Natural Disasters and Weather

Astronaut Gene Cernan was the last man on the moon – and ‘he wasn’t happy about that’

January 17, 2017

Armstrong was the first to do so. Cernan, in 1972, was the last.

So when the Obama administration canceled the Constellation program, which sought to once again place humankind on the moon, the astronauts who represented the bookends of the Space Race felt it was their duty to defend the boundless possibilities of celestial exploration.

Cernan said the program had been replaced by a “mission to nowhere,” reported AFP at the time, and that “we are on a path to decay.”

“We are seeing the book close on five decades of accomplishment as the leader in human space exploration,” Cernan testified before Congress.

“Neil and I aren’t going to see those next young Americans who walk on the moon. And God help us if they’re not Americans,” he said. “When I leave this planet, I want to know where we are headed as a nation. That’s my big goal.”

A year later, Armstrong died. On Monday, so did Cernan.

He was 82.

Not just during his numerous advocacy trips to Washington, but through his autobiography, a 2016 documentary film and in recorded interviews, Cernan spent his life challenging young people to eclipse his NASA legacy and put fresh footprints on the moon.

He died without knowing for certain when – or if – that will happen.

Cernan had famously predicted that, after the moon, man would be on Mars by the end of the 20th century. NASA says they won’t meet that goal for more than another decade, a long delay in progress that became a point of consternation for the last person to set foot on the lunar surface.

For scientists and advocates of space exploration, Cernan’s death forced moments of reflection on the state of NASA and American ambition to discover what lies beyond Earth’s orbit.

“With Gene Cernan’s passing we are reminded (and hopefully embarrassed) how very, very long it has been since humans have left Earth orbit,” Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, wrote on Twitter, along with a link to his story about Cernan, titled “The passing of Gene Cernan reminds us how far we haven’t come.”

Astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil DeGrasse Tyson weighed in as well.

“In 1927 Lindbergh flew from NY to Paris. 45 yrs later, in 1972 we last walked on the Moon,” Tyson wrote on Twitter. “45 yrs later, in 2017 we. . . we. . . we. . .”

The critiques come at a time of decreased funding for America’s space initiatives. In Cernan’s and Armstrong’s day, five percent of the federal budget was dedicated to NASA. Now, it receives less than 0.5 percent. Even so, the agency invested 30 years in the space shuttle program, helped build the International Space Station, launched efforts to further study asteroids and put a rover on Mars.

All that didn’t satisfy Cernan, though, who wanted more from NASA, and faster.

Cernan’s death, from ongoing health issues, comes just six weeks after the passing of another space hero, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, and a health scare from Buzz Aldrin, who landed on the moon with Armstrong and was the second man to walk it.

And of the dozen American men who walked on the moon during the Apollo era, from 1961 to 1972, only six are still living, reported the Associated Press.

The sense of profound loss that has thus far accompanied the passing of these astronauts is not just for the deaths of brave men turned American heroes, but for the Kennedy-era American exceptionalism that inspired the Greatest Generation to land on the moon in the first place.

It was a concept Cernan spoke of often, and one that motivated him to desperately shed his designation as “The Last Man on the Moon.”

He wrote an autobiography under that title in 1999, and closed the book with a passionate plea.

“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon,” he wrote. “I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.”

Nearly 20 years later, in his final years, Cernan continued that fight.

“Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space,” Cernan’s family wrote in a statement, “and encouraged our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon.”

In a tribute to his old friend, Aldrin wrote that “Gene was probably the strongest spokesman for lunar travel and advocating a return to the moon.”

He was the last man there, Aldrin wrote, and “he wasn’t happy about that.”

“With the passing of the First Man – Neil Armstrong, and the passing of the Last Man – Gene Cernan, it is up to us Middle Men to carry on (the) spirit of Apollo into the future for our Nation and the world,” Aldrin wrote in the tribute.

How that “spirit of Apollo” translates to today’s ambitions for space travel, which lean heavily on the use of robots, remains a point of contention among American scientists and leaders. Some argue that technological developments have created a safer way to explore space until the time is right to send humans beyond Earth’s orbit, which will perhaps happen in the 2030s when NASA hopes to put astronauts on Mars.

But others, like Cernan, were persistent in distinguishing the excitement stemming from putting robots versus people into space.

“There is a difference between a space program that takes you to 300 miles away from your home planet and another one that sets you out on a voyage a quarter million miles away,” he said during an interview with NASA in 1991. “There are significant differences, both technologically and philosophically. And, quite frankly, I’m a little disappointed in us, at this time, to know that we’re really not much further along than we were back then.”

Nearly 20 years later, when he testified to Congress in 2010, Cernan implored the lawmakers to be “bold, innovative and wise in how we invest in the future of America.”

“Curiosity is the essence of human existence. Who are we? Where are we? What do we come from? Where are we going? Was there life on Mars? Is Mars like Earth is going to look in a billion years? Are we what Mars looked like a billion years ago. I don’t know. I don’t have any answers to those questions. I don’t know what’s over there and around the corner. But I want to find out.”

Even in his final words on the moon in 1972, after he’d planted an American flag there and carved the initials of his daughter in the dust, Cernan spoke with that same urgency.

“As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record,” Cernan said. “That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler



D.C. Guard general’s exit is disputed

January 15, 2017

Maj. Gen. Errol Schwartz told The Washington Post on Friday that he will be removed from his post immediately after Trump is sworn in as president. That irked at least one D.C. Council member because Schwartz will have to abandon his post during one of the Guard’s most important operations, helping maintain security and order during Washington’s highest-profile event.

As is customary for presidential appointees, Schwartz had offered his resignation after Trump was elected. In an interview Friday, Schwartz said he learned he would be replaced on Jan. 20. He said the transition team ultimately asked him to stay in the job for a few additional days, but only after the report of his departure had been published Friday on The Washington Post website.

Schwartz said he turned down the transition team’s offer because, by then, he had begun packing up his office and notified his staff. He said he believes the offer came only as a result of the negative attention his departure attracted.

He declined to comment further.

Transition officials for the new administration on Friday said the team asked Schwartz to stay on through the inauguration to maintain continuity. They did not immediately respond Saturday to questions about when and how that offer was extended.

Military officials on Saturday backtracked from earlier statements indicating that Schwartz had not been asked to stay on by the new administration. One said he learned he had been mistaken, and that additional paperwork that became available Saturday showed that the transition team had in fact asked Schwartz to maintain his command for several days into the new presidency. That official did not know when that offer was made.

Another senior military official said he believed the offer came before Friday.

Maj. Byron Coward, a spokesman for the D.C. National Guard, also said the offer from the transition team to Schwartz came Friday afternoon. He said Trump transition officials asked Schwartz to stay on an additional three days. Coward said that was the first time Schwartz had any notion that the transition team wanted him to stay in command throughout the inauguration.

On the morning of the inauguration, Schwartz will command not only members of the D.C. Guard but also 5,000 unarmed troops dispatched from across the country to help.

