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D.C. Memo: All the President’s Man

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Per the NYT’s Maggie Haberman, Trump is more confident than ever, is dismissing the advice of his top aides, and is feeling emboldened to really cut loose and say how he feels.

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This week in Washington, lawmakers moved to pass a 2,220-page document into law, getting just a few hours to read it before an imminent government funding deadline. They all definitely read it and are excited to get an “A” on the book report before heading out for Spring Break.

This week in Washington

Lawmakers have have scrambled to avert yet another government shutdown — unless President Donald Trump wants to do something about it.

Faced with government funding running out at 12:01 AM on Saturday, Congress moved expeditiously to pass a 2,200 page, $1.2 trillion spending bill, called the omnibus, which appropriates federal funds through the end of this fiscal year.

The text of the bill was released on Wednesday night, but that didn’t stop the House of Representatives from voting on Thursday afternoon to approve the legislation, by a margin of 256 to 167, freeing them up to skip town for the two-week Easter recess. Nice! (But really, no one read the omnibus, reports HuffPost’s Matt Fuller. DFL Rep. Rick Nolan attempted to.) 

Early Friday morning, the Senate followed suit, approving the legislation by a margin of 65 to 32, sending the legislation to the president’s desk. 

Some hand-wringing in D.C. over the truncated timeline for considering the spending legislation, but leaders in both parties wanted to avoid a fight on this one. POTUS seems to want one, however! He tweeted Friday morning that he is considering a veto of the omnibus, which would all but guarantee that a government shutdown takes effect at midnight.

Trump said that the omnibus — which was touted by the White House as recently as Thursday as a “win for the American people” — failed to do something to resolve the status of the Dreamers, young, undocumented immigrants whose legal status Trump terminated last year, and it failed to adequately fund his border wall with Mexico. 

That’s more or less true: in general, congressional appropriators avoided controversial policy “riders” on the omnibus. That meant nothing on DACA, which infuriated many Democrats, and the party’s progressive base. Since the omnibus is probably the last major piece of legislation to move before the elections, Democrats saw this as a last-ditch attempt to get something done for the Dreamers. (You can read me from this week on where things stand on DACA at the moment.)

On the wall, the funding appropriated for it in the omnibus falls far short of what Trump and his immigration hawk allies in Congress wanted: the bill outlays $1.6 billion for border security-related projects, way down from the $25 billion the White House asked for.

Will Trump actually veto a spending bill that passed with safe bipartisan margins, less than 24 hours before government funding runs out? Be sure to tune in to tonight’s episode of The Trump Show

Broader notes on the omnibus, probably the most consequential legislation Congress will pass this year: the $1.2 trillion it outlays in spending is in line with new budget caps outlined by the Bipartisan Budget Act passed last month: defense programs will see a 14 percent increase from last year, while nondefense programs will see about a 12 percent increase. Even the Census Bureau will get a funding bump of over $1 billion.

In general, defense hawks and Democrats eager to see boosts in spending on federal programs are happy, while conservatives like Rep. Jason Lewis and Rep. Tom Emmer, who voted against the bill on grounds of fiscal responsibility, aren’t. (The only Minnesota House reps to vote yes on the omnibus were Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen and DFL Rep. Betty McCollum, a member of the appropriations panel.)

Some minor wins for gun control advocates: the omnibus will allow the Centers for Disease Control to study public health impacts of gun violence. It also contains language for a narrow fix to shore up the federal background check system for purchasing firearms.

Missing from the bill are provisions to shore up Obamacare markets with subsidies — something outlined in a bipartisan Senate plan — as well as language to defund Planned Parenthood and stop federal grants to so-called “sanctuary cities,” both desired by conservatives. Vox has a deeper dive into the omnibus, if that’s your kind of thing.

Under the radar in Congress this week: negotiations have stalled over the Farm Bill, the critical agriculture and nutrition bill that lays out hundreds of billions of dollars in spending, and outlines federal policy priorities, every four years.

Congress is supposed to pass a new Farm Bill this year. Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee are pushing for the legislation to include new work requirements for people who receive food stamps. That’s a total non-starter for Democrats, and the ranking member on the House ag panel, Rep. Collin Peterson of western Minnesota, says Dems won’t come back to the negotiating table until Republicans drop their SNAP demands.

Hoo boy, this was a rough week for Facebook, and its chief tech bro, Mark Zuckerberg. A lot of great reporting and troubling information has come out about the social media giant’s privacy practices, and how third parties have been able to exploit them in order to collect troves of valuable data about tens of millions of people.

