chapter 2" picks up the same seven characters, who as children had promised to reunite if their nemesis ever resurfaced. Well, guess who's back?

The first film deviated notably - and probably wisely - from the book, by leaving out a scene in which all the boys in the Losers Club have sex with the one girl (played by Sophia Lillis). But screenwriter Gary Dauberman told Cinema Blend that the sequel will not be able to so easily avoid some version of the bizarre tongue-biting ritual, known as Chüd, that is the climax of the novel.

Scared yet?

How a lawyer, a lobbyist and a legislator waged war on an Alabama Superfund cleanup

By Steven Mufson
How a lawyer, a lobbyist and a legislator waged war on an Alabama Superfund cleanup
Keisha Brown sits outside her home in Birmingham, Ala. Brown has respiratory problems that she attributes to the level of pollution in her area. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - In autumn of 2013, a senior executive from a powerful coal company and a lawyer from one of the state's most influential firms hashed out a strategy for avoiding a serious - and expensive - problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency wanted to clean up toxic soil in the 35th Avenue Superfund site in north Birmingham, where residents, about 95 percent of them African Americans, live in the shadow of massive waste berms, industrial chimneys, and the fortresses of steel, coking and cement manufacturing.

For more than a century, those industrial plants had generated jobs - but also noxious emissions and waste. In 2009, the EPA found elevated levels of toxic chemicals, in some cases three times the amount considered dangerous enough to require immediate removal. In 2013 the agency notified Drummond, the coal company, and four other manufacturers nearby that they would have to spend tens of millions of dollars to dig up and replace the soil on hundreds of residential yards. David Roberson, Drummond's vice president and top lobbyist, worried that it would cost his company $100 million or more.

Roberson and Joel Gilbert, a powerhouse lawyer with Balch & Bingham, had fought off environmental rules before. But for this campaign they needed a public face, someone with credibility both with the state government in Montgomery, Alabama, and the black communities in north Birmingham.

Someone who could persuade the people living on contaminated land to protest not the pollution, but the cleanup.

By early 2014, they had chosen Oliver Robinson, D, an African American state legislator and former University of Alabama at Birmingham basketball star.

But that was long before they all turned on each other. Before the guilty verdicts. Before the prison sentences that, so far, only one of them is serving.

---

This tale of power, pollution and duplicity played out in Alabama's poorest communities, in its executive suites and its storied courtrooms. It was gleaned from review of thousands of pages of court documents as well as hours of interviews with people who witnessed or were embroiled in the drama, as well as coverage by an Alabama news organization, Al.com, that closely tracked the trial.

In the summer of 2014, Roberson the lobbyist and Robinson the legislator met over cheeseburgers at a Billy's sports bar out in the suburbs.

The men would reach an understanding about what needed to be done: Keep the EPA out of Birmingham's backyards and stop the agency from enlarging the Superfund site, a federally designated area contaminated with hazardous waste and pollutants.

The stickier point was price. How much would Robinson charge to undertake a grass-roots campaign to get it done?

Everyone knew Robinson, the 6-foot-4-inch Birmingham native who led a thrilling Alabama-Birmingham team to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament. When he ran for office, he was elected in a landslide.

The lobbyist and his lawyer, Joel Gilbert, were counting on Robinson's charisma and connections in the community to fend off the EPA.

They needed a powerful message that would resonate with people who were used to losing. The logic was this: The EPA would set a struggling place even further on its heels. By digging up evidence of toxic chemicals, the government would drive down property values - the one asset left to many here. And the best way to stop it was to sign letters of protest to keep the agency's workers off their property.

Robinson would canvass the neighborhoods to rally support. He'd also press the cause before two state environmental agencies.

All, of course, for a price.

Robinson initially wanted $10,000 a month.

By December, after haggling, his price had dropped.

"Joel, go back to Dave and the Drummond people and let them know that we will need $7,000 per month," Robinson wrote on Dec. 11 in an email later divulged by federal prosecutors.

When Robinson told Gilbert that he was going to meet with a team of EPA officials the next day, Gilbert responded within 12 minutes: "Spoke to Drummond. They have approved your request for $7,000 a month," Gilbert emailed. "Call me when you get a chance."

The legislator had one more request: "Make payments to the Oliver Robinson Foundation."

This was a fateful choice - and one they would regret.

It's not unusual for a private corporation to pay a state legislator in Alabama. Robinson and his wife, for instance, had a communications firm with five clients. One was a bank that paid between $100,000 and $150,000 a year when Robinson was a member of the state House Financial Services Committee, according to his ethics filings. That raised eyebrows in one of the state's leading news outlets, Al.com, but the Alabama ethics commission took no action.

But paying the foundation was different - and a way to conceal Drummond's role, prosecutors would later charge.

Robinson had set up the foundation to promote financial literacy among low-income families and students. Every year its Black Achievers Awards Gala was one of the highlights of the social and philanthropic calendar and it buffed Robinson's image.

As a philanthropic nonprofit organization, it wasn't the right vehicle for a company seeking services for a fee. Robinson's foundation was what the IRS calls a 501(c)3 organization, and it was supposed to engage in religious, charitable, scientific or educational activities. It wasn't supposed to take money from a company seeking to use his good name and public position to lobby for a private interest.

Yet Robinson wrote to Gilbert: "The foundation is best because all types of corporations support our foundation."

The three men agreed on that and that the new contract would be "kept confidential."

Roberson, the lobbyist, later said the work was in keeping with the foundation's mission. "It was an outreach type of foundation, and that's what we needed. They put people on the ground and did the work we wanted done," he said. "The residents out there were getting so much misinformation."

Anything to slow the EPA's roll.

"The less remediation EPA did, the less those companies would have to reimburse," said former federal Judge U.W. Clemon, who worked with the north Birmingham communities after he retired from the bench.

Jay Town, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, would put it this way: "It's cheaper to pay for a politician than it is to pay for an environmental cleanup."

---

Ground zero in the plot was the Superfund site, just a 10-minute drive from the Balch & Bingham offices in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Homeowners like Keisha Brown had long sensed that they lived on the front lines of an environmental disaster.

Her hair wrapped in a bun, Brown stood recently in front of a small white house with an aqua blue awning.

Her grandfather bought the house 68 years ago when this was a thriving middle-class neighborhood. Brown said that the nearby industrial plants spewed toxic chemicals she blamed for her respiratory problems and for driving away many of her neighbors.

