National News Roundup: Year 2, Week 48.5 (December 16–26)
This week’s National News Roundup has an audio link for accessibility! Click here to listen.
This week was a dumpster fire for everyone, including the Trump administration — there are no real winners with a government shutdown and half the administration on its way out the door. And while it’s nice to at least see some collateral damage, I still recommend grabbing a comfort food before you dig into this week’s news — it’s definitely not The Most Wonderful News of the Year, y’all. (I delayed a couple of days to give everyone a holiday break, and also have moved the Good to the beginning of this draft accordingly.)
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 shutdown! — but all offroad adventures are marked with an asterisk. Okay, I think that’s about it for the disclaimers. Onward to the news!
- Asylum Assist. It’s just after Christmas, and a lot of things are going wrong, but I can at least bring you good news for those seeking refuge in this country. Jeff Sessions’s changes to asylum law from this summer, which blocked asylum claims due to gang violence or interpersonal violence, were successfully challenged in federal district court this week. The judge based his holding on the idea that Sessions ignored checks and balances, which might be a starting place for larger precedent on the topic. And on a separate asylum issue, the Supreme Court held by 5–4 decision to deny the federal government a stay that would allow them to block interior asylum applications. Among the people to vote in the majority: Chief Justice Roberts, who has been moving to a more centrist posture to preserve the Supreme Court as an institution, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who voted from a hospital bed because she had just undergone surgery.
- Bump Stock Ban. Proving that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, the Trump administration passed regulations banning bump stocks, which were the gun modification that made the Las Vegas shooting possible. It would still be a good idea for Congress to pass a bill banning them, but this is definitely progress.
Constitutional Crisis Corners:
We’re inching ever-closer to a reckoning with the Russia Investigation, but several things are going on pause for the holiday before resolution. Here are the things to know and track while we’re paused:
- Russian Attempts at Influence (Redux).* A new report prepared for the Senate this past week shows that we grossly underestimated the scope of Russia’s media campaign, which spanned Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. We also learned that Russia targeted Mueller with a disinformation campaign after his appointment in 2017, tweeting about him over 500 times. With the Senate adjourned until Thursday at the earliest (and more on that below), it’s not clear what, precisely, the Senate will do with that news in the meantime. But at least they (and by extension we) have it, which is better than what was happening before.
- Trump Foundation and Other 45 Fiascoes.* The Trump Foundation was ordered disbanded this week, with all remaining assets being donated to actual charities, as part of the ongoing New York investigation into the foundation’s many, many illegal actions. (The New York Attorney General called the Foundation’s pattern of behavior ‘shocking,’ which is definitely fake news, because nothing 45 does shocks us anymore.) She also noted that the investigation will continue after the organization disbands, and she’s seeking millions in restitution. And speaking of seeking millions, we also learned that the 2016 Trump campaign may have illegally coordinated ads with the NRA, with the latter ponying up about $25M for said ads — and that funding, in case you were curious, was about five thousand times the legal limit for funding coordinated ads, and frankly may have come from Russian donors. This bit of news makes it extra exciting that Trump is taking the unprecedented step of merging his 2020 campaign — which by the way, is likely also illegally coordinating with the NRA — with the Republican National Committee. We also learned this week that Trump signed a letter of intent for the Moscow Trump Tower in late 2015, despite Rudy Giuliani’s claims to the contrary — and counter to his follow-up opinion, it isn’t a meaningless development. But given everything else in this paragraph, it kind of feels like one by contrast.
- Mueller Investigation Miscellany.* There’s so much Mueller news this week that it’s tough to catch all the odds and ends, but here’s a quick dive through the remaining action: Michael Flynn attempted a sentencing colloquy this week, but wasn’t able to complete it due to the judge’s insistence that he prove he deserved to skip the jail sentence. (As my researcher notes, it’s never a good sign when the judge wants to confirm the prosecutors are really extra sure they don’t want to charge the guy with treason.) Meanwhile, Mueller is getting a copy of Roger Stone’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is refusing to recuse himself despite ethics official advice to the contrary because Trump-era advisers told him not to, and Senate Republicans blocked a Mueller protection bill for a third time.
We also saw a few stories on the Disregard of Governing Norms front. Here are the main things to know from this past week:
- Staff Shuffle Circus (Redux).* On the heels of all of the last few weeks’ departures, we also saw a rapidly-escalating Department of Defense meltdown this week. First Secretary of Defense Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis threw down a resignation letter over developments in Syria (which caused our envoy to countering ISIS to quit also, though it received less publicity). His resignation was supposed to be effective February 28, but after Trump actually read the letter and noted to aides that the resignation letter “was not positive to him,” he forced Mattis out two months early. And this story just keeps getting better, because the interim replacement will be Patrick Shanahan, who has deep ties to Boeing but no defense (or even prior government) experience. So now the Pentagon (and the rest of us) are stuck sailing without a rudder, and we’re already seeing repercussions of that — which we’ll talk about below.
