National News Roundup: Week 37 (October 1–7)

FORTEPAN / Saly Noémi, via Wikimedia Commons

This week started out really rough and ended up really strange — we had a lot of very traumatic and troubling events in the earlier half of the week, but by the end of the weekend Trump was taking credit for inventing the word “fake.” It’s sort of like being stuck in a horror movie where the killer stabs someone on Monday and then comes back on Friday to ask the survivors “What’s the deal with soap?” (Also, I know the news cycle has practically become minute-by-minute these days, but this is ridiculous.)

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 a lot of detailed analysis that’s outside my expertise — I’m a lawyer, not a football player! — 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 Collusion Investigation saw a lot of movement this week:

We also are still in a stalemate on the Threat to Free Speech front:

Your “Normal” Weird:

The Bad:

  • Trump Went to Puerto Rico and it was the Actual Worst. Trump did end up taking a trip to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, which ended up being an odyssey of blatant mischaracterizations, surreal t-shirt-cannon style paper-towel launching, and countless offensive and tactless comments — but not very much actual help. After it was over, FEMA removed statistics about how much of the region has power and water (which, according to an official Puerto Rican website, is about 15% power and 55% water respectively, in case anyone was curious). Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether Congress will provide more aid to the island, which is still sorely needed post-visit. Though government responses have been sluggish, several nonprofit entities have been working tirelessly; I’ll write more about that below.
  • Trans Rights Should be Civil Rights. Sessions reversed course on another Obama-era protection this week, this time on a directive clarifying that gender expression is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The directive gave protection against workplace discrimination for transgender Americans, which has effectively been removed; it’s realistic for trans Americans to expect that workplace discrimination based on their gender expression has effectively become legal again. The Sessions memo made it clear that this would be the Department position on all legal issues related to sex moving forward. Ordinarily I would put a pithy statement here, but I’m still really mad about it, so I’ll content myself with saying that it is not ideal.
  • Trump’s Alarming Non-Diplomacy with North Korea.* Trump continued his disturbing gambit with North Korea this week, saying that Tillerson was “wasting his time” on diplomacy. Meanwhile, Russia is apparently claiming North Korea has missiles that can reach the west coast of the US, and Trump referred to this week as “the calm before the storm” but wouldn’t say more about what that meant (though it was probably in reference to either North Korea or abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, which he’s expected to do next week). Though Ted Lieu opined publicly (and probably accurately) this week that Trump has “no strategy on North Korea,” Trump did tell military leaders this week that “our goal is denuclearization.” Hopefully he doesn’t intend to achieve that by goading Kim Jong-un into chucking his entire arsenal at us.
  • Continuing UN Embarrassment. The United States joined twelve other UN countries this week in refusing to condemn the death penalty for certain kinds of conduct — namely, apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations — when the penalty is applied in a discriminatory manner. The resolution passed anyway, by a sound majority of 27 to 12. What we did support was a failed amendment by Russia asserting that the death penalty was “not necessarily a human rights violation.” ‘Murrica.
  • What Is Even Happening in the EPA.* News broke this week (well, for some definitions of ‘broke’) that Pruitt does many things that hurt the credibility and functionality of the EPA, such as spending lots of time with industry executives and spending agency funds on questionable things such as frequent travel to his home state and a $25,000 phone booth (yes, really). But Trump managed to one-up himself with his pick for deputy director, who is a literal coal lobbyist. As in, “he was registered as a lobbyist two months ago.” What’s particularly noteworthy about this pick is that Bannon is no longer advising Trump and yet his nominations look identical to when he was — either Bannon actually does still have Trump’s ear, or Trump hates the EPA so much that he doesn’t need to have any kind of deconstructionist agenda to actively try to destroy it.

The Good:

And that’s what I have, in all its terrible and deeply strange glory. Daily news summaries like WTFJHT remain a very good idea for the foreseeable future. Here’s hoping that next week brings better tidings!

National News Roundup: Week 8 (March 12–18)

We were due for a good news week in the cycle, and this was a pretty good week — as long as Trump’s budget gets kicked to the curb and we don’t go to war with North Korea. So, you know, your mileage may vary.

Standard disclaimers still 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. I may touch on news I think folks should know that is outside my area as a legal generalist, but if we undertake any offroad adventures I’ll do my best to signal that for you upfront by giving that headline an asterisk. Disclaimers over, let’s look at the poisoned apple pie served up this past week.

