National News Roundup: Year 2, Week 10 (March 25–31)
This week wasn’t quite as bad as last week, but that’s sort of like saying “Well this week, we only got six inches of snow” (which, incidentally, was also true). Still, progress is progress, I 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 — I’m a lawyer, not a million dollar loan! — 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:
Just last week, this week had an impressive amount of Casual Disregard of Governing Norms. I’m starting to become concerned that this is going to be a new staple in the roundup, particularly because it seems to be accelerating as news of the Russia Investigation languishes. Here are the things to track this week:
- Jared Kusher and the No Good, Very Bad, Multi-Million Dollar Loans.* The administration’s Office of Government Ethics apparently is now saying that White House counsel are looking into Jared Kushner’s infamous meetings with creditors at the White House last year, which of course has nothing to do with the $500 million loans the creditors gave his company only a few days later. This is unquestionably a step up from refusing to acknowledge or look into the matter, which the White House was doing at the beginning of the week. But as former OGE head Walter Shaub notes it strains credulity to suggest that White House counsel is going to seriously investigate the President’s son-in-law. At minimum, it certainly looks like a conflict of interest for Kushner to be meeting with these creditors when they are still having dealings with his family business, from which he never fully divested. That said, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be a full-blown quid-pro-quo arrangement.
- White House Staff Shuffle Persists (Again). The White House walkouts are still ongoing, and they are something to behold:
- Just as I predicted last week, Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was indeed prematurely dismissed via tweet this past week, marking the third such firing in three weeks. Though Shulkin was ostensibly let go for corrupt use of government resources, he’s probably correct that he was really fired over his reluctance to privatize the VA, because Trump has never met a government program he didn’t view as a cash cow. (Shulkin was also the only member of the Cabinet who served under Obama.) While it’s topical, folks, I can’t stress enough just how messed up it is that we’re firing cabinet members by tweet now.
- To replace Shulkin, Trump wants to hire Ronny Jackson, who to be fair was an admiral in the Navy at some point although he’s most recently known for inexplicably claiming Trump has great genes when he did an annual physical on him a few months ago. As this anecdote may suggest, Jackson has zero experience in managing benefits of any kind, because his background is in practicing medicine. At this point, aides aren’t even trying to hide the fact that Trump cares more about whether he likes a person than he does about whether that person can do the job they are hired to perform.
- Only half of last week’s predictions came true, but rumors have continued that Trump’s advisers are telling him he doesn’t need a Chief of Staff and that Trump’s tolerance of Kelly is waning. So despite a late showing, this still wins this week’s Probably Going To Be Prematurely Enacted Next Week Prophecy Award.
- Stormy Daniels Saga Continues. This week’s Stormy Daniels news is that her attorney filed a motion to depose Donald Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen, which sadly is a legal term that means asking Trump questions rather than kicking him out of office. In other sad news, it was also denied by the judge as premature. Because it was an issue of timing rather than an issue of the merits, Daniels’s attorney Michael Avenatti has indicated he plans to try again later, so I doubt we’ve heard the end of this. Also, a third woman is suing to break a Trump-related NDA, this time about sexual harassment she experienced while she helped on the campaign trail.
- Pruitt Prurience.* There has been a lot of news about EPA head Scott Pruitt’s bizarre excesses this past week, though mysteriously he never seems to get censured for any of it (which is one of many reasons I think Shulkin is likely accurately reporting above). There was a lot of focus on the news that Pruitt had a sweetheart deal with an energy lobbyist that involved both him and his daughter renting the lobbyist’s condo at favorable rates for personal use; news also broke that Pruitt took his 24-hour security detail to the Rose Bowl and Disneyland. In response to these stories, Pruitt went onto conservative talk radio shows to claim all of his behaviors were perfectly normal (which they aren’t) and that Obama’s EPA spent more taxdollar money on travel (which they didn’t, and would be irrelevant anyway). It’s the last bit that lands this story in the Constitutional Crisis section; his blatant use of tax dollars for personal enrichment would be bad enough, but the protection Pruitt seems to enjoy from both Trump implicitly and from conservative media explicitly are definitely not normal.