Robinson would need to urge people like Brown to say no to a chance to fix the root of their problems.

Birmingham is set in a valley rich in raw materials, the city's engine for more than a century. Trainloads of coal and iron fired the plants and jobs lured people - including sharecroppers from the countryside and immigrants from Europe - to the working-class neighborhoods.

But with time, it had devolved into what Brown called "an urban nightmare." U.S. steel output began to dwindle and people moved away. The Methodist church left. A handful of grocery stores closed. Bus service was discontinued. Some abandoned homes were demolished. Those left behind complained of soot.

Today, row on row of dilapidated housing marks the area as the rail cars rumble slowly by. Nearly 14,000 people live within a mile of the 35th Avenue Superfund site, one third of them below the poverty line.

Drummond, a family-owned company, was founded in 1935 by a coal miner who put three mules up as collateral for his first loan.Since then the company flourished, doing business in Japan and Colombia. In 1985, Drummond bought ABC Coke.

A coking plant heats coal to very high temperatures in closed oxygen-free ovens, so the coal does not burn. The process creates pitch-black coke that is used to fuel the blast furnaces of nearby steel, cement and aluminum manufacturers.

Drummond's coking operation had violated air pollution limits before the Superfund flap. In 2004, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management cited ABC Coke for allegedly exceeding the daily limits on the release of benzo(a)pyrene, a cancer-causing pollutant, 37 times.

Separately, EPA risk scores showed the company's toxic emissions were worse than the median for the industry, the state and the nation.

By 2013 EPA wanted the area cleaned up. The 1,099 soil samples it started testing in 2009 showed elevated levels of toxic chemicals - arsenic, lead and cancer-causing benzo(a)pyrene - in the yards of about a third of homes in northern Birmingham neighborhoods.

The agency wanted to take two steps. It would conduct tests to see whether it should extend the boundaries of the Superfund site to nearby neighborhoods of Tarrant and Inglenook just over the Birmingham line. And it wanted to add the 35th Avenue Superfund site to the national priorities list (NPL), which would make it easier to hold companies liable for the cleanup.

Both steps would sharply increase remediation costs, but they could protect residents from some of the ongoing health effects of living near the industrial plants. And taxpayers wouldn't have to foot the bill.

Roberson, a biologist by training who had once been the compliance chief for hazardous waste at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, argued that the Drummond-owned ABC Coke facilities were a mile and a half away from the Superfund site and that airborne toxic pollution couldn't float that far.

In a September 2013 letter, citing a "threat to public health and the environment," the agency notified five companies - including Drummond. The money would go to paying to remove the toxic dirt and truck in fresh soil, according to Franklin Hill, Superfund director for EPA's region 4. EPA said it would start cleaning up 52 properties.

That's when Drummond hired Balch & Bingham.

---

Gilbert was an old hand at the environmental influence game, and his law firm, Balch & Bingham, had been a political player in Alabama since 1922.

He was a lobbyist for the Business Alliance for Responsible Development (BARD), a front group with a wholesome-sounding name that business interests created to support development in an ecologically sensitive area.

Nelson Brooke, executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, part of a conservation network for the nation's waterways, came to call Gilbert an "environmental hit man."

Gilbert's lawyer did not return calls or email inquiries for comment.

Drummond too had a formidable record as a lobbying force.

"The only time I can remember when Drummond got beat on something is when they wanted to mine property owned by the University of Alabama right on the edge of the Black Warrior River," said Jack Drake, an Alabama civil rights and plaintiffs' lawyer.

Then there were their political connections. Drummond and Balch & Bingham were two of the top three donors to the last two Senate campaigns of Jeff Sessions, later President Donald Trump's attorney general. Drummond also gave then-Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange $50,000 in campaign contributions.

To thwart the EPA, Gilbert and Roberson tapped their vast network - what one lawyer in a trial filing called "the standard playbook."

Gilbert wrote or edited letters opposing the EPA that were signed by Sessions, Strange, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Gov. Robert Bentley and six members of the Alabama congressional delegation, according to evidence and testimony presented later in Gilbert's criminal case.

He also drafted a letter for the superintendent of Tarrant schools to rescind the school board's permission for the EPA to test soil samples.

Balch and Drummond also got the legislature behind them. Gilbert drafted a joint resolution urging the "overreaching" EPA to abandon its testing methods for airborne pollutants and keep northern Birmingham off the Superfund national priorities list. It said EPA had "applied its enforcement authority arbitrarily and unfairly." It passed by a voice vote.

The barrage was unexpected. EPA seeks agreement - and a 10 percent contribution - from state governments for Superfund sites. Usually states are happy to get federal money. Companies, fearful of EPA's power to triple fines, typically cooperate.

But in this instance, opposition was coming from everywhere. In Washington, the head of EPA's Superfund program met with Sessions staffers and others who argued that airborne emissions could not explain the contamination. And they questioned whether EPA was pursuing a misguided case of "environmental justice" for the poor rather than acting on solid evidence of harm.

"I was surprised when I started getting letters from senators saying the state of Alabama would not move forward and support an NPL listing because it came with such force," said Heather McTeer Toney, who was then the regional EPA administrator. Then came letters from congressmen and the governor.

"It was very clear that this was not going to be done easily," she said.

---

In his campaign, Robinson got a lot of help from Gilbert. It was Gilbert who had a firm attorney draft letters for residents to sign. And it was Gilbert who fed Robinson questions to ask when talking to EPA officials or the activists pushing the cleanup. "Push them to tell why they think ABC Coke is responsible and, if so, do they have any proof?" Gilbert said in an email.

On Dec. 12, 2014, armed with his talking points, Robinson walked into the Westin Hotel in downtown Birmingham to meet with EPA officials, led by Toney.

In a second-floor conference room, he pulled out his iPhone and secretly started recording.

He gave the recording to Gilbert to get the information "back to the people who wanted it."

Later he met with an attorney from GASP, an activist anti-pollution group. Gilbert sent Robinson an email with "Questions for Use in the GASP meeting." Robinson recorded that, too. The tapes would help Gilbert anticipate arguments used against Drummond.

They were running out of time. As the deadline loomed for comments on the EPA's national priorities proposal, Roberson emailed Gilbert that "Oliver needs to get some of the neighborhood officers to send letters [to the EPA] opposing the listing."

