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Trump's presidency has changed Washington, defied convention

WASHINGTON — Mr. Trump went to Washington. And he changed it.

In his first two years in office, President Donald Trump has rewritten the rules of the presidency and the norms of the nation’s capital, casting aside codes of conduct and traditions that have held for generations.

In Trump’s Washington, facts are less relevant. Insults and highly personal attacks are increasingly employed by members of both parties. The White House press briefing is all but gone, international summits are optional, the arts are an afterthought and everything — including inherently nonpartisan institutions and investigations — is suddenly political.

Taking a wrecking ball to decorum and institutions, Trump has changed, in ways both subtle and profound, how Washington works and how it is viewed by the rest of the nation and world.

“He’s dynamited the institution of the presidency,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University. “He doesn’t see himself as being part of a long litany of presidents who will hand a baton to a successor. Instead, he uses the presidency as an extension of his own personality.”

Is this a one-president aberration? Or has the White House forever changed? Whether the trends will outlast Trump’s presidency is a question that won’t be answered until there is a new occupant in the Oval Office, but Brinkley predicts “no future president will model themselves on him.”

There was a time, many accelerated news cycles ago, when there was speculation, stoked by the candidate himself, that Trump would abandon the bluster of his campaign and become “more presidential” once he took office.

No one says that anymore.

Trump himself believes his unpredictability is what holds Americans’ attention and fuels his success.

“I have these stupid teleprompters. You don’t mind that I haven’t used them all night, do you?” Trump asked the crowd at a June rally in South Carolina. “Every once in a while I look at it, I mean, it’s so boring, we don’t want it. America’s back, bigger, and better, and stronger than ever.”

Indeed, Trump brought to the White House the same fact-challenged, convention-defying style that got him elected. From his first days in office, Trump pushed falsehoods about the size of the inaugural crowd and unfounded allegations about millions of illegal voters. He has not let up since.

The inaccuracies have been big and small: Trump repeatedly claimed in 2018 that he passed the biggest tax cut in history (he didn’t), that the U.S. economy is the best in history (it’s not) and that his Supreme Court choice Brett Kavanaugh finished atop his class at Yale Law School (the school doesn’t rank students). Just last week, after making an abrupt, unilateral decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria, Trump tweeted that Russia was “not happy” about the decision. Hours earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had cheered the move.

The cumulative effect has been to diminish the authority with which White House pronouncements are received.

When a federal report on climate change was released last month, showing an increasing impact, a White House statement cast doubt on its findings and suggested, erroneously, that a significant number of scientists doubted the phenomenon. That drew derision from a broad swath of the scientific community. The White House distributed a doctored video of an encounter between a CNN reporter and an intern, exaggerating the contact made by the journalist and damaging the administration’s credibility. Similarly, when Trump threatened to shut down the southern border, most of Washington just shrugged and dismissed the threat as so much bluster.

The White House press briefing, once a daily opportunity for the public to hear the president’s views scrutinized, has all but vanished. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has held just one briefing in December and it clocked in at a scant 15 minutes.

Now, the primary form of communication from the White House comes 280 characters at a time, as Trump’s Twitter bursts set off cellphone alerts across Washington, sometimes taking even federal agencies and congressional allies by surprise. His decision last week to announce a withdrawal of troops from Syria left congressional Republicans complaining bitterly that they were not consulted or advised. And, despite counsel from his own party, he moved to shut down the government over the lack of money for a border wall, his signature campaign promise.

“The challenge is that Trump is like a quarterback who doesn’t call a play and simply snaps the ball and expects his teammates to react,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. A Trump ally, Gingrich said he approves of only 80 percent of the president’s tweets but believes his unique style has made him impervious to criticism after he pulled out of multinational agreements in favor of deregulation and sovereignty, moves that fulfilled campaign pledges yet drew global derision.

“The thing you have to ask yourself about Trump is: Could he, in fact, be as disruptive as he is in the ways that his base wants but be more traditional on tactical things?” Gingrich said. “Or can you not have one without the other?”

Trump’s tweets often trade in public insults that modern presidents just don’t share in public: The Senate minority leader is “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer.” The media are “the enemy of the people.” His own former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is “dumb as a rock.”

