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D.C. Memo: Trump Cabinet scandal spinner lands on Ben Carson this week

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A HUD spokesman said that HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson didn’t know about $31,000 dining set that was ordered for his office.

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This week in Washington, the president stunned Democrats and Republicans alike by saying the government should just take people’s guns first and ask questions later, putting himself starkly at odds with the president, who said last week that Democrats wanted to take away people’s guns.

This week in Washington

As victims of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida returned to class this week, guns continued to dominate the dialogue in Washington. But it’s not clear yet what, if anything, anyone will do about it.

Congress could move forward on several narrow gun measures, including one to improve how information is submitted to the background check system. A ban on so-called “bump stocks,” devices that increase the firing capability of firearms, also has support from both Republicans and Democrats.

But President Donald Trump wants a “beautiful” bill on guns, and he wants it pronto: On Wednesday, he hosted a group of 17 congressional Democrats and Republicans, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, at the White House on Wednesday for a guns roundtable that ended up being totally unpredictable, surprising and sort of unbelievable.

At various points, the president needled Republicans for being scared of the NRA, endorsed ideas pushed by Klobuchar and other Dems, and reprimanded Republicans for linking background check legislation with a bill to dramatically expand concealed-carry right, saying the two will “never pass” together. The money quote: POTUS uttered the words, “take the guns first, go through due process second,” when talking about what law enforcement officials should do regarding potentially dangerous people who have guns.

The visuals: an ashen-faced Texas Sen. John Cornyn and a somber Vice President Mike Pence took in this spectacle as Klobuchar flashed a sly smile and Sen. Dianne Feinstein could barely contain her excitement as Trump seemed to come to Jesus on guns.

This was a, uh, far cry from last week, in which Trump warned conservative activists that Democrats wanted to take away their guns. After the meeting, the NRA huffed that the spectacle was “great TV” but bad policy.

Before you get too excited (or despairing) recall that the last “free-wheeling” White House exchange that delighted Democrats — in which Trump proclaimed he’d “sign anything” Congress passed on DACA — resulted in nothing, and Trump said the shithole thing, like, two days after talking about a “bill of love.”

The NYT’s Carl Hulse has some good reading to help you sort through Wednesday’s mess. Other odds and ends on guns: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Dems’ campaign arm, told candidates not to mention any gun policy the day of a mass shooting, and instead send messages of thoughts, prayers, and thanks to first responders. That memo was leaked on Tuesday to two left-leaning outlets. Here’s HuffPost’s story. (It’s almost as if progressives are disgruntled and unhappy with the leadership of establishment Democrats!)

Worth checking out is the New York Times’ podcast, The Daily, which dove into Rep. Tim Walz and his “evolution” on guns in its Wednesday episode. NYT reporter Jonathan Martin poses the big question for the MN gov race: “Has Walz created new difficulties in the general election by shedding his ties to the NRA, losing the asset he had among rural Democrats?” (Martin’s full piece in the NYT is here.)

On immigration, important movement via non-movement this week: the U.S. Supreme Court will not hear a case on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that allowed 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S., until Trump terminated it last year.

With DACA set to expire next week, the SCOTUS decision effectively leaves DACA in place until an appeals court hears a case on the program — a win for the Dreamers, who are now spared imminent deportation. With Congress still at loggerheads on immigration issues and unable to provide a long-term fix for DACA, the fate of the Dreamers is tied up in court, and it’s possible it will take a year for the high court to issue a final ruling.

As Politico explains, with the March 5 end-date for DACA effectively off the table, Congress is unlikely to do anything on immigration. Relatedly, Rep. Keith Ellison during a congressional hearing questioned the Federal Reserve’s new chairman, Jerome Powell, over any negative effects to the economy that could result from mass deportations.

More SCOTUS this week: justices heard a case, Janus v. AFSCME, that could have sweeping impacts on organized labor. The conservatives on the court are poised to rule that public employee unions cannot require non-members to pay fees for the collective bargaining services the unions offer — a decision that would deal an immense blow to the power and influence of public sector unions.

You can read my story from Tuesday on what the case means for Minnesota. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has a strong take here, arguing that the Janus case is exactly what conservatives had hoped for when they moved to block Merrick GarlandPresident Barack Obama’s nominee for the court, in hopes a GOP president would appoint a conservative to the bench. And NYT has a look at the wealthy conservative donors behind the anti-union side of the case.

