You know how sometime in the last few months, there has probably been a point when I have said “comfort food at the ready” and then you read the news and thought “Wait, that wasn’t so horrible, maybe I’ve become inured to the true terribleness of our situation by my cocoon of low expectations”? This week, I am sad to report, will not be that week — it’s less “comfort food at the ready” and more “Sorry your friend Lando Collins sold you out but at least the carbonite makes the hurting stop.” If you get a moment, I really recommend reviewing materials on trauma resilience, emotional first-aid, and self-care this 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 week’s news contains some detailed analysis that’s outside my expertise — I’m a lawyer, but not the merger kind! — 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:
This week saw multiple really big stories on Russia Collusion Investigation front, though what will result from them remains to be seen. Here are the two main highlights:
- Manafort Released. Mueller’s team agreed to Paul Manafort’s release pretrial at the beginning of the week, removing provisions requiring GPS monitor and limiting domestic travel. Although four properties valued at $11.46M have been offered as collateral, that doesn’t seem to much reduce flight risk of a guy with a net worth estimated over $50M. It was a move that baffled and infuriated me until the end of the week, when we suddenly got more context about what was going on with Flynn.
- Flynn Plea Bargain. Michael Flynn struck a plea bargain on Friday, pleading guilty of lying to the FBI and assuring his full cooperation with the Mueller investigation — which so far has already included disclosure that Jared Kushner knew he was meeting with Russian officials. Trump responded by letting slip on Twitter that he knew about Flynn’s lies to the FBI before Flynn was fired, which people note suggests obstruction of justice — and then, in a wild twist, it turned out that Trump’s chief counsel had written the tweet. He then followed this up by claiming it’s not possible for the President to obstruct justice (despite Nixon literally being impeached for this in the 1970s). So I’m sure it’s an interesting time to work at the White House, at the very least.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Harassment, Politics, and You. This has been an utterly bizarre week in terms of Congressional harassment. In the early part of the week, Prominent House Democrat John Conyers stepped down from the House Judiciary Committee due to allegations of sexually harassing his aides. (He is being replaced by New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler.) Though Nancy Pelosi has been calling for his resignation, both he and Al Franken remain in their positions on Capitol Hill for now, and TIME is opining that we probably have only seen the tip of the Congressional harassment iceberg. Also, Veritas tried to catch the Washington Post in a sting operation with a fake Moore rape charge. Meanwhile, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi skipped a meeting with Trump this week because he insulted them and tweeted that it would be a waste of time. So of course he responded by putting two empty seats next to himself at the meeting, because harassment’s clearly the name of the game this week.
- Other Trump Oddities (A Partial List). Though they are far from the most noteworthy things to happen this week, there was an awful lot of bizarre Trump behavior that got swept under the rug because so many other things are on fire right now. Among the highlights: Trump claimed the Access Hollywood tape was fake; apparently is still theorizing that Barack Obama was born abroad; tweeted videos from a British anti-Muslim extremist currently facing hate crimes charges; and insulted British Prime Minister Theresa May when she took exception to said shared videos.
- Opioid Crisis Conway. Let’s see if I can make it through this section without vomiting in my mouth even a little bit. Jeff Sessions announced several bits of news about the opioid crisis this week, but the most obnoxious story is that Kellyanne Conway apparently is the official White House spokesperson for the opioid crisis. I really don’t have words for what a bad idea this is, so I’m just going to trust that y’all know why we maybe shouldn’t leave a debilitating national epidemic in the hands of a person with no relevant experience who already has another full-time job, thinks microwaves monitor people, and is under investigation for violating the Hatch Act. Let’s move on, before I strain something.
- State Department Speculation.* Rumors circulated this week that Trump was about to oust Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and replace him with Mike Pompeo. (Pompeo is currently the head of the CIA, but the plan apparently also involved replacing him with Arkansas senator Tom Cotton.) This type of change would be what we in the legal field like to call “abjectly terrifying,” given the current delicate situation with Korea and both men’s reputations for being war hawks, and it also evidences a disturbing trend of normalizing Trump’s habit of ignoring Cabinet appointment procedure. But for now, both Trump and Tillerson are saying that no changes are imminent, and Tillerson made it through a potential Friday Firing intact for the time being. So I’m not quite sure what’s happening from here, but I’m going to keep my fingers permanently crossed that it doesn’t involve Secretary Pompeo.
