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This week in Washington, the President continued his staff shake-up and says he’s close to getting the administration he wants. See who survived and who was voted off the island in this week’s episode of The President!
This week in Washington
Greetings from Washington, where Congress is in the middle of its two-week Easter recess. It’s quiet up on Capitol Hill, but there’s some movement down the street at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which has generated pretty much all of D.C.’s news this week.
The staff shakeup at the White House is relentless: last Friday, President Donald Trump fired his top national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. That POTUS fired the Army general was no surprise, as McMaster had seemingly rotated between “on the chopping block” and having the “full confidence of the president” for months.
The bigger surprise is who Trump replaced him with: John Bolton, who briefly served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, and has most recently been spending a lot of time at conservative think tanks and Fox News.
In Washington, Bolton is known as much for his signature mustache as he is for his extremely hawkish foreign policy views. There’s probably no prominent Republican who’s beat the drum for U.S. military action around the world as loudly, and for as long, as Bolton: he was a leading cheerleader for the U.S. war in Iraq, has called for U.S. military strikes on Iran and North Korea, and suggested the U.S. could assist in regime change in Venezuela, by force.
Thanks to Bolton’s hard-line views — and an aggressive, confrontational style that’s seemed to rub literally the entire world the wrong way — the GOP-held U.S. Senate didn’t confirm him for U.N. ambassador in 2005. (Bush ultimately elevated him to the post during a recess appointment.) Bolton would have a tough climb getting confirmed in this Senate, but the position of national security adviser does not require confirmation. He’s in, and Trump is reportedly ecstatic to have the guy on board.
So what does Bolton’s appointment mean for the Trump presidency and its foreign policy? Liberals and conservatives alike fear his ascendance could lead to war. (The New York Times editorial board: Bolton “really is that dangerous.”) Politico reports that under Bolton, and the stridently conservative nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Trump could become even more hostile to the Muslim world.
On Russia, an interesting wrinkle: Bolton has said the regime of Vladimir Putin is part of a new “axis of evil” and has called for a “disproportionate” response to Russian election meddling. At the same time, Bolton appeared in a video promoting gun rights in Russia, and has links to a Russian banker under FBI investigation.
On Wednesday, POTUS also finally gave the axe, via Twitter, to David Shulkin, who headed up the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Shulkin, the lone holdover from the Barack Obama administration, had come under fire for charging taxpayers for trips with his wife to Europe.
In a move that is raising eyebrows, Trump nominated to head the VA his personal doctor, Ronny Jackson, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who also treated presidents Obama and Bush. Jackson is a respected guy and well-credentialed doctor, but doesn’t have any experience in management. That’s tough, because the VA is about as big a bureaucratic challenge there is in the federal government: the department has a $182 billion budget, employs 360,000 people and runs 145 hospitals where it treats seven million people a year.
Politico reports that there’s some serious concern among vets’ groups, and even some Republicans, that Jackson isn’t up to the task. DFL Rep. Tim Walz, ranking Dem on the House vets’ panel, says he “doesn’t know a lot” about Jackson but quickly added he has “a lot of work to do.”
On the heels of an ignominious departure, Shulkin published an op-ed in the NYT, blasting his political enemies in the administration who he claims saw him as an obstacle to privatization of the VA. (It includes no real response to the 10-day jaunt with his wife to Europe paid with $122,000 of taxpayer money. Huh!)
Trump’s nomination of Jackson takes off the table what may have been Minnesota’s best chance at sending one of its own to the Trump cabinet: rumor circulated that POTUS wanted to appoint Pete Hegseth, the vet and Fox News personality, to the VA post.
But Hegseth had a bit of a rough week: MPR’s Tom Scheck has a damning investigation into the Trump favorite, finding that Hegseth, a family-values conservative, carried out extramarital affairs and gave his brother with no experience running non-profits a six-figure salary at the vets’ nonprofit he ran.
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where secretary Dr. Ben Carson has been under fire for approving a $31,000 furniture set for his office, three top aides have been ousted. Carson’s response to TableGate continues to be a PR disaster: he said he’d take “full responsibility” for authorizing the purchase, but also said he left the decision to his wife, Candy. Carson is the latest Cabinet secretary to be the focus of the interminable game of “will Trump fire this person.”
Aside: CNN has a report on the unusually prominent role the spouses of Cabinet secretaries are playing in this administration.
