National News Roundup: Week 22 (June 18–24)

Holy monkeys, the news this week was horrible even by our current low standards. I suggest you have your comfort food of choice at the ready, y’all, because this week’s a really rough ride. But we’ll keep fighting to make next week better.

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 news continues to contain multiple headlines each week 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:

Still in the ring and even more horrible than usual: The Russia Collusion Investigation, which somehow manages to be gaining ground in both directions this week.

  • Russian Hacker Highlights.* There has been a huge amount happening on this front, and I’m not even convinced I understand all of it, but here’s a good faith stab at a summary. After hearings this week on the 2016 election cyberattacks, a bunch of further information has come out on the topic. We now know that Vladimir Putin personally ordered an “influence campaign” to harm Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances and “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” The resulting hacking campaign impacted at least twenty states, and we found at least one instance of a voting log being successfully altered by the campaign (though not much further evidence of systemic changes to voting rolls). We also learned that President Obama knew of this order, but feared undermining the integrity of the elections further by reporting on it. Also, Trump has done very little to prevent a repeat attack, but is now saying that Russia hacked the DNC and criticizing President Obama for not doing more. For a surprisingly thorough and good secondary-source summary as far as I can tell, by the way, check out the wikipedia page on this (which has 332 citations!).
  • No Tapes, Just Obstruction of Justice.* Trump announced this week that there were no tapes of Comey, after a week of build-up and self-imposed deadline that the New York Times correctly identifies as designed to shift attention away from the healthcare bill in the Senate. (The same article also notes that legal experts rightly identify “I bluffed to threaten you not to testify” a classic example of obstruction of justice, because it is.) Then as an encore he inexplicably said that it was “bothersome” that Mueller has ties to Comey — both men were career FBI investigators, and it’s not like there are two FBIs — and insinuated that Mueller should step down. Because when you publicly admit you just engaged in obstruction of justice, it’s definitely the biased investigator’s fault when he investigates you.
  • Our Attorney General Now Has an Attorney. Since getting your own defense counsel is de rigueur for all sketchy members of the Trump Administration, the latest person to hire one is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. I’m going to repeat that, because it bears repeating: The current Attorney General of the United States — the highest prosecutor in the land — now has a defense attorney representing him in an ongoing investigation. Folks, I seriously cannot stress enough how incredibly strange and jarring that should be for all of us; regardless of whether he has anything to hide or not, an Attorney General retaining defense counsel is really seriously not normal and it’s a measure of the strange times we find ourselves in, regardless of what happens from here.

I genuinely can’t believe where we are with regard to the Emolument Clause this week — though there’s only one news item this week, it’s more than enough all by itself.

And on top of all that, we’re back to battles on three fronts, because there’s also bonus Suppression of the Press.

Your “Normal” Weird:

  • Iowa Rally Nonsense. Trump held a rally in Cedar Rapids, IA — what appears to be a campaign rally, in fact, though the next election isn’t for another 1200 days — and spoke for seventy rambling minutes about his various achievements and virtues. I swear my ability to even went down about ten points permanently just by reading articles on this, but it’s so bizarre that I need to report it anyway — I recommend checking out Fact Check’s writeup if you want to source this, though you may suffer as I did. Highlights include promising to bar immigrants from access to cash welfare benefits for five years after their arrival (which Bill Clinton already did back in 1996); falsely claiming the Paris Agreement is a binding agreement; and exaggerating how much the U.S. has spent in the Middle East by about five trillion dollars. Murrica.

The Bad:

