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D.C. Memo: What the president meant to say was

Immigration policy; government surveillance; NAFTA negotiations; POTUS’ punishing work schedule; and more.

Trump hosted a “freewheeling summit” on immigration — open to the cameras — with Democratic and Republican leaders on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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This week in Washington, the President sought to fend off questions of his mental acuity by holding an open-to-the-press negotiating session with members of Congress, in which he contradicted himself and also agreed with everybody. Thankfully, we learned he’s off work by 6, like most of us who are also not the de facto leader of the free world.

This week in Washington

Good afternoon from Washington. Your big story this week from the Capitol is immigration: specifically, the Democrats’ effort to find a long-term solution for the Dreamers — the 800,000-some undocumented immigrants brought here as children — and the Republicans’ effort to get something in return for that, chiefly funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall.

I’ve got a story from Thursday detailing the dynamics on immigration, and where Ds and Rs in the Minnesota delegation are at on it right now. Read here.

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Assorted stuff from the week on immigration: Politico’s report on the “freewheeling summit” on immigration that Trump had — open to the cameras — with Democratic and Republican leaders on Tuesday; the Los Angeles Times on a California judge’s decision to block Trump’s decision to terminate DACA; the New York Times on what other border security initiatives the Wall would take money from, and the NYT also introduces you to the young Dreamers whose lives in America are at stake in all this politics — and who are anxiously holding their breath to see what Washington does.

Elsewhere in immigration news, on Monday, the Trump administration announced it would end a program that grants temporary legal status for 200,000 nationals of El Salvador living in the U.S., who have enjoyed that status since an earthquake ravaged the Central American country in 2001. Since then, the country has recovered from the damage, but now suffers from endemic violence fueled by gangs and the drug trade, which has transformed El Salvador into one of the deadliest countries in the world.

With the White House’s move, Salvadorans in the U.S. now have 18 months to get legal status — an increasingly difficult task in the Trump era — or go back to a war-torn country that few consider their home.

The administration’s most visible immigration hardliner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is a sadboy, reports the Washington Post. POTUS is still angry at him for recusing himself from the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia, even though Sessions is telling his people to tell Trump about the things he is doing at work, which are things that Trump wants done. Even Sessions’ public promises to exterminate the MS-13 street gang are failing to stir Trump’s embittered heart. (Exes, am I right?)

On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted to advance a reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the U.S. to spy on foreign nationals living abroad. Critics wanted a new bill to have stronger protections against using this part of FISA, called Section 702, as a backdoor to unconstitutional spying on U.S. citizens.

The House version, backed by the Democratic and GOP establishment, didn’t satisfy those critics, and so we got a weird breakdown in the Minnesota delegation when the time came to vote. Civil libertarians like Rep. Jason Lewis joined with progressives like Rep. Keith Ellison to vote no, as did DFL Rep. Tim Walz and GOP Rep. Tom Emmer.

The president made some people very worried early Thursday morning, when he sent out a tweet referencing FISA as “controversial” and suggested it was used to “badly surveil and abuse” his presidential campaign. His administration, on record as supporting the FISA bill, went into chaos, as did the Hill. Trump walked that tweet back an hour later, presumably after getting a few friendly calls. (Whoops!)

More TrumpWatch: as negotiation continues between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico over a new framework for the North American Free Trade Agreement, our neighbors to the north are growing increasingly spooked that Trump will move to terminate the trade pact. Reuters reports the Canadians are growing “convinced” that he’ll do it as the countries are set to meet in Montreal later this month for a sixth round of talks. (The Canadian dollar tanked in response to the news.)

It’d be a fraught move for Trump: he campaigned hard against free trade pacts, and vowed to advance an “America First” economic philosophy. But he risks angering farmers, a constituency that’s very favorable to him. When Trump spoke to a big farm confab this week, the crowd’s message was clear: don’t end NAFTA.

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Farmers credit NAFTA with giving them lots of access to our neighbors’ markets: combined, Canada and Mexico bought 27 percent of Minnesota’s annual $7.3 billion in agriculture exports in 2016. Know Minnesota’s ag-land is watching this one closely.

This could be one of the biggest health care stories of the year: the Trump administration is moving to give states options to impose work requirements on those who receive Medicaid, the federal program to provide health care to low-income individuals. WaPo reports 10 states are waiting to do just that. Liberal reaction summed up by NYT’s Paul Krugman, who calls the move one of “amazing cruelty.”