On Wednesday, the court heard the case of Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, which challenges a Minnesota law that prohibits political apparel from being worn at polling places. SCOTUSBlog has a round-up here of oral arguments, which saw the justices depart from their usual ideological camps in this case, which lacks any clear partisan bent.

A Russia update: apparently, special counsel Robert Mueller is asking what Trump may have known about the hacking of emails at the Democratic National Committee before it was made public — and if he had anything to do with how those emails were released. Meanwhile, Admiral Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, testified that he has not received any orders from the president to go after Russian efforts to disrupt U.S. elections.

WaPo scoops that Mueller is also interested in where Trump was at last summer, when he was itching to push Attorney General Jeff Sessions from his job. The AG continues to be Washington’s biggest sadboy: POTUS apparently calls the diminutive southerner “Mr. Magoo” behind his back.

White House communications director Hope Hicks, who has been with Trump since her job was to run PR for Melania Trump's fashion line, will step down from the post. The announcement came after Hicks spent nine hours in front of a congressional panel on Wednesday, and testified that she has told “white lies” for the president. Hicks’ replacement will be the fifth (!) White House communications director so far in the Trump presidency. (Obama had five communications directors — over the course of his eight years in the White House.)

Over at the Oval Office, Trump reportedly had a very testy phone call with his erstwhile amigo, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. A conversation intended to lay the groundwork for a planned visit by the Mexican leader to Washington quickly devolved into an argument over the wall, CNN reports, and it got so bad that Peña Nieto called off the visit altogether.

WaPo reports that trade hawks are ascendant at the White House: Trump is moving to promote Peter Navarro, an anti-China zealot, and give him greater influence on trade agreements with a number of countries, including Mexico and Canada. Third District GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, a loyal free-trader in the classic GOP mold, was at the White House on Tuesday to talk with the president on trade issues, along with two dozen other House Republicans. Paulsen’s office didn’t respond to a question from me about the meeting, nor did the congressman say anything about it on social media.

In really puzzling trade news, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is floating the idea that the U.S. could rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Asia-Pacific trade deal that Trump repeatedly panned as a candidate, and took great pleasure in removing the U.S. from when president.

Elsewhere in Trump-world and world politics, WaPo with a big scoop this week: officials in four countries have looked into exploiting the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose family real estate business holds substantial debt, and who sought out numerous foreign contacts himself. Kushner’s vulnerability is a big part of why he was officially denied a top-level security clearance this week, which will make the whole peace in the Middle East thing a bit harder for him to check off his to-do list.

Adding to Kushner’s already substantial liabilities, NYT reports that his family real estate business got nine-figure loans from financial institutions whose representatives had met with Kushner at the White House.

Meanwhile, the Trump Organization — now run by the president’s own flesh-and-blood Large Adult Sons — tried to head off some pretty big ethical questions this week. The Trump family biz now says it will donate to charity any profits reaped by “foreign patronage” to their properties, like the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Foreign interests have conspicuously brought their business to that hotel to try to curry favor with POTUS, raising some serious ethical flags. WaPo’s James Farenthold, who won a pulitzer for his reporting on the Trump philanthropy beat, digs in.

The Boston Globe, meanwhile, has a good story looking at how Republican Party organizations have made use of the president’s various businesses and properties for fundraising and other political purposes.

Finally, in the administration, Dr. Ben Carson — who is still around and inexplicably secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development — is running a tight ship: someone in his department apparently authorized an expenditure of $31,000, roughly the annual income of the average American, for a new dining set as the White House mulls deep cuts to housing assistance and other HUD programs.

A HUD spokesman, reports the NYT, said that Carson didn’t know about the expense, but said it wasn’t that costly. “In general, the secretary does want to be as fiscally prudent as possible with the taxpayers’ money.” On Thursday, in an attempt to… table the discussion, Carson’s personal assistant said the secretary will return the dining set.

