Well this week… happened; it was mostly a mixed bag at best. There was a lot of fighting back against terrible news, and some good news in its own right, which some weeks is the best we can hope to see. Resistance is how progress is made; we’ll try again next week.
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:
We saw some concrete movement on The Russia Collusion Investigation, though a lot of it got buried under tweets about what’s-her-name.
- Evidence of Collusion.* The biggest news to be buried this week is that concrete evidence of collusion to disrupt the 2016 election has emerged. The Wall Street Journal reported on connections between GOP operative Peter Smith, who was seeking deleted DNC emails to tank the Clinton campaign, and Flynn, Bannon, Conway, and Clovis. Smith reported that he was working at the behest of Mike Flynn. Unfortunately, all of that thorough reporting is behind a paywall, but Amy Siskind wrote a summary in the course of her ordinary weekly Authoritarian Watch, ThinkProgress has a good in-depth summary, and Time Magazine and the Hill has picked up the story as well. Mr. Smith will not be giving any further exclusives anytime soon, as he died shortly after speaking to the Wall Street Journal last month (as so often happens to Kremlin-connected informants).
- Russian Recall.* Russia is recalling Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which is probably a sign of increased heat from the investigation here in the United States. Russia is also denying that they are doing so, which is another sign of the same thing. Apparently he was a fairly pleasant ambassador, which also probably means his replacement will not be an improvement.
- Trump is Meeting with Putin Next Week. Incredibly, spokespeople for the White House say there is “no specific agenda” when Trump meets with Putin next week. Maybe they’ll talk about the weather. Maybe they’ll talk about the government. I have no idea, and there’s so much wrong with that I don’t know where to start.
Thankfully that’s the only front to see movement this week, which is probably for the best.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Trump TIME. Your weekly Trump weirdness is that he apparently hung a forged TIME cover of himself in several properties around the world. Even more bizarrely, Trump has been on the cover of TIME for real about fourteen times (as TIME helpfully reminds us), and several of them were perfectly flattering covers — so he didn’t even need to forge anything. I don’t even want to speculate about what would make someone with several real covers to choose from do this, on the grounds that I think it would kill brain cells to try. But, uh. That guy’s our President for another 3.5 years.
- Bona Fide Relationships. You may remember that the Supreme Court issued a ruling on the travel ban last week, which went into effect this past Thursday. As part of implementing the ban, the Trump administration issued guidelines on what constitutes a ‘bona fide relationship’ with a person or entity in the United States. Their definitions contain a major oversight that I find baffling — namely, it ignores the millions of kids living in kinship placements in the United States; those arrangements by definition involve a child in the custody of other family members, and frequently are not “formalized” through adoption for a variety of reasons. Since the definitions are otherwise fairly broad, I can only imagine that the lack of a custody-based exemption is an oversight rather than a malicious omission, but it’s still likely to impact grandparents, aunts/uncles, and cousins of U.S. residents who need to travel home to one of the six countries on the ban list for any reason. The rules also omit nonprofits dedicated to helping refugees resettle from the list of ‘entities’ that count, which does seem intentional (as well as heartless). All in all, it’s a strange and arbitrary list that seems almost like they simply made up rules on the fly, and it’s not surprising that it’s already being challenged.
- Weird Politician Behavior Roundup. This has been a super weird week for political behavior, even by our modern standards. The splashiest headline is Chris Christie closing New Jersey beaches due to a government shutdown, and then being photographed on one of said closed beaches. Incredibly, Christie’s response to being photographed was to say “That’s the way it goes.” But in addition to Christie’s crusade to be the country’s least popular governor, Jason Chaffetz is leaving the House to join Fox News mid-term. Given that Chaffetz is the current chairperson of the House Oversight and Government Reform, I really cannot stress enough how strange of a move this is — it’s like a police chief who’s investigating the mayor of his city for kickbacks suddenly leaving mid-investigation to become an ESPN announcer. That said, though, Chaffetz also randomly announced this week that he thinks Congresspeople should get housing stipends because their salaries are insufficient, so your mileage may vary on that one all around. Oh also, Trump had about a million distracting and obnoxious tweets, but at this point that’s not even news anymore.
