This week’s theme is “What Is Even Happening at the White House Anymore,” which looks like the What Even Matters Anymore Game except it’s several orders of magnitude more confusing. I’ll try to break it down for y’all as best I can, but it’s a trip through the tea leaves for yours truly too. We’ll muddle through together! (Like what I did there?)
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 trade surplus! — 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 White House played a lot of shell games with the Russia Investigation this week, using it to obfuscate an impressive week of Casual Disregard of Legal Process. We’re going to start with what was hidden under the cups, because there was a lot happening on this front. I’ll do my best to boil it down, but bear with me folks, because a lot of this stuff is straight from Russia with love.
- Rexit Part I. On Tuesday, Trump went ahead and fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over Twitter, only hours after Tillerson publicly condemned the Kremlin for attempting to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter. Trump signaled that he intends to replace Tillerson with current CIA head and all around scary man Mike Pompeo (though, since a Secretary of State position is subject to the nomination process, that’s far from a done deal). To replace Pompeo at the CIA he intends to hire Gina Haspel, who is perhaps better known as The Reason Everybody Debated Waterboarding Practices Fifteen Years Ago. After he let Tillerson go, Trump also let Undersecretary of State Steve Goldberg go, apparently for confirming that Tillerson had learned of his firing via Twitter, and diplomats all over the world were instructed not to repeat Goldberg’s statements anywhere. In the interim, the administration has Ivanka meeting with the South Korean minister, signaling that they plan to use the chaos to reinstate nepotistic practices. Folks, I won’t sugarcoat it; this administration basically just suckerpunched the babysitter when they stepped outside for a smoke and declared itself Officially Too Old For Bedtime. Except the babysitter is the Secretary of State, and ‘bedtime’ is ‘responsible foreign policy.’ It’s really tempting to just stop caring whenever Trump does something like this, but the mere fact that Ivanka’s meeting with foreign officials again shows that’s a luxury we can’t afford — he’s using these actions to pave the way for further unraveling of our government process.
- McCabe is McCanned. Then on Friday, the Trump administration fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe only twenty-four hours before he was due to retire, presumably because they want to discredit him and mess up his pension (though Above the Law theorizes it’s also intended to take eyes off of the Stormy Daniels suit). McCabe had a lot to say on the subject, and also kept contemporaneous notes of his interactions with the administration, which he has already turned over to Mueller. And in even better news for McCabe, a Democrat from Wisconsin has offered to hire him to do election reform work until he qualifies for his pension. McCabe’s firing was an impressive 3-in-1 combo step towards kleptocracy, because in addition to personally punishing a government official for doing his job and further lowering our defenses and expectations around fair process, the Trump administration has also cited firing McCabe as a reason to stop the Mueller investigation — more on that below.
- Other Personnel Shifts. Trump also let long-time aide John McEntee go the day he fired Tillerson, for ‘security issues’ relating to serious financial crimes. That same day, McEntee was subsequently picked up by the Trump for 2020 campaign, because that’s a thing that exists on March 13, 2018. There were also rumors that Trump was also going to fire Chief of Staff John Kelly, security adviser H.R. McMaster, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or some combination therein, though the week ended without action on any of those fronts. There definitely seems to be a trend of Trump turning towards pundits to fill roles, though, because he formally announced that CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow is replacing former economic adviser Gary Cohn, who resigned in protest over Trump’s tariffs earlier this month. Kudlow has already accepted, so I guess that’s happening. Everything else, we’ll have to wait and see.
- Stormy Daniels Saga. On this week’s installment of As The Presidency Turns, we learned that a second Trump Organization attorney was involved in the hush-money-NDA process with Stormy Daniels — which you’d think would mean they’d be better at this, but here we all are. The second attorney, Jill Martin, was signing as the attorney for the shell company Cohen allegedly created single-handedly to make all of this go away, but she’s also Assistant General Counsel for the Trump Organization, implying that there’s little to no practical difference between the two entities. Meanwhile, more legal issues were uncovered with the contract itself, six more women are claiming stories similar to the Stormy Daniels one (including two who apparently have signed similar NDAs), and Buzzfeed realized it could use Cohen’s suit against them over the Steele dossier to get a deposition from Daniels or otherwise preserve information about her case (continuing this week’s theme of Six Degrees of Corruption). So, basically, the lawsuits are a veritable circus of rampaging monkeys and I can’t wait to see if they tear down the entire tent.
