National News Roundup: Year 2, Week 4 (February 11–17)
Last week, the news was so overwhelming and demoralizing that I kicked a few stories from Monday out to the following roundup, hoping that things would be calmer then. I of course should have realized that by doing this, I virtually guaranteed that this week would be even more Chaotic Terrible than the last one. Sorry for jinxing all of us, folks!
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 EPA security detail! — 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 week started out a quiet time for the Russia Investigation, but it definitely ended with a bang! Here’s what I have for you:
- See, This Is Why We Needed Russian Sanctions, Part II.* Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued indictments of thirteen Russian nationals and three corporations on Friday, all of which related back to efforts to subvert the 2016 elections. The indictments allege that as early as 2014, these individuals began stealing U.S. identities and creating false U.S. personae to impact the election, spreading false information on the Internet as a means of confusing and influencing voters. Trump, of course, initially used these indictments to imply that Mueller had no dirt on him and this was the end of the investigation (which is definitely not true, in case anyone was worried). But eventually his opinion on this degenerated into the contents of an impressively deranged Twitter rant, as so often happens. At any rate, regardless of Trump’s disappearing reappearing ire, it was a sound tactical decision to issue these indictments now — intelligence communities are cautioning that Russia is definitely planning to do this again in 2018.
- Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch… As I mentioned a moment ago, Mueller is definitely continuing the collusion investigation, and in fact these indictments are a logical step in continuing that investigation. And it looks like they are working! Mueller is finalizing a guilty plea from Trump campaign aide Rick Gates, offering only eighteen months of sentencing in exchange for testimony against former campaign chairmen Paul Manafort. It’s a classic move that shows Mueller is treating this investigation like a traditional organized crime prosecution, and we’ve seen some very famous success with that playbook against sketchy, powerful New Yorkers in the past. Let’s hope we see it again now.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- What Rules of Professional Ethics? The White House attorney stable (and top DoJ staff, who clearly think they have a stall in that barn) have managed to lower my professional opinion of them further this week — which is kind of a neat trick, because I didn’t even know that was possible by this point. First prize in appalling practice goes to long-time Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who announced this week that he personally paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 to shut her up in 2016. For those attorneys reading this and thinking “Wait, did he just admit to a blatant violation of the Rules of Professional Ethics while violating client confidentiality and breaching a nondisclosure contract at the same time?” — why yes, yes he did. Stormy Daniels, bless her, has already announced that she is now free to talk about the whole thing, because Cohen breached the NDA agreement.
- DOJ Deserting and Dog Whistles. Though my best antipathy goes to Cohen this week, there’s still plenty left over for the Department of Justice. Rachel Brand, third in command after Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions, announced that she’s stepping down after just nine months at her current post. Though she’s ostensibly leaving because the legal department at Walmart was just so attractive, several sources note that she was very frustrated by all the vacancies in her department and afraid she might have to supervise Mueller (with all that would entail) if Rosenstein was fired. Against that backdrop, it kind of underscored the point to watch Jeff Sessions discuss “the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement” this week. Though the department defended his statements as a simple reference to common law, you cannot convince me that was anything other than an intentional dog whistle — a normal human being would have simply said “common law,” which is a much more common phrase, and the use of the word ‘heritage’ is kind of a glaring neon sign. To be fair to Rachel Brand, I wouldn’t want to work for Donald “I Fire You Cause It’s Tuesday” Trump and the Racist Brigade anymore, either.
- Weird White House Odds and Ends. Disturbingly, the previous two headers are not the end of the wacky news coming out of the White House this week, because we haven’t even gotten to the non-lawyer shenanigans yet. Despite all probability, somehow the White House is still tossing out Porter-related prevarications, with the never-ending string of lies making it look more and more likely that the White House knew about his domestic violence the entire time and he was affirmatively not cleared for his position because of the blackmail potential his abuse history created. And, as if to punctuate that point, Reince Priebus soundbites have started coming out about his time as White House Chief of Staff as a book about the position gets ready to launch. News outlets are already having a field day with one choice quote, “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50” — probably because this administration is such a goat rodeo that we don’t need more words than that before we believe it. But Vanity Fair gladly gives us a panoply of choice excerpts from the book anyway, and they’re all pretty much exactly as horrorshow as you might expect.