  • AHCA: Second Verse, Worse than the First. Okay. So. The Senate released its version of the AHCA this week, which it’s calling the “Better Care Reconciliation Act” or BCRA (spoiler: It’s not actually better care in the slightest.) The CBO also issued its report on the bill today, and estimates it would leave 22 million people uninsured by 2026. It does a lot of the same things the House version does to the private insurance market (ends the personal insurance mandate, ends the employer mandate, drops health care essentials, refuses coverage of abortions, defunds Planned Parenthood for one year, expands use of health savings accounts, and uses all the money this saves to create a big ole’ tax cut for the rich), but it does them generally more slowly and, over time, more harshly. In particular, people with pre-existing conditions may be priced out of most markets. As Vox put it: “It’s not complicated. Just cruel. Poor people pay more for worse insurance.” (For a very good, very comprehensive comparison of the Senate version, the House version, and current law, check out this NASHP chart.) But, as the New York Times correctly points out, the really big story of the BCRA is that it’s also a rollback of Medicaid as we know it. In the program’s current form — the form it has had since its inception in the 1960s — Medicaid is an entitlement program, which means anyone who qualifies for it can expect coverage for their medical bills as they accrue. But under the BCRA, states are heavily restricted both in terms of amount of funding and in terms of how many people they can help; in fact, states have a penalty imposed if they help more than a national average of people even if they don’t overspend doing it. This is some pretty Dickensian stuff, and it’s a really major change.
  • Immigration Instigation. This was a really rough week on the immigration front. Between ICE showing up at a human trafficking court, an emergency care organization getting raided in the desert, and a mixed outcome at best from the Supreme Court on the travel ban, it’s all a little bit dizzying. That said, though, the show is far from over on that last one, and it’s not all bad — I’ll do a bit of unpacking here. The Supreme Court decided to remove the stay on Trump’s travel ban today, which means this administration can start enforcing it again. However, the court also held that the travel ban may not be imposed on anyone who can show “a bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States.” Which will be double plus unfun for CBP to try to enforce, and also hard to interpret, which is a thought that keeps me warm and cozy at night. (Incidentally, this is just a temporary measure before the case is heard on the merits; the case is on for oral arguments in October, which means we’ll hear more then if not before.)
  • Ossoff lost special election. The Georgia Sixth District election came and went, and ended in victory for Karen “my faith calls me to prevent gay families from adopting” Handel by less than four points. The press has been all over the map in its reactions— I’m seeing everything from “this is a major loss” to “this is still a victory for Dems” to “let’s blame Nancy Pelosi for this for some inexplicable reason” — so I’m going to take a page out of my very wise researcher’s book and just provide you with some election statistics. It happened, it was no fun, and we’ll keep working towards a better House in 2018.
  • ADAPT Protests and Police Response. Disability advocates from ADAPT, a disability rights organization, staged a die-in on Thursday in front of Mitch McConnell’s office on Capitol Hill to protest the draconic BCRA — which, as noted above, experts believe really is likely to result in deaths for many disabled persons. Countless activists were carried out by police, many without necessarily health devices like wheelchairs needed for mobility or ventilators needed to breathe safely. All told, forty-three disability advocates were arrested and removed.

The Good:

  • Go Home BRCA, Nobody Likes You. About the only good thing I can say about the Senate’s healthcare bill is that nobody likes it (and that might end up being a saving grace). Just like last time, Congressional lawmakers find themselves stuck courting several ultra-conservative Senators and more moderate counterparts as well as the entire list of Dems; a total of fifty-six senators have indicated they will not vote for the bill in its current form. Even more damning is the low number of Senators who have actually expressed support — only seventeen so far, with the remaining twenty-eight making noncommittal statements leaving us guessing. If the current numbers hold, the bill will not have a majority to pass (which some news outlets are speculating is McConnell’s real plan). Outside of Capitol Hill, the laundry list of prominent and relevant figures who have condemned the bill is even more staggering — vocal opponents include former President Obama, the Koch network, several pediatrics organizations, a coalition of ten insurance organizations, several governors of states that took the Medicaid expansion, the American Hospital Association, and the American Psychiatric Association.
  • SCOTUS Still (Mostly) Works. There were several cases out of the Supreme Court in the past week that were encouraging or noteworthy, so I’m throwing in a few highlights for your perusal. In Maslenjak v. United States, a 9–0 court decided that denaturalization (the process for stripping a naturalized citizen of citizenship) should not be a penalty for misrepresentation of nonmaterial facts on a citizenship application. (Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch, who are rapidly becoming The Alt-Right Triplets, filed a concurrence but did not dissent). In Pavan v. Smith, a 6–3 court decided that same-sex married people have a constitutional right to list both names on a birth certificate for any children of the marriage, regardless of the fact that both parents are not biological contributors to the child. (The dissenters were, you guessed it, Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch.) It’s a bit strange recognizing Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy as a new-order moderate and liberal, respectively, but we live in strange times indeed.

And that’s all for now, but tomorrow’s a new day. (And so’s the next day. And the next day…) Stay tuned for more updates and anecdotes next week!

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