- Government Shutdown Sure Is Happening.* Despite a successfully-passed Senate resolution that would have funded the government through February 8, combined House and Trump shenanigans launched us into a government shutdown on Friday night (because something something wall funding). It’s looking like the absolute earliest it may end is Thursday of this upcoming week, which is when the Senate will convene again. In reality, it may last much longer than that, particularly because Trump keeps insisting he’ll refuse to sign unless there’s at least $2.5B in “border security” funding. The shutdown has a lot of repercussions, from unpaid federal workers to the Violence Against Women Act expiring to world market implications, but Trump has spent the shutdown so far dodging blame, complaining that he’s ‘all alone’ at the White House, and asking a seven-year-old child who called NORAD if she still believes in Santa. It’s super fun being governed by Krampus, let me tell you.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Unsinkable AZ Candidate.* Temporary Arizona Senate appointee John Kyl announced he was stepping down this week, clearing the path for former GOP candidate Martha McSally to be appointed — which means she’s going to have to work with the Democrat who beat her in the election for the Senate seat she was seeking. In another week, this kind of “too bad you lost your bid for the Senate, here, have the Senate seat that belonged to a dead guy you alienated” would probably fall under the purview of Casual Disregard of Governing Norms. But let’s be honest, it’s crowded enough up there already, and either way, it’s plenty weird, so into the Weird column it goes.
- Bipartisan Criminal Reform? Okay, so a bill passed with bipartisan support through the Senate by 87–12 vote and the House by 358–36 this week, and Trump signed it into law on Friday. All by itself, that’s a little weird these days, but that’s not the part that is really confusing me — it’s that it’s a reasonable bill on criminal justice reform that was architected by Jared Kushner and even Fox News likes it. I haven’t had a chance to review the bill in depth yet, and that means I’m not yet sure what the deal is, though enough people adjacent to the Trumps lose money on this that I’m not sure why they’ve set this up. I’m hoping to review it in more depth soon, and I will definitely report back once I have a better idea.
- Dow Drops Like a Stone.* The stock market is having a rough, rough time right now, likely from of all the instability created by our illustrious leader’s excellent decisions, and closed on one of the worst Christmas Eves ever. Unsurprisingly, people are getting nervous that we may be heading towards another recession, and White House methods of coping seem to mostly involve either scaring people further or looking for scapegoats. But Trump eventually remembered he can’t actually fire the federal reserve guy, and somehow the market recovered a bit, managing to climb back out of the previous week’s pit in an unprecedented recovery on Wednesday. So things are looking up, at least a bit, as I write this.
- Kavanaugh Complaints Tossed. With Brett Kavanaugh officially sitting on the SCOTUS bench, and therefore a member of the highest court in the land, his appellate level complaints were thrown out without being assessed this week. As far as I can tell, it is in fact true that this move was procedurally necessary, because the Tenth Circuit has no authority to censure a sitting Supreme Court Justice. But these complaints really could (and should!) have been addressed before he was sitting on the bench. I know I personally plan to die mad about this, though I can’t speak for other members of the bar.
- Withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.* Trump ordered troops withdrawn from Syria this week, abandoning Kurdish allies there and falsely claiming we’ve “won against ISIS”. This move is so ill-advised that it made our envoy on the subject rage quit and our Secretary of Defense wasn’t far behind, but hey, I hear Russia’s pretty happy. Trump eventually walked back the claim that we had won, but not the decision to leave, which is frankly a pretty good summary of the Trump presidency all around.
- Immigration Updates. Quelle surprise, this was another rough week for immigration (although we did see some silver linings, which are outlined below). First it was confirmed that a deal was definitely reached with Mexico to force asylum seekers to wait there pending their applications, which as I mentioned in earlier roundups can have serious safety risks for people fleeing dangerous situations further south. News also broke that ICE dropped off 400 asylum seekers at a bus depot in El Paso with no money and no shelter just before Christmas, and another young Guatemalan child died in CBP custody on Christmas Day. The boy had arrived at the border on December 18, which means he had been in CBP custody for over twice the intended length of time when he died. CBP has ordered medical checks on all the children in its custody, but they would be better served by examining their illegal detention practices.
What We Can Do:
- Shutdown Shouting. Celeste Pewter continues to be an excellent resource on who to call about what; in particular, she recommends calling both sets of reps to say no money should be given to the wall, and she recommends you also call House reps about back pay for furloughed government workers. For both sets of calls, you can check the #ShutdownStories hashtag for inspiration as well. This is an issue where calling reps really, really matters, because our reps have a huge amount of ability to decide what happens next. So it’s worth a call or three!
And that’s what I have for this week, which was twice more than enough. For making it through, you deserve this United States of Pop 2018 mashup and an eventual better government. I’ll be back soon with more (and hopefully better) news, and I hope you will be back as well — but in the meantime, feel free to ping the National News Roundup ask box, which is there for your constructive comments. Send me questions! Send me feedback! Send me peace on Earth and goodwill towards humans!