Brig. Gen. William J. Walker, who also has been involved with inauguration planning, has been named Schwartz’s interim replacement. He will take command on Friday at 12:01 p.m.

That moment, when the new president is sworn in, is the standard time for many political appointees to step out of their jobs as a new administration takes over.

Unlike in states, where the governor appoints the National Guard commander, in the District that duty falls to the president.

Schwartz, who was appointed to head the Guard by President George W. Bush in 2008, maintained the position through President Barack Obama’s two terms.

Schwartz began his military career in 1976 by enlisting in the Guard, formally called the Militia of the District of Columbia National Guard. He also oversees the Air National Guard, which combined with the Army Guard has an authorized strength of 2,700. He has served in several leadership positions, notably commanding the 372nd Military Police Battalion.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Peter Hermann, Dan Lamothe

Image: Stars and Stripes

Donald Trump, Election 2016, Politics

Sharpton’s march calls for unity to face Trump

January 15, 2017

The rally, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network, was sparked by concerns about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on civil rights issues. Holding umbrellas in 30-degree temperatures, marchers stretched three city blocks as they progressed down Independence Avenue as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend celebration. “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” they shouted, along with chants of “No justice, no peace!”

Dozens of speakers rallied attendees to focus attention on issues affecting African-Americans, who made up the majority of the demonstrators. Topics included protecting voting rights, supporting affordable health care and working against mass incarceration and police brutality. But other speakers – including various Hispanic elected leaders, white labor-union officials and representatives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community – also called for unity among the groups in pushing for more affordable housing and supporting immigrants, labor unions, gay rights and equal pay for women.

Holding the rally a week before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, organizers said, was intended to send a message to the incoming president and his administration, as well as to members of Congress, that the various groups plan to unify in the coming months and years to push for those causes.

“We can’t be divided. They are coming after all of these issues. We have to be as one, together,” shouted the Rev. Shane Harris, founder of the San Diego chapter of the National Action Network.

The march was entitled “We Shall Not Be Moved” after the Negro spiritual that became a civil rights folk song during the 1960s. Before the march began, Sharpton stood on a stage at the base of the Washington Monument in the shadow of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sharpton said that given dreary weather forecasts, rally organizers initially thought about canceling the march but decided to press on. “We are not fair-weather activists. We march in snow and the rain,” he said.

Sharpton joked that the weather forced him to wear a hat that covered his trademark salt-and-pepper locks. “I put on a hat and covered up my hair, something I haven’t done in a long time,” he said as the crowd cheered.

Sharpton said the rally was the first of what he called “house calls” to members of Congress in the next several days and weeks, mentioning visits on Capitol Hill following confirmation hearings.

“This is not a parade. This is a house call,” Sharpton said. “We come not to appeal to Donald Trump, because he’s made it clear what his policies are and what his nominations are. We come to say to the Democrats in the Senate and in the House and to the moderate Republicans to ‘Get some backbone. Get some guts. We didn’t send you down here to be weak-kneed.’ ”

One speaker elicited boos from the crowd during the rally, which lasted more than four hours. Lenora Fulani, who ran for president in 1988 and 1992 as a third-party candidate, told the crowd she did not vote in the presidential election out of disagreement with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“More than a million African-Americans chose not to vote this year, because we remembered how the Clinton administration affected black households with mass incarceration and the decline of the middle class. So there was a significant drop in voting among African-Americans,” Fulani said.

Many in the crowd said they were angered by Fulani’s comments. “I am outraged. We are out here because so many people like her decided to stay home [on Election Day],” said Mary Williams, 56, an attorney in the District of Columbia.

Several marchers began shouting “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” as the stage was taken by Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager shot to death in 2012. She was joined by Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died during a police arrest in 2014 in New York. The women called for police reform. “When my child was shot down, it caused me to stand up. We need to look after young people,” Fulton said.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) told the crowd that the nation was looking to Washington as an example. She also used the rally to champion statehood. “We are committed to justice and equality,” she told the crowd.

Several speakers tried to encourage those upset by the Trump election to use their anger as motivation.

“If you’re in the bed and depressed over the election, get out of that bed and do something,” said attorney Barbara Arnwine, founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition. “We got to fight. In four years, we will have another president. The people’s president, not no Russian lackey.”

Attendees from California, Arizona, New York and North Carolina flew, drove or came by bus. The only bright colors piercing the gray day were on umbrellas and hats – shades of blue, purple and pink marchers wore to represent their historically black fraternities and sororities.

The march was not the only demonstration to draw crowds to the nation’s capital Saturday. Thousands more gathered inside the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church downtown for the separate “We Are Here to Stay” rally in support of undocumented immigrants.

About 2,500 people packed the church where Frederick Douglass once urged his audience to “recognize that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest.”

More than a century later, the scene was at once festive and fearful. A mix of immigrants, activists and union members chanted, waved signs and sang folk songs in English and Spanish. The Howard Gospel Choir of Howard University sang, and a Latin band accompanied dancers twirling batons.

Several undocumented immigrants took the stage and vowed to defy Trump, who, as a candidate, pledged to deport the more than 11 million people in the country illegally. “I’m undocumented, unapologetic, unafraid, and I’m here to stay,” said Max Kim, 19, a Korean immigrant from Annandale, Virginia.

“We are not going to let Donald Trump or anyone else turn back the clock on social justice in the United States of America,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

Many in attendance, however, felt anxiety about the next four years.

“My son is afraid his parents are going to be taken away from him,” said Lourdes Ortega, 27, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who lives in Baltimore. Under Obama, Ortega came forward to apply for deferred action from deportation – something that now could be used against her by a Trump administration.

“I don’t believe he will deport all of us,” she said of the president-elect. “But he could.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Keith L. Alexander, Michael E. Miller

Image: Washington Post


With days left in office, Obama ushers in dozens of policies. But will they stay seated?

January 15, 2017

Officials even made time, after years of lobbying, to add the rusty patched bumble bee to the list of endangered species.

In the final days before President Obama leaves office, administration officials are rushing to complete dozens of tasks that will affect millions of lives and solidify the president’s imprint on history. But in many cases, their permanence is uncertain, and President-elect Donald Trump is already pledging to undo some of them after taking office.

“He is clearly using executive power aggressively and trying to do as much as possible in his final days,” Princeton history and public affairs professor Julian Zelizer said in an email. “It is clear that a president who was once reluctant to use the power of his own office has changed his heart, especially now that he sees a radically conservative Congress and Republican president-elect are getting ready to dismantle much of what he has done.”

On Thursday alone, the administration designated three new national monuments and expanded another two in sites ranging from a forest in the Pacific Northwest to a school for freed slaves in South Carolina; took away one of the special immigration privileges Cubans arriving in the United States without visas have enjoyed for 50 years; announced sanctions designations against 18 senior Syrian officials for their role in the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in 2014 and 2015; awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Vice President Joe Biden; and accused Fiat Chrysler of cheating on national emission standards for some of its diesel trucks.

For weeks, congressional Republicans and members of the Trump transition team have questioned why the White House is pressing ahead given that the GOP will control both the executive and legislative branch for at least the next two years.

