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This week in Washington, President Donald Trump addressed the nation for the State of the Union, an increasingly meaningless ritual whose main effect is to dramatically push back bedtime for Washington correspondents and octogenarian lawmakers. At least we finally learned where Trump stands on the national anthem! (Standing is where he stands.)
This week in Washington
It’s State of the Union week, so you know what that means: lots of hand-wringing and navel-gazing in the Beltway over the state of the presidency and our politics, which inevitably produces the year’s worst takes and dumbest, least insightful analysis.
SOTU 2k18 certainly delivered in that regard. But first, the actual speech: on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump delivered an 80-minute speech — close to a record — that sought to thread the needle between the various POTUS personas we’ve seen over the past year.
The address saw Trump assume the role the GOP establishment loves best — cheerleader for America’s economy and industry, proudly touting Republicans’ sweeping tax cut package, renewed investment in the U.S., low unemployment, etc. (Call it Normal Republican President mode.)
In Trump’s campaign-style rhetoric on immigrant gangs, drugs, and terrorism — not to mention his gleeful wading into culture-war issues like standing for the national anthem at sports games — the president was in Breitbart mode, tossing out slabs of red meat to his populist base.
Ahead of the speech, the White House touted it as a compromise-oriented, all-business address. Trump has tried at various points to assume the mantle of nonpartisan dealmaker over the past year, especially on issues like infrastructure, and that talk was certainly there on Tuesday night.
But, as I reported after the speech, Dems saw this talk as, well, talk. The Trump that predominated through 2017 — the tax-slashing, fight-picking, immigration hard-liner — seems to have poisoned the well with Dems, making calls for bipartisanship on other issues ring hollow.
Anyway, read my story on the speech, with some roundup from the Minnesota delegation. Random SOTU odds and ends from my vantage point: sitting up in the House press gallery for most of the address, I could see members of the Minnesota delegation pretty well. Not to play the tired “who did what on the floor” game, but I was pretty struck by how unmoved the entire Dem side of the chamber was during the speech, with many crossing their arms and even audibly groaning or chuckling in disbelief during portions of POTUS’ remarks.
Rep. Keith Ellison, dressed in all black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement and wearing a kente cloth to protest Trump’s “shithole countries” comment, was fixated on POTUS pretty much the whole time, and could barely contain his disgust.
Also, not to play the tired who-brought-who game, but I was struck that Rep. Tom Emmer invited as his guest Dan Forsman, a member of the Ely City Council. Notable for several reasons, in particular: Forsman does not live in Emmer’s district — this is rather unusual for congressional guests — and the councilman has been a lightning rod in the debate between environmentalists and mining advocates in northeastern Minnesota. (Ely Echo with more.)
Some other stuff I liked and/or found illuminating with respect to the SOTU: Slate looks at one sentence in the SOTU that could have really broad implications. The Washington Post’s fact-checking team attacks the address, and WaPo reporters hung out with people across the U.S. as they watched the speech in their living rooms. HuffPost catalogues the best (facial) reactions in the SOTU audience. And CNN looks at the stuff Trump didn’t say.
An important policy bit: right before the SOTU, Trump signed an order ensuring that the Guantanamo Bay prison will remain open, which pundits like CNN’s Chris Cillizza interpreted as a blow against Barack Obama… the guy who could never close Gitmo once and for all.
The day after the SOTU, a train carrying congressional Republicans to their annual retreat in West Virginia struck a dump truck, killing the driver and injuring several more. Those on the train suffered some injuries, including Rep. Jason Lewis, who went to a Virginia hospital after the incident. He sustained a concussion, but we hear he’s feeling better.
In other news, all of Washington is talking about a dumb memo, and to my endless disappointment, it’s not this one: sometime in the near future, a memo written by House Republicans that details alleged abuses and political bias at the FBI during the 2016 election may be released.
The document — which summarizes classified information — is written by Trump loyalist Rep. Devin Nunes, and it is intended to reveal a deep anti-Trump bias at the FBI during the election. Reports indicate it may focus on the bureau’s surveillance of one lower-level Trump campaign official, Carter Page, who was one of the campaign staffers most enthusiastically pushing to make inroads with Russian officials. (Vox has a good rundown of the main questions surrounding the memo here.)
The House Intelligence Committee voted to make Nunes’ memo public, and the president also wants it to be public — they all say Americans deserve to know about any political bias at the FBI. Democrats, meanwhile, are saying the memo’s release will reveal too much about law enforcement’s “sources and methods” — a.k.a. how they get the goods — and they also believe it could give some juice for Republicans and the White House to discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between Trump and Russia.
Why? The memo isn’t directly related to the Mueller probe. But if it shows, or even suggests, some kind of political bias at the FBI, it could undermine Mueller’s credibility — or even give the president an excuse to dismiss top officials connected with the Russia investigation, such as assistant attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the entire probe.
