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. IN COLLABORATION WITH
ABCDE National Weekly The mall, reinvented
It’s adapt or die for America’s retail complexes, PAGE 12 with more than 10,000 store closures set for this year alone PAGE 8
Nation Rise of Cyber Monday 9
World Hong Kong elections 11
Opinion Mister Rogers’s impact 20
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High court’s test for neutrality nears
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images
Justices step onto partisan battleground as they confront cases involving the president BY R OBERT B ARNES AND A NN E . M ARIMOW
he legal cases concerning President Trump, his finances and his separation-of-powers disputes with Congress are moving like a brush fire to the Supreme Court, and together provide both potential and challenge for the Roberts court in its aspiration to
be seen as nonpartisan. The court, composed of five conservatives nominated by Republican presidents and four liberals chosen by Democrats, has little choice but to step onto a fiercely partisan battleground. It announced recently that it will consider on Dec. 13 whether to schedule a full briefing and argument on the president’s request that it overturn a lower-
court ruling giving New York prosecutors access to Trump’s tax returns and other financial records in their investigation of hush-money payments in the lead-up to the 2016 election. There are many more such evaluations to come. “This is a real existential test for this Supreme Court,” said Walter Dellinger, a longtime member of the Democratic legal establish-
Then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, right, walks with White House counsel Don McGahn after meetings with senators on July 10, 2018.
ment who argued for President Bill Clinton when the Supreme Court ruled he was not immune from a lawsuit. In the 1997 Clinton case, the court was unanimous. The same was true in 1974’s United States v. Nixon, in which the president was forced to comply with a grand jury request. The court took its first step Monday, when it put on hold a
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photos by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
ruling that the House Oversight Committee has the authority to review essentially the same financial records as the New York prosecutors. The committee’s Democrats want to investigate alleged discrepancies in Trump’s financial disclosures and whether laws need to be tightened. The court’s order came in an anodyne statement with no dissents — just the kind of thing legal experts say the court strives for. But the cases come with personal connections and baggage for the justices and at least appearances that could cause questions about objectivity. For instance, there was no indication in Monday’s short order that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had recused herself from the Trump financial records case, despite past criticism. She disapproved of Trump when he was a candidate in 2016 for not releasing his tax statements, as past presidents and nominees have done. She later said she should not have made such comments. And the first case likely to reach the Supreme Court on the question of Trump’s broad assertion of executive power over those
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sit for a Supreme Court photo last year. Ginsburg said she should not have made comments in 2016 about President Trump not releasing his tax statements.
who worked for him features former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who played a pivotal role in the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh, especially, credits McGahn. At a Federalist Society gala last month, Kavanaugh mentioned McGahn first in a 30-minute speech that was like an extended thank-you note to those
responsible for his confirmation. It is widely accepted that justices participate in cases important, even personally, to the presidents who nominated them. Three of President Richard M. Nixon’s nominees joined the unanimous court ruling against him in the decision requiring him to turn over White House tapes in a criminal investigation. (Another, William H. Rehnquist, recused himself because he had actually
worked in the Nixon administration.) Likewise, Clinton nominees Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer were on the unanimous court that found Clinton had to answer Paula Jones’s lawsuit that accused him of sexual advances. It was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, then the leader of the court’s liberal wing. Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor and a former lawyer at the Defense Department, said: “In this highly politically charged environment, there are few institutions left that the public can trust, and unfortunately for the court, some of these issues will be perceived as highly political.” Among the other cases in the pipeline is the House Ways and Means Committee lawsuit seeking the president’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service. Unlike the two subpoena cases already before the Supreme Court, the House lawsuit invokes a 1924 law that gives the chairmen of the tax-writing committees the authority to obtain the returns of any taxpayer. In the second week of December, appeals courts in Washington and Richmond will hear separate arguments in cases alleging Trump is violating the anti-corruption “emoluments” provisions of the Constitution when his private companies benefit from business transactions with foreign and state governments. That same week, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington will consider whether Charles Kupperman, the deputy to former national security adviser John Bolton, must comply with a House subpoena — now withdrawn — for testimony in the impeachment inquiry. But the need for well-considered, precedent-setting legal opinions is not a good match with the House’s fast-moving impeachment inquiry. The Senate would be quickly called upon to hold a trial if the House, as expected, impeaches the president. Roberts, as chief justice, would preside over the Senate deliberations. Although Dellinger points out that the Supreme Court can act quickly when it needs to, resolution of the legal issues and the culmination of impeachment are unlikely to coincide. n
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Booker: Lots of praise, little support BY C LEVE R . W OOTSON J R. AND M ICHAEL S CHERER
in Columbia, S.C.
ayor Pro Tem Tameika Isaac Devine has been a fan of Sen. Cory Booker since his days as Newark mayor. An admirer of his consensus-building style, she invited him into her home and said he “electrified the room.” But she has not yet endorsed his campaign for president, and when asked why, she talks about her friends who worry his “Rise Up” message, a call for national healing and inspiration, would be a poor fit for the general election. “He’s not a safe choice for some people, although people like what he has to say,” Devine said. “It’s not personally about him as much as people feel like they have to have someone who is going to win and beat Donald Trump.” As he struggles with low-single-digit polling and the prospect of missing the cut for this month’s debate, Booker has become a symbol for the harsh reality of this year’s nominating process. It is just not enough to win plaudits for performance, as he has after multiple events, or to execute a clear campaign strategy. In the shadow of Trump’s potential reelection, Democratic voters have become focused on winning and are unforgiving with their doubts. Booker has sought to answer that concern by preaching the power of empathy. He appeals to white Iowa and New Hampshire voters by talking about the problems of inner cities and poverty. He has confronted Trump by explaining his compassion for his supporters. And unlike other campaigns that have pivoted on message and policy, he has made clear he will not change his strategy to win. “I literally had someone say, ‘How are you going to beat Donald Trump with love, Cory?’ ” he said after an event last month in New Hampshire, placing himself in the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
David Becker/Getty Images
The Democratic presidential candidate remains mired with many others below the top tier “And I laughed. You don’t know our history! That’s how we always win! King said, ‘Darkness can’t drive out darkness; only love can do that.’” Everywhere Booker goes these days — in press gaggles and at candidate forums, in Iowa church pews and New Hampshire town halls — he is followed by questions about why his bid is still stuck in the low single digits. The senator from New Jersey’s stock answer is that he just needs more time, a few more donors and the wisdom to remember that past Democratic nominees Barack Obama and John F. Kerry were trailing at this point in their primary campaigns. But in moments of candor, he can be more reflective. “This is the challenge,” he told one loyal volunteer in October who had asked at a town hall in West Des Moines what more she could do to get his name out there. He even betrayed some frus-
tration at the debate last month about his ability to break through. “I happen to be the other Rhodes Scholar mayor on this stage,” he said, in a dig at the attention that has been drawn to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The broader dilemma he faces has bedeviled more than a dozen campaigns this cycle. Those out of the top tier struggle as they seek even minimal attention, and without attention they cannot reach the top tier. “Until voting starts, the way voters can determine viability is through things like fundraising, polling and earned-media coverage,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist who advised the short-lived campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). Booker’s campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, told The Washington Post that Booker’s success has often been unfairly contrasted with the high expectations set by a political establishment that long saw him as a rising star.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) speaks during an event at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. Although he has won plaudits for performance and his campaign message, he struggles with low-single-digit polling.
