It’s getting harder and harder to even tell what’s weird anymore, y’all, because it’s all becoming a blur of inane and terrible oddity. One reader recently suggested I just create a Cartesian Plane of Weird and Bad, and chart out a little graph every week. Frankly, I’m starting to consider it.
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 golf course! — 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:
Mueller appears to be gaining the upper hand again in the Russia Investigation, though it’s perhaps a bit early to tell. Here’s the quick summary:
- Back in Blackwater.* Remember how, about a year ago, news broke that Blackwater founder and Betsy DeVos brother Erik Prince created a back-door channel to a sketchy Russian staffer for the Trump administration in January 2017? Probably not, if we’re being honest, because the whole thing was so quickly glossed over. But Pepperidge Farm remembers! And by ‘Pepperidge Farm,’ I mean ‘Robert Mueller,’ who is now investigating this as part of his collusion investigation and has the cooperation of foreign dignitary George Nader. Nader testified before a grand jury that he helped Prince organize the Seychelles meeting as well as attending, tanking Prince’s story that it just happened accidentally with no planning. Nader also said that the meeting was intended to create a back-door channel between the Trump administration and the Kremlin specifically. Since Mueller could potentially charge Nader with illegal campaign contributions, it will be very interesting to see what else Nader has to say.
- Wisdom from Vladimir. Faced with the reality of thirteen indicted Russian Oligarchs, Vladimir Putin announced in an interview this week that maybe they weren’t really Russians, because they could have been Jews or Tatars who just happened to live in Russia. (Apparently in Putin’s world, living in his country as a citizen doesn’t make you, y’know, one of his citizens.) This type of antisemitic sentiment is nothing new, but Putin’s forced “I couldn’t care less, maybe it was the Jews” message has a touch of desperation to it. Meanwhile, Democrats wasted no time entreating Trump to extradite the charged Russian nationals, though it seems unlikely he’ll respond to it — after all, he hasn’t responded to any other calls for action on this issue.
- House ‘Intelligence’ Committee. The House Intelligence Committee concluded just today that it was done its investigation and found no evidence that Trump had colluded with Russia, winding down even though the Senate and Mueller investigations are still ongoing. The House committee also found that Putin had showed no preference for Trump during the 2016 election, though they conceded that Russia did meddle in the 2016 elections. As a follow up, House Republicans concluded that black was white and House leading Democrat Adam Schiff concluded that they could all find the door any old time now.
Meanwhile, as Mueller charges further ahead in his investigation, the Trump administration is mired in several Conflict of Interest and Emolument Clause scandals at once. Here’s what’s going on:
- Presidential Golf Seals. Replicas of the Presidential seal emerged at one of Trump’s private golf courses this past week — apparently to be used as golf tee markers, because nothing says ‘important Presidential business’ quite like ‘Hole 14.’ The attention garnered prompted the Trump Organization to claim the plaques were issued by members and have since been removed. It’s not surprising that they’re backpedaling, because using the Presidential Seal this way is a criminal offense, though it doesn’t look like any charges are being filed.
- Kellyanne Conway vs the HATCH Act. This week the Office of Special Counsel announced that Kellyanne Conway violated the HATCH Act when she endorsed Roy Moore during the Alabama special election, making her guilty of ignoring both federal law and good sense. But because we live in the most asinine timeline, Trump is responsible for disciplining her over the infraction, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders is too busy denying Conway even violated law to enumerate any kind of sanction being taken by the White House. Welcome to the Trump administration, where the rules are made up and the laws don’t matter.
- Stormy Daniels Saga. Porn star and potential presidential mistress Stormy Daniels is now suing Trump under contract law, alleging that since the NDA was never signed it isn’t a valid contract and doesn’t apply to her. Michael Cohen, of I Totally Paid Her $130,000 of My Own Money Because What Are Bar Rules fame, has already gotten a temporary restraining order in place to try to stop Daniels from talking about anything. As my colleague pointed out today, this is quite a Xanatos lawsuit, because either there’s no valid contract (in which case she can say whatever the hell she wants), or there was in fact a contract (in which case Stormy Daniels has just publicly forced Trump to admit he’s susceptible to blackmail).
Your “Normal” Weird:
- Trump/Kim Korea News. There’s been a lot of strange movement on North Korea in the past week. First Kim signaled that North Korea might be willing to denuclearize, though experts caution that he’s lied about that twice before in the past. Then Kim extended an offer to Trump to meet to talk about it in May, which Trump accepted because he does an excellent Icarus impression. But whether or not both sides can make it to May without imploding is anyone’s guess, and some aides think the talk won’t actually happen.
