Well, this week wasn’t all that much calmer than the last week, purely in terms of incoming news, but it certainly felt a lot less dire. Basically, this week was more a ride on the highway than a trip on a roller coaster; fewer ups and downs and nausea, but we still did cover a lot of ground!
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:
As predicted, there was a lot of movement on The Russia Collusion Investigation in the past week. Stuff is starting to get really real, y’all, and this might be the beginning of the snowball. (Although it might turn out that there’s no way for this snowball to gain momentum as it rolls down Capitol Hill. We’ll have to keep watching and find out.)
- The Collusion Plot Thickens. The single biggest piece of Russia-related news to hit this past week is that President Trump apparently had a direct hand in covering up some of the facts about his son’s infamous 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer. This is a big deal, because it’s the first piece of news on collusion with Russia that implicates Trump directly, and even if he had no part in the collusion it’s still further evidence of obstruction of justice. In part because of this news, congressional investigators are now seeking phone records of Trump Jr.’s phone calls setting the meeting up. Meanwhile, Mueller and his team have broadened their investigation to include an inquiry into Trump’s financial ties to Russia, which you may remember is exactly what Trump was trying to avoid a couple of weeks ago.
- Breaking Out the Grand Jury. The other big news of the week is that Mueller started impaneling a grand jury on the Russia investigation on Thursday. This action is significant because it shows he potentially believes there is enough information there to support an indictment, but it also allows him to issue subpoenas — and he wasted no time issuing several. (He also requested documents from the White House this week, though he didn’t issue a formal subpoena for those.) Trump meanwhile wasted no time on his end accidentally inviting speculation about which of his family members are likely to be indicted.
- Chris Wray Is Better Than Ezra (Cohen-Watnick).* New FBI Director Chris Wray was sworn in this week without incident after a very uncontroversial confirmation hearing a few weeks ago. He joins FBI staff as National Security Counsel member Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Flynn appointee, is ousted from the counsel. Both Wray’s entrance and Cohen-Watnick’s exit appear to signal that the White House is generally moving in a new direction on foreign affairs.
- Mueller Protection Circle. As was forecast last week, multiple Senators introduced bipartisan legislation intended to protect Mueller from arbitrary firing while he’s doing his job. Tillis and Coons introduced legislation that subjects any firing of special counsel to subsequent judicial review, and also mandates that any Attorney General firing Special Counsel must be appointed by the Senate. The bill introduced by Graham and Booker, by contrast, forces a judicial review process before termination can take effect. Both require cooperation with federal judges, and both appear designed to avoid repeating what happened to James Comey a second time.
- Animal House Judiciary. Meanwhile, while literally everybody else gears up and settles in for a lengthy Russia investigation, the House Judiciary Committee continues to ride their truck the wrong way down a one-way street. Among the latest is a member insisting that Mueller needs to resign (for… reasons…? His actual justification involves Fox News. No, seriously.) There’s also the ever-popular demanding a special counsel investigation of Hillary Clinton. Yes, again. I got nothin’.
- Russia Sanctions Bill Finalized.* Perhaps because he knew it passed by a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress, Trump did sign the Russia sanctions bill on his desk this week. But just in case we thought he was a fan of the bill, he made a point to issue a separate statement making sure he called the bill unconstitutional and “seriously flawed.” Also, he signed it for the sake of national unity, not because Congress would just override his veto if he didn’t. (Also, he has a bridge to sell us.)
In other bad news, we’re back to a second Constitutional Crisis Corner this week, as The Free Press gets some major threats. We saw both threats to the press and creation of an official administration-created propaganda program.
- After the Leakers. In response to leaked transcripts of Trump’s calls to Australia and Mexico early in his presidency, Jeff Sessions says he is tripling the number of leak probes being conducted by the Justice Department (though at present, the only person being prosecuted for a leak is Reality Winner). While experts are saying there is, in fact, lasting damage done by such poor national security, the Sessions method is characteristically terrifying, initially implying that they might prosecute journalists for failing to reveal sources. They eventually walked that idea back two days later on Fox News, but that was more than enough time to worry people.
- Real (Fake) News. Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, began hosting a program she’s calling “Real News” on Trump’s facebook page last week. This week there’s a new video, with Trump replaced by former CNN commentator Kayleigh McEnany, illustrating that the plan is apparently to continue to make and launch these videos every week long-term. You can hold your nose and watch on the Daily Kos, which also includes several tweets correctly noting that this administration is limiting access to real press and putting out its own propaganda.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- State of the Affordable Care Act. Remember how last week Trump was threatening to just refuse to pay ACA subsidies? Well, the main thing to happen since last week on healthcare was both the Senate and a U.S. Court of Appeals telling him “good luck with that, buddy.” (Okay, fine, the court didn’t really say that. I refuse to believe some of the Senate didn’t at least think it, though.) The court order permits Attorneys General from 17 different states to defend the subsidy payments — essentially guaranteeing that somebody is arguing for the states’ legal right to that money, and potentially leading to a court case ordering the government to pay. It also removes political cover for Trump, making blame fall more squarely on his shoulders if the subsidy payments don’t happen. It’s a bit of an unusual move, though good news for the country. Meanwhile, members of the GOP in both houses have been signaling that it’s time to move on for over a week now, and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions officially announced bipartisan health care hearings will be held next month. Just for extra schadenfreude, the ranking member of that committee is Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.