“We have a high bar to clear,” he said recently. “And the reality is he’s been clearing it, particularly in the early states. But the metric that the press has been paying the most attention to is polling — not endorsements, not favorability, not consideration. We’re winning by those metrics. It’s only the horse race that we’re not winning, yet.” Booker’s campaign message, a departure from the rest of the pack, has so far failed to overcome the challenge, although he says he has attracted a devoted following. His fundraising jumped after the Nov. 20 debate, and he points to relatively high favorability in recent Democratic polls. His announcement video, scored to a drum-line beat, showed him walking the graffitistrewn streets of Newark, yelling “What’s up?” to a passerby. An early endorser of Medicare-forall, he has campaigned on legalizing marijuana and expunging the records of the mostly nonwhite Americans with minor drug convictions. This was a departure from the more buttoned-up approach he took in his first Senate campaign, a 2013 special election, in which he ran ads that showed him in a suit and tie, speaking in glasswalled conference rooms, with graphics about bringing in “new business” and a voice-over that promised innovation and to “reach for new answers.” As a senator, he has been known as a more moderate Democrat. As a presidential candidate, by contrast, he has more closely identified with the struggles of urban populations. Like Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, Booker has argued that the party needs to focus on black voters to increase turnout in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia in the general election. But the positioning has yet to earn any of them a spike in support among black voters, who continue to back former vice president Joe Biden in polls.
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Politics Interviews with black voters in South Carolina found high praise for Booker’s message. But those same voters repeatedly stopped short of supporting him. “He may be eloquent and he may be educated, but will they vote for him?” asked Wilma Doyle, 74, a retired schoolteacher from Greenville who said she likes almost everything about Booker. “He is good, but I don’t think he has the best chance.” To make the cut for the December debate, Booker will need to score 4 percent or higher in four party-sanctioned polls over the coming weeks. He has so far failed to reach that level in any party-sanctioned poll published since mid-October. Even if he does not make the cut, he has vowed to continue his campaign, with a pathway that remains focused on Iowa. He has devoted significant resources to the first-voting state, hiring an early statewide staff of 50, including several aides who got tattoos of the slogan “We Rise” in Booker’s handwriting. “Booker could actually do incredibly well here. He has a great organization, has a great staff. They’ve got great endorsements,” said Grant Woodard, a Des Moines attorney and former Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated in the race. “But there’s just so much noise with all these other candidates running.” At his second New Hampshire event last month, 125 people overflowed a brewery in downtown Portsmouth, where organizers had planned for 50 people. After Booker finished speaking, Greg Norris, a marketing executive, hung in the back of the event space with a beer as his 18-year-old son waited in line for a selfie with the senator. “I think his message of inclusion is right on,” Norris said about his first time seeing Booker. “I’m very surprised that he hasn’t gotten the traction. When you look at just the qualifications, the way he speaks, a level of intelligence, the education, the experience, I’m really surprised, relative to the other candidates.” But Norris still wasn’t sold. He said he was not yet ready to say he would vote for Booker. n
Bloomberg News will not investigate Mike Bloomberg BY
P AUL F ARHI
loomberg News will stop writing unsigned editorials and its reporters will avoid investigating the personal life and finances of its owner, Mike Bloomberg, as the news organization seeks to avoid conflicts of interest in covering Bloomberg’s newly announced candidacy for president. In an extraordinary memo to his newsroom, Bloomberg News Editor in Chief John Micklethwait outlined steps designed to steer his reporters through a potential journalistic minefield: how to cover the campaign of the man who owns the news organization that is covering him. Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, made his campaign for the Democratic nomination official last month after buying $30 million in TV ads to tout his background. The ad blitz places Bloomberg’s sprawling media empire in the uncomfortable, and perhaps unprecedented, position of having to cover the campaign of the man who founded and still heads the company. Bloomberg operates one of the world’s largest media organizations, with about 2,700 journalists in TV, radio, magazine and digital operations. For weeks, Bloomberg News’s top editors have wrestled with how they could fairly report on their boss if he decided to run while being fair to his political rivals, including President Trump, who is seeking a second term. Micklethwait’s memo laid out what he called “basic principles” in covering Bloomberg’s political aspirations. Most notably, he said his newsroom would continue “our tradition” of not investigating Bloomberg, his family and his wealth, “and we will extend the same policy to his rivals in the Democratic primaries.” A Bloomberg News spokeswoman, Kerri Chyka, also said the company won’t initiate stories about
Yana Paskova/Getty Images
Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg made his presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination official last month.
