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D.C. Memo: Bannon? I hardly know him!

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Donald Trump forcefully disavowed his former aide and campaign chair, Steve Bannon.

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It’s a new year in Washington, and already, we’ve seen some exciting 2018 resolutions from the president, as he appears determined to call former top aides insane, increase his tweet volume, and workshop versions of his favorite “mine is bigger than yours” taunts. It’s shaping up to be a great year!

This week in Washington

Happy 2018 to all of you, and welcome to a wild year in D.C. and Minnesota politics, which will see all kinds of policy and political fights take place in Congress — not to mention an epic battle for control of Congress ahead of November’s midterm elections.

Big-picture, whoever controls Congress when the dust settles may have Minnesotans to thank: five of our eight U.S. House districts are legitimately competitive — a huge number when you consider the GOP’s 23-seat margin in the House. Both of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seats, meanwhile, are in play, as Republicans seek to maintain a narrow, two-seat majority in the upper chamber. Buckle up, folks.

On the legislative side, less tends to happen in Congress during election years. 2017 saw the invigorated Republican majority take stabs at big issues like health care and taxes, where they saw some success. This year could center around less partisan, more achievable stuff: a big infrastructure package — touted by President Donald Trump as soon as he was elected — is picking up more buzz on the GOP side of the aisle. But 2018 could also see a rerun of bitterly partisan fights over health care, or open up a really nasty debate about social safety net cuts. Choose your own POTUS adventure!

But later this month, some congressional chickens from 2017 are returning to roost: a short-term spending bill passed hastily before Christmas runs out on the 19th, and lawmakers will need to pass a bill that finally covers federal government spending through the end of fiscal year 2018. An agreement that would raise both defense and discretionary spending has eluded congressional leaders for months.

With must-pass legislation on the table, Democrats (along with some Republicans) are eager to advance a long-term legislative solution to protect undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children, as the clock runs out on the Barack Obama-era program that granted them legal status. Trump terminated DACA last year, and his base is watching closely to see how he navigates this — and what he does to expedite the border wall.

Beyond that, Democrats also want to see increased disaster relief funding and more financing for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. (The New York Times on Democrats’ demands and how they could play into a potential shutdown.)

Across Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House is already worried about 2018, reports Politico, as the Russia investigation drags on and a slew of West Wing aides and officials prepare to leave. McClatchy, meanwhile, looks at the brewing civil war within the GOP that promises to boil over this year, as insurgents like Steve Bannon plot to overthrow establishment Republicans across the country.

That civil war got some incredible juice this week: the West Wing is nuclear-level furious at Bannon right now, as he seems to have fueled much of a new tell-all book from Manhattan journalist-type Michael Wolff. An excerpt of his book about the Trump campaign and early White House, published on Wednesday in New York magazine, was widely (and gleefully) read in the Beltway.

Some hits: Wolff reports Trump never wanted to be president and dishes that everyone from aides to News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch regularly call him stupid and lament his lack of understanding of basic stuff like the Bill of Rights. Notably, the excerpt has Bannon blasting Trump’s kids and suggesting the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian officials during the campaign was treasonous.

Most importantly, Wolff reports that Ivanka Trump appears to know the mechanics of Trump’s combover. (And read Slate on why you should take Wolff’s reporting — however delicious — with a big grain of salt.)

In damage control mode on Wednesday — which for this president means pouring gasoline on a tire fire — the White House issued a statement from Trump torching his former top aide, suggesting that Bannon had gone insane, and dismissing Wolff’s book as “bargain-basement fiction.” On Thursday morning, Trump’s lawyer sent cease-and-desist letters to Bannon, Wolff, and the book’s publisher.

Why should we care, beyond the juicy gossip and infighting? The Atlantic explains how the rift between Trump and Bannon means the end for a Trumpist ideology that could transcend, and survive, beyond the man himself. This is a huge win for GOP establishment types like Mitch McConnell, whose campaign Twitter account posted, without comment, a simple GIF of the poker-faced senator grinning as the Trump-Bannon feud escalated.

A few loose ends from 2017, and then I solemnly swear to never speak of that 12-month period again. The Friday before Christmas, the Trump administration announced it would move to undo the Obama administration’s late-2016 action to withdraw mineral leases held by mining company Twin Metals in an area of Superior National Forest. That paves the way for those leases, which are rights a valuable trove of copper and nickel, to be restored.

