You know how I said last week that I didn’t think the good news cycle would last? …yeah, I have some bad news about that. Literally. (I promise I didn’t jinx it!)
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:
Nearly half the total news this week relates in some way to The Russia Collusion Investigation — way more than is ordinary, even as we navigate growing constitutional crises. It’s a whole new brand of weird and scary, and I’m not yet sure what is going to happen from here.
- Trump Still Hates Lawyers. An oval office interview with three New York Times reporters ended up making this week feel like a Comey redux in a number of ways. First Trump, apparently upset to learn that Mueller could go through his tax records, warned off the independent counsel in the interview, saying he hadn’t ruled out firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller if he misstepped. He then subsequently started investigating Mueller’s team of attorneys, which some experts speculate is Trump’s way of laying groundwork to fire Mueller. In the interview, Trump also complained about Sessions, saying it was “unfair” that the Attorney General had recused himself from the Russia investigation, and noting, “[I]f he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else.” This is actually a huge admission on Trump’s part — if you think about it, he’s basically saying that he wanted someone he hand-picked to be in charge of investigating any of his own wrongdoings. (It also belies a lack of understanding of how our judicial system works, but that’s not particularly new.) The press then had a field day covering Trump’s criticism of Sessions, which frankly probably didn’t merit this much attention. Also, Trump changed his own legal defense team this week, probably because they told him not to fire Mueller and/or Sessions.
- Sessions Strike Two. Sessions responded to Trump’s statements publicly by publicly noting that he plans to stay in the role “as long as that is appropriate,” but given the way this week ended that might not be too much longer. We learned on Friday that Sessions did indeed discuss campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016, indicating yet another lie told under oath repeatedly. This information reflects badly on Trump even though it also might give him an excuse to fire Sessions (if he’s truly disgruntled about the Mueller investigation).
- Can I Pardon Myself? This week’s I Wish I Were Making This Up Award goes to reports that Trump is investigating whether he can pardon his aides, his family, and himself. By Saturday, apparently because simply asking the question settles it in Trump’s mind, he was tweeting that “all agree” he has complete power to pardon people. (Spoiler: Larry Tribe does not agree, at the very least, and in fact Trump’s referencing an unanswered legal question, because no sitting President has ever tried to pardon himself. That said, the Washington Post has a helpful summary of the parts of his questions with settled legal answers.) It’s very hard to suss out what exactly Trump plans to do with any of this, though logic would suggest it won’t involve anything good; with so much in the air right now we’ll need to watch the Russia investigation carefully and see what happens.
- Dinner Date with Putin. Another gem to come out of the New York Times interview was the knowledge that Trump apparently had an impromptu dinner date with Putin during the G20 summit. We don’t know much about what was said, because the White House released no details and there were no press were present; the dinner in question was only for heads of state and their spouses. Russia, in contrast, might have a transcript of the conversation, since the only other person present was a Kremlin interpreter. Meanwhile, Russian ambassador and all-around jerk Sergey Lavrov has started trolling us on the topic, saying they met more than three times and “maybe they went to the toilet together.”
- Testimony Schedule. Several people high-up in the Trump administration (and/or related to Trump) have been subpoenaed to testify before Congress this upcoming week, and some of them have more of a hill to climb than others. As forecast earlier, Trump Jr. is testifying on Wednesday in a public hearing; though he’s not a member of the administration, the Senate Intelligence Committee wants to question him about his June 2016 meeting with a Russian attorney, so he was added to an existing panel. (Paul Manafort will be on the same panel.) Today, Kushner testified in closed session; I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that, because it was revealed on Friday that he failed to disclose dozens of assets when completing his clearance paperwork and I’m sure the committee will have a lot of questions for him about this. That said, he appears to have said nothing of real substance (unless you count throwing Trump Jr. under the bus).
And just like last week, we have some horrifying news about Emoluments, or at the very least about personal enrichment.
- Trump Tower Is Hella Expensive. This past week, we learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that the U.S. military is paying $130,000 per month to rent space at Trump Tower. The lease, which extends from April 2017 through September 2018, will cost the government $2.39 million all told; that’s expensive even by Manhattan standards, and this definitely overthrows last week’s story as the single biggest instance of personal enrichment reported to date. To add insult to injury, Trump has not stayed at Trump Tower once since this lease was signed — so that’s clearly $2.39 million of taxpayer money well-spent. (Note: the Wall Street Journal broke this story, but since their excellent reporting is behind a paywall, I have linked primarily to other sources.)
