National News Roundup: Week 31 (August 20–26)
Remember those Energizer battery commercials from the 80s and 90s? Just like the Energizer Bunny, Trump came back from his obnoxiously long vacation this week energized and ready to keep going and going. Our nation, predictably, suffers the results, which nobody is enjoying as an unprecedented hurricane hits Houston.
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 — I’m a lawyer, not a real estate broker — 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:
This past week, Trump did some things that really seriously threaten our Separation of Powers system, and I’m not going to sugarcoat that. I’m super sorry in advance for this week’s news; I’ll let you pause for a moment to let you get comfort foods, a nice pillow to yell into, or cat videos of your choice on standby.
Okay, ready? Here we go.
- Arpaio’s Pardon Took Away the Courts’ Teeth. On Friday night, Trump pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio, which he announced as Hurricane Harvey moved onto the Texan coast. His decision to release this information at a very strange time isn’t just because of the ratings, although I’m willing to believe that thought crossed his vile head; he was also creating cover because the move undercuts the constitution. To understand why this move is so dangerous, you have to understand the underlying charges: Arpaio’s actual crime is contempt of court for refusing to follow an injunction. That injunction was simple: “Stop unconstitutionally targeting Latino people in your detention practices.” In other words: “Quit tromping on the rights of your constituents.” When an elected official — especially a sheriff — does not uphold the constitution, constituents tend to sue, especially in our postTrumpian world of “everything’s Wonderland but the courts still work.” And when courts order compliance, they’re essentially saying “follow our laws or else;” the “or else” in that sentence is the threat of sitting in jail. But if the President makes that contempt go away — especially without proper review or evidence of remorse, as is the case here — the court has no way to make elected officials follow laws anymore. More importantly, the court has no way to make elected officials follow the Constitution anymore. And with this pardon so early in Trump’s Presidency — which is unusual also, by the way; most Presidents save this stuff for their last few months — many people fear what it signals for things like future officially-sanctioned abuses of law, and for the Russia investigation.
- Shut Down Showdown. Against the larger backdrop of Arpaio’s pardon, it’s extra concerning that Trump threatened several times to shut down the government if his wall isn’t built, and criticized Republican leadership while he was at it. For those of you playing the home game, a government shutdown shouldn’t be within Trump’s ability at all — it’s the legislative bodies’ power that prevents a government default, since Congress votes on spending. Trump is effectively threatening to ruin Congress’s process, and possibly several careers, by either sabotage or vetoing. These threats reflect a much larger issue of tensions between Trump and the rest of the GOP, particularly in the House and Senate. Though experts suppose Trump is trying to distance himself from the party, it also seems clear that he is trying to browbeat them into doing his bidding — no law makers really seem to want this wall except him, and forcing Republicans to fall in line on something that should be their job also further weakens our separation of powers. Disturbingly, it at least partially seems to be working; House Republicans proposed a resolution on Charlottesville that echoes Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric in its condemnation after he started threatening a shutdown, which is a change from politicians’ language on the topic before the threat.
- Bonus Obstruction of Justice. Just for extra bonus destruction of government process, Trump apparently asked Sessions to make charges against Arpaio go away while his case was pending this past spring. When he was told that wouldn’t happen, he began asking about pardoning. So that’s some fun attempted obstruction of justice on top of everything else. And if that doesn’t surprise or even upset you all that much, you’re feeling his systemic desensitization campaign in action; we’ve heard it before, nothing happened, and it’s starting to feel like it’s not even news. But that’s like standing in cold water so long you stop noticing it’s cold — we need to stay aware that we’re gonna get hypothermia even though we can’t actually feel our limbs anymore.
Fun times, right? You know what, just go ahead and take a moment with your Maru videos; I won’t tell anyone.
And we’re back! Moving on, this week also saw a lot of Civil Rights Destruction Consequences (besides pardoning Arpaio, who sets back the Civil Rights movement fifty years all by himself).
