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Meet Melania Trump's enforcer. It's not her husband.

By Sarah Ellison
Meet Melania Trump's enforcer. It's not her husband.
Stephanie Grisham, now communications director for first lady Melania Trump, hands White House press secretary Sean Spicer a note as he speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington on Jan. 30, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

WASHINGTON - Staffers in President Donald Trump's White House are measured by longevity. There's the November 9th Club, the nickname for those who joined after Trump won the election. There are those who joined the campaign earlier, but only after he secured the nomination. And there are a few who came on board when his campaign was largely viewed as a joke by the GOP establishment - and everyone else.

Few in Trump's White House have a history with him that dates as far back as Stephanie Grisham. For nearly two years, she served as communications director for first lady Melania Trump. A few weeks ago, she received a promotion to deputy chief of staff for communications and has become one of the more powerful figures in the ever-evolving Trump White House. Back in the summer of 2015, she was a lowly press wrangler on Trump's campaign.

On a hot July day 3 1/2 years ago, Grisham - who had long lived in Arizona - was the person tapped to handle press for the candidate's early and pivotal rally in Phoenix. Trump was a month into his run for president and ranked seventh in the Republican field. He had the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio introduce him at the event, which was carried live on cable news. After his speech, Trump's jumped to third place in the Republican primary rankings.

Before joining Trump's long-shot campaign, Grisham was a local political operative who had worked on Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign for president. She's seen now as one of the "unbroken threads," says Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, referring to campaign staffers who stuck with Trump and are now working in the White House. (By this measure, Grisham's thread is about a year longer than Conway's, who joined the campaign in July 2016.)

"During the campaign she developed a good relationship with the president and that's carried through," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says. "She has developed a great amount of trust from both the president and the first lady, which is a pretty high commodity here," Sanders adds. "There aren't a lot of people who have a lot of regular interaction with both of them."

Grisham's role has drawn attention for her acerbic statements directed at those who have crossed Melania Trump and her husband. When Trump attacked Mika Brzezinski in the summer of 2017 and claimed falsely in a tweet that she was "bleeding badly from a facelift," rather than shying away from the controversy, Grisham offered this statement on Melania Trump's behalf: "When her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder." When Donald Trump's first wife, Ivana Trump, cheekily called herself the "first Trump wife" and therefore "the first lady" while promoting a book last year, Grisham called Ivana "attention-seeking and self-serving." Grisham even got into an argument on Twitter with Issa Rae after the actress said in an interview that she would cancel her show "Insecure" if she learned that Melania Trump was a fan.

Aides describe the relationship between Trump and Grisham as one built on mutual protection and trust. "The resistance wants the first lady to be a victim, and she hates being seen that way," one of her aides said. If anything, "Grisham makes clear that she is not."

Members of the White House are also learning that Grisham is not someone with whom to tangle. In preparation for Melania Trump's first solo trip abroad, which she took to Africa this fall, deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel clashed with members of the first lady's staff. Upon their return, Grisham and the first lady's chief of staff, Lindsay Reynolds, approached White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about the issue. When he took no apparent action, Grisham spoke directly to Melania Trump, who in turn spoke to her husband privately. Then, when still nothing happened, Grisham suggested to the first lady a different strategy: Without giving the West Wing warning, Grisham put out a statement: "It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House."

Within days, Ricardel was out of the White House.

The following week, Grisham declined to comment for this story, saying in an email: "I feel strongly that I should never be the story (I know that is laughable to say after this week!), so will decline participation on this one, only to say it has been the greatest honor of my career to work for both the President and First Lady."

Still Grisham's statement calling for the ouster of a West Wing official was highly unusual, according to scholars of both the presidency and the East Wing. While other first ladies have made their preferences known, as happened, famously, when Nancy Reagan helped push out her husband's chief of staff, Donald Regan, never before has the East Wing issued a statement that resulted in the dismissal of a member of the West Wing, notes Myra Gutin, a professor of communications who studies the history of first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey.

"She's got a notch in her belt," says Tom Horne, the former Arizona attorney general who hired Grisham after she left the Romney campaign. "She's gotten someone fired. That's a big achievement!" Who has the notch? The first lady or her communications director?

Horne clarified: "Stephanie was the one who issued the statement." Horne says he had his own run-ins with political opposition, and Grisham defended him. "She's a very loyal type of person and when there are unfair attacks she responds strongly."

Melania Trump appears to be pushing back in more significant ways. Tension between the first lady's staff and Kelly, White House chief of staff, has grown in recent months, according to three current White House officials familiar with the dynamic. Staffers in the first lady's office felt repeatedly slighted by him. The president announced over the weekend that Kelly would be leaving by the end of the year.

If the Ricardel move was unusual, Grisham's habit of adding her name to statements from the East Wing is also uncommon, Gutin says. Typically, a first lady's communications director is not well known and issues bland statements.

"Among first lady scholars there are many things about Melania Trump that we don't quite understand," says Gutin. "Whatever Ms. Grisham is doing becomes part of this larger riddle. It's just so hard to pin down."

Part of a small and chaotic campaign, Grisham spent months virtually living with the traveling press covering candidate Trump as they crisscrossed the country, flying together and bunking in hotels. She won their appreciation by being an advocate for media access and watching out for them on the trail.

In one notable incident, Mike Pence's campaign plane slid off the tarmac at La Guardia during an icy night in October 2016. Before it could fly again, the landing gear needed to be fixed. But there was no time to wait for a repair.

Pence, his staff, and the press traveling with him needed to be off again the next morning to hit the vice presidential candidate's next campaign stop.

Pence's staff argued that they should be able to take over the Trump press plane, which was "wrapped" with a Trump logo. Trump traveled on his own plane and the press assigned to report on his campaign paid for and covered him by trailing along in a separate aircraft. Grisham stood up to Pence's staff and advocated for Trump's press corps to keep the plane, a move that garnered goodwill among a weary bunch of reporters.

She had similarly good relationships with journalists on the Romney campaign, according to journalists who worked with her then. On one occasion, the Romney plane was delayed until late into the night, and Grisham was there when the press arrived to welcome them to their overnight accommodations. "Everyone was sleep-deprived and cranky," recalls one of the reporters on the trip. "She was waiting with warm milk and cookies, which goes a long way at a time like that."

Before the Romney campaign, Grisham created her own small public relations firm, worked for AAA Arizona, the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and Larson Public Relations, which represents education reform clients across the country.

In 2013 and 2015, Grisham was stopped for driving under the influence, according to Arizona court records. She paid all associated fines and disclosed both incidents to the White House during the transition.

When Donald Trump was elected, Grisham joined the press office as one of press secretary Sean Spicer's deputies. She was hired into Melania Trump's East Wing in March 2017.

The rapport "was instantaneous," says White House social secretary Anna Cristina Niceta Lloyd, who is known as Rickie.

Lloyd recalled Grisham, whose colleagues call her by her last name, volunteering to help Reynolds, the first lady's chief of staff, with a press question. Reynolds had been in her job about a month and found Grisham "really helpful, and it was a bit of a gut feeling," Lloyd says.

Melania Trump knew Grisham from the campaign trail and invited her over to meet more of the East Wing staff.

"I love working with her because she captures what the first lady wants in terms of perspective but also in terms of her voice," says Daniel Fisher, director of the White House Visitors Office, which is housed in the East Wing. "They've really melded together."

East Wing staffers note frequently how dedicated Trump is to her son, Barron, and cite her time with him as part of the reason for her light public schedule as compared with her predecessors. Grisham, who is a 42-year-0ld single mother of two boys, plays a role in looking out for Barron, whom she can relate to because her younger son is about the same age.

