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D.C. Memo: This week felt more like a Manafortnight

REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Paul Manafort departs U.S. District Court after a hearing in the first charges stemming from Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.

Since April, MinnPost Washington correspondent Sam Brodey has been writing a weekly newsletter called the D.C. Memo — a roundup of the most informative, insightful and entertaining coverage coming out of Washington. We figured it might be of interest to readers of the website, too, so we’re going to start publishing it on MinnPost on Fridays. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do, and if you want to get the Memo a day early on Thursdays, subscribe to the newsletter version. —Ed.

This week in Washington, the first criminal charges of the Trump-Russia investigation were released, and they represent a blow for Paul Manafort, the D.C. lobbying industry, and the dozens of rug salesmen and fine tailors that Manafort kept in business. Meanwhile, nobody in Capitol Hill is worried about the escalation of Bob Mueller’s investigation, because tax cuts! Tax cuts for everyone!

This week in Washington

Even by 2017’s insane standards, this was a huge news week. Let’s buckle up.

First off: on Monday, Robert Mueller issued the first set of charges in the investigation of ties between Russia and the 2016 campaign of Donald Trump.

You probably know by now that Mueller hit Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his associate Richard Gates, with 12 charges relating to their past lobbying work on behalf of the Russian-aligned government of Ukraine. Manafort and Gates, on behalf of their client/wannabe Putin Viktor Yanukovych, lobbied U.S. officials through a dummy organization without registering themselves as foreign government lobbyists.

Per the 31-page indictment (check it) more than $75 million flowed through offshore bank accounts linked to the duo, and Manafort is charged with laundering $18 million himself — which he spent on a real estate bonanza, his kids’ school tuition, and a fine clothing shopping spree of epic proportions. The New York Times has the most New York Times piece ever: denizens of “wealthy enclaves” are not impressed with Manafort’s… seemingly gauche spending habits.

The money quote from a clothier, because I can’t resist: “It’s like he watched ‘Goodfellas’ and then found a tailor who could update that particular kind of sartorial razzle-dazzle.”

Alright, onto the important stuff: Mueller hit Manafort and Gates with some serious charges: conspiracy against the U.S., money laundering, tax evasion. The 68-year-old Manafort, who pled not guilty to all charges, could easily spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

The indictment of Manafort — long considered one of the shadier characters in Trumpworld — was not much of a shock to D.C. The real surprise Mueller had up his sleeve was a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a junior Trump campaign adviser who cultivated contacts in the Russian government and then lied about it to the FBI.

Papadopoulos is a 30-year-old former think tank employee who was brought on to advise the Trump campaign on foreign policy issues. WaPo has a profile, which paints a picture of Papadopoulos as a tragicomic figure who listed a Model United Nations meet as a qualification on his résumé. That alone is kinda sad, but it turns out he even fabricated that killer résumé point.

As he was preparing to join the Trump campaign last summer, the young aide was in touch with a Kremlin-connected Russian academic referred to in legal documents as “The Professor,” who was allegedly promising some “dirt” on the campaign of Hillary Clinton. During the campaign, the junior staffer worked to set up meetings between Russians and high-level campaign officials — even perhaps Trump himself — which did not come to fruition. More from CNN on the timeline of Papadopoulos’ activity on the campaign, and how he became ensnared in the feds’ web.

The consensus so far is that, even though he was a minor campaign player, Papadopoulos could be a bigger deal for Mueller’s probe. He offers the clearest evidence yet that people in the Trump campaign were in contact with Russian officials, were working on setting up some kind of meeting, and were interested in their help obtaining damaging information about Clinton. Also: smart folks think the language surrounding Papadopoulos’ guilty plea suggests he may have worn a wire at some point.  

That could be huge, but don’t discount the Manafort piece. His indictment is a rich trove of evidence of his connection with Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs. Though the crimes in question are years old, they are not, as POTUS insists, unrelated to the campaign.

The big question here is how much Manafort and Gates might reveal about Trump and Russia as part of a potential plea deal — if either man even takes one. Trump allies insist Manafort’s got nothing damning on Trump. NYT’s Nick Kristof thinks Manafort, staring down his twilight years in the slammer, could sing like a bird.

#LOCALANGLE Alert: AP reports that Mueller is investigating Vin Weber, former Minnesota GOP congressman, for his lobbying work on behalf of Manafort and Yanukovych. Read me from earlier this week on how Weber got himself tangled in Mueller's... web.