Beyond that, WaPo’s James Hohmann has a good wrap-up of other under-the-radar, end-of-year actions from the executive branch, from loosened conservation regulations for migratory birds to gutting a federal HIV/AIDS advisory council.

Speaking of big executive branch actions, a breaking move from Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice: the AG — the administration’s most prominent supporter of hardline drug policy — plans to undo an Obama administration policy that allowed states to pursue legalization of marijuana. He is now directing his DoJ to prosecute marijuana, still a top-tier prohibited substance in federal law, as attorneys see fit. (On January 1, recreational marijuana became legal in California, which joined seven other states.)

Up on Capitol Hill, it’s out with the old, in with the new: on Tuesday, Al Franken officially resigned his U.S. Senate seat, and Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Tina Smith, his lieutenant governor, to fill the office Franken announced he would vacate on December 7, in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

Smith was sworn into office on Wednesday, with former vice presidents Joe Biden and Walter Mondale looking on, along with the two women she joins in the Minnesota delegation, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Betty McCollum. (Vice President Mike Pence administered the oath of office to Smith, giving the ceremony a critical mass of veeps.)

Now, Smith inherits Franken’s office and much of his staff, but has a long to-do list of her own. At the top of that list? Building a record and a rep in Congress that she can run on in November, when Minnesota voters decide who will succeed Franken, at least until 2020.

Read my Q&A with our newest U.S. Senator, which touches on her vision for the job, the circumstances of Franken’s ouster, and her belief on the role of the Democratic Party in 2018. Smith’s rise to office marks a historical high for women in the Senate: there are now 22 women serving as senators.

Who’s looking to challenge her for the seat? Michele Bachmann made a rare media appearance on the TV show of televangelist and convicted fraudster Jim Bakker, expressing interest in running for Franken’s Senate seat. As others have noted, Bachmann still has well over a million dollars in her congressional campaign account, which she could presumably put to use for a Senate run. (I’ll get the popcorn.)

As an aside, it’s been a big couple of weeks for the 2012 GOP presidential field. In addition to Bachmann, former guv Tim Pawlenty is mulling a Senate bid in Minnesota, and Mitt Romney is seen as likely to make a run in Utah, now that longtime GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch has announced his retirement. (It raises the question: where’s Herman Cain at?)

It was a busier-than-normal few weeks for international news. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in contact with the dovish government in the South — possibly to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington — prompting a Trump Twitter outburst that you’ve all probably seen by now. Everyone seems more worried about nuclear war than usual.

Unrest brewing in Iran, where there have been widespread and deadly protests against the hard-line theocratic regime since last week. Vox has a useful explainer on where these demonstrations came from and what they mean. There are implications in D.C., as the Trump administration — which is looking for opportunities to undermine the Iran nuclear deal — could use the protests as an opportunity to impose stiffer sanctions against a government that is cracking down on demonstrators.

This week’s essential reads

I’ve shared a lot of links in this memo about the ways that the Trump administration has quietly (and not-so-quietly) changed the size, scope, and mission of various agencies across the federal government. A year into the Trump era, the Washington Post has a big-picture look at the various ways POTUS has shrunk the footprint of the federal government — a task at which he has found enormous and fast success. WaPo:

By the end of September, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January — with most shedding many hundreds of employees, according to an analysis of federal personnel data by The Washington Post.

The diminishing federal footprint comes after Trump promised in last year’s campaign to “cut so much your head will spin,” and it reverses a boost in hiring under President Barack Obama. The falloff has been driven by an exodus of civil servants, a diminished corps of political appointees and an effective hiring freeze. Even though Congress did not pass a new budget in his first year, the drastic spending cuts Trump laid out in the spring — which would slash more than 30 percent of funding at some agencies — also has triggered a spending slowdown, according to officials at multiple departments.

The Trump White House moved last year to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military, but after widespread public backlash, there seemed to be little appetite from the Pentagon to implement that decision, which was challenged in court. Now the White House is backing off, and transgender individuals are rushing in 2018 to apply for military service. BuzzFeed News’ Dominic Holden on where things stand:

“It’s almost surreal,” said Nicholas Bade of Chicago, who told BuzzFeed News his recruiter for the Air Force scheduled a meeting for Thursday at 11 a.m. to submit paperwork, ending several years of on-again, off-again uncertainty amid changes in presidential administrations and a dogged legal fight up to late December.