Grisham's transition from campaign mode to White House staff has not always been clearly demarcated. On July 11, Grisham tweeted: "Three years ago today I listened to my gut & joined the Trump team in #PHX . . . & life has never been the same. So proud to work for both @POTUS @realDonaldTrump & @FLOTUS #MAGA." The U.S. office of special counsel sent Grisham a letter warning that she had violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits White House officials from advocating for or against candidates.

Grisham and the first lady are in touch daily, according to East Wing staffers. "Stephanie more than most is on the front lines of pretty much everything that goes on that is visible," Fisher added.

Case in point: the headline-grabbing spectacle of the coat.

The morning of Melania Trump's trip to a Texas detention facility housing children who had been separated from their parents at the border, Grisham was already in the motorcade on the way to the airport by the time the first lady stepped out of the White House, dressed for the day.

The still photographs of Trump wearing her green jacket emblazoned with I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U? blew up on Twitter. Grisham was shown one of the still photos of the first lady when the plane was still in the air, according to people traveling with her. When Melania Trump stepped off the plane in Texas, she left the jacket on board.

But on the flight back to Washington, more stories published on the puzzling outfit choice. And in true Trump fashion, Melania Trump put the coat back on to walk back into the White House - "at that point she had to own it; you can't say you screwed up in Trumpworld," says one veteran political reporter. She headed straight for the Oval Office, trailed by Grisham and Reynolds, according to three people who were there.

Grisham told reporters, "It's a jacket. There was no hidden meaning." She followed up with a tweet decrying the media's focus on the first lady's wardrobe, not her work, and added two hashtags: #SheCares #ItsJustAJacket.

But the president had his own interpretation. His wife did mean to send a message - to the liberal media. His tweet contradicted Grisham's statement and lashed out at the media. " 'I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?' written on the back of Melania's jacket, refers to the Fake News Media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!" he wrote.

"There's always something that pops up along the way that we don't anticipate, but I think Grisham did the best she could at the time, and handled it effectively," says one of her colleagues.

Another East Wing staffer notes that everyone on Melania Trump's staff - which now numbers 12 - feels protective of the first lady and each other. "There's always something out there to hurt or shame" her, one says. "There's something every day that we could be affected by that the media deems disgraceful or impeachable so you go and you do your job and you serve the president and the first lady you see in front of you, not the people the media portrays."

But both the president and the first lady pay keen attention to their own media portrayals. Melania Trump in particular watches more television news and follows more coverage than she lets on, according to current staffers.

"The difference is that whereas the president will tweet himself and react himself," says one White House official, "she's got Stephanie."

- - -

Washington Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

At NPR, an army of temps resents a workplace full of anxiety and insecurity

By Paul Farhi
At NPR, an army of temps resents a workplace full of anxiety and insecurity
NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Evy Mages

WASHINGTON - Julia Botero was happy to catch on, and determined to stay on, at NPR. After completing an internship at the public broadcasting organization in D.C. in 2013, she began a year-long stint as a temporary employee, moving between producing jobs at NPR's signature news programs, "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."

Botero quickly realized what she was up against. As a "temp," she floated among unfamiliar co-workers and faced an ever-changing set of responsibilities, some of which she'd never been trained for. Her work contracts were sometimes as brief as two weeks, at the end of which she'd have to persuade a manager to extend her.

Worse was the sense of constant competition among her fellow temps, many of whom were angling to be hired for a limited number of permanent positions. "The only person I felt I could trust," she said, "was the person I was dating, who was in the same position I was." After a year of such uncertainty, she left, taking a job as a reporter for a group of public radio stations in New York state.

What's surprising about Botero's experience is how unsurprising it is at NPR.

For decades, the public broadcaster has relied on a cadre of temporary journalists to produce its hourly newscasts and popular news programs. Without temporary workers - who are subject to termination without cause - NPR would probably be unable to be NPR. Temps do almost every important job in NPR's newsroom: they pitch ideas, assign stories, edit them, report and produce them. Temps not only book the guests heard in interviews, they often write the questions the hosts ask the guests.

And there are a lot of them. According to union representatives,between 20 and 22 percent of NPR's 483 union-covered newsroom workforce - or one in five people - are temps. The number varies week to week, as temps come and go.

NPR's management cites a somewhat lower figure, 16 percent, although its count reflects managers and interns and other employees in departments that aren't represented by the union. NPR says the overall ratio of temporary workers to permanent employees has remained more or less stable for several years.

Resentment among temps about their status has boiled beneath the surface at NPR for years, but the tensions have begun to bubble up over the past several months. Some temporary employees raised complaints in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal involving Michael Oreskes, the former head of NPR's newsroom. Oreskes was accused by several women, including a then-temporary employee, of misconduct. Oreskes was forced to resign by NPR last year; several women said his behavior highlighted the vulnerability of temporary employees, who fear they could be blackballed for complaining or resisting an overly aggressive manager.

The outrage over Oreskes coalesced into a broader employee inquiry into the status of temps at NPR. Following a series of "listening sessions" conducted among 40 current and former temporary journalists, NPR employees produced a report in May detailing a number of grievances and allegedly abusive practices.

Among them: Temps were often left in the dark about how long their assignments would last, how much they'd be paid, who they were reporting to, or what their title is. They also said they received little feedback from supervisors after completing an assignment, and were "routinely" overlooked in NPR's recruiting efforts.

Several temps interviewed for this story use the same word to describe NPR's temp system: "Exploitative."

By any measure, NPR is unusual among broadcast media organizations in the size of its temporary workforce.

About 5 percent of the staff at a typical TV station was employed on a part-time or temporary basis, according to a survey conducted last year by the Radio Television Digital News Association. Radio stations, which usually have much smaller staffs than TV stations, reported an average of just one part-timer or temp in the survey. The number of temporary workers among stations has declined steadily over the past 10 years as the recession has eased, said Robert Papper, who conducted the survey.

Other kinds of news organizations employ few temps. The only journalists officially designated as temporary in The Washington Post's newsroom are six "extended interns," who are employed with the expectation that they will someday fill a permanent job when an appropriate one opens, Managing Editor Tracy Grant said.

NPR hires temps to address "a range of needs," said Loren Mayor, president of operations. She said temporary workers fill in for permanent staffers when the latter go on vacation, take sick leave or parental leave, or when news events warrant.

"As a media company that strives to be innovative and nimble, we need talented people who can come in on a short-term basis to help us experiment with a new idea or pilot a new program," Mayor said. "As a breaking news organization, we need additional reporters and editors to staff up for targeted news events like elections."

In a lengthy response via email, Mayor made no mention of any financial advantage in employing temps. But the potential seems obvious: Temporary employees are only paid when they work, and only work when managers decide. This gives NPR, a nonprofit organization, flexibility in managing its payroll and broad discretion over work assignments.

In a follow-up interview, a spokeswoman, Isabel Lara, said costs aren't a factor in NPR's employment of temporary journalists.

NPR's temps are guaranteed minimum wages under a contract with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the labor union that represents most employees. The pay scale starts at around $21.63 an hour, or about $45,000 per year based on 52 weeks of full-time work. Temporary employees also qualify for health insurance and other benefits if they work more than 30 hours per week in a two-week pay period.

But not much else is assured for this group.

In interviews, eight current and former temps described their employment at NPR as a stressful, precarious experience. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to not jeopardize current or future assignments.

