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D.C. Memo: Rex, Texan ex-Exxon exec, axed

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Tillerson held a sad press conference at the State Department after being laid off.

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This week in Washington, President Donald Trump fired his top diplomat and his body man, and he’s mulling firing his chief of staff, his national security adviser, and a bunch more people who work for him. Fortunately, all White House alums will land on their feet at Trump’s re-election committee, his super PAC, or “Fox & Friends.”

This week in Washington

Two days ago, the president of the United States fired his Secretary of State — arguably the most prestigious and consequential position in the cabinet — via Twitter.

Welcome to another week in Donald Trump’s Washington. It’s curtains for Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who dutifully served a year as Secretary of State before being unceremoniously axed this week. Tillerson and his boss never quite clicked — notably, Tillerson never flat-out denied a report that he called Trump a “moron” — and the past few months have seen speculation that he’d be out imminently.

That moment came this week, as Tillerson was on the heels of a trip to Africa, in which he had to miss some business due to illness. The secretary, who was often at odds with the president on foreign policy, particularly relating to Russia, also remarked on Monday on the need to counter the Kremlin after a former Russian double agent was found poisoned in Britain.

Last week, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly told Tillerson cryptically that there might be a “presidential tweet” concerning him, but didn’t say what it would be or when it would come. On Tuesday morning, said tweet came, and multiple outlets report that POTUS, a man who became famous for the manner in which he fired people, didn’t call up Tillerson before sending it. The White House disputes this version of events, and it fired the State Department spokesman who contradicted them.

Tillerson held a sad press conference at the State Department after being laid off, in which he touted the highlights of his tenure — primarily, getting North Korea to the negotiating table — while urging the U.S. to do more about Russia. He didn’t take a moment to praise Trump, or his policies.

Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reports that the U.S. diplomatic corps, which largely came to loathe Tillerson’s regime of draconian staff and budget cuts, is rejoicing at his departure. (“Liberation” is a word that figures prominently.) The Onion had some fun with this one: “Rex Tillerson Blindsided By News He Still Worked For State Department”

Lined up to replace Tillerson is Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA, and a former congressman from Kansas. Pompeo has established himself as one of Trump’s closest allies in the cabinet, and POTUS is reportedly a big fan of the intel chief’s briefings, which are heavy on the visuals (“killer graphics,” in Pompeo’s lingo) and light on the words.

Pompeo is a West Point and Harvard-educated attorney who chaired the House Intelligence Committee during the 2016 election. Stellar resume, NPR reports, for a guy described as a “smart” and “bombastic” hard-liner on foreign policy issues. As a member of Congress, Pompeo retained deep links with far-right Islamophobic activists, reports the Daily Beast, and Muslim-American activists are dismayed at his elevation to Secretary of State. Politico reports that his promotion means U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal could go the way of Rex Tillerson.

Fourth District DFL Rep. Betty McCollum was out quick with a statement on Tuesday: “I served in the House with Mike Pompeo,” she said, “and I can think of few people more ill-suited to be Secretary of State.” (Splinter News, panning Dems’ “lame” responses to the Pompeo news, gave McCollum’s response an “A” rating.)

Elevating Pompeo to Foggy Bottom means he’ll need to be replaced at Langley. Trump tapped the deputy director of the agency, Gina Haspel, to be the new chief. Haspel would be the first woman to lead the CIA, and she would also be the first woman to lead the CIA who also oversaw a secret torture prison.

According to the landmark torture report produced by a U.S. Senate committee in 2014, Haspel was in charge of a so-called CIA “black site” in Thailand, where one man was subjected to waterboarding 83 times. Those sessions were taped, but Haspel ordered the tapes destroyed. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins has a take on this administration’s embrace and defense of torture.

Trump’s personnel decisions mean the Senate will see two high-profile confirmation hearings in the coming months — and for two positions that have no small amount to do with the ongoing investigation into ties between the Trump camp and Russia.

It’s that angle — plus Pompeo’s outlook on Islam and Haspel’s history at the CIA — that will make those hearings really explosive. When it comes time to vote, watch Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who caught some flack for voting to confirm Pompeo as CIA Director last year. She based that vote on the need to have someone in charge at an agency so central to U.S. national security. A year later, will she use the same rationale for Pompeo at the State Department? 