- Trans Military Ban Implemented. After threatening to do it for weeks, Trump did give official instructions to implement his ban on trans people in the military this week, confirming critics’ assertions that he’s an arrogant draft-dodger who doesn’t understand how many trans folks actively serve or, apparently, the meaning of the phrase “currently deployed.” The directive gave General Mattis considerable leeway to decide what to do with the currently-serving members of the trans military, but it has its own snag associated with it — Mattis is supposed to develop a plan in the next six months “with the Secretary of Homeland Security,” and we don’t currently have one. He has signaled to serving troops that he plans to leave those members serving in place — unsurprising, given how unpopular this move is with the actual military — but it’s hard to say what will actually happen when his plan has to be hashed out with a person who doesn’t currently exist. It’s my guess that this is intentional. Either way, the ACLU is already suing, so I’m a bit less cranky with them than I was last week.
- United Nations Warning Label.* The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued an Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedure about racial violence in the United States this past week, citing “the horrific events of Charlottesville” and noting it was “disturbed by the failure at the highest political level” to unequivocally reject them. In other words, the United Nations saw Trump refuse to condemn white supremacists over and over again, just like the rest of us, and we’re all being asked to preserve people’s human rights and avoid further incidents. I don’t think this administration plans on taking that seriously, and I’ll say more about why below.
The one silver lining of the week is The Russia Collusion Investigation, which is being recontextualized and refined in real time as all the other horrible things above happen around it. We saw some serious movement before Trump’s late-night Friday announcements, and we’re very, very likely to see further movement in the upcoming week.
- Pee Tape Guy Testifies.* (Okay fine, the Senate Judiciary Committee probably refers to Glenn Simpson as “the author of a controversial dossier,” but we all know what they really mean.) At any rate, whatever you call him, Glenn Simpson — the guy who authored that one dossier — testified for ten hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The Judiciary Committee is currently deciding whether to release the transcript, which hopefully means he said something interesting. I’ll keep you posted.
- Dear(born) Putin.* So, we all pretty much knew that at some point evidence was going to pop up suggesting that the Trump camp was approached about meeting with Putin directly. Surprise, that day has come! Rick Dearborn, a top aide who was working for Sessions at the time and helped set up the Mayflower meeting, apparently received and passed on an email to this effect to the Trump campaign team. It will be interesting to see what the investigation does with that.
- Rushing a Russian Trump Tower.* News broke this weekend that Trump was building a Trump Tower in Moscow while he ran for President in 2015–2016. Even worse, the decision was apparently in part based on assurances from a Russian-American business associate that the deal would get him Putin’s support on his campaign. Trump appears to have discussed this deal three times before it was ultimately shelved in January 2016. As part of the business deal, a top exec in the Trump real estate company emailed Putin’s personal spokesperson during the campaign. This means we now have direct confirmation that Putin’s reps and Trump’s reps were in communication during the campaign, which is… not a great look for Trump. We’ll have to see what is done with this information.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Gorka’s Out and That Makes Me Uneasy.* As part of the Friday Night Trifecta of Weird-Ass News, Sebastian Gorka was unceremoniously ousted from the White House a la Steve Bannon. And just like Bannon, Gorka quickly landed at Breitbart. Just like Bannon, reports differ on whether he was removed or resigned. (You may be noting a trend here.) Finally, just like Bannon, I don’t believe he was truly ousted; I think he was only reassigned outside the White House. And that’s a bit unsettling; as private actors they are subject to fewer rules about their behavior than they were in the White House, and moving some of the most contentious staff externally might also improve the overall functionality of the administration. Which is not a good thing. (Although, as a friend of mine points out, moving them externally also limits their access to classified information, at least on paper, so there’s that as a silver lining.)
- Trump and Afghanistan. Trump gave prepared remarks about Afghanistan at the beginning of the week, setting up his by-now-traditional Two Step Process for Presidential Success (i.e. “prepared remarks that make him sound like he isn’t a five-year-old, followed by deranged and alienating off-the-cuff comments like a day later”). He did clarify that he has scrapped his plans to remove the troops there, and seems to suggest he’s going to send in even more troops, but other than that he didn’t give many details. So he was basically just… announcing he was going to ignore a campaign promise? Needless to say, Breitbart wasn’t a fan, which means the whole thing was very strange and also a President should be accountable for the troops whose lives he’s endangering but at least there was a hint of schadenfreude involved.