And that level of insult, at times veering into the coarse and the crass, has bled into the dialogue of official Washington. Outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, weeks before he resigned in a cloud of ethics scandals, tweeted that a Democratic congressman had struggled “to think straight from the bottom of a bottle.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told fellow Democrats this month that the border wall was a “manhood” issue for the president.

Trump has transformed the presidency in scores of other ways, inserting himself into matters his predecessors avoided. He has chastised his own Justice Department for not opening investigations into his political foes. He has threatened to oust the chairman of the Federal Reserve, which prizes its political independence, for raising interest rates because he believes that could slow the economy. With deadly wildfires raging, he criticized Californians for poor forest management. He doesn’t attend national arts events that typically have had a presidential imprimatur, such as the Kennedy Center Honors.

Some Washington institutions have held: The courts have dealt his administration several defeats and the special counsel’s Russia probe continues apace. But on the world stage, too, Trump has broken the presidential mold.

He has eschewed sweeping diplomacy in favor of transactional relationships. He has strained longtime alliances — including with Canada, of all places — and befriended global strongmen. He has skipped summits, including a gathering in Asia in November, that have long been fixtures on presidential itineraries. And world leaders have taken to heart that flattery, pageantry, golf and maybe some business at a Trump-owned hotel are the pathway to a good relationship with the president.

“He is a sui generis president,” said Brinkley, using the Latin for “unique.” ‘’Trump doesn’t know history and doesn’t model himself on any president ... but he’s all we can talk about.”

Legal marijuana industry toasts banner year

PORTLAND, Ore. — The last year was a 12-month champagne toast for the legal marijuana industry as the global market exploded and cannabis pushed its way further into the financial and cultural mainstream.

Liberal California became the largest legal U.S. marketplace, conservative Utah and Oklahoma embraced medical marijuana, and the U.S. East Coast got its first commercial pot shops. Canada ushered in broad legalization, and Mexico’s Supreme Court set the stage for that country to follow.

U.S. drug regulators approved the first marijuana-based pharmaceutical to treat kids with a form of epilepsy, and billions of investment dollars poured into cannabis companies. Even main street brands like Coca-Cola said they are considering joining the party.

“I have been working on this for decades, and this was the year that the movement crested ,” said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat working to overturn the federal ban on pot. “It’s clear that this is all coming to a head.”

With buzz building across the globe, the momentum will continue into 2019.

Luxembourg is poised to become the first European country to legalize recreational marijuana, and South Africa is moving in that direction. Israel’s Parliament approved a law allowing exports of medical marijuana. Thailand legalized medicinal use of marijuana, and other Southeastern Asian countries may follow South Korea’s lead in legalizing cannabidiol, or CBD. It’s a non-psychoactive compound found in marijuana and hemp plants and used for treatment of certain medical problems.

“It’s not just the U.S. now. It’s spreading,” said Ben Curren, CEO of Green Bits, a San Jose, California, company that develops software for marijuana retailers and businesses.

Curren’s firm is one of many that blossomed as the industry grew. He started the company in 2014 with two friends. Now, he has 85 employees, and the company’s software processes $2.5 billion in sales transactions a year for more than 1,000 U.S. retail stores and dispensaries.

Green Bits raised $17 million in April, pulling in money from investment firms including Snoop Dogg’s Casa Verde Capital. Curren hopes to expand internationally by 2020.

“A lot of the problem is keeping up with growth,” he said.

Legal marijuana was a $10.4 billion industry in the U.S. in 2018 with a quarter-million jobs devoted just to the handling of marijuana plants, said Beau Whitney, vice president and senior economist at New Frontier Data, a leading cannabis market research and data analysis firm. There are many other jobs that don’t involve direct work with the plants, but they are harder to quantify, Whitney said.

Investors poured $10 billion into cannabis in North America in 2018, twice what was invested in the last three years combined, he said, and the combined North American market is expected to reach more than $16 billion in 2019.

“Investors are getting much savvier when it comes to this space because even just a couple of years ago, you’d throw money at it and hope that something would stick,” he said. “But now investors are much more discerning.”

Increasingly, U.S. lawmakers see that success and want it for their states.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. states now have legalized some form of medical marijuana.

Voters in November made Michigan the 10th state — and first in the Midwest — to legalize recreational marijuana. Governors in New York and New Jersey are pushing for a similar law in their states next year, and momentum for broad legalization is building in Pennsylvania and Illinois.

