Another week of shutdown, which by now is the U.S. longest government shutdown in modern history, and between that and an intense week of Russia investigation developments, it feels like the entire country is holding its breath. But any doctor can tell you that it’s not good for people to hold their breath indefinitely, and countries are no different. We’re starting to see real consequences, so here’s hoping we see some kind of shutdown solution soon.
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 Russia investigation! — 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:
With the ongoing shutdown, we’re of course seeing one big, long Disregard of Governing Norms this week — but there are a lot of subtleties to unpack. Here are the main things to know from this past week:
- How’d We Get Here? As I mentioned above, at the time that I write this, we’re officially into the longest shutdown in forty years — which means it’s helpful to talk a bit about how and why we’re stuck here. For such a complicated set of repercussions, the background is actually pretty straightforward. Simply put: Trump still wants a fiscally irresponsible and ineffectual wall, and Democrats still don’t, and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell keeps refusing to have the Senate vote on the bill that passed in the House. And after Mike Pence’s television circuit, Trump’s big prime time “humanitarian crisis” circus, and White House meetings that Trump then turned around and walked out of… we’re still at an impasse.
- ‘National Emergency’ Stuff Explained.* The other thing that’s been fraught and confusing this week has been Trump’s repeated allusion to declaring a national emergency as a way around the shutdown stalemate. A bit of context for those of y’all playing the home game: Trump keeps threatening to declare an emergency (and used rhetoric about a “crisis” at the border to lay groundwork) on the theory that it would allow him to unilaterally divert funds for his wall. This has been a surprisingly common tactic in American history since it was authorized by legislation in the 1970 — at least, for certain types of foreign affair issues that traditionally, admittedly, aren’t “people trying to claim asylum.” But that doesn’t make it a good plan — and in fact, both the GOP and prominent Democrats are dubious that this would be viable. So Trump has walked that back for now, though Lindsey Graham is encouraging him to keep it in his back pocket anyway.
- Consequences of Shutdown.* On Day 22 of the shutdown, we’re already starting to see a variety of consequences — and we can expect them to keep getting worse. Right now, the federal employees and contract workers who have been furloughed or forced to work for no pay have it worst; some of these folks are starting GoFundMe drives just to pay their February rent. But we’re already seeing trickle down consequences for the rest of us as Joshua Tree National Park gets trashed, FBI investigations are compromised, and food inspections are curtailed. Though a TSA revolt was quelled for now with an interim payment for workers, we can expect to see consequences for airlines in the future if this shutdown continues. And the benefit colloquially known as ‘food stamps’ (which is actually called SNAP now, tell your friends!) is being issued several weeks early due to anticipated funding issues later in the month, and school lunches and WIC as well as many forms of housing assistance are likely to feel the effects in the near future too. And in the long term, the entire economy might be impacted by a lengthy shutdown — so it would behoove us to find a way out of this, but the damage might be the entire point (and more on that below).
This was an incredibly wild week for the Russia Investigation and there’s definitely a lot to process. Here are the main bits to know:
- Russian Lawyer Indicted. The Russian lawyer involved in the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting has now been charged in New York — though her charges have nothing to do with the Trump meeting; they relate back to money laundering and the Kremlin. But the charges are still relevant to the Russia investigation specifically because they show that she was acting as an agent of Russian officials during the Trump Tower meeting in 2016.
- Paul Manafort Admits Treason By Accident. This one is so wild I honestly can’t believe I’m typing it: Paul Manafort’s attorneys accidentally revealed by improper redaction that he shared Trump campaign polling data with a Russian associate during the 2016 campaign. Needless to say, since Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager at the time, this is a really big deal, and we will almost certainly see follow-up about it.
- Trump Called Directly Into Question.* There were several big headlines about Donald Trump himself this week, and all of them are as surreal as they are predictable. First the New York Times reported that the FBI opened an inquiry into Trump when he fired Comey and straight-up said it was because of Russia (which, in retrospect, of course they did). Then the next day, the Washington Post reported on Trump’s attempts to conceal the contents of his conversations with Putin from his own staff. And everybody started to realize that actually, the idea that Trump was a Russian asset seemed pretty plausible, and Fox News just straight-up asked him if he was a Russian agent — and y’all, when first asked, he didn’t say ‘no.’ (He did eventually deny it, after like ten toxic tweets about the FBI.) Against this backdrop, we’re all left wondering what exactly Michael Cohen is going to say when he testifies about Trump to Congress next month, and the whole thing is just another way the country is holding its breath.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Threatening FEMA Funding.* Early in the week, Trump threatened by tweet to pull FEMA funding for the California fires, claiming that it was “a disgrace of lives and money.” And while at first it seemed like he was just being a jerk for funsies, it became clear a few days later that he was considering diverting disaster funding to pay for his vanity wall, so probably that was some preliminary foundational lying on display. (By the end of the week, that plan was looking unlikely, because he had graduated to saying that he “shouldn’t have to.”)
- Steve King’s White Supremacy Stuff. Steve King shocked… people who hadn’t been paying attention to him, I guess, by asking how ‘white supremacist’ became an offensive term. This woke House GOP leadership from their torpor after like half a week of outcry, and they removed him from all of his committees today (though Democrats are moving for a full censure). Meanwhile, King is still a member of the House, and of course, everybody’s pointedly ignoring that Trump called himself a ‘nationalist’ months beforehand.
- Syria Withdrawal Begins. Though we’re leaving troops in place for now, the U.S. has begun the process of withdrawing equipment from Syria this week — literally a week after John Bolton said we wouldn’t. The whole thing is messy and confusing, and made even more so by Trump’s unnecessary tweeting and the contradictory official accounts. Needless to say, it’s worth keeping an eye on this mess as we move forward into the new year.
- Recent Court Resilience. There was a lot of good court-related news in the past few days. First a federal judge blocked the Trump administration from expanding exemptions to employers who don’t want to cover hormonal medications. Though this first decision only applied to thirteen states, the decision was expanded by another federal judge to cover the entire nation the following day. And continuing the access to justice theme, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has joined the shutdown lawsuit party, suing the federal government for depriving its workers of pay without due process.
So that’s what I have for this week, and ho boy did it feel like a lot! For making it through, you deserve this raccoon at a ballgame 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 an extra few hours in the day!