National News Roundup: Week 24 (July 2–8)

This past week was a wild, terrifying, bizarre ride all around — after almost a month of bad news cycle, we’re suddenly deep in I Can’t Believe I’m Not Making This Up territory. I’m afraid it’s dark carnival almost all the way down, which means it’s only a marginal improvement.

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 news continues to contain multiple headlines each week outside my area as a legal generalist — still a lawyer, not a 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:

Trump met with Putin for two hours this week, giving us new data on The Russia Collusion Investigation, though it may be hard to untangle it all.

  • Looking for Puppet Strings.* As many, many people anticipated, this week’s meeting between Trump and Putin suggested a complex connection and the close of a play-acted rivalry, at least on Trump’s end. After meeting for nearly two hours, Trump and company emerged with a partial agreement on a Syrian cease-fire but no real other progress on long-term conflicts such as U.S. sanctions and the Ukraine crisis, and conflicting stories about election interference. (Tillerson told reporters afterwards that the disagreement on the election interference question was “intractable” and the two countries should try to “move forward.” The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Larov, simultaneously reported that Trump “accepts” statements from Putin “about this being untrue.” Disturbingly, I am not actually sure which man is accurately reporting, if either of them even are.) It’s legitimately a bit hard to watch Trump tell Putin “It’s an honor to be with you” in front of cameras, given the conversations happening and the larger, troubling context of the G20 summit. And regardless of everything else going on, Trump’s apparent focus on “moving forward,” which he says includes forming a “Cyber Security unit” with Russia (!), is extremely disturbing. (Though he did walk that one back only twelve hours later.)
  • Russian Hacking Update. Barely a day after Trump announced that he wanted to work with Russia on a cyber security unit, news came in that Russian government hackers have penetrated American nuclear power companies’ networks (and other energy companies’ as well). Officials said that the hackers accessed personnel files and other databases related to business operations. Though there were no signs of disruption around the power systems, officials are concerned that we may see more severe cyberattacks in the future. On the plus side, that type of concern presumably also means security will be tightened.
  • Donald Trump Jr’s Stunning Admission. (Note: I cannot take credit for this headline, but seeing as I was, in fact, truly stunned by this news, I’m gonna go ahead and borrow the headline from the Washington Post.) Donald Trump Jr, who has a persistent habit of saying the quiet bits out loud, told the New York Times that he met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign because she promised him compromising dirt on Clinton. He then, incredibly, further contextualized this by saying that “she had no meaningful information” when he did meet with her (along with Manafort and Jared Kushner) and “[i]t became clear to me that . . . the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.” Yes, you read that right; Donald Trump Jr went on the record complaining that a sketchy Russian lawyer had failed to deliver the collusion goods. This is a really, really big admission, even if it doesn’t look like it, in no small part because it torpedoes a bunch of earlier collusion denials from the Administration. Richard Painter, a former George W. Bush ethics lawyer, point-blank called this behavior treason, noting, “He must have known that the only way Russia would get such information was by spying . . . In the Bush administration we could have had him in custody for questioning by now.”

I don’t even know how to classify the other items below, which is why I’m just going to call them a Constitutional Crisis Grab Bag. They’re all symptoms of a larger, more serious threat, which I’ll talk more about below.

Your “Normal” Weird:

  • Hobby Lobby Breaks At Least Three Commandments. High up there on the “how am I not making this up?” list is the news that Hobby Lobby was smuggling clay Iraqi artifacts into the country. A federal suit was brought in Brooklyn alleging that the company had been illegally transporting thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts (namely, cuneiform tablets, clay bullae, and cylinder seals) that were falsely labeled as ‘tiles’ to evade U.S. Customs. The federal complaint also notes that the artifacts were mishandled once unpacked, describing them as “spread on the floor, arranged in layers on a coffee table, and packed loosely in cardboard boxes, in many instances with little or no protective material between them.” The company has been fined three million dollars, and all of its thousands of artifacts have been forfeited as contraband.
  • Robots are Welcome (But Not Teen Creators). Teams of teenage girls from Afghanistan and Gambia have each been denied visas to compete in the FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition happening in D.C. in mid-July. It’s unclear why they were banned, since neither country is on the list prohibited from travel under the travel ban. Even more strangely, both teams will be permitted to send their robots, which they will have to watch compete via Skype. No clarification appears available on why these girls in particular were denied.
  • Trumpcare Non-Update Update. The lack of Trumpcare news has been in the news a lot this week, and I’m just not sure I trust it — a lot of us were lulled into a false sense of security after the first failure in the House. I don’t see a lot to suggest this will be different; McConnell is still insisting he’ll find a way to limp this thing across the finish line, and it’s not over until it’s over. In the meantime, however, the Atlantic did put out a good analysis of the bill’s impact on Medicaid, and the Department of Health and Human Services put out a report noting that the ACA is still ‘working as intended.’ So you can enjoy both of those alongside McConnell’s endorsement of Congress not killing each other this week; hopefully we’ll have more news once Congress resumes after the break.
  • Pence Touched Expensive NASA Equipment because Rubio Dared Him. The headline pretty much sums this one up, actually — he got photographed touching the equipment labeled Do Not Touch, and then tweeted an explanation: Mark Rubio dared him to. Afterwards, he tweeted a photoshopped image of himself petting a porcupine as well. I seriously got nothin’. (NASA did clarify that he hadn’t damaged the equipment, though.)

The Bad:

The Good:

  • More Voter Log Backlash. We’re now up to 40-something states refusing to comply with the voting commission’s voter logs request, which the Hill reported this week is likely illegal in the first place because it didn’t go through the proper channels. In addition to this challenge, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (a privacy rights watchdog group) is suing the election integrity panel, claiming (in my opinion correctly) that the panel’s request violates informational privacy laws, and the ACLU is suing as well. The panel has been forced to reconvene this month in the face of considerable opposition and refusal to comply. Also, as Nate Silver notes, it would be difficult to collect accurate data through the commission’s methods anyway.
  • Attorneys General Sue DeVos. Attorneys General of eighteen different states and District Columbia are suing Betsy DeVos over her failure to enforce student loan protections. (The suit is in addition to a separate suit being brought by a consumer advocacy organization with similar allegations.) Maura Healy, Massachusetts Attorney General and all-around all star, explained to reporters that she brought the suit because DeVos is cancelling predatory lending rules without opportunity for comment or notice. The regulations were due to go into effect on July 1, but DeVos suspended them and said she would overhaul them in the near future; the Attorneys General are demanding implementation of the existing regulations as a remedy instead.
  • Fair Representation Act Introduced in the House. This past week, House Rep Don Beyer introduced the Fair Representation Act, which would open up elections, introduce ranked-choice voting, and require independent redistricting of all congressional districts. All in all, it represents a significant departure from entrenched (and unfair) voting practices in the country. Even if this legislation goes nowhere, the fact that it was introduced at all is both heartening and worth noting — it represents a growing response to the kinds of voter suppression and gerrymandering that have become more widespread in the past year.

And that’s all the news this week, in its bizarre glory. Tune in next week, when I’ll probably be reporting on porcine pilots sailing past my window.