Gilbert instructed one of Balch & Bingham's new, bottom-rung lawyers to draft three versions of a "community" letter that Robinson would get residents to sign. Gilbert asked the associate to "dumb them down a bit" to make them sound more authentic and not like a "coordinated effort."

Robinson paid an old friend to collect signed petitions against EPA action, yielding nearly 100 signatures. Brown wasn't one of them.

"I do not support the EPA adding our community to the National Priorities List," read one. "Doing so will only make things worse than they are already. Our homes are worth almost nothing now, and we still have to keep paying higher taxes on them."

Appearing before state environmental regulators, Robinson said that if new areas were added to the Superfund site it would hurt residents who are already "considered to live in a dump. And nothing can happen there until it's cleaned up. And after that, it will take tremendous investment to get it to move forward."

Robinson also reached out to his first campaign manager, Hezekiah Jackson, who was president of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP. Robinson told him that EPA efforts to rope in several companies would lead to long litigation and only delay money flowing into cleanup efforts.

And Jackson believed him.

"I've always been an advocate of everybody in the area being relocated," Jackson said. "I just don't think the place can be cleaned up. It's been more than 50 years."

In October 2015, Robinson formed a group called Get Smart Tarrant and made his daughter Amanda, a freshly minted law school graduate, executive director. Jackson was brought on board, too. The group discouraged residents from letting EPA take soil samples from their yards.

Gilbert and Roberson kept a close eye on the new campaign. Gilbert edited flyers Amanda distributed in Tarrant at places such as the Lily Baptist Church and the House of Prayer. And he reviewed the roadside signs: "Get Smart Tarrant. Don't let EPA fool you!"

---

The Gilbert-Roberson-Robinson alliance had raised some alarms. As early as November 2014, Drummond CEO Mike Tracy asked in a meeting whether the work with Robinson was legal.

Tracy would later testify that Gilbert said he had checked the plan with Balch's ethics experts and that community outreach through a foundation was "perfectly fine."

It's not clear, however, that Gilbert checked with Balch senior partners. He says he consulted briefly with one in December, but the partner later testified that he could not recall the exchange.

To cover payments to the foundation, Gilbert and Roberson set up a new group called Americans For Jobs and the Economy, bringing in not only Drummond but other companies in the Superfund area, just as they had done earlier with BARD. Balch & Bingham cut the checks to the Robinson foundation. The new group, with Roberson as its head, made payments to Balch. It was a way "of distancing" the companies from the arrangement, Roberson later told federal prosecutors.

The Balch billing department balked at instructions from Gilbert to scrub the Oliver Robinson Foundation's name from certain invoices and list work as "community outreach" instead of consulting.

"I'm not sure why we cloak the reference in our invoice," chief operating officer David Miceli wrote in a Sept. 22, 2015, email.

"You ever hear anything from Joel on this?" he asked in a later email flagging a $25,500 payment.

The internal back and forth, documented later in the criminal case, dragged on for months.

Balch & Bingham, which would not make anyone available for an interview for this article, has insisted that Gilbert, as a partner, acted alone and would not have raised any flags as he deposited $360,000 into the Robinson foundation account because the money went out at a moderate pace over many months.

Roberson later said that 21 Balch & Bingham attorneys "played at least some part" in the anti-EPA campaign built on Robinson's efforts. But the indictment would name only one other defendant from the firm, and charges against him were dropped.

How it all came apart is a mystery. The assistant U.S. attorney wouldn't say where the tip came from. But on Nov. 30, 2016, Robinson abruptly resigned his seat in the statehouse. He said he did so to avoid ethics conflicts for his daughter, who had just been offered a job in the governor's legislative liaison office.

"Quitting a job like that . . . always portends something," Al.com journalist John Archibald opined that day. He said the explanation "caused many in Birmingham to snort breakfast beverage through their noses."

It was the Federal Bureau of Investigation that finally brought the scheme to its end.

In February 2017, its agents paid a visit to Robinson, looking into tax evasion charges; he had not paid taxes on the money he took from the foundation. Robinson made little effort to deny charges. Tears welled up in his eyes, an FBI report noted, and his lips quivered.

"I was lying to myself," he said later, adding that he was more upset about having deceived his family than the prospect of going to jail. Asked whether the FBI had broken him, Robinson said, "I broke myself."

---

On a mild, partly rainy day in June 2017, the U.S. attorney charged Robinson with receiving bribes, wire fraud and tax evasion for using $17,783 of campaign funds and at least $250,000 of foundation contributions for personal expenditures. Robinson faced a sentence of as much as 100 years in jail and hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in penalties.

And then the state lawmaker who had betrayed his constituents and family, turned on the people who had paid him to stop the EPA. He entered a guilty plea and agreed to testify for the government.

By September, Gilbert and Roberson were charged with bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering.

"This case gets at the heart of public corruption in Alabama," acting U.S. attorney Robert Posey said when the charges were filed. "Well-funded special interests offer irresistible inducements to public officials. In exchange, the officials represent the interests of those who pay rather than the interests of those who vote."

Gilbert's lawyer sought to downplay his client's role. The money paid to the foundation was no lump sum but made in installments, he argued: "That's not the way a crook operates."

Roberson's lawyer said that Robinson had not acted in his capacity as an elected official and was not paid "to use the powers of his office," and therefore wasn't bribed. Besides, he said, Roberson relied on Gilbert and Balch to say whether something illegal was going on.

But Robinson's own testimony and a trail of emails and invoices proved a potent combination at the trial.

Emails showed that Gilbert had taken precautions. He urged Amanda Robinson to convert the letters he edited into PDFs "so no one, ie., a third party, can see the metadata should they receive it via electronically."

Prosecutors later told the jury that Gilbert was hiding a crime - evidence of corrupt intent.

Gilbert and Roberson were convicted of all federal criminal charges - conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud and money laundering - in July 2018. In October, Gilbert was sentenced to five years in prison, Roberson two and a half years and Robinson 33 months.

Immediately Balch & Bingham sought to distance the firm from Gilbert, who lost his partnership. But with the hours he logged on this case, Gilbert's earnings from the firm had gone from $298,000 in 2014 to $466,000 in 2016, according to the news site Al.com, which has covered the entire affair closely.

"The jury determined that Joel Gilbert engaged in conduct that is contrary to the standards to which each of us at Balch & Bingham is committed and expected to uphold," Balch & Bingham managing partner Stanford Blanton said in a statement.

