Happy Manafort Monday, y’all! But don’t let the name fool you, because the real news of the week is that I got you news of an unsealed Papadopoulos conviction for Halloween. I super hope you like it, because we have a strict No Return policy here on game-changing secret convictions.
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 week’s news contains some detailed analysis that’s outside my expertise — I’m a lawyer, not a uranium miner! — 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:
The Russia Collusion Investigation is, without a doubt, the biggest news of the week:
- Mueller Indictments Monday. The first two indictment lists have been issued to former Trump campaign staffers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, totaling twelve indictments between them (mostly relating to money laundering and tax fraud). Both Manafort and Gates have turned themselves in and pled not guilty on all counts. (Fun fact: Manafort is actually facing investigations on three different fronts right now.) But the biggest news of the day is that former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos secretly pled guilty a few weeks ago, and both the charges and the deal are really, really significant. The charges were lying to the FBI about collusion with Russia — I believe the words “dirt on Hillary Clinton” literally appear multiple times in the documents. And the plea deal itself provides that “the Government agrees to bring to the Court’s attention at sentencing the defendant’s efforts to cooperate with the Government, on the condition that your client continues to respond and provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant” (emphasis mine). In other words, “as long as he tells us literally everything we’ll make sure he never goes to prison.” Manafort may be the bigger name, but Papadopoulos is the bigger story for today. (If/when Mueller manages to flip Manafort, though, that will definitely change.)
- Uranium What Now?* In a (probably vain) attempt to distract from news that Mueller was about to announce indictments, the Trump administration began trying to claim that actually Hillary Clinton was colluding with Russians during the 2016 election (not Trump). As far as I can tell, this involved conflating the fact that the Clinton Foundation received a donation from some people who are tangentially tied to a uranium mining company and the fact that Bill Clinton was once paid by Russia for a speaking engagement in Moscow. It’s all… pretty flimsy at best. I recommend reading the Washington Post demystification article, because the whole thing is attenuated and ridiculous.
- Bill Browder Appreciation Hour.* The other Russia-related news of the week is that Bill Browder, a famous critic of Putin’s human rights abuses who disclosed the horrors that led to the Magnitsky Act, was briefly barred from the United States this week. Though he had originally been granted a visa application, U.S. officials revoked it when Russia had him placed on an Interpol list — and yes, that would be the same Russian officials on whom Browder is famous for blowing the whistle. Browder did eventually get his visa reinstated, and the administration is maintaining that the first decision was an automatic response to the listing. But since it was changed after a massive bipartisan outcry, it’s hard to tell if that was accurate. At any rate, it appears to be mostly fixed now, and it’s probably a good thing that happened before the Mueller news broke.
And honestly, the Russia news can’t come soon enough, because we also saw more Threats to Human Rights this week:
- “An Immoral Travesty.” That is how Diane Feinstein described Customs and Border Patrol’s actions regarding a ten-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, and she frankly isn’t wrong. The story has gained national attention for its extreme facts: CBP stopped an ambulance at an immigration checkpoint, and when they learned there was an undocumented person inside, tracked ten-year-old Rosamaria to the hospital, apprehending her immediately after she received emergency medical surgery. Putting aside the obvious health implications of forcing an ambulance taking someone to an emergency room through a checkpoint, which frequently can take a very long time, the story illustrates what a strong disincentive immigrant families experience to seek medical help in places with heavy CBP presence.
- Somehow We’re Still Talking about the NFL.* We also had a bit more ridiculous anti-protest news in the form of a comment from a Texans owner Robert McNair that “we can’t have inmates running the prisons.” Setting aside what that suggests he thinks about the entire business of professional football, it’s obviously a very problematic statement, and he’s now apologized for it twice. Also, and more importantly, that particular outburst was sparked by conversations in which the NFL decided not to have an anthem mandate, so at least the NFL is still approaching the issue in a nuanced way.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Nobody Likes Whitefish. Oh gosh, where to start with this one. So the contract for restoring Puerto Rico’s electricity somehow wound up being awarded to a tiny company in Montana that just so happened to have ties to Ryan Zinke. Also, the contract prohibited the government from auditing the project. Needless to say, FEMA wasn’t a fan, and by the end of the week Puerto Rico was canceling the contract. The whole thing was very strange, and more than a little fishy. (See what I did there?)
- Republican Resistance Grows.* A growing number of retired or retiring prominent Republicans — such as George W. Bush, John McCain, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake — have all spoken out quite bluntly against Trump in the past week or two. Several of these figures will continue to hold a position of power for over a year, and some fellow Republicans with no obvious retirement plans are starting to react — which may be a reflection of the growing unease within the party that Bob Corker describes generally. Overall, we might be witnessing a shift away from Republican cooperation with the President’s agenda, and it’s worth watching carefully as a result. (The Washington Post also has an interesting piece on what Corker and Flake’s impending retirements might mean for the Senate.)
- JFK Document Partial Release. After bragging that he planned to release documents relating to the assassination of John F Kennedy (which have been mandated for release since 1992), Trump didn’t actually release all relevant records this week; he withheld thousands of assorted documents for “national security” reasons. That said, he did release thousands of related documents, so I guess that’s something?
