This past week was a wild, terrifying, bizarre ride all around — after almost a month of bad news cycle, we’re suddenly deep in I Can’t Believe I’m Not Making This Up territory. I’m afraid it’s dark carnival almost all the way down, which means it’s only a marginal improvement.
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:
Trump met with Putin for two hours this week, giving us new data on The Russia Collusion Investigation, though it may be hard to untangle it all.
- Looking for Puppet Strings.* As many, many people anticipated, this week’s meeting between Trump and Putin suggested a complex connection and the close of a play-acted rivalry, at least on Trump’s end. After meeting for nearly two hours, Trump and company emerged with a partial agreement on a Syrian cease-fire but no real other progress on long-term conflicts such as U.S. sanctions and the Ukraine crisis, and conflicting stories about election interference. (Tillerson told reporters afterwards that the disagreement on the election interference question was “intractable” and the two countries should try to “move forward.” The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Larov, simultaneously reported that Trump “accepts” statements from Putin “about this being untrue.” Disturbingly, I am not actually sure which man is accurately reporting, if either of them even are.) It’s legitimately a bit hard to watch Trump tell Putin “It’s an honor to be with you” in front of cameras, given the conversations happening and the larger, troubling context of the G20 summit. And regardless of everything else going on, Trump’s apparent focus on “moving forward,” which he says includes forming a “Cyber Security unit” with Russia (!), is extremely disturbing. (Though he did walk that one back only twelve hours later.)
- Russian Hacking Update. Barely a day after Trump announced that he wanted to work with Russia on a cyber security unit, news came in that Russian government hackers have penetrated American nuclear power companies’ networks (and other energy companies’ as well). Officials said that the hackers accessed personnel files and other databases related to business operations. Though there were no signs of disruption around the power systems, officials are concerned that we may see more severe cyberattacks in the future. On the plus side, that type of concern presumably also means security will be tightened.
- Donald Trump Jr’s Stunning Admission. (Note: I cannot take credit for this headline, but seeing as I was, in fact, truly stunned by this news, I’m gonna go ahead and borrow the headline from the Washington Post.) Donald Trump Jr, who has a persistent habit of saying the quiet bits out loud, told the New York Times that he met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign because she promised him compromising dirt on Clinton. He then, incredibly, further contextualized this by saying that “she had no meaningful information” when he did meet with her (along with Manafort and Jared Kushner) and “[i]t became clear to me that . . . the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.” Yes, you read that right; Donald Trump Jr went on the record complaining that a sketchy Russian lawyer had failed to deliver the collusion goods. This is a really, really big admission, even if it doesn’t look like it, in no small part because it torpedoes a bunch of earlier collusion denials from the Administration. Richard Painter, a former George W. Bush ethics lawyer, point-blank called this behavior treason, noting, “He must have known that the only way Russia would get such information was by spying . . . In the Bush administration we could have had him in custody for questioning by now.”
I don’t even know how to classify the other items below, which is why I’m just going to call them a Constitutional Crisis Grab Bag. They’re all symptoms of a larger, more serious threat, which I’ll talk more about below.
- The Controversial Declaration of Independence.* As has been their broadcasting tradition for decades, NPR tweeted the text of the Declaration of Independence to celebrate the Fourth of July on Tuesday. In response, a handful of Trump supporters lit them up, responded with what appears to be a mix of trolling and actual outrage at the text of one of our most treasured national documents. Then tons more people lit up the people lighting up NPR, and it was just all one great big American firework. (Though some people, as the previous link notes, managed to have very civil discourse on the topic and own their mistakes.) Needless to say, the whole incident marks a curious combination of defensiveness of a despotic President, apparent ignorance of what the Declaration of Independence actually says, and growing animosity towards the free press. Happy Fourth, y’all.
- Ivanka the Presidential Stand-In. Incredibly, Ivanka Trump stood in for her father at some of the G20 summit this past week, taking his seat at a working session on “Partnership with Africa, Migration and Health.” Though the White House has tried to pass this off as not a big deal, noting that “[w]hen other leaders stepped out, their seats were also briefly filled by others,” Ivanka Trump has no official capacity beyond being an “assistant to the President” and being his daughter. She also has absolutely no experience or training as a diplomat or leader in foreign policy, and to my knowledge has zero actual training in health for that matter. Perhaps more importantly, this model of sending family members to do the jobs of elected officials is a hallmark of hereditary dictatorships, which often emerge from former or nominal republics. This type of transition is a very real threatened endpoint for this administration, and Trump’s use of his children as lieutenants keeps getting more and more brazen on the international stage. (As one article notes, we did see echoes of this in the 1960s when JFK appointed his younger brother Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General, though in that instance the latter at least had done prior work as a government attorney; this type of dynamic is not without precedent in American politics but it is definitely worth watching.)
