National News Roundup: Week 33 (September 3–9)
I am seriously kind of in awe of just how much news has happened this week. In an ordinary democracy, the panopoly of natural disasters so close together would shut down most other things, beyond maybe some arguments about what bill initiative Congress should tie to the FEMA funds. But since we live in The Dystopia Nobody Bothered to Predict, instead apparently back-to-back hurricanes meant A Great Time To Take Away People’s Protections. Yaaaaaaay. (Also, there was a bunch of movement on the Russia investigation, but I can’t be mad about that, because Mueller might make the hurting stop.)
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 climate scientist — 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:
More news this week on that oldie-but-goodie, the Emoluments Clause. (Remember that thing? Cause Trump clearly doesn’t!)
- Pay-to-Play Lobbying. So you know how Trump keeps going to his own private properties and golfing like every five minutes, and he presumably has golfing partners because he’s not just playing all by himself every time? USA Today decided to find out who he was golfing with, and surprise, it’s a bunch of lobbyists and government contractors! So, in other words, we literally have lobbyists paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for an exclusive membership that gives them direct access to the President, who just-by-coincidence also is the recipient of those hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cause that’s not a conflict of interest or personal enrichment or straight-up bribery at all.
Also just like last week, we saw several forms of real progress in The Russia Collusion Investigation.
- Facebook Ads for Russian Shills.* Facebook finally admitted this week that it sold $100,000 worth of ads to Russian troll farms, which proceeded to target Americans on topics such as LGBT rights, immigration, and gun control. The U.S. intelligence community has known this since January (though a Russian politician bragged otherwise yesterday), so it’s good that Zuckerberg is finally admitting it even if a recent New York Times report basically made him. The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner (who presumably has more reason than most of us to know) cautioned that this is likely “the tip of the iceberg.” And since Twitter has indicated that Russia may have bought ads from them, too, he appears to be correct.
- Trump Junior and the Airing of Secrets.* Donald Trump Junior spoke to Senate Judiciary Committee staff in interview this week, and it would appear that many beans were spilled that day. Not so much in what he said — in fact, Chris Coons was of the opinion that so many lies were uttered that he pointedly sent out a memo summarizing penalties for perjury — but what his story accidentally reveals. His story, apparently, was that he met with Russian representation to get information on Hillary Clinton’s “fitness” to be President. But he said in his prepared statement that he planned to consult with counsel about anything he learned, which head Democrat Adam Schiff correctly pounced on as evidence that Junior knew the meeting was pretty dodgy. His repeated complaint that nothing “meaningful” came out of the meeting also was noteworthy to the investigators, because it served to highlight the campaign’s hope that the meeting would produce dirt on Clinton. The Senate interview went on about five hours, and Senator Feinstein has signaled that he’ll definitely be questioned again, and publicly, sometime soon — by subpoena if necessary.
- Does Anybody Even Bother to Honor Recusal Anymore? So one of the Russia Investigation headlines this week is that Nunes is yelling at Sessions for failing to provide documents to the House committee relating to the Russia dossier. If you’re confused by this, because both Nunes and Sessions are supposed to be recused from this very investigation, I welcome you to the most esteemed club of People Who Expect Recusals to Mean Something.
- Mueller’s Federal Aide(s). Mueller released a list of aides he wants to interview, and I’m pretty excited about it. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus! Hope Hicks! White House Counsel Don McGahn! Maybe McGahn can tell us which part of the draft letter firing Comey he didn’t think was appropriate (since it wasn’t, you know, the firing part).
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Debt Ceiling Surreality. The Surreal Political Moment Award this week goes to Wednesday’s debt ceiling package, which somehow involved an agreement between Trump and head Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. Trump’s sudden cooperation on the three-month extension plan was probably much more a comment on his animosity with the GOP than any sudden love of Democratic leadership — many Republicans staunchly opposed a short-term solution — which makes it hard to trust that his about-face has any staying power. But now that the debt ceiling can has been simply kicked down the road another few months, we’ll be going through this again in December, so who knows who he’ll be siding with by then. (The package also included funding for relief aid for Hurricane Harvey, by the way, though FEMA is likely to run out of funding during or after Hurricane Irma so there may need to be a second package as well.)
