I’ll be honest, y’all, I’m running out of ways to say “this week sucked.” But Amy Siskind and I agree: This week gives your vacuum cleaner a run for its money. (Although to be fair, you should probably throw that thing away anyway; it hasn’t been working the same since the Great Staircase Incident of ‘03.)
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 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:
This week was a bit quieter on the Russia Collusion Investigation front, though there were a few stories:
- Manafort’s Ghost-Writing Adventures. A week after Mueller’s team agreed to Paul Manafort’s release pretrial, news broke that Manafort had been ghost-writing an op-ed about his work in the Ukraine as recently as November 30 — which violates the judge’s gag order on speaking publicly about the case, and has Mueller withdrawing support for the bail agreement. Manafort is denying he ghost-wrote anything, as is the pundit who supposedly commissioned the op-ed. But frankly, that bail agreement was such a colossally bad idea that it should be withdrawn anyway, so I can’t work up the energy to get too fussed about this.
- Records May or May Not Have Been Subpoenaed. Among the more confused stories of the week is a news story that Mueller was subpoenaing Trump’s bank records, which was followed by a news story that Mueller was not subpoenaing them. Some outlets split the difference and reported that Mueller subpoenaed records of someone close to Trump. So it’s still not quite clear what happened, but someone probably subpoenaed some records about something?
- Donald Trump Jr.’s Privilege. Trump Jr. spent almost eight straight hours testifying this week, largely about his role in things related to Russia. But among the things to come out of that meeting was his claim that he didn’t have to answer questions about conversations with his father because of attorney-client privilege. (Spoiler: That’s literally the opposite of how attorney-client privilege works; you waive the privilege by including people other than the attorney in the conversation.) So, uh… that happened, because Congress let it.
- KT McFarland on Ice. Not the morbid kind; the Senate has just placed her nomination as ambassador to Singapore on hold because Flynn’s plea suggests she wasn’t exactly truthful to them. (As we recently learned, she also described Russia as “throw[ing] the U.S.A. election” to Trump.) At the moment, she’s one of nearly 200 positions that haven’t been greenlit for one reason or another. But she’s also part of an increasingly coherent mess of Officials Who Have Somehow Been Sketchy about Russia — and though it can be hard to keep track, the New York Times has your back and put together some helpful infographics.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Harassment, Politics, and You (Part II). Yet again, we experienced an utterly bizarre week in terms of Congressional harassment. In the early part of this week, House Democrat John Conyer stepped down, and then Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, announced he was going to leave that district unrepresented until 2019. Conyer’s resignation was followed fairly quickly by a similar announcement from Senator Al Franken. Disturbingly, none of this was the most sensational Congress news this week, because House Republican Trent Franks resigned as well, apparently due to offering his aides $5M to impregnate them (and if you haven’t read Alexandra Petri’s piece on this, do yourself the favor because it will give you back your will to keep reading the news). Meanwhile, Roy Moore enjoys the support of both Trump and the RNC’s funding streams again, and Trump himself is a sitting President with nineteen sexual misconduct claims against him. (Several senators and some of his accusers have called on Trump to resign just like the other politicians did, but I’m not sure we can hang our hats on that actually going somewhere.)
- Gay Cake Oral Arguments. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Colorado cake case this week, which pits the rights of same-sex couples to enjoy freedom from discrimination in public accommodations against the rights of store owners to freely express religious practice. Overall, the justices seem pretty evenly divided and Justice Kennedy’s swing vote is looking incredibly hard to predict. That’s really rare by this point, because the court had an unusual amount of consensus before there was a ninth justice, and a lot of decisions were 6–3 immediately after Gorsuch joined. Hopefully we’ll know specifics eventually, though the SCOTUS decision might not come out for months.
- Shutdown is Shut Down (For Now). The House passed a shutdown prevention measure this week, but only kicked the can down the road about two weeks — we’re going to be right back where we started before it’s even Christmas. All of it feels like a stopgap at best and myopic at worst, but I guess that’s what calling our reps is for. Either way, it’s the second time they’ve punted on creating a long-term solution in the past few months, and that’s an awful lot of not ensuring the government can stay functioning for one season.
- Embassy Imperative. Trump announced this week that he is ordering the United States Embassy to Israel moved to Jerusalem, a move he had been forecasting for some time but I was hoping he wouldn’t actually do. While technically he’s correct that he was enacting a law passed in 1995, all of our Presidents since the law’s inception in 1998, from Clinton to Dubbya to Obama, have exercised a waiver and kept the embassy in Tel Aviv for almost twenty straight years. This is because moving it is a really, really bad idea, and it’s no surprise that the State Department is downplaying the decision. Perhaps relatedly, conflict is already breaking out at the Gaza border over the decision, with Palestinians protesting by the thousands and Israeli forces launching air strikes in response. The conflict is as heartbreaking as it is predictable.
- Consumer Protection Bureau Sadness. Despite not even officially, definitely being in charge, Mick Mulvaney is starting to mess things up for the Consumer Protection Bureau. This week’s news is that he suddenly dropped enforcement of a suit against a mortgage company whose misleading practices damaged thousands of consumers — at the damages stage, when the court had already issued a multi-million dollar in the Bureau’s favor. Unsurprisingly, banks think he’ll mean good things for them, and they’re probably right. I suppose it’s not even news by this stage that somebody who hates the agency ends up in charge of every single agency we have, but it’s still depressing to it happen yet again. Meanwhile, Trump is tweeting about how he’s going to make the bureau do things, which is both obnoxious and illegal. Must be Tuesday.
- New DHS Secretary. The Senate confirmed new Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielson this week. I went back and forth on whether this was a Good news event or a Bad one for quite some time; on the one hand, it’s comforting to see our normal appointment process being followed, and Nielsen is an experienced security staffer from the Dubbya administration. But on the other hand, she’s currently deputy chief of White House staff, which means she’s very used to taking orders from John Kelly — so this may be as simple as trying to replace Elaine Duke with someone who will listen to his orders more often. The simple truth is that a lot depends on details we don’t yet have — so we’re stuck waiting to see what happens, and in the meantime I’m going to assume the worst so that I’m better prepared.
- Trans Military Win. A federal court that had previously blocked part of Trump’s ban of trans military service issued another holding today, this time requiring the military to accept trans applications starting January 1. The decision ultimately rests on refusing a stay of a prior order, with the judge finding that the military is unlikely to be irreparably injured by admitting trans applicants. The holding only decides what happens for now while the appeal is pending, but it’s still a nice respite and a sign that the judge doesn’t think the ban will last.
- The Silence-Breakers. TIME named its Person of the Year this week, and counter to Trump’s claims, they put “the silence-breakers” on the cover — women who helped popularize the Me, Too movement in the past few months and created accountability for several high-profile cases of sexual harassment. (The founder of the movement, Tarana Burke, was included in the article but not on the cover.) The movement definitely has created a larger conversation about sexual harassment and accountability, and we definitely haven’t seen the last of its effects playing out as Franken, Franks and Conyer step down this week. And regardless of what you think of the movement, I think we can all agree that it’s nice they didn’t give it to a white supremacist this year.
So that’s what happened this past week; hopefully next week will be better, though I’ll be back with another roundup either way. And seriously, get rid of that vacuum cleaner.