The Weird

  • Standard Microwaves Cannot Be Used As Spy Cameras. This appears to be news to Kellyanne Conway, who asserted otherwise in an interview on Sunday (which she said to support Trump’s assertions that Obama monitored Trump Tower, because of course she did). She claimed afterward that her words were taken out of context (and, somewhat incredibly, that she’s “not in the job of having evidence,” though that’s another story), but looking at the context makes it clear that they weren’t.
  • Remember Trump’s Taxes? Apparently investigative reporter David Cay Johnston had a copy of Trump’s tax return from 2005, but in the 90 minutes before Rachel Maddow could present it on her show, the White House released the 2005 tax return. This has been generally treated as great ado about nothing, as Trump’s taxes for this year were squeaky clean, but it demonstrates just how easily Trump could release this information if he wanted to. Also, how salty various news outlets collectively can be about cable news. Oh, we all learned the phrase ‘over-the-transom,’ so that’s a fun silver lining.
  • The Call Came From Inside (Russia’s) House. The Justice Department has issued criminal cyber charges against two Russian intelligence agents relating to the heist of 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014. The indicted FSB officers — Dmitry Dukuchaev and Igor Sushchin — are part of the cyber investigative arm of the FSB, which is officially responsible for investigating computer intrusions in Russia.
  • No, Really, Our Muslim Ban Is Not Anti-Muslim! The Trump administration’s revised travel ban has been blocked on two fronts (more about this in The Good) and the Justice Department has filed an appeal in an effort to salvage the ban. Sadly, no one yelled “SEE YOU IN COURT!” on twitter this time.
  • Hey Angela, Check Your Microwave. Trump tried to involve German Chancellor Angela Merkel in conversation about his wiretapping accusations against the Obama administration, referring to reports that the NSA had tapped Merkel’s phone in 2010. Wisely, Merkel ignored him.
  • But He Tapped My Wires! Really, I think this New York Times article says it best: “No matter how many officials, even in [Trump’s] own party, dismiss his unsubstantiated claim that President Barack Obama secretly tapped his phones last year, the White House made clear on Thursday that it would stand by the assertion.” Good luck with that.

The Bad

The Good

  • Congressional Budget Office Condemns the Trump-Ryan Healthcare Plan. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the Republican healthcare plan would add 24 million uninsured people by 2026. The White House maintains that the CBO’s assessment is wrong, but the unfavorable analysis has alarmed people and it barely squeaked through the Budget Committee (with three conservatives voting against it). So it continues to be an uphill road for everyone’s least favorite healthcare bill.
  • No Darkest Dutch Timeline. Unlike us, the Netherlands had the sense to avoid electing its dangerously fascist frontline candidates this past week, though some conservative candidates did win seats. So no darkest timeline over there, but maybe a vaguely dim one. Still, were I Dutch, I would consider it a win to avoid my own national Brexit or Trumpaganza.
  • Honolulu Judge Blocks Revised Travel Ban. The new Trump travel ban is just the old Trump travel ban with fancy shoes, so it presents more-or-less the same Constitutional violations. Hawaii sued accordingly, and a judge issued a restraining order to stay the travel ban nationwide. You can read the full ruling online, and particularly enjoy the part where the judge spanks this administration repeatedly with the Establishment Clause starting at page 30.
  • Republicans vs. Trump’s Budget. Nobody likes the discretionary spending budget the Trump administration drafted, and I pretty much mean nobody. In addition to uniform Democrat opposition, Congressional hawks want more spending at the Pentagon, while other conservatives hate the rural support programs getting cut. And nobody wants to pay for the freaking wall. Even Trump’s closest allies say this isn’t going to fly. Trump, meanwhile, called the budget “sensible and rational,” showing that he doesn’t know what either of those words mean and cannot work with his own party (but we knew that already). Obviously we need to keep tracking, but it’s ultimately appearing very unlikely that this will pass in its current form.
  • McDonald’s Hates Trump’s Tiny Hands. Well, probably it’s actually hackers who hate Trump’s tiny hands, given the aggressively neutral tweets usually put out by the account. But for twenty-five glorious minutes, this distinctly anti-Trump tweet was proudly pinned at the top of the McDonald’s twitter feed. Which probably annoyed the heck out of him, considering his long love affair with fast food.
  • About That Wiretapping… According to the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, there’s no evidence that the US government ever had Trump Tower under surveillance. (Comey also repeated this today in his hearing, so it will be interesting to see what the administration does with that.)
  • Maryland Judge Also Blocks Revised Travel Ban. Per a judge in Maryland, when you go on record as saying your travel ban is anti-Muslim, it’s very hard to sound believable when you say your travel ban isn’t anti-Muslim. (The judge in Hawai’i noted this also.) The ruling supports the Honolulu decision, ultimately making it harder to enforce the travel ban without a SCOTUS decision. That said, as noted above, the first decision is being appealed, so we’ll see what ultimately happens with this round of Trump vs the Judiciary.