On Dec. 5, 23 GOP senators wrote Obama a letter asking that his administration “cease issuing new, nonemergency rules and regulations given the recent election results of November 8.”

“It is our job now to determine the right balance between regulation and free market principles and make sure that our federal government no longer stands between Americans and financial success,” they wrote.

Many departments have also accelerated hiring in recent weeks, hoping to bring on as many employees as possible in case Trump proceeds with a planned freeze for federal employees. On Tuesday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wrote the heads of 18 agencies, asking them to provide details on their current hiring practices.

Both Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence have vowed to reverse some of Obama’s key policies as soon as they take office. But it will be nearly impossible to erase all of them in the months and years ahead, and to achieve the maximum impact, Trump will have to accept new limits on his own power.

The Obama administration’s race toward the finish line isn’t completely out of the ordinary. Last-minute regulatory actions also spiked in 2008 and in 2000, said Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy at the conservative American Action Forum, which has long been tracking White House regulations.

But since Oct. 1, Obama has finalized as many economically significant rules – ones with an estimated economic impact of at least $100 million – as George W. Bush did in his final four months in office.

“We find routinely that politics influences things, and this is just a manifestation of it,” Batkins said. “We see how politics can bend these levers of policy.”

More broadly, Obama has finalized at least 571 major rules while in office, nearly 62 percent more than Bush did during his two terms. And half of the major rules the White House Office of Management and Budget reviewed during the first five-and-a-half years of the administration had an economic impact of at least $1 billion, said Daniel Pérez, a policy analyst at the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University.

The tempo of federal regulation can work both ways, Batkins noted. While the Obama administration has been feverishly publishing new regulations in the wake of November’s election, the same White House wasn’t so eager to produce new regulations in the run-up to Obama’s reelection in 2012. That October, by Batkins’s count, just four rules came out of the White House.

The president and his aides have been unapologetic about the burst of new policies in recent weeks.

“The administration has made a concerted effort to complete important work that was started months or even years ago,” said White House spokesman Patrick Rodenbush in an email, adding that when it comes to its most recent rules, “we have followed the same rigorous practices and principles used to develop and review regulations that have been upheld throughout the entirety of this administration and previous administrations.”

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who did not brief members of Trump’s transition team before announcing Monday that the Federal Housing Authority would cut interest rates, told reporters that he had “no reason to believe this will be scaled back,” adding that the change”offers a good benefit to hard-working American families out there at a time when interest rates might well continue to go up.”

But Ben Carson, whom Trump nominated to succeed Castro, told lawmakers Thursday he was “surprised to see something of this nature being done on the way out the door, which of course has a profound effect.”

“Certainly, if confirmed I’m going to work with the FHA administrator and other experts to examine that policy,” Carson said.

The White House’s sense of urgency is probably well founded, given Trump’s commitment to try to roll back the policies of the Obama era. And Obama took much the same approach after assuming office in 2009, essentially halting former president George W. Bush’s pending regulations.

In a letter on Jan. 20, 2009, then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel wrote to the heads of every federal agency, ordering them to halt any regulations that had yet to be published in the Federal Register and to consider a 60-day extension of the effective date of regulations that had not yet taken effect.

“It is important that President Obama’s appointees and designees have the opportunity to approve and review any new or pending regulations,” Emanuel wrote at the time.

Such an approach today would effectively freeze an array of Obama policies, including five new Energy Department efficiency standards issued Dec. 28 affecting portable air conditioners, swimming pool pumps, walk-in coolers and freezers, commercial boilers and uninterruptible power supplies. The agency estimates the standards will save U.S. consumers between $15 billion and $35 billion over time, but only one of them is published in the Federal Register so far.

Congressional Republicans are hoping to go further, having passed legislation Jan. 4 that would allow lawmakers to overturn any rule finalized in the last 60 legislative days of Obama’s tenure in a single vote, rather than taking them up individually. The White House has pledged to veto the bill, called the Midnight Rule Relief Act, but given that the Senate is not slated to take it up until after Inauguration Day, it could ultimately come to Trump’s desk for his signature.

Still, it is unclear whether the new president will sign it. Pérez noted that the 1996 Congressional Review Act, which is what allows Congress to reverse a rule within 60 legislative days of its enactment, prohibits agencies from issuing a “substantially similar” rule once it is overturned.

“The Trump administration may very well have different policy preferences for any given area of regulation,” he said in an email, “but disapproval via the [Congressional Review Act] would limit the Executive’s power to implement its own regulatory agenda for any given issue-area.”

On Friday, the Obama administration showed no signs of slowing down.

It filed a defense brief in a lawsuit brought by states over regulation of the nation’s rivers and streams, defied industry opposition by publishing a rule intended to keep first responders safer after a deadly 2013 fertilizer facility explosion in Texas, took steps to lift decades-old financial sanctions against Sudan and finalized regulations aimed at cracking down on the inhumane treatment of show horses.

But even as Obama was churning out his final actions, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill were taking a first step toward repealing the president’s signature health care law, starting to erase his legacy even before his time in office ends.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis

Image: CNN


Obama: Wet foot, dry foot, wrong foot

January 15, 2017

The logic is easy to follow: If relations have been normalized between the United States and Cuba, why should those Cubans who arrive here in rafts be treated any differently from other migrants? Why should Cuban doctors working as indentured servants abroad be allowed to claim refugee status when they manage to reach a U.S. Embassy?

After all, if Obama and Castro can enjoy a baseball game together, laugh and do the wave together, can Cuba be really any different from any other normal country?

For all practical purposes, wet foot, dry foot became an anachronism on Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama announced his new Cuba policy. On that day, regarding Cubans as victims of repression became an anachronism, too. For Obama declared to the world that the Castro government was not so different from those of Canada, France or Andorra.

Oh, yes, there was a wee problem with human rights in Cuba, Obama said, but that was inconsequential, because his new policy of friendship with the most brutal dictatorship in the Western hemisphere would change all that, eventually. Castro would come to see the error of his ways once U.S. tourists began flocking to Cuba. Or maybe one of Castro’s successors would be the one to ease up on the repression. The who and when didn’t really matter to Obama. Eventually was good enough for him.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, Obama’s policy created a panic. Many Cubans were smart enough to grasp the twofold significance of Obama’s embrace of the Castro government: First, how this new support from the United States could prolong the life of the Castro regime indefinitely and allow it to rule despotically; and second, how Cubans would no longer continue to be viewed by the United States as an oppressed people.

Those Cubans were right, of course. Since Dec. 17, 2014, repression has increased in Cuba. Secure in the support of the United States, the government has clamped down on freedom of expression, increased arrests and dismantled much of the “cuentapropista” (self-employed) experiment that was supposed to transform and improve the Cuban economy.

Now comes the second repercussion feared by Cubans: Obama strips them of their refugee status just as he heads out the White House door. The Castro government is normal; no more special treatment for Cubans. Cubans are no different from Haitians, or Mexicans or any other migrants. End of story.

