National News Roundup: Year 2, Week 17 (May 13–19)
Well, we’re drinking from the fire hose again this week, and most of the newswater is pretty fetid. There were a few bright spots, thankfully, but consider yourselves forewarned anyway — this was a pretty rough week.
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 postage rate! — 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:
It was another fairly quiet week regarding Casual Disregard of Governing Norms, but there were a couple of things worth noting:
- Haspel Confirmation. Despite (or perhaps because of) bipartisan concern about statements made at Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing, Haspel issued a statement a few days after her hearing that “with the benefit of hindsight” she realizes that torture was a bad plan. The statement gained her the support of the Senate Intelligence Committee so it wasn’t surprising that she was confirmed as the new CIA director a day later. With six Senate Democrats voting for her and two Senate Republicans voting against, her confirmation trajectory was pretty unusual — and probably linked to the 2018 elections.
- Ethics and Emoluments. There was a bit of news about Trump mixing the personal and the professional this week, though at this point I think we’re all unadvisedly jaded on the topic. Former ethics adviser Norm Eisen signaled he plans to sue Trump over another emoluments clause violation, this time regarding the Trump Organization seeking new business deals in China. Meanwhile, news also broke this week that Trump pressured the post office to double postage rates for Amazon, which is definitely a legit use of Presidential powers.
There were a couple of developments on the Russia Investigation front too. Here’s a summary of the main things to know:
- Senate Intelligence Committee News. The Senate Intelligence Committee released thousands of pages of testimony regarding the 2016 Trump Tower meeting this week. It’s a sea of documents that was much heralded but provides little clarity, making the release seem more about the politics of the investigation than the information inside the documents. That said, we did learn a few helpful things, such as Donald Trump Jr’s calls to a blocked number and Rob Goldstone’s offer to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.
- Qatar, Corruption, and Cohen. News broke this week that Michael Cohen sought a one million dollar payment from Qatar in exchange for access or insight into the Trump administration. Though we had already learned about Cohen doing this with domestic companies, this is the first allegation of soliciting payments from a foreign government. But it wasn’t the last allegation of money changing hands with foreign powers, because we also learned that Team Trump paid the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for assistance shortly after the 2016 election, which is definitely illegal if it related to the election itself, and Mueller is looking into the UAE’s role more closely now. This last piece of news is likely the direct catalyst for the next story in this section.
- Trump vs. Justice Department. Trump demanded that the Justice Department order an inquiry into whether the FBI (or the self-same Justice Department) “infiltrated or surveilled” his campaign. Given where Mueller’s current investigation into Russian collusion is taking him, it seems very likely that the FBI was properly investigating the campaign’s activity by summer 2016, which by the way didn’t involve infiltration or spying, and I’m gonna guess we we probably wouldn’t have ended up with him as President if it had. At any rate, the Justice Department vaguely took this step today, asking its inspector general to investigate whether political motivation drove the investigation that definitely did happen. But some analysis seems to suggest that this was actually a move by Rosenstein to run out the clock without directly disobeying an order, so we’ll have to see what happens from here.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- North Korea is Nebulous. North Korea released three American detainees this week in a gesture of goodwill that was positive but vaguely baffling. The released men appeared to be in good health, and the whole thing was likely publicity preparation for proposed peace talks. But only a few days later, North Korea was threatening to call off the summit meeting with Trump due to military drills being run by South Korea. From there, the complaint quickly turned into a refusal to denuclearize, which Trump decided to blame on China. Then he followed up with a few counter threats of his own, because of course he did, though he mostly stressed how great it would be for North Korea if they followed through — which may or may not be related to the bad fever dream of supporters suggesting that Trump should get a Nobel peace prize for his work with the country. (The LA Times, at the very least, appears well aware that the peace prize talks may be premature.)
- Net Neutrality News. This week, the Senate voted to preserve Internet neutrality in a 52–47 vote, with Lisa Murkowski, John Kennedy, and Susan Collins crossing the aisle to support the bill. This sends Senator Markey’s preservation bill to the House, where it’s a much harder row to hoe. House Democrats plan to work on it, but if they can’t wrangle the votes, net neutrality will be repealed on June 11.
- Ebola Outbreak in the Congo. Experts in the Congo confirmed the first urban Ebola case this week, with at least 44 people thought to be infected. But despite the news, the World Health Organization is saying this is not yet an international emergency, in part due to swift government response, an experimental vaccine, and Doctors Without Borders coordinating care and containment on-site.