So now that you know what’s under the cups, let’s talk a bit about the Russia Investigation this week, which was being largely used as lovely decoration but still does merit its own summary:
- Russia Sanctions at Last.* The Trump administration finally imposed Russia sanctions this week, a scant forty-six days after the Congressional deadline to impose them had come and gone. The sanctions focus on the same three organizations and thirteen individuals indicted by Robert Mueller as part of the special counsel investigation, and amount to the harshest sanctions that Trump has issued since becoming President. It’s probably not a coincidence that they also happened the same week Trump fired multiple prominent executive officials, including FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and the same week one of his lawyers is trying to shut down the Mueller investigation.
- Trump Organization Subpoena. Mueller has graduated this week to subpoenaing the Trump Organization’s documents, which is the first instance so far of the investigation requesting documents that relate directly to Trump’s business. Unsurprisingly, since Trump at one point drew a line in the sand about investigating his business, he has been considerably less than gracious about Mueller and his investigation in response — in fact, one of Trump’s attorneys is calling to shut the investigation down. The attorney, John Dowd, is citing McCabe’s recent termination as an excuse, illustrating just how much everything with this administration is Six Degrees of Corruption. The administration’s actions are drawing criticism from prominent Republicans, which might be why Trump’s lawyers have coughed up some documents in an attempt to limit the scope of inquiry. That said, a firing attempt is probably not off the table — though I’m completely confident that Mueller has contingencies for this inevitability. (Despite being unsure what they are; he’s simply too thorough not to have a backup plan.)
- Rexit (Actually British Edition).* Great Britain is kicking out 23 Russian diplomats this week in response to an apparent attempt by the Kremlin to poison an ex-Russian spy and his daughter with a nerve gas toxin on British soil. Prime Minister Theresa May initially gave Russia a chance to respond to the allegations, but when they didn’t respond well to the ultimatum May gave them the boot. (The forcible exit kind, not the car trunk kind.)
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Trudeau Truth Mongering.* So I don’t even know what’s up with this one, but while he was fundraising for a Pennsylvania special election candidate this week, Trump announced he made stuff up about trade when talking with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Then Trump repeated the thing he said was a lie almost immediately after admitting he made it up. Also, just for bonus inception, it turns out Canada isn’t even sure what meeting he’s referring to, and he might have made up the story about making stuff up. It’s like, is this misdirection? Hubris? Sundowning? It’s a Choose Your Own Corruption Adventure!
- Betsy DeVos Interview. Betsy DeVos gave an embarrassingly bad interview with 60 Minutes this week, failing to answer basic questions and admitting she didn’t know what was going on even in Michigan, which she has been using as a laboratory for her school choice ideas for years. Needless to say, the interview didn’t exactly prove her points about school choice, although it did provide some excellent fodder for Saturday Night Live. Unfortunately, with the family connections DeVos has, a second bad interview isn’t likely to get her voted off the island — though in the current atmosphere, I doubt anybody is truly safe, so you never know.
- Multiple Opioid Epidemics. A secondary and unexpected side effect is emerging from the opioid crisis devastating the nation: namely, manufacturing setbacks and government regulation around production have led to prescription opioid shortages in hospitals, leaving people who medically require strong narcotic painkillers in inpatient procedures such as surgery, cancer treatment, and traumatic injury recovery without appropriate pain management methods. It’s pretty easy to see how we got here, because pharmaceutical companies have an extensive history of bad behavior regarding opiate prescription — in particular, Purdue Pharma is commonly credited with kick-starting the opioid crisis through aggressive prescription of Oxycontin, and Insys was charged with massive fraud and granting kickbacks for prescribing fentanyl spray just last year. Trump has signaled that he intends to begin major litigation against many of these companies, which will likely exacerbate the shortage crisis at least in the short term. Of course, when Trump addressed New Hampshire on the topic of opioids today, he also reiterated his threat to give drug dealers the death penalty (which he definitely doesn’t have the power to do). So who has two thumbs and no idea what Trump’s actual plans are? Pretty much all of us!
