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D.C. Memo: Franken accusations; GOP tax bill; Trump’s trip

D.C. Memo: Franken accusations; GOP tax bill; Trump’s trip
REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan
Sen. Al Franken is accused of sexual assault and harassment by Leeann Tweeden, a former model and current radio host who toured the Middle East with Franken and a group of entertainers for the USO in 2006.

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This week in Washington, Sen. Al Franken was the latest public figure to be hit with allegations of sexual assault, throwing his political future into jeopardy, dismaying Democrats around the country and appearing to dismay Republicans. Also, the House GOP passed a tax bill, and Trump returned from his Asia trip with some new friends (I see you, Rodrigo Duterte!) and a mean case of the sniffles.

This week in Washington

On Thursday, a political bombshell dropped: Sen. Al Franken was accused of sexual assault and harassment by Leeann Tweeden, a former model and current radio host who toured the Middle East with Franken and a group of entertainers for the USO in 2006. 

You can read the post from Tweeden here, which describes Franken’s behavior in disturbing detail, and includes a photo in which Franken appears to grope her while she is asleep. Here’s my story from yesterday, looking at the response to Tweeden's allegations by Minnesota's Democratic and Republican members of Congress, and a look at what all this means going forward. For now, it seems the next step is a formal investigation into Franken's behavior by the Senate Ethics Committee, a step Franken welcomed.

Voices on both the right and left — from the Republican Party of Minnesota to a liberal columnist in the New York Times — called on Franken to resign his Senate seat. Two DFL candidates for governor, Rebecca Otto and Erin Murphy, called for Franken's resignation, too.

None of the Minnesotans in Congress explicitly called for Franken to resign, though DFL Rep. Tim Walz said it's a possibility that needs to be considered, and GOP Rep. Jason Lewis, not mentioning Franken specifically, said that “anyone who commits sexual assault isn't fit for public office.”

President Donald Trump, who once bragged on tape about groping women and is himself accused by 16 women of sexual harassment, could not resist weighing in on Twitter late Thursday night. “The Al Frankenstien [sic] picture,” opined the president of the United States, “is really bad, speaks a thousand words.”

The Democrats I've talked to in the past day are sad, confused, and disappointed. Franken, after keeping his head down during his first term, had come into his own as a legitimate Democratic star, a thorn in Trump's side, and a hero to liberals everywhere. Within the ranks of the Minnesota DFL — where Franken is a beloved figure and veterans of his campaigns fill offices and party leadership around the state — real pain and soul-searching was taking place in the wake of the news.

Privately, even close Franken allies are unsure if he can come back from this: if he weathers an investigation without sustaining serious consequences, his re-election in 2020 just got significantly more daunting. One DFLer suggested he's certain to face a primary challenger if he does run for re-election. Several others said he may not get that far.

MinnPost will continue to report on this story, so stay with us. And, if you've missed it to this point, check out my colleague Briana Bierschbach's reporting on sexual harassment and misconduct in the Minnesota state legislature and state government. 

Policy news in Washington: on Thursday, the House of Representatives passed its tax overhaul, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, with much less drama than was expected. Just 13 Republicans, nearly all from the states of California, New York, and New Jersey, joined 192 Democrats in voting against the bill.

Two Minnesota Republicans facing tough re-elections next year, Rep. Erik Paulsen and Rep. Lewis, both enthusiastically voted for the bill. Democrats moved to slam them immediately as “voting to raise middle class taxes.” Expect to hear that a whole lot in the 11-some months between now and Election Day 2018.

Getting the tax bill out of the House is a significant step toward sweeping tax cuts becoming law, and a big win for Speaker Paul Ryan. But it was always going to be harder in the Senate, and recent developments mean it probably won’t get any easier.

This week, Republicans added to their tax package a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate. While it’s gratifying to see this season’s two big congressional storylines come together ahead of November sweeps week, this could make passage of the tax package a tougher lift.

The cost savings from nixing the ACA’s mandate, estimated at $338 billion over a decade, would fund the deep tax cuts elsewhere in the GOP plan, which could get more conservative, deficit-minded senators on board with a plan that could raise the federal debt $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

However, the Congressional Budget Office says the move could result in 13 million people losing insurance coverage by 2027, and a potential premium hike of 10 percent. (PBS answers some basic questions about this move here.)

