National News Roundup: Week 19 (May 28-June 3)
The news… appears to be slowing down a bit this week? I’m not sure how that happened, though I’m glad to be given a chance to catch my breath. That said, we did see some really big headlines, even if I don’t fully understand why some of the moves made this week. It’s like trying to follow a chess game where one of the players is drunk. And concussed. And there are cartoons happening in the next room.
Standard standing reminders apply: I am no journalist, though I play one in your inbox or browser, so I’m only summarizing the news within my area of expertise. This week also contains multiple headlines outside my area as a legal generalist — still a lawyer, not a spy! — but all offroad adventures are marked with an asterisk. Okay, I think that’s about it for the disclaimers. Onward to the news!
On Russia and News:
Somewhat mercifully, we’re back down to “just” The Russia Collusion Investigation this week in terms of constitutional crises in the news. The ongoing threats to the First Amendment and the Emoluments Clause haven’t gone away, though, so please still call your reps about them! In the meantime, here’s your weekly wtf about all things Russia:
- Trump Realizes He Should Get a Lawyer. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has indicated that he won’t answer questions about Russia anymore, because those questions need to go through Trump’s newly-appointed counsel for the Russia investigation. Unsurprisingly, the lawyer he hired has ties to Russia himself, because of course he does; I’m sure it’s unrelated that he’s also represented Trump for fifteen years on various things. It’s stunning that Trump took this long to find representation for the Russia investigation — presumably he figured he could make the whole thing go away before he needed one. But hey, at least he made a great choice for representation! When facing a federal investigation into criminal acts, who better to hire than a guy who specialize in civil litigation for corporations instead of an attorney with any relevant experience?
- Comey Scheduled to Testify. Former FBI Director James Comey has indicated that he will testify before the Senate for several hours on Thursday, and the first few hours will be open session (though it moves to closed session at 1:00). It’s hypothetically possible that Trump can block this testimony by claiming executive privilege, but since privilege is waived when the holder speaks to third parties and Trump has tweeted to half the world about interactions with Comey, it seems unlikely that he still holds the privilege.
- Sessions Special Report.* Sessions has had a lot of headlines this week. News piece number one is that he may have met with Kislyak a total of three times or more, which is at least one more instance than he reported previously (and three times more than he testified about under oath during his confirmation hearing). For extra bonus fun, it also came out this week that Al Franken had asked Comey to investigate a possible third meeting between Kislyak and Sessions shortly before Comey was fired. It’s definitely possible that we’ll hear more about this at Thursday’s hearing; also, the special investigation may also expand in scope to investigate Sessions’s role in Comey’s firing as a result.
- Flynn Record Release.* Yeesh, apparently Flynn can’t go a week without popping up in the news. The latest is that he’ll release his subpoenaed business records, but not all of his personal records. I can’t think of a legal reason his personal records would be exempt from subpoena, aside from potential relevance issues, so I’m not sure what the House Oversight Committee is going to do with partial compliance here. It’s possible the committee isn’t sure either — it’s been a weird week for them.
- It’s High Nunes.* Speaking of confusing House Oversight Committee behavior, Devin Nunes apparently signed several subpoenas requesting unmasking in the past week despite being recused from the investigation (and despite criticizing the Obama administration for unmasking practices in the past). Democrats are saying that Nunes acted unilaterally and violated his recusal, but Republicans are saying that he’s still allowed to take action on investigative matters that don’t specifically involve election collusion. The Washington Post has an excellent article explaining the whole kerfuffle (and also what an ‘unmasking’ even is), which I highly recommend as a starting place.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Covfefe Conspiracy. Trump got way too much attention this week for tweeting “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” just after midnight. While Twitter had a field day, conspiracy theorists insisted that “covfefe” means “I will stand up” in Arabic (which, spoiler, no it doesn’t). Meanwhile, Sean Spicer insisted that “a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” which would be ominous if it didn’t seem more likely to be a bald-faced lie.
- Communications “Shakeup.” Apparently as part of promised “shakeups,” Communications Director Mike Dubke resigned this week. It’s unclear when his last day will be and why exactly he tendered his resignation, although it looks like he actually entered it before Trump’s trip abroad. Spicer apparently will be covering his duties in the short term, with fewer media briefings in general. The decision to leave is particularly striking when considered against the extremely low staff numbers among this administration, which has only filled 39 of 559 executive branch appointments.
- Travel Ban Blues. Trump has filed a petition with the Supreme Court to reinstate the ban, and Justice Kennedy will probably cast the deciding vote on whether the court hears the case or not. If the Supreme Court does decide to hear the case, this will be an incredibly important case for evaluating how independent our judiciary’s functioning has remained at its highest level. That said, the Supreme Court might very well decide to wait until somebody — anybody — actually makes a decision about the order itself on the merits of the case. (Meanwhile, Trump referred to the order as a “travel ban” again this weekend in a set of tweets about recent terrorist action in London, despite the fourth circuit literally reviewing statements like this to make the determination he’s appealing this week. Hopefully whatever court does consider the case itself will take note; the ACLU certainly noticed it, at the very least.)