One major difference from last week is that there was a lot of noteworthy Russia Investigation movement. Here’s a summary of the main things to know:
- NRA, Foreign Money, and You.* The NRA acknowledged this week that it receives money from foreign entities as the Federal Election Commission investigates whether Russia used the NRA to illegally funnel money into the 2016 election. Brad Woodhouse, treasurer for the American Democracy Legal Fund, pretty much summed this up by noting: “This story sounds more like a Tom Clancy novel than a reality, [b]ut in the age of Donald Trump and possible collusion with Russia, not only is it possible that it’s true, but it’s possible enough that it needs to be fully investigated.”
- Mueller’s Current Manafort Filing.* It’s been a busy week for Robert Mueller, I Tell You What. First on the docket is Mueller’s new allegation that Gates (and through him, Manafort) maintained connection to Russia through fall 2016 in the form of contact with a mysterious ‘Person A.’ Mueller’s filing, which was issued as part of sentencing for Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan, notes that Person A was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with the G.R.U. believed to have maintained ties during the 2016 election. Several outlets have identified Person A as Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime business associate of Manafort’s from his days working on behalf of a Kremlin-aligned Ukrainian political party. Mueller alleges Manafort had been in contact with Kilimnik as recently as this past November, well into the point where the latter was charged with money laundering and being an unregistered agent of the Ukraine.
- Beg Your Pardon? Also in the news this week is Trump’s former attorney John Dowd, who apparently discussed preemptive pardons for Manafort and Flynn with their attorneys before he left the White House legal team. It’s unclear at this time whether the pardon-in-exchange-for-silence part of the equation was subtext or text in those conversations, although it’s quite possibly obstruction of justice either way and I’m consequently not sure it matters. Also, and perhaps of more importance to the Trump team, if they accept pardons they no longer have a fifth amendment to invoke, and therefore can be compelled to testify more easily in a criminal proceeding. So much like everything else in the Trump administration, the move was both corrupt and foolish.
- Russian Diplomat Purging for Fun and Profit.* The U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle this week, as part of a coordinated statement by twenty-seven countries in response to Russia poisoning a former spy on British soil. Russia retaliated by expelling diplomats from America as well as twenty-three other countries by the end of the week. (They also closed the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg.) But while that appeared to escalate quickly, it’s worth remembering that Trump called to congratulate Putin only last week, and news broke today by way of the Kremlin that he invited Putin to the White House when making said call.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Stevens and the Second Amendment. Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote an unusual op-ed this week arguing for the repeal of the Second Amendment. While he had written a prior op-ed on the subject in 2014, and wrote a book that touched on it as well, this is the first time Stevens has ever advocated repealing the amendment wholesale rather than adding more language to contextualize it. Unsurprisingly, people had a lot of reactions to this suggestion; Trump yelled about it on Twitter while some experts noted the technical difficulties of the suggestion, some liberals expressed uneasy disapproval, some liberals appreciated the position, and the NRA called our longest-serving Supreme Court justice to date “a disgrace to America.” (In case anyone was curious about my own opinion, I think it’s very interesting that Stevens wrote it and see his logic, but respectfully agree with Larry Tribe that our current issues are political rather than legal.)
- Military Wall Pipe Dreams.* This week’s How Is This Real News? award goes to Trump trying to use military funding to pay for his wall, because nothing says ‘I support our troops’ quite like asking for their budgetary lunch money. It’s unclear how much of this is simply him being mad that Congress wouldn’t fund it and how much of this is an actual suggestion, but either way he’s arguing that the wall is “a matter of national security.” It’s also unclear why he thinks the military should fund a matter of national security when the Department of Homeland Security literally exists for this purpose and the military is prohibited from being used as a police force domestically, but I’m going to assume that Trump refused to read the briefing telling him this (if they’re even still giving him one). At any rate, since this reappropriation of funds would require a sixty-person vote from Congress, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that’s why he’s moved onto yelling about using the nuclear option in the Senate.
- Voting is Fraud, Apparently. A woman in Texas, Crystal Mason, was sentenced to five years in prison for voting in the 2016 election. Though Texas governor Greg Abbott describes this as a “voter fraud” issue, the actual issue with Mason’s ballot was that she voted while on probation, which apparently is illegal in Texas. Folks, I don’t think it’s obvious on its face just what an unreasoning horrorshow this story is, so I’m going to spend a bit of time unpacking. First of all, apparently in Texas voting while on probation — an action that is completely legal in about half of the United States — is not only a felony conviction, but the second-most serious class they recognize, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and directly comparable to manslaughter and possession of a full ton of marijuana. Second of all, I haven’t found a single article that suggests Mason misrepresented a single thing when she voted; she merely filled out a ballot at the poll while unaware it wasn’t permitted. Third of all, voter disenfranchisement in general is a serious problem for Black Americans, and sending people who try to vote away to jail for five years is its own political message. It’s almost certainly not an accident that the election in question occurred in November 2016. We have to pay attention to stories like these if we want a fair and representative election this fall.