“I was waiting on Jan. 1 for an announcement that it was delayed again, and it really hit me that day: This is real, and it’s time to actually get ready for this to happen,” said Bade, 37, who has been preparing to join since 2015, when the Pentagon indicated it may lift the ban. “It’s super exciting. I am ready to go.” …

The Justice Department said on Dec. 29 that it would drop its efforts to fight the Jan. 1 enlistment opening while it continued “to defend the President's and Secretary of Defense’s lawful authority in district court in the meantime."

International students, and the tuition dollars they bring, are an essential source of support for American colleges and universities, not to mention a source of pride for institutions seeking to tout their diversity and worldliness to U.S. students. But in the first year of the Trump presidency, the flow of international students to the U.S. has slowed, dismaying higher education and forcing institutions to make tough decisions. The NYT’s Stephanie Saul:

Just as many universities believed that the financial wreckage left by the 2008 recession was behind them, campuses across the country have been forced to make new rounds of cuts, this time brought on, in large part, by a loss of international students.

Schools in the Midwest have been particularly hard hit — many of them non-flagship public universities that had come to rely heavily on tuition from foreign students, who generally pay more than in-state students.

The downturn follows a decade of explosive growth in foreign student enrollment, which now tops 1 million at United States colleges and educational training programs, and supplies $39 billion in revenue. International enrollment began to flatten in 2016, partly because of changing conditions abroad and the increasing lure of schools in Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries.

There’s a difference between the Trump we see in public and the Trump that lawmakers, officials, and other insiders get in private. But the rest of the world is as baffled by Trump’s blustering on the global stage as it is by his pronouncements behind closed doors — and foreign leaders are starting to get really nervous. Politico’s Susan Glasser:

Over the course of the year, I have often heard top foreign officials express their alarm in hair-raising terms rarely used in international diplomacy—let alone about the president of the United States. Seasoned diplomats who have seen Trump up close throw around words like “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous.” In Berlin this spring, I listened to a group of sober policy wonks debate whether Trump was merely a “laughingstock” or something more dangerous.

Virtually all of those from whom I’ve heard this kind of ranting are leaders from close allies and partners of the United States. That experience is no anomaly. “If only I had a nickel for every time a foreign leader has asked me what the hell is going on in Washington this year … ” says Richard Haass, a Republican who served in senior roles for both Presidents Bush and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

So what the hell is going on? I’ve come to believe that when it comes to Trump and the world, it’s not better than you think. It’s worse.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Trump is much more popular among older Americans than he is among younger ones: about a third of millennials voted for Trump in 2016, and many young conservatives around the country found themselves in the so-called #NeverTrump crowd.

The divide between Trump supporters and Never-Trumpers was an important dynamic in the national GOP, but as the Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey reports, it was a defining dynamic in Republican politics on America’s college campuses, shattering College Republican groups and reshaping campus conservatism. We should pay attention, she argues, to what happens next, if Trumpism is to have any legs.

More than a year later, things still aren’t back to normal on the quad. In many ways, the debate over Trump taking place among College Republicans mirrors the national intra-party one: It pits young conservatives who view Trump as a distraction from long-held conservative goals of shrinking government and defending family values against those who see Trump’s presidency and distinctive message as a much-needed adjustment of the party’s priorities.

During a speech to the College Republican National Committee in 1987, President Ronald Reagan called them the “vanguard” of the GOP whose work will “ensure the continued success of Republican goals.” But today, they’re unable to agree on what those goals should be.

College Republicans form an integral component of the party’s grassroots campaign efforts. While it’s true that College Republicans aren’t exactly representative of Trump’s base, these young people represent the next generation of Republicans—and what now seem like low-stakes debates on college campuses will ultimately come to define the party’s future. If Trumpism has a political future, these young people will likely be its torchbearers.

What to look for next week

The House and Senate return to regular business next week. As noted higher up, they’ve got a lot to work out in the next two weeks, and meetings this week among top Democratic and GOP leaders in Congress to discuss spending levels don’t seem to have yielded much progress.

Another thing to note: January of an election year typically sees a lot of members of Congress announce plans to retire. There has already been a lot: since the opening of the 115th Congress, 33 Republican members and 16 Democrats have resigned, or announced their retirement or intent to run for another office. Those totals will go up this month.

That’s all for this week. Send me your tips, takes, new year’s suggestions, to sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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