Many of those who saw this change coming hurried out in record numbers. The spike in crude vessels full of Cubans intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard has been huge, as has the increase in those crossing the border through Mexico.

With strokes of his pen, Obama has not only stripped Cuban boat people of their refugee status but also left behind a radioactive stink bomb as a gift for his successor.

Obama’s undoing of wet foot, dry foot could be quickly reversed by President Donald Trump. Like almost every other aspect of Obama’s Cuba policy, this change in the law has taken place through executive order. Congress has been ignored, and so have some laws, especially the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (the Torricelli Law) and the Cuban Liberty and Democracy Solidarity Act of 1996 (the Helms-Burton Act).

But consider the traps Obama has set for Trump. If Trump does nothing, he implicitly condones the notion that Cubans are not the victims of a repressive regime. This could anger many of his supporters. If Trump reverses Obama’s policy, he implicitly links the issues of human rights abuses and immigration. If Cubans can be refugees deserving of special protections, why not Syrians? Why is Trump cherry-picking his victims of repression? This could create a firestorm of controversy and anger some of his supporters, too.

Obama has achieved two ends here. First, he has completed the utter betrayal of the Cuban people – a legacy move set in motion two years ago. Second, he has burdened Trump with a no-win situation with the potential to seriously tarnish or weaken his presidency right from the start.

So this parting shot from Obama should come as no surprise. It’s entirely consistent with both his admiration of the Castro regime and his loathing for the tycoon who is taking his place in the Oval Office.

(c) 2017, Special to The Washington Post · Carlos Eire

Image: Washington Post


A 12-year-old girl live-streamed her suicide; Facebook took 2 weeks to take video down

January 15, 2017

The video immediately appeared on various sites, including Facebook and YouTube, both of which have since made efforts to remove the footage. YouTube took the video down, saying it violated the website’s policy on violent or graphic content.

But, according to media reports, the video lingered on Facebook for nearly two weeks before the social media giant started removing versions of the footage from its pages.

By then, people as far away as the United Kingdom have seen it.

Katelyn Nicole Davis, of Polk County, Ga., died Dec. 30, broadcasting her suicide using a streaming app called The 40-minute live stream showed the girl saying she had been sexually abused by a family member, according to BuzzFeed. Later, Davis, wearing a white, long-sleeved blouse, can be seen tying a rope to a tree outside her family’s house. She apologizes as she looks toward the camera, according to Quartz, and then steps off her foothold.

The girl’s death underscores the slippery slope entailed in providing a platform people can use to share their lives publicly in real time. Last July, Facebook acknowledged that while live video can be a powerful tool to document events, sharing – and allowing – videos on the platform has to be done responsibly. But what has often surfaced is jarring and, sometimes, graphic content.

Most recently, a group of four people used Facebook Live to broadcast themselves torturing and taunting a mentally disabled teenager. Last August, law enforcement officials successfully petitioned Facebook to disable the social-media accounts of Korryn Gaines, who was live-streaming her armed standoff with Baltimore County police.

In October, the social media giant announced that it will begin considering the newsworthiness and public interest of difficult or graphic content before censoring it – even when it violates the site’s rules. According to its policy, Facebook does not allow self-injury or suicide.

In Davis’ case, the original video was not hosted by Facebook. Versions of the video that were later circulated on Facebook included a “graphic video” warning in the beginning.

Shortly after Davis’ death, Polk County Police Chief Kenny Dodd told Fox 5 that the police department had been flooded with outraged messages, emails and phone calls from people – including some from Britain – demanding that the video be taken down. Dodd told Fox 5 that he has contacted several websites that posted the footage but that there’s not much else he can do to keep it from spreading further.

“We want it down as much as anyone, for the family, and it maybe harmful to other kids. We contacted some of the sites. They asked if they had to take it down, and by law they don’t. But it’s just the common decent thing to do in my opinion,” Dodd told Fox 5.

In a statement Monday, the police department asked anyone who has knowledge of the video to keep it “off of the Internet.”

A representative of told BuzzFeed that the girl’s account and video were removed as soon as the company was alerted.

“We understand that users had begun circulating footage of the tragedy before our support team had been able to respond, and we are actively working to track down those videos and have them removed from Facebook and other video-sharing sites,” the representative said.

Edited versions of the footage that don’t show the girl’s death remain on YouTube on Saturday.

A memorial account called Justice for Katelyn Nicole Davis has been created and has so far garnered more than 7,000 followers.

No arrests have been made in connection with the sexual assault accusation. A criminal investigation is continuing.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Kristine Guerra


Frustrations rise in Damascus as water pipes run dry

January 15, 2017

First it was the price of food, which has risen steadily over the years as the fighting spread to nearby farmlands. Then came daily blackouts, affecting poor areas disproportionately and leaving most reliant on generators.

But for many in Damascus, the loss of drinking water last month was hardest to take, underscoring as it did the government’s fragile hold on its most important resources as the more than five-year-old war turns in its favor.

Three weeks into the crisis, officials said this weekend that repairs have begun on the facility that provided most of the capital’s water before it was damaged in heavy fighting in late December. But activists reported renewed government shelling on the area Sunday that left 12 people dead and is threatening the progress of repairs.

According to the United Nations, at least 4 million people in and around Damascus are now cut off from the water grid after “deliberate targeting resulting in the damaged infrastructure. ”

Photographs shared on social media from the Damascus suburbs show residents crowding around water trucks. Many have gone from near-daily showers to weekly baths – sometimes in public parks – and doctors say gastric illnesses are on the rise among children and the elderly sickened by unclean food and dishes.

For Terez, 40, whose accessories business closed after the economy plunged, it means worrying, about “everything.”

“The stresses are accelerating,” she said, speaking by phone from Damascus. She spoke on the condition that her family name not be used, to avoid government repercussions. “I have to worry about how to manage our water supply. I have to worry about charging my phone when we have electricity. I even have to worry about doing all the housework in the few hours before the power goes out.”

Most people still living in Syria are in areas held by the Assad government and its allies.

Although two recent suicide attacks have revived fears that insurgent bombings will resume in Damascus, the area is largely free of rebel shelling for the first time in years. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have crushed most of the province’s armed opposition.

All sides in Syria’s war have fought hard to control resources that will help them govern.

An informal agreement with rebel groups in the valley of Wadi Barada left a key spring there functioning for years, but it was badly damaged last month when pro-government forced attempted to wrest back control of the facility.

Syrian officials accused the rebels of causing the damage. Local residents said it was the government, claiming Syrian army helicopters had dropped barrel bombs on the main Ain al-Fijah water facility, leaving its pumping system out of service.

The progress of repairs was unclear Sunday, as activists in Wadi Barada and with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said government shelling had killed at least 12 displaced people taking shelter in a nearby banquet hall.

As the crisis builds, Damascus authorities have issued strict regulations on remaining water stocks, mostly from boreholes or distributed by private trucks – leaving families with only a few hours of access every two or three days.

Those with money have turned to private distributors, a system in which neither price nor quality are regulated.