Like Botero, several said they didn't feel prepared for some of the assignments they were given. They also described a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, given that NPR maintains a large pools of temps who can easily replace them.

"I felt like I could never make a mistake because, if I did, they'd just hire someone else," said a former employee, who temped for two years before moving on. "I felt like I couldn't take Christmas off, I can't go to my high school reunion. Because if I do, I'll be out of the loop."

For temps who don't land a longer work assignment, NPR's system all but guarantees financial uncertainty, several said. A week's employment, for example, might be followed by a longer, uncompensated layoff followed by another call to return. A long stretch between assignments not only plays havoc with a temp employee's income, it also threatens to leave them with gaps in their insurance coverage.

"There were many weeks when I wasn't sure if I was coming back," said Becky Sullivan, who temped for 2 1/2 years before becoming a permanent producer on "All Things Considered." Sullivan, who is a union shop steward, says, "It's an experience I hope I never have to repeat."

Under the SAG-AFTRA contract, management can terminate a temporary employee without cause, whenever necessary, and without explanation.

What's more, NPR is under no obligation to offer a temp a permanent job, even after years of employment. Some employees have been temps for so long they're known as "permatemps."

One former temp said she spent three years in various jobs at "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and its weekend version before giving up hope of landing a permanent position. Her responsibilities ran the gamut: editing, research, pitching story ideas, writing segment introductions, mixing recordings, doing interviews.

She applied for jobs when they came open, but never got hired permanently. "At that point, I was really frustrated," she said. "You ask yourself, Why am I still doing this and no one will hire me?"

She left, and eventually landed a job as a producer at a podcasting company.

Another temp described her frustrations to union organizers earlier this year this way: "You feel like you have the boyfriend who's never going to put a ring on it."

According to Sullivan, Mayor never responded directly to the group of temps that made the recommendations in the wake of Oreskes's forced resignation. But Mayor said NPR has begun to implement a series of reforms to improve the lot of temps.

The most significant change: NPR in April converted 26 positions that had been filled by temporary employees into permanent jobs (the union said all of the positions were held by temps who'd be on the job for more than a year). Mayor said more temp jobs will be made permanent in the future, although she offered no commitment to a number or timetable.

NPR's union representatives remain guarded, however. They note that during bruising negotiations over a new three-year contract last year, NPR's management proposed eliminating all benefits for temps (except those required by law), including health insurance and holiday pay. Those proposals were withdrawn amid broad staff opposition.

Mayor says NPR's goal is "not to eliminate the use of temps, but to make sure we are employing temps for the right reasons."

She added, "We are aware that it can be challenging for people to deal with the insecurity temporary employment brings and we want to work with our union to find ways to address this."

The new autocrats: Leaders are turning democracy into a tool of oppression

By Griff Witte
The new autocrats: Leaders are turning democracy into a tool of oppression
A Hungarian soldier stands outside the parliament building before a flag lowering ceremony in Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 23, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez

WROCLAW, Poland - The police came in the pre-dawn stillness of a freezing February morning in southwestern Poland, knocking at the door of a national hero who had once again become a wanted man.

There was a time when Wladyslaw Frasyniuk would have run. As the daring and profane bad boy of Solidarity, Poland's underground pro-democracy movement, he had lived as a fugitive from the smothering grip of the communist state security services, jumping from trains, fleeing along rooftops and speeding away on motorcycles.

But that was long ago. Back before the authoritarian regime he was fighting came crashing down, unleashing a new era of freedom in 1989. Before a 2015 election yielded a government determined to use the liberties and powers of a modern democratic state to snuff out independent institutions. Before Frasyniuk came to realize that history doesn't travel in only one direction.

"Everything that my generation accomplished," said Frasyniuk, a revolutionary in his 20s who has become a dissident once more in his 60s, "has made it easier and easier for this government to consolidate its control."

Autocracy is making a comeback, seeping into parts of the world where it once appeared to have been vanquished.

But it is a sleeker, subtler and, ultimately, more sophisticated version than its authoritarian forebears, twisting democratic structures and principles into tools of oppression and state control. It is also, quite possibly, far more potent and enduring than autocracies of old.

After decades of steady expansion of rights and liberties, the pro-democracy watchdog Freedom House has recorded sharp reversals, with the share of nations dubbed "free" declining since 2007. Countries in every region of the world have suffered setbacks, in areas such as free and fair elections, the independence of the press, the rights of minorities and the rule of law.

As Americans worry about the health of their own democracy, the lesson from abroad is that the decline can come bracingly fast.

It has in Central and Eastern Europe, a region that, three decades ago, was at the vanguard of the last great act of the 20th century: the triumph of liberal democracy over dictatorship behind the Iron Curtain. Led by young activists like Frasyniuk, Poland and its neighbors ushered in the supposed end of history.

Today, the region is on the front lines of history's march in reverse. The democratic society that Frasyniuk fought for is in retreat, while a new breed of autocrat advances.

"It's not autocracy. It's neo-autocracy," said Cristian Parvulescu, dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Romania, a country that critics fear is trending away from the rule of law. "It's not democracy. It's post-democracy."

Some governments in the region, such as Hungary's, are deep down the road toward indefinite one-party rule. Leaders in other countries, such as the Czech Republic, only seem to aspire to that sort of absolute authority.

But wherever signs of autocracy are emerging, this much is true: They bear little resemblance to the obviously repressive methods so familiar from school textbooks chronicling 20th-century despotism.

There are no strutting soldiers in the streets or cults of personality around the great leader. Opponents and journalists speak openly and loudly, generally without fear of persecution. Instead of building walls to keep their own people in, governments construct tech-laden fences to keep supposed enemies out. Instead of economic isolation and scarcity, a gusher of foreign investment flows.

And yet, ruling politicians and parties have managed to consolidate power to a degree not seen since the communist era. Supposedly independent institutions - including courts and prosecutor's offices - have become instruments of political control. Newspapers and television stations are bought up by friendly business executives and dutifully preach the government's line. Elections still take place, but they are used as justification for the majority to impose its will rather than a chance for the minority to have its say.

"In every respect, it looks like Europe. But you don't actually have the freedoms that makes Europe what it is," said Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian human rights scholar and president of the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU). "It's new political technology."

His university has been a victim of that innovation.

Deemed a political enemy because it was founded by liberal philanthropist George Soros, the highly regarded institution has been a top target of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He has denounced CEU in speeches, and his government has passed legislation designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the American-accredited school to operate.

But in keeping with the new style, Orban avoided shutting down the university outright - and the storm of condemnation that would come with such a move. Instead, he left CEU dangling in limbo for nearly two years and gave himself a small measure of deniability when it opted to retreat into exile this month. The U.S. ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, used that ambiguity to blame Soros, not Orban, for the exit.

Orban, considered the architect of the region's new autocratic model, has boasted of his desire to replace outmoded notions of liberal democracy with "illiberal democracy."

Others who stand accused of turning their countries away from basic freedoms deny the charge and insist that, in 21st-century Europe, it can't even be done.

"There's a principle of irreversibility. Once you reach a certain standard of democracy and human rights, you can't go back," Romanian Justice Minister Tudorel Toader said.

He spoke in an interview in his office across the street from the "People's House," a 1980s-era marble monument to dictatorial megalomania - and now the seat of Romania's parliament.

Toader this year forced the firing of a crusading anti-corruption prosecutor who was investigating top government officials. He has also helped push through legislation that independent authorities have said will severely limit the power of other prosecutors to hold the powerful to account.

But autocracy? Hardly, he says.

