This week, the vast majority of news that flew by was Russia-related. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing — I guess at minimum, it’s good that people are paying attention. The non-Russia-related news was mostly pretty rough, as a warning, though it’s important for us to know it anyway.
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 also contains multiple headlines outside my area as a legal generalist — still a lawyer, not a spy! — 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:
Surprisingly, movement on both relevant crises this week was net-positive for the second week in a row. Let’s hear it for our system limping along under an auspice of democracy!
Still standing despite a repeated pummeling, at least for now: The Russia Collusion Investigation, which is probably going to be a recurring theme for the foreseeable future.
- Russian Hacker Highlights.* The latest news on the actual election hacking from 2016 is that there’s evidence that Russian hackers breached voting systems in 39 different states before the November election. Most notably, evidence was found that in at least one state hackers tried to change or delete voter data. About 90,000 records were compromised. To make heads or tails of what we know, I recommend this helpful timeline.
- From Senate, No Love.* In a turn of events that honestly surprises the socks off of me, the Senate had some concrete things to say about Russia and sanctions this week. Most notably, the Senate bilaterally agreed to issue sanctions against Russia for their interference with the 2016 election, and to limit President Trump’s ability to unilaterally lift said sanctions. The bill was originally intended to focus only on sanctions on Iran, but bipartisan support for the Russia-related provisions dramatically increased after more news broke about the sheer breadth of Russian interference in American politics. (Ironically, the only people in the entire Senate to vote against this measure were Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul.) The bill would still need to pass in the House and be signed by Trump, and I think we can expect a veto on this one; more news as it develops.
- Sessions Testimony Session. Well, the Sessions testimony… happened… but to be honest, the inconclusive nature of his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee only raises more questions. Though he was pretty consistent that he never discussed the election with any Russian representatives, and claims there was no third meeting, some of Sessions’s comments can be read to suggest he wouldn’t recuse himself from an investigation into obstruction of justice. This is a much narrower understanding of his recusal than had previously been believed, and is bad news bears for any ongoing investigations about Trump’s behavior post-election. (You can catch full real-time coverage through the Washington Post and the Hill, by the way, Politico also put out a transcript for the truly dedicated. That said, though, I warn you that the third one is mostly just pages and pages of Sessions making up executive privileges, refusing to answer questions, and smirking as Burr interrupts Kamela Harris.)
- Obstruction of Justice Inception. Unsurprisingly, a rumor was circulating this week that Trump might try to get Mueller fired because Mueller was starting an investigation into obstruction of justice — nothing goes with illegal obstruction quite like a side order of illegal obstruction, that’s what I always say. (Yo dawg, I heard you like obstruction of justice.) Since Mueller leads an independent investigation, Trump doesn’t have the power to do this — that’s pretty much exactly what ‘independent investigation’ means in practical terms — but it’s certainly believable that he might try to harass Rosenstein into it. Several members of Congress appeared to take the rumor seriously, or at least were quick to publicly note that they were pretty unimpressed by this idea. The White House ended up denying the rumor, and who only knows if they were seriously considering it or not.
- Trump’s Attorney Now Has an Attorney. President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, hired an attorney of his own this week to help him navigate the Russia investigation. Nothing says “nothing to see here” like an attorney hiring his own attorney because he represented someone! (For those of you reading this who are not aware, generally attorneys can expect that their work product in the course of representing someone will not be subpoenaed and they cannot be compelled to testify — this is commonly known as ‘attorney-client privilege.’ So if he’s hiring his own attorney, that…suggests there’s some reason why he might be personally liable, not professionally liable as Trump’s attorney. So that’s fun.)
In addition to all your by-now-ordinary Russia weirdness, we also saw some breaking excellent news on The Emolument Clause! More specifically…
- Emoluments Suits Multiply. Continuing the momentum from last week, nearly 200 Congressional Democrats are now suing the President for violation of the Emoluments Clause as well, becoming the largest group of representatives ever to sue a sitting President. The group is arguing that they are uniquely suited to resolve the standing issue that makes these cases hard to prosecute, because a President is constitutionally required to obtain the consent of Congress before accepting gifts. (This is the third suit of its type since Trump took office, and though there may be standing issues both the Virginia/DC case and the CREW case are still ongoing.) The suit was filed shortly after the Justice Department officially took the position that the President is allowed to accept money from foreign governments. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see what the courts do with this.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- The American Weird Behavior Act. There are quite a few things to dislike about how the AHCA is being handled as it progresses through the Senate — more on that below — but this week has also uniquely highlighted just how strange the whole ordeal has been. Recent polls suggest that not a single state actually favors the passage of the bill, which is probably why Trump called the legislation ‘mean’ this past week in a talk with Republican senators — a major departure from his original appraisal of the same bill. It’s also almost certainly why the Senate tried to block reporters from covering anything in their hallways this week, which was a major break from precedent they ended up walking back fairly quickly. It’s so unusual for Congress to double down on a dramatically unpopular bill like this that FiveThirtyEight has written about possible motivations.