- White House Time Warner Merger Standoff. The current Administration is threatening to withhold approval of a merger between Time Warner and AT&T, which in a vacuum doesn’t seem noteworthy — our government has considerable antitrust power over mergers and that merger is controversial at best. What is noteworthy, however, is the administration’s apparent motivation — there’s a lot to suggest that Trump might be withholding approval to spite CNN, which has a rocky relationship with Trump even by news media standards. Needless to say, the entire situation draws attention to the current President’s notably antagonistic relationship with the free press, which is another hallmark of dictatorships.
- Trump Poland Pep Talk. Trump gave a pep talk to the folks in Poland on his way to G20 this week, which started out more-or-less normal but veered into some creepy Islamophobic territory by the end. As the Atlantic notes, his constant use of language like “the West” and “our civilization” is a dog-whistle for white supremacist thought, which is also a common thread between the Trump administration and the very conservative current Polish government. Against this backdrop, perhaps it’s not surprising that Trump neglected to visit the site of the Warsaw ghetto uprising while he was there, ending a multi-decade tradition among visiting American Presidents (despite giving his talk less than a mile away).
- Ethics Officer Steps Down. The current director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, announced he was stepping down this week. He noted when making the announcement that “the ethics program needs to be strengthened,” and that his new position at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington will allow him to take more steps to change the system. Nonetheless, this news leaves an important check against the Trump administration vacant, and we should be watching further news on the position very carefully.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Hobby Lobby Breaks At Least Three Commandments. High up there on the “how am I not making this up?” list is the news that Hobby Lobby was smuggling clay Iraqi artifacts into the country. A federal suit was brought in Brooklyn alleging that the company had been illegally transporting thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts (namely, cuneiform tablets, clay bullae, and cylinder seals) that were falsely labeled as ‘tiles’ to evade U.S. Customs. The federal complaint also notes that the artifacts were mishandled once unpacked, describing them as “spread on the floor, arranged in layers on a coffee table, and packed loosely in cardboard boxes, in many instances with little or no protective material between them.” The company has been fined three million dollars, and all of its thousands of artifacts have been forfeited as contraband.
- Robots are Welcome (But Not Teen Creators). Teams of teenage girls from Afghanistan and Gambia have each been denied visas to compete in the FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition happening in D.C. in mid-July. It’s unclear why they were banned, since neither country is on the list prohibited from travel under the travel ban. Even more strangely, both teams will be permitted to send their robots, which they will have to watch compete via Skype. No clarification appears available on why these girls in particular were denied.
- Trumpcare Non-Update Update. The lack of Trumpcare news has been in the news a lot this week, and I’m just not sure I trust it — a lot of us were lulled into a false sense of security after the first failure in the House. I don’t see a lot to suggest this will be different; McConnell is still insisting he’ll find a way to limp this thing across the finish line, and it’s not over until it’s over. In the meantime, however, the Atlantic did put out a good analysis of the bill’s impact on Medicaid, and the Department of Health and Human Services put out a report noting that the ACA is still ‘working as intended.’ So you can enjoy both of those alongside McConnell’s endorsement of Congress not killing each other this week; hopefully we’ll have more news once Congress resumes after the break.
- Pence Touched Expensive NASA Equipment because Rubio Dared Him. The headline pretty much sums this one up, actually — he got photographed touching the equipment labeled Do Not Touch, and then tweeted an explanation: Mark Rubio dared him to. Afterwards, he tweeted a photoshopped image of himself petting a porcupine as well. I seriously got nothin’. (NASA did clarify that he hadn’t damaged the equipment, though.)