The week’s essential reads

Faulty products — from IKEA dressers to toys and strollers — seemingly get recalled all the time when their benign functions unexpectedly turn threatening. Guns, on the other hand, have an explicitly threatening function — yet, firearms have proven stubbornly resistant to recall attempts, even as people routinely die when they malfunction. Through the case of a Georgia man killed by a misfiring pistol, Bloomberg investigates why this is:

In the days after his son’s death, Brown couldn’t get his head around how that Taurus pistol went off. He’d spent his career in law enforcement, first as a Spalding County Sheriff’s Department deputy, then as a cop in Jackson, a little town nearby, and finally with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force in Macon. … The Browns refused to accept that Jarred had accidentally shot himself. “Jarred knew his way around guns and safety better than I did,” Bud says. “He never would have done anything that would have made that gun go off.”

Two days later, Wheeles and another Birmingham lawyer, David Selby, were sitting at the Browns’ kitchen table. Wheeles showed them how the Taurus gun that killed Jarred would fire, even with the safety on. “In about 10 seconds he showed us three different ways that gun could go off on its own,” Sonie says. Bud couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He’d never heard of any problem with Taurus guns. He never saw a notice at the pawnshop where he paid $250 for the gun that killed Jarred or at Walmart when he bought his ammunition.

Before the kitchen table meeting was over, the Browns had hired Wheeles and Selby to sue Taurus for negligence and manufacturing defects. “I couldn’t believe that no one had warned us that those guns were bad,” Bud says. “Why didn’t Taurus warn us? Why did the government let them sell those guns?”

If Democrats retake the House of Representatives in November, expect that they will move quickly to draft plans to impeach President Trump. The arena for the impeachment debate would be the House Judiciary Committee, and the New Yorker has a look at the panel’s new top Dem, a longtime Trump foe who might have the chance to lead his ouster. Susan Glasser’s story is also a good primer on where Democrats are at on the impeachment issue, which is a deeply divisive one in the party:

Impeachment, a liberal pipe dream a year ago, would almost certainly become the committee’s top priority, and the road to it would run right through Rep. Jerry Nadler, a stubborn seventy-year-old who spent the better part of two decades battling to stop Trump from rerouting the West Side Highway. History may not repeat but it does have a sense of humor.

Nadler clearly relishes the thought of taking Trump on once again, and, if and when it comes to impeachment, he will in no way be a neutral arbiter of the President’s fate but an implacable foe who has already pronounced judgment on Trump’s fitness for office. After Trump fired the F.B.I. director, James Comey, last spring, Nadler said that there was a “very strong case” that it constituted obstruction of justice. …

But Tom Steyer’s rallying of the Trump-hating party base has put him at odds with Nadler and other Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, who believe it is both premature and politically damaging to call for impeachment now. The House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, a fellow-Californian, called Steyer—a huge party benefactor, who contributed more than sixty million dollars to the Party’s candidates and causes in 2016—to lobby him directly against the impeachment drive, the Times reported. Other Democrats, especially the campaign strategists who have to advise the Party’s candidates in the midterm elections, fear that impeachment is a political loser with voters, who will cast ballots on more traditional pocketbook issues.

In recent weeks, polling for the Republican tax plan has improved — putting Democrats in the tough position of trying to navigate the 2018 campaign trail as a policy they hammered starts to look better in the eyes of voters. The Washington Post has a dispatch from Indiana, where Sen. Joe Donnelly, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress, walks the fine line of cheering constituents who’ve benefited from the tax cut — and warning them about how it could hurt them years down the road. Erica Werner with the story:

The new law is rising in popularity as businesses in Indiana and elsewhere trumpet bonuses and bigger paychecks. And while Sen. Joe Donnelly and fellow Democrats struggle to craft a consistent attack on the law, Republicans — boosted by outside spending from groups backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and others — are united in touting the tax cuts and slamming moderate Democrats who voted against them. …

Americans have just started to see the tax cut show up in their paychecks this month, and along with those boosts in pay have come a spate of recent polls that show public opinion turning in favor of the tax legislation — leaving Democrats the unenviable task of trying to convince voters that a law increasing their paychecks now will be bad for the country later.

“That’s a great thing that people are getting some benefits,” the low-key Donnelly said in an interview at a coffee shop in downtown Indianapolis last week. But the first-term senator contended that if voters understood the full implications of the legislation, they might be inclined to turn down those $1,000 bonuses or retirement-account contributions from Midwestern businesses such as Anthem, a health insurance firm, and Fifth Third Bancorp.