- Are You Tired of Gun News Yet (Because I Sure Am). There was yet another accidental teacher-created shooting this week, this time in California, and unfortunately with one student sustaining minor injuries as a result. Meanwhile, students all around the nation walked out of school for seventeen minutes this past Tuesday in a nationally-organized walk out to protest gun violence in schools. Lest people think this was simply about cutting class, hundreds of students here in Boston braved a Nor’Easter when they didn’t even have school to participate, and students in Arkansas accepted corporeal punishment for the protest when told to choose between the option and simple suspension. (I wanna be cool like Generation Z when I grow up, because these kids are not messing around.) Meanwhile, a Parkland father urged students to ‘Walk Up Not Out,’ which the Internet wasted no time chronicling as both a bad plan and an inappropriate response to nonviolent protest. I’m choosing to view it as a grief-induced attempt to exert control over an uncaring universe, although I don’t know what the rest of the right wing’s excuse is.
- Tragedies in Texas and Florida.* This week saw significant social tragedies in both Florida and Texas, with no obvious solutions for either. In Florida, a pedestrian bridge collapsed at a state university with no obvious known cause, killing at least six people (with numbers expected to rise as they search the remaining rubble). And in Austin, Texas, a serial bomber has killed multiple people in four different explosions, three of which appeared to target Hispanic and black residents specifically. (The fourth bomb used a tripwire, suggesting that the bomber no longer had specific targets in mind, which might explain why the victims of the fourth bombing happened to be white.) As I write this, police don’t appear to have any leads on who is causing these explosions, although they appear confident that the bomber is expanding both the radius of affected area in the city and the sophistication of explosion methods.
- Immigration Updates. Trump visited a border wall prototype in California this week, where he wasted no opportunity to criticize the California government and its governor Jerry Brown personally on immigration policies. (If I were Jerry Brown, I would take Trump saying I “do a terrible job” as a sign I’m doing something right, but that’s just me.) You can see photos of each uninspiring prototype — some of which really do have see-through panels for when cartels “throw large stacks of drugs” over the top, because apparently ignorance is catching — but honestly, it’s a bunch of walls. None of them are likely to be funded, and none of them would be visually worth writing home about even if they were.
- Won by a Lambslide. By which I mean, Democrat candidate Conor Lamb skidded into a special election victory in Pennsylvania by the skin of his teeth, winning with a mere 0.2% of the vote — in an election so close, in fact, that it was too close to call the following morning, and Republican candidate Rick Saccone requested a recount before he remembered that a) he’s not entitled to one under Pennsylvania law, and b) the district will likely no longer exist by the time one finishes. But PA District 18 went to Trump by nearly 20 points in the 2016 election, so this is definitely still a win — and a win’s a win, my friends!
- ICED Out. Several attorney groups here in Massachusetts have filed two different suits against ICE, both around practices relating to detention. The ACLU filed a writ of habeas corpus to demand ICE let a detainee attend a state proceeding. Meanwhile, awesome attorneys at the state’s public defender organization, Boston’s largest legal services organization, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice have filed a writ of protection with the Supreme Judicial Court. The second suit is asking the SJC to block ICE from arresting immigrants at court houses because the practice is interfering with local justice and preventing residents from seeking judicial remedies. Meanwhile, on the national stage, an ICE spokesperson resigned and said he was leaving because Sessions made him lie about the California raids last week. And while they’ll just hire someone more willing to lie next time — do you think they’ll put it as a requirement on the job application, by this point? — I still find it edifying to hear somebody actually say this out loud with their real-life face-mouth.
And that’s what I have for you; I think we can all agree that it’s more than enough! Hopefully next week will be fewer than ten gallons in a two-gallon roundup. But either way, presumably you and I will be horrified together — and that’s the Magic of MAGA America.