Others have turned to DIY. Rain is collected in pots, pans and even satellite dishes. In a video posted to Facebook last week, a woman is seen washing dishes with a faucet fashioned from a bottle. “We Syrians, we always have a way,” she said. “You switch off the tap, we create a tap. You take away water, we find water.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it is supporting distribution of water to hospitals, schools and bakeries across the capital. “Everyone is being very cautious about their consumption now. You never know if what you have left will be the last,” said Ingy Sedky, a spokeswoman.

On WhatsApp and Facebook, residents shared cartoons to express their annoyance: pictures of men saving water by showering stacked on each others’ shoulders, or of bathroom signs encouraging men and women to shower together.

And though many blame rebel forces for the damage, frustration with the government’s inability to secure basic services appears to be rising.

“Now there is indignation against the state because they’re delaying a military solution,” said Ammar Ismaiel, a 43-year-old systems engineer who said a lack of washing water had left him wearing the same clothes all week.

After more than five years of conflict, opposition groups have been bombed to capitulation across much of the country, leveling neighborhoods in once-densely populated urban areas and spurring the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Control of Syria’s natural resources, particularly in the energy and agricultural sectors, will be vital if the government is to rebuild the territory it ends up controlling.

Oil output has dwindled throughout Syria’s war, first as a result of international sanctions and then as oil fields fell into the hands of the Islamic State or Kurdish groups.

In a research note published last week, Fabrice Balance, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said recapturing that region would be “indispensable” if Assad wants to refill state coffers and win economic independence from his Russian and Iranian backers.

In Damascus on Friday, one teacher was newly arrived from the shattered former opposition stronghold of eastern Aleppo. She said her parents had begged her for months to join them in the capital, reuniting the family in a middle-class neighborhood where she had played during childhood vacations.

Reached on WhatsApp and speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety, the woman said the area was “unrecognizable” from family photographs.

“We came here for stability when our homes became unlivable, but what is this? There are people out on the streets hunting water. There is nothing in our taps,” she said.

“We opposed the government because we thought we could win, and we lost. We’re here because finally, after all these years, we need a state to look after us.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Louisa Loveluck, Suzan Haidamous

Image: Washington Post


Animal activists finally have something to applaud at Ringling Bros. circus: its closure

January 15, 2017

But among animal activist groups, the news was met with a resounding cheer.

The show had been facing mounting obstacles that even its most acrobatic performers could not surmount: declining ticket sales, high operating costs and an increasingly negative public sentiment about forcing captive wild animals to perform as entertainment.

In 2015, Ringling Bros. announced it would stop using elephants in its shows. The lumbering mammals delivered their final performances last May – dancing, spinning and standing on pedestals at the command of the ringmaster – and then were retired to a reserve in central Florida.

But the move exacerbated the show’s demise. The family-owned firm Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., said the elephants’ departure ultimately expedited what was a “difficult business decision.”

“Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop,” Kenneth Feld, the company’s CEO, said in a statement Saturday. “This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

For years, Ringling Bros. had been the target of protests by animal rights groups and was involved in protracted legal battles with many of them.

The Humane Society of the United States described itself as “long a bitter adversary of Feld Entertainment and Ringling Bros.” in its response to the news. In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society, ending a 14-year fight over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants, the Associated Press reported.

“Ringling Bros. has changed a great deal over a century and a half, but not fast enough,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, said in a statement. “It’s just not acceptable any longer to cart wild animals from city to city and have them perform silly yet coercive stunts. I know this is bittersweet for the Feld family, but I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”

The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also welcomed the announcement Saturday night, calling it “the end of the saddest show on earth” and demanding that other acts follow suit.

“All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild animal exhibitors, including marine amusement parks like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, must take note: society has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them,” PETA said in a statement.

As The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi reported in 2015, the death in 1998 of Kenny, a 3-year-old Asian elephant with the Ringling Bros., ultimately led to complaints about and greater attention to the treatment of the circus’s elephants:

“He sat out a third show that day but was led into the arena to watch. Kenny died overnight in his stall.

“His death triggered a series of events: A whistleblower tipped off People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the group said, and it contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency eventually brought a complaint that charged the circus with failing to handle Kenny in a way that ‘did not cause behavioral stress and unnecessary discomfort’ and said that handlers made the young elephant perform even after discovering he was sick and needed to be seen by a veterinarian. Eventually, the USDA dropped the complaint and the circus’s parent company agreed to donate $20,000 to Asian elephant organizations.”

Last year, California and Rhode Island moved to ban the use of the bullhook, also known as an elephant goad or ankus – a tool used to train elephants that activist groups describe as cruel and inhumane. The Rhode Island ban took effect Jan. 1. The California ban takes effect in 2018.

Ringling Bros. currently has two circus units: The final shows will be in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7, and in Uniondale, New York, on May 21. While the show retired its elephants last year, the circus still has a huge menagerie, including lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas, according to the Associated Press.

Juliette Feld, chief operating officer for Feld Entertainment, told the AP that homes will be found for the animals but that the company will continue operating the Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Amy B Wang


JMU student admits developing, selling malware

January 14, 2017

Zachary Shames, 21, of Great Falls pleaded guilty Friday in federal court in Alexandria to charges of “aiding and abetting computer intrusions” by building the software, known as a keylogger, and selling it to more than 3,000 users.

The software infected more than 16,000 computers, according to Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady accepted the plea.

Shames is a junior at James Madison University, where he is pursuing a degree in computer science, and he is a graduate of Langley High School in Fairfax County.

In a statement Friday, Boente said Shames “developed initial versions of his keylogger while attending high school in Northern Virginia, and continued to modify and market the illegal product from his college dorm room.”

Shames says in an online résumé that he received a programmer of the year award from his high school principal in 2013. A Fairfax County schools spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for additional information about whether the district was contacted by law enforcement or whether school computers had been compromised by malware developed by Shames.

Attorneys for Shames did not respond to requests for comment, and the Shames family did not respond to a request for comment.

JMU officials declined to address specific questions about his current standing at the school.

“Typically a felony conviction would trigger a review of the charges by our Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices,” said JMU spokesman Bill Wyatt. But because of federal privacy laws, Wyatt could not say whether that has happened for Shames.

On his website, Shames lists two internships at companies in Northern Virginia where he worked during the past three summers as a software engineer intern and a technical intern. It was unclear whether authorities had contacted the companies.

Shames faces a maximum of 10 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 16.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Joe Heim

Donald Trump, Election 2016

Cancer survivor who once opposed federal health law challenges Ryan on its repeal

January 14, 2017

“Just like you, I was a Republican,” Jeff Jeans began. Standing on the George Washington University stage, the Wisconsin congressman broke into a grin as Jeans said he had volunteered in two GOP presidential campaigns and opposed the Affordable Care Act so much that he’d told his wife he would close their business before complying with the health-care law.

But that, he said, was before he was diagnosed with a “very curable cancer” and told that, if left untreated, he had perhaps six weeks to live. Only because of an early Affordable Care Act program that offered coverage to people with preexisting medical problems, Jeans said, “I am standing here today alive.”