- Immigration Updates. The administration doubled down on enough immigration matters this week to have a food named after them at KFC. First it was last week’s threat of a “zero tolerance” policy that separates children from their parents at the border as a matter of course, which Trump falsely claimed was mandated by a Democrat-passed law. Then he called crime-involved immigrants “animals” and threatened to criminally charge the mayor of Oakland because she warned her constituents about anticipated raids in front of cameras. And naturally, when there is backlash against calling human beings ‘animals,’ the obvious course of action from there is to argue that outlets who reported on it misconstrued the statement and owe Trump an apology. And when that doesn’t work, obviously you respond by issuing Official White House Propaganda that calls MS-13 members “animals” no fewer than ten times and hope that people forget you were recently censured for making up claims that a Dreamer had ties to MS-13. And while all of that was happening, you have Border Patrol detain two U.S. citizens at a gas station for forty minutes because they spoke Spanish in public.
- Undoing the Obama Era. This week, the Trump Administration disassembled Obama-era policy like they were moving an Ikea bed, undoing what’s probably an unprecedented amount of infrastructure in one week. Lowlights of the list: 1) the Department of Education wound down a unit that investigates fraudulent practices of for-profit schools; 2) the Bureau of Prisons rolled back protections for transgender inmates; 3) the White House plans to stop issuing funds to health centers that refer for abortions; 4) HUD doubled down on rolling back Obama-era fair housing practices; and 5) the EPA blocked publication of a study that found toxic levels of chemicals in water supplies.
- Violence at the Gaza Border. The opening of a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem prompted severe violence on Monday when Israeli forces shot into a crowd of Palestinians trying to climb the border fence at Gaza. Ultimately, Israel’s response to the protesting crowd killed about 60 people and injured about 2,700 more. Israeli citizens seem mixed in their opinions of the state’s actions, with some saying it was necessary and some saying it was excessive force, and several UN countries have called for an inquiry into Israel’s actions. But the Trump Administration’s statements on the matter were much more definitive, saying that “Hamas is the one. . . that bears responsibility” for the deaths and injuries.
- Santa Fe Shooting. A school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas resulted in ten deaths and ten injuries on Friday. As details began to trickle in about the shooter, who is in police custody, it became clear that he was targeting people he didn’t like rather than shooting indiscriminately. Notably, this school did have preparations in place for a school shooting, which the shooter appeared to anticipate by doing things like shooting into closets; this prompted the Texas lieutenant governor to speculate that the real problem was “too many entrances and exits” in the school. This shooting is the sixteenth school shooting this year, and the two hundred and twentieth school shooting since Columbine in 1999.
- Farewell, Farm Bill. The GOP farm bill kicking around the House tanked this week, which means the attempt to create work requirements for food assistance died along with it. Ironically, although Democrats and moderate Republicans objected to the work requirement, that wasn’t what killed the bill — the Freedom Caucus pushed the numbers
in the red over an immigration standoff. It’s always super sad when one attempt to take away people’s rights gets in the way of feeding starving Americans, amirite?
- Recent Court Resilience. There was a lot of good movement on court cases this week, which doesn’t fix it all but isn’t nothin’. Planned Parenthood and the ACLU in Iowa have begun their suit challenging the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill, which requires abortions approximately fifteen weeks prior to the standard permitted by constitutional law. Because this was anticipated (and in fact desired) by pro-life groups who hope to ultimately challenge Roe v. Wade, activists opted to sue under the Iowa constitution, rather than the federal one, which is honestly a smart move. Meanwhile, a federal court blocked USCIS from revoking a Dreamer’s DACA status without any actual evidence that the Dreamer was MS-13 involved. And another federal judge declined to dismiss Manafort’s criminal indictment from the Russia probe, rejecting the argument that they were too tangential to the probe to be valid. Good job, federal judges!
- Primary Optimism. Women were the big winners in Democratic primary elections this past week, securing nominations for elections in Pennsylvania, Idaho, Nebraska, and Oregon by wide margins. The Pennsylvania results are particularly interesting (and exciting) because they reflect the newly-drawn districts there, and because some of those locations have never had a female representative before. We also saw some new successes in far-left candidates, reflecting an ever-deepening divide between parties in our current age of partisan politics.
And that’s the news this week! It was in fact as awful as forecast last week, but hopefully that means next week will be better. But I’ll be back either way, because I’m good at Weeble impressions, and I hope you are also! In the meantime, feel free to ping the National News Roundup ask box. Send me questions! Send me feedback! Send me a better executive branch!