National News Roundup: Year 2, Week 26 (July 15–21)
This week I have ten stories in Constitutional Crisis Corner, two stories in the Weird, and one story each in The Bad and The Good. This is where we live now, folks; it’s just All Constitutional Crisis All the Time. I tried changing the country’s channel, but it didn’t do anything, so much like my current back issues I guess we’re stuck with it for now.
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 Putin visit — 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:
There’s been so much wild news about Trump and Putin this week that I’m a creating a new section for it just to keep track of it all. Folks, I won’t candy-coat this; it’s looking like there are some serious issues of compromise at play. Here are the main things to know:
- Helsinki Aftermath Summary.* After the world’s weirdest joint press conference in Helsinki (which my calendar assures me was only six days ago, though I would swear it’s been a year), the rest of the week didn’t really improve much. First Trump attempted to walk back some of his more pro-Russia statements, saying that he meant to say he “[didn’t] see any reason why it wouldn’t be” Russia that hacked our election, as opposed to that he didn’t see any reason why it would be (which is what he actually said, and no, we weren’t at war with Eurasia last week). But in the same press conference where he tried to smooth things over, he continued to insult the intelligence community and insisted that he had done nothing wrong — and news broke immediately after that he has been briefed about Russia’s interference in our election since before he was even President, making the whole thing even more insulting and alarming. The very next day he started trying to set up another meeting with Putin for the fall, and later that week he made it clear that he might hand over U.S. officials for Russian interrogation (but more on that below). And he capped the week off by arguing that we need to end the Mueller investigation and calling the collusion allegations a hoax again, which definitely seems legit after a whole week of blatantly colluding with Russia. All in all, it was a confusing week that was, frankly, very difficult to watch.
- ‘Interrogation’ Exchange.* In their two-hour meeting, Putin apparently floated the idea of letting Russia interrogate Bill Browder, Michael McFaul, and several other American people on Russia’s bad side in exchange for extraditing the twelve Russians charged with tampering with our elections. Rather than telling the scary dude who is noted for making people turn up dead where to stick it, Trump called the proposition “an interesting idea” and “an incredible offer.” Americans were understandably horrified by the suggestion that Trump might turn citizens over to die, and even Congress found the idea so outrageous that the Senate managed to unite itself to unanimously vote against it. But despite public outrage, it still took nearly twenty-four hours before the administration finally rejected the idea out of hand. So, uh, that was a terrifying twenty-four hours.
- Dan Coates is Done Folks. This has not been a great week to be Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates. First he was forced to issue a press release about the investigation into Russian interference in the election after Trump publicly supported Putin over Coates’s agency — a fact made even more insulting given the recent warning that Russia is likely to interfere in the midterms. Then he learned that Trump wanted Putin to visit the White House in the middle of a live interview, prompting him to speak for all of us by noting, “That’s going to be special.” His response is amusing, but it also highlights how strange it is that the Director of National Intelligence didn’t know about a sitting President’s request to host a hostile dignitary — we’re heading pretty far outside our governing norms, folks, and it’s not looking like we’re going to detour back to familiar ground anytime soon.
- Congress Responds. In the wake of all the off-the-wall horrifying news above, Congress has started to respond. In addition to the unanimous Senate vote on Russian interrogation, Democrats are calling for Trump’s interpreter to testify. And while Mitch McConnell doesn’t want to go that far, even he wants a hearing on further Russia sanctions. So on the plus side, Congress appears at least somewhat poised to act, which is a refreshing change of pace.
There was also still some Casual Disregard of Governing Norms this week, many of which appear related to Trump and Russia but are worth examining on their own. Here’s what happened:
- We’re Nae Yer Foe.* Just before he went to Helsinki to play nice with Putin, Trump was asked during an interview in Scotland to name the United States’s current biggest global foes. His response? Ignoring North Korea, Iran, and China, he went ahead and named the European Union as his very first answer. Folks, it’s a whole week later and I still can’t get over how bananas this is; he literally told a reporter, while sitting on European Union soil, that the biggest threat he could think of was the allied country he was currently golfing in. (He did go on to name Russia, but immediately softened his statement by calling Russia “a foe in certain respects . . . but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.”) You know, you’d think he’d have more respect for the people who invented golf.
- IRS Walks Back Accountability.* The Treasury announced this week that the IRS will no longer compel tax-exempt 501(c)(4) lobbying groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association to disclose their donors. Though proponents of the policy say that this will protect privacy rights of donors, it will also make it easier for foreign powers to donate anonymously. But I’m sure it’s fine; it’s not like a Russian operative was indicted this week for trying to infiltrate the NRA, right? (Spoiler: As you’ve probably already guessed, that did indeed absolutely happen right before this policy rolled out.)