Bloomberg L.P., following a longstanding policy. The hands-off policy puts Bloomberg News in the awkward position of passing on such critical stories as Trump’s unfounded allegations of corruption against former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. At the same time, Micklethwait said Bloomberg News would continue to investigate the Trump administration. The decision not to initiate stories about Democrats’ wealth and family is itself a potential conflict, as it may leave readers and viewers in the dark about important developments involving Bloomberg’s rivals. It would also unfairly give greater weight to stories involving potential corruption by Trump, his family or his administration. However, Micklethwait said Bloomberg would publish investigative articles or summaries of articles about these topics involving Democrats from “credible journalistic institutions.” He did not spell out which sources he deemed “credible.” Taken broadly, the guidelines are similar to Bloomberg News’s policies in covering Mike Bloomberg during his three terms as New York City mayor. Micklethwait also said Bloomberg News would suspend
publishing its own editorials on Bloomberg Opinion and would temporarily shut down the board that produces them. These editorials reflect Bloomberg News’s institutional view, and Mike Bloomberg’s own positions on issues, according to Micklethwait. In an unusual move, the two top editors of the opinion section will take a leave of absence and join Bloomberg’s campaign, according to the memo. Five other members of the opinion team will join them on the campaign, the company said. Micklethwait said Bloomberg News will continue to publish bylined opinion columns, including those from outside contributors, although it won’t publish any opeds on the election. It’s unclear how this policy would work, given that almost every issue of national and international importance is affected by the presidential race. “I think this is a structure that can cope with many eventualities,” Micklethwait wrote. “No doubt many of you are already thinking of possible complexities that may arise. My response is: let’s get back to work. We can spend a long time debating ‘what ifs.’ I would rather that we got on with the journalism and let that speak for itself. So write, blog, broadcast — and the rest will take care of itself.” n
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An opening for Islamic State in Libya B Y S UDARSAN R AGHAVAN in Sirte, Libya
ight suspected Islamic State members were captured in this scarred city in recent weeks, Libyan commanders say. Militant sleeper cells, they say, lurk in some neighborhoods. Other militants have set up desert camps to the south, where the Islamic State reportedly hides fighters and weaponry, as Libyan militias that once worked closely with U.S. counterterrorism forces on the ground no longer patrol the area. These are signs of how the expanding civil war in Libya has created a potential opening for the Islamic State to revive itself in the country, according to Libyan commanders and Western officials. Today, the militias that targeted the Islamic State are themselves targets of airstrikes by the forces of eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter, who is seeking to oust the United Nations-installed government. The small contingent of U.S. troops that coordinated with the militias left Libya months ago. “We used to have eyes in the south,” said Brig. Gen. Nas Abdullah, the top military commander in Sirte. “Now we can’t go out there. The planes will bomb us.” Since Hifter launched his offensive on the capital of Tripoli in April, the militants have staged nine attacks, mostly in the south, U.S. military officials said. These included one that killed nine in the city of Sabha and another that targeted an oil field, killing three. In June, the Islamic State asserted responsibility for two bombings that injured 18 in the eastern city of Derna, the group’s first attack in the city since 2016. Those attacks triggered four U.S. drone strikes in September, targeting Islamic State positions in the southern desert. The U.S. military estimates there are now about 100 Islamic State militants in Libya. But a senior U.S. defense official, speaking to a small group of reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence information, as well as others inter-
Lorenzo Tugnoli For The Washington Post
The country’s civil war has allowed the militant group to return as counterterrorism falters viewed, cautioned that the Islamic State branch remains capable of taking advantage of the current power vacuum. “There is concern that as this conflict goes on, the ability of ISIS and al-Qaeda to regroup is going to grow,” said a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “Nobody is under any illusion that we’re out of the woods in Libya yet on the counterterrorism front.” After the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. military strike in Syria last month, more attention has turned to the status of the group’s affiliates around the world. At its height, the Islamic State had as many as 5,000 fighters in Libya and controlled more than 125 miles of coastline. While most of its fighters were homegrown, the Islamic State also attracted nationals from Tunisia, Egypt, West Africa, Sudan — and even some Americans and Europeans.
Now, three-quarters of the Libyan militias that defeated the Islamic State here are fighting on Tripoli’s front lines, taking valuable resources away from the counterterrorism fight. “Nobody is saying or doing anything,” said Gen. Mohammed Haddad, a senior pro-government commander, referring to the international community. “Are we not on the right side? We fought ISIS in Sirte. Now, Hifter is targeting us.” ‘People are still worried’ In the past three years, Sirte has slowly resurrected itself. Entire neighborhoods pummeled by hundreds of U.S. airstrikes during the fight against the Islamic State still lie in ruins. Yet 80 percent of the city’s 180,000 people have returned. Fear, though, lingers. On some store fronts, the stamp of the Islamic State’s taxation department remains.
A woman walks in the Giza neighborhood of Sirte, which was heavily damaged during fighting against Islamic State militants.
“People are still worried that Daesh will come back,” explained Tayeb al-Asayfer, a fighter assigned to protect the city, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. In 2015, the Islamic State seized Sirte, a metropolis speckled with seaside mansions in Libya’s oil crescent. As in Syria and Iraq, the militants set up a government and asserted control through public executions, ultraconservative Islamic codes and a cadre of religious police. In 2016, months after the U.N.-backed government took office, Libyan militias from Misuruta launched an offensive against the militants. Backed by U.S. Special Forces and F-16 fighter jets, the militias drove the Islamic State out of Sirte in December 2016. Many of the surviving extremists melted away into urban populations. And some crossed the border into Niger on their way to joining emerging Islamic State branches or al-Qaeda affiliates Despite their much smaller numbers, the militants continued to stage hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings, seeking to gain fresh recruits and sympathizers. ‘I will leave again’ In Sirte, the concerns about the Islamic State are growing. In recent weeks, Libyan commanders and fighters in Sirte have reported militant groups moving in the desert and riverbeds south of the city. “Expanding the war is the best option for Daesh,” said Abdel Aziz Shugmani, 29, who fought the Islamic State here in 2016 and said he saw 15 relatives and friends killed in the battles. “In the desert now, the trade in weapons will grow, and Daesh will benefit from this.” Muftah Abdusalem, 42, a school janitor, fled Sirte in 2011 and again in 2016. On a recent day, he was rebuilding his destroyed home, a months-long effort determined by what he can save from his meager $160 monthly income. “If Daesh comes back, if there’s another war, if I feel any hint of danger, I will leave again,” said the father of four small children. n
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Pro-democracy wave in Hong Kong B Y S HIBANI M AHTANI, S IMON D ENYER AND T IFFANY L IANG in Hong Kong
lection posters promoting the candidate for Mongkok North left no doubt about his affiliations: Wearing all black clothing, a yellow hard hat, respirator and goggles, he was firmly aligned with protesters seeking full democracy. “Five demands, not one less,” read the banner, the mantra of the grass-roots uprising countering China’s tightening grip on Hong Kong. In defeating the incumbent establishment candidate, Lucifer Siu contributed to a landslide win for the democracy camp in Hong Kong’s district council elections. A similar story unfolded citywide: A 23-year-old graduate beat a three-time incumbent in an establishment stronghold; a 25year-old who crowdfunded his campaign ousted the vice chairman of the main pro-Beijing party. More than 2.9 million voters — a record turnout — delivered the pro-democracy camp 17 of 18 districts and more than 80 percent of contested seats, the biggest electoral victory for the movement since Hong Kong’s handover from British rule in 1997. But it was also a rare chance for people within China to send their leaders a clear electoral message — that they want democracy, not overbearing control by Beijing, and they were prepared to look past protesters’ violence. With this rebuke of its affiliates in the city, Beijing faces a tough choice: whether to open up politics as promised in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, extend a crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters by the city’s police force and government, or try to navigate a delicate middle path. Beijing can continue to dig in, but it would risk escalating and prolonging the conflict now that the electorate has spoken, said Ho-Fung Hung, an expert on the Chinese political economy and
Billy H.C. Kwok/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
With incumbent elites defeated in the elections, Beijing is pressured to rethink its approach Hong Kong politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “A wiser path is to replace Carrie Lam and reset the conversation,” he added, referring to Hong Kong’s chief executive. Reacting to the outcome on Monday, Chinese state media accused foreign forces, particularly the United States, of interfering. “China will respond tit-for-tat and resolutely counter any move by the U.S. that undermines China’s interests, and will never let them act willfully on Hong Kong affairs,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in an editorial. In a commentary, the nationalist Global Times tabloid called for “rational analysis,” noting that Hong Kong’s recent unrest helped the democracy camp to mobilize support. “It is crucial to rationally interpret” the results, it said, “lest mobs should be emboldened by misreading them.”
