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D.C. Memo: The kids aren’t alt-right

Aftermath of Parkland shooting; Mueller’s indictments; Kushner’s security clearance; the most unremarkable half-pipe run in history; and more.

Student Alex Wind from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School speaks to the crowd during a protest on February 20.
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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This week in Washington, the national conversation was dominated by a bunch of high school kids who looked up from their Instaface and Snapgram accounts for a moment to put unprecedented pressure on elected officials for their inaction on gun violence.

This week in Washington

Fallout continues this week from last Wednesday’s horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The aftermath of this mass shooting has looked different from recent ones, and that’s largely due to the brave, tenacious and sharp students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who are unreservedly speaking out about gun violence and what policymakers should be doing about it. (And also, crucially, owning Bill O’Reilly on Twitter.)

BuzzFeed has a great look inside the suburban living rooms where the shooting survivors are plotting their next moves, one of my favorite reads from this week.

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After the initial round of thoughts-and-prayersing — and appearing to blame the FBI for missing tips about the shooter’s mental health — President Donald Trump says he is moving toward action on guns. On Tuesday, he directed the Department of Justice to implement regulations to ban so-called “bump stocks,” a device used in the Las Vegas shooting that dramatically increases the lethal capability of firearms.

On Thursday, Trump tweeted that he wants to expand background checks and raise the age requirement for buying some firearms. The president also said on Thursday during some off-the-cuff remarks that he’d consider granting bonuses of up to 40 percent for teachers who come to school armed.

At a White House roundtable on Wednesday featuring raw and emotional testimony from victims of gun violence and the families of those killed, Trump tried to project empathy — something that, uh, does not come naturally for POTUS — and, because he did not visibly screw up, some in the mainstream pundit class deemed the event a relative success. (There was a lot of scrutiny on a notecard Trump was holding during the event — possibly written by his daughter, Ivanka Trump — that reminded him to listen.)

Trump promised the attendees that “we’re going to do something about this horrible situation” and that “we’re all going to figure it out together.” But, as smart observers have pointed out, it’s hard to know where Trump — who once promised the faithful of the National Rifle Association that he would “never let them down” — really stands on the gun issue, and what he would realistically do. (Recall that, in a past political life, Trump was an advocate for gun control, including an assault weapons ban.)

Meanwhile, in Florida, some of the Stoneman Douglas students more critical of Trump, along with parents of the shooting victims, appeared at a CNN-moderated town hall on Wednesday to have a dialogue with some Florida members of Congress. The transcript and video are here, and it’s worth checking out, if only to appreciate the courage of some of these kids to demand answers from their elected representatives.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who boasts a A+ rating from the NRA, was there and took the heat from a critical audience. Hardly a profile in courage for him to show up, but he was the only GOP elected official on stage. (The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has another take: Rubio’s non-answers there revealed the hollowness of most of America’s politicians.)

How the White House has responded to the crisis in the last week: WaPo reports that the massacre of students and educators was an unfortunate, but welcome break for this White House, which had been besieged by scandal and a run of bad press. There’s been some remarkably cynical anonymous quotes coming out of this administration over the past year, but this story was absolutely breathtaking. Don’t miss it.

Closer to home, another mass shooting means renewed pressure on Rep. Tim Walz, former holder of an “A” rating from the NRA, as he courts Democratic activists to earn the party endorsement in the gubernatorial race.  In the wake of the Parkland shooting, the 1st District Democrat said he’s had it with these tragedies, and called for a ban on assault weapons in Minnesota.

That position puts him squarely in line with the progressive DFL base on the gun issue, but Walz’s would-be GOP adversaries are trying to highlight what they see as hypocrisy and opportunism from him on the issue. It remains to be seen how much the congressman’s “evolution” on guns will hurt him. You can read more from my colleague Briana Bierschbach and me — written after the Las Vegas shooting in October, but applicable now — on Walz’s record on guns and how it is factoring into his governor bid.

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Some significant Russia news in the last week: on Friday, the team of special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals, charging they were part of a sweeping effort to manipulate the internet and social media in order to interfere in the 2016 elections.

It’s unlikely that any of the people charged will see the inside of a U.S. courtroom, but as the NYT reports, the indictment reveals the methodical and thorough process Mueller’s team has used to uncover evidence of Russian interference in the elections. And the indictment paints a picture of aggressive Russian meddling that is starkly at odds with the president’s skepticism that Russia was involved much at all.