In other comings and goings at the White House, Trump’s body man, John McEntee, was abruptly fired and escorted off the White House premises on Monday before he could even grab his jacket. The 27 year-old aide, a constant presence at POTUS’ side, was fired due to “unspecified security issues,” reports the WSJ. NBC News reports he is under investigation for “serious financial crimes.” Thankfully, the dude will land on his feet: he’s already been given a job at the president’s reelection campaign.

POTUS will name Larry Kudlow, the CNBC TV personality, as his top economic adviser, replacing Gary Cohn, who left the administration last week. Whereas Cohn was a Democrat, Kudlow is a dedicated supply-sider who served in the Reagan administration. (Like Cohn, he has deep Wall Street experience: Kudlow once worked at investment giant Bear Stearns.)

Kudlow brings to the White House a less than stellar ability to anticipate events in the economy, which will surely be useful in the position. In December 2007, he crowed that the economy was stronger than ever, and mocked chicken little “pessimistas” who warned that a recession and housing crash was around the corner. (Spoiler: It was!)

Possibly even more firings and hirings on the way in the administration, as POTUS mulls a broader shake-up of his administration just over a year into his first term, reports Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman.

On Tuesday, voters in western Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District went to the polls in a special election, and they delivered a big upset: Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off a very narrow and very stunning victory over Republican Rick Saccone in a district that went for Trump by 19 points. Currently, Lamb holds a roughly 600 vote lead over Saccone — a difference of about 0.2 percent, which the NYT claims Saccone can’t make up based on the number of absentee ballots yet to be counted.

A recount is not automatically initiated under Pennsylvania law, but as of this afternoon, Saccone hasn’t conceded, so expect some kind of challenge. In a fun twist, thanks to court-ordered redistricting, PA-18 won’t exist in November as presently constructed. Both Lamb and Saccone could file to run in other districts before the outcome for this one is official.

It’s important not to read too much into special elections, but the PA-18 result, no matter who ultimately wins, actually is a big deal. Saccone was maligned as a candidate (by his own party) but was basically a generic Republican in a district that’s supposed to favor them by double digits. He ran on the GOP tax cut bill, which is meant to be the party’s main talking point on the campaign trail this fall. And he ran on backing Trump, who is nationally unpopular, but is supposed to be a boost in a place like this.

If a Democrat can basically tie a Republican in a district like PA-18 — after GOP-allied groups dumped $7 million into the race — there’s just no spinning your way out of this election being an abysmal sign for the GOP’s chances in November. (Though some Trump allies have tried!)

Smart Republicans are publicly and privately saying that there’s a blue wave coming, and that it has a whole lot to do with Trump. Links to consider: prognosticator types like Josh Kraushaar say Democrats are now “solid favorites” to retake the House. The data-dorks at FiveThirtyEight say the results are just another confirmation that Republicans are in deep trouble. The BBC has a clear, concise rundown of takeaways from the race.

On to the important angle: what does it mean for Minnesota? Minnesota’s three Republican-held House districts — the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th — all lean about as or less Republican than PA-18, per the Partisan Voter Index calculated by the Cook Report. The 6th is the most conservative, with an R+12 rating, just a hair above PA-18’s R+11 rating.

Don’t expect Rep. Tom Emmer, the incumbent in CD6, to be in Dems’ crosshairs anytime soon. There are over 100 Republican-held districts less red than PA-18, and Democrats need to win 23 of them to take back the House. The 2nd, repped by Rep. Jason Lewis, has a R+2 rating, while the 3rd, held by Rep. Erik Paulsen, actually leans Democratic by one point.

Both of those Republicans are top targets for Dems, and Tuesday’s result is another data point that both Paulsen and Lewis are in for very tough fights this November: if Democrats can take a +19 Trump district, they certainly have a good shot in a place like the 3rd, which went for Hillary Clinton by nine.

POTUS hit the pavement this week, traveling to my home state of California, which he hates, to inspect prototypes of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which he loves. During his visit Tuesday, he insulted California Gov. Jerry Brown and said California was an “out of control” haven for criminal immigrants. Come back soon!

Trump also visited St. Louis, where he touted the GOP tax plan at a factory for aerospace giant Boeing. NYT with some good reporting on the irony of that choice: while corporate America loves Trump’s tax cuts, the president’s steel tariffs could make Boeing very vulnerable. China and other countries are poised target its planes as a retaliatory action against the U.S. tariffs. Trump followed that visit with a fundraiser for a Missouri U.S. Senate candidate, during which he made some truly puzzling remarks — like a claim that he made up facts during a discussion on trade with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.