- Refugee Decisions Quietly Made. Without much fanfare, the very last of the former travel ban was mooted this week, with the Trump Administration letting the refugee provision expire (and the Supreme Court dismissing the corresponding case accordingly.) But there’s another 90-day window of review for 11 countries facing “higher scrutiny,” which means refugee applications from those countries will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis; this is in addition to the incredibly low 45,000 cap set for total refugee resettlement in fiscal year 2018. The Trump administration is refusing to even name the 11 countries, which is really unusual; I can’t imagine this is the end of the travel ban legal battles.
- 401k Shuffle. Despite repeated promises from Trump, Congress is considering limiting 401k retirement contributions as part of its tax reform package. This is odd, not only because it’s unpopular with Wall Street, but also because it appears to discourage saving for retirement at all — and we already have problems with people saving too little. The 401k saga is likely unfolding the way it is because it’s an obvious way to offset tax cuts, and probably ultimately will result in more incoming government money than other options. But if everybody stops saving for retirement, it has the capacity to start costing the government large amounts in the long-term unless Medicare and social security are dismantled as well, because those are entitlement benefits — once people reach a magic age, they’re all allowed to ask for it and a lack of retirement planning means they’re more likely to need it. This is sort of like saying “we need people to buy our candy bars, let’s make it harder to pay for dental visits” and then hoping somebody else has to pay for all the dentures.
- EPA Blocked Its Own Scientists from Speaking. The headline kind of says it all on this one; the EPA canceled its own scientists’ presentation at a conference on climate change. When pressed for an explanation, the agency said that the scientists were attending; they just wouldn’t be presenting because “it wasn’t an EPA conference.” But it sounds like everyone attending understood what was really happening; other scientists (fairly) described it as “a blatant example of . . . scientific censorship.”
- Too Big to Sue.* The Senate voted this week to repeal a landmark Consumer Federal Protection Bureau regulation that limited mandatory arbitration clauses in bank account agreements. For those of you reading this who haven’t tangled with mandatory arbitration clauses before, they are a common corporate tactic to limit suits and force people through a “negotiation” process when they have grievances. It sounds good on its face, except that the deck is often stacked in the company’s favor because they have a relationship with the arbiters and the consumers don’t. In fact, it is because these clauses heavily advantage businesses and disadvantage consumers that the newly-repealed law was put in place in July in the first place; though Republican talking points suggest otherwise, the regulation merely required banks to draft user agreements that allowed consumers to retain the option to organize class action lawsuits. Adding insult to injury, it was a 50–50 tie, meaning that Pence cast the tiebreaking vote.
- Opioid Not-Actually-An-Emergency. Despite earlier promises to the contrary, the Trump administration failed to declare an opioid national emergency this past week. What they did instead was declare a “public health emergency,” which sounds similar — except there’s no money attached (as there would be for a national emergency), because the public health fund is empty. And Trump appears to think we can solve this by Just Saying No. Basically, it’s the difference between “The house is on fire, let’s call firefighters” and “The house is on fire, let’s call my buddy Steve.” Except in this scenario, Steve thinks you can put out house fires by telling the fire to stop burning things.
- Budget Proposal Movement. The House passed last week’s budget proposal by a very narrow margin this week; just like in the Senate, every single Democrat voted against it. Though the budget vote does not create fully-formed law — they still need to write the actual tax reform — this is a concrete first step, and that is not necessarily a good thing. But as mentioned last week, it might prove to be the bribe that makes the Republican party actually move to oust Trump, so it might be a mixed thing. We’ll have to see what happens from here.
- Alexander-Murray Makes the Grade. The Congressional Budget Office released a score on the Alexander-Murray stabilization bill, which was introduced a few weeks ago and intends to stabilize the ACA and associated market. It’s estimated that the bill would save the federal government almost 4 billion dollars, which is pretty encouraging news! Though nothing is a done deal by any means, this information may make it easier to pass the bill through Congress, because it’s a fiscally attractive option as well as a helpful remedy for shoring up markets and the ACA itself.
- GAO is AOK. News broke this week that the GAO will be investigating the voter fraud commission at the request of prominent Democrat Senators Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker, who wrote a letter asserting that the commission appeared designed to perpetuate voter suppression. The office warned that appropriate staff won’t be available to investigate for another five months, but it’s promising that the office accepted the request at all — let alone within a week of the request.
- Trans Military Rights Preserved (For Now). A DC federal court granted a preliminary injunction today that pausing Trump’s order banning trans military service, noting that it constituted an impermissible removal of due process for a protected class. This is exciting both because it pauses the order and because a preliminary injunction requires the plaintiffs to show that they’re likely to win their case — so the court was essentially opining that this order was unconstitutional. I’ll be very interested in seeing what happens with this decision.
And that’s what I have for now! But the news is still moving very quickly, so daily news summaries like WTFJHT remain a very good idea for the foreseeable future. We tend to see a rough week after we get inspiring news, because this administration does not take lumps gracefully — and some are still worried that Trump’s about to fire Mueller — so let’s batten down the hatches and prepare for more storms. And hopefully we’ll meet under sunny skies again next week!