National News Roundup: Week 30 (August 13–19)
Okay, this week wasn’t as bad as last week — although with the week we had last week, that’s sort of like saying “This thunderstorm sure isn’t as bad as that recent hurricane.” There was still plenty of the surreal trauma we all know and hate to go around, though the week ended on a more positive note; where we go from here is anyone’s guess.
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’s news contains some detailed analysis that’s outside my expertise — still a lawyer, and not a tech consultant — but all offroad adventures are marked with an asterisk. Okay, I think that’s about it for the disclaimers. Onward to the news!
Constitutional Crisis Corners:
Mostly things were pretty quiet on The Russia Collusion Investigation, as Trump successfully redirected our attention — more on that below — but we did see one headline.
- Possible Whistleblowing on the DNC Hack Job.* The incredible news came in this week that there is a man in the Ukraine living under police protection who is working with the FBI as a live witness to Russian DNC hacking efforts. This is the first instance of a live human witness on this to date, and the Ukranian police quite reasonably are refusing to give any details about his true identity (though he’s understood to be the hacker known as ‘Profexer,’ who made the malware used).
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Steve Bannon Mystery Motives. This was a deeply weird week for trying to figure out what on earth Steve Bannon is doing. First there was his impromptu interview with American Prospect reporter Robert Kuttner, which apparently was the result of an unsolicited call to the journalist, and included insults for Trump, the alt-right, and basically virtually all of his allies. Then he suggested that he forgot he could be quoted off-the-record, which I find vaguely insulting; if the owner of a multi-million dollar propaganda machine is going to make such blatantly improbable statements, he could at least pretend to be selling real estate. Then Bannon was let go on Friday — ostensibly for his interview, except that the process was missing the bread-and-circus embarrassment train that marked other high-profile firings like Yates, Priebus, Scaramucci, and Comey. Bannon immediately hightailed it to Breitbart post-firing, leading an editorial meeting by the end of the day. Trump tweeted his praises multiple times on Saturday, and Breitbart has published exactly zero articles eviscerating the President since Bannon’s White House exit — though they did publish an article on Sunday sympathetic to Trump’s policy on Afghanistan. So I’m thinking Bannon was not “let go” so much as “transferred for more efficient rampaging.”
- Cost-Sharing Repayment Saga. The Congressional Budget Office released a report this week estimating how much it would cost if Trump made good on his threat and refused to ACA subsidies next year. Spoiler: It was a lot. More specifically, nonpayment would raise the deficit by $194 million over ten years, which basically everybody agrees is Not In the Good Column. Including Trump, apparently, because he announced he would fund the CSR payments for August the very next day (or, as Fortune Magazine put it, “Trump Won’t Intentionally Blow Up Obamacare Markets For At Least One More Month.”) Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has announced he plans to introduce a single payer bill next month, and it will be interesting to see how that impacts the landscape.
- ACLU and Free Speech. One surreal piece of the aftermath of Charlottesville has been the American Civil Liberty Union’s struggle to define where, exactly, it draws lines about hate speech and violent protest. After the Governor of Virginia accused the organization of causing the riots with their representation of the Unite the Right organizers, and three ACLU chapters in California went rogue in protest (citing incitement to violence’s lack of constitutional protection as their reasoning), the ACLU announced that they will no longer represent hate groups who demonstrate with firearms. As a lawyer, I’m really not sure what to make of all that. For context, as the California chapters note, speech that incites listeners to violence is not constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment, but it’s not always clear what incitement to violence actually means; old case law draws the guideline of “clear and present danger” of violence in response to the speech, but of course that’s a question of perspective. The ACLU has a long history of representing hate groups due to its belief that hate speech is still protected speech, and it looks like it mostly still will; note that this policy does not rule out protesting with clubs and shields (which were the main weapons used in Charlottesville). So that’s disturbing — it’s like knowing the Tooth Fairy hangs with vampires on occasion because She Firmly Believes That Everybody’s Gotta Eat.
- “Very Fine People on Both Sides.” If you’re anything like me, you stared at your screen in stunned shock for a moment after reading the main highlights of Tuesday’s infrastructure presser. (And if you’re really like me, you then immediately read the transcript for that wanna-be-informed-but-don’t-hate-myself-enough-to-actually-watch compromise.) But if you’re one of the individuals who missed that bit of surreal horror, here’s a quick summary: Trump made some very strongly-worded impromptu statements about the Charlottesville events that were much more supportive of white nationalism than condemning. His statements included false equivalence of Robert E. Lee with George Washington, assertions that “very, very violent” counterprotesters of the “alt-left” shared blame, and, of course, made the titular assertion that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville conflict that ended a person’s life. I wrote a bunch on this topic already, but if you’re looking for a deep dive you could definitely do worse than FactChecking.org’s context for the press conference.
- Give Us Your IP Addresses.* Among the darker Nazi-free pieces of news to hit this week is a website hosting server called DreamHost announcing that the Department of Justice has been seeking IP addresses for all 1.3 million people who visited a protest organization site it hosts. Though the warrant appears to be connected to felony charges of rioting on the date of the inauguration, DreamHost correctly notes that this data could be used to track who is protesting, which in turn has a chilling effect on constitutional (and legal) right to assembly. Also, as the Guardian notes, there are issues with the felony charges themselves, since police appear to have swept up some journalists who were simply covering the events. But Forbes has your back, publishing some suggestions for how to hide your IP address. Welcome to 2017: The Year So Bad, A Business Periodical Taught You How to Radicalize.
