National News Roundup: Year 3, Week 5 (February 17–23)
This week’s news was more of a sine wave than we’ve been seeing of late — there was some good news mixed in among the bad, along with a whole lot of weird. I’ll keep folks up to date on all the twists and turns!
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 report! — 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
Just like last week, there was a flurry of activity on the Russia Investigation — it’s by far the busiest section of the CCC, possibly because it’s supposedly winding down. Here are the main things to know:
- Trump’s Grab Bag of Malfeasance (Russia Investigation Edition).* Trump news was a veritable cornucopia of malfeasance this week. Towards the beginning of the week, the New York Times published an article outlining Trump’s many forms of obstruction in the Russia investigation (which prompted him to lash out at them, but more on that below). The report revealed that Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker probably perjured himself in front of Congress by downplaying Trump’s attempts to intervene in his own investigation into the Stormy Daniels matter. In apparent response to this and McCabe’s book tour, Trump repeated a call by Rush Limbaugh to jail members of the Mueller investigation and called his own current Deputy Attorney General as well as McCabe “treasonous” for their discussions after he fired Comey. Then, just to punctuate the point, like five minutes before I typed this a former campaign staffer came forward to say he forcibly kissed her without her consent on the campaign trail.
- Manafort Sentencing.* Manafort’s sentencing hearing for his Virginia matters begins next week, and Mueller partially released an 800-page memo today ahead of the hearing and the related DC deliberations. What we can read of the report is not complimentary, decrying Manafort for ‘repeatedly and brazenly violat[ing] the law’ and for showing ‘a hardened adherence to committing crimes and lack of remorse.’ Needless to say, this will be an interesting set of sentencing hearings.
- Goodbye, Rosenstein.* Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein officially announced that he is resigning sometime in March, probably mid-month. We’ll have him for a few more weeks, and in the interim I’m taking bets on whether the resignation is because he trusts Attorney General Barr, because Mueller is allegedly winding down, or because he’s mad he was accused of treason.
- Throwing Roger Stone. Roger Stone definitely paid for his outburst on Instagram over last weekend, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Turns out, his judge wasn’t amused by the photo of her with crosshairs he posted, and she ended up issuing a full gag order about his case. I’m fairly sure “Won’t Someone Rid Me of this Turbulent Judge” posts are on the short list of Things That Will Definitely Get You A Gag Order, so this isn’t exactly a surprise. Frankly, Stone should consider himself lucky she didn’t revoke his bail.
- Mueller Investigation Speculation.* As referenced above, we’re still in a “this may be the week, wait no it isn’t” holding pattern regarding when Mueller’s investigation wraps, with rumors early in the week of its impending end fading away before the week gave out. But the nearness of conclusion is creating all kinds of speculation, recaps, and think pieces about what we can expect once it comes. Congress is beginning to gear up as well, with Democrats beginning their push for the full report or at least a chance to subpoena Mueller to testify once it’s out.
At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Threats to the First Amendment deserves its own section, at least for this week. Here’s what is happening:
- Trump’s Grab Bag of Malfeasance (Free Press Edition). In response to the stuff listed above, last week’s trend of Trump antagonizing the press definitely continued. He slammed the New York Times for recently publishing the report I mentioned above, calling them “a TRUE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE” — which you may remember is exactly what he called NBC at the beginning of the week. He also tweeted that the press doesn’t verify stories (they do) and claimed that in six years they’ll “all go bust” (they won’t). The tweets are having real-life effects on journalists — a few were assaulted at one of his rallies last week — and the Times is rightfully identifying this speech as dangerous for them. Unsurprisingly, we’re starting to see op-eds that cite Trump’s tweeting tantrums as their own grounds to find him unfit for office.
- Thomas’s Libel Opinion Adventures. Meanwhile, while all of this was going on, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued an unnecessary solo opinion on a case that was denied writ of certiorari and therefore not even heard by the court — and though it’s completely nonbinding, his rhetoric should concern us. The opinion called for overturning a seminal libel law case from the 1960s, New York Times v. Sullivan; in particular, Thomas had beef with the stricter standards we use for cases alleging libel of public figures. It’s really strange that Thomas suddenly thinks we should make it easier to sue if you’re famous, and in his circuitous route to “we should overturn” he uses legal analysis which contradicts his own writings from as recently as four years ago. I seriously cannot stress enough that this whole thing should have your spidey-senses tingling, especially given Trump’s pledge to get libel laws changed and Kennedy’s abrupt departure from the bench last year.