Focus in particular has been on a firm called Cambridge Analytica, a United Kingdom-based outfit — heavily funded by billionaire Trump backer Robert Mercer — that worked to use aggressive bulk data-mining to inform strategy for political campaigns both in the U.S. and elsewhere. (It’s also been described as Steve Bannon’s “psychological warfare” machine by a whistleblower who’s providing a lot of information about the firm’s activities.) Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, who also received the Mercers’ backing in 2016, both retained Cambridge Analytica during the campaign, and Trump ultimately paid $6 million to Cambridge for their services.

Those services, we’ve now learned via the NYT, included obtaining data of 50 million Facebook users — who their friends are and what they “like” —  in order to develop a strategy to hyper-target voters with social ads designed to make Hillary Clinton look bad. (BuzzFeed has a great, in-depth look at some of the ads they produced with that data, and how they targeted them on a granular level to reach exactly the right people.)

This isn’t a “hack”or “data breach.” NYT has a good rundown of how this happened, but in short, a Russian-American academic got access to that trove of Facebook’s personality data and provided it to Cambridge Analytica, something Facebook prohibits. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is reportedly looking into whether Facebook broke a promise it made to get users’ consent before sharing their data with third parties.

Members of Congress want to haul Facebook to the Hill to answer their questions about what’s going on. Zuckerberg, who embarked on a media tour this week to confront the scandal, says he’s open to the idea of testifying before lawmakers — “under the right circumstances,” whatever that means. (Maybe he has a future in politics after all!)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been vocal in calling for Zuckerberg and other top Facebook brass to come to the Hill, and she’s warning that more nefarious social media-related activity may occur in the 2018 election if lawmakers do nothing. “That’s why we want to have this hearing, because these are brilliant companies with brilliant people working at them,” she told CNN. “And we’re tired of hearing, well, hey, it’s the internet and so anything goes.”

Implications in all this for President Trump: a British TV news station’s undercover sting caught Cambridge Analytica’s chief, Alexander Nix, boasting about how they basically ran the entire Trump campaign’s digital and TV media operations and won the election for him. If true, that could run afoul of campaign finance law, per NPR. Special counsel siren: Robert Mueller is reportedly interested in links between Cambridge, the RNC, and the Trump camp.

Big implications, too, for the social media giant, which has already been beset with bad press over how organized brigades of internet trolls have manipulated its platform to spread misinformation and meddle in elections in the U.S.

What now? Paul Ford in Bloomberg has some sharp analysis on why the Facebook scandals show the need for a “digital protection agency.” And as thousands of users delete their accounts, Vox’s Matt Yglesias lays out the sweeping case against Facebook, arguing its harms to society span far beyond the stories we’ve been reading about lately.

At the White House on Thursday, the president announced $50 billion worth of new tariffs on goods imported into the U.S. from China, just as his steel and aluminum tariffs announced earlier this month are set to take effect.

The move is specifically based on concerns that China has taken advantage of U.S. intellectual property laws and is putting American companies at a competitive disadvantage. But the antipathy toward China and its trade practices is no secret at this White House, so the move is hardly shocking.

Free traders and the business world, concerned about a possible trade war, remain concerned, though it’s unclear how China might respond. In a timely move, the White House also announced on Thursday it’d be exempting allies from the steel and aluminum tariffs, which assuages some fears across the Atlantic.

The War in Iraq began 15 years ago this week. HuffPost has a little look at how opposition to the war built the modern Democratic Party, and how 2020 could be the first election free of Iraq War politics. Also in Middle East wars, on Tuesday, the Senate moved against ending U.S. involvement in a brutal civil war in Yemen, in which the U.S. has backed a Saudi-led coalition.

Relatedly, the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia were in D.C. this week for meetings with the administration. WaPo has a good look at the bromance cultivated between princely presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman, the actual prince of the Kingdom. The two thirty-somethings have developed a friendship and close working relationship over the last year, which Kushner has tried to use to leverage advance his agenda — deeply concerning old diplomatic hands who think the debt-riddled real estate heir is “freelancing” on critical foreign policy issues.

The bromance is at least working out for the crown prince, according to the The Intercept, which reports that the royal, known by his initials “MBS,” bragged to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates that Kushner was in “his pocket,” and that Kushner was using high-level U.S. intelligence to tip him off on who in the Saudi royal family was disloyal to him.

Kushner’s father-in-law did some foreign policy freelancing of his own this week: POTUS called Russian president Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his hard-fought election victory over the weekend, in which Putin secured a sixth term with over 75 percent of the vote, 100 percent of oblasts reporting. Early indicators, per CNN, that there was definitely some Russian meddling in this election.