The vote’s outcome surpassed even the most optimistic predictions among the pro-democracy camp, which had barely held 30 percent of district council seats previously. Pro-democracy parties won 347 district council seats of the 452 up for grabs, with pro-Beijing candidates taking 60 and independents winning 45, seats, according to figures compiled by the South China Morning Post. The district councils nominate 117 members to the 1,200-member election committee that chooses Hong Kong’s leader. That panel is typically dominated by pro-Beijing forces and sympa thetic business interests, but prodemocracy forces will now have considerably more influence to add to their existing support. “It gives them probably not a majority but a meaningful chunk, and puts them in a position to be kingmakers,” said Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author of books
People celebrate the outcomes of the district council elections last month in Hong Kong. More than 2.9 million voters — a record turnout — delivered the pro-democracy camp 17 of 18 districts and more than 80 percent of contested seats, the biggest electoral victory for the movement since Hong Kong’s handover from British rule in 1997.
on Hong Kong’s protest movement. Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled leader, said in a statement Monday that her government respects the election results, and she acknowledged “various analyses and interpretations.” “Quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society,” Lam said. “The Hong Kong government will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly, and seriously reflect.” Susan Shirk, a China expert and former Clinton administration official who is now at the University of California at San Diego, said it was possible that Chinese leader Xi Jinping had not received accurate information from lower-level officials on the public dissatisfaction in Hong Kong, despite months of protests. “No one has wanted to give him bad news,” she said, describing the vote as a plebiscite on Beijing’s management of the financial hub. “The more than 70 percent of the Hong Kong public who voted in this election sent him a message he can’t ignore.” Frank Pieke, director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a think tank in Berlin, said China’s leaders “must be scratching their heads and wondering, ‘What are we going to do now?’ ” He added, “What they will have to do in Beijing is finally think about some concessions they will have to make.” Pieke said those concessions did not necessarily have to be large but could include, for example, an independent inquiry into allegations of brutality by Hong Kong police and protesters during the demonstrations. There is no sign, however, that Beijing is prepared to grant Hong Kong the freedom to elect a government truly accountable to its own people, and one that could potentially represent the interests of the territory against those of the Communist Party, experts said. n
As consumersâ€™ dollars migrated online and retailers toppled, centers that were slow to evolve stumbled into a downward spiral
Shopping malls are slowly dying BY
A BHA B HATTARAI
SUNDAY, December, 1, 2019
SUNDAY, December, 1, 2019
A cyclist rides by a mall building for sale in Mesa, Ariz.
Abdul Mannan was perched on a stool, scrolling through his phone, on a recent afternoon at Lakeforest Mall in suburban Washington. He was two hours into his shift at a jewelry kiosk and had yet to exchange words with a single customer. There was a time, he says, when business was brisk, and the Gaithersburg, Md., shopping center teemed with shoppers. But that was before the J.C. Penney at the end of the corridor closed this summer. The Lord & Taylor went dark a few weeks later, and soon Sears will be gone, too. “Some days, we don’t sell anything,” Mannan, 28, said. “Not one penny. You see the mall? It’s empty.” Lakeforest’s slow decline mirrors the all-too familiar narrative of the American mall, particularly the mid-tier cookie cutters that proliferated in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. In their heyday, they were monuments to consumerism that doubled as cultural touchstone, inspiring films like “Mallrats” and board games like Mall Madness. But in the past decade, as shopping dollars migrated online and a parade of well-known retailers toppled, the malls that didn’t evolve fast enough stumbled into a devastating cycle of dwindling traffic, lower sales and disappearing storefronts. One in four U.S. malls is expected to close by 2022, according to a 2017 report by Credit Suisse. Those that are thriving are spending millions reinventing themselves as integrated lifestyle Photo by Jesse Rieser
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Annual store closures Retailers have announced plans to close a record 10,619 stores so far this year. 12,000
Source: CoStar Group THE WASHINGTON POST Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post
hubs — adding yoga studios, medical clinics and microbreweries — populated with more upscale shops. But such targeted investments are often coming at the expense of mall operators’ lower-tier properties — and analysts say the divide between rich malls and poor malls is widening. “There is an accelerating polarization between the ‘best’ and the ‘rest,’ ” said Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm GlobalData Retail. “Newer, nicer malls have become magnets for consumers, pulling them away from struggling properties.” As of mid-November, retailers have announced plans to close more than 10,600 stores nationwide, according to real estate research firm Costar; that compares with 5,400 for all of 2018. Payless ShoeSource, which filed for Chapter 11 protection in February, shuttered all 2,100 of its U.S. stores, while Gymboree and Charlotte Russe have closed more than 500 stores apiece, many of them in malls. Mall vacancies, meanwhile, are at an eight-year high. Even retailers on relatively stable financial footing, including Macy’s, are pruning hundreds of underperforming stores to focus on flagship locations. These closures, analysts say, are also having a disproportionate effect on lower-tier malls and shopping centers,
making properties like Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Va., a kind of ground zero for America’s changing retail landscape. “Traditionally we kept our shopping separate from our living from our recreation,” said Amanda Nicholson, a professor of retail practice at Syracuse University. “That’s not what the world wants anymore. Malls need to be more creative about getting people outside their homes — it can’t just be stores, stores and more stores.” The American Dream When it opened four decades ago, Lakeforest Mall was the pride of Montgomery County, Md. It had an Olympic-size ice skating rink, a glass-enclosed elevator and an indoor amphitheater with a water-filled moat. Among its attractions was a 201,000-square-foot Sears that could fill just about any household need: power tools, clothes, appliances, furniture, tires, even fine jewelry. The recent demise of three of its four anchors — only Macy’s remains — follows nearly a dozen bankruptcy-fueled closures since 2017, including Charlotte Russe, Gymboree and Brookstone. And many of the remaining tenants say they’re operating on shortterm leases.