- CVS Bought Aetna. Yep, you read that right. CVS (as in the pharmacy convenience store chain) just agreed to buy Aetna (as in the health insurance company). I honestly have no idea what this even means; nobody in pharma has ever successfully bought the health insurance provider before. It’s possible it will lower healthcare costs, like the company says; it’s also possible that this will lock out competitors and make prices skyrocket. Maybe it will create porcine flight technology. I have no idea, y’all; this is really weird.
- North Korea News (Again).* North Korea fired a ballistic missile again this past week, for the first time in more than two months. What differentiates this missile from the previous ones is that it was much more powerful; experts estimate North Korea can now successfully reach anywhere in the mainland United States. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is still stressing diplomacy, but we should all be watching this carefully.
- How Not to Honor Veterans (Also A Partial List).* Trump was incredibly insulting to Navajo veterans at an event honoring them this week, receiving them with a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the background and pausing to call Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” in the middle of his statements for no discernible reason. (As several people on the Internet have noted, Pocahontas was Algonquin, Warren claimed to have Cherokee heritage, and Trump was honoring Navajos, so it’s a racist conflation of several different cultures on top of all the other forms of offense happening). The insult to injury is that the role Navajo code talkers played in World War II is a really remarkable and oft-overlooked part of our national history, which we of course didn’t get to hear about or honor because he was too busy using actual war heroes as a means to criticize Elizabeth Warren. Then, for an encore, he reduced the national monument known as Bear Ears, which has major tribal significance, by 85% — removing over one million acres all told. So now the Navajo Nation is suing Trump to preserve it, and moral of the story, if Trump invites you to the White House he’s probably about to do a jobby in your proverbial stew.
- Senate Tax Reform News (Again Again). The Senate tax reform bill passed through committee by 12–11 along partisan lines this week, and then after some initial mishaps on Thursday, they passed the whole enchilada 51–49 at 2 AM on Saturday morning (with Bob Corker being the sole Republican holdout, since Collins, Murkowski, Flake, and McCain all came onboard). Folks, I won’t sugar-coat this; they passed this bill in the middle of the night with a bunch of its provisions scrawled in the margins and after refusing to give anybody enough time to read the thing. To say that this was not good governance would be a major understatement, and it’s deeply disappointing to see “moderate” Republicans fold like card tables to preserve their donations. About the best that I can say is that the Senate version has some major departures from the House version, and the House can’t rubber-stamp those changes (more on that below), so now it’s gone to conference committee, and that’s already off to a rocky start.
- Travel Ban Back Online. Right alongside the tax reform news in the This Sure Is Hard to Stomach queue was the Supreme Court’s decision to remove injunctions on the travel ban today. Though the decision did not touch upon the merits of the case, it is the first time all the provisions of the final travel ban have been put back in play, and it’s particularly hard to swallow only a day or two after Trump retweeted viral anti-Muslim videos. I’m still halfheartedly hoping that SCOTUS wants to gather data to consider when pondering this case on the merits — a theory supported by the fact that Ginsberg and Sotomayor didn’t write out a full dissent — but it’s not a great day for Team People Who Don’t Hate Immigrants.
- An Australian Proposal. During a floor debate on codifying same-sex marriage in Australian Parliament (which was passed by referendum recently), an Australian lawmaker proposed to his long-term partner, who was watching from the gallery. The Australian House says this is the first time a marriage proposal of any type has happened on the floor, and it’s pretty cool that the first time it happened was in this context! Also, I want to live in a country where the Deputy Speaker’s response to something like this happening on the floor is “I should note for the Hansard that that was a yes, a resounding yes.”
- AMT Owed. I’m not yet sure if this counts as good, or just hilarious, but New York Magazine reported today that the Senate accidentally screwed up a really major provision of the Tax Reform bill they just passed — which means the House can’t vote on the bill as-is without seriously angering donors. More specifically, here’s what apparently happened: An older version of the bill abolished the corporate Alternate Minimum Tax entirely, but in order to court hold-outs McConnell had to add a lot of expensive provisions. Since the bill can’t add more than 1.5 trillion to the debt in order to use the reconciliation process (and avoid a filibuster), one of the drafters put the AMT back into the draft. Only problem is, they forgot to lower it at all even though the whole point of this exercise was to create tax breaks, so they lowered the regular tax rate to 20% and then set the minimum tax rate at 20%! Obviously, going back to the drawing board means more opportunities to get moderate Senators and House members off-board. But even if we don’t see major gains from this, it’s still some good, good schadenfreude.
And that’s what I have this week — I’m super sorry about it all. But maybe Lando Collins will join the Rebel Alliance by Episode 6, if we can hold on that long…