The majority of this week’s Disregard of Governing Norms is aftermath from the shutdown, which thankfully is proving immediate and promising. Here’s what I have for you:
- National Emergency Resolution Update. Nancy Pelosi has indicatedthat the House is gearing up to vote tomorrow on a resolution blocking Trump’s national emergency declaration. Trump, unsurprisingly, promises to veto the measure and tweeted a warning to the GOP on the topic today. But on the plus side, he probably did the latter because Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth publicly speculated that the Senate had the votes to pass the bill, and 538 thinks she might be right. And as I mentioned last week, McConnell is required to hold a vote in the Senate if this passes in the House, and a thumbs up from the House is looking very likely — so the biggest question is probably what will happen in the Senate.
- A Farewell to Coats? Rumors are growing that Trump is about to fire his current Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, which given the latter’s recent public appearances seems entirely possible. So far, we’re still just at the rumors stage, but we’ll want to keep an eye on this nonetheless. I’ll definitely keep folks posted.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Cov Cath Further Chaos.* Remember that kid from Covington Catholic who was in the news a bunch a week or two ago for standing in the way of the Indigenous People’s March? Yeah, he’s suing the Washington Post to the tune of $250 million dollars in damages for writing about him, claiming that they ‘defamed’ him when they reported on it. Needless to say, that’s going to be nearly impossible to prove — how does a sixteen-year-old kid even show damage to his livelihood, let alone $250M in said damage? It’s worth noting that the complaint accuses the Post of having bias against Donald Trump and uses that to seek further damages, nicely illustrating another reason why a free press remains important.
- Tariff Delays. Trump went ahead and delayed his own deadline for whether he’s increasing tariffs on China this week, claiming that they’ve made good progress without them. But he likely wants a good result in his summit with North Korea this week, and given that Kim Jong-un is traveling there by way of China to make a point, he could be hoping this paves the way for negotiation. Or he could have some kind of deal in the works that would be hindered by increased tariffs. Or he could have changed his mind because it’s Tuesday. It’s Trump, so it’s kind of hard to say.
- Jussie Smollet’s Strange Saga. Actor Jussie Smolett was arrested on Wednesday based on claims by the Chicago Police Department that he staged the attack against him that he reported last month. So now Smolett’s waiting on bond of $100,000 to face his charge of felony disorderly conduct (side note: it’s really strange to me that Illinois makes disorderly conduct a felony in the first place). Predictably, conservative pundits and politicians have drawn as much attention to this news as possible, and most news outlets are treating the charge as credible. Some media press venues, however, are claiming that an FBI source says CPD may have ‘overstated’ their case, and that CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson “went too far” by claiming to have determined Smolett’s connection to the threatening letter he received. Given the twists this case has already taken and the spotted history of the Chicago Police Department, it’s unlikely that we’ve seen the last of this story in the Roundup.
- Oscars So Green. The 2019 Oscars managed to be even more politically-charged than usual, starting with its complete lack of host following news of intended host Kevin Hart’s history of racist tweets. The hostless ceremony announced its winners perfectly well, it turns out, but where those awards went was more of a mixed bag. When Green Book won best picture, negative reactions to the choice poured in immediately — most notably from Spike Lee, who tried to leave the ceremony following the announcement. Oscar detractors had lambasted Green Book as another example of Hollywood’s love for “racial reconciliation” films that receive awards for their white directors. It wasn’t all bad news, though; Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter became the first black women in over thirty years to win non-acting-role Oscars for their work on Black Panther. Domee Shi, the first woman to helm a Pixar short, shared the Best Animated Short award with producer Becky Neiman-Cobb for Bao. Clapbacks featured as well: Trevor Noah pranked the audience beautifully in Xhosa, Spike Lee hoped for the USA to “regain our humanity,” and the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag stuck to her guns.
- North Carolina News. In a turn of events that probably shocked even North Carolina, their election board threw out the House results contested for fraud and ordered a new election this week. The decision came in part because the candidate accused of ballot-harvesting, Mark Harris, said he wanted a new election after several instances of potential perjury during the proceedings. (Harris claims that he was suffering from a stroke which made him give misinformation.) Though there’s no guarantee that the next election will be a clean one, the fact that we’re getting one does seem like progress.
- Recent Court Resilience. The Supreme Court issued a benchmark decision this week when it concluded that rules against excessive fines apply to state police as well as the federal government under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when they engage in civil asset forfeiture. (Civil asset forfeiture is the practice by police of seizing assets that they claim were involved in a crime.) As several articles covering the case note, this practice is rife with abuses because it can be used as a revenue stream and because it’s often not subject to significant oversight. The decision to apply federal law to states is a major win on this issue that may significantly curtail abuses, and the case is even more unusual because it was unanimously decided. That said, the facts of this case were particularly egregious — Indiana state police confiscated a man’s $40,000 value SUV, which he purchased with life insurance policy money, because he was convicted of selling a small amount of heroin which carried a maximum $10,000 fine. So it’s possible we’ll see a distinguishing case on this soon.
So that’s what I have for this week, and it’s more than enough! For making it through, you deserve frogs wearing tiny hats 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 more hours in the day!