"People have the freedom to choose where to travel, where to live, where to work. These are things that people didn't even dare to dream about under communism," said the former law professor who is now seen by critics as an archenemy of the rule of law. "A Romanian can take a plane and go see the Statue of Liberty. You can't turn him backwards."

That is what worries Frasyniuk.

He served four years in a communist prison - and endured frequent beatings from guards - because he wanted his Polish countrymen to know the freedoms of democracy.

But in the past three years, ever since the right-wing Law and Justice party won elections, he has watched the government use the liberties for which he fought to tighten its grip.

The election victory became a pretext for the takeover of previously independent institutions. The country's membership in the European Union was transformed into a shield against charges of oppression and a foil in Poland's long-standing quest for sovereignty. Its integration into the global economy - and the fast-paced growth that has come with it - put money in people's pockets, overriding more abstract concerns about the rule of law.

Frasyniuk became a successful businessman after communism's fall. But Law and Justice's rise brought him back to the streets.

An anti-government protest in June of 2017 led to a brief scuffle with police and an investigation with which he refused to cooperate. That was enough to draw officers to his door in February - though the tactics were less conspicuously brute-force than in the old days.

"Authorities used to treat people like me in a serious manner," Frasyniuk said, a note of wistful disgust in his voice, his mischievous blue eyes gleaming. "They broke down doors and threw you to the ground."

If the style was new, the outcome that cold day was familiar. Frasyniuk was handcuffed behind his back and led away, a throwback to a time when he had "golden miles membership" at his local police precinct.

"I'm proof," he said, "that you can get a complete historical cycle in one lifetime."

Still fit but graying at age 64, he is again on the front lines of a freedom struggle.

But this time, the blind courage of youth is gone. He knows the advantage lies with the autocrats.

- - -

Just about every day this year, Malgorzata Gersdorf has put on a power suit and shown up at Poland's Supreme Court, a modern glass building framed by faux-copper columns, etched with the scales of justice, in central Warsaw. Her fellow judges recognize her as the court's leader. She works in the chief justice's chambers.

But the government declared her retired in July.

"It's a difference of interpretation," Gersdorf said matter-of-factly this fall during an interview in her office, where a fine old grandfather clock ticks away. "Mine is based on the constitution."

The Polish word for it - Konstytucja - dangles from her necklace in cubed black and white letters, like a shield.

But she doubts its ability to protect her.

The right-wing, populist Law and Justice party has followed a determined path to remake the Polish courts, arguing that the last vestiges of the communist era need to be purged - even though holdover judges have already gone through a rigorous screening process.

Soon after winning the 2015 elections, the party effectively took over the Constitutional Tribunal, packing the court with friendly judges. Then it moved on to the National Council of the Judiciary, giving itself final say over a body that, as Poland's arbiter of judicial independence, had been relatively free of political influence.

Finally, it took aim at the Supreme Court.

Constitutionally, Gersdorf's term as chief justice runs until 2020. But the government has tried to force her and dozens of Supreme Court colleagues into early retirement. It has sought to replace them - and to fill dozens of newly created seats - in a process that has been boycotted by nearly all of the nation's judges and denounced by European authorities.

"It's all been completely different than what you teach your students about what law is," said Gersdorf, a professor before she became a judge. "At first, we got so dizzy, we all got sick.

"Now we're used to it. Now we never say, 'Well, they can't do that,' because, the fact is, they can do anything."

To Law and Justice supporters - and others in the region brandishing the will of the people as a weapon - this is how democracy is supposed to work. To the victor go the spoils. And those include control not only of the courts but also the constitution, prosecutor's offices, public media, intelligence services, the civil service and other supposedly independent constraints on executive power. Hungary's government has even cracked down on civil society organizations with the justification that NGOs helping refugees were never elected to anything.

In this view, defenders of judges or bureaucrats or nonprofits are blocking the majority's desires and using seemingly principled stands to mask their grievance at having been bested at the polls.

"Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose," said Malgorzata Zuk, a party activist and Warsaw lawmaker. "Sadly, there are some people who will never accept the results."

But to Gersdorf, it is a perversion of democracy - a deliberate misinterpretation of the checks on political power and the ultimate authority of the constitution.

"It's a very dangerous direction," she said, one that ultimately leads to "the destruction of the Polish justice system."

The government didn't try to stop her from showing up to work, knowing, perhaps, that to do so would provoke a clash. But with once-vast protests dwindling and options for halting the government's takeover seemingly at their end, Gersdorf had all but accepted she would soon be ousted.

Then, the unexpected: An October ruling by the European Court of Justice temporarily blocked the forced retirements. Local elections, meanwhile, dealt the ruling party a surprise setback.

Late last month, the government retreated, introducing and passing legislation in a single day that will allow Gersdorf and her colleagues to keep their jobs.

Gersdorf's fleeting hopes have been vindicated - at least for now.

"In general, Polish society loves freedom," she said. "It will rebel."

- - -

When two lead dancers with the fabled Bolshoi Ballet company decided to defect during a U.S. tour in 1979, their escape from Soviet minders at a packed Los Angeles auditorium required daring, luck and precision-timed choreography.

When Balazs Kadar, a 26-year-old dancer, decided this summer he had had enough of Hungary's repressive government, he visited an employment office and was told he could have a job in Germany by the following Monday.

He canceled his lease. He sold his car. He said a tearful goodbye to his mom and packed two suitcases. Then he and his girlfriend hailed a ride-share service and sped down the highway to a new life.

"Some friends said I shouldn't leave Hungary - that I should stay here and fight if I want it to be different," said Kadar, who is tall with Justin Bieber-esque looks. "But this is the easiest way. To leave everything and start again."

The EU's free movement rules were intended to maximize flexibility in the labor market, giving workers the chance to move anywhere on the continent in search of a job.

But they have also given autocrats like Orban a useful safety valve. Anyone dissatisfied with his government can pick up and go, with not even a passport check standing in the way of self-imposed exile.

Since the prime minister came to power in 2010, hundreds of thousands of people have left the country in one of the biggest migrations of Hungary's recent history. And although many have been motivated by higher wages elsewhere on the continent, political factors have loomed large, as well.

"The problem is not only the wages," said Agnes Hars, senior researcher at Budapest's Kopint-Tarki Institute for Economic Research. "It's the whole environment that makes people depressed."

Those who have left tend to be young, ambitious and educated. That's not a problem for Orban, who pulls his support from the less educated, poorer and older segments of society. But it is a crisis for anyone trying to organize opposition to his rule.

"There's no protest in Hungary, because people can emigrate instead," Hars said.

It's not only individuals. This summer, the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations - which, among other things, advocates for a free media and the protection of minorities - packed up and moved to Berlin amid an onslaught of government harassment. Central European University is on its way to Vienna.

Kadar decided to move after spring elections confirmed Orban's third straight landslide victory had given him a parliamentary supermajority. He didn't feel he could stay in a country where the government was so hostile toward gay rights, so disdainful of the arts or so stacked in favor of one man and his allies.

"Now we know things will never change," said Kadar, a classical dancer by training who took a job stocking a warehouse in southwestern Germany.

As freedom of movement siphons off would-be dissenters, EU subsidies line the pockets of favored government cronies. And free trade across the bloc gives Hungary the sort of powerful allies that communist governments of old could never have dreamed of.

When BMW was searching for a spot to build its first European factory in more than a decade, it chose Debrecen, a tidy city of 200,000 people on the eastern Hungarian plains. Amid corn and wheat fields, a billion-euro factory will rise, further transforming a once-rundown post-communist backwater that has become a hub of German industrial might, with daily nonstop flights to Munich.