- Paris Accord Withdrawal. The unquestionably biggest news this week is that Trump said he plans to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords, which are a voluntary agreement signed by 195 out of 197 countries (including us, obviously) in 2015. The purpose of the accord is to engage in practices to limit carbon emissions and slow the spread of climate change. Only two world countries do not participate in this accord — Nicaragua, which felt the accords did not promote radical enough changes to energy practices to preserve the planet, and Syria, which was distracted by a bloody civil war at the time of signing. Trump claimed that the agreement was “negotiated poorly” and too costly for Americans. Per the terms of the accord itself, however, the United States cannot actually exit until 2020, which makes this move as symbolic as it is ill-advised.
- International terrorism. This was a very rough week on the international stage regarding violent attacks. Kabul, Afghanistan saw multiple instances of terrorism; first when a car bomb near a German embassy killed and injured hundreds of people, and again when blasts went off at a well-attended public funeral. There was also a terrorist attack at London Bridge, killing about seven people and injuring many others. London police responded to the scene extremely quickly, fatally shooting the attackers within eight minutes of the incident’s start and likely saving many lives in the process. (President Trump was equally quick to spread rumors, promote his travel ban, and harass the mayor of London for engaging in appropriate public relations with denizens.) Though the Taliban has denied responsibility for the attack in Kabul, the government blames the Taliban’s Haqqani network for both attacks; the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the one in London. It is important to note that both of these violent attacks during Ramadan reflect a perversion of mainstream Islamic law, which teaches that Ramadan is a deeply spiritual time for fasting and reflection. The attack in Kabul, which happened while people were praying and observing funeral rites during daylight hours, is particularly counter to the mainstream tenets of the faith; the Afghan President acknowledged this in his statement about the Wednesday attack.
- Trump Exempts Staff from His Own Ethics Rule. Remember that Ethics executive order that Trump issued a few months ago about obvious conflicts of interest for government employees? Yeah, apparently neither does he, because he’s issuing waivers on it left and right. The most problematic waiver on the list is a “blanket waiver” for contact with news outlets, which they want to use to keep Steven Bannon in contact with Breitbart News, but there are seventeen waivers issued all told. Needless to say, the Office of Government Ethics is not impressed, and plans to push back on this practice.
- But Her Emails. Trump apparently instructed national leaders to call him on his personal cell phone, which is a pretty significant breach of security protocol because the line is not exactly secure. So far, apparently only Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, has actually taken him up on this offer, and I can only imagine how that phone call went. I bet Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto probably has a few choice things he would like to say to Trump on a secure line, though.
- Texas Lawmaking At Its Finest. A Texas state legislator called ICE on protesting constituents this past week, citing “f*** them” as his reasoning (and yes, that is really an actual quote repeated by one of the legislators involved). Then for a follow up act, he got into a fight with multiple outraged fellow legislators, which ended with him threatening to shoot one of them in the head. He’s now in protective custody.
- United States Climate Alliance. One silver lining of the Paris Accord debacle is an outpouring of businesses, states, and cities taking steps to follow the Paris Accord despite this week’s Presidential action. Most notably, governors of twelve states and Puerto Rico (as of the time of writing this) have formed the United States Climate Alliance, agreeing to uphold the Paris Accord terms within their state borders. This is an addition to the 211 cities that pledged to uphold its goals on June 1, the laundry list of companies that sent an open letter advocating for staying in the agreement, the two CEOs that quit the White House Advisory Council in protest over Trump’s decision, and the private entity who has publicly pledged to donate $15M to cover the United States share of the accord costs. “Americans will honor and fulfill the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up,” Bloomberg said in a press release on Friday, “and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us.” On a less impressive but still interesting note, among the countless other CEOs who publicly expressed disapproval over the Paris decision were heads of Goldman Sachs, General Electric, and IBM. Also, Pittsburgh wants to make sure you know that they support the Paris Accord and also voted for Hillary, regardless of what Trump says about them.
- The March for Truth. In addition to the incredible resistance quickly organized for climate change, thousands of Americans in 135 cities marched in streets all over the country to demand the truth about Trump and Russia this weekend. The protest was organized by nineteen different partner organizations, in much the same style as the Women’s March and the March for Science (in fact, the Women’s March was one of the partners). The nation-wide protest intends to cast light on the need for an independent commission on the Russia investigation, a public release of Trump’s tax returns, and prosecution of any uncovered crimes. Also, as has become tradition by this point, you can check out some of the best signs online.
And that’s all I got! (It almost ends up feeling short and sweet to me, though my trusty resident editor informs me that this is not universal.) There is a lot to track in the upcoming weeks, so I doubt we can get used to it. Catch you next week!