Finally, Interior boss Ryan Zinke is facing criticism this week after CNN reported that he has repeatedly said that “diversity” doesn’t matter at his department. (At a hearing last week, Zinke greeted a Japanese-American congresswoman with “konichiwa.”) Dems want an investigation into whether Zinke violated anti-discrimination laws when he presided over a shakeup of Interior staff.
A few very consequential decisions out of the administration this week. With the 2020 Census coming up, the Department of Commerce, which is saddled with the big counting task, plans to include a question on the census form about U.S. citizenship. This is a huge deal: many people, particularly on the left, are concerned that the question will discourage immigrants from participating in the census, leading to an under-counting of people.
The census, which tallies everyone in the U.S. regardless of citizenship status, is used to determine congressional representation and the level of funding that places get, so the move could diminish the political influence and quality of services in places with a lot of immigrants.
CNN breaks down how congressional representation could be affected. A look from Texas, home to many immigrants, on what the consequences might be. A group of states immediately moved to sue the administration over the change.
Trump also moved to terminate temporary legal status for immigrants from Liberia. The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations granted this status for Liberians fleeing conflict and disease in the west African country. The White House now believes that status is no longer necessary, and announced this week that the 4,000 Liberians with this designation will have a year to pack up and leave the U.S.
There is a sizeable Liberian community in the Twin Cities, and they strongly protested the move. Sen. Tina Smith said the move will “rip families apart.” GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen cast the Trump move as a “reprieve” — Liberians were facing deportation at the end of the month — but said “there’s still more work to do.”
A bit of D.C. came to Minnesota this week: Vice President Mike Pence stopped in Minneapolis for a rally and to raise money for his super PAC and for Minnesota’s GOP congressmen.
Pence feted each of them, saying that Rep. Jason Lewis stood with Trump “from the very start” and that Rep. Tom Emmer is “a fighter who’s working every day for Minnesota miners.” Very on-brand, but the veep’s remarks on Paulsen caught my eye: he said the 3rd District congressman has been working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Trump.
To be sure, Paulsen has backed the White House’s two biggest pushes, the repeal and replace of Obamacare and the tax cut bill. But I’m not so sure “shoulder-to-shoulder’ best describes the congressman’s relationship with POTUS, as Paulsen prefers to avoid talking about the president whenever possible.
Paulsen’s district preferred Hillary Clinton to Trump in 2016 by a nine-point margin. Expect to hear Pence’s comments on loop in attack ads this fall as Democrats try to unseat Paulsen.
You probably saw the Stormy Daniels interview on 60 Minutes or at least heard about it somewhere, so I’m gonna leave that one be. But it’s worth reading the NYT if there are any political implications for Trump in all this as he gears up for re-election. The Gray Lady also has an excellent profile of Daniels, who’s emerging as quite the savvy operator and strategist in all this.
Last week’s memo included some details about how the process for the Farm Bill — the nearly $1 trillion bill that sets priorities for nutrition and agriculture over five years — is not doing so hot. Republicans and Democrats on the House ag committee still aren’t talking to each other because the GOP is pushing big changes to SNAP, a.k.a. the food stamp program. I have an in-depth story this week diving into the stalemate and what it all means.
Finally, it looks like April 12 is the big day in D.C. for Mark Zuckerberg, who will testify before Congress to answer questions about Facebook’s data and privacy practices, and how the firm Cambridge Analytica took advantage of them to get access to 50 million people’s personal data in order to help Trump win.
Could be a rough go of it for Zuck. Coincidentally, Facebook is hiring for a dozen spots in its D.C. lobbying shop! They’ve already reached out to your references for you.
This week’s essential reads
It’s a rough time to be an expert in Donald Trump’s Washington. The stable of academics, long-time officials and think-tank types have long had it good in the capital, regularly dispensing the wisdom and insights that filled white papers, journals, and articles. Faced with a POTUS who flouts fact and an era of hyper-partisan media, experts say that experts’ influence is at a low ebb in Washington. WaPo’s Ben Terris:
It’s become one of Trump’s defining characteristics, this disregard for experts. He’s called Labor Department estimates of the unemployment rate “totally fiction,” and pressured the head of the National Park Service to back up his inflated account of his inauguration crowd size. During the campaign he admitted to getting his military advice by “watching the shows.” And now — with various hirings, including the recent addition of cable news personality Larry Kudlow as the director of the National Economic Council, and rumors that he’ll make Fox News’s Pete Hegseth the veterans affairs secretary — the talking heads are trading in the green room for the White House.
