National News Roundup: Year 3, Week 4 (February 10–16)
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This week has been quite a trial — most of it actually isn’t that awful, but the bits that are truly pack a punch. Also, the CCC is basically an entire zero-star novel. You who are about to read this week’s news, I salute you! And offer cookies.
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 dietary supplement! — 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 Corner
There’s only one major story this week regarding Disregard of Governing Norms, but it’s a bit like saying the sinking Titanic was “only one ship,” so that’s not much comfort. Bear with me because this will be long and important, which in this administration are never two great tastes that go great together.
- What Happened with the Shutdown? By midweek last week, Trump was indicating that he’d sign the proposed legislation to avoid shutdown, but also signaled that he wasn’t happy with it. So on Thursday, the Senate voted on the package right after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that Trump would be declaring a national emergency to get his wall funding. And sure enough, on Friday Trump stood up in the Rose Garden and launched an incoherent mess that passed for a press conference declaring just that, which he followed with a coinciding executive order. Though the entire announcement was dotted with blatant lies, that’s not the biggest piece to analyze here; I’m glad we don’t have another shutdown, but the press conference spotlighted several different constitutional crises which I’ve outlined below.
- Constitutional Overreach. The emergency declaration is a major overreach of executive authority — though these declarations have been used many times before, it’s incredibly rare for a President to use them to give Congress the finger regarding issue on which they’ve already voted on. But Trump didn’t seem at all concerned about that, because he candidly announced that he didn’t have an actual emergency on his hands, noting that “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster . . . I just wanted to get it done faster, that’s all.” He also said that he knew he would lose lawsuits on this at the lower level but “would get a fair shake” at the Supreme Court “just like the ban.” He’s right that the Supreme Court supported him on Trump v. Hawaii in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, but that was before Chief Justice Roberts began aligning with liberal judges on issues of overreach, so either Trump’s being overconfident or he knows something we don’t.
- First Amendment Threats. This administration doesn’t have press conferences often anymore, in part due to Trump’s well-documented hatred of the press, which was on full display on Friday — he spent time ranking media outlets, praising Rush Limbaugh and telling CNN “you’re fake news” to Jim Acosta’s face. When SNL mercilessly lampooned this in their cold open a few days later, he began pushing for ‘retribution’ against them — noting, incidentally, that the network that runs the show is “Fake News NBC” while he did so and calling the whole thing “the real Collusion.” Then he followed up that tweet by railing against “THE RIGGED AND CORRUPT MEDIA,” whom he yet again called “THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.” Needless to say, this continues to be its own constitutional crisis, albeit a fairly quiet one (if you can call Trump’s caps lock cataclysms ‘quiet’).
- Criminal Justice and Immigration Implications. It’s no surprise that Trump praised the leaders of several authoritarian regimes in his press conference on Friday, given the paragraph above. But while falsely claiming that China has no drug problem because it executes drug dealers, he took it to a whole other level, and one we’ve gotta talk about. Trump seemed to apply capital punishment for drug dealing to America, saying, “[The U.S.] can end the drug problem — can end it a lot faster than you think.” He’s has suggested execution of drug dealers before, but his years of work to paint all immigrants who arrive through the Southern border as an “invasion” of “drug dealers and criminals” — rhetoric he continued in this very press conference — force us to assume he’s applying the concept to all unauthorized immigration at the Mexican border. Effectively, in this context, he’s issuing a dogwhistle for genocide.
- So What Happens Next? About the only good news I can give on this whole thing is that the declaration already has more lawsuits than you can shake a stick at and even Fox News got testy with the administration over it. Congress also seems likely to pass a resolution condemning the declaration at least in the House, and since McConnell is forced to allow a vote within 18 days if one passes in the House, he can’t block the House’s legislation (though Trump potentially could veto it). And to encourage Congress to act, protests were held all over the country on President’s Day. So while it’s not fully clear what happens next, there are a lot of likely outcomes that involve pitching the declaration overboard and sailing onward. I will definitely keep folks posted!
Ho boy, you deserve a cookie just for reading all of that! And I’m sad to report that your CCC slog is not done, because just like last week there was a flurry of activity on the Russia Investigation as well. Here are the things to know:
- Manafort Updates (with Special Guest Stars Gates and Stone). Manafort’s legal journey took another turn this week, when D.C. District Court judge Amy Berman Jackson concluded that he did breach his plea agreement by lying repeatedly to prosecutors. Needless to say, this put his sentence back in question, and Mueller is recommending up to 24 years of incarceration and up to $24,000,000 in fines. Meanwhile, some of the lies in question became public, such as the fact that Manafort and his second-rate Watson Rick Gates met with a Russian operative in August 2016 to exchange polling data regarding Trump’s Presidential bid. And Roger Stone popped up in the news for posting a photo of Judge Jackson, who is his judge too, with crosshairs above her head as he complained about having her for a judge. Which, naturally, he did only days after she issued a partial gag order compelling him not to talk about his case. (As Popehat noted today, no, you can’t antagonize a judge and then claim she’s biased against you as a basis for recusal.)