Continental politicians periodically denounce Orban as a stain on European democracy. And Orban frequently rails against EU meddling. But between Europe's corporate giants and Orban, there's a low-cost love affair.

"Business expectations are at record levels," gushed German-Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce spokesman Dirk Wölfer.

Under Orban, he said, "the investment climate has been constantly improving" with a corporate tax rate that's "unbeatable."

He scoffed at concerns over human rights or the rule of law, and described attempts by the EU to hold Hungary to account as "an irritation for the business community."

"At a certain point, the companies can tell the politicians, 'calm down,' " said Laszlo Posan, a member of Orban's party who represents Debrecen in the Hungarian parliament. "Companies feel good in Hungary. They don't let politicians distract from reality."

- - -

Vladimir Ciobotaru and his wife welcomed a baby boy to the world this week. They had the Romanian government to thank.

Ciobotaru is a surgeon, which, until recently, meant a salary that came nowhere near the minimum wage in any Western European nation. Even by Romanian standards, it was paltry, the equivalent of less than $600 per month. He and his wife shared a cramped, single-room apartment, and the idea of starting a family seemed impossible.

Then the government doubled Ciobotaru's pay.

The couple moved to an airy new apartment. They're thinking of buying a car.

"I'm so happy," said the 32-year-old. "This gave me the security to have a child."

The pay hike for doctors - the vast majority of whom are public sector workers - has also given a measure of security to Romania's government.

Romania is decried by watchdogs as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe and denounced by EU leaders as an autocracy-in-training. But its economy is gaining strength - Romania saw 6.9 percent gross domestic product growth last year - and the government in Bucharest has managed to maintain its popularity in part by spreading a bit of the newfound wealth.

Poland and Hungary have also enjoyed rapid growth, low unemployment and - even though pay is still well below continental averages - rising wages. Their treasuries flush, Hungary has mailed cash vouchers to retirees and introduced grants for homeowners; Poland has begun paying people to have more children.

Political scientists have long theorized that growth and prosperity help sustain democracies, with the presence of a robust middle class guarding against a slide into authoritarianism.

But these European governments are proving that democracy's economic dividends can also be used as a tool to cement power.

The money helps leaders keep their populations happy. It also gives them cash to burn on vanity projects, influence operations and, of course, patronage networks populated by favored cronies.

In Romania, the leader of the ruling Social Democrats - a wealthy businessman-turned-politician named Liviu Dragnea - has been twice convicted on corruption and vote-rigging charges. It was amid subsequent accusations of even greater graft that his government ousted the nation's top fraud prosecutor and pushed legislation that experts say will keep other investigators off the trail.

Muzzling of corruption watchdogs has been a trademark of growing executive authority elsewhere in the region.

"There's a contagion effect," said Elena Calistru, who leads the Romanian civic advocacy group Funky Citizens. "Our guys have seen that it's worked for Poland, and it's worked for Hungary. Now they're trying to do the same."

And many Romanians don't seem too bothered.

Romania is still the EU's second poorest country, with large segments of the population scratching out a meager living in the agrarian countryside.

But in Bucharest - a capital city that was leveled and rebuilt in dreary dictator style under the communists - there's now a bit of bling: posh dance clubs, and shopping malls with enough glitz to rival any in the West.

Meanwhile, the world's largest Orthodox cathedral is rising near the city's center, with plans to top it with Europe's biggest bell. In a devout nation, the mostly government-funded project has earned the ruling party credibility.

Ciobotaru, for one, is a die-hard party supporter, even if few in his social circle share his views.

The surgeon and his wife recently had friends over for dinner at their new apartment. Then politics came up, with Ciobotaru arguing that overzealous prosecutors - not ruling party politicians - are the true threat to Romanian democracy.

Their guests left before the main course.

- - -

Prime Minister Andrej Babis was facing a revolt. He had vowed that the Czech Republic would never accept a single refugee, but in September parliamentarians were barraging him with demands to make an exception: Couldn't the country take 50 Syrian orphans?

Then came a stirring piece in Lidove Noviny - the country's oldest and long its most distinguished newspaper - that seemed to bail him out.

Written by a Czech doctor with long experience on war's front lines, it argued that the orphans would be better off left exactly where they were.

The only trouble: The doctor and her supposed humanitarian aid organization appear not to exist. And the piece had come to the paper straight from the office of Andrej Babis, who in addition to being prime minister also happens to be Lidove Noviny's owner.

"It became completely clear that Babis feeds the paper stories that are in his interest," said Petra Prochazkova, who covered wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan and beyond for Lidove Noviny during a 26-year career - and who uncovered the deception around the supposed doctor. "The newspaper is complicit."

In the days of Soviet client-states, the media were state-run and the Communist Party's control was total.

Today, it's the power of capitalism that gives politicians outsize influence over the press.

Across Central Europe, newspapers and television stations have been bought up by oligarchs allied with ruling party politicians.

In some cases, the oligarch and the politician are one and the same.

Babis, the Czech Republic's second-richest man, purchased Lidove Noviny in 2013, just as he was launching a second career in politics.

The paper had been the favorite of Vaclav Havel - the playwright, dissident and, ultimately, president - as well as others among the Czech intelligentsia. Babis's purchase, which also included a mass-market daily, a television station and a radio station, instantly made him one of the nation's biggest media barons.

Before becoming prime minister last year, he was forced to put all his companies in a trust. He has denied exerting influence over any editorial content, and the papers' editors insist that Babis doesn't meddle.

But they also argue that reporters are deluding themselves if they think the media are different from any other business in which the owner has an interest.

"If journalists are just realizing the newspaper is owned by [Babis's company] Agrofert, five years after it was bought by Agrofert, they're being naive and stupid," said Jaroslav Plesl, editor of another paper in the Babis empire, the mass-market Mlada Fronta Dnes.

Prochazkova said her paper had gradually begun to echo Babis's nationalist and anti-refugee views. But it wasn't until the scandal over the story on Syrian orphans that she admitted it to herself.

"I was given freedom to write what I wanted, so I turned a blind eye to what was happening," said Prochazkova, who has since resigned.

Jaroslav Kmenta, a former investigative reporter for Mlada Fronta Dnes, didn't wait. He quit the paper on the day it was sold to Babis. He and the paper's former editor now work at a small start-up magazine that produces hard-hitting investigations - including ones focused on the prime minister.

In recent months, Kmenta said, he has been repeatedly called in for questioning by security services. They demand to know his sources and threaten him when he refuses. That, he said, is new in the Czech Republic. "There's now constant pressure on us - pressure for every story we write," he said.

For now, the Czech media are widely seen as freer than those of other countries in the region. Meanwhile, Babis is considerably weaker than his counterparts in Hungary or Poland, and is engulfed in a corruption scandal that threatens his hold on the government.

But with all the models around him for consolidating control, Kmenta is not optimistic. Babis is a smart man, and the path to ever-greater power has become well-traveled.

"Just wait a few years," Kmenta said. "This is only the beginning."

- - -

This article was reported from Wroclaw and Warsaw in Poland; Budapest and Debrecen in Hungary; Bucharest in Romania and Prague in the Czech Republic. The Washington Post's Michael Robinson Chavez, Gergo Saling, Andras Petho, Magdalena Foremska, Ladka Mortkowitz Bauerova and Ioana Burtea contributed to this report.


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

I ranked 100 Christmas songs. Here are the worst 10.

By alexandra petri
I ranked 100 Christmas songs. Here are the worst 10.