- Church Playground Case Blurs Church and State. The Supreme Court reached a decision this week that was innocuous on its face, but has the end result of blurring the separation between church and state. In a 7–2 decision, the court concluded that a church playground should not be exempt from a government grant to fund resurfacing its playground purely on its basis as a religious institution. The danger in this case is not in the immediate result, but in the precedent it might set for later cases; though Roberts did write a footnote emphasizing the non-religious use of the funds in this instance, it could potentially pave the way for government funding of religion in future cases. On this basis, Sotomayor wrote a pretty impassioned dissent; given that Gorsuch did not join on the Roberts footnote, complaining that he “doesn’t see why it should matter” what the use of funds was, she appears to have a valid concern. (Side note: the Gorsuch concurrence is super gross and made me yell things at my computer. You have been warned.)
- Betsy DeVos Roundup. Per popular demand, this week includes a quick summary of what Betsy DeVos has been up to lately — which hasn’t been getting much attention, but is nonetheless a weird miasma of terrible. There’s been a lot of activity around higher education student loans, mostly boiling down to “it will become harder to borrow,” “you’re more likely to be defrauded in the borrowing process,” and “hope you enjoy paying exorbitant collection fees.” The most recent (and stunning) news along this vein is her decision to have a loan company CEO head Federal Student Aid, but all of these changes are likely to have a chilling effect on middle-income American consumers seeking higher education. On the primary education level, DeVos has been mostly hinting she may fund school discrimination, eroding civil rights enforcement in schools, and, of course, pushing for a “school choice” agenda generally. In general, most of her actions seemed designed to turn the American education system in the Wild West on all levels.
- Show Us Your Voter Rolls. A letter from the vice-chair of the Commission on Election Integrity demanded access to state voter rolls this week, asking for information such as social security number, name, birthday, voting dates, and registered political party for every registered citizen. Given that this commission was created because Trump claimed fraudulent voting cost him the popular vote, it’s a bit disconcerting that it’s asking for this information (to say the least); it doesn’t help that the commission only gave states a few weeks to comply. States are required to keep these lists under federal law, but that doesn’t mean they’re required to give them to the federal government or make them broadly available — and in many places the data is protected by state law.
- Kate’s Law and Sanctuary Cities. The House passed two laws this week cracking down further on immigration practices; one cuts funding from so-called “sanctuary cities” and the other imposes harsher sanctions on people who illegally reenter the country. Both provisions more-or-less passed along party lines, and both further blur lines between immigration enforcement and criminal procedure.
- BCRA Belated. Mitch McConnell was forced to postpone the BCRA vote in the Senate this week, in part because of opposition from various members of his own party. Cruz, who helped draft the bill and then refused to vote for it, offered suggested changes to be made in light of this delay, mostly repealing provisions about pre-existing conditions. In general, the bill is very unpopular among constituents, and that is making it hard to get moderates on board. But despite these setbacks, Republicans seem to believe they still can pull a rabbit out of this hat, and given what happened with the House bill, that’s very possible. If nothing else, McConnell is trying to get an amended CBO score in place by the time the Senate returns to session in mid-July; we’ll all need to keep a close eye on this to avoid a repeat of the House voting experience.
- Same Sex Marriage Approved in Germany. Same-sex marriage was approved by the German Parliament this week by overwhelming majority, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel voting against the bill but not impeding the vote. The way the vote evolved, and Merkel’s decision to make the issue a vote of “conscience,” illustrate how she allows her stances to evolve to reflect changing popular opinion on issues. The decisive victory, with over 150 more “yeas” than “nays,” also illustrates the popularity of the position in mainstream Germany.
- Attorney and Activist Response to the Travel Ban. When the travel ban went into place again on Thursday, attorneys across the country were ready for it. Hawaii’s attorney general has already requested official clarification for the ‘close family’ definition under the regulations, noting that many close familial relationships in Hawaii are excluded under the regulations. Attorneys all over the country also headed to airports, alongside observers, to ensure the ban was not improperly enforced. Attorneys and activists headed to protests as well. The next few weeks will tell us a lot about what we can expect from here.
- Voter Conscientious Objection. Over twenty-nine state Secretaries of States have already refused to comply with the Advisory Commission on Election Integrity’s demands on disclosing voter registration information — including, somewhat bizarrely, the guy who heads the commission, Kris Kobach (who is also the Secretary of State for Kansas). Many of the Secretaries of State had a few choice words for Kris Kobach and the commission while they were at it.
And that’s this week’s national news! Happy fourth, everyone. I’m Jake Tapper, and nothing makes sense anymore.