Drummond initially stuck by Roberson, its executive. "While we respect the judicial process, we consider David to be a man of integrity who would not knowingly engage in wrongdoing," the company said in a statement when he was convicted.

Then in February, Roberson was summoned to a meeting with the company's CEO and chief legal officer. Roberson, who earned $300,000 a year, had expected to discuss a bonus.

Instead, he was fired. Tracy, the CEO, said it was "one of the toughest things ever" and offered to pay him a lump sum of about half a year's salary. Roberson said he had "worked hard for this company" and was "so disappointed."

On March 17, Roberson filed a $50 million lawsuit against Drummond and Balch & Bingham, claiming that they misled him and "destroyed" his reputation and that he had been "humiliated." He said Drummond's general counsel had normally signed checks but asked Roberson to sign the ones to reimburse Balch for Robinson's grass-roots campaign. Now Roberson said he felt like "the fall guy."

"Joel was a friend," Roberson said in an interview with The Washington Post. "I don't consider him much of a friend now for doing what he's done to me."

Roberson was fired immediately after the end of the statute of limitations for legal malpractice, which his lawyer said was an effort to shield the company.

Drummond wouldn't comment, and Julie Wall, director of external affairs at Balch & Bingham, said in an email: "We believe the claims are without merit and we will have no further comment at this time."The company has asked the court to dismiss Roberson's case.

Gilbert and Roberson remain free pending the outcome of their appeals.

Only Robinson is in jail. He said he felt fortunate that his sentence wasn't longer. He showed up for his sentencing in September with a check for $169,151, the full amount of restitution, which his lawyer said were his "life's savings."

It was a steep fall for Robinson, from statewide basketball hero to discredited dissembler.

"I was bribed, and I sold out my community," Robinson testified in the Gilbert trial.

And all for about $260,000, Gilbert's lawyer noted.

"You sold out the people in your community and everything that you had worked for your adult life for this chump change?" he said.

"Now that I look back on it, I sure did," a downcast Robinson replied.

---

The plot that began that autumn day continues to take surprising turns, shaking the state's political and corporate establishment.

It's also illustrative of the grave challenge that remains to clean up the environmental ruin that is a legacy of America's industrial age.

A short distance and a world away from Balch & Bingham's offices and the federal courthouse, the EPA has been gradually cleaning up some of the toxic waste in the 35th Avenue Superfund site.

"Because of deadly pollutants that have contaminated our building and our grounds, we have moved," a sign proclaimed in late November in front of the red brick Friendship Baptist Church of Collegeville, one of the three neighborhoods belonging to the Superfund site.

In some places, yards are surrounded with plastic mesh where toxic topsoil has been removed. The old Carver High School in Collegeville has become an EPA staging ground. It is fenced in with signs warning: "No trespassing." In back of the school, a sign says "Superfund cleanup EPA" and piles of new dirt lie underneath white tarps waiting to replace the contaminated soil that is being taken to a landfill for hazardous materials.

Yet one cruel irony of the Birmingham tale is that Gilbert and Roberson succeeded in the narrow sense. The EPA has not expanded the Superfund site, and it has not placed the 35th Avenue neighborhoods on the national priorities list. And so far, none of the five companies alleged by EPA to be responsible for remediation - Drummond's ABC Coke, ERP Coke (formerly Walter Coke), U.S. Pipe, Alagasco and KMAC - has shouldered any of the costs, an EPA official said in an interview. That job has been left to U.S. taxpayers.

EPA's reason for not unilaterally adding the site to the national priorities list is that there is not enough Superfund money to cover the costs of cleaning up the 1,337 existing sites now, including a dozen in Alabama.

"We'll have to wait longer about the NPL listing," said George Martin, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys who prosecuted Gilbert and Roberson. "The national priorities list would have given access to a greater pot of money that would have allowed a quicker fix."

EPA rarely spends more than a few hundred thousand dollars of government funds on a site, but as of Dec. 14, it had spent $25.6 million and removed 56,000 tons of contaminated soil. In some cases, the EPA dug a foot deep.

The excavations so far have revealed soil laden with lead, arsenic and the carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene. But there are different toxic concentrations at different properties, an EPA official said. After all the controversy over whether toxic chemicals can travel by air, the agency now believes that most cases of contamination came from fill materials that were trucked in decades ago and deposited in this low-lying area to prevent flooding.

Residents disagree. They say that they can see pollution settling from the air on their rooftops, cars and clothes and that it is causing cancer and asthma - if only someone studied it. So far, no one has.

Superfund cleanups generally reduce the incidence of congenital anomalies in infants of mothers living within 1,250 yards of a site by roughly 20 to 25 percent, academic research has shown.

The final casualty of the Superfund fight has been the tenor of politics here. Under fire from fellow NAACP officials, Robinson's first campaign manager and Get Smart associate Hezekiah Jackson quit his position as head of the group's local chapter.

"The whole process has been very disappointing to me," said Clemon, the retired federal judge. "The trust that the black community has posed in its elected representatives has been breached in a very serious way."

From her front yard, Keisha Brown can see the unsightly berms of mineral wool, a byproduct of the coking process. And she can feel the rail cars as they rumble into view and stop before the entrance to the ERP Coke plant.

Robinson's betrayal has contributed to her sense of abandonment and anger.

"I put them, the leaders, along with the polluters," Brown said. "The only difference is the polluters have to get a permit to release harmful chemicals in our bodies."

Trump-style immigrant bashing clouds South African election

By Antony Sguazzin
Trump-style immigrant bashing clouds South African election
A Democratic Alliance party general election campaign poster reads 'secure our borders' in Pretoria, South Africa, on April 18, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Waldo Swiegers.

Shorn of their most important campaign weapon, scandal-ridden former President Jacob Zuma, South Africa's biggest opposition parties are turning to populism as they scramble for votes May 8 in the most competitive election since the end of apartheid.

The two main challengers to the ruling African National Congress are increasingly echoing the anti-immigrant and race-baiting bias that's come to dominate politics in the U.S. under President Donald Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil, as well as Italy and parts of Eastern Europe.