- Census Sent Us.* The Trump administration announced on Monday that it plans to ask about citizenship in the upcoming 2020 census, which hasn’t been done since 1950. This isn’t the first questionable thing that has been announced — they also recently announced that they’ll be asking Black Americans for their country of origin and last year proclaimed they won’t be tracking LGBT Americans anymore — but it has understandably angered people who view this as disincentive for noncitizen residents to engage in the census process. An accurate census count is very important to the functioning of our society, for everything from accurate political districts to where we place hospitals, and noncitizen residents must be included in the process by law. It’s not surprising against this backdrop that twelve states are already suing the administration over this, and it’s very likely this will turn into a giant fight. We should definitely keep track of developments.
- Good Morning, Ben Carson. Ben Carson apparently woke up and remembered he runs an agency this week, which of course is bad news for anybody who was hoping HUD would continue to function properly. The biggest news item to hit is that HUD is discontinuing several ongoing attempts to enforce fair housing practices, and if you’re currently asking yourself “Isn’t that literally part of HUD’s mission statement?” I feel you, but the answer apparently is “Not anymore!” Not coincidentally, the move coincided with Carson removing anti-discrimination language from the HUD mission statement. Ugh, Carson, do your department a favor and go back to sleep.
- Immigration Updates. This was another bad week for immigration updates, despite no obvious policy setting. The administration is moving forward with its threat to punish legal residents for accessing benefits to which they are legally entitled, sending a draft regulation to the Office of Management and Budget this week. The draft is… well, it’s bad, but I’m going to hold off on analyzing it until we have a final version. Meanwhile, more moderate Republicans are beginning their bi-annual Anti Immigration Shuffle, with Mitt Romney announcing he’s now in favor of merit-based immigration because he’s also in favor of being a senator. And the week was capped off with a scary twitter tirade that was disturbing even for Trump; he ended up declaring DACA ‘dead’ (which is definitely not true; see below), threatening to withdraw from NAFTA if Mexico didn’t stop people from crossing over, and seemingly insinuating that he wanted to make seeking asylum illegal. So all of that… happened. Although we also did get a bit of positive news, which I’ve listed below.
- China Tariffs (Part II).* As forecast last week, China increased tariffs on 128 different U.S. exports this week, including but not limited to pork, fruits, and pipes. Though they stated it was in response to the aluminium and steel tariffs Trump set earlier in the month, this move almost certainly is also influenced by Trump’s decision to impose tech tariffs on Chinese exports in particular; they’re probably hoping Trump will back off of that threat if the United States is unable to export to China. Trump hasn’t really said anything about the retaliation yet, but I’m currently taking over/unders on how long it takes him to start yelling about it on Twitter.
- Census Suit. As I mentioned briefly above, at least twelve states are already suing over the citizenship question on the 2020 census. The states’ argument is that the government has a constitutional requirement to track all residents in the United States and including the question will have a chilling effect that leads to under-counting. Since all of these things have the benefit of being true, I think it’s a fairly sound argument; I’m excited to see what happens in the suit.
- DACA Big Deal. In related and also positive news, a Brooklyn court this week permitted the DACA suit brought by fifteen attorneys general to continue, declining to dismiss the case. In his decision, the judge cited Trump’s “racially charged language” as prima facie evidence of discrimination and therefore potential equal protection violation. It’s particularly edifying, given everything else going on, to read a judge write, “One might reasonably infer that a candidate who makes overtly bigoted statements on the campaign trail might be more likely to engage in similarly bigoted action in office.” Thank you for keeping us company in Reasonable Human land, Judge Garaufis!
There’s still a bit of Roundup news to round out the week; expect to hear from me soon (if you haven’t already) about finalizing any offered volunteer tasks and further refining the Roundup to meet reader needs. And in the interim, if you need anything, there’s always the National News Roundup ask box — send me questions! Send me feedback! Send me pictures of your dog!
And that’s all I have this week. Until next time, I have the honor to be your obedient servant, K.H.