Trump’s advisers wrote him a memo ahead of his call with Putin, explicitly warning him not to congratulate Putin, WaPo scoops. Whoops! The Putin call was this week’s installment of GOP Senators Are Vaguely Concerned About Some Trump Thing. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, fielding questions as to why POTUS congratulated a leader who won an election whose freedom and fairness was questionable, simply said the U.S. “doesn’t get to dictate how other countries operate.” (In fact, earlier this month, the White House said VP Mike Pence would be giving a big speech in front of Latin American diplomats calling on Venezuela to hold free and fair elections.)

Significant news in the Russia probe: Trump’s leading counsel, John Dowd, announced on Thursday he will step down from his role on the president’s legal team. This comes on the heels of news this week, via WaPo, about broader turmoil within the group of lawyers tasked with defending Trump. POTUS, meanwhile, told reporters he’s willing to testify for the special counsel, as he increasingly goes after him personally.

Relatedly, the NYT’s Trump whisperer, Maggie Haberman, reports that POTUS is more confident than ever, is dismissing the advice of his top aides, and is feeling emboldened to really cut loose and say how he feels. Can’t wait to see this guy lighten up after a boring, buttoned-down first year!

In one respect, the White House might need to tighten up a bit: regular readers of official White House communiqués know that memos and transcripts from the administration are often riddled with misspellings of names, misidentifying titles, and other embarrassing stuff. (Last week, the White House titled a memo on the “situation in Venezuela” as one on “the situation in America.”) WaPo’s David Nakamura has the deep dive on Trump typos, if you’re inclined to respond to this metaphor alert.

Finally, a 2020 note, because we can’t just focus on one election here: in the past week or in coming weeks, President Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former VP Joe Biden, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake will all have stepped foot in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary. WaPo with the curtain-raiser on an election two years away.

This week’s essential reads

Republicans are setting a brisk pace for fundraising ahead of the 2018 midterms: the NRCC, the GOP’s House arm, has already raised close to $100 million to ward off Democrats’ efforts to retake Congress. This week, Politico has a look at an Illinois mega-donor, a power player in Midwest politics, who is now playing a leading, national role in bankrolling conservative candidates and causes. Maggie Severns with the story:

The Uihleins have long been a reliable source of midrange campaign checks but hadn’t invested much in candidates outside Illinois and Wisconsin prior to the 2016 presidential election. Over the past year, they’ve shifted into a higher gear, according to operatives who have regularly courted the family for money over the years. “There is a sense,” said one Republican operative familiar with Uihlein’s past support of candidates, “that he’s wanting to leave a mark.”

Uihlein is filling a void created by the demise of Steve Bannon, whose GOP revolution — with Republican megadonor Robert Mercer as his supposed benefactor — was derailed when he became a party pariah. While Mercer and other big donors like Sheldon Adelson have so far been circumspect with their money this year, Uihlein has begun to shape Republicans’ efforts back in the Senate.

“Here is a passionate social and economic conservative who is willing to spend a large sum of money wherever he can in hopes of moving the needle, knowing he’s going to lose a lot of bets,” said an Illinois Republican with knowledge of Uihlein’s political giving. “He’s not measuring himself by wins and losses — he’s measuring himself by moving the debate.”

When you flip on CNN or MSNBC, you’re likely to see a panel of talking heads giving off-the-cuff comments on breaking news. It’s probably a mix of actual news reporters and members of the perma-pundit class, like former elected officials and party operatives. The ubiquity of the mixed-panel format to discuss breaking news is a dominant feature of the cable news landscape. WaPo’s Paul Farhi explains why that has troubling consequences for the business of news, and the way people consume news:

From early in its history, cable news found the panel format — featuring people from different perspectives and disciplines — to be a lively (and cost-efficient) way to deliver opinions on current events. The discussions can be enervating, enlightening or infuriating, depending on who is on which side of the food fight.

But, as the Korean news demonstrated, it’s often hard to tell the reporters from the opinion slingers, especially when the panels bleed into the delivery of the news itself. …

But the business model of 24-hour cable news may have made the coexistence and commingling of reporting and opinion a near certainty. Covering the news requires sending reporters, producers, editors and video journalists to wherever the news is happening. It’s expensive and inconvenient. Talk, on the other hand, is literally cheap. Round up a few semi-knowledgeable and telegenic types, array them around the desk, and off you go.