The speaker’s smile vanished. His brow furrowed.

“Being both a small-business person and someone with preexisting conditions, I rely on the Affordable Care Act to be able to purchase my own insurance,” Jeans said. “Why would you repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement?”

Ryan went for the human touch. “First, I am glad you are standing here,” he replied. “I mean really. Seriously. Hey. No really.”

But Jeans interrupted him: “I want to thank President Obama from the bottom of my heart, because I would be dead if it weren’t for him.”

The exchange during the CNN-sponsored town hall on Thursday evening encapsulated part of the challenge for GOP lawmakers as they begin to undo the health-care law under which 20 million Americans have obtained insurance coverage. Although Republicans promise a stable transition period so that nobody is suddenly without coverage, no replacement plan is ready.

Just several hours after the House voted mostly along party lines Friday on a budget measure intended as the first step toward repeal, Jeans, 54, elaborated in an interview on his medical and financial crisis.

He had lost his health benefits, he told The Washington Post, when a company for which he had moved to Arizona filed for bankruptcy. Soon after, in early 2012, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, with a tumor on his vocal cords so large that he could not speak. He offered to pay cash for the $30,000 treatment, but a cancer center near his Sedona home said he needed to produce either an insurance card or a $1 million deposit.

He could not. So Jeans was instead hospitalized for two weeks in an intensive care unit to receive steroid treatments to try to shrink the tumor.

On April 1 of that year, he recounted, his wife bought an insurance policy for both of them through the Affordable Care Act’s preexisting condition insurance plan – a temporary program the law created before its insurance marketplaces began. That day, his cancer treatments began.

It was around that time that he left the Republican Party and created a Facebook page, “ObamacareSavedMyLife.” It now has 1,300 followers around the country.

During the few minutes of the televised exchange between Jeans and Ryan on Thursday, the House speaker did not relent on his policy ideas. Rather than requiring workers at small businesses to help shoulder the burden of covering people needing expensive care, he said, it would be better for states to create high-risk pools designed solely for those individuals.

“We want more choices, lower prices, more competition, no monopolies,” Ryan told Jeans. “That’s what we want to replace it with, and that’s what we’re working on.”

The lawmaker assured Jeans that Republicans would not repeal the law without creating something new in its stead: “We want to replace it with something better.”

After the event, Jeans said, Ryan made a point of speaking with him. The businessman didn’t say at the time that he thinks that high-risk pools have not worked in the past and that they would have had too little funding under legislation previously proposed by Rep. Tom Price, the Georgia Republican whom President-elect Donald Trump picked to be the next health and human services secretary.

Jeans simply told Ryan that he has a few ideas he’d like to discuss at the right time. And he came away with an aide’s business card. On Friday, he was hoping he has his foot in the door.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Amy Goldstein


GOP leaders say Obamacare repeal bid to advance despite jitters

January 13, 2017

The House voted 227-198 Friday to adopt a budget resolution that would allow Republicans to push a repeal bill through the Senate without having to face a Democratic filibuster.

“The Unaffordable Care Act will soon be history!” tweeted President-elect Donald Trump earlier in the day. Trump campaigned on canceling President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, and he is pressuring lawmakers for quick passage of a replacement plan.

The road for Republicans will get much harder from here, when — as Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters this week — they will be “shooting with real bullets.” He’s among a group of Republicans who want at least a clear roadmap for a replacement before repealing the law.

Republicans must figure out which pieces of the Affordable Care Act they can repeal immediately, and what replacements or stopgap measures can be put in place. Health-care industry groups have warned that repealing Obamacare without sufficient replacement plans could disrupt the individual market and jeopardize coverage for millions of people.

House Speaker Paul Ryan insisted that Republicans aren’t holding to any hard deadline for passing a new law.

“This will be a thoughtful, step-by-step process,” Ryan said on the House floor before the vote. At the same time, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said Republicans hope to send Trump legislation by the end of February.

Friday’s vote, although “a critical first step” in Ryan’s words, was merely procedural. It allows the 52-48 Republican Senate majority to skirt the chamber’s usual 60-vote threshold to advance a repeal bill, requiring only a simple majority. The Senate narrowly adopted the budget resolution on a 51-48 vote early Thursday morning.

“We spent 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 talking about ‘repeal and replace.’ So, no one really wants to stop the momentum on that,” Republican Representative Warren Davidson of Ohio said Thursday.

Under Obamacare, the uninsured rate fell to 8.9 percent in the first half of 2016 from 16 percent in 2010 as 20 million people gained coverage, mainly from Medicaid and on the law’s health insurance exchanges. Yet the law has faced criticism for climbing premiums, costs that some found to be too high, and its requirement that everyone have health insurance or pay a penalty.

The rub is that while Republicans campaigned for years to “repeal and replace” the 2010 law, they have never agreed on a single replacement plan. And while some portions of their eventual legislation can now advance in the Senate without being subject to filibusters, other parts will need Democratic support to reach the 60-vote margin.

“We’ve waited seven years to hear the alternative. How about one plan that we might have a chance to focus on?” said Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the Ways and Means Committee’s top Democrat, on the House floor. He said Republicans should instead be working with Democrats to improve Obamacare.

Trump’s pronouncements have scrambled GOP leaders’ plans to delay a replacement for as long as two or three years. Trump this week called for a replacement to occur “simultaneously, essentially,” prompting Ryan to insist that congressional leaders are “in sync” with the president-elect.

“Without getting into all of the legislative mumbo-jumbo, we want to do this at the same time and in some cases in the same bill,” Ryan said Thursday night during a town-hall meeting on CNN.

Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina said Friday there is “a lot of angst in our state” over an Obamacare repeal and that he participated in a telephone town-hall with 12,000 people a day earlier.

“My constituents are freaking out about commercials they are seeing on TV about how they are going to lose their health care,” he said. Hudson said he tells constituents regarding Republican efforts to devise a replacement plan, “If Obamacare is working for you, we want to hear you say that, too.”

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina said he believes a repeal could still happen in February, but that it could also carry over into March.

“Do I believe we can get consensus in the Senate? Not very optimistic that we could get 60 votes in the Senate” for a replacement, Meadows said.

Among the questions Republicans are struggling to resolve are how to treat states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare and whether to immediately repeal all of the Obamacare taxes or keep some of them in place to ensure funding for a robust replacement.

Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who has his own replacement plan, suggests keeping the revenue in place for now and replacing it later this year as part of a planned broader overhaul of the tax code.

There’s also a fight ahead over House Republicans’ insistence on using the health-care measure to defund Planned Parenthood. Opponents of defunding include Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, though neither has said how they would vote if the House includes defunding in its bill.

Republicans can lose only two party members and still pass a repeal bill in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Mike Pence providing the tie-breaker.

Trump has said that Tom Price, his choice to run the Health and Human Services Department, will play a major role in creating a replacement plan. Price faces a hearing next week in front of the Senate’s health committee, although the key hearing for his confirmation hasn’t yet been scheduled. His confirmation could be delayed well into February.