"Secure our borders" reads a campaign poster of the second-biggest party, the Democratic Alliance. Its spokesman on immigration proposes a "humane" deportation program for undocumented migrants he says are a major source of crime and who take welfare checks and anti-AIDS drugs meant for South Africans. The signature poster of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the third-biggest party, features a picture of its leader, Julius Malema, emblazoned with "Son of The Soil," a slogan that alienates Asian, mixed-race and white South Africans.

"In South Africa, as in many countries around the world right now, you have this fairly rapid creep to the right and nativism," said Claude Baissac, the head of Johannesburg-based political risk consultancy Eunomix Business & Economics. "Trump and Bolsonaro made it not only acceptable but fashionable. The DA has very cynically and opportunistically taken the nationalist route."

In the case of the DA, analysts say the strategy threatens to alienate its traditionally liberal base. It could also heighten tensions in a country already riven by racial divisions and periodic xenophobic violence.

Anti-foreigner violence led to more than 60 deaths and 50,000 being made homeless in 2008 when footage of a Mozambican man being doused in petrol and burnt to death made international headlines. Similar violence has regularly resurfaced since, including this year in the south eastern city of Durban.

The dilemma for the two parties is renewed interest in the ANC after the popular Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as president last year and pledged to crack down on corruption. That's left both the DA and EFF seeking ways to gain voters' attention three years after municipal elections handed the ruling party its lowest share of the vote since it took power in 1994.

"Foreigners are resented -- we've seen waves of xenophobic violence. The DA is catching that wave," said Nic Borain, an independent political analyst. "It's going to unsettle some of its traditional supporters. It's a sacrifice they've made to their ideology because they assume they will get more support from the black middle class."

While the EFF has regularly criticized white South Africans since its formation in 2013, with Malema having faced several hate speech charges, it has widened its attacks in recent months to other racial groups.

Last year, party Deputy President Floyd Shivambu accused Ismail Momoniat, a South African of Asian origin who's a deputy director general of the National Treasury, of having an anti-black agenda.

EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi last month accused former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, who is mixed race, of facilitating the appointment of another mixed-race South African as head of the revenue service because of business and family ties. Manuel has denied the allegation and threatened legal action. Ndlozi didn't answer calls made to his mobile phone.

"They know it's the easiest way to grab headlines," said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst. "You look at the soft spots in society -- they know it's race relations. They just stoke the fires."

Most analysts trace the DA's turn to the policy to the political ascent of Herman Mashaba, a brash self-made multi-millionaire, who's now the DA's mayor of Johannesburg. He has regularly described mainly black African undocumented migrants as criminals and has spoken of the need for a "shock-and-awe" campaign to drive them out of the run-down inner city.

"Herman Mashaba started this anti-African policy," said Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute for International Affairs. "They are now looking for an expanded, African, middle-class vote."

DA leader Mmusi Maimane said the policy is misunderstood and the party's stance is a sensible approach to the number of immigrants coming into South Africa that cause social tensions by increasing the risk of "unskilled migration" in a nation that has an unemployment rate of 27 percent. He played down the comments by his spokesman on the issue, Jacques Julius, stressing the position on deportation isn't in the DA's election manifesto and said it was "anomalous" to say foreigners are responsible for all crime.

"All health-care facilities in South Africa, all security agencies are now being used effectively to police, to help provide health care, to provide education for the entire sub-Saharan Africa," Maimane said in March 18 interview.

Yet the number of immigrants, at between three and five percent of the population, has stayed constant since the mid-1990s, said Loren Landau, chair of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. Municipalities face more problems coping with the larger number of South African migrants from rural areas, he said.

Political parties "feel that this is a competitive election and they need to compete to win votes," said Landau. "Xenophobia acts as a distraction from real issues. It's dangerous to immigrants and it's dangerous to the country."

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

Now playing at the Supreme Court: How to preserve white power in four easy steps

By dana milbank
Now playing at the Supreme Court: How to preserve white power in four easy steps

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Milbank clients only)

By DANA MILBANK

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration and Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices Tuesday held a legal seminar on how to preserve white hegemony in four easy steps.

Step 1: Devise a discriminatory policy.

In this case, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, after consulting with Stephen Bannon, who was then President Trump's nationalist "alt-right" adviser, resolved to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census for the first time in 70 years. This would have the well-documented effect of reducing responses to the census by Latinos (from citizens and noncitizens alike), resulting in the undercounting of that population for purposes of congressional apportionment and $900 billion in federal funding.

Step 2: Create a pretext.

In this case, Ross lied to Congress, saying the Justice Department wanted the citizenship question added to help enforce the Voting Rights Act -- a claim three lower courts dismissed as pretextual. In fact, emails showed that Ross (with White House encouragement) was the one who pushed for the citizenship question and quietly dragooned the Justice Department into asking for the question to be added.

Step 3: Muddy the waters.

In this case, Solicitor General Noel Francisco and conservative justices raised doubts about the statistical capabilities of the Census Bureau, claiming it couldn't accurately "quantify" the damage that would be done by adding a citizenship question because the alternative way to get such information was an "untested statistical model." Why "untested"? Because the administration denied its experts' requests to run tests before leaping to a decision.

Step 4: Blame the victim.

Francisco, the top Trump administration lawyer, saved this nastiness for the final minute of the 80-minute argument. If the court disallows the citizenship question, he said, "you are effectively empowering any group in the country to knock off any question on the census if they simply get together and boycott it," he said, raising the possibility of a boycott by gender-nonbinary people.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only Hispanic on the high court, interrupted angrily. "Are you suggesting that Hispanics are boycotting the census? Are you suggesting ... that they don't have a legitimate fear?"

"Not in the slightest, Your Honor," replied Francisco, who had done exactly that.

For decades, the decennial census sent to each household hasn't included a citizenship question (it's instead asked on surveys), and for good reason. Latino residents -- legal or illegal -- tend to resist such questions out of an (unfounded) fear the government might use the information against them or their relatives. Census Bureau research has projected a drop of at least 5.1% from noncitizen households if the question is added, part of an estimated undercount of 6.5 million people. This contradicts the Constitution's requirement for an "actual enumeration of the people" -- not just citizens.

A lower-court judge ruled that the administration committed a "veritable smorgasbord" of violations in adding the question. But the conservative justices seemed willing to overlook Ross' lie and the administration's dubious justifications.

Francisco began with a deception, saying the citizenship question "has been asked as part of the census in one form or another for nearly 200 years."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Francisco the same question three times before he acknowledged that the citizenship question had been abandoned in 1960, in part, because it would depress the count of noncitizens.

