You know, when I watched Captain Planet as a small person, I had a reasonable expectation that I would not grow up and become governed by cartoonishly inept and morally bankrupt Saturday Morning villains like Hoggish Greedly, Looten Plunder, and Zarm. And yet I read the news this week and think, well, here we are.
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 Planeteer! — 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 was another week with a metric ton of news on the Russia Collusion Investigation front this week, and most of it is absolutely wild in one way or another. Here’s a nuts-and-bolts summary:
- Russia Sanctions Stalled. Last Monday was the deadline for President Trump to implement sanctions against Russia that were passed by overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress — and Trump has declined to do it, saying that the threat itself is a “deterrent” and merely releasing a list of Russian oligarchs. But Trump had already signed the legislation in August, which means he’s in direct violation of law right now by refusing to implement them. With midterm elections on the docket this year, and an ever-growing bevy of information suggesting Russia definitely did attempt to interfere in the 2016 election, this apparent violation of law is very serious. We need to be calling our representatives about this, particularly because Senate Democrats don’t seem too pleased about this either.
- The Neverending Nunes Efforts.* (Oh-whoa, oh-whoa, oh-whoa…) Folks, I cannot stress enough how bonkers, corrupt, and straight-up unAmerican most of this story is. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted Monday night to release an infamous three-page memorandum written by Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. The memo predominantly alleges that the FBI abused their authority to track a Trump campaign adviser in 2016 — though why Nunes would know that, I have no idea, because he’s supposed to be recused from the Russia investigation. Trump had five days to review the document and decide whether to prevent it from going public, but he was calling for its release before the House even voted (despite Sessions warning him that releasing the memo to the public would be “extraordinarily reckless”) — so it’s not surprising that he opted to release it by Friday. The memo summarizes a FISA report over fifty pages long, and because the summary was released without declassifying the report, it’s an incomplete picture at best and we have no way to know if Nunes was even accurately reporting. As SNL put it, “It’s like when you see a blurb for Transformers V and it says ‘It blew my mind . . .’ when the full quote is ‘It blew my mind that God allowed this.’” And sure enough, the FBI says the memo has ‘material omissions of fact,’ and the memo itself doesn’t even paint all that convincing a picture — the main gist of it seems to be “Since the DNC paid for the Steele dossier, and its author spoke to the press/hated Donald Trump, the FBI can’t consider anything it says” (which, spoiler, is not how indicia of reliability works in warrant proceedings). And even if those things were true, the Steele dossier didn’t trigger the initial investigation into Trump’s collusion with Russia; Papadopoulos literally getting drunk and leaking to an Australian operative several months earlier did. All told, the background leading up to the memo release and the memo itself both point to a blatant attempt to discredit the Russia investigation and the FBI itself, and not even a particularly well-executed one; it’s no wonder that Republicans are scrambling to distance themselves from it.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Amazing Amazon Healthcare. The bizarre and bombastic news broke this week that Amazon, JP Morgan, and Warren Buffet’s organization Berkshire Hathaway are teaming up to provide healthcare to their private employers, a risk pool that equals nearly 500,000 people. It’s not yet clear what this is going to mean for healthcare, although the drop in insurance company stock seems to imply people don’t think it will be good. The news comes on the heels of CVS buying Aetna, Apple launching a Health Records app for the iPhone, and Optum buying DaVita Medical Group — all shakeups that make Healthcare Finance note “It’s safe to say some kind of change is coming, though we don’t know exactly what it will look like yet.”
- State of the Union: Not Great, Jim.* Trump delivered a milquetoast State of the Union this week, full of lies and platitudes (and a few dog whistles) but ultimately signifying next-to-nothing. Also, some of it honestly made no sense (I’m looking at you, Claim That Deregulation Increases Accountability). It’s a bit tough to read the tea leaves of the next year from his address, but it seems a safe bet that the economy and manufacturing jobs, aggressive immigration restriction, and an overhaul of infrastructure will all come up as policy points in the near future. At least, that’s my best guess; when fact-checking institutions say the man lied literally every four and a half minutes it’s hard to say. Although at least one common prediction has already come true — Trump did indeed immediately lie about how many people comparatively watched his speech.
- Garbage Truck Collision. In this week’s truly weird (and sad) news, an Amtrak train carrying a bunch of GOP lawmakers collided with a garbage truck this week. It says something about my friends, the GOP, and the past year that nearly everyone I know had the same reaction to the breaking news: “Is the garbage truck okay?” And the sad news is that it wasn’t; though there were no major injuries on the train, the collision resulted in six injuries and one fatality among the crew on garbage truck’s side.
