Well, okay, we’re back, and so’s this administration — with a vengeance. All of them, and Sessions in particular, appear to be making up for lost time, though this season’s cast of characters still involves a lot of buffoonery — but hey, at least we know Trump is clearly having as bad of a week as the rest of us!
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 an FBI agent! — 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:
There was a fair amount that broke on the Russia Collusion Investigation front in the past few weeks, which we haven’t focused on specifically during the break. Here are the main highlights to know:
- Recent Collusion Developments. I wrote a bit about some of this last week, because it broke over the weekend, but it’s important enough to bear repeating: Australia learned the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton back in spring 2016 — and subsequently tipped off the FBI, jump-starting our own first federal investigation — because George Papadopolous got drunk and told them so. As Seth Abramson notes in some twitter analysis, this sheds some light on the timeline of the FBI investigation, and also potentially seriously strengthens the legal case for collusion. News also broke that Trump ordered the White House’s counsel to stop Jeff Sessions from recusing himself, which obviously didn’t pan out but sure looks like blatant obstruction of justice. And the latest news to break on this front is that Mueller is now saying he wants to interview Trump directly — in response, I’m sure, to the earlier stories.
- Manafort Suing Mueller. This news comes straight from Bizarro World, which is a neat trick because I didn’t think anything could still faze me by early 2018: Paul Manafort is suing the Department of Justice to stop the investigation against him (or at least slow it). The complaint itself is truly stunning; it rambles about Kenneth Starr for a full two pages like it’s still 1998 and then argues that Mueller should never have been appointed because… reasons? (It’s not exactly clear on that point.) Then the whole thing concludes by arguing that Manafort being an agent of Ukraine in 2014 is somehow unrelated to the collusion claims — a claim that’s laughable on its face for about a dozen reasons — and therefore they should stop investigating it. I cannot stress enough how much this isn’t how any of this works; the established remedy in an improper criminal investigation is that the evidence found gets excluded; the investigation itself does not stop. Unsurprisingly, nobody expects this ploy to succeed; it’s just a cheap political move designed to discredit Mueller further. Honestly, if I were the judge hearing this case I would be tempted to sanction these attorneys for even filing.
- BUT HER EMAILS! In other deeply aggravating investigation news, the FBI is investigating the Clinton Foundation for a zillionth time, and is threatening to investigate her use of emails on a private server yet again as well. Putting aside the fact that the Clinton Foundation has been investigated without result for literally years, and the fact that much more egregious breaches of protocol than a private server have happened over and over and over again in the past year without any apparent investigative progress, and the fact that the alleged behaviors happened before 2013 and there’s a five-year statute of limitations on federal felonies…you know what, actually don’t put any of that aside; they’re all valid reasons to be really annoyed about this. But it’s also totally fair to be displeased by all these fiddle strains while we’re still waiting for somebody to do literally anything about all this smoke being reported, so you can go ahead and have opinions on that aspect as well.
There were also more egregious attacks on The Free Press front than we’ve seen in a while, though honestly they’re becoming so commonplace that I worry about how normalized it’s become:
- Corrupt Media Awards. Trump announced this past week (via tweet, naturally) that he’ll be giving out ‘Most Dishonest & Corrupt Media Awards’ next week at 5:00 PM, presumably to further his dual motives of bashing the media and demanding attention like a cranky toddler. But the real focus of the narrative has moved to Stephen Colbert, who started lobbying for awards (which he’s decided should be called ‘the Fakies’) pretty much immediately. My personal favorite of his proposed categories are ‘Fakes Dishonesty’ and ‘Least Breitbarty.’ (Also, news broke today that Trump will be taking more ‘executive time’, by which I presume he means ‘time to figure out how executive functioning works’, so he might not get to it next week.)
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Cease and Desist Sharing Things. The biggest, weirdest story everybody is talking about this week is Michael Wolff’s tell-all book about the White House, Fire and Fury. Trump certainly wasted no time sending cease-and-desist letters to Wolff about the book’s dissemination, to his publisher about the book’s publication, and to Steve Bannon about his remarks in the book (which, I don’t know how that would even work; it’s not like he can take back the quotes when Wolff has him on tape). Meanwhile, Trump unleashed a stream of vitriol about the whole thing both online and through spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, prompting Wolff to take potshots at the President’s thoroughly trashed credibility with the smugness of a guy who knows he has meticulous recordings.