Two plugs for MinnPost content: end-of-year fundraising reports for federal and state races are coming out — exciting! — and we’ve launched a campaign finance dashboard where you can track who’s raising what, and how much cash they have on hand. We’ll be updating it all through campaign season with the latest data — bookmark it!
Also, check out my story from Monday about Rep. Ellison’s role at the Democratic National Committee, and whether Dems can get beyond the infighting, squabbling, and bad blood from 2016 so they can make some gains in 2018.
In administration news, Politico had a great scoop this week: the top public health official in the Trump administration, Brenda Fitzgerald, invested in a tobacco company’s stocks a month after taking the job as director of the Center for Disease Control, an organization you might say has a dog in the whole anti-smoking fight thing. The story broke on Tuesday afternoon; Fitzgerald had tendered her resignation by Wednesday morning. (#Impact!)
Another interesting item from the Dept. of Health and Human Services: the Trump administration has moved to give states room to impose work requirements for Medicaid, and WaPo reports that could have the effect of expanding the health care service for low-income Americans, as Republicans across the country take a fresh look at the program.
A rare update from the East Wing: the NYT reports that First Lady Melania Trump is “furious” with her husband in the wake of the Stormy Daniels news cycle. She jaunted to Mar-A-Lago the weekend the news broke, adding to her already-legendary travel bill as FLOTUS. (Noted by pretty much everyone on SOTU night: the president and the First Lady arrived and departed the Capitol separately.)
Finally, the AP reports that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, coming up on her 85th birthday, is not slowing down anytime soon. A fun read on the defiant SCOTUS fixture, whose seat on the bench the president believes he may have the chance to fill. (The kicker on this one is brutal, but here’s a preview: Ginsburg tends to outlive those who prematurely forecast the end of her career.)
The week’s essential reads
As sexual harassment scandals continue to knock off congressmen in 2018 — last week, a Pennsylvania Republican begrudgingly announced his retirement when it came to light he believed a younger aide was his “soulmate” — Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have taken different approaches to handling misconduct cases in their own ranks. Politico with the story, which offers a lot on Franken fallout:
While most Republican officeholders interviewed by POLITICO over the past two weeks expressed the view that voters, not lawmakers, should decide whether a lawmaker accused of sexual harassment loses his or her seat, the GOP lawmakers charged with increasing their party’s majorities in Congress say they’re ready to take action if credible allegations against a candidate surface in the future.
Meanwhile, Democrats, who moved quickly to withdraw support for Sen. Al Franken, Rep. John Conyers and Kansas congressional candidate Andrea Ramsey based on allegations from many years earlier, are facing some complaints over what some perceive to be a rush to judgment.
“I’m very worried. I’m not old, but I’m seasoned, and [the] pendulum’s swinging too far,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who co-chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s efforts to recruit women to run for office.
Ahead of the 2018 midterms, a whole lot of money — and folks attached to said money — gathered in the California desert to discuss how to retain Republican majorities in Congress ahead of what could be a monster wave election year for Democrats. The group? The famous Koch network, the few hundred members of the one percent who have banded together to achieve landmark policy victories for conservatives. NPR’s Tim Mak has the story from inside the confab, and what’s on Koch-world’s mind:
The network, which includes 700 high-dollar donors who contribute at least $100,000 annually, is a powerful force in the American political landscape promoting libertarian economic and social policies. And they’re gearing up to spend big money — scowling in the face of what could be an electoral tsunami if history is a guide.
Facing this challenging midterm environment, the Koch network will spend nearly $400 million over the 2018 cycle to defend conservative policy gains from last year. This is 60 percent higher than they spent in the 2016 election cycle, which included a presidential campaign.
This commitment is also an order of magnitude higher than what their network of conservative and libertarian donors contributed in the 2010 election — a campaign during which billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch burst into the national consciousness as villains for the left, due to their millions in funding for free market causes.
Like many Republicans before him — including Richard Nixon, something of a political guiding light to this administration — President Trump ran on a platform of “law and order,” and has taken every opportunity to praise police and law enforcement officers of all stripes. Yet, Trump has routinely singled out the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his anger, frustration, and conspiracy theories. HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly with a look at what’s going on at the FBI:
Call it the war on G-men. As they’ve run interference for Trump by undermining the special counsel investigation being led by Robert Mueller, some Republicans on Capitol Hill have unleashed broad attacks that suggest the nation’s premier law enforcement agency is tainted by corruption and malfeasance.
They’ve latched onto a text showing a FBI official joking about a “secret society,” and suggested there was a “deep state” plot to “subvert the will of the American people.” They’ve compared the actions of U.S. law enforcement officers to the KGB, and said they have a secret memo ― written by Republican staffers ― proving “shocking,” “sickening,” “jaw-dropping” law enforcement conduct that was “worse than Watergate.”