(For Petri clients only)


If you are in media long enough, there comes a year when you will be forced to rank something. Now it is my time. So I took the liberty to rank the 100 holiday songs being foisted upon us from Most Especially Heinous to Best. I present here the 10 worst offenders:

91. "Little Saint Nick." You know, I should like this song. There's something frustrating in not liking something that is entirely made up of components you like. "A Beach Boys song, about Christmas? Great!" "Will they do anything to make it sound like anything other than a normal Beach Boys song? Absolutely not!" My inability to enjoy this frustrates me more and more with each listen.

92. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." Love adultery!

93. "The Chipmunk Song." This song is designed to be annoying, but, unlike other songs designed to be annoying, it succeeds in turning me against it. It is the voices, I think.

94. "Linus and Lucy." This makes me feel like I am on hold.

95. "Carol of the Bells." Okay, here's a thing I dislike: songs that would be fine if they didn't have words but instead we put words in them. This carol reminds me of that time in the 1970s when they decided that all movie theme songs had to have lyrics, so the "Godfather" theme got the words "Speak softly, love, so no one hears us but the sky!" (Yeegh.) "Carol of the Bells" typifies the worst excesses of this approach: "Hark how the bells! Sweet silver bells! All seem to say! Throw cares away!" And that is before you even get to the ding-dongs.

96. "Silver Bells." I just don't like songs with bells in them. I don't like Christmas songs with onomatopoeia of any kind. Just play the dang instrument; don't have a human being sitting there going RINGA-LING like a moron.

97. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." One of my chatters correctly describes this as a song about how differently abled people are bullied until the system finds a way to exploit them for profit. The only good thing about this song is that Rudolph is a reindeer with a people name, and all the other reindeer have dog names. Prancer, Blitzen, Dancer!

98. "Santa Baby." The panicky Michael Buble version that addresses Santa as "buddy" and "pally" and, even more confusingly, "poppy" has been richly and correctly mocked. But here is my bone to pick with the original, especially in 2018: Santa's WHOLE CONCEPT, as far as I can understand it, is that he will give you amazing, wonderful gifts for NOTHING. Yet the singer in this song seems to be laboring under the delusion that to receive elegant presents, she has to sleep with him? Eartha, or whoever else is covering this, you don't have to! This is Santa's only job! If he told you this was part of the equation, he was lying!

99. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" A better name for this song would be "I Assume You Cannot Hear Anything I Am Saying and so I Am Going to Repeat All the Words Twice." This contains things that in another, better song, would be welcome: A star! A star! A shepherd boy! Rhetorical questions! But the problem with this song is the problem that arises any time you are forced to repeat something you said because someone didn't hear it properly -- namely, that you didn't phrase the thing very well in the first place, and having to say it again just makes you more painfully aware of how awkward your wording was. "WITH A VOICE AS BIG AS THE SEA." What? "WITH A VOICE AS BIG AS THE SEA," you shout, regretting that you ever thought it was a good idea to introduce a simile here.

100."Little Drummer Boy." My hatred for this song knows no bounds. I think it is because the song takes approximately 18 years to sing and does not rhyme. The concept of the song is bad. The execution of the song is bad. There is not even an actual drum in the dang song, there is just someone saying PA-RUM-PAPUM-PUM, which is, frankly, another terrible onomatopoeia and probably is an insult to those fluent in Drum. I cannot stand it. Nothing will fix it, even the application of David Bowie to it. Every year I say, "I hate this song," and every year people say, "Have you heard David Bowie's version?" Yes. Yes, I have. It is still an abomination.

For the rest of the ranking, visit

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


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What has the president been 'smocking'?

By eugene robinson
What has the president been 'smocking'?


(Advance for Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Robinson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- President Trump was up early Monday morning, tweeting falsely that investigators have found "No Smocking Gun" that proves he did anything wrong. He meant "smoking," of course. His vision must be clouded by the haze.

In a sentencing memorandum for the president's one-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, federal prosecutors in Manhattan wrote Friday that Cohen violated campaign finance laws "in coordination with and at the direction of" Trump. In layman's terms, Trump's own Justice Department has accused him of instructing his attorney to commit two felonies.

These crimes, which Cohen confesses, involve six-figure payments of hush money to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels -- women whose silence about alleged sexual encounters with Trump was expensively purchased in the weeks before the 2016 election.

On Twitter, the president called all of this "a simple private transaction." I'm tempted to ask what he's been "smocking."

According to Cohen -- and common sense -- the purpose of paying $150,000 to McDougal (via American Media Inc. chairman David Pecker) and $130,000 to Daniels was to keep their accounts of their alleged relationships with Trump from being made public before the election. That means the payments have to be considered illegal, unreported campaign contributions.

Trump suggests these were mere technical violations of the kind that every campaign inadvertently commits and is fined for. That is a lie. Permit me to quote the prosecutors' memo at length on this point:

"Cohen's commission of two campaign finance crimes on the eve of the 2016 election for president of the United States struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows. He did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extramarital affairs with [Trump]. In the process, Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election. It is this type of harm that Congress sought to prevent when it imposed limits on individual contributions to candidates."

And Cohen committed these crimes, prosecutors say, on Trump's orders. Trump has not credibly denied the allegation -- and, indeed, Cohen made a recording of at least one conversation in which he discussed the payments with Trump.

"NO COLLUSION," Trump claimed once again in his Monday tweets. He has spent months trying to convince the nation of two false premises: that special counsel Robert Mueller's "witch hunt" has found no evidence of a conspiracy between his campaign and the Russian government to tilt the 2016 election in his favor; and that any other alleged crimes that investigators might come across are somehow irrelevant.

Wrong on both counts.

There was, of course, the infamous Trump Tower meeting arranged so that Trump's son, son-in-law and campaign chairman could receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton from an emissary of the Kremlin. But investigators have also learned of more than a dozen additional contacts between the campaign and well-connected Russians.

A memo filed Friday by Mueller reveals a previously unknown approach by "a Russian national who claimed to be a 'trusted person' in the Russian Federation" and who offered the campaign "synergy on a government level." The filing also states that Cohen helpfully provided "useful information regarding certain discrete Russia-related matters" that was obtained through "regular contact" with Trump Organization executives.

None of this is normal. I know people who have run both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns, and not one reports ever experiencing or even hearing of such dealings with a foreign government, much less an adversarial power such as Russia. When Trump says this sort of thing is common practice, he is lying.

No, Mueller has not tipped his hand to reveal all the evidence he might have of a full-fledged plot between his campaign and Vladimir Putin's government. But given how tight-lipped the Mueller team has been, it is ridiculous for anyone to assert with confidence that no such evidence exists.

We know that Mueller is looking into the Trump Organization's business dealings with Russians who have close links to the Kremlin. We know he is looking into potential obstruction of justice by the president.

And now we know, for the first time, that prosecutors have directly implicated Trump in a federal crime. It may be a bit premature to start chanting, "Lock him up!" But stay tuned.

Eugene Robinson's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Is America great again yet?

By richard cohen
Is America great again yet?


(Advance for Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cohen clients only)


WASHINGTON -- OK, America, are we great again yet? Are we respected throughout the world? Are the Chinese quaking in their boots as we hike tariffs? Has Saudi Arabia come clean about murdering a Washington Post columnist after covering up the atrocity so clumsily that you could almost see blood dripping from the hands of the crown prince? If America is great again, how come we grovel before a nation that needs us more than we need it? Tweet me an answer, Mr. President. But keep it short.