- Fearmongering in Phoenix. Completing the “deranged off-the-cuff statements” portion of the program, both Trump and Pence headed out to Phoenix for a campaign-style rally on Tuesday because…reasons? (I actually have no idea why they headed out there, other than maybe signaling they were about to pardon Arpaio.) But Trump sure had a good time saying horrible and/or blatantly untrue things while he was there about the free press, his response to Charlottesville, NAFTA, and immigration. My favorite was the part where he claimed CNN stopped broadcasting, which was probably a surprise to the people who were watching him on CNN. Also, police used tear gas on protesters outside the stadium, and his use of Ben Carson at a political rally probably violated the Hatch Act (which is violation number two for this administration).
- Devastation in Texas. There’s so, so much to say about the way Hurricane Harvey is devastating southern Texas right now, and I’m afraid it’s hard to fit it all into a single paragraph. The unprecedented flooding has already killed at least nine people, displacing thousands of others, and rescue attempts by boat are being coordinated by social media as I write this, because police are stretched so thin they’ve become hard to reach. Before and after videos of Texan locations illustrate just how incredibly flooded the area has become; the property damage in the region must be absolutely devastating. The Texas Monthly has concrete suggestions for how people can help the survivors, which I really recommend looking over if you have the time. If you only have a second to spare but still want to help, a good touchstone to remember is that money is much more helpful than items in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.
- Harvey and Immigration. Hurricane Harvey is particularly devastating for the estimated 400,000 undocumented people living in Houston. Though Immigration Customs Enforcement announced it wouldn’t do routine checks at shelters, the immigration checkpoints remain open during the hurricane. This is a break from precedent set in 2016, and it puts immigrant populations between a rock and a hard place — they have to decide between risking dangerous flooding and risking deportation. Obviously, this makes it much harder for undocumented people to get to safety, because they likely need to avoid checkpoints, and it creates a realistic possibility that immigrant populations won’t seek help from shelters.
- “Law and Order”: Special Military Units. Trump signed an executive order today rescinding Obama-era restrictions on sending military equipment to police, which they have the gall to title a “Presidential Executive Order on Restoring State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement’s Access to Life-Saving Equipment and Resources.” (You’ll forgive me if I fail to see how police having grenade launchers, aircrafts, and explosives makes anybody any safer.) I’m still really, really cheesed off about this, particularly as the order being rescinded was in response to Ferguson (because of course it was, that’s half the reason they’re overturning it). This item is most of the reason I’m so convinced the administration plans to ignore the United Nations; this action is extremely likely to exacerbate racial tensions.
- Secret Service Caps on Overtime Pay. In more mundane terrible news, Trump’s ridiculous vacation schedule is apparently causing Secret Service agents to work so much overtime that they’re hitting pay caps, meaning that individual agents have to protect his sorry butt without getting paid for it. Honestly, the only thing worse than knowing you might have to take a bullet for Trump is knowing that you might have to take a bullet for him for free, so I super feel for these folks; I hope Congress has enough sense to lift the cap before half the Secret Service starts coming down with notgoingintoworkitis.
- White House Visitor Logs Staying Logged. Maybe it’s related to the money thing, but the Secret Service also agreed to stop erasing the White House visitor log this week, if only on a temporary basis. Apparently this is in connection with a FOIA suit filed last week, so it’s likely the plan until the case is resolved, but at this point, I’ll take it.
- National Monument Win. After months and months of tense advocacy and deliberations, particularly around the famous Bear Ears National Monument, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced this week that he won’t recommend eliminating any of the 27 monuments under review. He did recommend “changes” to a few, including Bear Ears — but we don’t have a clear picture of what those “changes” are, because the report wasn’t released. Senator Feinstein, a Democrat from California, has formally requested the report be released. Hopefully this means we’ll have a clearer picture soon, but at minimum, the simple fact that none are being eliminated is a modest win.
And that’s what I got this week — boy howdy, was the news a rough ride at top speed. 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, and we’re also increasingly seeing announcements at odd times. Daily news summaries like WTFJHT remain an excellent resource until we meet again. Good luck out there, and see you soon!