A security guard makes his rounds at the Lakeforest Mall food court in Gaithersburg, Md. Many of the mall’s remaining tenants say they’re operating on short-term leases
For decades, malls like Lakeforest tethered their fortunes to department stores with prominent mall entrances and sprawling parking lots, in hopes they would attract loyal shoppers. But as chains like Sears and J.C. Penney have struggled and closed hundreds of stores, it’s had a rippling effect on the malls they once anchored. These days, the most successful malls tend to be dominated by brands that appeal to higher earners, like Nordstrom, Apple and Lululemon, as well as up-and-comers like Untuckit and Peloton. They also tend to have invested heavily in restaurants, spas and specialty gyms that keep customers coming back, week after week, even if they’re doing more of their shopping online, Saunders said. Some mall operators are taking that to extremes. The American Dream — a 15-year, $5 billion shopping center that will be completed next spring in East Rutherford, N.J. — will feature indoor ski slopes, a water park and aquarium alongside 350 stores, including Hermès, Uniqlo and Zara. By the time it’s done, it will surpass the Mall of America in Minnesota, as the nation’s largest, by square footage. Both malls are owned by Triple Five Group. Next up for the company: a $4 billion megamall in Miami.
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Cover story “Everybody talks about the future of retail and the future of entertainment, and how you merge the two,” Don Ghermezian, president of Triple Five Group, said in October. “There really isn’t a center on the planet that has done it to the degree that we’ve done in here.” But even America’s most ambitious shopping center is not immune to industry turmoil. American Dream lost a key tenant this year when struggling department store chain Lord & Taylor pulled out of a 120,000-square-foot lease. It wasn’t long before Barneys New York swooped in as a replacement. But it filed for bankruptcy in August. It sold off assets and it is liquidating its Manhattan flagship, and now its future at the mall is uncertain. “Nobody is immune,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “The shopping mall as we know it is past its prime.”
Over at the soon-to-close Sears, everything had been picked through and marked down. Among the last items to remain were the headless mannequins in a far corner. “Available for sale!!!,” neon price tags said: $35 for a child-size mold or women’s legs, $45 for men’s torsos. Downstairs, shoppers shuffled through bathing suits and parkas marked 60 percent off. Treadmills were half off, while mattresses had been discounted 70 percent. “There is nothing here,” said Pam Davis, 70, who made weekly trips to Lakeforest Mall for years and had stopped in one last time to see if there was anything worth buying. “It’s like a graveyard.”
Zombie malls Malls were in trouble, retail experts say, long before the advent of online shopping. The nation’s first shopping center opened in Edina, Minn., in 1956. Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright was unimpressed, as it had “all the evils of the village street and none of its charm.” But Americans were mesmerized, and almost immediately developers began looking for new opportunities to build shopping destinations for captive consumers. What followed was hundreds of imitations, with sprawling layouts and the same national chains. “There was an explosion of one-level malls with four anchor stores, a dreary food court and a carousel in the middle,” said Nicholson of Syracuse. “Developers realized they could put a large, flat building in the middle of a field and quickly make money — so for decades, in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, that’s what they did.” The result, she said, was that “every mall looked the same, and there were way too many of them.” Developers built 750 U.S. malls from 1970 to 2000, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. By 2008, their numbers had swelled to 1,100 — many of them in rapid decline — as the United States was gripped by its worst recession in decades. Americans lost more than 8 million jobs, home values plummeted and stocks lost nearly half of their value. Consumers were pulling back, and when they did spend, it was increasingly online. “During the Great Recession, it became clear that there was no way all of these stores would survive,” said Cohen, of Columbia Business School. “Those closures have accelerated over the past decade, and now we’re left with hundreds of ‘zombie malls’ — properties that are still operating but are clomping around more dead than alive.” That, locals say, is certainly the case at Lakeforest Mall, which has been struggling for years. It was sold to U.S. Bank in a foreclosure
Workers are seen in the nearly completed water park at the newly opened American Dream mall in East Rutherford, N.J. But even the ambitious shopping center lost a key tenant this year when struggling department store chain Lord & Taylor pulled out of a 120,000-square-foot lease.
auction in 2017 and changed hands again this summer when South Carolina-based retail developer WRS paid $22.5 million for much of the sprawling property. The company plans to turn it into a mixed-use development. There are a few national chains left, including Aeropostale, Claire’s and Bath & Body Works, but mostly the mall has become a collection of mom-and-pop shops with names like French Perfumes, Magic Health Plus, Grace’s Place and Ronky Creative Hair Salon. At Free Style, a beauty supply store that sells $69.99 wigs and $2.99 foam rollers, employee Ahmad Kabir said sales have been declining for years. But J.C. Penney’s closure was the biggest blow yet. The store has posted losses every month since the department store closed, he said, forcing managers to cut back to two weekend employees, from three. “Three-fourths of our traffic is gone,” he said, adding that the store’s owner closed two other locations during the past recession. “Even on Fridays and Saturdays, our sales are poor now.” On the other end of the mall, Destini Robert, 20, snacked on a pretzel at Auntie Anne’s while watching her 3-year-old brother run around an indoor playscape. It was drizzling outside, and they had decided to come to the mall for the toddler’s haircut. “This mall has become the lowest of the low malls,” said Robert, who grew up visiting the mall’s Santa Claus and Easter Bunny as a child. “I have so many childhood memories here, but so many new places opened up and upgraded, and this one stayed the same.” Nearby, 90-year-old Norman Hein was finishing his daily walk around the mall. Much has changed, he said, in the 21 years he’s been shopping at Lakeforest. “Oh boy, it used to be busy,” said Hein, a retired music professor who has never bought anything online. “It’s all disappeared.”
