Hello again, friends! Buckle in, because this has been a weird, long, confusing, roller coaster of a week even by last week’s standards. We are living in Interesting Times, distinguished guests, and trying to guess where we go from here is like trying to read Keurig machine herbal tea leaves, so your guess is as good as mine.
Some preliminary reminders before we take off, because a vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend: 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. Okay, warning label over. Onward to the news!
- Immigration Tug-of-war: Courts are Mostly Winning, Unless Maybe They Aren’t? The most important confusing thing to happen this week has been an ongoing battle of branches of government, occasionally with extra bonus infighting within the Executive Branch. Bear with me, because this is lengthy and confusing and I barely understand half of it despite studying law for a living: After Trump passed his extreme immigration executive order last Friday, federal judges around the country were happy to oblige the advocates launching into action. This resulted in holdings legally prohibiting first the practice of detaining lawful permanent residents, then the practice of denying detained people access to attorneys, and then ultimately almost all the provisions of the executive order. You would think that all of these holdings would make executive staff change their practices, and in some cases, you would be right; Homeland Security officially exempted lawful permanent residents after the first court holding. But in some cases, you would be fascinatingly, disturbingly wrong. Customs and Border Protections agents have continued to deny people access to attorneys (which eventually prompted the Virginia AG to file a motion to hold them in contempt, though the judge declined to grant it), and reports also began trickling in that CBP agents were coercing people to sign paperwork giving up their LPR status so that they could then be legally deported. This mixed posture can be partially explained by an apparent disagreement between Secretary Kelly and Steve Bannon, which thankfully did not end particularly well for Bannon, as well as some Department of State action that may or may not have been following the Executive pied piper. It was presumably not approved by Donald Trump himself, who largely handled this by tweeting about how the Seattle judge will be overturned (showing that he should give up his new career in fortunetelling, because the Ninth Circuit immediately proved him wrong). Oh, but he also did fire the acting Attorney General over all of this, after she declined to enforce the unlawful provisions of the Executive Order, saying that she “betrayed” the country over the (already found not to be lawful) “legal” order she didn’t enforce. So, you know. That’s happening. And will presumably be an ongoing saga for a while, especially if Trump’s continuous statements are any indication.
- I Said Good Day, Mate! (and Other Phone Mishaps) Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, apparently we hung up on Australia this week because Donald Trump did not appreciate Prime Minister Turnbull reminding him that the U.S. had agreed to take 1250 refugees from an Australian detention center. This is in addition to President Trump threatening to invade Mexico over the ‘bad hombres down there’ (which presumably would be kind of hard with that wall in the way). Senator McCain took point on damage control, though presumably after this week that will be a Tillerson duty.
- Never Forget what We Cannot Remember (because It Never Happened): Kellyanne Conroy continued to model what ‘alternative facts’ look like this week, this time citing a non-existent massacre to justify an unpopular immigration ban executive order. She later called it ‘an honest mistake,’ showing that in addition to not knowing what the word ‘fact’ means, she also does not know what the word ‘honest’ means. But by this point, the Internet had already had a glorious meme party, so the damage was more-or-less done.
- Grunkle Donny’s Regulation Emporium. Continuing the general theme of “what even is happening in this administration,” President Trump kicked off the week with an executive order about regulations that was a little… baffling, to say the least. The basic theme is that agencies now need to repeal two regulations for every new regulation issued, although there are a bunch of reasons why this regulation was mostly symbolic, which is presumably why he also signed another executive order later in the week (and that one was not weird, it was just bad, so it’s discussed below).
- You’re Hired! (Maybe) True to his reality television roots, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nomination was rolled out with a dramatic prime-time announcement on Tuesday. I’ve heard several people call the nominee, Neil Gorsuch, a Scalia clone, which appears about accurate — much like the late judge he would be replacing, this judge is socially conservative, an Originalist, protective of fourth Amendment search and seizure requirements, and, most shockingly for the Trump administration, an actual federal judge with basic qualifications. The Democratic party appears fairly split about how to handle this nomination, which seems to be something of a Xanatos gambit — either the Democrats boycott a la the Garland nomination, in which case Trump gets to nominate somebody way less palatable and qualified while bad-mouthing the Democratic base, or they play nice, in which case the Republican party has learned that sheer bloody-minded obstructionism lands them Supreme Court seats. Schumer has indicated that the Democrats might also take Secret Door #3 and filibuster the nomination, especially in light of Trump’s recent anti-Judiciary tweetfest — which was last tried (unsuccessfully) with the Alito nomination. So I guess there are plenty of potential not-so-great options.
- The Betsy DeVos Heisenstate: In addition to being my Negativland cover band, this is as good a descriptor as any for the neck-and-neck scramble happening on DeVos’s nomination. DeVos barely squeaked through her committee vote this week, which landed 12–11 along party lines. The plot thickened when Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski publicly announced that they would not support the DeVos nomination, bucking the expectation of a Republican party voting bloc. From there, it became a centrist Republican telethon free-for-all, with liberals calling all kind of Republican politicians looking for a third nay voter. If these efforts are unsuccessful, the Senate will be evenly split, which means the Vice President will cast a tie-breaking vote affirming — but if one more politician is persuaded to vote nay, DeVos will not be confirmed. This vote is scheduled to happen tomorrow, though it might be pushed back as far as Tuesday. So watch this space, I guess?
