With the comparative quiet on the border, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop for a couple of weeks now, and, well… a child-sized shoe definitely has. The border news is a sobering reminder that while things like the chief of staff circus may make Trump’s administration seem comically ineffectual, they are capable of a great deal of damage — and we need to track these things for a reason.
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 Russian spy! — 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 Russia Investigation somehow picked up even more steam this week — if life were a television series, we would definitely be hurtling towards the season finale. Here’s everything that happened, in all its bizarre glory:
- Russian Attempts at Influence.* Strictly speaking, these two stories aren’t part of Mueller’s investigation, but they’re both sufficiently adjacent that I think it still makes sense to stick them here. Story the first: Russian professional Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent for Russia — and sure enough, the plea admitted that the NRA was a primary target for infiltration. Butina agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of her plea deal, which may have interesting implications in the near future. Meanwhile, and relatedly, a conservative anti-kleptocracy organization run by the Hudson Institute was in the news for accepting a major donation from Russian oligarch Leonard Blavanik.
- Cohen Convicted.* Though Cohen requested a favorable sentence without prison time, that wasn’t quite what he got from federal prosecutors recommending a substantial prison sentence (though Mueller himself was a bit more forgiving, noting Cohen’s efforts to cooperate and other mitigating factors). Ultimately, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and nearly $2 million in fees the following Wednesday, suggesting the judge listened to both Mueller and the other prosecutors. Cohen’s sentence begins on March 6, which leaves him plenty of time to go on interview circuits to refute Trump’s various crackerjack claims. And there have been a lot of those on Twitter — among my favorites: invoking advice of counsel despite the possibility that waives attorney-client privilege; claiming Cohen was ‘a part-time lawyer’ who didn’t handle anything serious; and speculating that his charges weren’t illegal.
- Additional Campaign Finance Violations.* In other Trump-related news, info started trickling in about Trump’s presence in the room when American Media Inc decided to pay Karen McDougal hush money, which was a transfer of money the company confirmed did occur in light of the Cohen plea in the past week. News that Trump was present for the discussions definitely supports Cohen’s claim that Trump knew about the deal ahead of time, and does nothing to make Trump look more credible as he continues his twitter screeds.
- Other Noted Trump Scandals. In addition to the campaign inquiries noted above, the Trump inaugural committee and a related super PAC are also now under investigation for misspending donations and accepting pay-to-play bribes. This marks at least six separate investigations into Trump-related misconduct — as the Washington Post gleefully notes, nearly every organization Trump has led in the past decade is currently being scrutinized. It’s not surprising, against this backdrop, that Rudy Giuliani is now refusing to let Trump speak with Mueller, saying the interview will happen “over [his] dead body.” But he was quick to note, “But, you know, I could be dead,” implying that Team Trump wonders if they’ve died and gone to the Bad Place just like the rest of us do.
We also saw a few stories on the Disregard of Governing Norms front. Here are the main things to know from this past week:
- Staff Shuffle Circus.* Despite announcing last week that Chief of Staff John Kelly will be out by the end of the year, Trump seems to be having a tough time finding a replacement — when even Chris Christie turns you down, you know things are looking pretty dire. Eventually he ended up making his current budget director, Mick Mulvaney, start doing the job until he can get somebody else to do it — -and in case anyone is curious, no, it’s not normal to make a budget director start taking on chief of staff duties a week before a government shutdown. Meanwhile, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke resigned this week — by tweet, because 2018 — to spend more time with his remaining scandals. And Ben Carson’s deputy at HUD resigned as well. Needless to say, this kind of turnover remains unprecedented, and I can only imagine how hellish conditions must be inside the White House.
- Khashoggi Fallout Continues.* The Trump administration may not be willing to make a statement against Saudi Arabia, but many other American entities are. TIME magazine announced this week that this year’s Person of the Year is Journalists Fighting the War on Truth, including Jamal Khashoggi — making the first time a deceased person has been granted the title. And the Senate passed a unanimous resolution naming Saudi Arabia responsible for killing Khashoggi, as well as passing by majority approval a related bill to end military aid to Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Because Trump’s an Idiot, Madam Congresswoman. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee for hours this week, and it went… well, it went. Congress rep Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif) made Weird News this week when she asked said CEO why Trump comes up when you google ‘idiot’ (and then tried to get him to confirm there isn’t “some little man sitting behind the curtain” impacting results). Eventually, Ted Lieu told recalcitrant Republicans to “consider blaming yourself” for any bad search results that occur, and Steve King yelled at Pichai about King’s granddaughter’s iPhone, forcing Pichai to utter the phrase “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company.” So all told, this probably was not the most productive use of the committee’s time, although on the plus side reading about it is pretty hilarious.