“Let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week.

The East Coast’s first recreational pot shops opened in November in Massachusetts and more are scheduled to open soon.

State lawmakers in Nebraska just formed a campaign committee to put a medical cannabis initiative to voters in 2020. Nebraska shares a border with Colorado, one of the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana, and Iowa, which recently started a limited medical marijuana program.

“Attitudes have been rapidly evolving and changing. I know that my attitude toward it has also changed,” said Nebraska state Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat. “Seeing the medical benefits and seeing other states implement it ... has convinced me that it’s not the dangerous drug it’s made out to be.”

With all its success, the U.S. marijuana industry continues to be undercut by a robust black market and federal law that treats marijuana as a controlled substance like heroin. Financial institutions are skittish about cannabis businesses, even in U.S. states where they are legal, and investors until recently have been reluctant to put their money behind pot.

Marijuana businesses can’t deduct their business expenses on their federal taxes and face huge challenges getting insurance and finding real estate for their brick-and-mortar operations.

“Until you have complete federal legalization, you’re going to be living with that structure,” said Marc Press, a New Jersey attorney who advises cannabis businesses.

At the start of the year, the industry was chilled when then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a policy shielding state-licensed medical marijuana operators from federal drug prosecutions. Ultimately the move had minimal impact because federal prosecutors showed little interest in going after legal operators.

Sessions, a staunch marijuana opponent, later lost his job while President Donald Trump said he was inclined to support an effort by U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, to relax the federal prohibition.

In November, Democrats won control of the U.S. House and want to use it next year to pass legislation that eases federal restrictions on the legal marijuana industry without removing it from the controlled substances list.

Gardner and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren have proposed legislation allowing state-approved commercial cannabis activity under federal law. The bill also would let states and Indian tribes determine how best to regulate marijuana commerce within their boundaries without fear of federal intervention.

If those provisions become law, they could open up banking for the marijuana industry nationwide and make it easier for cannabis companies to secure capital.

Blumenauer’s “blueprint” to legalize marijuana also calls for the federal government to provide medical marijuana for veterans, more equitable taxation for marijuana businesses and rolling back federal prohibitions on marijuana research, among other things.

“We have elected the most pro-cannabis Congress in history and more important, some of the people who were roadblocks to our work ... are gone,” Blumenauer said. “If we’re able to jump-start it in the House, I think there will be support in the Senate, particularly if we deal with things that are important, like veterans’ access and banking.”

Despite #MeToo, rape cases still confound police

NEW YORK — The #MeToo movement is empowering victims of sexual assault to speak up like never before, but what should be a watershed moment for holding assailants accountable has coincided with a troubling trend: Police departments in the U.S. are becoming less and less likely to successfully close rape investigations.

The so-called “clearance rate” for rape cases fell last year to its lowest point since at least the 1960s, according to FBI data provided to The Associated Press. That nadir may be driven, at least in part, by a greater willingness by police to correctly classify rape cases and leave them open even when there is little hope of solving them.

But experts say it also reflects the fact that not enough resources are being devoted to investigating sexual assault at a time when more victims are entrusting police with their harrowing experiences.

“This is the second-most serious crime in the FBI’s crime index,” said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, “and it simply doesn’t get the necessary resources from police.”

Police successfully closed just 32 percent of rape investigations nationwide in 2017, according to the data, ranking it second only to robbery as the least-solved violent crime. That statistic is down from about 62 percent in 1964, despite advances such as DNA testing.

The FBI provided The AP with a dataset of rape statistics dating back to the early 1960s — a table that includes more complete data than the snapshot the bureau releases each fall.

The grim report card has prompted debate among criminal justice experts, with some attributing the falling clearance rate to an antiquated approach to investigations.

“You’d figure with all the new technology — and the fact that the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual assault know their attacker — the clearance rates would be a lot higher,” said Joseph Giacalone, a former New York City police sergeant who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It’s almost as if forensics and DNA has let us down,” he said.

Experts agree that sexual assault is one of the most confounding crimes police confront. Many investigations lack corroborating witnesses and physical evidence. A significant chunk of complaints are reported months or years after the fact. Researchers believe only a third of rapes are reported at all.