- No One Feeling So Fly at the G20. Even independent of The Great Polish Pep Talk, substitute President Ivanka Trump, and the Trump/Putin saga, G20 had a lot of issues over the past week. To start with, the site experienced massive protests throughout the week for a variety of reasons, culminating in police use of teargas and water cannons. Then Trump wouldn’t stop tweeting about unrelated matters (e.g. John Podesta, Fake News, MAGA, reviews of his Poland speech…), and alienated literally everyone else there with his unwillingness to negotiate on topics like climate change. After the event, critiques from other countries looked pretty scathing, and nobody seems quite sure where we go from here.
- Multiple Shootings in the Bronx. This past week saw multiple tragic shootings in the Bronx. First a doctor opened fire in a hospital where he used to work, killing another doctor who was covering a shift and injuring six more people. (The assailant also sprayed gasoline into the nursing station.) But only a few days later, an active police officer was assassinated in her vehicle while covering a Fourth of July shift. The assailant was fatally shot by police very shortly afterwards about a block away.
- KKK Rally and Counter-Rally in Charlottesville. The KKK held an armed rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, protesting the city’s removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a public park downtown. The protest drew hundreds of counterprotesters, which resulted in clashing and ultimately culminated in twenty-three arrests. State police also released three canisters of tear gas into the crowd. Three people were taken to the hospital.
- Environmental News Roundup. Per popular demand, guest writer Matthew Kamm gives us a quick rundown of what’s going on in environmental news this week: “For those who haven’t been following the environmental news closely since the election, The Guardian has a depressing, but excellent, rundown of the various ways the current administration has weakened environmental regulations. This week specifically, The Department of the Interior led by Secretary Ryan Zinke released a request for comment on their plan to open up new offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans, pursuant to an executive order the President signed back in April. Trump insisted at the time that he was undoing the Obama-era protections for the Arctic Ocean that banned drilling there, but since those protections were not an executive order but rather an application of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, it’s not clear that he can actually do that. This week also saw an official recommendation from Secretary Zinke that the President consider shrinking the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. This is a contentious and complicated issue, but the linked article gives a good summary. In legal news, a bunch of state prosecutors are getting together to sue the EPA over a decision EPA Director Scott Pruitt made back in March — he refused to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to neurological problems in children as well as autoimmune disorders in adults, from use in US food agriculture. Especially considering that the EPA itself had decided to ban chlorpyrifos under the last administration, the prosecutors seem to have a viable case. Finally (and mercifully), a federal appeals court ruled earlier this week that enforcing regulations on methane leaks for oil and gas operations was, in fact, still the job of the EPA, despite its decision earlier this spring to delay enforcement (presumably because preventing poisonous gas leaks now falls outside their mandate as dictated by one of the villains from Captain Planet).”
- More Voter Log Backlash. We’re now up to 40-something states refusing to comply with the voting commission’s voter logs request, which the Hill reported this week is likely illegal in the first place because it didn’t go through the proper channels. In addition to this challenge, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (a privacy rights watchdog group) is suing the election integrity panel, claiming (in my opinion correctly) that the panel’s request violates informational privacy laws, and the ACLU is suing as well. The panel has been forced to reconvene this month in the face of considerable opposition and refusal to comply. Also, as Nate Silver notes, it would be difficult to collect accurate data through the commission’s methods anyway.
- Attorneys General Sue DeVos. Attorneys General of eighteen different states and District Columbia are suing Betsy DeVos over her failure to enforce student loan protections. (The suit is in addition to a separate suit being brought by a consumer advocacy organization with similar allegations.) Maura Healy, Massachusetts Attorney General and all-around all star, explained to reporters that she brought the suit because DeVos is cancelling predatory lending rules without opportunity for comment or notice. The regulations were due to go into effect on July 1, but DeVos suspended them and said she would overhaul them in the near future; the Attorneys General are demanding implementation of the existing regulations as a remedy instead.
- Fair Representation Act Introduced in the House. This past week, House Rep Don Beyer introduced the Fair Representation Act, which would open up elections, introduce ranked-choice voting, and require independent redistricting of all congressional districts. All in all, it represents a significant departure from entrenched (and unfair) voting practices in the country. Even if this legislation goes nowhere, the fact that it was introduced at all is both heartening and worth noting — it represents a growing response to the kinds of voter suppression and gerrymandering that have become more widespread in the past year.
And that’s all the news this week, in its bizarre glory. Tune in next week, when I’ll probably be reporting on porcine pilots sailing past my window.