- Government Showdown Shade.* In other ridiculous government news, Trump keeps insisting on a border wall, leading to inevitable fights with Pelosi and Schumer as they attempt to negotiate to avoid shutdown. Eventually, Trump stormed out of a meeting, prompting Pelosi to comment that it’s “like a manhood thing for him — as if manhood could ever be associated with him.” (Since most adult men don’t throw temper tantrums, I’m not inclined to say she’s wrong.) At the time that I write this, both sides expect a shutdown, in part because the rest of the GOP doesn’t have room to maneuver and in part because some of the lame duck legislators aren’t bothering to show up to vote. So this should be fun week, y’all.
- Water Regulations on the Chopping Block.* After weeks of going after carbon emissions regulations, climate science research, and, inexplicably, forest rangers, the Trump administration is now turning its piercing Eye towards the Clean Water Act. More specifically, the administration is going after Bush-era wetlands protections and Obama-era protection for ephemeral streams, presumably as part of a larger master plan to eradicate all charmingly-named water tributaries.
- ACA Attacks (Again). A federal judge in Texas concluded this week that the entire Affordable Care Act should be thrown out because it found the individual mandate to be unconstitutional after Congress reduced the penalty to $0 in 2017. On the plus side, there is no injunction attached, which means the ACA stays in effect while this is inevitably appealed, and the ruling does not affect 2019 enrollment coverage. But nonetheless, these Groundhog Day attempts at undoing Obama’s incredibly popular landmark legislation are beyond frustrating, and potentially can have very real consequences if appeals aren’t favorable to the law. Needless to say, I’ll be keeping a very careful eye on this, but for now we’re all ambling forward.
- Immigration Updates. After a couple of weeks of relative quiet, there was a lot of immigration news this past week, and some of it is really upsetting. At the beginning of the week, a third protest regarding the backlog of people waiting for entry in Tijuana, Mexico, this time on the U.S. side in San Diego, resulted in 31 arrests for trespassing. Shortly after, Trump announced that he wants to deport Vietnam War refugees despite a 2008 treaty protecting them, which has House members immediately pushing back. News also broke that the tent city shelter in Tornillo is doubling its capacity to 3,000 beds, which is particularly upsetting because kids housed there apparently don’t have access to education or counseling and we recently learned that the administration has been waiving background checks for staff there since the shelter was opened. But the most horrifying news came in at the end of the week, when the Washington Post first reported that a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl died at a CBP checkpoint a full week ago without any acknowledgement or investigation from the administration. Eventually the administration released a statement that blamed the dangerous trip up, the girl’s father released a statement that she was healthy before arriving and that she waited over 90 minutes for any medical care, and the DHS inspector general began an investigation.
- Investigation Immolation. This is pretty wild time for investigations into Trump and/or government corruption, and all things considered it’s good to see Team Trump put on the defensive. Among the highlights: New York’s new attorney general, Letitia James, announced this week that she plans to investigate several different Trump-clan-related issues, ranging from real estate holdings in NYC to the infamous Trump Tower meeting to management of the Trump Foundation. Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigation looks like it will end up being funded in full from Manafort and Cohen’s tax evasion fees, and acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker’s appointment is being examined as part of an ongoing asylum federal case. And if you feel like you need a score card just to keep track of all of the investigations of public officials happening right now, Wired has your back with a complete guide to all seventeen (known) Trump and Russia investigations. We’re spinning towards something, folks; here’s hoping it’s positive change.
- Happier Environmental Updates. Despite this week’s unpleasant water news, I do have good news to share about carbon emissions! Though we were conspicuously absent at the table, the rest of the climate change diplomats from 200 countries met in Poland and negotiated a deal to keep the Paris Treaty moving forward this week. And in similarly positive and literally lukewarm environmental news, scientists have begun to notice that coral reefs that survive warm periods remain resilient in subsequent warm periods, suggesting that coral bleaching may be slowly addressed by natural selection. Good job, Mother Nature!
So that’s what I have for this week, and quite a week it was. For making it through, you deserve this video of Terry Crews emulating Bob Ross at Christmastime and an eventual better government. I’ll be back next week with more (and hopefully better) news, and I hope you will be back as well — but in the meantime, feel free to ping the National News Roundup ask box, which is there for your constructive comments. Send me questions! Send me feedback! Send me a Fifth Circuit repeal of the recent ACA decision!