- Senate Committee Activities.* Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr stated this week that “we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion” between Trump and Russia, though the investigation is not yet complete. Naturally, Trump immediately took to the Twitters with this information, because the man never misses an opportunity to yell in caps lock. But the ranking Democrat on the committee, Mark Warner, says Trump’s Twitter party is premature, noting the unusual number of ties between the campaign and Russia. House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff agrees, commenting that “you can see the evidence [of collusion] in plain sight.”
- McCabe Makes Waves.* Former FBI director Andrew McCabe made news this week over several things he disclosed as he made the media rounds to promote his new book. First, there’s the book itself, which has all kinds of disturbing things to say about working under Jeff Sessions and about Trump’s many ties to Russia. In one interview aired Thursday, he mentioned that former deputy AG Rod Rosenstein had discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, Then he disclosed in a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday that he believes he was fired for opening an investigation against Trump, which may have been illegal if true. He also reiterated that Trump once told him, “I don’t care, I believe Putin” on the question of North Korea’s missile capacity.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Tax Return Hoopla.* The IRS announced this week that the average tax refund is down 8% from previous years. For the most part, this is due to reduced withholding, which simply means that people are receiving their income throughout the year, leaving no surplus at the end. But this can be a rough thing to realize if you were counting on a refund and instead owe the IRS money — and the news can be particularly annoying given the IRS’s belated timeline after a month of shutdown. Between all these factors, there are a lot of cranky filers out there this year. (In related news, adjust your withholding amounts to account for the new tax code if you haven’t already, so that you won’t be one of them next year!)
- Ilhan vs AIPAC. Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim Congresswomen, made headlines this week for tweeting about Republican Minority leader Kevin McCarthy — more specifically, saying his move to formally sanction her for statements against Israel was “all about the Benjamins, baby.” And, okay, here’s the thing, y’all. The tweet was a reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful lobbying organization that represents Israeli interests in American politics. But there’s a very old and tenacious antisemitic trope that Jews control the world and are money-obsessed little goblins living in a Gringotts vault. Those stereotypes are super damaging, and it was extremely necessary that Omar apologize. But at the same time, I urge you to read Jewish writings about the nuances of these subjects, because this stuff is complicated and frankly Omar probably had a valid point somewhere in there. In particular, I recommend this account by Ady Barkan on problems with AIPAC; this account by David Rothkopf on distinguishing Netanyahu from Israel generally; and this account from an anonymous Jewish blog about how to criticize Israel without being antisemitic.
- Farewell, FEMA. FEMA administrator Brock Long announced that he was resigning this week, which in Trump land usually means there was a scandal involved — and true to form, Long’s resignation appears to be tied to improper use of government vehicles in addition to, you know, basically everything involving Hurricane Maria. For now, the Deputy Administrator will be in charge, but I’m sure we’ll hear more soon.
- Aurora (IL) Mass Shooting. There was an office mass shooting in Aurora, Illinois this week, when a man being fired took out a gun and shot five people at his workplace, including a college intern on his first day there. Five police officers responding to the scene were shot as well, and ultimately killed the shooter in the returned fire. As is so common among these assailants, the Washington Post notes that the shooter had a prior conviction for domestic violence. (Also, a note to those wondering if this is the second mass shooting in Aurora — the 2012 shooting was in Aurora, Colorado).
- Barr Is Not Barred.* Per expectation, the Senate confirmed William Barr this week as our next U.S. Attorney General, by 54–45 vote. (Though the vote was mostly along party lines, Rand Paul voted against confirmation, and three Democrats voted for it.) While Barr isn’t expected to be as much of a hardliner as Sessions was, it remains to be seen what he’ll do with the Mueller investigation, and we need to keep an eye on this.
- FDA Finally Stepping Forward. The FDA announced this week that they’re going to strengthen review of dietary supplements moving forward. Incredibly, we’re already seeing this take effect, as the FDA takes action against 17 companies illegally claiming to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Between the FDA’s historical laissez-faire approach to this type of issue and Trump’s general bizarre love of deregulation, it’s something of a miracle that we’re seeing this much positive movement on a dangerous issue, and I’m here for it.
- Land Conservation Win. The Senate passed a public lands conservation bill by 92–8 vote this week, creating a landmark number of new environmental protections. This is the biggest reform on the topic in a decade, which would be exciting all on its own, but it’s particularly thrilling when the EPA is constantly gunning for Most Likely To Be a Captain Planet Villain. This kind of bipartisan work is rare, and truly in the public interest, and it’s a nice bit of news all around.
So that’s what I have for this week, and I promise I edited for length! For making it through, you deserve this doggy music video and an eventual better government. I’ll be back next week 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 a snow plower for our driveway!