- Bills to Watch. There are a couple of different bills I suggest watching between now and Thursday, when the government may or may not shut down again. The first is a bipartisan immigration bill introduced by Senators McCain and Coons today, which — props to them — appears to be a mostly clean bill with no funding for a wall, increased interior ICE enforcement, or any other bonkers provisions (beyond increasing security at the border itself, which is not ideal but is unfortunately realistic). Naturally, the lack of utterly irrational and xenophobic provisions means that Trump is already badmouthing the bill, implying that the bipartisan group would need a veto-proof majority for this bill to go anywhere. The other important bill to track is the Mueller protection bill, which similarly appears likely to split Congress down the middle as well. But given the utterly crackerjacks circus around Releasing the Memo, it’s not a safe bet that this is an issue actually dividing the country — in fact, polls show that the majority of Americans understand how important it is that Mueller have protection to do his job. So we’ll have to see who prevails on that, unfortunately, and hopefully all the news in the Russia Investigation column will make legislators more cautious.
- Immigration Updates. There was a lot more immigration news this week, and the best I can say is that some of it is mixed rather than abjectly bad. There was another ICE sweep at places of business this week, which seems to be a new recurrent theme; 77 businesses in northern California were raided by ICE for their employment records. The companies were given three days to produce records. Meanwhile, ICE also announced an official courthouse policy, which can be approximately summarized as “damn right we’re going to arrest people at their criminal court dates, that’s like the easiest way to find immigrants we know.” (They did say, however, that they will generally not arrest family members or arrest in civil matters, at least according to their policy.) In slightly gentler news, the Department of Homeland Security decided to extend Syrian TPS for another eighteen months this week as well, but simultaneously announced that no new enrollment would be permitted despite (or perhaps because of) the desperate circumstances in Syria. As a result, the 6,900 people who were granted TPS and have remained in the United States since October 2016 — in other words, before Trump was allowed to touch anything — are protected as long as they don’t leave; the millions of displaced people seeking to enter the United States are out of luck.
- Problems for Puerto Rico. FEMA had to be shamed into changing plans after it announced it would stop distributing food and water in Puerto Rico on January 31. Though it announced it will continue a transitional period, it’s unclear what the new timetable will be. And this, of course, is on top of the mess created by PREPA filing for bankruptcy in the middle of setting up an electrical grid, which caused bonds to plummet to thirty-five cents on the dollar. All of this is only slightly ameliorated by HUD’s announcement of $1.5 billion in disaster recovery grants to rebuild housing this week — though on the plus side, out of everyone in this administration’s rogue gallery, Ben Carson is definitely the guy voted Least Likely To Notice if Puerto Rico Just Uses His Grant to Turn the Power Back On.
- Environmental Infractions “R” Us. We haven’t focused on environmental infractions in a while here at the roundup, and that is an oversight because I assure you, there are several — though today’s updates really just boil down to “Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke continues to be The Actual Worst Human Being.” Some of the highlights that prompted today’s Captain Planet comparison: a) misappropriating wildlife funds to pay for a helicopter tour; b) planning to drill in some off-shore locations and not others for the extremely technical reason that Well They Aren’t Florida; c) repealing fracking regulations designed to preserve health and safety on publicly owned lands; d) launching an expensive overhaul of his department that has been criticized as “more like a dismantling than a reorganization,” and e) retaliating against whistleblowers in his department (which is super illegal, in case anyone was curious). And speaking of things legal challenges to sketchy behavior, several state attorneys general are threatening to sue him over the arbitrary offshore drilling decisions; California is suing him over the fracking decision as well. I should probably start a running count, because I doubt those will be the last lawsuits of his tenure.
- So Long, Good Luck.* We’re seeing the backsides of several sketchy people this week, and it’s comforting to know that these things do have actual limits. My favorite on the list is the withdrawn nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White — apparently being a climate-change denier with no science experience who doesn’t understand how oceans work does, in fact, make you unqualified to head the Council on Environmental Quality by 2018. But several of my colleagues are more excited about the news that Trey “Are You Sure We Can’t Pin Benghazi On Her?” Gowdy is not seeking reelection, which I think is equally fair. And, rounding out the rear, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald resigned this week to spend more time with her many conflicts of interest, presumably in anticipation of the new Secretary of Health and Human Services cleaning house.
- Chatty Orca. Scientists in France taught an orca whale to repeat human speech, getting her to say the words ‘hello,’ ‘Amy,’ and ‘one, two, three.’ I recognize that this isn’t actually national news in any sense of the term; I just figured that after the Zinke section, you might enjoy hearing news about biology that didn’t end in tears. Keep up the good work, Wikie!
And that’s all the news that I have for now; I think we all agree that it’s more than enough! I’m still holding out hope for a good news cycle, which we most emphatically did not experience this week. But either way, I’ll be back next week with more news, lovingly seasoned with snarky sardony.