- Rep Payee Proxy Debate: Speaking of confusing divides and strange bedfellows, both the NRA and disability rights groups celebrated a narrow House vote this week to repeal a measure involving gun background checks. The measure required Social Security to disclose when a person has a representative handling their money for them as part of the background checking process for gun purchase. The ACLU and other disability advocates disliked the measure because it exacerbated mental health diagnosis stigma, had no due process protection, and was overly broad, points which even the NRA respectfully raised.
- Nobody Likes Bannon’s Gross Seat*: Leading this week’s disturbing news is the fact that President Trump signed an presidential memorandum giving Steve Bannon a full seat on the National Security Council, a move which liberals and more centrist Republicans are describing with things like “radical,” “a profound shift,” and “stone cold crazy.” This is presumably because it’s a dramatic change from precedent — usually that seat is reserved for generals — and because it gives a confirmed white nationalist official authority over national security. House Democrats have already introduced a bill trying to kick him off.
- It’s Hard Out Here for Goldman Sachs*: Also on the disturbing Presidential action front, Donald Trump signed an executive order authorizing a review of the Dodd-Frank regulatory body, a move that even a public sector attorney such as myself can tell is — and I’m going to use extremely technical terms here — probably not good. The provisions being reviewed were designed to curtail excessive risk-taking among “too big to fail” banks, and were passed in response to the Great Recession of 2008. Given Trump’s statements about intending to scale the entire provision back, this review is likely an opening salvo, though we’ll see if he manages to follow through with everything else also going on.
- Checking the Cabinet: A flurry of Cabinet activity also happened this week, some of which honestly had to be seen to be believed. As mentioned above, Betsy DeVos received committee confirmation, as did Jeff Sessions (who was similarly split along party lines and is now similarly paused). Rick Perry and Ryan Zinke proceeded forward as well. Tillerson was confirmed as Secretary of State. When Democrats tried to boycott Price and Mnuchin’s committee votes, Republican committee members simply suspended the rules requiring a quorum and voted without them — so those two nominations are proceeding to full vote as well.
- Violence in Quebec City (that is Likely America’s Fault) Six people were killed in a mosque in Quebec City this past week, in a fatal shooting that some American authorities are linking to similar violence in Texas. The Quebec government is investigating the tragedy as an act of terrorism.
- JCC Bomb Threat Chicken, Round 3: Jewish community centers around the country got yet another round of bomb threats this past week, which makes three coordinated threat incidents in the past few weeks. Just like the other two rounds, the threats were later determined not to be credible, though Jewish organizations are working with the FBI.
- Nineties Cartoon Villain Parade (Congress Edition)* In “I can’t believe I’m not making this up” news, a Republican representative from Florida has introduced a bill to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency. This comes on the heels of the House also voting to repeal a rule prohibiting coal companies from dumping waste into water sources. I never realized Captain Planet was a documentary, but I’m hoping to get my magical ring in the mail any day now.
- Botched Yemen Raid Debrief* Among the tragedies of this week was a botched Yemen raid that killed 30 civilians, including an eight-year-old-girl who was an American citizen, and launched a military investigation. Trump apparently was not briefed in the Situation Room, and military personnel have suggested the mission was ill-advised because they went in compromised in their descriptions of what went wrong.
- Authoritarian State of the Nation. Amy Siskind keeps a weekly tab of authoritarian acts in the United States, and has her own set of news from this week. Some of that work is reproduced here, but it’s worth checking out her summary as well — she has a broader scope of political expertise than I do by far.
- (All) Boys Will Be Boys: In a rare bright spot of news this week, the Boy Scouts of America have announced they’ll be accepting transgender boys into their ranks for the first time in a century. As the article notes, this comes four years after accepting openly gay scouts and two years after accepting openly gay adult leaders. Progress!
- Woah: The Merriam Webster Dictionary gave the ACLU a somewhat adorable spelling lesson this week, with some help from songwriter and genial pedant Jonathan Coulton.
- Dressing Like a (Name-Taking) Woman: In response to leaked commentary about President Trump noting that he “likes the women who work for him to ‘dress like a woman,’” professional women all over the country responded by being awesome and photographing it. They captured sartorial choices from hospital scrubs to judicial robes to military fatigues to space suits to… basically everything that a woman might wear while kicking butt and taking names.
- This Land is (Still) Your Land, This Land is (Still) My Land* A bill introduced by a Utah Congressman which would have authorized the sale of federal lands to private businesses got yanked this week, by the same congressman who originally introduced it. He explained this by noting, “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands . . . Groups I support and care about fear it sends the wrong message. I hear you and HR621 dies tomorrow.” …you know what, I’ll take it; at this point good news is good news.
And that’s it for this week — hopefully next week will be a little less interesting, though I’ll also accept “full of good news” as an option. Catch you all next Sunday, if not sooner!