Democrats, meanwhile, are lining up against the GOP tactics. Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said that by moving forward without telling members what their replacement plan is, Republican leaders are “running the House of Representatives like a Kremlin.” He joked that “the plan is to take two tax breaks and call me in the morning.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland earlier this week didn’t directly answer whether Democrats might ultimately work with Republicans in devising a replacement for Obamacare. “What we’re for is improving and making it work better,” he said.

But on the “hypothetical” that Democrats can’t stop the health-care law from being repealed, he said, “that’s not going to stop our feeling that we ought to make sure that Americans have health-care security.”

(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Billy House

Image: The Wildlife Society


House clears way for Mattis as Pentagon chief

January 13, 2017

The vote was one of the final legislative hurdles for the 66-year-old Mattis, who emerged from his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday with bipartisan support and little fanfare despite diverging with Trump on key issues, particularly relations with Russia.

The entire Senate voted Thursday following the confirmation hearing 81 to 17 to waive the long-standing measure that require incoming defense secretaries to be out of uniform for at least seven years. The House Armed Services Committee narrowly passed a similar measure 34 to 28 Thursday as well. Following Friday’s vote Mattis will still need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Opposed to Trump’s other Cabinet picks, Mattis received little opposition when he appeared in front of lawmakers. The general – who served in various postings in the Marine Corps, including as head of the U.S. Central Command – is widely regarded as a proven battlefield leader and a scholar well-versed in civil-military relations.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Thomas Gibbons-Neff

Natural Disasters and Weather

Sunday’s Steelers-Chiefs game postponed until evening because of ice storm

January 13, 2017

Sunday afternoon’s divisional playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs has been moved to 8:20 p.m. EDT because of Winter Storm Jupiter, which is expected to coat the city in a layer of ice as it sets in over the Great Plains. The NFL made the announcement on Friday, citing “public safety concerns.”

“Moving the game from the original 1:05 p.m. ET start time will provide local authorities more time to clear roads in the area as the weather is expected to improve throughout Sunday,” the statement said.

The original afternoon kickoff time could have made it difficult for spectators to make it to the stadium. According to the Weather Channel, the storm, expected to hit the Kansas City metro area later Friday and continue through Sunday morning, is predicted to “to make any untreated roads, streets, sidewalks and parking lots [in the region] hazardous.”

Chiefs executives said this week that they’d already begun to prepare the stadium in an effort to prevent problems.

“We have a full plan in place that will keep the facility and the grounds around the facility as safe as possible,” Chiefs President Mark Donovan told the Kansas City Star on Thursday. “Having said that, Sunday comes, we’ve treated, it melts, all the sudden the temperature drops to 17 degrees, there is going to be ice, it’s going to be slick. People are going to have to be aware and careful.”

He added: “I’d ask as we always do, to get here early and be patient. I don’t mean while sitting in traffic, but one or two accidents can have a chain reaction that we don’t need.”

The Chiefs are expected to hold a news conference in the near future to address the decision to move the start time of Sunday’s game.

Regardless of the game time, the field at Arrowhead Stadium is expected to be playable. It was recently re-sodded, according to SB Nation, and it’s also heated, so any ice will easily melt off. Or so they hope . . .

The heaters ran into an issue last month when the temperature dipped and an “ice flash” formed on the field. This was precisely what that heating system, installed last April, was supposed to prevent.

Luckily, sunny weather and shovels appeared to save the field, which can feel like concrete when frozen, and the game against the Oakland Raiders went on as planned.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Marissa Payne

Donald Trump, Election 2016

Meet the biker hosting the biggest pro-Trump demonstration at the inauguration

January 13, 2017

WASHINGTON – Chris Cox surveyed a small park near the U.S. Capitol, his German Shepherd by his side. Wearing a Harley-Davidson jacket and a crocodile-skinned cowboy hat adorned with the animal’s teeth atop his moppy curly hair, Cox made for a particularly discordant sight in the heart of federal Washington on a misty weekend morning.

But Cox had logistics to sort out, an Inauguration Day demonstration with motorcycle diehards from across the nation to plan.

The 48-year-old chainsaw artist from South Carolina was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President-elect Donald Trump. Now that his guy has won, Cox wants to ensure the group he founded, Bikers for Trump, strengthens its political muscle during Trump’s presidency and beyond.

The group obtained a permit for what is expected to be the largest pro-Trump rally held by a private group in the nation’s capital timed to the inauguration. Cox calls the planned event at John Marshall Park a “half-time rally” and said there will be speakers, musical performances, and upwards of 5,000 bikers in attendance.

As he walked through the park with his dog, Trigger -the massive “Bikers for Trump” patch on the back of his jacket visible from every vantage – Cox began planning where to put the stage, the speakers and the portable toilets.

“Bikers are strongly organized locally,” Cox said. “They just haven’t been organized nationally before.”

Cox launched the organization in October 2015, back when Trump was still running what was considered a quixotic campaign. Since then, he has hosted rallies throughout the country, with his biker group growing to tens of thousands of mostly white men, many of whom are veterans.

During Trump’s own rallies, and at the Republican National Convention, the group has served as a vigilante security force, providing human barricades between supporters and protesters.

When Cox got Trigger a few months ago from Czechoslovakia through a series of trades he made with a guy he met at a Trump rally in South Dakota, he joked about naming the new pet Keith Schiller, after the head of security for the Trump organization.

Ultimately, Cox wants to transform bikers into a distinct voting bloc, akin to the Christian Coalition or teamsters, he says. His group is composed of members of established groups like Bikers for Christ and Veteran Bikers MC, and Cox says there are many more unaffiliated “Lone Wolf” bikers to still bring into the political fray. But the plausibility of creating a unified voting bloc remains to be seen, particularly considering there are at least two other Trump motorcycle events happening in D.C. around inauguration.

Still, Cox has proven that while Trump, a rich Manhattanite, and bikers make for an unlikely alliance, there’s also some logic there: They can both be outspoken, revel in a tough-guy mentality and espouse hands-off government values.

“I’m not going to spend much time critiquing the vessel of the message,” Cox said. “It’s the message I’m interested in.”

Before Cox was Trump’s loyal biker guy, he was the nation’s heroic Lawn Mower Guy. He achieved national fame during the 2013 shutdown, when he showed up near the Lincoln Memorial and started mowing the lawn, a move that elevated him to a somewhat folksy legend during a time of ultimate Washington dysfunction.

This led him to lobby Congress to introduce a bill that would allow the monuments and parks to remain open during a government shutdown. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced it, but the bill has mostly been stalled since then.

Cox said the experience gave him a window into the ineffectiveness of government. He decided that if he were ever to get his bill through, he needed outside politicians to help deliver it. And that’s how he landed on Trump as a candidate.

Bikers for Trump promotes its values of supporting veterans and bolstering the status of the country’s dwindling blue-collar workers, but it’s also a savvy way for Cox to gain political bona fides and ultimately push his bill. Cox is neither a veteran nor a blue-collar worker, and landed on the idea of harnessing that group after visiting biker bars and noticing they overwhelmingly supported Trump.