- Gun Violence in Multiple States. This week we saw multiple heartbreaking instances of gun violence on the same day. The most publicized incident was the politically-motivated shooting of a Republican representative at a Congressional softball practice, which thankfully had only one fatality (the gunman, during a shootout with police). The incident did injure multiple people, including Representative Steve Scalise and police officers Crystal Grines and David Bailey. There was also a fatal shooting at a UPS building in San Francisco, resulting in the deaths of four UPS staff members including the shooter. Unlike the Alexandra shooting, police are still trying to determine the motivations in that incident, which does not appear to be politically-motivated. Lastly, there was also a shooting in Brooklyn on the same day, resulting in one injury.
- Unprecedented AHCA Process. The National News Roundup haven’t covered this story much lately, simply because after all this time, there’s just not much info — but that’s because Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is exploiting a provision called Rule 14 to refuse to release the text of the Senate’s version of the AHCA before the vote. Even Secretary of Health and Human Services (and resident bridge troll) Tom Price hasn’t seen the Senate bill. This is deeply concerning, both because there’s not a lot to suggest the AHCA has changed much and because it goes against the heart of our democratic principles to try to pass such major legislation in utter secrecy. It is imperative that we stay on top of this and also call our representatives — all of us; even those of us with Senators in liberal areas! It’s still looking likely that they’ll release some information to the Congressional Budget Office in the next week, so we might know more (and see a vote!) soon.
- Sessions v. Medical Marijuana. Sessions personally made sure he asked Congress to let him prosecute medical marijuana cases this week (because apparently sick people aren’t getting steamrolled fast enough for him under the AHCA). At the moment, there is federal law essentially prohibiting this prosecution, though apparently he isn’t going to let pesky things like “existing laws” or “human decency” get in his way. Just as a quick reminder, there is ample evidence that medical marijuana does not lead to increased recreational consumption and can have significant health benefits for people with very serious illness. (Also, on a personal note, this topic is hard for me to write about neutrally because a cannabis-based prescribed drug helped my father-in-law hold down food in the last stages of his cancer treatment.) At any rate, this is a terrible idea that’s probably not truly motivated by public safety, and you can read the whole horrible memo here, though I’m not sure it will improve your day at all.
- Black Lives Still Matter. This was a rough week in terms of violence against black people, between police shooting a 30-year-old pregnant woman in Seattle named Charleena Lyles instead of deescalating the situation and a jury acquitting Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez of all charges in the shooting of Philando Castile. (The Philando Castile case is particularly upsetting to many people because it happened during a routine stop for a broken taillight, because there’s no concrete evidence that he failed to comply with instructions during the stop, and because his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, had live-streamed and narrated the entire incident.) Needless to say, our country still has a lot of work to do to create more responsible police interaction with people of color.
- London Woes. This was also an extremely rough week for England, which has been having a hard time of things for a few weeks now. First there was a fire in a high rise in London, burning a 24-story building to ash and killing at least 58 people. Then there was an attack outside a mosque, also in London, in which a driver tried to run down people exiting the building; the attack is believed to be an act of retaliation for the London bridge attacks. The vehicular attack killed at least one person and injured ten others.
- Flint Officials Charged with Manslaughter. After literally years without potable water in Flint, Michigan, five public officials have been charged with manslaughter for their role in the ongoing crisis. The charges come in the wake of an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, which is linked to poor water quality and caused at least one death in 2015. Though it feels ghoulish to call anything connected with the Flint water crisis ‘good’ news, the charges represent a significant signal that public officials are starting to be held accountable, which is a very important step towards preventing this type of crisis happening elsewhere or happening further in Flint.
- Adorable Dog News Palate Cleanser. A black lab crashed a Russian news report, startling the anchor and earning himself a place in Youtube fame. Also, and unrelatedly, this adorable video of an elderly pitbull getting contact lenses exists. These things are admittedly not really news, but I figured you could use a palate cleanser after all the bleak things above.
And that’s all for now, but the news comes in pretty fast. Stay tuned for more updates and anecdotes next week! (No guarantees about more dog videos.)