- Tragedy in Parkland. A school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left seventeen people dead and much of the country completely horrified. The confessed shooter, who is now in police custody, was a former student at the school, and much attention has been given to his troubled past. The tragedy has caused many of us to return to conversations about the roles of mental health, domestic violence, and gun control in causing and preventing gun violence (including me, by the way; I wrote a piece on the complex relationship between mental health and gun violence just like the next guy). Meanwhile, a bunch of GOP politicians’ thoughts and prayers are with the NRA in this difficult, trying time; Russia is already spinning the tragedy to their advantage; and Trump’s only real action (besides somehow making this about collusion) has been seriously pissing off the locals when he visited the area on Friday. And a new generation of Floridians are emerging to forcibly give half of Congress a spine transplant — but more on that below.
- Immigration Updates. (Yup, this section is definitely a fixture.) The biggest piece of news about ICE this week is regional, unusually enough — the head of the Seattle field office has been charged with stealing detainees’ identities to commit bank fraud. He apparently did this for four years with seven different immigrant identities, with the last allegations occurring in October 2017, proving that this administration definitely cares about addressing fraud issues in a timely manner. But the main bad news on the national stage is that there isn’t any, which is itself a problem — we still have no idea what’s going to happen to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, because the White House keeps threatening to veto bill after bipartisan bill offered on the subject and not even some Republicans rejected Trump’s version. Meanwhile, nobody knows whether the March 5 deadline will be honored or not, because the Supreme Court still hasn’t decided whether they will hear arguments on the injunctions keeping it from being enforced.
- Environmental Updates. This was not precisely what you’d call a good week for environmental news. First the Trump administration released its infrastructure proposal, which turned out to be low on funding and high on deregulation of our environmental protections. The proposal also has some bonus unconstitutional ordering around the judicial branch, trying to limit injunctive relief because — and I quote — “a legal challenge to a project . . . can delay the start of a project . . . which at the outset can discourage potential investors.” (Keep in mind that a) injunctive relief can only be offered if there’s a high probability the project is illegal; and b) they’re talking about legal challenges to private drilling here. This is an attempt to make it impossible to stop illegal project practices.) But on top of that, news also broke that EPA Head Scott Pruitt apparently flies first-class everywhere ‘for his safety’ because some people yell at him about his myriad terrible decisions when he flies coach. I don’t know why anybody bothers to call liberal people ‘snowflakes,’ y’all, because this administration clearly has that market cornered.
- Horrible H.R. 620 News. Several days later, I’m still really mad about this next piece of news. On Thursday, the House voted essentially along party lines to approve the ADA Education and Reform Act — and if you’re already suspicious of what ‘reform’ means for disability rights law in 2018, your brain is unfortunately headed in the correct direction. The main thing the bill does is make it harder to sue businesses for noncompliance with accommodations law, requiring a waiting period of 180 days before a suit can effectively begin. That essentially means that a business that is out of compliance with the law can choose to do nothing for six months before someone who lacks access can do anything to try to force them to fix it. The implications of this, particularly for employment and housing protections, are staggering, and disability activists (including myself) are justifiably very upset. About the only good thing I can say is that there’s no companion bill in the Senate, which might suggest that there’s no appetite for this particular type of ‘reform’ there.
- Recent Court Case Wins. A second district court enjoined the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing the DACA repeal on March 5 this past week, putting more pressure on the administration to avoid deporting people who participated in the DACA program. (You’d think the first case would be its own deterrent, but let’s face it, this bunch isn’t noted for listening to courts.) And just today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a new districting map, making good on its threat to turn this judicial car around if Democrats and Republicans couldn’t draw new voting districts on their own. So now that task is definitely done before November elections, which is a really important development in a swing state that just barely broke for Trump in 2016.
- Parkland Kids Owning Politicians Left and Right.* The kids most directly impacted by Wednesday’s shooting are acting more mature and decisively than the rest of us put together, organizing marches and calling out politicians as well as the NRA. Their candor is as exemplary as it is horrifying; I hope the rest of us step up to the plate soon, because traumatized high schoolers should not be forced to be the adults here.
And that’s all the news I have for you this week, in its technicolor and vaguely nauseating glory. Hopefully next week will be better, and you’ll hear from me either way. In the meantime, I’m off to spend some quality time with my freezer’s ice cream selection.