This administration, good gravy. I know the phrase “This week was a horrorshow” is losing all meaning, but on the plus side the administrative calls are not coming from inside your house. Yet. I checked.
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 door man! — 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, because we live here now. Here’s what’s going on:
- Hush Money Sex Scandals Get More Sinister. First we learned a doorman was paid $30,000 for his silence on the topic of Trump possibly fathering a child with a former employee — though the story bears a striking number of similarities to Karen McDougal’s story, it was otherwise pretty small scandal potatoes. But then a RNC deputy finance chair, who is a major Trump backer, was forced to resign this week over a definitely real illegitimate child with a Playboy model — and wouldn’t you know it, Michael Cohen worked out the hush money deal on that scandal just last year! Since said Playboy model wasn’t the source on this story, it was likely the Cohen representation that caused the story to leak. And just today, as a further consequence of the raid and Cohen’s subsequent missteps in court, we learned that Michael Cohen has also represented Fox News pundit Sean Hannity in the past year (although whether it was about another illegitimate child or something else remains to be seen). It’s too soon to know any details on that last story, but I can only imagine what kind of bloodbath awaits for Hannity. You know what, y’all, I’m starting to think that maybe Cohen’s clients weren’t getting their money’s worth.
- Bolton Beginnings. So John Bolton started work at the National Security Council this week, which is normally what happens when someone gets hired to be a new national security adviser. His arrival, however, heralded two resignations and two firings among the top staff of the NSC, which is considerably less normal. And nobody knows anything about his plans to replace them, leaving us all uncertain about what the security council will look like in the future. Given the week we just had, that’s some scary stuff, and it behooves us to watch this carefully.
- Comey Book Reviews Took a Turn. So James Comey’s infamous tell-all book came out this week — prompting a broad array of hot take reviews — but none were so concerning as Trump suggesting he should be in jail on Twitter this weekend. A sitting President suggesting that a former head of the FBI should be jailed for saying mean things about him is outrageous, and we can’t afford to become numb to it — this is a well-known stop on the Authoritarian Express and we won’t like what comes next down the track. (Although if any of you have suggestions for how to get off this train, I’m super interested in hearing them.)
Against that backdrop, it’s not surprising that there was a lot of noteworthy Russia Investigation movement this week as well. Here’s a summary of the main things to know:
- Mueller Investigation Updates. In the aftermath of the raid on Cohen’s office, a lot more information has come out on just what’s going on. In addition to the RNC and Hannity bombshells I mentioned above, there’s been information about the steps leading up to the raid, the original search goals (namely, evidence pertaining to bank fraud, the Access Hollywood tape, and paying off women), and the possibility that Cohen may have gone to Prague in 2016 to meet with a Kremlin agent, corroborating another part of the Steele dossier if true. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Trump is dialing back his eagerness to meet with Mueller post-raid and he may or may not be about to fire Mueller or Rosenstein. And the fight about whether the raid subjects were privileged rages on in the background, to disastrous effect (see also: the Hannity and RNC news).
- Action to Protect Mueller. With all of the craziness going on at the White House, some of Congress is starting to pick up the pace on protecting Mueller. The Special Counsel Independence Integrity Act was introduced on Wednesday as a bipartisan effort by Senators Booker, Graham, Coons, and Tillis to merge their individual earlier bills. We’re expecting a vote on the bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next couple of weeks, and Ryan has started saying it’s ‘not necessary’ to pass said legislation (but he’s retiring, so who cares what he thinks). I’ll definitely follow up as soon as there’s more news.
- Testing the Mueller Limits. Legislative protection for Mueller can’t come soon enough, because Trump has definitely been testing the limits this week. There are rumors that Bannon is strategizing with the White House on how to neutralize Mueller’s investigation, and his apparent plan is like the Saturday Night Massacre on steroids. Admittedly, there are also rumors that Trump and Bannon are no longer on speaking terms, so your mileage may vary, although Deputy AG Rosenstein is taking the threat seriously. But the real warning shot of the week is Trump pardoning Scooter Libby, who was convicted on obstruction of justice charges back in 2007 for lying to protect Dick Cheney. Trump freely concedes that he barely knows the man, who served long before Trump was heavily involved in politics. But wouldn’t you know it, there was just something about Libby’s case that moved Trump enough to pardon him, despite pardoning literally nobody except Arpaio prior to this point — and Trump would like us all to know it definitely wasn’t a message to anybody considering lying for him on his collusion case. It was, y’know. That other thing.