Boutiques and pop-ups In suburban Washington, D.C., Tysons Corner Center started out much like Lakeforest Mall did, with a handful of anchor stores and a few dozen assorted storefronts. But over the past 51 years, the property has reinvented itself into a launchpad for bigname brands. Apple opened its first retail store at Tysons Corner Center, as did Microsoft and Spanx. The mall is brightly lit and modern, and its surroundings are constantly being updated, with landscaped sidewalks and a glass-enclosed walkway that connects shoppers to a newly added Metro stop. As it has grown, the shopping center has helped spawn a neighboring community of high-rise office buildings and $1.2 million condominiums. On a recent weekday morning, Tysons Corner Center was bustling with hundreds of visitors. Large red signs hawked photos with Santa and holiday cookie-decorating sessions. Freshly packed sushi made its way down a conveyor belt in a first-floor restaurant. There was free WiFi, and a valet service with while-you-shop carwashes, and hundreds of stores, including Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton and a newly opened 7-Eleven. But despite its reinvention, Tysons still isn’t fully immune to the problems afflicting malls: One of its anchors, Lord & Taylor, is closing in January. “It’s like a one-stop shop for everything I like: Nordstrom, Zara, Uniqlo and Nespresso,” said Jameela Hussain, 28, who lives nearby and frequents the mall four times a week. She prefers to shop on weekday mornings, she said, because it gets so busy on weekends “that sometimes you can’t even walk around this place.” Judi Raiken, 76, had stopped by in search of high-heel all-weather boots and fleece leggings. She meets her friends at the mall at least five days a week, she said, to walk and window-shop. “When I started shopping here 40 years ago, it was all sweatpants, mothers and strollers,” she said. “But now you’ve got all these boutiques and pop-ups, even a movie theater.” Plus, she added, there was one more attraction: “The restaurants here have happy hour.” n
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The CDC search for a vaping disease BY
L ENA H . S UN
cientists were ecstatic. The test results were in. For the first time, the lab team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had direct evidence that a chemical compound, vitamin E acetate, was a likely culprit in the disease that has sickened nearly 2,300 people and killed 47. Officials set a date to share the news. But as the lab team raced to test a last batch of lung fluid samples, the tool needed for the chemical analysis suddenly crashed. Scientists feared their precious samples would be destroyed. “My stomach dropped,” recalled Jim Pirkle, who oversees CDC’s chemical lab analyses. “Since we have limited volume [of fluid samples], it could mean we weren’t going to be able to analyze them.” The equipment failure in early November was one of countless challenges confronted by the more than 100 CDC scientists who have been working around the clock on the agency’s Chamblee campus in Atlanta, scrambling to create new investigative tools and techniques as they seek to prevent additional injuries and deaths from the vaping-related illness. The devastating lung illness was reported for the first time this summer among previously healthy young people in the Midwest, and then began popping up all over the country. Doctors thought it was linked to e-cigarettes, battery-powered devices that can look like flash drives or pens and mimic smoking by heating liquids containing nicotine or marijuana, among other substances. But the devices had been sold for more than a decade without reports of such a disease. Why was this happening now? Over the past three months, teams of scientists working to solve the mystery developed extensive lab tests and built a new data-collection system on the fly. They even relied on 3-D printers to manufacture custom parts so vaping devices could be fit into CDC’s special smoking machines,
Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post
More than 100 scientists worked around the clock to prevent more sickness and death enabling them to “puff ” on the devices to test the aerosols that are released. In many infectious disease outbreaks, disease detectives have some idea of the likely culprit, or at least a sense of how to approach the investigation. The challenge in this case was that no one had any idea what might be making so many people so sick. Even more daunting, federal and state health officials were dealing with a vast number of possible suspects that included several hundred e-cigarette or vaping devices and thousands, if not more, of e-liquids, many of which contain more than one ingredient. Supply chains for the vaping products also appear to vary state to state. “The level of difficulty on this one is probably a 9 out of 10,” said Pirkle, director of the laboratory science division at CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. Diagnosis of a new disease that presented itself in different ways was also confounding, said Peter
Briss, medical director at CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, who helped lead the investigation. Many patients had chest pain and shortness of breath. Others reported nausea and vomiting, or fever and chills. Among the earliest challenges was gathering data. The illnesses first appeared in Wisconsin and Illinois in July. When CDC got involved in August, officials had no idea how big or widespread the outbreak would become. The agency relied on a scaled-down version of a system used to track food-borne outbreaks, said Macarena Garcia, chief data scientist for the investigation. But as one state after another reported cases, she realized the system couldn’t be scaled up fast enough. Information from the states was also arriving in different formats, she said, making it hard for federal officials to quickly analyze the national picture. Data managers had to write code for every single state to
Polly Hergenreder and her son Adam, 18, look at pictures from his hospitalization for vaping-related lung disease in September.