Your “Normal” Weird:
- That’s a Spicey Walk-Out. Sean Spicer resigned as Press Secretary on Friday, reportedly in protest of Trump hiring on Anthony Scaramucci as his communications director. Sarah Huckabee-Sanders was named the new Press Secretary later that day. You may remember Scaramucci, who is a long-time associate of Trump’s, as That Guy Three CNN Reporters Resigned Over a few weeks ago; there’s speculation that bringing him on board was also intended to alienate Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Though Priebus is still among us, I can see why this was a final straw for Spicer, given the rate at which Scaramucci appears to be alienating people in his new job.
- State of the BCRA. What’s going on with the BCRA right now? No one knows. No, seriously, no one knows much of anything; it’s a chaotic, confusing mess. McConnell has announced an intention to vote again on Tuesday, but no one knows which version of the bill is being voted on — the old BCRA, the Cruz Amendment BCRA, or the 2015 bill that McConnell mentioned earlier last week. (FiveThirtyEight has your back, by the way, and has compiled a summary of all the options.) Incredibly, Senator John Cornyn called knowing which bill was being voted on tomorrow a ‘luxury we don’t have.’ Confusing the issue further, the Senate might not even be able to vote for the BCRA under reconciliation rules — a fact which has Paul Ryan badmouthing the CBO in an apparent attempt to discredit them. Never one to skip the action, Trump has been leaning on politicians more over the past few days, and gave a speech illustrating his own ignorance on Monday. Needless to say, this is an incredibly strange process we are watching unfold in real time, and it’s definitely worth it to call your Senators on Tuesday — if they’re a hard no, thank them; if they’re leaning no, try to persuade them. (If they’re a hard yes, calling them won’t necessarily change their minds but at least you can vent your spleen.)
- Debt Erasure. On the more positive end of the “what the hell” spectrum, the New York Times reports that tens of thousands of people with defaulted private student loans may be off the hook now, because their paperwork is missing. The loans in question total at least $5 billion, and are all held by National Collegiate Student Loans Trust — assuming they can find the paperwork, that is. Judges in multiple states have already tossed out lawsuits, noting that the organization had not proved it owned the debt on which it was trying to collect.
- Police Seizure of Personal Property. The latest in Sessions terribleness is a push to increase police seizure of assets in instances where police aren’t issuing charges or searching under warrants. This practice is known as civil asset forfeiture, and Sessions is undoing policies put in place by his predecessor Eric Holder to bar it. If the new policy sounds kind of like it lets police steal from random citizens, that’s because it does; at the time that Sessions’s predecessor Eric Holder removed the policy being revived, police took more from people’s houses than burglars did. Just like when Sessions pushed for mandatory minimums, even conservatives think this is a bad idea; it’s a deplorable practice that blatantly enriches police departments on the backs of ordinary people who can ill afford it.
- Smuggling Deaths in Texas. News broke this weekend that thirty-nine people were found packed into a sweltering tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas; as of the time I’m writing this, ten of those people have passed away. Seventeen more have life-threatening injuries as a result of prolonged exposure to severe heat and dehydration. Survivors reported that over one hundred people were originally in the trailer; when police called ICE to the scene, many people who were able fled. The police chief noted that he expects those who survive in hospital care to be returned to ICE custody. Needless to say, stories like this illustrate the sheer desperation many people experience when they are forced to flee their location without safe immigration pathways.
- Reporter Ignored White House Streaming Rules. This past week, a reporter named Ksenija Pavlovic said “screw this” and streamed a White House press conference like it’s 2015. Pavlovic, who runs her own news site, simply ran Periscope during the conference, which is such a simple and elegant solution that I’m surprised it took the press this long to try it. It’s unclear what consequences will fall on Pavlovic’s head from this; I hope nothing too serious happens to her, though I can’t imagine she’ll be welcome at the White House anytime soon.
- Travel Ban Minor Win. The Supreme Court put out an extremely brief order this week clarifying that they weren’t going to touch last week’s Hawaii District Court holding about which relatives should qualify to make a traveler exempt from the President’s travel ban. (They did, however, stay the court’s holding as it pertained to refugees with ties to resettlement programs.) As with the Supreme Court’s first order, all of these provisions are simply discussing what will be the policy while the case is pending; oral arguments will be heard on the merits of the order on October 10. By refusing to put a stay in order, the Supreme Court has effectively required the administration to add most family members (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews) to the list of qualifying relationships while the case is pending.
This is a disorienting, strange, and scary time, and I’m afraid knowing all the news this week doesn’t necessarily help with that. It’s vital that we make as much sense of it as we can, and stay informed and engaged in the coming weeks.