And one last bit of news I saw fit to print: I’m going to be out of town next weekend at a memorial service, so I won’t have a standard news summary for you. But I will send you some key headlines, and then we can get back to normal (for some definition of normal!) the following week. Take care until then, and don’t burn down the Internet in my absence, please!

Grunkle Donny’s Bargain Emporium: An Early Analysis of the “Reducing Regulation and Controlling…

“Step right up to Grunkle Donny’s Bargain Emporium! We give one unit of credit for every two credits sold! All regulations must go!

Oh, sorry folks, read the teleprompter wrong. I meant to say ‘Grunkle Donny’s Bargain System of Governance.’”

Welcome to the fourth installment of the ever-growing executive order series — though this one is outside my area of expertise, so we’re all sailing without sonar today. But my handy-dandy secondary sources and I are still here to help! Buckle in, friends, because this latest order takes us even further into Wonderland — and just like the Wonderland T stop, we fall asleep for five minutes and end up cranky that we landed here.

Can you just tell us what this thing says?

The majority of the provision can be summarized with one pullquote, taken from Section 1: “[I]t is important that for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination, and that the cost of planned regulations be prudently managed and controlled through a budgeting process.” Nope, not a joke. We’re literally applying the same technique we use to clean our closets to federal regulation of government agencies.

There is more to the executive order, of course, because it goes on for four more sections, but it’s mostly just fleshing out this central idea. Though I do enjoy the part where the order says that “the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations, to be finalized this year shall be no greater than zero.” I can only imagine this is because we’re spending every last cent on that thrice-cursed wall nobody wants. (The following year is slightly gentler, allowing the director of the Office of Management and Budget to issue a maximum total cost for each agency, though I suppose he could just set all of them at zero again.)

Of course, none of this goes into effect until the regulations freeze currently in place ends, which means the soonest we could be seeing any of this play out will be late March. Oh, also, the executive order specifically exempts the following government agencies, because of course it does:

(a) regulations issued with respect to a military, national security, or foreign affairs function of the United States;
(b) regulations related to agency organization, management, or personnel; or
(c) any other category of regulations exempted by the Director.

So just like everything else, if Grunkle Donny likes you, you’ll probably be fine.

Okay… why did he do this?

So that he can cut taxes, presumably, without creating a giant deficit. Also so that he could maintain the illusion of being tough on big government. Of course, as several news articles note, this whole thing is pretty toothless (their word, not mine) because it doesn’t cover independent agencies that were created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. So it’s… a symbolic middle finger, I guess? It manages to be rude and stressful without actually doing much of anything useful, at any rate.

But would this theoretically actually work to lower our deficit?

I guess technically it wouldn’t raise it? But this provision specifically exempts a lot of expensive government programs, such as the military and Our Fuhrer’s asinine wall and anything, y’know, required by law to stay in place. So it’s sort of like sticking a carbon-emitting band-aid on a gaping economic flesh wound. (All right, I can own it; that metaphor got away from me.) At the end of the day, this regulation appears to be much like our President himself: Full of sound and fury, and terrible at saving money.

And that’s about it for today, I fervently hope, though I’m sure we’ll have more executive orders to unpack soon. If you’re looking to catch up on all the other executive orders, may I recommend checking out this excellent list maintained by Politico? Or, of course, you can check out the three in-depth summaries I wrote last week. Or catch up on the news. So many options to ruin any chance of a good mood.

But this stuff is important, and onward we steadily march. Keep on keeping on until we meet again!