Another #localangle: the week’s news provided fodder for the ongoing blood feud between Sen. Al Franken and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Recall that Franken’s questioning of Sessions at his confirmation hearing prompted the now-AG to remark he was not aware of communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

We know Sessions was, in fact, aware of communication with Russian officials, as he himself was doing the communicating. But fresh reporting in the wake of Papadopoulos’ plea deal suggests more evidence: specifically, Sessions personally shot down the aide’s proposal to orchestrate a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin.  

Yesterday, Franken sent a letter to Sessions saying this is another example in which the AG  “apparently failed to tell the truth, under oath, about the Trump team’s contacts with agents of Russia—a hostile foreign power that interfered in the 2016 election.” This all but stops short of using a critical P word.

Some odds and ends on all this: Lawfare’s Ben Wittes (friend of one James Comey) says Mueller is just getting started. WaPo finds some legal experts with juicy quotes, like how Mueller’s team couldn’t have sent a clearer message if “they’d rented a revolving neon billboard in Times Square.” A good installment of the NYT’s good Daily podcast explores what “collusion” actually is, and how it fits into all this from a legal perspective.

How’s it playing at 1600 Penn? WaPo says POTUS spent Mueller Monday yelling at the TV. The White House press shop is playing the Papa-who? Card, even though Trump once name-dropped the young aide in a campaign interview. Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman has a finger-on-the-pulse dispatch from the apoplectic West Wing, where some see the ship beginning to sink and lawyers are on speed-dial. Steve Bannon wants POTUS to pick a big fight with Mueller. This will certainly end really well.

On Tuesday, lower Manhattan saw a terror attack, just blocks from the new World Trade Center: a man drove a rented truck into a bike lane, killing eight and injuring 13. The man, a 29-year-old originally from Uzbekistan, may have been inspired by the Islamic State. New York leaders put on their stiff upper lip; Trump used the attack to call for tougher vetting of immigrants. He tweeted about ending a type of visa lottery program that brought the Uzbek man, who had a green card, to the U.S. NYT with more info on that program.

Tax Super Bowl 2K17 is FINALLY here: the Republican tax bill has finally been revealed, and it clocks in at 429 pages, or roughly one “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Proud parents Speaker Paul Ryan and House Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady officially rolled out the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on Capitol Hill yesterday — dispelling glorious rumblings that Trump wanted to call the package the “Cut, Cut, Cut Act.” (Yeah, that’s real.)

POTUS ain’t far off, though: the GOP plan, as suspected, represents a major tax cut, and wealthy Americans stand to receive huge new tax breaks. Some new-ish details on what exactly Republicans are proposing to change in the U.S. tax code: they want to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20 percent (from 35 percent), ease and gradually phase out the estate tax, and eliminate the ability to deduct state and local taxes. That last one is important in Minnesota where a lot of folks claim the so-called SALT deduction — especially in the districts represented by Republicans. (Read me from earlier this month on that.)

Republicans in New York and New Jersey have voiced strong displeasure with the move, and the GOP will need every vote it can get on a package that is unlikely to get Democratic support. Party leadership is hoping that keeping the ability to deduct up to $10,000 in local property taxes might keep reluctant blue-state Republicans on board, but that remains to be seen.

NYT has a roundup of the entire plan, which includes a reduction of personal income tax brackets, a doubling of the standard deduction, and a five-percent reduction of the highest marginal income tax rate. The plan also halves the maximum amount that tax filers can deduct from mortgage interest payments, which has the home-building and real estate industries in disaster mode.

The stakes for the tax battle couldn’t be higher. Republicans, who spent the better part of the year failing to replace Obamacare, are treating this as a do-or-die situation. Success — a bill passed by the end of the year — means they finally have a signature legislative win and something to tout on the 2018 campaign trail. A loss would be almost existentially devastating: if Republicans can’t make tax cuts happen, then what’s the point of being in charge of the White House and Congress?

How it’s playing on the Dem side: this morning, House Majority PAC, aligned with Nancy Pelosi, announced an online ad campaign against five Republicans “lining up for Paul Ryan’s agenda.” One of them: Rep. Jason Lewis.

How it’s playing on the other side of the Capitol: unclear how much juice the GOP plan has in the Senate. Sen. Bob Corker is hesitant to back it, as are a handful of others, like Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake. (It’s almost like there’s a pattern here.)

Odds and ends on taxes: Bloomberg on how the plan would personally be a windfall for Trump; how the plan changes a policy that prohibits clergy from endorsing political candidates, via USA Today; WaPo on the winners and losers created by the plan.

Some fireworks elsewhere on Capitol Hill this week: lawyers representing Facebook, Google, and Twitter appeared before a Senate committee to testify about manipulation of their platforms by Russian operatives hoping to influence the 2016 election. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has a bill, dropped two weeks ago, to establish some basic regulations for political ads purchased on social media platforms.