At least two Republican senators are against the Senate’s tax plan as presently constructed: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who helped defeat the Senate repeal-and-replace bill, and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who notably was a vocal no on repeal-and-replace before becoming a yes. Pressure is now squarely on the upper chamber to pass something, and GOP leaders want the tax bill signed by the president before Christmas.

President Trump has returned from his 12-day swing through Asia, which took him to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The trip takes are trickling in, and while POTUS did not spark an international incident (seems to be our bar these days), initial reviews aren’t great.

Folks in the D.C. foreign policy establishment saw Trump and the U.S. taking a back seat to China and its president, Xi Jinping, for leadership in Asia. (Reuters on how “America First” is ringing in Asia’s ears after the visit.) Trump also got panned for saying he believed Vladimir Putin, who he met with on the sidelines of a summit in Manila, that his country did not meddle in the 2016 election. (He sort of walked this back later.)

How it’s playing over there: the South China Morning Post, of Hong Kong, says Trump’s visit — and his skipping out on a meeting with Southeast Asian nations — casts doubt on U.S. commitment to the region.

Odds and ends: here’s CNN looking at the pomp-filled treatment the visiting president received in Asia. ("It's a red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen,” Trump said. “And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country. I'm very proud of that.”) WaPo’s Ashley Parker, embedded on the trip, has a nice little reflection on it, with some amazing nuggets of info.

Back in D.C., for the third (!) time this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before lawmakers for sworn testimony — this time, for the AG’s annual report to the House Judiciary Committee. Sessions fended off questions from Democrats about a meeting he attended in 2016 with George Papadopoulos — which we now know about because of the young aide’s plea bargain with Robert Mueller — in which Sessions was allegedly made aware of efforts to contact the Russian government.

Sessions’ answer threads a tight needle: he didn’t recall the meeting until reading about it in the wake of the indictments, but he definitely recalls saying no one from the Trump campaign should be meeting with Russia. (In total, Sessions said the phrase “I do not recall” 21 times.) He again asserted he did not lie under oath in response to questions from Franken back in January, in which he said he had no communication with Russia during the campaign.

In presidential-kid news this week: the Atlantic reports that Donald Trump, Jr., exchanged messages with Julian Assange of Wikileaks, which was a conduit for releasing emails from Democratic officials, likely hacked by Russia, in the lead up to 2016. Apparently, Wikileaks leaned hard on Trump the younger to push its information and follow up on leads, which Trump, Jr., occasionally did. File this one to Dept. of  You’re Definitely Going to Hear About This Later.

Even before the Franken news dropped on Thursday, the discussion of sexual harassment and assault in Congress had already escalated this week, with a hearing in the House on Tuesday over the topic featuring specific examples — some from female lawmakers themselves — of male lawmakers and staffers assaulting and harassing women on the Hill.

CNN has some of the most in-depth reporting yet on the issue, which mentions a “creep list” of men in Congress who female staffers have learned to avoid.

In the meantime, people are hopeful this will prompt Congress to change its byzantine, outdated workplace rules that discourage victims from coming forward and protect those in power. Speaker Ryan has said the House will implement mandatory sexual harassment training, but many believe that should be just the start of the institution’s efforts to counter the problem.

More creepy men! Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, refused to step aside this week, as even more women came forward this week to accuse him of sexual assault and harassment, and additional reporting has painted a picture of him as so predatory he was banned from a local mall because he kept coming on to young women.

The GOP establishment badly wants him to exit the race, and national GOP organizations have withdrawn their support for him. Top Republicans, like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, want the president to help make that happen, but Trump to this point has been reluctant to weigh in.

With Election Day in Alabama less than a month away, the GOP is running out of time to dispose of Moore. Could a write-in campaign return Jeff Sessions to his old seat? WaPo says maybe. If Moore stuck it out until December 12, it’s unclear what would happen. Internal national GOP polling has Moore down 12 points to Democrat Doug Jones. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a write-in Republican fractures the vote, putting Jones on top.

But other polling shows the far-right former judge with a six-point lead over Jones. On the campaign trail, he’s getting standing ovations in Alabama churches. If he does win, some Republican senators say the Senate should take the historic step of expelling him — something the chamber has only done 15 times in its history. (Fourteen of those were over senators’ allegiance to the Confederacy in the wake of the Civil War.)