To make matters worse, of the 647 key positions in the executive branch that require Senate confirmation, only 293 have been confirmed. The consequences could be dire. Without highly trained people in government, the nation could stumble into a trade war, or perhaps a nuclear one.
Experts are worried. About atomic annihilation, sure. But also about a version of dystopia that is already becoming real to them: a world where no one listens to what they have to say.
For a decade, Congress has required that corn-based ethanol be blended into America’s supply of petroleum at certain levels, a policy called the Renewable Fuel Standard. Heartland lawmakers, like those from Minnesota, love the RFS, but it faces an uncertain future under Trump. The Los Angeles Times dives in and finds that the ethanol program has not worked out as intended, and is riddled with abuse — leading even one-time proponents to ask what the point of the thing is anymore. Evan Halper:
More than a decade after Congress created it at the behest of the corn lobby, the far-reaching mandate to blend increasing volumes of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels into the gas and diesel sold at the pump faces a reckoning.
Influential early allies of the mandate declare it a flop. The billions of gallons of next-generation, climate-friendly fuels the program was supposed to generate aren’t getting made. And the loosely regulated market of biofuel credits that the mandates are built around has become prey for speculators and swindlers.
The Renewable Identification Number credits, or RINs, that refiners must purchase are swinging wildly in price for reasons lawmakers can’t agree on. Half a dozen governors in states with refineries obligated to buy RINs warn that the price volatility puts the facilities at risk of financial collapse — a prospect alarming the White House. The credit-trading market is so murky that regulators are finding it impossible to determine whether there is a price-fixing problem.
“The law hasn’t worked out as we intended,” said Henry A. Waxman, the former Los Angeles congressman who crusaded for its passage a decade ago. “We made a mistake.”
Christopher Steele, the British spy best known for the salacious dossier outlining Trump’s links with the Kremlin (and… other things) has another Russia report worth investigating, BuzzFeed News reports. The death of a one-time Putin ally in Washington, initially reported as an accidental death, almost certainly was not — and it’s possible the Kremlin was behind it. The FBI has had Steele’s report for some time:
Lesin’s corpse was found in a Washington, DC, hotel room on the morning of Nov. 5, 2015. The coroner determined that he had died from blunt force injuries to the head and had also sustained blunt force injuries to his neck, torso, upper extremities, and lower extremities. After an 11-month investigation, a federal prosecutor announced in late 2016 that Lesin died alone in his room due to a series of drunken falls “after days of excessive consumption of alcohol.” His death was ruled an “accident,” with the coroner adding acute alcohol intoxication as a contributing cause of death, and prosecutors closed the case.
But Steele’s report — the existence of which has never before been made public — adds to a mounting body of evidence that casts doubt on the official finding on Lesin’s death. “What I can tell you is that there isn’t a single person inside the bureau who believes this guy got drunk, fell down, and died,” an FBI agent told BuzzFeed News last year. “Everyone thinks he was whacked and that Putin or the Kremlin were behind it.” …
All four of the people who read Steele’s report said it pins Lesin’s murder on a professional relationship gone lethally awry. According to the report, they said, Lesin fell out with a powerful oligarch close to Putin. Wanting to intimidate Lesin, the oligarch then contracted with Russian state security agents to beat up Lesin, the report states, according to three of the sources.
Picture the magazine rack at your local supermarket check-out aisle: tabloids like People, maybe a glossy local mag, and… a sleek spread trumpeting the achievements of the 32-year old crown prince of Saudi Arabia? The arrival of Mohammed bin Salman to the U.S. to meet with top officials is conspicuously timed with the release of a magazine boosting him and Saudi Arabia, distributed by the company that owns Trump’s favorite tabloid, the National Enquirer. The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman with a wild and weird story:
Greeting Americans on newsstands is a high-quality glossy advertisement for MBS, The New Kingdom. It retails for $13.99, has no ads and its 200,000 copies can be found in venues ranging from U.S. airports to WalMart, Safeway and Kroger’s—raising questions about the magazine’s financing and its origins. The Saudis say they don’t know how it came to be. AMI, which publishes The National Enquirer, insists it had no outside editorial or financial assistance, from the Trump administration or otherwise.