Congress and the White House have talked a big game about countering the opioid epidemic that has devastated communities around the country. Lawmakers on both sides have worked to increase funding and pass legislation aimed at solving the problem. But do Washington’s highly-touted measures line up with what public health experts think we need to do to battle the opioid crisis? Not really, Vox’s German Lopez reports:

The bills, based on what experts have told me, seem to be generally positive — taking a mostly public health approach to addressing the opioid crisis. They’re very varied: Some aim to improve access to treatment, including highly effective medications for opioid addiction such as methadone and buprenorphine. Others push federal agencies to better regulate opioid painkillers and seek out non-opioid alternatives to pain treatment. Several try to improve education and awareness of opioid-related problems. (You can see a full list of the House bills here.)

But while there are quite a few bills in play, advocates and experts aren’t convinced this is good enough. It’s not that the bills are bad; it’s that they take a scattershot approach that nibbles at the issue around the margins — and misses problems that a more comprehensive strategy or package of bills could fully address.

“Many of these policies seem to be tinkering around the edges,” Dr. Leana Wen, the health commissioner of Baltimore, told me. “It’s not that they’re not helpful in some way,” she added. But what officials on the ground feel that they need is “sustained, specific funding” and bolder, more sweeping guidance that will help build up long-term solutions.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

The Trump name is emblazoned on hotels, casinos, spas, and golf clubs around the world, on properties owned by the first family as well as those owned by people who pay to license a name that, in some places, connotes wealth, luxury, and sophistication.

These days, however, the Trump name connotes a whole lot more than that, and the president’s name-branded properties, from Washington, D.C., to Vancouver, have become sites of protest, scrutiny, and, occasionally, embarrassment for communities that don’t want to be associated with this president of the United States.

Jason Wilson, a travel writer for the Washington Post, went on a journey to five Trump properties in four countries around the world, to explore in greater depth exactly what these weird places say about Donald Trump, and what he’s doing to the rest of us — and to the future of the U.S. and the world. The result of that voyage is a compulsively readable travelogue (that also has some great graphics and illustrations!)

Back in my room, still hungry, I open a container of honey roasted peanuts ($8) and a Mexican beer ($11) from the minibar, flip on CNN and lie on the bed watching reports on the first indictments in the Mueller investigation. As a jaded travel writer, someone who has stayed in many soulless hotels and eaten in many overpriced restaurants in many disappointing places, I’m completely at ease with a certain exquisite idleness and ennui. But there’s something profoundly unsettling about the sort of boredom that I’ve been feeling in the Trump properties over the past many weeks.

To be clear, none of my experience has been terrible, and some of it has been pleasant. Mostly, though, I’ve been overwhelmed by a relentless, insistent, in-your-face mediocrity: the scolding “Notice to Guests” in my room at the Trump MacLeod House & Lodge in Scotland, warning that I will be charged punitively if I take the lint brush, shoehorn, coasters or other Trump-branded amenities; the strange card displayed in my room at the Albemarle Estate in Charlottesville explaining that “Countryside stink bugs” will “occasionally be found” inside and the jar of stale chocolate chip cookies I’m told was the only food available later at night; the eerie near-emptiness and peeling paint of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Panama, touted as the tallest building in Central America. And it’s this mediocrity that’s the most disquieting.

I think about the woman earlier this evening who screamed from her SUV, yelling at those of us who happened to be standing in front of the silent, cold, glistening tower. It was a little over-the-top. I suspect that this type of white-hot outrage and hysteria will eventually cool. I also suspect that the era of Trump will pass soon enough. When that happens, what terrifies me is not that Trump’s presidency will have ended up as an exploding, burning disaster — but rather that it will have become something dangerously lukewarm, seeping into our identity. Kind of like that black truffle siu mai with the quail egg inside, served room temperature, with the soft yolk that threatens to ooze down the shirt of the person who ordered it.

What to look for next week

Barring a Trump veto of the omnibus, Congress will be out of session for two weeks for its Easter Recess. The next scheduled day of congressional business after this Friday is Monday, April 9. 

Closer on the calendar, and closer to home: on Wednesday, VP Mike Pence will be in Minneapolis, raising money for his super PAC. Pence is positioning himself as a key GOP surrogate ahead of the midterms, and a big-time campaign cash rainmaker. A joint PAC he operates with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has raised millions, and doled out five-figure contributions to vulnerable House members. Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen both netted $56,000 from the Pence/McCarthy PAC. There are hopes in GOP circles that the veep could make targeted stops in one or more of Minnesota’s four hotly-contested U.S. House races.

That’s all for this week — thanks for sticking around. Email me with your comments, bad takes, etc. at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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