- (Don’t) Analyze This, Part II. As forecast in the last roundup, Mark Zuckerberg testified for two days before Congress last week, though some of his answers were less than satisfactory. Congress seemed to largely focus on questions of privacy and questions of free speech, depending on which side of the aisle they were from, and the whole thing left people disgruntled with Zuckerberg and Facebook and with Congress. It seems likely we’ll be hearing about this again.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Paul Ryan Retirement. Paul Ryan announced today that he will not seek reelection in November, ending a twenty-year career in Congress. Though he didn’t specify his motives for retiring, only stating that he was “leaving this majority in good hands,” some conservatives certainly have theories about the timing. It’s not clear who will move to replace him as Speaker if the Republicans hold the House, though Ryan has officially endorsed Kevin McCarthy. Nor, for that matter, is it clear who will replace him as the Republican candidate in his district (although the most outspoken hopeful, alt-right candidate Paul Nehlen, has been making headlines of his own). Either way, the announcement makes Ryan one of fifty-nine House Republicans retiring ahead of the 2018 election, which is a startingly high number — just about one-quarter the total of all Republicans in the House.
- Pompeo’s Senate Hearing.* Unlike John Bolton, Mike Pompeo does require Senate confirmation to be sworn in as Secretary of State, and his confirmation hearing this week sure was… a thing. Early accounts appear to suggest Pompeo charmed Democrats, which is baffling to say the least. The liberals watching at home were less convinced, and Pompeo did admit he has been questioned by Mueller in the course of the hearing. Of course, news that Pompeo didn’t disclose ties to the Chinese government might throw a spanner in the works as well, though whether that ultimately has consequences is anybody’s guess.
- Immigration Updates. There was some bad immigration news this week, though nothing so splashy as we’ve seen some other weeks. Sessions announced he will end funding for a large-scale nonprofit program that helps immigrants know their legal rights in deportation proceedings. Though his official reason was to review the program’s effectiveness, the program is fifteen years old and the last two federal reports both found the program saved ICE significant money. It’s more likely that this is related to a larger effort to expedite deporting detainees, apparently even when they have claims to legal status. In less pressing news, California joined Texas this week in sending national guard troops to the Mexican border, though Governor Brown says the move isn’t for immigration enforcement.
- Syria Updates.* After multiple days of threatening to send missiles to Syria, Trump did indeed go ahead and launch an airstrike on Syria this Friday, acting in tandem with Britain and France. Though the Pentagon says that the strike hit at the ‘heart’ of Assad’s chemical weapons program, it would appear that the facilities were evacuated on Russian warning (which may have itself been predicated on Trump’s warning in the form of repeated tweeting). Between that, Russia’s lack of counterattack, and the mere eleven refugees accepted from Syria this year (despite Trump’s claim that the strike was ‘about humanity’), the whole thing feels rather like political theater. With missiles.
- Economic Advancement Through Starving. This past week, Trump signed an executive order that graduated the country from permitting a work requirement on state benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid to requiring one. I’ve written before about how asinine and misguided this kind of policy is, given that most people on benefits who can work do work, so I won’t rehash that again, but suffice to say this law serves little purpose other than making indigent people feel bad and jump through hoops.
- Trans Rights Landmark. A federal judge held on Friday that transgender people are a protected class, triggering a stricter form of scrutiny for laws and policies that impede their rights — such as, in this instance, the trans military ban Trump tried to put in place a few months ago. To support this groundbreaking holding, the opinion meticulously documents the many forms of discrimination commonly experienced by trans Americans, the ways in which the trans plaintiffs have contributed to the military, and the immutability of gender identity as fundamental to one’s identity. The opinion itself had the immediate practical effect of continuing the stay on implementation of the military ban, and both the analysis and the decision are welcome news.
- ‘DAMN.’ Pulitzer. Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in Music today for his groundbreaking album DAMN. He’s the first person to ever win this award in the rap or hip-hop genre, and the host’s commentary that the win means ‘the jury and the board judging system worked as it’s supposed to’ sends a clear message about Black excellence that is very appreciated in our current political landscape.
Given how quickly the news cycle has started to move, I’m sure we’ll have seventeen new items by Friday — but that’s what I’ve got for now! I’ll catch y’all next week. 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 Grunkle Stan!