"Well, sure, Your Honor," Francisco granted, then quickly explained why "we don't think this is really subject to judicial review."

So the administration is free to disregard millions of Latinos in the census -- and the courts have no say.

This seemed to be fine with Republican-appointed justices. Justice Samuel Alito said he was satisfied that the accuracy would be 98 percent if the citizenship question were asked (never mind those 6 million or so left out).

Trump's two appointees developed a newfound fondness for foreign law: Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed out that the United Nations recommends a citizenship question, and Justice Neil Gorsuch said "virtually every English-speaking country" asks one.

More disturbing were their counterfactual theories claiming some other, unknown variable might cause Latinos not to answer the census. (No such notions appeared in the case record, and census experts had already controlled for other variables.)

The justifications all sounded a bit "contrived," as Justice Elena Kagan put it, like so much "post-hoc rationalization" of a decision made for another reason.

When you consider that the indisputable effect of adding the citizenship question will be to suppress Latinos' census participation -- and by extension to suppress their political clout -- it is difficult not to be cynical about what that reason is.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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Video Embed Code

Video: Three judges have found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave a phony reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.(Meg Kelly,Joy Sharon Yi,Atthar Mirza/The Washington Post)

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Who will really benefit from Warren's student debt plan?

By megan mcardle
Who will really benefit from Warren's student debt plan?

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients only)

By MEGAN MCARDLE

WASHINGTON -- For years after graduating from business school, I used to joke, I was living on Ramen and Cheez Doodle Surprise -- the surprise being that you're 32 years old and still carrying so much student-loan debt that you can't afford brand-name ramen.

Ah, well. I'd decided to use my MBA to go into journalism. I couldn't really have expected anything different.

But Elizabeth Warren thinks we shouldn't have to suffer for our educations. This week, she announced that she wants to forgive some or all of the student-loan debt for anyone earning less than $250,000 a year, while making tuition at public colleges effectively free.

I have, you might say, a visceral appreciation for this plan's appeal. But I do have some questions.

For example: How will Warren make sure public-college tuition stays at what the federal government is willing to pay? Those colleges are run by the states, and the federal government has no constitutional authority to set tuition at state institutions.

The benefit could be limited to schools that (BEG ITAL)voluntarily(END ITAL) cap tuition at the federally guaranteed rate, of course. But making college free for students, while setting a ceiling on the revenue they generate, will increase the number of students and decrease the resources available to serve them.

Which brings me to my next question: How is Warren going to prevent the overcrowding and deteriorating conditions that tend to afflict free university systems in Europe? The United States has the best tertiary education system in the world; will it still be the best when Warren is done with it?

Easy answer: Make those federal payments generous. But, sorry, one more question -- how do we pay for it?

Warren says that the whole cost can be covered by her Ultra-Millionaire Tax. Oh, no, more questions, like "Is that tax plan constitutional?" (Answer: maybe not.) Also, Warren already promised a chunk of that money to her new child-care subsidy. After giving everyone cheap day care, how much will be left over for forgiving nearly $1.6 trillion of outstanding student-loan debt, and sending every public-college student to school for free?

But the biggest question I have is simply: Why spend federal money on this? College graduates are the best-off people in the country, in almost every way. There are probably better candidates for new spending -- about two-thirds of the population, in fact.

The burden of student loans doesn't even begin to erase the economic benefits of the degree they paid for. Over a lifetime, college graduates will earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their less-educated peers. Meanwhile, the median student loan balance is around $17,000 -- more like "new economy car" than "perpetual debt slavery."

Americans have about $1.1 trillion of outstanding auto debt, not that far from that $1.6 trillion in student loans, but without already-generous government repayment subsidies. If you wouldn't claim that Toyota Corollas are imposing a grievous, unsupportable burden on the nation's youth, then you probably shouldn't make similar claims about student loans.

The difference, of course, is that the sort of people who peruse campaign planks tend to be the kind of people who have borrowed against a major chunk of their income to get a degree, not a car. And the people who write the planks, or write about them, may well have borrowed a (BEG ITAL)lot(END ITAL) of money to get a (BEG ITAL)fancy(END ITAL) degree -- and then gone into something personally rewarding, such as writing or political activism, instead of something lucrative.

Those people do face real difficulties, but they tend to think that their own struggles are more common, and of greater national significance, than those struggles actually are. And these people appear to be increasingly more concentrated among the Democratic base, as Democrats become the party of the professional class, and of the working poor.

Naturally, Democrats want to appeal to their educated voters, since that group drives a lot of votes in the primaries. Which is why, when they announce new programs to help "struggling American families" and levy new taxes on "the rich" to pay for them, the cutoff for both is so often set at $250,000 -- well above any reasonable definition either of "rich" or "struggling."

There's always a danger in any high-low economic coalition that the agenda gets set by the elite members, and justified by the poor ones. And indeed, Warren touts the benefits of her proposals for low-paid teachers, single mothers, first-generation minority college students … even though the big-ticket items seem exquisitely tailored to the biggest financial burdens of affluent young professionals.

Which prompts one more question about Warren's plan: (BEG ITAL)cui bono?(END ITAL)

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Not a vote-getter!

By robert j. samuelson
Not a vote-getter!

ROBERT J. SAMUELSON COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Samuelson clients only)

By ROBERT J. SAMUELSON

WASHINGTON -- Just for the record, we ought to note that trustees for Social Security and Medicare recently released their annual reports. The two programs alone constituted 45 percent of the non-interest federal budget in 2018, a share that the trustees say is being driven up by the continuing retirement of baby boomers and the high cost of health care. The trustees issued their usual dire warnings that, absent congressional action, the trust funds that finance these programs will run out of cash: Medicare in 2026 and the Social Security in 2035.

The trustees suggest that, if nothing is done, benefits might have to be cut so that Social Security's spending is covered by its revenues, which come mainly from payroll taxes. The prospective cuts to Social Security benefits would initially be around 20% and grow to 25%. Though this is possible, it seems unlikely. Based on past experience, presidents and congresses will simply divert more non-payroll tax revenues to Social Security and Medicare (Medicare is health insurance for the 65-and-over population).