Vox has some good discussion of what the latest news means for the Trump team’s side of Mueller’s probe. WIRED magazine has a cool exploration of the Mueller indictment as the stuff of Russian spy novels.

The NYT does some good reporting here building on the indictments, illustrating how American voters unwittingly found themselves in contact with Russian operatives and political operations. Meanwhile, Trump boasted this week that he’s been “much tougher” on Russia than his predecessor, Barack Obama.

In other Russia news, Mueller is reportedly taking a very close look at Jared Kushner and his overseas investments. The NYT, meanwhile, reports that Kushner is very reluctant to give up his access to sensitive documents — even though he doesn’t have a fully approved security clearance.

A story from Newsweek, which attempted to back up the claim that former Sen. Al Franken’s ouster was the work of an alt-right internet conspiracy, gained some traction this week. A not-insignificant chunk of the progressive base remains indignant about the episode, and still believes Franken was set up, so they ate the story up. Problem: it was wrong, and Newsweek retracted it.

Some important developments for the 2018 midterms this week: on Monday, Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court approved a new congressional map for the state, and it’s much, much more favorable to Democrats. The former map, which gave Republicans in the battleground state a 13-to-5 advantage in U.S. House representation, was struck down as an unconstitutional gerrymander in January by the state’s high court.

The new map, which would be in effect for this year’s elections, redraws the Keystone State’s maps in a way that the court finds to make more sense — and makes Democrats well-positioned to flip several U.S. House seats. Republicans, meanwhile, are mounting legal challenges against the map. If you want to go deep on map wonkiness, the NYT reviews the court’s choices here.

An interesting take from NBC’s Steve Kornacki about the 2020 Democratic field, which could be the biggest and deepest since 1976, an election cycle that could have a lot in common with the one ahead of us. 2020’s Jimmy Carter — who you got?

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With all the domestic news, there’s been very little discussion this week about the horrific fighting that has escalated in Syria. The past few days have seen some of the worst fighting of the roughly five-year civil war in that country.

Forces led by the government of Bashar al-Assad have relentlessly bombed the area of Eastern Ghouta, leading to heavy casualties — roughly 150 people in three days. Many children have died; doctors working there have described the situation as “catastrophic.” Trump, who was reportedly moved enough by images of suffering children to launch a military strike against Syrian government targets last year, hasn’t said anything yet on the latest round of bloody fighting.

Finally, on a lighter note, more Olympics: Slate dives deep on the story of the American “skier” competing for Hungary who gamed the qualifying system to make it to PyeongChang and complete the most unremarkable half-pipe run in history. (Liz Swaney, who previously failed in her dream to be governor of California and to compete on the Venezuelan luge team, was reportedly disappointed she didn’t make the finals. )

This week’s essential reads

I’ve shared a lot of news in this space about the conduct of members of the Trump administration with regards to ethics, from first-class flights by cabinet secretaries to the ways the president’s businesses are benefiting from foreign customers. Minnesota’s own Tom Scheck, reporting with APM, takes a look at the broader ethical picture in the Trump administration – and finds that most of his top-level officials have engaged in, at best, questionable conduct. The story:

But the criticism of how the Trump administration views ethics goes beyond one group. Ethics experts serving multiple administrations say Trump is sending a message that his political appointees can also engage in questionable conduct.

“I think it clearly sets the tone for their appointees,” said Don Fox, who worked in the Office of Government Ethics during the Bush and Obama Administrations. “If the boss doesn’t care, why should you, then?”

An APM Reports review of news coverage, ethics agreements and government financial disclosure forms has found that more than half of Trump’s 20-person Cabinet has engaged in questionable or unethical conduct.

After every mass shooting event, seemingly, is the same debate over gun policy, and over the influence of the pro-gun lobby. Gun control advocates often point to the financial influence of the NRA and conclude nothing will ever be done about guns. ProPublica fleshes out a point worth considering: the gun lobby operates on the perception it is invincible — a perception that does not line up with reality, once you consider the facts. Alec MacGillis with some thought-provoking work:

Congress has failed repeatedly to pass any gun-control measures after past calamities, even the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

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Yet this world-weary defeatism is self-fulfilling in its own way, and helps explain why Washington hasn’t taken action to address the killing.

Most importantly, liberal fatalism on gun control overstates the strength of the opposition. The National Rifle Association’s influence depends heavily on the perception of its power. By building up the gun lobby as an indomitable force, pessimists are playing directly into its hands.