- Ivanka’s Weird White House Role. Speaking of the animosity between Trump and the GOP, he also used debt negotiations as Take Your Daughter to Work Day this week, which the GOP did not love. Apparently the Ivanka Drive-By has become a common meeting technique in the White House, despite her assertions to Fox News that she “tries to stay out of politics” and despite (or perhaps because of) a new policy implemented by General Kelly requiring her to set up appointments just like everybody else. Trump himself referenced the strange role she plays within the White House this week, noting to a crowd that she came with him to one of his rallies because she asked him, “Daddy, can I go with you?” and he gave her permission.
- Well, We Sure Are Still Arguing About Repeal-and-Replace. The Graham-Cassidy bill, an ACA repeal-and-replace bill that is somehow still standing despite sharing many similarities with the failed July bills, is a topic of some debate now that Congress is back in session. (McCain said he would back it, like a true maverick with discernible opinions about healthcare, but then he walked back that statement a few days later.) Reconciliation will require a tight timeline — the rules require action by September 30 — and there are several other things that will require action in that time. Also, as I’ll discuss further below, much of Congress has moved on to reforming the existing ACA after July’s debacle, which creates another discernible barrier.
- Bridenstine Blues. Trump has finally put forward his pick for the head of NASA, an Oklahoma representative named Jim Bridenstine. The good news is that he wants to see us go to the moon and Mars. The bad news is he doesn’t believe climate change is real — and NASA does a lot of climate change research, so this might not be the best fit ever. Though, as my researcher notes, at least he doesn’t want to dismantle the entire department, which makes him better than half the Trump appointees to date. This is where we are now, folks.
- Mother Earth Has Given Up And Is Letting Us Touch The Hot Stove.* There has been so much terrifying natural disaster news this past week that I’m honestly kind of worried I forgot something. In addition to Hurricane Irma (which was awful, and I’ll discuss that separately below), we’re currently experiencing unexpectedly severe wildfires on the west coast (caused in part by a heat wave so bad it killed six people even in considerably-wetter San Francisco); two more significant hurricanes in addition to Harvey and Irma; earthquakes in Mexico; and massive solar flares. And of course, that’s just what was in the news this week; we’re not even talking about Hurricane Harvey or Heatwave Lucifer in Europe. Most of us are SUPER SORRY, Mother Nature, and we promise to never touch the hot stove of global warming again. (Too bad we aren’t in charge of anything.)
- Hurricane Irma News.* Hurricane Irma happened this past week, and in technical terms: It was super bad. Since it began in the Caribbean, a number of islands there were hit hit very hard — the tiny island of Barbuda experienced over 95% damage in infrastructure; St Martin reported eight deaths; Cuba reported parts of Havana were submerged; and one-million people were left without power in Puerto Rico, which wasn’t even in the storm’s direct path. Eventually Irma hit a heavily-evacuated Florida, where it left most of the state without power (hopefully including the home of Grady Judd, the jerk sheriff who decided before the storm that shelters were for winners). After that, Irma weakened to a tropical storm, which is somewhere in North Carolina as I write this. Between Puerto Rico and Florida (as well as previously-ravaged Texas and Louisiana), Irma is likely to wreck havoc on our national economy; the UK has begun relief efforts already and hopefully we’ll hear more on our front soon, too. In the meantime, the Independent has a good timeline of the devastation created by Irma, Jose, and Katia. It’s really scary to contemplate that Rush Limbaugh was telling people that these storms are “fake news” created to advance a climate change agenda; I hope that people evacuated instead of listening to him. (Let’s be honest; nothing is ever gained by listening to Rush Limbaugh.)