- North Korea/South Korea Communication. After tensions ratcheted last week (which Trump decided to handle by yelling about the size of his nuclear button, despite the fact that he doesn’t have one), South Korea and North Korea’s relations appear to be thawing some — which is probably good, but still confusing. More specifically, North Korea reached out to South Korea on a hotline that’s been dormant nearly two years, resulting in brief and stilted (but not especially heated) communication. They’ve agreed to continue talks next week, and are expected to discuss North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics (which will be housed in South Korea in February) among other things.
- White House Opposes Texting. White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced this week that staff are now banned from using their personal cells in the West Wing, and must use government-issued devices. This would be a reasonable rule, except for the part where the government-issued devices don’t permit texting. And, of course, the rule doesn’t apply to the President, because of course it doesn’t.
- Sessions Rescissions. Upon returning to his racist happy place post-holiday, Jeff Sessions wasted no time rescinding several more forms of humane guidance; most notably, he rescinded rules designed to end debtors’ prison and announced he was repealing the Cole memo, a 2013 policy designed to accommodate states’ legalization of marijuana from 2013. The latter is particularly galling because it happened only three days after California legalized the drug, and California’s new laws permitted people already jailed for possession to petition for release. But even if his aim was tailored, his actions may have caught a lot of other targets; marijuana is legalized or partially legalized in many states at this point, and his memo lets U.S. Attorneys decide if they want to prosecute. Unsurprisingly, several senators are pretty publicly displeased with his decision. (Of course, Sessions isn’t that popular with his own party in general at the moment, so that might be a pretext.) At this stage, we’ll have to wait and see what prosecutors do with their newfound freedom; it’s my fervent hope that the California U.S. Attorneys refuse to prosecute anything at all.
- ICE Cold. Acting ICE director Tom Homan went onto Fox News this week and said that government officials of sanctuary jurisdictions should be jailed, along with a lot of other baseless garbage about how sanctuary jurisdictions work. Unsurprisingly, many officials had much to say about this idea, particularly when the guy saying it doesn’t even have official control of the agency. Against this backdrop, it is disappointing but not surprising that the Department of Homeland Security also announced today it is ending temporary protective status for 200,000 displaced Salvadorans, making El Salvador the fourth country to be terminated in the last four months. There are a lot of reasons why this is troubling, though the program won’t officially end until September 2019. So all in all, not a great week on the immigration news front.
- Trans Service Members Enlisting. Per the court decision a few weeks ago, the military started enlisting openly trans members this past week. This is the first time this has ever been permitted, though the ball was first set in motion under President Obama, and it’s both surprising and exciting to learn that the Pentagon doesn’t plan to appeal the court decision further.
- Trump Disbands Commission on Voter Fraud. After substantial and extended legal challenges, Trump disbanded his ill-conceived commission on voter fraud this week. Of course, he’s still going to look into voter fraud, because he’s terrible, and he apparently plans to tap ICE to do so (which is probably illegal). But at least Kris Kobach won’t be working on it, and the harebrained ICE plan will probably get shut down pretty quickly. So I’m going to call this one more good than anything else.
- Notorious RBG. Presumably to counter persistent rumors that she was about to retire, Ruth Bader Ginsburg just hired clerks through 2020. Thankfully, Justice Kennedy hired clerks for 2018–2019 as well; he was a more likely risk for retirement but the move suggests that he plans to stick it out another year too. For now I’m cautiously hopeful that the court’s makeup is not likely to change soon, though of course no one can predict the future. And given the current circumstances, I’ll call that good news as well.
And that’s what I have this week — lots of news of pretty much every type, but that’s better than news that’s uniformly bad. I’m hopeful that we’ll get some more good news next week, but you’ll hear from me about it either way! Until then, keep on keepin’ on.