Has America reversed global warming by simply denying it? Are factory jobs up? How about iron and steel? The same. And coal mining -- ''beautiful, clean coal" in the hallucinatory words of the president? Not what it once was.

Is NATO stronger? Does America enjoy moral leadership? Would our allies rush to our aid, as they did after Sept. 11, 2001? George W. Bush's grand "coalition of the willing" might be impossible to re-assemble. Donald Trump has managed to unite Western Europe in one respect. All its leaders loath him.

The president, like Gulliver, is being tied down by numerous investigations. The explanation is apparent even to Republicans. Trump is an immoral man, a chiseler and liar and a deadbeat and a damned fool. His eccentric collection of aides is tiptoeing off the stage one by one, some to jail, some to ignominy, none to glory. And then, when they are gone, comes verbal abuse, sometimes in retaliation for a tardy admission of truth. Rex Tillerson said that Trump does not read up to grade. For that, he got spitballed. "Dumb as a rock," the president opined.

The mess is getting messier. Trump lies himself into one corner after another. Is there anyone in all of America who does not believe that Trump paid off two women for their silence? Whether these alleged payments were campaign finance violations or not is almost beside the point. We know the story. Trump is dirty and uses cash as a disinfectant. He thinks it can make any manner of sin go away. Maybe not this time, Mr. President. As with your former Atlantic City casino, you overpaid.

But blaming Donald Trump for behaving like Donald Trump is like blaming a scorpion for acting like a scorpion. The lie is his sting. He cannot help himself. He thinks only of himself because narcissism, like a sixth toe, is a condition of birth. There is no changing it. In the Trump White House, the president's intense love of himself is about the only consistent policy.

But what about you, Chris Christie? I am talking of course of the former New Jersey governor who jumped from presidential candidate to Trump acolyte. Are you proud of what you did? Didn't you see any of this coming? Didn't you talk to any bankers or real estate people from just across the Hudson River? They wouldn't do business with Trump. They don't trust him. You knew all this, but wanted a high Cabinet position anyway. What is the word for what you've done? It's something like moral treason.

And you, Mike Pence. You won't eat alone with any woman other than your wife, but you'd sup at Trump's table, the womanizer instead of the woman. Were you the only adult in Washington who had not heard the stories about him? What were you willing to do to advance your career? Is there a principle you hold dear?

I get it. Christie, Pence and other Republican politicians -- as well as financial figures such as Carl Icahn -- had other considerations. Some wanted a conservative, anti-abortion judiciary; still others wanted lower taxes and fewer regulations. Steve Schwarzman, the billionaire head of the Blackstone Group, even said in 2016 that he preferred Trump because America needed a "cohesive, healing presidency."

Trump, these savants thought, would grant all their wishes and so they tossed the dice on a maniac, comforting us (or themselves) with the hope that once in office Trump's inner Madison would emerge. Don't worry, they said, he ran a business and, anyway, the solemnity of the Oval Office would sober him up. Didn't Augustine of Hippo go from a libertine to a saint of the church?

John Kelly's leaving. Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster are gone. Michael Flynn sings and Paul Manafort lies. The stock market is tanking for the usual reasons, but this one as well: Investors know no one's home at the White House. Trump's a human pinball, ricocheting off events and emitting tweets like a rundown smoke alarm. We're not great again. We're drifting toward disaster.

Richard Cohen's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Pathogens couldn't care less about Italian politics

By michael gerson
Pathogens couldn't care less about Italian politics


(Advance for Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)


FLORENCE, Italy -- It was here in 1614 that Tommaso Caccini preached a sermon in the church of Santa Maria Novella denouncing Galileo and other scientists who held the heretical view that the Earth circles the sun. This was one of the main triggers that brought Galileo to the attention of the Inquisition.

There are many monuments to Galileo in Florence. None, at least that I've seen, to the Dominican friar who persecuted him. But in Italian politics, the spirit of Caccini -- the sacrifice of scientific reasoning to ideology -- remains at work.

Italy's right-wing coalition government -- composed of conservatives and internet-based populists (including former communists) -- has provided a political home for the anti-vaccination movement. The hard core of that movement, according to public health surveys, is quite small. But its arguments reinforce the questions and fears of a broader 15 to 20 percent of the Italian population who are seriously hesitant about vaccination.

A 2017 Italian law expanding the number of mandatory vaccinations from four to 10 produced significantly greater coverage, as well as a populist backlash. Italy's new interior minister has said that the requirements are "useless and in many cases dangerous." One senator from the government coalition has compared vaccination scars to "branding for beasts." The new health minister recently sacked the government's entire, 30-member science advisory panel, presumably to get advice more amenable to populist ideology.

The arguments of the Italian anti-vax movement are the same as elsewhere. They believe that vaccinations are somehow associated with autism, tumors or allergies. Since there is no reputable science to support this view -- none at all -- they turn to the language of parental choice and "more freedom" for families in health care. And they often add a conspiratorial element, accusing Big Pharma of making profits off unnecessary vaccinations.

The problem, of course, is that when too many parents in a community choose to believe these myths, herd immunity is lost. (For a highly infectious disease like measles -- which can be contracted through a cough at an airport -- a vaccination rate of 95 percent is necessary to effectively prevent its spread.) And when herd immunity is lost, this leaves children who truly can't be vaccinated -- children with weak immune systems, cancer and chronic illness -- vulnerable to dangerous infections.

With the assumption of power, Italy's governing coalition has become less direct in its attacks on vaccination. But it has chosen this moment -- during an outbreak of measles in Italy that has led to thousands of infections and at least ten deaths -- to reassess if vaccinations should be mandatory. One prominent and soft-spoken Italian medical researcher I met in Florence, Lorenzo Moretta, became less soft-spoken on this subject. "It is not ideology," he said, "it is idiocy."

Some of the resistance to vaccination is natural. The idea of giving healthy people a medical treatment that involves risks has always raised questions. And the dramatic success of vaccinations has (paradoxically) made the risk of infectious disease seem more distant and less urgent.

But some elements in Italy and the U.S. have fed these sentiments for ideological reasons. The populist revolt against the "establishment" has been extended from the governing establishment to the medical and scientific establishment. It involves the questioning not only of various authorities but also of the idea of authority itself.

Giovanni Rezza -- the head of Italy's version of the National Institutes of Health -- described to me "a loss of the sense of authority -- a mistrust of all sectors of society." He remains confident that most people can be reached by medical professionals carrying sound information about vaccination. But this is complicated, he admits, when "authorities seem corrupted."

There is more at work here than institutional distrust. The problem reaches the realm of epistemology. Radical populists create their own elaborate universe of ideological loyalty and debunked science, of a type that would have been familiar to Caccini. They inhabit a clean, comfortable world of their own creation, denying any unfavorable news as "fake news" and any unfavorable science as biased and corrupt. A revolt against the establishment becomes a revolt against the scientific method, which becomes a revolt against reason itself.

But pathogens really don't care about political constructs. They lurk in small pockets of humanity, and return with a vengeance when humans are not vigilant. When politics lessens that vigilance, it can leave not only confusion, but victims.

Michael Gerson's email address is

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The utterly lawless 'Individual-1'

By dana milbank
The utterly lawless 'Individual-1'



(For Milbank clients only)


WASHINGTON -- "Individual-1" has a singular problem: His own Justice Department says he directed a crime.

Late Friday, U.S. prosecutors -- ordinary prosecutors, not the ones working for Robert Mueller's supposed rogue witch hunt -- filed papers in court saying President Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen admitted "he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1."