- Can Jersey Just Keep Him? Trump was quoted as calling the White House “a real dump” on the golf course this past week, presumably to justify the seventeen-day vacation he’s currently taking in Jersey (from the White House, but, I will note, not from Twitter). He then denied that this happened at all, even though eight different people apparently heard him say it. Weirdly, regardless of the state of the White House, Trump is not the most avid vacation-taking President in recent memory; that honor goes to George W. Bush, who took 67 days of vacation in the first 196 days of office. Trump has taken 41. (Both of them ran rings around Obama, who took a more modest 21 days, though this did not stop Trump from tweeting about how much vacation the man took.)
- Disturbing State Department News.* The Washington Times reported this week that the State Department is considering scrubbing any reference to promoting democracy from its mission statement. Though this information comes from a circulated email and is by no means final, the fact it’s being considered as a change at all is pretty disturbing. The proposed change is particularly noteworthy because it comes on the heels of Tillerson refusing to accept $80M earmarked for fighting propaganda, with at least one aide suggesting his motivation is to avoid angering Moscow by targeting their propaganda. Legislators are understandably very unhappy with Tillerson’s refusal to use the money, particularly because it was also intended to fight propaganda from ISIS. It’s unclear whether this discontent will ultimately result in pushback from senators, but one can only hope.
- Affirmative Action Antagonism. The New York Times reported this week that the Department of Justice is preparing to sue universities over affirmative action admissions, alleging that these policies discriminate against racial majorities. The internal announcement indicated that this would be handled by the front office of the civil rights department, rather than the more traditional Educational Opportunities Section, because… reasons? (Because racism, I suspect.) The White House, unsurprisingly, seems to be handling the report by deflecting and asking how the news got out. The Washington Post, not wanting to be shown up, responded with an opinion piece about legacy acceptance rates (and wouldn’t you know it, Trump’s alma mater got a special call-out).
- Immigration Awfulness. Fresh from his healthcare defeat, Trump handled his lack of progress by holding a press release for an immigration bill he dug up from February called the RAISE Act, which should have been left to die in committee. The bill dramatically cuts down legal immigration to the United States, setting up a point-based system that prioritizes things like fluently speaking English, being able to donate millions of dollars to American businesses (no, seriously), and having advanced STEM degrees. If you want to learn more about the bill and also feel bad about yourself, Time issued a fun quiz to determine whether you would qualify to immigrate here. (Spoiler: Most middle-class people don’t.) This bill probably isn’t going to go anywhere, though, because it doesn’t have Senate support, it’s based on junk economics, and lots of markets depend on the labor force created by legal immigration. Meanwhile, when CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged the administration on this bill by quoting the famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, spokesperson Steven Miller responded by dismissively noting that the poem was added later. Then conservatives used the entire thing to argue that press briefings shouldn’t be televised anymore.
- Redistricting Progress. A three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit informed North Carolina on Monday that they have one month to fix their illegally gerrymandered districts, a necessary next step after the Supreme Court confirmed gerrymandering this past June. Though the court stopped short of special elections, they did impose a deadline two months before the date sought by the state, leaving ample time to correct any further shenanigans. It’s exciting and important to see the Supreme Court’s decision translated into real district change in North Carolina!
- Republican Resistance. As mentioned earlier in this roundup, Republicans are starting to push back against Trump agenda items a lot, which is definitely net good even if it’s also kind of strange. First there’s the Senate signaling that they’re not going to back his play on healthcare, after months and months of dancing to that particular tune. In addition to that shot across the bow, Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski — remember her from Adventures in Department of Interior Harassment like a week ago? — got her sweet revenge this week by locking in nine pro-forma Senate sessions over the month of August. What this means, in practical terms, is that she’s just blocked Trump from recess appointments, which is a big deal because he was considering replacing Sessions that way. And, of course, there was the Russian sanctions bill, which enjoyed extremely strong bipartisan support, and the multiple bills introduced to protect Mueller from firing, and the Congressional investigators requesting Trump Jr.’s phone records. And a partridge in a pear tree.
And that’s the week’s news! The news cycle has become so rapid that I bet by tomorrow we’ll be in a different posture, but I’ll do my best to keep hitting all the key points each week. In the meantime, daily news summaries like WTFJHT and Today in Resistance are an excellent resource until we meet again!