It’s Sen. Tina Smith’s first full week as a U.S. Senator, and she kicked things off with a weekend tour that took her from the Twin Cities to the Iron Range and Duluth. AP’s Kyle Potter with a rundown of Sen. Smith’s travels and her imminent work in the Senate. On Tuesday, Smith’s committee assignments were announced, and she inherits spots on three panels that Al Franken sat on: Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Indian Affairs, and Energy.

Smith also picked up a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, adding another Minnesota presence to that panel, just as Congress takes up the massive Farm Bill this year. The new senator did not get Franken’s seat on the Judiciary Committee, probably the chamber’s most prestigious one, but Sen. Amy Klobuchar remains there.

Meanwhile, a would-be opponent to Smith is getting busy herself: the first Republican to jump in the race for this seat, GOP state Sen. Karin Housley, says she raised $150,000 for a Senate bid in the first 12 days of her campaign. Dem-aligned campaign organizations are quickly closing ranks around Smith: pro-choice group EMILY’s List is already hitting their email list with requests to donate to Smith, their “latest endorsement.”

Retirement watch from the GOP side of the aisle this week: two high-profile Californians, Rep. Ed Royce, chair of the House Foreign Affairs panel, and Rep. Darrell Issa will not run for re-election. They faced uphill battles — their districts went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and their heading to the exits adds fuel to the notion of a Democratic wave building this fall. WaPo talked to Republican reps who are now getting flashbacks to 2006 — the year Democrats picked up 31 House seats and took back the chamber. (Dems need to pick up 23 seats this time around to win a House majority.)

In the Beltway, the Wall Street Journal reports military officials are considering the option of “limited” strikes on the North Korean regime’s nuclear arsenal. If you were concerned this might be stressing out POTUS, don’t be: Axios reports that the boss doesn’t roll into the Oval Office until around 11 AM — for his morning intelligence briefing — and has increasingly fewer meetings on the public schedule. He usually takes off by 6 PM.

Trump’s mornings and evenings are filled with what’s charitably called “executive time” — in which a hardworking POTUS tweets, watches cable news, and calls up friends and confidants. This president just can’t stop working to make America Great Again, his deputies say — people just can’t grasp how he works. (Same. Back to your regularly-scheduled Executive Time.)

This week’s essential reads

A potentially landmark decision this week out of North Carolina: a federal court struck down the state’s U.S. House districts as “unconstitutional” partisan gerrymanders, marking the first time federal judges have taken such a move. The decision could have major implications for other states with similarly drawn districts. The Raleigh News-Observer’s Anne Blythe:

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The judges – James A. Wynn, a Barack Obama appointee to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and federal district judges W. Earl Britt, a Jimmy Carter appointee, and William L. Osteen Jr., a George W. Bush appointee – were unanimous that North Carolina lawmakers under Republican leadership violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause when they drew maps explicitly to favor their party.

“On its most fundamental level, partisan gerrymandering violates ‘the core principle of republican government . . . that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,’” the majority opinion states.

News of the ruling brought quick applause from Democrats and swift criticism from Republicans. Legislative leaders plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and ask for a stay, according to Mitchell County Republican state Sen. Ralph Hise, who along with Lewis has led redistricting efforts in the legislature.

Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke angered most people living near an ocean when he authorized expanded offshore oil drilling — including Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, and a key ally of the Trump administration. When Scott protested, Zinke gave Florida an exemption from the drilling rule — but not any of the other (blue) states that raised concerns. WaPo’s Dave Weigel and John Wagner with the story:

The Florida carve-out, announced Tuesday by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, created new doubts about the fate of the entire offshore drilling decision — and immediately became another challenge for Republicans as they work to hold off Democrats in the midterm elections. Nine of the 11 states that opposed the drilling order have gubernatorial races this year, and many of the most competitive contests for the House of Representatives will unfold in districts that touch coastline.

The decision has been subject to a torrent of ridicule and anger from coastal governors and senators who wonder why their states have not been exempted. In a conference call with reporters, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) unloaded on Zinke and Trump, saying that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) had asked for an exemption and heard nothing back. … “Quite frankly, Gov. Scott called me and [also] expressed in writing a desire to have a meeting,” Zinke said. That meeting was the first “in what I believe will be a series of conversations” with other governors, the secretary said.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has emerged as the administration’s point man on brokering a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. But the New York Times reports that a major Israeli financial institution has invested $30 million in the Kushner family real estate company, whose business Kushner benefits from even as he serves in the White House. Jesse Drucker with the story, and its implications on government ethics and Middle East peace prospects:

But the deal last spring illustrates how the Kushner Companies’ extensive financial ties to Israel continue to deepen, even with his prominent diplomatic role in the Middle East. The arrangement could undermine the ability of the United States to be seen as an independent broker in the region. The Trump administration already inflamed tensions there when it said last month that it recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would move the United States Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

“I think it’s reasonable for people to ask whether his business interests are somehow affecting his judgment,” said Matthew T. Sanderson, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington who specializes in government ethics and was general counsel to Senator Rand Paul’s presidential campaign. …

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Mr. Kushner resigned as chief executive of Kushner Companies when he joined the White House last January. But he remains the beneficiary of a series of trusts that own stakes in Kushner properties and other investments. Those are worth as much as $761 million, according to government ethics filings, and most likely much more: The estimate nets out the significant debt accumulated by the firm, which has done about $7 billion of deals in the past decade.

The next Congress is going to have a lot of new faces: in the last year, dozens of members of Congress have announced plans to retire, resign, or run for another office; in the coming weeks, more are expected to follow suit. Politico spoke with some of the outgoing lawmakers and to many of them, the pressures of the office, the institution’s rot, and the toxicity of the country’s politics have made serving in Congress a sad chore. Edward Isaac-Dovere with the story:

People retire every cycle. But this year’s group is a bumper crop of members wondering whether Congress is broken forever—even as they insist they love their own jobs.

The ferocity of the Gingrich Revolution, President Bill Clinton’s impeachment—even the Tea Party shutdown wars of 2011 and 2013 seem like the good old days to them now. Capitol Hill is an angry, scattered mess; each party is storing up grudges to get revenge for the next time it gets the chance; and the victories are always fleeting. When pressed, the departees will confess to deep concerns that flow from Trump, the reaction to Trump, and the politics that created and elected Trump.

“All the incentives are wrong now,” says Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a onetime conservative star who is retiring after nearly two decades in the House and the Senate.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

President Trump and his allies have cast illegal immigration as a threat to not just the U.S. economy and rule of law, but to the safety of Americans themselves, and have made efforts to highlight cases where undocumented immigrants have committed acts of violence — even creating a public database to track those crimes.

The New Yorker’s Sarah Stillman offers another look into life, death, and immigration: what happens when individuals who are deported from the U.S. face possible — even likely — risk of injury or death upon return to their home countries. What role does the government have to intervene when deportation is a “death sentence?”

Laura had started dating Sergio when she was eighteen, and he soon became physically abusive. After a particularly horrific night the previous spring, when Sergio assaulted her, Laura had finally called the police, and coöperated with them to secure his arrest. He was later deported. …

Laura and her friends waited by the roadside until a U.S. Border Patrol agent named Ramiro Garza arrived and ordered the three of them into his vehicle. Laura pleaded with Garza as he drove them to a nearby processing center, where Laura’s friends saw her, under pressure, sign paperwork for a “voluntary return.” Three hours later—after holding off until dawn “for safety reasons,” Garza later explained, “since there were females involved”—he drove them to the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, which crosses the Rio Grande and leads to Reynosa, a city so violent that the U.S. State Department forbids its employees there from venturing out after midnight.

As the sun rose, Laura stepped onto the bridge and into a much larger story, one that has launched a major legal battle over the U.S. government’s duty to protect prospective deportees who plead for their lives. … In the final moments before Laura crossed the bridge, she turned to Agent Garza. “When I am found dead,” she told him, “it will be on your conscience.”

What to look for next week

Funding for the government runs out next Friday, January 19, so lawmakers don’t have a lot of time to come up with an agreement that keeps the lights on in the government… stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Likeliest scenario is that lawmakers pass a fourth continuing resolution, to buy them more time to work out a deal. It’s unclear at this moment the extent to which DACA and other immigration issues will be part of any spending deal.

But reporters are proclaiming on Twitter that a bipartisan group of senators has reached a deal over DACA, border security, and other key sticking points, and are talking with the White House about how to move forward. Sounds big — and it’s definitely a big development — but take with a grain of salt. Senate “grand bargains” fall flat in the House, just as House “bold solutions” are D.O.A. in the Senate.

Also, we should get a lot more campaign finance information in the next week, as campaigns tout — or try to bury — their end-of-year fundraising totals from 2017. Expect lots of coverage without context and partisan operatives trying to troll each other online over the results!

That’s all from me for this week. Send your thoughts and comments, as always, to Have a good weekend — skol, or something? (I’m a Patriots fan. Don’t @ me.)