Your scary read of the week: you could be threatened with prison time if you don’t pay your monthly gym bill! The Intercept reports on the disturbing rise of debt collectors using the threat of arrest to compel people to pay up what they owe, on everything from federal student loans to ambulance bills. There’s good information here on what states are trying to do about it — and an interesting tie-in to the presidential son-in-law’s family business:

Federal law outlawed debt prisons in 1833, but lenders, landlords and even gyms and other businesses have found a way to resurrect the Dickensian practice. With the aid of private collection agencies, they file millions of lawsuits in state and local courts each year, winning 95 percent of the time. If a defendant fails to appear at post-judgement hearings known as “debtors’ examinations,” collectors can seek a warrant for contempt of court — even if the debtor didn’t realize they were being sued.

In one case documented by the Baltimore Sun, an affiliate of Kushner Cos. — the firm run by the family of Jared Kushner — secured a warrant for a Baltimore bus driver and mother of three who had moved out of her apartment early after receiving a federal housing voucher. She said she never received a notice to appear, and eventually declared bankruptcy to avoid arrest. …

An outright ban on debt-related arrests has proved elusive, thanks in large part to the influence of the collection lobby. Maryland legislation that would have prohibited body attachments in collections cases failed in 2013, but consumer advocates managed to pass a law requiring courts to establish that issuing a warrant was the “least onerous” way to collect a debt.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Years after President Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay for good, a few dozen captives still languish at the top-secret prison in Cuba. For some, like the mastermind behind 9/11, there is a reason they remain there.

For others, like Haroon Gul, the reason he’s still locked up is unclear, even as hundreds of former prisoners have been transferred out of the facility — and it’s possible faulty intelligence has played a role in his decade-long imprisonment. Amos Barshad, writing in Longreads, tells Gul’s story, and renders in painstaking detail the surreal, nightmarish process of obtaining legal help to get out of Gitmo, which is right out of Catch-22.

Gul now has a dedicated attorney on his case, but as Barshad explains, they have run into an unexpected problem: the presidency of Donald Trump.

For the first time, Gul told his story to a lawyer. He was in his early 30s, like her. He had a wife, Halimah, and a 10-year-old daughter, Maryam, living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Gul himself grew up in a Pakistani camp after violence forced his family to flee his home in Afghanistan. Despite harsh camp conditions, he’d earned an economics degree at Hayatabad Science University. He spoke four languages, including Pashto and Dari. While at Guantánamo he’d learned a fifth, English.

And like nearly every other detainee held at Guantánamo since 9/11, Gul had never been charged with a crime. The U.S. government was justifying his detainment under the law of war. In a secret government dossier on Gul released by Wikileaks, Gul (also known as Haroon al-Afghani) is described as “high risk” and of “high intelligence value.” The dossier alleges that he was an explosives expert and a high-ranking military strategist who had executed attacks on the Northern Alliance on behalf of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, or HIG, a party affiliated with al Qaeda in the 2000s. U.S. intel also indicates that, in 2001, Gul attempted to help Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora.

The government’s allegations were built on secret interrogations and unidentified sources named things like IZ-10026. Sullivan-Bennis came to believe that Gul was innocent. …

The Periodic Review Board process, though, is not about guilt or innocence. It’s akin to a parole hearing: Are you ready to repent? One of Sullivan-Bennis’s supervising attorneys had called it “having to roll over and show them your tummy.” Gul believed he had committed no crimes for which to repent. But he wouldn’t be the first to be granted freedom through the review board by expressing remorse for things he’d never done.

What to look for next week

Expect the shockwaves from Trump’s White House meeting on Wednesday to reverberate next week, as Congress debates various gun measures. Democrats are bracing for a course correction from the White House on guns, much like what happened on immigration after a January meeting in which POTUS took a surprisingly dovish tone. Will Trump put his money where his mouth is this time, or pull the football away at the last minute?

On Friday, Trump and Pence will travel to North Carolina to attend the funeral of the evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, whose casket laid in the U.S. Capitol rotunda this week — a rite usually reserved for presidents and statesmen, and a rare honor for a civilian. (Only one Minnesotan has been honored at the Capitol in this way. Can you guess who?)

Pence will travel on to Michigan — site of a key U.S. Senate race — to plug the Republican tax plan. In general, the veep’s doing a lot of election traveling, and expect him to be one of the most vocal surrogates cheerleading the Trump-GOP regime and bolstering Senate and House candidates around the country, including in Minnesota.

That’s all for this week. As always, thanks for sticking with me. Get in touch at

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