If you don’t have time to watch read the full roundup this week, you could do worse than to watch this week’s SNL cold open, which summarizes at least 75% of what I’m about to type with startlingly accuracy. (And is probably funnier than me. But please read the news anyway, because you will definitely like some of the remaining 25%!)
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 news station! — 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 included yet another couple stories regarding Casual Disregard of Governing Norms, cementing my suspicion that this subsection is a new staple in the roundup. It’s less than the last few weeks, on the plus side, and most of it this week involves Scott Pruitt. Here’s what’s going on now:
- Pruitt Prurience Persists. Pruitt’s aides are starting to jump ship as the scandals keep multiplying all around him like tribbles. New this week: Demoting senior EPA staff for whistle-blowing; granting large raises to favored aides without authorization or merit (and then lying about it); and a statement from an ethics official that yes, renting below market value from a lobbyist is an ethical no-no. Yet Trump keeps on sheltering him — allegedly going so far as to consider him to replace Sessions as Attorney General, and publicly calling him ‘courageous’ — even while the scandals pile up. Trump’s strange reticence might be because Pruitt has done so much deregulation in his field, because Pruitt was smart enough to talk to Fox News, or simply to spite Chief of Staff John Kelly, who apparently wants Pruitt out. Whatever the reason, it remains obvious that Pruitt has significant protection despite (or perhaps because of) his flagrant abuses, and that’s definitely not normal. It’s worth supporting the efforts of the 64 House Democrats calling for his resignation.
- Stormy Daniels and Other Oncoming Trains. The other story of this type was Trump claiming he didn’t know that Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet. The move undermines their defense to Daniels’s suit, because as Avenetti notes, “You can’t have an agreement when one party claims to know nothing about it.” But we’ve also seen some amazing additional repercussions by Monday evening — more about that below.
There was also significant movement on the Threats to the First Amendment front, which had been pleasantly absent in the roundup for a good while now. (Its resurgence is not a welcome change, I assure you.) Here’s the main story to know there:
- Sinclair Syndication. News has been brewing for a little while that Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns over 200 local stations throughout the country, coerced ‘forced reads’ of a specific anti ‘fake-news’ script throughout the country. (And if you really want to freak yourself out, you can watch this creepy video of anchors reciting the script in unison). The message that first broke, warning of ‘fake news,’ might not seem that insidious on its face. But as more of the story unfolded it began to look worse and worse, making the Sinclair message seem more pointed — we learned that a recent must-run piece about the ‘deep state’ had been produced by a former Kremlin reporter, and news also broke that the Department of Homeland Security is starting a media watchlist. Meanwhile, more information leaked about stringent contract terms nationwide that penalized anchors heavily for quitting. Sinclair’s problematic nature is not news from this week — John Oliver did a segment on them almost a year ago — but their unusual multi-network presence would not have been possible before 2017, because it relies on recent repeal of an FCC regulation that kept local networks in local hands. And enforcement seems as varied as the locations; while two anchors in Eugene, Oregon appear to have gotten away with not reading the script, anchors the next state over in Seattle were warned there would be dire consequences if they even discussed being forced to read it. Since Sinclair is in the middle of purchasing Tribunal Media, a merger which would give them access to seventy percent of American households, the entire story is definitely worth watching and calling about.
On the plus side, there was a veritable renaissance of noteworthy Russia Investigation movement this week. (I’m sure we’ll be seeing the humanist Mueller paintings any time now.) Here’s a summary of the main things to know:
- Mueller Investigation Updates. Mueller had his first sentence issued this past week, as former Skadden attorney Alex van der Zwaan was sentenced to thirty days in prison. The special counsel’s been stepping up his investigation in all kinds of ways lately, from questioning Russian oligarchs to approaching witnesses at airports to drilling down on the Seychelles story, and the latest in this trend is a surprise raid of Trump’s lawyer’s office. Mueller is escalating, and that will likely be a rough ride even though it may lead to a better future.
- Mueller Says Trump Not a Target. Despite all of the activity above, news also broke that Mueller advised Trump’s attorneys last month that he’s still under investigation but is not currently a criminal target. That doesn’t necessarily mean he thinks Trump has committed no crimes, but clearly it has soothed said not-a-target, who is starting to prep for an interview with Mueller. The raid on Cohen’s office may have changed the course on that, however; it will definitely be interesting to see what happens there.
- (Don’t) Analyze This. Social media giant Facebook is looking a bit harried in the wake of news that up to 87 million people had their data scraped by Cambridge Analytica, a research firm, and that “most” of their 2 million users have had their data harvested by third-party apps. The company has been battening down the proverbial hatches by changing their rules to prevent further user manipulation, doing their best to look innocent as their chief executive testifies to Congress, and, in the case of their COO, trying to convince the public that data farming is how platforms show they care. That said, all of the spin in the world won’t change the fact that Zuckerberg faces “a reckoning” for Facebook’s present and past mishandling of user data when he testifies.
- Russian Sanctions for Fun and Profit. This was a deeply weird week in terms of Trump’s relations with Russia. On the one hand, he issued sanctions against twenty-four Russian oligarchs and officials, including many closely tied to Putin and, frankly, several tied to his own campaign. But on the other hand, this happened the same week that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump discussed meeting venues with Putin like they were planning a freaking wedding. On, you know, the phone call when he also congratulated him for winning a rigged election. Which I’m inclined to think carries more weight than the sanctions, particularly when Mueller’s investigating oligarchs and Trump’s mistreating half his cabinet — why would Russian contacts be any different?