“My goal is for the bill not only to pass, but for it to pass with the most co-sponsors in the history of the House of Representatives,” he said. “I’m optimistic that when Donald Trump sees it, he’ll be for it.”

Bikers for Trump’s main political goals are more controversial than Cox’s own personal ones. They want extremely tough vetting for Muslim immigrants, particularly Syrians, and a wall along the Mexico border. Trump’s ability to deliver these campaign promises remains uncertain, but Cox doesn’t really care.

“The wall that is built, it remains to be seen if it will be a concrete wall, a metal wall, trenches or just more border control,” Cox said.

Cox insists that his group is inclusive and disavows all parts of white nationalism. Cox repeatedly says that his group is pushing “racial reconciliation.”

Dwight Pape, a pro-Trump black bishop in Baton Rouge, plans to speak on this topic at Cox’s inauguration rally.

Pape’s church was destroyed during the August 2016 floods, and he met Cox when bikers delivered food and supplies to the congregants.

“At a time when we needed help and hope and racial healing, the bikers showed up,” Pape, 62, said.

Cox grew up learning a little about how Washington politics works. His father, Earl Cox, worked in various federal agencies, including the Labor and Agriculture departments, and Cox spent much of his childhood in Northern Virginia. He left college in North Carolina to work in Republican politics, including campaigns for Dan Quayle and Elizabeth Dole.

That all makes him far from the typical biker. And Cox acknowledges that in many ways he is the stereotype of a liberal: He is a struggling artist with no health insurance who has been traversing the country this past year in a 1995 truck with a 1968 Camper trailer attached. When he is out of money, he sells his chainsaw sculptures on the side of the road.

But he still possesses some undeniably Trumpian qualities. As Trigger, his dog, obediently sat beside him, Cox ticked off some advanced commands. He said Trigger learned the tricks in Czech and he wants to ensure the dog continues to respond to commands in the language.

“I don’t want anyone else to tell my dog what to do,” he said.

Michael Shelby, who is known as “New York Myke” in the biker community, met Cox in May in D.C. at Rolling Thunder -a massive biker demonstration holding the government accountable for all prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. Shelby said he was initially a bit skeptical of Cox because he wasn’t a veteran, but Cox sold him with his sincere passion for Trump.

Shelby, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran who owns a Harley-Davidson dealership in San Diego, said he has been involved in Republican veterans’ groups with a large biker contingency but never before in a group where being a biker was the main political identity.

“I can’t remember anyone ever saying Bikers for Dole, or Bikers for Bush before. No one has ever done that before,” said Shelby, who is attending the rally.

Cox has met Trump a few times at rallies and said the president-elect personally called to thank him for his work and tell him about American jobs he’s already saved. But Cox hasn’t yet brought up the bill to him.

“I didn’t want to bog him down with anything unrelated,” Cox said. “It was a matter-of-fact conversation that I would have with my friends. We laughed a bunch.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Perry Stein
Image: Washington Post

Armed civilian kills suspect, saving life of Arizona trooper ‘ambushed’ on highway

January 13, 2017

The trooper, Edward Andersson, was responding to an emergency call – a report that someone had shot at his vehicle under cover of darkness from the median of Interstate 10.

The 27-year veteran of the Arizona Department of Public Safety was en route to the spot when he spotted a rolled-over car. A woman lay on the ground, apparently ejected from her vehicle. The trooper exited his car to mark the area with road flares.

As he did so, an assailant struck.

The suspect shot Andersson between the right shoulder and chest, once or possibly twice, said Col. Frank Milstead, Arizona’s Public Safety Department director. In a news conference in front of a hospital in Goodyear, Arizona, Milstead said that the reason the suspect fired at the trooper, in what the director called an “ambush-style attack,” remained a mystery as of Thursday morning.

Andersson’s gunshot wound rendered his right arm and hand useless. Still, the trooper and suspect engaged in physical combat, and the attacker gained the upper hand. “The suspect is getting the better of the trooper and is on top of him,” Milstead said as he described the incident to reporters, “striking the trooper’s head on the pavement.”

A man driving with his wife on the interstate witnessed the altercation. He stopped his vehicle and approached the trooper, asking if the officer needed help.

Andersson did, and when he replied in the affirmative, the passerby retrieved a gun from his car. Under Arizona law, it is legal to use deadly force in defense of a third person whose life is threatened. It would not be unusual for a motorist in the area to have a weapon. Arizona has a long history as a gun-friendly state; as Arizona guns-rights advocate Charles Heller told the Associated Press, “If you see a guy walking down the street in Tucson, with a gun on, you don’t think much of it. It’s natural.”

After arming himself, the passerby confronted “the suspect, giving him orders to stop assaulting the officer,” said Milstead. The suspect refused.

The man fired, mortally wounding the suspect.

As Andersson lay bleeding on the highway pavement, another civilian phoned for help. “The suspect is uh, occasionally breathing or stirring. He’s been shot by a passerby,” the man said, reported Phoenix’s KPHO. NBC News identified the caller as Brian Schober, a former medic from Scottsdale, Arizona.

“Hello, officer down, officer down outside Tonopah,” Schober told the dispatcher, using the officer’s radio. “Send a helicopter.”

The armed motorist kept watch over the suspect while the caller radioed for help, Schober told Arizona’s ABC 15. “If he would have tried to stand up, he would have been shot again,” Schober said. Schober told NBC News few details about the man with the gun, except that the two had met and exchanged thanks.

Medical helicopters transported the woman and Andersson to a hospital in Goodyear. The armed third party, as well as the suspect and the woman in the car, have not been identified. Both the suspect and the woman are deceased.

“Everything happened down in the middle of nowhere,” Milstead said. He said he did not know how it all got started.

“And all of the people who knew what happened are dead – except for my trooper, who drove upon the scene,” he said. Arizona state detectives were currently investigating the incident, according to an Arizona Public Safety Department statement released Thursday. It was unknown what caused the rollover, and whether the suspect was involvement in the initial 4:20 a.m. report of gunshots.

The Public Safety Department director applauded the citizen’s intervention. “In our worst hour, we may need your help,” Milstead said, “and this was today.”

“I don’t know that my trooper would be alive today without his assistance,” Milstead added.

Milstead called Andersson “a true hero” and an “incredibly tough individual;” in addition to his work as a trooper, Andersson volunteered as a volleyball coach at the high school 10 miles away from where he was shot. As of late Thursday morning, Andersson was in serious but stable condition, being treated for the gunshot wounds and injuries to the head. It appeared the trooper would make a recovery.

“This incident is another reminder of the risks that the men and women who wake up each morning and put on the badge take for our state,” said Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in a statement. “I urge Arizonans to join me in praying for a quick recovery for this brave officer and thanking everyone who, through their actions in real time, showed our officers exactly what Arizona means when we say: ‘You have our backs – and we will always have yours.'”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Ben Guarino
Image: Washington Post