This means that it is the considered view of Individual-1's Justice Department that Individual-1 participated in a felony violation of campaign finance law by directing, in order to influence the presidential election, the payoff of two women who alleged affairs with Individual-1.

Mueller and his team will decide in the coming months whether to accuse Trump of crimes. But in one sense, these are just details. That Trump is fundamentally lawless can no longer be seriously disputed. His own prosecutors now say he took part in a crime -- and his former secretary of state says Trump had little concern about what was legal.

"So often," Rex Tillerson said in a talk Thursday, "the president would say, 'Here's what I want you to do, and here's how I want you to do it.' And I would have to say to him, 'Mr. President, I understand what you want to do. But you can't do it that way. It violates the law.'"

To this, Trump responded with a well-reasoned legal defense: Tillerson "was dumb as a rock" and "lazy as hell."

Tillerson didn't detail his allegations of Trump's illegal impulses, but many such views by Trump are already in the public domain.

During the campaign, Trump said he would have no trouble getting the military to follow his orders, even if they were illegal, such as torture or the deliberate targeting of innocents.

"If I say do it, they're gonna do it," Trump said. And, "They're not gonna refuse me. Believe me."

As Bob Woodward reported in his book "Fear," Trump wanted the military to assassinate Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would be illegal (unless Trump has issued secret orders stating otherwise). "Let's f---ing kill him!" was Trump's proposal.

In April, The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe reported that Trump watched a recording of a CIA drone strike in which the agency held off on firing until the target was away from his family. Trump asked: "Why did you wait?" Doing otherwise would have been a war crime.

More recently, Trump has suggested troops could fire on unarmed migrants on the border (he later qualified this), and CNN reported that the Pentagon rebuffed instructions for the military to engage in law enforcement on the border, which is normally not allowed.

Trump has floated the idea that he could unilaterally end the constitutional protection of birthright citizenship, and his administration has toyed with implementing a $100 billion capital-gains tax cut without Congress, and sharing census citizenship information with law enforcement officials.

When courts push back on his lawlessness, Trump treats judges as political opponents. He tried to disqualify the Trump University judge, saying his Mexican ancestry meant he couldn't be fair to Trump. He rebuked the "so-called judge" who ruled against his travel ban, widely seen as unconstitutional before it was revised. And he earned a rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts for blaming an "Obama judge" for a ruling that his administration must process asylum claims.

Meanwhile, five former Trump aides have pleaded guilty in Mueller's Russia probe, and others seem to regard it as perfectly plausible that Trump himself, as former aide Sam Nunberg put it, "may very well have done something during the election with the Russians."

On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the latest filings "tell us nothing of value that wasn't already known." That's true in the sense that recent findings essentially corroborate much of the 2016 "dossier" by former spy Christopher Steele -- declared fraudulent by Trump -- and its reports of extensive, compromising interactions between the Trump campaign and cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The dossier's assertion of Michael Cohen's "ongoing secret liaison relationship" with Russian leadership has been confirmed by his now-exposed work on a Moscow Trump Tower well into 2016, which he lied about to Congress. The new revelations about Cohen also show that the dossier correctly identified Putin lieutenants Dmitry Peskov and Sergei Ivanov as the ones managing the Trump campaign for the Russian government.

Trump on Friday nominated William Barr to be attorney general, citing his "unwavering adherence to the rule of law."

If he's right about Barr, Individual-1, whose own adherence to the rule of law is wavering at best, will be deeply disappointed.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


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Video: Federal prosecutors filed new court papers on Dec. 7 that revealed a previously unreported contact from a Russian to Trump's inner circle during the campaign.(Melissa Macaya, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

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Are Republicans abandoning democracy?

By e.j. dionne jr.
Are Republicans abandoning democracy?


(Advance for Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Sunday, Dec. 10, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Dionne clients only)

WRITETHRU: Updates to reflect news by adding new lead, new opening to 3rd graf ("In November") and new 10th graf ("Evers, denouncing the 'hot mess'...")


WASHINGTON -- Especially after last week's court filings in the ongoing investigations of President Trump, his critics have good reason to focus on the threats he poses to democracy and the rule of law. But the president is not alone in his party.

In case after case, Republicans have demonstrated an eagerness to undercut democracy and tilt the rules of the game if doing so serves their ideological interests. The quiet coup by the GOP-controlled Legislature in Wisconsin is designed to defy the voters' wishes. It reflects an abandonment of the disciplines self-government requires.

In November, Wisconsin's electorate ended eight years of Republican dominance in state government by choosing Democrats Tony Evers as governor and Josh Kaul as attorney general. Democrats also won races for secretary of state and state treasurer.

There was nothing unnatural about this. Voters often tire of one party and decide to try the other side. It's the beautiful thing about constitutional democracies: There are no final victories, so there are no final defeats. We all agree to rules that apply uniformly whether those we favor win or lose because this protects our right to fight another day and perhaps prevail the next time.

Not so the Republicans in Wisconsin. Having lost the governorship, they're using a lame-duck session of the legislature to strip Evers of many powers they were perfectly content to see Republican Gov. Scott Walker exercise. Why are they doing this now? Because Walker, who was defeated by Evers, is still in office to sign their bills.

Among other things, the legislation would stop Evers from taking control of a state economic development agency that the Democrat has pledged to abolish, and it would make it harder for him to overturn restrictions Walker imposed on social benefits. It would also limit early voting (which helped the Democrats win by expanding turnout). For good measure, the legislature wants to prevent Kaul from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act -- even though that's exactly what Kaul told voters he would do.

It won't surprise you to learn that Republicans are shifting power to the state legislature because radically gerrymandered district boundaries helped the GOP maintain their majorities in the state Senate and Assembly despite the Democrats' performance at the top of the ticket.

In rationalizing their move, Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, had the nerve to issue a statement declaring: "The legislature is the most representative branch in government."

Well, no. The Democrats won the popular vote in State Assembly contests by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin, but emerged with only 36 seats to the GOP's 63.

Evers, denouncing the "hot mess" the legislature had created, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he had urged Walker to veto the bills and might go to court to block them.

Republican indifference to democratic norms is not confined to Wisconsin. Republicans in Michigan (which also replaced a Republican governor with a Democrat this year) are working on a similar effort.

One Michigan GOP target: incoming Democratic secretary of state Jocelyn Benson, who, like other Democratic secretaries of state this year, was elected on an ambitious reform agenda. This includes greater transparency when it comes to political money. Republicans don't like this. So they introduced a bill to restrict her oversight of campaign finance issues.

Both states are borrowing from a playbook by North Carolina Republicans who moved to hamper Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper soon after he was elected in 2016. And as Michael Hobbes reported in The Huffington Post, GOP legislators are also trying to dilute progressive referendum victories in states such as Florida and Utah.

And, no, this is not about "polarization" in general. When Republicans won governorships in Massachusetts and Maryland in 2014 and Vermont in 2016, Democratic legislatures made no power-grabs like those Republicans are undertaking. Democrats chose to battle them in traditional ways -- and to work with them, too.

The GOP's anti-democratic impulse has far more in common with the old segregationist Democrats of the South than with the best Republican traditions that led to the rights-conferring 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. The party's efforts to lock in power regardless of election outcomes also eerily echo some of the behaviors of anti-democratic politicians abroad.

At least a few anti-Trump Republicans are facing up to how extensively their party is undermining democracy's golden rules. "I'm old enough to remember when it wasn't a key part of Republican strategy to try, in effect, to nullify election results," Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol tweeted last week.

But most in the party are either complicit or silent. Is it any wonder, then, that most Republicans are also willing to go right along with Trump?

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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