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Ongoing Amazon Animosity. The President, always eager to blur the lines between personal and presidential behavior, tweeted while traveling to his golf course that global shipping company Amazon uses The Washington Post as a lobbyist. Of course Trump cited no evidence whatsoever, and the best theory any news outlet could come up with was that Trump misunderstood the meaning of numbers (which, by the way, he didn’t even cite correctly). It’s either that or Projection Central: Trump believes that Jeff Bezos, who owns both companies, must be using one to prop up the other because it’s what Trump would do.
- John Bolton’s Conflicts of Interest. John Bolton met with white house attorneys over emergent ethics issues this past week, which I had hoped would slow down his intended April 9 start date. But alas, he appears to have started right on time, which is poor timing indeed given the current Syria situation (but more about that below).
- The YouTube Shooting. On April 3rd, Nasim Najafi Aghdam left a pistol range and went to the YouTube California Headquarters and opened fire, injuring three people before turning the gun on herself. Though police say that they had no reason to anticipate her violent behavior, Aghdam’s family tells a different story: She legally purchased the pistol used in the shooting in January, several months before her father filed a missing person report and warned the police that she “hated YouTube” and “might do something.” Tech companies are beginning to respond with tighter security measures, which mesh poorly with their frequently open layout and casual attitude regarding entry.
- Moving Troops on the Risk Board. Trump announced this week that he wants to station military troops on the Mexican border until a wall is built. He then followed up this announcement by signing a proclamation to that effect, and by Friday the first state had sent the national guard to the border. So that’s… terrifying, and probably the motivation behind Trump’s sudden desire to withdraw from Syria at the end of the week. That said, Trump was forced to walk back that instruction when, as experts predicted, a vicious chemical attack killed sixty people in Damascus on Saturday. We’re now left wondering what next moves will be.
- Other Immigration Updates. This was a pretty rough week all around on immigration. In addition to the news about the Mexican border, Trump also abandoned a tax speech in West Virginia to make a bunch of stuff up about immigration — but that’s barely a blip on the radar when a hundred people were rounded up at a meatpacking plant on the same day. The raid was the largest of its kind in a decade, and a stunning 86 of those people were simply held for failing to produce papers. Trump also signed paperwork designed to hold more people when they first arrive at the border, which probably is intended to coincide with stationing troops, and imposed quotas of deportation tied to immigration judges’ performance reviews.
- China Tariffs (Part III).* At the end of the week, Trump finally responded to China’s escalation of the brewing trade war by announcing another $100 billion in tariffs. But China remains confident that they can get the upper hand, saying they would fight Trump’s efforts “at any cost.” The whole thing is hitting farmers (and the stock market) hard, with Trump vaguely promising to ‘make it up’ to Middle America. (I hope he wasn’t planning to make it up to them with anything involving medicine, which is likely to skyrocket in price as well.)
- Recent Suits of Armor. There have been a number of protective lawsuits either filed or expanded this week, which I’ve come to view as an important sign of organized resistance in the past year. First on the docket, there’s the five additional states and various cities that have joined the census lawsuit, bringing the total to about a third of the country and counting. But for more happy-making news, there’s also the fifteen Attorneys General suing the EPA for its failure to enforce pollution law, and the San Francisco suit being brought against Sessions for his decision to remove civil rights guidelines.
- Teacher Strikes in Three States. Inspired by the example set in West Virginia, teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky have begun to strike as well. In all three states, teachers are asking for adequate teaching budgets and salaries in line with other states, hoping to correct systemic troubles in their states’ education systems that have lingered since the 2008 recession. It’s a brave and understandable move that I hope results in improved circumstances, especially in Arizona and Oklahoma, which are both among the bottom five states in the country for educational spending.
- Opioid Options. The Surgeon General issued a statement this week supporting dissemination and trained use of Naloxone to address opioid emergencies. Naloxone, most commonly available as a nasal spray called Narcan, can be used as an antidote to overdose, making it extremely helpful in emergency and first-response situations. This is an exciting and noteworthy statement both because Surgeon General advisories are infrequent and because this is actually consistent with best evidence-based practices, which is not exactly a common occurrence in this administration. And that’s refreshing, to say the least!
- Mueller Office Raid. The incredible news broke today that Mueller conducted a raid on the office, home, and hotel room of Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen, looking for documents relating to the Stormy Daniels case. Unsurprisingly, the raid was court authorized, meaning that Mueller had warrants (and therefore official permission) for the search. This type of approval is, needless to say, usually very hard to get, especially for searching an attorney’s office — traditionally an attorney’s work product is protected by attorney-client privilege. My personal theory on this (and only a theory, to be clear) is that Trump waived his privilege by denying knowledge of the hush money payment — if he had no knowledge, that means that Cohen wasn’t acting as his attorney when he made the payment, which means that none of it was attorney work product. Which means that this was brought on, in part, by Trump’s poor planning, and I find that delightful. Trump, to warn, has wasted no time in calling the raid “an attack on our country,” but activists are already organizing for the possibility that Trump will try to fire Mueller — and Mueller, of course, has plans upon plans for this contingency.
There’s still a bit of Roundup news to round out the week; since I didn’t get much done, expect to hear from me soon (no really this time) about finalizing any offered volunteer tasks and further refining the Roundup to meet reader needs. And in the interim, if you need anything, there’s always the National News Roundup ask box — send me questions! Send me feedback! Send me pictures of your lizard!
Ho boy, what a week. I guess we’ll see what next week brings.