Of course, this will trigger chain reactions, because the money has to come from somewhere, and the choices are no secret: (a) higher taxes; (b) higher borrowing -- and bigger budget deficits; (c) cuts in other programs, from scientific research to the FBI to the National Park Service, indeed, most other federal programs. (Note: One other possibility -- creating inflation -- is left off this list, because it has yet to be tried.) The message here is familiar. The aging of the population, including the high cost of health care, is determining the nation's budget priorities.

By and large, both parties are practicing the politics of evasion. That is, they have taken Social Security and Medicare spending as a given and have ignored its impact on the rest of the budget. This is true of both Republicans and Democrats. President Trump successfully proposed his $1.5 trillion tax cut (over 10 years), while many of the already-announced Democratic candidates for president have proposed major new programs.

Consider. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders plugs his proposal for "Medicare for all." Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to make tuition at public colleges free. California Sen. Kamala Harris touts a roughly $3 trillion tax cut (over a decade), which she describes as "the most significant middle-class tax cut in generations." On paper, each of these proposals is financed by some sort of tax increase. But what isn't acknowledged or emphasized is that the proposals typically ignore the existing budget deficits, which are now approaching $1 trillion annually.

What is to be done about these deficits? The answer, according to most of the candidates, is that nothing is to be done. The large deficits don't yet seem to have hurt the economy, so cautious candidates conclude they should be left alone. It's more rewarding politically to peddle grandiose and costly proposals and pretend that the large deficits won't cause any long-term problems. By and large, this is the path of least resistance.

Ideally, we should be debating the implications of an aging society. At last count, the average life expectancy of someone who reaches 65 is roughly 20 years. In 1950, life expectancy for someone aged 65 was only around 15 years. Most government programs were built on the assumption that the elderly were physically and mentally compromised, and although this was (and is) true, the declines begin later.

We could be working longer -- and should be. Eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare should be raised, perhaps as high as 70 and gradually introduced over a 20-year period, to reflect the improved health and the nation's stretched finances. This prospective transformation is one of the great issues facing the country, but our leaders are evading it because it is not a vote-getter. They should be ashamed.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

Trump administration confused as to why an inaccurate census is a 'bad thing'

By alexandra petri
Trump administration confused as to why an inaccurate census is a 'bad thing'

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Petri clients only)

By ALEXANDRA PETRI

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether to include a question about citizenship status in the 2020 Census. Census experts have suggested that adding the question could lead to a miscount of as many as 6.5 million people, which two lower-court judges argued would result in such an inaccurate count that the census would fail to perform its constitutionally mandated function of enumerating the population. But the good news is that it looks as though the Supreme Court might approve the addition of this question anyway!

For too long, we have been trammeled and burdened by accurate numbers. For too long, we have been forced to give more resources to California than to North Dakota on the absurd grounds that, factually, more people reside in the one than in the other. Well, if the court finds -- as they sounded pretty inclined to do! -- that Wilbur "King of Bankruptcy, Prince of Not Filling Out Financial Disclosure Forms With Perfect Accuracy" Ross is within his rights to ask for less accurate data, then soon, we will no longer be bound by such pedestrian concerns. There can be as many or as few people in a state as we would like! This will make 2020 much more interesting.

Some days, there will be no one in Florida at all. On other days, there will be three Floridas. Sometimes there will be a whole gaggle of people driving through Arizona with trunks full of women covered in duct tape, like in "Sicario," and on other days they will disappear as if they never really existed. Puerto Rico may turn out to contain no people worth sending federal aid to at all. It will vary by the time, the weather and whether Fox News remembered to mention Rhode Island that morning. In any case, the country will never not be "full."

We can embrace this better system, as Donald Trump already has. For many years, Donald Trump used to decide his personal net worth depending on how he felt on any given day. Then, if anyone asked questions, he sued them or hastily ate whatever sheets with numbers on them happened to be nearby. This seems like a much better system for determining numerical values of things, and his pilot program of announcing that the 2016 popular vote was off, maybe by millions, was an unmitigated success. His inauguration will never be under-attended again!

The census is key to apportioning everything from federal aid dollars to electoral votes, which is just another reason it should not be so strictly bound to adhere to facts. Currently, it forces you to admit that people live in regions that vote Democratic, and that when their homes catch fire, you are supposed to send aid and things, a useless gesture for people who do not rate your presidential performance very highly. If only the census had moved in this direction sooner, so that Donald Trump could point to the fact that no one whosoever was in California and thus no one could have been harmed by wildfire or ever cast a general election vote, for that matter.

Once we have gotten rid of facts about the population, we can start chipping away at facts about the environment. Not having to handle a warming planet will free up the government to do important things such as infrastructure (in places where it has decided people live, for instance, Mar-a-Lago), witch hunting, and lecturing local and foreign officials about how they are handling disasters wrong. Why fritter away the best years of your life trying to deal with climate change -- an exhausting ordeal that may or may not work -- when instead you can just convene a panel to declare that it is "probably not a thing"?

That would be much easier. Once data is gone, everything will be. Everyone will get enough resources, and all the votes that should count will count. It will be much easier than actually counting people accurately. It is a wonder we have not been doing this for years. This census-free America will be a lovely place to live, if Donald Trump decides you exist.

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

On both sides of the border, life is unfair -- but what you make of it is up to you

By ruben navarrette jr.
On both sides of the border, life is unfair -- but what you make of it is up to you

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, April 24, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, April 23, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Navarrette clients only)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

SAN DIEGO -- Beware of those who complain about broken promises. They sometimes get carried away and start to think they're entitled to certain things when no one owes them anything.

Here's how life works. People make half-baked assumptions about how their lives are going to turn out. They convince themselves that a project, venture or decision will pay off. And when things don't work out, and they need someone to blame who can't be found in the mirror, their natural instinct is to claim they're the victim of a raw deal. They'll insist they were lied to, misled or bamboozled. Someone took unfair advantage of them, they'll say.

Maybe they should have known better or been more suspicious. They would have been well served to remember what their mother said about things that sound too good to be true. Instead, they put their trust in this make-believe promise only to be disappointed by a little thing called reality. And when they get slapped in the face, they'll say they were deceived and cheated. It's easier to cast blame than to take responsibility for what went wrong.

It's human nature. And you find it in every country on the planet.

Consider the heart-wrenching tale of 29-year-old Guatemalan immigrant Carlos Joaquin Salinas. It comes to us courtesy of my friend Alfredo Corchado, an expert storyteller who covers Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border region for the Dallas Morning News. Salinas traveled more than a thousand miles, with his 10-year-old son, on a promise from a smuggler that entering the United States would be "like going to Disneyland" and there would be jobs aplenty.