Over at 1600 Penn, the White House has named a nominee to head up the Department of Health and Human Services to replace former secretary Tom Price, who resigned over scrutiny of his use of taxpayer-funded private jets. Alex Azar, an attorney who was the chief counsel at HHS under George W. Bush, will get the nod.

Azar is being received more warmly than Price was: he has a reputation for lawyerly seriousness, knows the department, and is not seen as an ideologue or political operator. (WaPo has a good rundown of his background here.)

Dems, however, are seizing on Azar’s background as a high-ranking executive at Eli Lilly, the Big Pharma giant. While Azar headed up Lilly’s U.S. branch, the price of its insulin more than doubled, which sparked a class-action lawsuit this year. (Here’s Politico on how Azar raised prices for pharmaceuticals while at Lilly.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders summing up some Democratic sentiment, via Twitter: “We need an HHS secretary who will take on the drug industry's greed, not someone who has financially benefitted from it.”

Elsewhere in the executive branch, the director of the federal government’s consumer watchdog, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has stepped down. Richard Cordray, the CFPB’s first director and a beloved punching bag for Republicans, announced his departure from the agency on Wednesday. He is expected to run for governor of Ohio as a Democrat; Trump is expected to appoint a replacement who’d approach the CFPB much like Scott Pruitt approaches the EPA. Read me from last week about what’s been going on lately at the CFPB.

This week’s essential reads

Minnesotans may have qualms with their state government, but it consistently ranks high in U.S. good-governance studies. Things could be much worse — like Kansas-worse. An impressive investigation from the Kansas City Star reveals that the workings of the Kansas government are utterly shrouded in secrecy, leaving residents in the dark about the state’s most basic public functions — like which legislators write their laws. A must-read from The Star:

Kansas runs one of the most secretive state governments in the nation, and its secrecy permeates nearly every aspect of service, The Star found in a months-long investigation.

From the governor’s office to state agencies, from police departments to business relationships to health care, on the floors of the House and Senate, a veil has descended over the years and through administrations on both sides of the political aisle.

“My No. 1 question to anybody who opts in favor of nondisclosure is, ‘What are you trying to hide from us?’  ” said former Rep. John Rubin, a Johnson County Republican, calling Kansas “one of the most secretive, dark states in the country in many of these areas.” What’s hidden are stories of regular Kansans who have suffered inside the silence.

Since 2015, the Arab country of Yemen has been roiled by a civil war that has killed thousands, decimated the nation’s infrastructure and sparked a widespread famine. Neighboring Saudi Arabia has involved itself in the war, launching air attacks that have frequently killed scores of civilians. The U.S. has provided support to Saudi Arabia as it seeks to influence the outcome of the Yemen war, even taking military action itself. This week, Congress overwhelmingly took an unexpected step to reckon with its role in escalating the Yemen civil war. HuffPost’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed:

For the handful of lawmakers trying to end 2½ years of U.S. support for the Yemen war, and the antiwar activists and humanitarian groups aligned with them, it’s a seminal moment — a sign even the most reluctant in Washington can be pushed to consider Yemen, where close to 21 million people need some form of aid, and acknowledge the ugly truths about Saudi and American actions there.

“The shift in our foreign policy is not going to happen overnight,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has led the House fight against the U.S. role in the war, told HuffPost prior to the debate. “I think that this debate has made many more members of Congress aware that we are engaged in refueling, made them aware that there is a civil war going on in Yemen. If I’m looking at something from a scale of 1 to 10, in terms of shifting U.S. foreign policy, maybe this is a 2. But it is a 2.”

To Khanna, the vote is important for two reasons: It is the first time the House has acknowledged the U.S. role in the conflict, and it notes that U.S. involvement against parties in the Yemeni civil war is not permitted by either of the two military force authorizations Congress passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As a candidate and as president, Trump has made his support of law enforcement a signature element of his political identity, and one of the key fronts in his ongoing culture wars. This has endeared him to many in the law enforcement community, and police, particularly sheriffs, are increasingly sounding — and acting — like Trump. The Washington Post with an insightful piece:

With his red “Make America Great” hat prominently displayed in his office here in Titusville, Sheriff Wayne Ivey is part of a wave of county sheriffs who feel emboldened by President Trump and his agenda, becoming vocal foot soldiers in the nation’s testy political and culture wars.