Historically, some detectives also discouraged women from pursuing tough-to-prove charges against boyfriends, husbands or close acquaintances. The declining clearance rate could mean that investigators in some places are finally classifying rape investigations properly, said Kim Lonsway, research director at End Violence Against Women International.

Rather than hastily “clearing” certain tough-to-solve cases, she said, some police departments have begun “suspending” them, meaning they remain open indefinitely. That leaves open the possibility there could someday be an arrest.

“This may be an indicator of some positive things,” Lonsway said.

The FBI’s clearance numbers provide an incomplete picture of how often rapists are brought to justice. That’s because they also include “exceptional clearances,” where police close an investigation without charging anyone, for reasons beyond the department’s control. That could be because a victim stopped cooperating or the suspect died or is incarcerated in another state, among other reasons.

The figures do not specify the percentage of rape cases that are exceptionally cleared compared with those resulting in arrests, but state data can fill out the picture in some places.

In Detroit, for instance, police investigated 664 reported rapes last year but made just 44 arrests, according to Michigan data. Another 15 cases were closed for other reasons. That would give Detroit a clearance rate of 8.9 percent, even though only 6.6 percent of reported rapes resulted in an arrest.

Sam Gaspardo said that when she reported in 2011 that she had been sexually assaulted, police in Woodbury, Minnesota, lacked a sense of urgency.

Investigators in the St. Paul suburb expressed frustration that she delayed reporting the attack for more than a year and couldn’t recall the precise date. One time, when she phoned to follow up her case, she was put on hold indefinitely.

“To me, it felt like it was invalidated,” Gaspardo said. “I was just completely dismissed.”

Woodbury Police Cmdr. Steve Wills acknowledged Gaspardo’s complaint fell through the cracks and was not investigated for years, something he called “a system failure.”

“Obviously, we own that,” Wills said.

Wills said authorities have “no reason not to believe” Gaspardo but decided a few weeks ago they could not prove her alleged attacker had forced her into intercourse.

He acknowledged police would have been in a far better position to investigate the case had they begun looking into the matter immediately.

“It can make a person so angry,” Gaspardo said. “Are women supposed to start wearing body cameras when they’re alone in a room with somebody?”

Warren County revenue trending up

The year is wrapping up as another big one for Warren County in terms of revenue helping solidify the county’s financial picture.

All of the major revenue sources were up over last year, which should allow the county to continue to build a fund balance that has risen to more than $20 million. The biggest source is sales tax, where receipts through most of November were up 5.4 percent, amounting to an increase of nearly $2.6 million over the first 11 months last year.

The county’s room occupancy tax was up about 4.25 percent as of mid-December, an indication that, after a good summer for businesses that depend on tourists, they continued to come to the area through the fall.

Lake George Supervisor Dennis Dickinson, who chairs the county board’s Occupancy Tax Coordination Committee, said that amounts to a $161,000 increase. To get that increase, an additional $4 million or so had to be spent with area lodging businesses, he explained.

Lake Luzerne Supervisor Gene Merlino, who chairs the board’s Tourism Committee, said $38 million more would have been spent on taxable goods and services to bring in a 5.4 percent sales tax increase.

“Tourism has been hit in many counties, but it hasn’t in Warren County,” said Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Doug Beaty.

Also experiencing revenue increases were other markers of commercial activity, such as mortgage tax, county clerk fees and building and codes fees.

The sales tax increase has not been linked to any particular economic sector, as county Treasurer Michael Swan said the state does not provide a breakdown on where it originates.

Fuel sales have been eyed as a likely cause for some of the jump. Fuel prices have been higher for much of 2018 when compared to 2017, but fuel costs have dropped over the final two months of the year.

Reports of a good holiday shopping season nationwide should have an impact for Warren County as well, as much of the region’s shopping is done at stores in Queensbury.

The one negative for the county’s finances is that the state Legislature did not act on the county’s request to extend its mortgage tax, which is a 0.25 percent tax imposed on mortgages in the county, which was expected to bring in over $1.9 million this year. That resulted in the county being unable to collect that fee on any mortgages until the Legislature reinstates it.

There was some good news in recent days in that regard, though. County officials had previously set March 1 as a date they hoped to have the tax back on the books, but on advice of state officials, changed that to Feb 1.