We interrupt this story for an important message: Note that, despite what you hear from racist hard-liners who know nothing about immigrants, the promise was work -- not welfare and free stuff. Don't forget it.

According to the article, the agreed-upon transport fee was $6,000 for both father and son, which Salinas cobbled together by selling land and farm animals, borrowing from family and friends, and owing the rest to the kind of people to whom you don't want to owe money. The coyote took them -- via bus -- to Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border, where he pointed north and instructed Salinas and his son to turn themselves into Border Patrol agents and get ready to live the American dream.

Of course, what followed was a nightmare -- detained, housed in a temporary shelter, tossed cold sandwiches like, as Salinas put it, "caged animals" in a zoo as they waited to go before a judge and plead their case for asylum. But such pleas often fall on deaf ears.

Salinas is broke and broken, disillusioned and debt-strapped, defeated and ashamed for buying into the hype of America. He just wants to go home to Guatemala. Hopefully, he'll get his wish -- and be able to take his son with him.

Hundreds of other would-be refugees have not been so lucky. They had their children kidnapped by the Trump administration, which now can't put back together the families it so clumsily shattered.

Even if Salinas is allowed to stay, his life here will be hard. He'll be abused, overworked, cheated, preyed upon, discriminated against and taken advantage of at every turn. After all that, he'll be blamed for taking dirty and dangerous jobs that Americans thought were beneath them anyway.

His message to fellow (BEG ITAL)guatemaltecos(END ITAL), which he relayed to Corchado: "Don't come. This is all one big lie."

I've heard variations of this sad story before, and so have you. I hear it from my fellow Americans, who live in the industrial Rust Belt states. I hear it from the working-class Trump voters when I visit Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. I hear it from J.D. Vance, the bestselling author of "Hillbilly Elegy," a white person who got rich and famous by writing about other white people who fear they will never get rich and famous. I hear it from those who call into conservative talk-radio shows, and worry that their kids will not do as well financially as previous generations.

Most recently, I hear it from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, the blue-collar avenger and now presidential candidate. Ryan says he has seen the American dream "slip through the fingers of many Americans" and blames the destruction of this country's middle class on "failed leadership and broken promises."

That again. One last time: No one promised anyone a darned thing. The only guarantee that life offers is uncertainty. It's how you deal with it that defines whether you beat the odds or get beaten up.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

America must break out of its 'terrorism fatigue'

By david ignatius
America must break out of its 'terrorism fatigue'

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, April 24, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, April 23, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)

By DAVID IGNATIUS

WASHINGTON -- One disturbing aspect of the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka was that the slaughter of 321 victims came at a time when America is suffering what might be described as "terrorism fatigue."

The wars against al-Qaida and the Islamic State are part of a painful past that policymakers and the public want to escape. Those Middle East conflicts were costly and distracting. They didn't produce many tangible gains, other than killing terrorists. Sept. 11, 2001, feels like it happened a long time ago, and many politicians want to move on.

But the networks of violent extremists are still there, stretching to places most of us probably hadn't even imagined, like Sri Lanka. The bombings there of churches and other sites were allegedly staged by two obscure Islamist groups, National Thowheed Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim -- with the Islamic State claiming that it also played a role.

Terrorism is metastasizing in other ways, as militant white nationalists join the melee. Brenton Harrison Tarrant, an Australian extremist, allegedly shot and killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month after circulating a manifesto expressing rage at migrants. Hideously, there are signs that the Sri Lankan church bombings may have been an act of revenge for the New Zealand mosque shootings -- in one of those spasms of hatred that are a terrorist's dream.

"We're seeing the viral spread of the Islamic State, which takes root in fragile environments where people feel disenfranchised and excluded," says Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. She explains that the Islamic State's global network has grown so rapidly over the last five years that it's bigger now than al-Qaida ever was. "We can't kill our way out of this," Lindborg argues, noting that more repressive security forces in places like Sri Lanka will only make the problem worse.

Lindborg spoke Tuesday at a meeting hosted by her institute to release a new report entitled "Preventing Extremism in Fragile States: A New Approach." The gathering was timely, and the conclusions were stark.

America has failed to learn the lesson of Sept. 11, argued Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, who was chair of the 9/11 Commission and is co-chair of the new USIP task force. The U.S. took down the leadership of al-Qaida, to be sure, just as it did later against the Islamic State. But the 9/11 Commission had argued for a broader strategy that would attack the underlying causes of terrorism, not just respond militarily, Kean reminded the USIP audience.

"Our current focus on counterterrorism is necessary, but neither sufficient nor cost-effective," argued the report prepared by Kean's task force. The authors reckoned that since 2001, the war on terror has taken 10,000 American lives, injured 50,000 others, and cost the U.S. an estimated total of $5.9 trillion. Even after that immense commitment, the problem continues -- and as the report cautions, the current U.S. approach is "unsustainable."

What's the alternative? Unfortunately, it's the slow and unglamorous work of preventing weak states from collapsing to the point that they're terrorism havens. It's about building governance and economic development, rather than night raids by Special Operations Forces. It's about "connecting the dots" among different intelligence agencies and nations -- something that's been given lip service, endlessly, since 9/11 but still hasn't been achieved.

Nations, like individual human beings, often seem condemned to make the same mistakes over and over. That's certainly true with countering terrorism. Policymakers in the U.S. and allied countries understand intellectually that a safe and stable world requires reasonable governance, a public belief that some sort of rough justice prevails, and enough jobs that adolescent men aren't tempted to join terror groups.

We're not talking here about imposing democracy or making the Middle East and Africa look like Switzerland. We're talking the basics -- food, water, access to justice, good-enough governance. The United States can't do this job by itself, even if it tries. We've certainly found that out, but America remains the essential partner.

Yet we're fatigued. These mundane anti-fragility tasks don't win medals for soldiers, or get politicians reelected, or make business executives rich, so they end up at the bottom of the pile. Another problem is that this strategy is led by the State Department, the most underutilized and money-starved agency of our government.

We're horrified when bombs ravage places of worship on the other side of the globe. But not enough to do the boring but essential thing that has been staring America in the face for 18 years, which is to slowly help build a world that's more just, prosperous and stable.

Follow David Ignatius on Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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