From deep-blue states such as Massachusetts and New York to traditionally conservative strongholds in the South and the Midwest, locally elected sheriffs have emerged as some of the president’s biggest defenders. They echo Trump’s narrative on everything from serious policy debates such as immigration to fleeting political dust-ups with NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.

In Titusville, Ivey is calling on all of his constituents to arm themselves as a countywide militia. He and many other sheriffs are producing controversial, at times jarring, videos designed to show toughness, including images of deputies beating in doors.

As the Russia investigation and the GOP’s tax push dominate the news, the White House, along with Mitch McConnell, are quickly and quietly filling the ranks of the federal judiciary with conservative white men. One of them has attracted particular attention: Brett Talley, nominated to a federal Alabama court, has never tried a case. He has, however, tried to find ghosts. The Daily Beast has a… unique look at a man likely to be deciding crucial cases in the near future:

On his questionnaire for the Senate Judiciary Committee, a copy of which was provided to The Daily Beast, Talley says that he was part of The Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group from 2009-2010. The group, according to its website, searches for the truth “of the paranormal existence” in addition to helping “those who may be living with paranormal activity that can be disruptive and/or traumatic.”

But ghost chasing wasn’t a quirky side-hobby. Indeed, before he became the embodiment of the Trump administration’s efforts to pack the courts with young, conservative, sometimes dubiously-credentialed judges, Halley wrote books about paranormal activities that earned him numerous plaudits. And not just within the horror fiction scene. Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager in 2012, was a fan too.

“I find it hilarious that no one is writing about his horror writing. He has a cult following.” Stevens told The Daily Beast. “I have to say I wasn't really aware he was a lawyer as my dealings with him were as a writer on campaign. He's an interesting, smart guy. But so is Stephen King.”

Takes of the week


Your weekend longread

Remember the NSA? The massive federal agency, whose sweeping surveillance techniques were revealed by former employee Edward Snowden in 2013, has proven ill-equipped for an era of aggressive hacking, a team of reporters from the New York Times have found.

After a secret group of hackers calling themselves the Shadow Brokers leaked the NSA’s cybersecurity arsenal, the agency has struggled to respond, initiating a search — both external and internal — for the hackers. An in-house hunt for culprits, combined with a humiliating breach of secrets, has created an environment of fear, anxiety and low morale at a federal agency with an expansive mission and a lot of power.

Fifteen months into a wide-ranging investigation by the agency’s counterintelligence arm, known as Q Group, and the F.B.I., officials still do not know whether the N.S.A. is the victim of a brilliantly executed hack, with Russia as the most likely perpetrator, an insider’s leak, or both. Three employees have been arrested since 2015 for taking classified files, but there is fear that one or more leakers may still be in place. And there is broad agreement that the damage from the Shadow Brokers already far exceeds the harm to American intelligence done by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who fled with four laptops of classified material in 2013.

Mr. Snowden’s cascade of disclosures to journalists and his defiant public stance drew far more media coverage than this new breach. But Mr. Snowden released code words, while the Shadow Brokers have released the actual code; if he shared what might be described as battle plans, they have loosed the weapons themselves. Created at huge expense to American taxpayers, those cyberweapons have now been picked up by hackers from North Korea to Russia and shot back at the United States and its allies.

Millions of people saw their computers shut down by ransomware, with demands for payments in digital currency to have their access restored… FedEx reported that an attack on a European subsidiary had halted deliveries and cost $300 million…

American officials had to explain to close allies — and to business leaders in the United States — how cyberweapons developed at Fort Meade in Maryland came to be used against them. Experts believe more attacks using the stolen N.S.A. tools are all but certain.

What to look for next week

Congress is out all of next week for Thanksgiving, and things at least promise to be a little quieter around here.  

A programming note: there will be no D.C. Memo next week, on account of the holiday. Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving — hope you’re able to replace politics and crazy news with what really matters in life: sides. (Pass the stuffing.)

See you back here on November 30, as we start the end-of-year sprint here in D.C. Rest up. Until then, get in touch at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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