No doubt, the NRA is influential. Not so much because of the campaign contributions it makes to candidates, but because it can count on an energized grass-roots base of gun-rights supporters to turn out at the polls and badger elected officials with calls and emails. But that influence has limits, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that it is on the wane.

Voting electronically, or even online, was supposed to be the future of democracy, and a more fair and secure one at that — forget the stale paper ballot and the vagaries of the “butterfly ballot” and the infamous hanging chad. But in an era where the fear of election hacking is greater than ever, state election officials are rushing back to the analog past — thinking it might be the future of U.S. elections. The Boston Globe’s Matt Viser:

Top election officials around the country are growing increasingly alarmed about this fall’s midterm elections, with a drumbeat of dire warning signs that Russia is determined to influence them. …

Election officials are also turning away from fully electronic systems they fear can be hacked. They see paper as reassuring for voters: Physical ballots can be counted again if anything untoward happens to computerized tabulating systems.

About 30 states allow some form of electronic voting, most for overseas absentee voters. A handful prohibit full electronic voting, including Massachusetts, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“I’ve always been in favor of paper ballots, even when it was fashionable to use electronic systems,” said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin. “You take the card, you mark your choices, you take it to the box. You ensure it’s counted. All the cards are retained. If there’s a question you can go in and count the cards.”

Last week’s indictment from Mueller’s team against Russians charged with meddling in the 2016 elections revealed the remarkable extent of the activities of the secretive Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked outfit where most of the trolls operated. The New York Times spoke with some former operatives at the Agency, who revealed a culture of intimidation and the grueling nature of their troubling work — which some claim they didn’t sign up for. The story:

In recent interviews conducted before the indictments, two former trolls spoke about their experiences. Neither man wanted his full name used, citing the threats and intimidation others have been subjected to for speaking out.

Both left the agency for different reasons — one troubled by the substance of the work, the other struggling with the breakneck pace to create fake content. …

“They were just giving me money for writing,” said the former troll, a St. Petersburg resident who wanted to get into marketing or journalism but was drawn by the hard-to-match $1,400 weekly paycheck. “I was much younger and did not think about the moral side. I simply wrote because I loved writing. I was not trying to change the world.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

The man who has remained most impervious to the #MeToo movement happens to be the most powerful one in the world: President Trump. Where men across media, politics, and business have been driven from their jobs over allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, the president — who stands accused of various types of misconduct by 19 women — remains in office, the allegations against him barely registering as a hum amid the broader din of sensationalism and scandal that emanates from this presidency at all times.

But many, not least the women levying allegations against Trump, want that to change. The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow profiles one of them: Rachel Crooks, who alleges Trump forcibly kissed her in 2006, who is telling her story as much as she can, while she makes a run for Ohio’s state legislature.

There were 19 women in all who made public accusations of sexual misconduct, or “The Nineteen,” as they had come to be known on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Most had come forward with their stories after Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, and the experiences they described having with him spanned five decades. They claimed Trump had “acted like a creepy uncle,” or “squeezed my butt,” or “eyed me like meat,” or “stuck his hand up under my skirt,” or “groped with octopus hands,” or “pushed me against a wall,” or “thrust his genitals,” or “forced his tongue into my mouth” or “offered $10,000 for everything.”

In response, Trump had called the accusations against him “total fabrications” based on “political motives” to destroy his campaign and then his presidency.  …

The list of accusers included a reality-TV host, a runner-up on “The Apprentice,” a yoga instructor, an adult-film star and several women who had competed in Trump’s beauty pageants: a Miss New Hampshire, Miss Washington, Miss Arizona and Miss Finland.

And then there was Crooks, who had never been on reality TV, never drank alcohol, never met anyone famous until she moved from her childhood home in Green Springs to New York City in the summer of 2005.

What to look for next week

Congress returns next week after recessing for the President’s Day holiday. Congressional Democrats are already demanding that something be done about guns as soon as possible. The president has signaled he’s open to certain things — what remains to be seen now is what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will entertain. Vox has a quick look at what could happen.

There’s no shortage of political tests ahead in the coming weeks of congressional business: beyond guns, Congress remains under pressure to do something about the fate of the Dreamers, the young, undocumented immigrants who are facing imminent deportation. After immigration deals broke down in the Senate last week, prospects for compromise are dim. 

Current government funding runs out on March 23, a date by which lawmakers are expected to come up with a full agreement to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. The question already being asked: will Democrats risk another shutdown for the Dreamers?

That’s all for this week — thanks, as always, for joining me. And please get in touch at with your thoughts and takes.