Hmm: the White House on Thursday placed sanctions on 19 Russians accused of meddling in the 2016 election, the most aggressive move this administration has made to date regarding Russia’s activity. Hmmmmmer: special counsel Robert Mueller has ordered the Trump Organization, the president's family business, to turn over documents to his team, reports the NYT

Finally, in the Senate on Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans joined together to pass legislation rolling back parts of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform package — a win for bipartisanship, and also the financial industry. I wrote on Monday about this, if you want more details.

This week’s essential reads

Bet you didn’t know it’s Sunshine Week — the annual occasion to celebrate and advance values of transparency in government — and what better way to commemorate that by checking in on the Trump administration and seeing how well it’s complying with public records laws! The Associated Press finds that the federal government is sharing less information with the public — and spending more money to keep it secret — than at any point in the last decade. AP:

People who asked for records under the Freedom of Information Act received censored files or nothing in 78 percent of 823,222 requests, a record over the past decade. When it provided no records, the government said it could find no information related to the request in a little over half those cases. It turned over everything requested in roughly one of every five FOIA requests, according to the AP analysis.

Records requests can take months — even years — to get fulfilled. Even then, the government censored documents in nearly two-thirds of cases when it turned over anything.

The federal government also spent $40.6 million last year in legal fees defending its decisions to withhold federal files, also a record. That included the time when a U.S. judge ruled against the AP and other news organizations asking for details about who and how much the FBI paid to unlock the iPhone used by a gunman in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. … The Trump administration, in a new report last week, noted that it received a record number of information requests last year. It said many agencies reduced their backlogs of overdue requests.

This week, Trump visited California for the first time in office — the most delayed visit to the country’s best and most populous state by a president since FDR. He took the opportunity to slam the state and its leaders during his brief visit. That’s not a coincidence: from its overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton to its slate of elected officials determined to stymie the administration at every turn, the Golden State has proven a bête noire for Trump. The Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman explores the rough relationship:

As a candidate, Trump used to boast he could become the first Republican to win the state, and its 55 electoral votes, in nearly three decades. Instead, Hillary Clinton won California by 4.3 million votes, more than accounting for her nearly 3-million advantage in the popular vote nationwide. California's result became the basis for Trump's false claim that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Clinton.

His resentment toward California extends beyond the election, however. The Golden State is the seat of an entertainment industry that dismissed him as a reality television creation, the home of a business culture where his real estate dreams were stymied and, now, the headquarters of a resistance movement that has tried to cast a cloud over his legitimacy as president.

Trump has at times tried to comfort himself with the notion that the state's protesters and its courts, which have ruled against him on significant immigration issues, stand apart from other Americans and other judges. …  “California in many ways is out of control, as you know,” he said during an interview last year with Fox News.

In the wide universe of Trump family conflict-of-interest stories, that of Ivanka Trump is among the most interesting. Though her father has officially stepped down (but not entirely divested) from his company, the Trump Organization, the first daughter has not divested from the family business and retains a role there, profiting from it even as she holds an official White House role and the connections that come with it. McClatchy’s Anita Kumar:

Much has been written about problems caused by Ivanka Trump’s brand of clothes, handbags and shoes, which are primarily made overseas by low-wage laborers, but little attention has been paid to trouble caused by her continued relationship with the Trump Organization, the sprawling family real estate empire now run by two of her brothers.

And her troubles go way beyond criticism that she is profiting off her father’s presidency. Trump, who just returned from a trip representing the United States in South Korea, faces serious questions as a result of her decision to be involved in both the family business and the White House: Is a foreign government gaining access to her through the business? Are business deals a factor in U.S. foreign policy? Are foreign governments able to build goodwill with her because of the company? …

The Trump Organization argues that it doesn’t hire companies or benefit from governments because it generally does not own the overseas developments but rather earns money by licensing its name and managing the properties. But company officials, including Ivanka Trump and her brothers, have taken great interest in the projects, meeting with developers and walking the sites to check on progress.