- PA District 18 Race. The special election in Pennsylvania for District 18 happens tomorrow, and campaigning has taken several weird turns in the last week. Among other things, Trump went to Pittsburgh and stumped for the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone — which wouldn’t be that weird by itself, except for the part where Trump apparently doesn’t like Saccone and spent the whole time talking about himself, Oprah, drug dealers, and Keeping America Great. (Note: This isn’t the first time Trump has threatened to execute people for dealing drugs, but he doesn’t have the ability to make that kind of policy unilaterally and there’s likely no appetite for it in the Senate.) But the Trump stumping belies a close election that very well could go to Democratic candidate Conor Lamb, who appears to be successfully painting himself as Republican Lite — particularly because Trump’s tariff isn’t exactly the hit with steel workers he thought it would be. It will be very interesting to see what happens tomorrow.
- Utah Bar’s Bad. The Utah State Bar association accidentally sent all of its members a topless nude in their email this week, which I guess is one ill-advised way to advertise Spring Convention. This is the first time I’ve ever been disappointed that I don’t practice in Utah, because I bet it was a shady day in Salt Lake City five minutes after that email went out. At any rate, they’re now investigating what exactly happened, since presumably nobody sends nudes in bar association emails on purpose. (I recognize that this isn’t exactly pressing national news, but I figure we all deserved a breather after the barrage of news above — trust me, it doesn’t get any better in the next section.)
- Immigration Updates. The latest in the ongoing fight between immigration federal agents and California is a law suit filed by Jeff Sessions against the state, arguing that 2016 case law requiring Arizona to adhere to federal catch-and-release practices can be applied to force California to abandon protections in place for its immigrant populations. The governor of California accused Sessions of going to war with his state, adding that Sessions “acts more like Fox News than a law enforcement officer” and is “initiating a reign of terror.” I’ve heard some people ask whether it’s a dangerous precedent for a state to ignore federal law, but as far as I can tell California’s so-called ‘sanctuary’ laws don’t directly contradict federal law on any issues — rather, they dictate procedure for state-related issues such as police procedures of detention and employer records requirements. The laws are not friendly to ICE, by any means, but they don’t appear specifically intended to counteract federal law, and there’s case law that says that federal agencies cannot commandeer state police forces against their will — which means they can’t force them to actively investigate issues like immigration status. It’s definitely not a slam-dunk legal case, that much is for sure.
- The (Other) Elephant In the Room. Trump changed his mind on elephant trophy bans yet again this week, deciding that now he wanted to permit the practice on “a case-by-case basis.” Since nobody really gave any details about why this suddenly changed from his decision in November, I’m going with my theory that this was yet more Trump Family Drama playing out on the national stage and he did it to make Jared squirm and hate Donald Jr just that little bit more.
- Terrible Tariff Part Two.* The tariffs on everyone’s mind last week did indeed get signed into law on Thursday, after Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, quit in protest. The final version was a more watered-down form than originally threatened, exempting Mexico and Canada (among other changes), but it’s still not exactly awesome news that we implemented a move literally known for causing the Great Depression. And so far nothing has exploded, but we’re not quite out of the woods yet — it remains possible that Europe will respond with counter-tariffs, for example — so we should probably keep our weary eyes on this a bit longer.
- Recent Court Win. A sixth circuit case this week held that Title VII civil rights protections apply to trans people in the workplace, prohibiting the act of firing transgender people merely for being trans. Though several cases have found some form of protection for LGBT folks in the Civil Rights Act, this was the first case to specifically reject a ‘religious objections’ ground for discrimination, and it’s a very welcome development in our current landscape. Now if only a court would find that everybody’s allowed to use the bathroom…
- Gun Law Progress. Florida passed a responsible gun law package this week, which several outlets note marks a significant departure from the state’s traditional close relationship with the NRA. The legislation introduces a waiting period of three days and raises the age of firearm ownership from 18 to 21; among other things, and the NRA is suing the state over that second provision (because of course they are). Nonetheless, the legislation marks a noteworthy success that was largely driven by the Parkland survivors’ tireless advocacy, and that’s worth celebrating.
- Strike Success. The West Virginia teacher’s historic nine-day strike ended in clear success, with the teachers’ five demands all being met before the end of the week. Given the unmitigated success of the strike, teachers in several other states are now considering using the same method to change their own awful salary and benefit situations — in addition to achieving their goals, these teachers may have revived a movement. Which is pretty cool, particularly given our current retro Gilded Age atmosphere.
And that’s all the news that’s fit to print, and frankly several pieces that aren’t. I’m still holding out hope that next week will be a better news week, because you never know, water might not be wet next week. But either way, I’ll be here, letting you know what’s up.