- Cruel Awakening for Dreamers. AG Sessions announced on Tuesday that this administration is rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, with a six month grace period and a fairly confusing phase-out plan (which several organizations have summarized by this point). This is scary news for the nearly 800,000 people currently participating in the DACA program, particularly with the recent forecast that ICE may begin destroying records of abuses such as sexual assaults and deaths in custody in the near future. The moral and humanitarian implications of deporting childhood arrivals are obvious, but there are also fiscal ones: since Dreamers currently participating in the program, by definition, live and work as law-abiding residents in our communities, ending the program is expected to reduce the American gross domestic product by $433 billion over the next ten years. Presumably for this reason, Trump is telling Congress to fix what he just did and making vague assurances that maybe he will if they don’t. Congress is currently considering multiple bills that would extend DACA (most notably, the Bridge Act and the 2017 Dream Act). This is a rare instance when legislators have a lot of power to address an immigration issue and also seem inclined to act, so it’s definitely important that we call our reps!
- Trump vs North Korea (again again).* Many experts were worried that North Korea might fire another missile over the weekend, particularly after last Sunday’s detonation, but that threat didn’t materialize. The concern was in part due to Trump’s demand midweek to block all cargo to North Korea, a move that Putin (probably correctly) described as counterproductive and likely destabilizing. After an anxious weekend, the United Nations Security Council did increase sanctions on North Korea today, but it stopped short of the full embargo Trump’s administration wanted. It’s unclear what North Korea will do in response to increased sanctions, but I guess this week we’ll find out.
- Toxic Waste and You. The EPA is in hot water, so to speak, after the Associated Press reported that several toxic Superfund nuclear sites in Texas were flooded from Hurricane Harvey before any EPA surveying had been done (see what I did there?). Eventually, the EPA reported that aerial footage confirmed flooding and “possible damage” in 13 sites, and then slagged on the Associated Press for reporting on them, calling the story “incredibly misleading” and complaining that it was written “from the comfort of Washington.” (That’s the main crux of the argument, at any rate; some of the additional attacks were so striking that multiple outlets wrote about how weird they were.) The EPA might be on the defensive because staffing is still very low, which is hurting the hurricane response, but the statement might also be signaling that they’re about to scrap the clean power initiative anyway. Also, Pruitt was quoted this week as refusing to discuss what may have caused all the recent hurricanes. So even under the best reading, they’re still kind of being jerks.
- Other Rights Infringements. Apparently this was a good week to infringe on marginalized people’s rights despite the veritable laundry list of natural disasters. Maybe our government found a Buy One, Get One Free sale at the misery emporium? At any rate, Betsy DeVos walked back Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses, and also stopped talking to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Needless to say, she is not too popular with Democrats after this.) Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee moved forward a bill designed to essentially repeal the Americans with Disabilities Act, mostly through no longer requiring business compliance and allowing lengthy delays in enforcement. And just to cap off the week, the Justice Department randomly announced that they are now backing the baker the old administration was suing for discrimination. Because in the wake of natural disasters happening across the country, it was really important that the country understand a gay couple should not be sold a cake.
- Suits to Uphold DACA. The one good thing to say about DACA is that advocacy communities were super ready for this rescission, and have moved very, very quickly in response. Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia are suing over the DACA rescission, and in fact were ready to file the coordinated suit the very next day. There’s also a private suit, Batalla Vidal v. Baran, which was amended only hours after the rescission to allow more plaintiffs and a claim about the rescission itself. The suits are in addition to the bills being considered by Congress, creating multiple potential paths back to a protected status for the 800,000 Dreamers still living in the country. There are also several excellent documents and pro bono resources already being created for Dreamers by the National Immigration Law Center, the Immigration Legal Resource Center, Immigrants Rising, and Lawyers for Good Government.
- ACA Reform-without-Repeal Hearings. Despite rumblings about the Graham/Cassidy repeal plan, the HELP committee went ahead with ACA reform hearings this week, which appeared to be very productive and notably bipartisan. Healthcare CEOs and state governors are scheduled to testify well into this week, and the first two days of hearings appear to have gone well. Among other healthcare developments, several Senators appear to be seriously considering the idea of a single-payer system.
And that’s what I got this week — more than enough, I’m sure you’re thinking! I’ll do my best to keep touching on all the key points each week, 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.
 I do have one friend who says that the Hunger Games series is a prediction of this dystopia, and I’m not ultimately sure he’s wrong. Although at least we aren’t being ordered to die for reality television. (Yet.)