Remember how Trump was supposed to be crazy and unconventional enough to be the U.S. president to finally broker peace between Israel and Palestine? How’s that whole thing going? Well, the long-awaited Trump Mideast Peace Plan is here — and it’s probably not going to go anywhere. The NYT’s Mark Landler has an overview of the documented, the crowning achievement of a certain presidential son-in-law:

While officials declined to discuss the plan’s content, in keeping with the veil of secrecy they have kept over it since Mr. Trump took office, they said it would not have a set of guiding principles, like the Arab Peace Initiative, first endorsed by the Arab League in 2002, which sketched out the broad contours of an accord and left the details for the two sides to fill in.

For example, the plan will not call for a two-state solution as one of its goals, though it will prescribe pathways for the creation of two states. Nor will it call for a “fair and just solution” for Palestinian refugees, though it will offer steps to deal with the issue of refugees.

Mr. Trump’s aides described a multipage document, with annexes, that proposes solutions to all the key disputes: borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. They predicted that the Israelis and the Palestinians would each find things in the plan to embrace and oppose. In delving into the fine details, the White House is turning the traditional formula for peacemaking on its head.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

President Trump might not have a lot of confidence in his Cabinet these days. But a notable exception would be Scott Pruitt, the arch-conservative lawyer he tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

A year into the job, Pruitt — a climate change skeptic and oil industry ally in charge of crafting U.S. policy on the environment — has been Trump’s attack dog, overseeing a sweeping rollback of regulations on the environment as he loyally defends his agency and his boss from Democrats, the press, public interest watchdogs, and the rest of the world.

Mother Jones’ Rebecca Leber, who spent the last year covering Pruitt, has a worthwhile big-picture dive into the incredible, shrinking EPA — and into the ballooning ambitions of Pruitt.

Pruitt’s quieter style masks the extent to which his approach to governing is the practical implementation of the president’s wrecking-ball rhetoric. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to “get rid” of the EPA “in almost every form.” In just his first year in office, Pruitt has already made stunning strides in that direction. He’s dismantling the Obama administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan, which imposed greenhouse gas limits on fossil-fuel-fired power plants. He has slashed enforcement efforts against polluters and tried to repeal rules meant to safeguard drinking-water supplies. He has threatened to roll back fuel economy standards. He’s moved to weaken new rules for smog, coal ash, and mercury pollution, poorly enforced a new toxic-chemical law, and refused to ban the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos. He’s taken aim at dozens of lesser-known rules covering everything from safety requirements for replacing asbestos to emergency response plans in hazardous chemical facilities.

In the process, Pruitt has driven away hundreds of experienced EPA staffers and scientists while putting old friends and industry reps in charge of key environmental decisions—a troubling trend that has led former EPA administrators from both parties to warn that he is doing irreversible damage to the agency.

For the president, Pruitt has become a trusted partner. “We’ve been through our battles, Scott,” Trump said a few weeks after sharing his Rose Garden podium with Pruitt as they announced plans to withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris climate agreement. “Not with each other, with the world.” …

For those of us who cover the EPA, Pruitt’s profound impact on policy has been hard to miss. What’s tougher to see, behind the secrecy and paranoia, is how his new job has advanced his own future plans.

What to look for next week

The thing I always used to write in this space — government funding runs out next week — is finally true again! Government funding does run out next week, folks. (Breathe it in. Acknowledge it. Live it.)

March 23 is the deadline. Lawmakers are expected not to pass another stopgap continuing resolution, but to advance an omnibus bill — which lumps together various categories of government spending into one piece of legislation — to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year.

Votes will happen next week. Shenanigans are possible: POTUS floated a so called “three for three” deal this week, which does not get you three crispy fish sandwiches for $3, but rather three years of funding for the border wall and a three-year renewal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. This pared-down compromise deflated quickly on Wednesday, as most Republicans aren’t interested in such a trade-off. A lot of Democrats aren’t, either, now that a recent Supreme Court decision has effectively put a stay on DACA through next year.

Beyond that, the White House is expected to roll out a comprehensive plan for tackling the opioid crisis, perhaps as soon as Monday. Politico reports that the plan calls for convicted drug dealers to be put to death. (In recent weeks, Trump has expressed admiration for countries like Singapore, where some drug offenses are punished by hanging.)

That, mercifully, is all the news for this week. Best of luck to your brackets and teams on this holy day of March Madness — especially the 16-seed Quakers of the University of Pennsylvania, the august alma mater that both President Trump and I share. As usual, get at me at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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