The New Kingdom doesn’t feature any salacious gossip about MBS, but its coverage is just as breathless. “Our Closest Middle East Ally Destroying Terrorism,” the cover coos, sidestepping decades of Saudi Arabian financial support for terrorist groups and ideologues. It Disneyfies Saudi Arabia as “the Magic Kingdom.” It’s easily the most uncritical encomium to MBS since Thomas Friedman. …
There are five pictures of Trump – including one of MBS shaking the president’s hand, placed adjacent to one of a beaming MBS greeting Vladimir Putin. Only cover boy MBS, with eleven, has more photos. Here is Trump triumphant in his May visit to Riyadh. Here is Trump, flanked by wife Melania and octogenarian King Salman. Here is Trump in that orb photo. MBS is quoted describing Trump as “a president who will bring America back on the right track.”
The week in takes
NYT’s David Brooks: The Parkland kids are pretentious
Vox’s Anna North: Stormy Daniels makes Trump sound a lot like Harvey Weinstein
Former SCOTUS justice John Paul Stevens: Repeal the 2nd Amendment
Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein: Dems can thank Kirsten Gillibrand, not Al Franken, that Minnesota has a competitive Senate election
The Federalist’s David Marcus: It’s time to teach the Bible in public schools
Your weekend longread
Robert Mercer’s name has been in the news a lot lately: the billionaire software developer and arch-conservative used his fortune to fund Cambridge Analytica, the British firm at the center of Facebook’s privacy and data scandal, and the people who claim they helped deliver the 2016 election to Trump.
Mercer also used his billions to bankroll the Trump campaign and the far-right website, Breitbart. But the eccentric tycoon has also used his money to fund a far more secret project: serving as a volunteer police officer in a small New Mexico town.
Bloomberg’s Zachary Mider, who has reported on the Mercer family for years, has a wild and revealing look at Mercer’s adventures as a part-time cop — and what his zeal for picking up the badge tells us about one of the most influential figures in American politics right now.
If Mercer’s trips to Lake Arthur resembled my recent visit, he might’ve climbed into the passenger seat of Norwood’s police truck, whose black-and-white paint job is fading in the wind-whipped sand. He and Norwood might’ve rolled past the house where someone reported spotting a stolen car—a false alarm, it turns out. While monitoring radio chatter, the plutocrat and the chief might have jawed about the latest news in a town so small it has no stores: the recent pursuit of a motorist across half the county; the record of the high school’s six-man football team; reports of stolen pecans. Pulling up a chair at an Italian restaurant in nearby Hagerman, the chief might’ve urged Mercer to try the lasagna.
For most of the past six years, as Mercer became one of the country’s political kingmakers, he was also periodically policing Lake Arthur, according to the department. If he followed Norwood’s protocols—and Norwood insists no volunteers get special treatment—he would’ve patrolled at least six days a year. He would’ve paid for travel and room and board, and supplied his own body armor and weapon.
Until a few months ago, Mercer, 71, ran what is arguably the world’s most successful hedge fund. He employs a phalanx of servants and bodyguards and owns a 203-foot yacht named Sea Owl. He was the money behind Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, whose fiery populism helped propel Trump to the White House, as well as the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which shaped the campaign’s messages. Shortly after the election, Mercer donned a top hat and welcomed the president-elect to a costume party at his seaside mansion on Long Island. What was a guy like that doing in the desert, wearing a gun and a shiny badge?
What to look for next week
Congress remains off next week for Easter, so expect things to stay at least relatively quiet in D.C. There should be more personnel moves in the White House, where Trump is expected, at some point, to name a new communications director following the resignation of longtime aide Hope Hicks.
Also expect to hear more rumblings with respect to the GOP’s legislative priorities for the rest of the year, now that Congress has secured funding through the end of the fiscal year. Top leaders have floated pursuing an amendment to the Constitution requiring Congress to approve a balanced budget every year — a longtime conservative priority — while legislation making last year’s tax cuts permanent is also on the table. (Never mind that the tax cuts are expected to add $1 trillion or more to the federal debt.)
That’s all from me for this week. To those of you who observe it, I wish you a very happy Opening Day and an enjoyable baseball season, whatever your team may be. I just finished recovering from the 2017 World Series. Hope springs eternal. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.