transfer the information into the CDC system, she said. Even the questions states had asked patients were not uniform. For example, some asked them whether they vaped daily, weekly or monthly. Others asked if they vaped two to three times a day, or more than 50 times a day. While juggling incoming data, Garcia’s team had to create a separate, parallel system to collect the information, which took several weeks, she said. Lab tests turned out to be even more challenging. In early fall, New York’s Wadsworth Center laboratory and the Food and Drug Administration began analyzing vaping products collected from sick patients and found vitamin E acetate in those containing THC — the ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. But it was CDC’s analysis of lung fluid from sick patients that provided the first direct evidence of the oil as a common factor in their damaged lungs. Vitamin E acetate, an oil from the vitamin, is in many foods and nutritional supplements and cosmetics. It is also an additive used to dilute THC in black-market vape cartridges. The oil does not usually cause harm when swallowed as a supplement or applied to the skin. Pirkle described it as an “enormously sticky” substance like honey that clings to the inner lining of the lungs. When inhaled, research suggests that it may disrupt normal lung function. Developing reliable and accurate tests took time — about three weeks — because scientists wanted to ensure their methods were sensitive enough to detect the wide array of substances being investigated, said Eric Blank, chief program officer at the Association of Public Health Laboratories. By early November — more than three months after the first cases had been reported in Wisconsin — a team of 25 scientists had found vitamin E acetate in lung fluid from 19 patients. That in itself was remarkable, Pirkle said. More remarkable, the scientists found no evidence of other
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WORKPLACE chemicals or compounds on the list of possible suspects. The labor-intensive and meticulous process involved more than 1,000 measurements just to rule out many plant oils as culprits, he said. To buttress their case, the team sought to test 10 more samples. But the night before the analysis was to take place, a software failure crashed the chemical analysis tool, called a mass spectrometer. When he first heard the news, Pirkle thought his team was playing a joke on him. “No, it really crashed,’” he recalled being told. He was horrified. The scientists couldn’t afford to lose any samples — some of them so small they contained only about a dropper-and-a-half of liquid. “It was tense,” Pirkle said. The CDC had already begun writing a report detailing the findings. Deadline was less than 12 hours away. Technicians fixed the tool and the new samples provided even stronger confirmation. When the results came back positive for vitamin E acetate in those as well — now 29 out of 29 samples — team members were so tired that “we just went home,” Pirkle said. Two days later, Anne Schuchat, CDC’s principal deputy director, announced that vitamin E acetate was “a very strong culprit of concern” in the illnesses. The evidence, while not yet definitive, has helped public health experts better understand how the puzzle pieces might fit together. The findings reinforced official health warnings against using ecigarette and vaping products that contain THC, especially those bought off the street. But because a small population of sick patients insist that they used only nicotine-containing products, the CDC is maintaining its recommendation that consumers consider refraining from using all vaping and e-cigarette products, including those containing nicotine. Animal studies still need to be done to determine the mechanism by which vitamin E acetate might cause the harm seen in patients’ lungs. The National Institutes of Health has already issued a solicitation for such animal studies. Investigators are also trying to
Still productive in a 4-day workweek
find out what other toxins might be flowing into people’s lungs as they vape. Federal health officials have said the outbreak may have more than one cause. “It’s possible the harmful thing doesn’t even get produced until fluid is vaped” or heated, Pirkle said. To understand what other substances are being inhaled, CDC began testing aerosols from vaping devices linked to sick patients. The agency is relying on 13 special smoking machines used in the past to study toxic chemicals in conventional cigarettes. But the smoking machines have round holes, whereas many vaping devices have rectangular mouthpieces. So CDC scientists used 3-D printers to create “custom interfaces” to fit on the mouthpieces and connect them to the machines.
J ENA M C G REGOR
Mike Wren/New York State Department of Health
“You’re literally putting a square peg in a round hole,” Pirkle said. “We had to construct something to make airtight connections.” The machines puff at different voltages, and for different lengths of time, just like “all the things people do” when they’re vaping, he said. Scientists will analyze whether higher temperature and dosages make a difference. Filters will collect the aerosol and any lipid-containing droplets. “We’ll be looking to see if we get anything unusual,” Pirkle said. Most of the sick patients vaped multiple products, including those containing THC. “It could be that only one of the products causes disease and the others did not. But we don’t know which one, so we still have to analyze all of them.” Scientists hope to have “a good chunk” of results within about six weeks, he said. n
One of the more than 200 product samples New York’s Wadsworth Center laboratory received for testing as part of the state’s probe of vaping-related illnesses.
icrosoft launched a four-day workweek experiment earlier this year in one of the most unlikely places: Japan. But in a country known for its culture of extreme overwork, the shorter week had a big boost on productivity, the company’s business unit said in a post on its website. The test run gave employees five consecutive Fridays off, boosted sales per employee by 40 percent, compared with the same month a year earlier, according to the post. The number of pages printed in the office fell by 59 percent, electricity consumption dropped 23 percent, and 94 percent of employees were satisfied with the program. The month-long test, completed in August, was billed as being part of a “work life choice” strategy aimed at helping employees work more flexibly — and comes amid ongoing labor reforms throughout the country. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has introduced caps on overtime hours and raised incomes on part-time and temporary workers as part of his labor practice reforms, which have been contentious at times. But it is also the latest example of a growing global movement to experiment with the concept of a four-day workweek as tight labor market conditions continue, technology offers increased flexibility, and reports proliferate that some workplaces have seen beneficial results from working four days and then being off for three. Some smaller companies that have tried the idea cheer its benefits — including greater work-life balance and more employee productivity — but they have also said it can lead to workers pushing the limits on long weekend scheduling and result in more pressure-filled days when people are on the job. Some observers have warned the push could cut workers’ pay, hurt competitiveness and that a “nudge”
toward reducing hours rather than legislating a cap is more desirable. So far, according to a July report in The Washington Post, the idea has not gotten much traction from the American labor movement. At that time, The Post reported, none of the 2020 Democratic president candidates had embraced the four-day workweek, even though they have backed other ambitious ideas, such as universal basic income or a federal jobs guarantee. At Microsoft Japan, the Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer project gave employees special paid leave, closing offices for each Friday in August. The idea was to promote more efficient work in less time, urging workers to “work in a short time, take a rest, and learn well” to improve productivity and creativity, according to a translated version of a company post on its website. The program urged employees to limit meetings to 30 minutes and make “full use of Microsoft’s collaboration tool, ‘Microsoft Teams,’ ” holding more informal chats or online meetings rather than face-to-face sit downs. Ninety-four percent of employees said they were satisfied with the program. The website post said it will have another Work Life Choice Challenge in the winter, but it will not give employees special paid leave. Instead, it will encourage them to independently work more flexibly and use shorter meetings and collaboration tools, as well as use their paid vacations and year-end holidays. In a statement, the company said: “Microsoft Japan’s ‘Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer’ was a pilot project. At Microsoft, we care deeply about our employees’ experience. In the spirit of a growth mindset, we are always looking for new ways to innovate and leverage our own technology to improve the experience for our employees around the globe.” n
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Why adults need to be Mister Rogers’s neighbor Martha Manning is a writer and clinical psychologist whose books include “Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface” and “The Common Thread: Mothers, Daughters, and the Power of Empathy.”