The sentiment was clear, from both sides of the aisle: senators believe that Silicon Valley dropped the ball, shirking responsibility for the immense power and reach that their platforms have on American politics. The key thing here: Facebook et al do not want to say they are truly “neutral” platforms — just venues for the dissemination of information — but they don’t want to admit they regulate what users see and don’t see — even though they do — which would make them more like media companies. (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz hit on this topic during the hearing.)

Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy put it well to the tech counsels: “I think you do enormous good, but your power sometimes scares me.” Kennedy also provided some of the sharpest questioning of the hearing, nailing Facebook’s lawyer and getting him to admit that the company can’t possibly know exactly who uses its platform for advertising.

Franken ripped into Facebook’s counsel for his admitting they “missed signs” of Russian interference — like their payment for online ads in Russian rubles.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein — the San Francisco native with deep ties to the tech industry — was blunt in her remarks to Silicon Valley’s reps. “I must say, I don’t think you get it,” she admonished.

“We are not going to go away, gentlemen… And this is a very big deal. I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won’t do. You have a huge problem on your hands. And the U.S. is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention, and other countries are going to follow I’m sure. Because you bear this responsibility.”

Yowza. Keep watching this one. This week, the public has learned more than ever about what the Russian effort to influence the election looked like: House Democrats released a trove of Facebook posts, pages, and ads, showing how the Russians aimed to sow division and misinformation by creating pages amplifying divisive rhetoric. Check them out here, via the Daily Beast. (An example: one page that kept sharing fake news about a son fathered out of wedlock by Bill Clinton.)

Finally, on Wednesday, Trump named his selection for chief of the Federal Reserve: Jerome Powell, who is currently one of the Fed’s seven governors. Powell, who was nominated to his position by Barack Obama, is considered a middle-of-the-road Republican and a safe pick by Trump; he’s likely to not shake things up and to generally follow the strategy of the current Fed chair, Janet Yellen. (CBS says Powell is sometimes called the “Republican Yellen.”) Bloomberg has a good overview of the state of federal monetary policy as Powell ascends.

The week’s essential reads

Paul Manafort’s indictment is headline-grabbing for the obvious reasons, but even if you cast the implications on the Trump presidency aside, the story of the one-time GOP political star’s rise and fall reveals a lot of what’s broken about Washington, particularly money and the lobbying profession. In a revealing profile, the NYT’s Ken Vogel traces how Manafort’s deep ambition for money, power, and influence set the stage for Monday’s indictment. The story:

Mr. Manafort first made his name in politics as a swashbuckling young Republican operative on the presidential campaigns of Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan. But his work outside of electoral politics is where he really made his mark — and his fortune.

He and two young colleagues from Mr. Reagan’s campaigns — Charles R. Black Jr. and Roger J. Stone Jr. — formed the core of a new breed of consulting and lobbying outfit that parlayed campaign-forged connections into big contracts from American businesses and foreign interests seeking to curry favor with the Reagan administration.

In this shadowy world of international political consulting, Mr. Manafort, Mr. Gates and other Americans have earned vast sums working for clients tainted by corruption or authoritarianism or whose interests sometimes do not align with those of the United States, including Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

John Kelly, the former Marine general brought in as White House chief of staff, had been branded as the Adult in the Room, the guy who would bring order to an unruly West Wing plagued by infighting and disarray during its first months. Kelly may be running a tighter ship at the White House, but his feud with a Democratic congresswoman reveals his true side: a Trumpian culture warrior. The AP explains:

Much has been made of the imagery of Kelly silently lurking on the sidelines of presidential addresses, seeming to cringe when Trump gets out of line. But it may be wishful thinking by Trump’s critics to believe that he’s tugging the president in another direction.

White House officials and Kelly allies say he is not so much partisan as he is ideological, holding hawkish views on issues like immigration and national security.

One ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said Kelly was undoubtedly conservative in mindset. The ally said Kelly’s striking Oct. 19 press conference lamenting the nation’s diminishing respect for women, religion and Gold Star families bared his true feelings.

The Manafort indictment and Papadopoulos plea dominated the airwaves on Monday, with networks like CNN and MSNBC providing wall-to-wall coverage. Fox News, meanwhile, was running with a segment exploring the subtle differences in the hamburger emoji. To employees at the conservative news network, Fox’s near-total silence on the indictments was an embarrassment — and perhaps a bridge too far. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports:

The revelations jolted through the news media, and Fox News — the highest rated network in the country — did cover it as its top story. But in contrast with CNN and MSNBC, which aired non-stop rolling coverage throughout the day, Fox News found plenty of time to cover other topics, like the NFL protests, North Korea, and tax reform.

