Honestly, the theme of this week was “Taking This Horrorshow on the Road.” Between updates on the Russia investigation, increasingly draconian policies at the borders, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and the release of North Korean prisoners, it definitely feels like the most noteworthy things to happen this past week occurred outside the country. But there’s still a huge amount of horrible happening domestically, and it’s a good idea to keep on top of that as well.
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 confirmation hearing! — 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:
It was another fairly quiet week regarding Casual Disregard of Governing Norms, but there was one major exception to this general rule:
There was a fair amount happening this week on the Russia Investigation front too, as several different interrelated issues moved forward. Here’s a summary of the main things to know:
Cohen Circus Continues. There was even more news about Michael Cohen this past week, and it’s hard to sort out what’s mere monkeyshines and what’s genuinely concerning. First we learned that Novartis made payments to him to the tune of $1.2M after Trump became President, which definitely isn’t sketchy at all, and it turns out Cohen wasn’t even able to do what he was paid to do. AT&T hopped on the Pay Cohen to Be Incompetent Train as well, paying him $600,000 to get advice about their merger with Time Warner and getting net neutrality repealed. (They ended up ousting their top lobbyist over it.) But while those two are disturbing in their own right, they were pretty quickly overshadowed by Stormy Daniels’s lawyer announcing that Columbus Nova, an investment firm with ties to a Russian oligarch, also was paying Cohen a cool half-million. Then further news came out that this firm also set up a bunch of alt-right websites during the 2016 election, tying Russia more closely to alt-right causes yet again. The full impact and implications of all of this are still not clear, but I bet there will be more news on it soon.
And that’s the news this week! I’m afraid next week looks like it’s gearing up to be an awful news week, if today is any indication, and I’m sure we’ll be crying in our comfort foods by this time next week. But I’ll be back, and I’m hoping so will you, and if you need anything before then, feel free to ping the National News Roundup ask box. Send me questions! Send me feedback! Send me hope for tomorrow!
I promised myself I would still do the news over the break, because I want y’all to stay informed. But it’s the holidays, and we all want to take a little time to dream about a world that’s less of a trash fire than this one — and besides, loved ones have convinced me that Perhaps It is Good Activism to Take Some Time Off. So we’re doing a Holiday Special this week as a compromise: Brief bullets with the best, the worst, and the weirdest. I promise it’ll be better than Star Wars!*
Standard standing reminders still apply, though: 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 an ambassador! — but all offroad adventures are marked with an asterisk. Okay, I think that’s about it for the disclaimers. Onward to the Special!
A Very Mnuchin Christmas (and Other Petty Slights). Here at Schadenfreude Central, you can enjoy the fact that a guy sent Steve Mnuchin a gift-wrapped box of horse manure for Christmas this year, along with a note observing that he was returning the favor for the tax reform bill. Meanwhile, the UK government is trying to talk Prince Harry out of inviting the Obamas to his wedding, for the simple reason that he’s most emphatically not inviting the Trumps and they don’t want to deal with an orange-hued Twitter tirade. But since Prince Harry bonded with the Obamas at the Invictis Games this past year and appears to be actually friends with them — and his wedding is not an official state event — I hope he gets his way on this. The Trumps, by the way, are definitely not getting an invite, and nobody is acting like that option is even on the table.
Some Actual Good News. The six J20 protesters charged with felonies for protesting on Inauguration Day were found not guilty this week, ending a four-week trial and a nearly year-long process. Incredibly, the prosecutor conceded in its trial arguments that there was no evidence that these six people committed any of the violent actions charged — two were street medics, and one was a photojournalist covering the protests — but argued that they participated in a protest where other people did, so they should be held accountable. (Quick editorial note from your resident attorney author: While it’s true in many jurisdictions that people who conspire to commit a felony can be charged for anything that happens during the commission of that felony — including murder if it goes horrible awry — it’s pretty disturbing both philosophically and legally to argue that a plan to protest is a conspiracy to commit a felony.) With all sincerity, these verdicts are an important bastion against the criminalization of ordinary protest, for the simple reason that there was no evidence any of defendants had done literally any rioting. If any of these convictions had stuck, they could be used to convict people simply pinned in the wrong spot when a protest goes south — an experience that happens to many, many peaceable protesters if someone in the crowd starts a riot.
And that’s the Holiday Special, folks! We’ll do A Very News New Year next week, probably on the ordinary release date, and then we’ll be back to our regular routine by 1/9. Until then, keep on keepin’ on!
*The Christmas Special, that is. No promises about Last Jedi; I still haven’t even seen it.
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:
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.
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.
NRA-Approved Gun Control Reform.* In the wake of the Vegas tragedy, Senator Feinstein introduced a bill this week that would ban bump stocks, which are a form of gun modification that allows a semi-automatic weapon to function as a rapid-fire automatic firearm. A similar bill is anticipated in the House this week as well. Though this is far from a complete guarantee of public safety, it has the rare distinction of being a restriction favored by the NRA — my cynical guess is that the association has its own reasons for not favoring weapon modifications, but at the moment I’m just grateful that the restriction is likely to go forward.
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!
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.
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.
Steve King (R-Iowa) Hates Diversity. Okay, admittedly, by this point that’s not really news. But he laid it out for us in a particularly indefensible quote on Monday — “You cannot rebuild your civilization with someone else’s babies.” Which he then proceeded to defend, at length, while lawmakers on both sides called it reprehensible. So, in case you were curious whether the general atmosphere was emboldening people in Congress: Yes, yes it is.
Consider Vacationing Without Your Phone. Okay, not really. But reports are trickling in that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are searching the phones of US citizens. They’ve also been detaining citizens and demanding their passwords as a condition of release, and there has been at least one report of force used. Oh, and 23 of the 25 instances of this involved Muslim citizens. Which I’m sure is just a coincidence.
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.
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!