I used to hate Mister Rogers. You could fit an entire script for an episode on an index card because nothing happened. Fred Rogers opened the door and immediately changed his clothes. While he talked, he took his somewhat ratty sweater from his fake closet and slowly put it on. For some reason, he had to change from his regular shoes into sneakers, though there was no significant physical activity on the show. ¶ He had puppets that looked like my grandmother made them, and he made negligible efforts to disguise his own voice when they “spoke.” He sang songs that I swear he made up on the spot, such as, “You are my friend, I like you, you are my friend, you have such good ideas.” “Fred,” I would yell silently as I watched his show with my daughter, “You need to speed things up.” “I’m losing my mind here.” “I’ve got stuff to do.” “Talk faster. Don’t leave those long pauses where people are supposed to answer your questions or reflect on your ideas.” “Put some flash into the ‘Neighborhood.’ ” “It’s boring.” “And, for God’s sake, stop looking into the camera like you’re peering into the eyes of your viewers. You’ve got my kid hypnotized.” He talked about feelings, about kindness, about differences among people, about anger and abandonment. He talked about isolation and pain. And then, mercifully, he changed back into his jacket. He slowly pulled off his sneakers one at a blasted time and replaced them with his shoes. The signal of my impending liberation was his closing song, “It’s Such a Good Feeling.” My daughter insisted I sing along. And as the credits rolled, she did the very same thing every day. She sighed. A sigh of quiet contentment that I
couldn’t understand. But then I suffered a depression. Suddenly, watching TV with my daughter was one thing I could accomplish with little effort. Mister Rogers started talking to me. He spoke slowly and softly. He left spaces to think. He soothed me with his unflappable manner. When life was hard, he said so. He never promised magic. Sometimes things happened that were terrible. Maybe it wouldn’t get better. He grappled aloud with that distressing reality. He banished blame and relieved the burdens of children who took the weight of the world on themselves. Mister Rogers spoke to the terrified, lost child in me: “People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years,” he said, “And all it has ever meant is ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings’ . . . I’d rather have them say: ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.’ ” As I lost my footing even more, it was beginning to show at work and at home. I’d never
GENE J. PUSKAR/Associated Press
Fred Rogers pauses during a 1993 taping of his show in Pittsburgh. His message to children was lost on many parents.
been in situations where I so consistently failed to meet my goals. And when I missed the mark, I was so much kinder to my family, my friends, my students and my patients than myself. But Mister Rogers said, “Some days, doing ‘the best we can’ may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect on any front — and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.” Mister Rogers gave comfort. He didn’t sell it. He didn’t knock us over the head with it. It wasn’t cool or sexy or easy. He considered the space between the television set and the viewer to be “sacred,” something millions of children understood — and that their parents forgot. That’s a shame, because we were the ones who needed Mister Rogers’s wisdom most of
all. The big words, long explanations and instructions about how to be and what to do that we favored often gave us little solace. Instead, we needed an honest voice who considered the darkness and met it with hope, who recognized selfhatred and met it with compassion. As a child, Mister Rogers became extremely frightened by something on the news and wondered how he would ever be safe. His mother gave him simple but profound advice. “Always look for the helpers,” she told him, with the quiet certainty that they could always be found. Who are the helpers right here, right now, in our troubled lives? I wept the day Fred Rogers died. And I will always answer a solid “yes,” when he reaches out past the knobs and the wires and screen and asks, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” n
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Trump rashly crosses another line David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist.
President Trump’s attempt to manipulate military justice had a sorry outcome with the firing of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer. For the past nine months, Spencer had tried to dissuade Trump from dictating special treatment for Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher — but in the end Spencer was sacked for his efforts to protect his service. With Spencer’s firing, Trump has recklessly crossed a line he had generally observed before, which had exempted the military from his belligerent, government-by-tweet interference. But the Gallagher case illustrates how an irascible, vengeful commander in chief is ready to override traditional limits to aid political allies in foreign policy, law enforcement and now military matters. Spencer was fired by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper last month, supposedly because Esper was “deeply troubled” that Spencer had tried to work out a private deal with the White House that would avoid a direct presidential order scuttling a scheduled SEAL peer-review process. That panel was set to determine whether Gallagher would keep his coveted Trident pin, marking him as a SEAL, after he was convicted in July for posing in a trophy photo with the
corpse of an Islamic State captive. Spencer had tried to find a compromise, sources tell me, after Trump tweeted Thursday, “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” Spencer feared that a direct order from Trump to protect Gallagher, who is represented by two former partners of Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, would be seen as subverting military justice. After that Trump tweet, Spencer cautioned acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney that he would not overturn the planned SEAL peer review of Gallagher without a direct presidential order; he privately told associates that if such an order came, he might resign rather than carry it out. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with the White House to try to avert this collision.
Milley’s de-escalation efforts initially appeared to be successful. But the truce was short-lived. “The president wants you to go,” Esper told Spencer last weekend, according to a source close to Spencer. Esper then toed the White House line and announced Spencer’s dismissal. For Pentagon officials who have wondered whether Esper would have the backbone to resist Trump, these events were troubling. The Pentagon, like the State Department under Mike Pompeo, is now overseen by an official whose overriding priority seems to be accommodating an impetuous boss in the White House. Spencer’s letter to Trump, acknowledging his “termination,” echoed that of former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned last December because of similar concerns about Trump’s unwise intervention in military and national security decisions. “As Secretary of the Navy, one of the most important responsibilities I have to our people is to maintain good order and discipline, throughout the ranks. I regard this as deadly serious business,” Spencer wrote. “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries.”
For Navy commanders who have worried about eroding discipline in a SEAL force that’s lionized in movies and television, and protected by presidential diktat,Spencer’s most ominous line was: “I no longer share the same understanding with the commander in chief who appointed me, in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline.” Trump began lobbying Spencer to exempt Gallagher from Navy discipline back in March, when he ordered the Navy secretary to release Gallagher from the brig and give him more comfortable quarters. Presidential pressure has been relentless, ever since. While Gallagher is celebrated on Fox News, current and former senior officers of the SEALs and other elite units told me recently that his case has little support within the community of Special Operations forces. One former SEAL commander noted that maintaining discipline among these elite units is so important that the SEAL peer-review panels have removed more than 150 Trident pins since 2011, or more than one a month. That’s the process of internal accountability that Spencer was trying to defend, and that Trump sabotaged n
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