"I'm watching now and screaming," one Fox News personality said in a text message to CNN as the person watched their network's coverage. "I want to quit."

"It is another blow to journalists at Fox who come in every day wanting to cover the news in a fair and objective way," one senior Fox News employee told CNN of their outlet's coverage, adding that there were "many eye rolls" in the newsroom over how the news was covered.

The Trump administration is populated with some interesting folks, to say the least. But I love this story from Mother Jones (my former employer) about one guy who nabbed an important job at the Department of Homeland Security after an illustrious career advising the military on Islamic terror — which included acting as a fictional jihadist in videos. Noah Lanard introduces us to the guy tasked with implementing Trump’s executive orders at DHS:

Donning a round Afghan pakol hat and a keffiyeh scarf, the bearded man speaks straight into the camera. “This is message for the American devils,” Fuad Wasul declares in thickly accented English. “The enemies of Islam always ask the mujahedeen, like me, ‘Why is that we’re make jihad?’…We’re make jihad for to prepare the final earth judgment day of Allah!”

The gun-slinging man is not a terrorist. His Arab accent is fake. And the person pretending to be him, Frank Wuco, is now in charge of implementing the president’s executive orders at the Department of Homeland Security.

Tyler Houlton, a DHS spokesman, confirmed Wuco’s role and called him a “valuable member of the DHS team.” Houlton said the task force was set up to ensure that the “myriad specified and implied tasks derived from the President’s 14 Executive Orders” issued so far are implemented quickly. Those orders have included bans on travelers from some majority-Muslim nations.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Love her or hate her, it’s impossible to deny that Nancy Pelosi is a political force of nature. The former Speaker of the House and current Democratic House Minority leader has built a legendary career in politics, one that has left her with enemies to her right and left, and respect almost everywhere for her first-rate strategic ability and political mind. But the venerable Californian faces an unprecedented challenge: what to do with Donald Trump.

Trump is a former donor to Pelosi, and in a past life was downright cozy with coastal liberals. Now a fiery conservative populist president, Trump presents opportunities — and pitfalls — to deal-minded Dems like Pelosi: work with the man the liberal base hates and get good stuff done, or oppose at all turns? In a solid profile, Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere puts forward a thesis: Pelosi’s got Trump right where she wants him.

It was a Friday afternoon in mid-September and Pelosi was on her way to Dulles airport, off to catch a flight home to California for her wedding anniversary. She was ahead of schedule, thanks to a much easier than expected vote on a major spending bill rolling together Hurricane Harvey relief funding, a three-month extension on the debt ceiling and a deal to keep the government funded — the Trump-Pelosi-Chuck Schumer deal, it was called. Two out-of-power Democrats — Pelosi and the Senate minority leader — had walked into the Oval Office that week and gotten the president to roll over on his own party’s congressional leadership, all in a matter of hours. Pelosi had made sure she had every Democratic vote in the House to make up for the handful of Republicans — including four from Texas, where the hurricane hit — who were going to oppose the bill.

As it tends to go with Pelosi, however, the reaction in her own party was part revolt. Over the past year, the simmering resistance to the minority leader has blown up into regular calls for her to quit. For a growing faction of her caucus and beyond, she is the face of a Democratic Party that voters clearly don’t want anymore: classically liberal, stuck in Washington forever, satisfied with doing the same thing…

“This isn’t about friendship,” she told me in another conversation this fall, sitting at the conference table in her office in the Capitol. If the president comes to her with what she thinks is good policy on the debt ceiling or anything else, she’ll sign on. “He came our way,” she says. “And that was important. It wasn’t a compromise. It was, he came our way.”

What to look for next week

Today, the president embarks on his first major foreign trip to Asia — a nine-day swing through Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. (Talk about timing!)

Tensions with North Korea and its burgeoning nuclear program will be front and center during Trump’s visits to Japan and South Korea — the two countries that could bear the brunt of North Korean force. Same in China: Trump believes Beijing should play a greater role in reining in Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions.

Another thing to watch in Beijing: how Trump interacts with President Xi Jinping, who is now arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao. POTUS has, in the past, offered up glowing praise for Xi.

Also, Trump’s stop in Manila should be noteworthy. He apparently has a warm rapport (and some affection for?) for Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, a strongman-style leader who relishes in flouting human and civil rights and waxes fondly about summarily executing suspected drug dealers. Trump actually criticized Barack Obama for his cold relationship with Duterte.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the House Ways and Means Committee will mark up the big tax bill, a major step in the legislative process that is likely to result in some changes to the bill.

That’s all for this week. Hopefully no news has broken in the 10 minutes you’ve been reading this newsletter. Until next week, get in touch with me at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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