- Immigration in the Windy City. Sessions continued this administration’s multi-year tradition of Saying Busted Stuff About Chicago by complaining about the city’s sanctuary city practices in a prepared speech to Miami officials. I can’t tell if he was trying to enlist Miami to pitch in with Chicago’s lawsuit against the Department of Justice, or just really wanted to vent his spleen, but either way it was kind of strange and not very factually accurate. Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps unsurprising that protests to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, which was created by President Obama five years ago, ended in the arrest of a House rep from Chicago, Luis Gutiérrez. Though the provision had been left in place for the first months of Trump’s presidency, it is vulnerable right now because ten Attorneys General are threatening to sue if it doesn’t sunset early next month. With an administration so set against all forms of immigration, the only thing surprising about this upsetting situation is that DACA was allowed to continue as long as it did.
- International Terrorism. This past week saw multiple terrorist attacks in Spain, as well as an attack in Finland. Events began in Barcelona, where a terrorist drove a van directly into a crowded pedestrian walkway, killing fifteen people and injuring over a hundred others. A short time later, a second attack occurred in Cambrils, a coastal town about seventy-five miles away; there was also an explosion at a house in Alcanar. ISIS took credit for the attack, and Trump made headlines by immediately tweeting about apocryphal war crimes in response. Only a day or two later, a knife attack in Finland killed two women and and injured several other people; Finnish authorities are now investigating that as an act of terrorism as well.
- Environmental Horribleness.* My most excellent researcher checked in on what’s going on at the EPA right now, and it’s basically all terrible. The EPA is rewriting toxic waste limits for power plants, weakening bipartisan chemical safety laws, and naysaying the very idea of climate change, and Pruitt is apparently doing all of this behind closed doors in an unusually secretive fashion. Against this backdrop, it is scary (and sobering) to realize that actually the EPA isn’t the most extreme environmental department right now. That honor belongs to the Department of Agriculture, which has been censoring the phrase “climate change” from people’s emails and has a pick for chief scientist who isn’t a scientist (and believes homosexuality leads to pedophilia). And then on top of all of that, today Trump disbanded the Advisory Committee for National Climate Assessment because they did their jobs and did an assessment — which contained conclusions about climate change that Trump didn’t like. (Though the New York Times got an advance copy and published a summary of its findings, so at least we know what it said.)
- Confederacy Statue Removal. Baltimore moved up its timetable to remove Confederate statues from the city last week, using emergency powers relating to the city’s security to remove all four statues in the middle of the night. This is both a valid decision in light of Charlottesville’s violence and a referendum on Trump’s statements; prior to the President’s escalation, this had been a very lengthy process. An expert on Confederate symbols was quoting as saying he expected a “rolling cascade” of similar actions from other cities. “[I]f you do it quickly the opposition can’t build up, and the confrontations that we’ve had, not only in Charlottesville but elsewhere, will not materialize,” the expert reasoned. He’s already been proven at least partially right; the University of Texas followed suit this morning, removing four statues during the night and citing the “horrific displays of hate” in Charlottesville as its reasoning.
- Business Resistance. In the wake of Trump’s bombastic comments about Charlottesville, we’re also seeing reaction from a pretty unlikely corner: The business world. His Manufacturing Council saw many resignations last week, and the Strategic and Policy Forum Council disbanded itself rather than lose nine out of twelve members due to protest resignations. Trump dealt with this by announcing he was ending them both in a classic “You can’t quit, I’M FIRING YOU!” maneuver. (By the way, members of the Presidential Arts Commission resigned by open letter this past week too.) But while this is embarrassing, and it hits Trump where he lives — which is to say, among the 1% — it’s probably not as embarrassing as the giant pile of conglomerate charities now refusing to hold galas at Mar-A-Lago. Maybe he should try offering them all two scoops of ice cream.
- GOP Resistance. Countless Republicans have issued statements criticizing not only Charlottesville but Trump himself and his responses, especially after his Both Sides Statements on Tuesday — highlighting how much the party itself is shaking its head and backing away slowly. Though the party was a bit more measured in its responses by the end of the week, it will be interesting to see where things stand by the time Congress reconvenes in September. (Republican constituents, meanwhile, were a bit more willing to accept his actions.) On a related note, support for impeachment has grown to 40% of Americans, which is really striking.
- Boston Strong. My home city of Boston hosted about a hundred far-right protesters this past week, which was a pretty bizarre experience. Though I can’t say any of us enjoyed shutting down our downtown, we did show up in droves, with estimates that the counterprotest reached about 40,000 attendees throughout the day. The sheer numbers allowed for a level of nonviolence that would not have been an option in Charlottesville, and in fact the counterprotest was so effective that the speakers opted to cut their rally short by about an hour. Although a few dozen people were arrested — which friends of mine enjoy pointing out is fewer than some Sox games — as the commissioner noted, “99.9 percent of the people here were for the right reason and that’s to fight bigotry and hate.” Also, many of the signs were truly amazing.
And that’s the week’s news! Inch by inch, up to the next summit we go. I’ll do my best to keep touching on all the key points each week no matter how bad and frenetic it gets, but the news is still moving really fast. Daily news summaries like WTFJHT are still an excellent resource until we meet again.