So the lack of caution from some Republicans in accusing the DOJ and the FBI of engaging in a massive conspiracy has been notable. And it has many of the bureau’s supporters ― as well as other members of the GOP ― concerned.
“Unhelpful and unhealthy,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said in response to a question from HuffPost about the attacks that members of his party have been launching.
The big headlines out of the Davos World Economic Forum last weekend were, of course, all about Trump. But sharp-eyed observers noted that the most enduring story — a flip side of Trump’s story — is the increasingly outsized role China is taking in shaping trade and the global economic order as the world sees America receding under Trump. The New York Times with the Davos dateline:
One of the best-attended speeches at the forum was that of Liu He, a member of China’s ruling Politburo, who promoted the Belt and Road initiative, also known as One Belt, One Road. Participants here said the Chinese initiative was already rivaling more established, traditionally American-led, international institutions.
“The China One Belt, One Road is going to be the new W.T.O. — like it or not,” said Joe Kaeser, chief executive of Siemens, the German industrial giant, referring to the World Trade Organization.
Belt and Road takes its name from the idea that Beijing is spreading its influence along the ancient Silk Road that once linked imperial China to the Roman Empire and to the medieval Europe of Marco Polo. But that was not the only push to extend its presence abroad that Beijing was trying to showcase.
The week in takes
Vox’s Ezra Klein: Trump is winning — he’s making American politics more like him
President Donald J. Trump: 2017 was “one of the greatest years”
Vogue’s Lynn Yeager: The SOTU was a grim fairy tale for the Trump era
Deadspin’s Kate Dries: Bars that aren’t sports bars shouldn’t have TVs
The Ringer’s Michael Baumann: Nobody should be praising the Cleveland Indians for doing the bare minimum about their racist logo
Your weekend longread
Most people best know Paul Manafort for his work as the one-time chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — work that swept him into the web of Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
The indictment of Manafort last year by Mueller’s team — for crimes related to his work lobbying on behalf of the government of Ukraine — represent a reckoning for Manafort, who built a career that defined sharp-elbowed Washington lobbying and, after that, expanded this brand of lobbying abroad as he represented the interests of dictators and war criminals.
At the Atlantic, Franklin Foer has a sweeping, exhaustively reported look at Manafort’s rise, fall, and what it says about the Russia investigation, Trump, and the creation of a Beltway political lobbying complex that does not see red or blue — only green.
In 2016, his friends might not have known the specifics of his Cyprus accounts, all the alleged off-the-books payments to him captured in Cyrillic ledgers in Kiev. But they knew enough to believe that he could never sustain the exposure that comes with running a presidential campaign in the age of opposition research and aggressive media. “The risks couldn’t have been more obvious,” one friend who attempted to dissuade him from the job told me. But in his frayed state, these warnings failed to register.
When Paul Manafort officially joined the Trump campaign, on March 28, 2016, he represented a danger not only to himself but to the political organization he would ultimately run. A lifetime of foreign adventures didn’t just contain scandalous stories, it evinced the character of a man who would very likely commandeer the campaign to serve his own interests, with little concern for the collective consequences.
Over the decades, Manafort had cut a trail of foreign money and influence into Washington, then built that trail into a superhighway. When it comes to serving the interests of the world’s autocrats, he’s been a great innovator. His indictment in October after investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller alleges money laundering, false statements, and other acts of personal corruption. (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.) But Manafort’s role in Mueller’s broader narrative remains carefully guarded, and unknown to the public. And his personal corruption is less significant, ultimately, than his lifetime role as a corrupter of the American system. That he would be accused of helping a foreign power subvert American democracy is a fitting coda to his life’s story.
What to look for next week
Despite the train incident on Wednesday, Republicans will continue with their retreat over the weekend, where they will plot out strategy for the upcoming session of Congress and the midterm elections. Congressional Democrats will huddle next weekend on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where they’ll hear from former veep Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, funding for the government runs out on February 8 — next Thursday. Congress is no closer to a grand deal on immigration and spending issues (perhaps they are further, even) so they will have to pass yet another short-term extension to buy more time. Politico reports that could be a month-long spending patch, but that many rank-and-file GOPers are done voting for continuing resolutions that maintain the status quo and don’t address bigger issues.
Especially problematic could be the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, a group of 40 or so House Republicans who often vote as a bloc. Their leader, Rep. Mark Meadows, has floated that the caucus may withhold support for the CR — and if enough Republicans do, it’d force Speaker Paul Ryan to really go after votes from Democrats to avert another government shutdown.
That’s all for this week. Send your thoughts, concerns, classified memos, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Long live Tom Brady (LLTB).