- Cohen Recordings. Among the wilder not-Russia-related news this week was the reveal of a secret recording Michael Cohen made of his own phone call with then-client Donald Trump, which was apparently only one of twelve such recordings. The recording centers on a discussion about AMI, the parent company of the National Inquirer, buying and burying the rights to Trump’s affair with Karen McDougal — which both shows Trump knew this was happening and also potentially lands the National Inquirer in hot water. That said, it also potentially lands Cohen in hot water, both because Trump is likely to retaliate and because recording your conversations with your own client isn’t exactly ethical attorney behavior.
The Russia Investigation is still overclocked and going strong, too — no quieter than it was last week, which is really saying something:
- Maria Butina Bruhaha.* A Russian operative was indicted this week for conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent on the immediate coattails of the GRU operatives. She appears to be part of a larger Russian effort to infiltrate U.S. organizations — she had the backing of a Kremlin-linked Russian billionaire and apparently met with the U.S. treasury in addition to using sex to infiltrate the NRA. Unlike the GRU operatives, Butina was still in the United States when charged, and is awaiting trial in custody. (And speaking of the GRU operatives, a Russian firm being charged in that matter cited Judge Kavanaugh in their argument that the charges should be dismissed.)
- Manafort Evidence List. Mueller released all the Manafort evidence in advance of his trial, which likely starts next week, and in total it was a staggering 500 pieces of evidence — I don’t even want to think about how long document review must have taken for this case. Because there are tax fraud charges, some of the evidence relates to things Manafort bought and shouldn’t have been able to afford — so the evidence includes photos of a putting green and Yankees tickets, among other things. And, disturbingly and inexplicably, Bernie Sanders’s campaign strategist comes up sixteen times. This will be an interesting trial, to say the least.
- Carter Page Documents.* The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court documents used to obtain a warrant to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump associate charged with coordinating with the Kremlin, were released this week — and if anything, they make the GOP brouhaha about the warrant from February look even more sketchy and ridiculous, because it blatantly contradicts most of the February memo’s claims. Carter Page, of course, is still denying being an agent of the Kremlin, and Trump is inexplicably claiming the release discredits the Mueller investigation (by showing further evidence that he has close ties to Russia, I guess?). On the one hand, I kind of can’t believe we’re still arguing about this, but on the other hand Trump just invited Putin to the White House — so actually, yeah, I definitely can.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- NATO Nastiness.* As his ‘foe’ comment forecasts, Trump did more messing with NATO this week, questioning the mutual defense doctrine in Article 5 of the treaty (which says we have to come to the aid of countries that are attacked, because an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all of them). I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Putin criticized NATO on the same day, and over an issue he says he discussed with Trump at that.
- Obamas in Johannesburg. While Trump was criticizing NATO, America’s favorite ex was speaking in Johannesburg about how busted Trump’s methods are — he used polite phrases like “politics of fear and resentment” and “barely hidden racial nationalism” but I think we all knew who he was subspeeching about. In case anyone was curious, Obama is still excellent at giving speeches, and that juxtaposition is made even more striking when you realize that Trump has never even been to sub-Saharan Africa since assuming office. His full Trump-related remarks are available online, so you can watch him go and mourn our current lack of adult supervision in the Oval Office — but I recommend first grabbing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s so that you can numb your misery with brain freeze.
- Iranian Aggression.* Not content to be fighting with China, North Korea, and half of Europe, Trump also picked a fight with Iran this week in apparent response to Iran trash-talking us on Sunday — but since even that appears to be in response to us withdrawing from the Iran Deal, I’m not sure we get to say they started it. At any rate, Trump took to Twitter to claim that the country would face “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED” if Irani President Hassan Rouhani continued to threaten the United States. It’s unclear what he meant by that, and frankly, I’m not sure I want to find out, but I’ll keep an eye on this all the same.
- Medicaid Restored in Kentucky. I actually do have one small oasis of good news for you this week! Only a few weeks after Kentucky governor Matt Bevin canceled vision and dental coverage for thousands of Medicaid recipients in a fit of pique, he abruptly changed course and reinstated the benefits for all 500,000 recipients. I have no idea what made him change his mind, but I’m not about to look a gift horse in the newly-insured mouth.
And that’s the news this week, and good job and my condolences for making it through the whole thing; your reward is Kate the Chemist teaching Steven Colbert how to Do Science and hopefully an eventual better government. I’ll be back next week, and I hope you will be too. In the meantime, feel free to ping the National News Roundup ask box. Send me questions! Send me feedback! Send me a better-functioning lower back!