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This week in Washington, the president defied his own party and some of his top advisers by digging in on his plans to enact a sweeping tariff on steel and aluminum, which would really stick it to America’s biggest adversaries on the global stage, such as Canada, Mexico, and South Korea.
This week in Washington
This week was the most significant of Donald Trump’s presidency so far on a core issue for him: trade. The president is moving to put stiff tariffs in place that could broadly affect the domestic economy and U.S. relations with the world — after scores of White House advisors, and the entire congressional GOP, begged him not to.
Last week, the president announced basically on the spot that he intended to place tariffs on all imported steel and aluminum, making good on repeated campaign promises to strike back against countries like China and Mexico, which he endlessly claimed were cheating and taking advantage of the U.S. and its feeble-minded trade negotiators.
At a White House ceremony on Thursday, POTUS officially rolled out the tariffs, flanked by steel workers. Reiterating a favorite phrase, that the U.S. “has been treated very badly” by other countries, Trump claimed that the tariffs would help revitalize U.S. industry while countering adversaries like China.
Trump could’ve made a spash on trade in many ways, but these tariffs — 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum — could become a wave, with broad-reaching effects. They are likely to boost domestic mining and metals industries, but could hurt a lot of other industries, particularly manufacturing, and some firms are already pondering layoffs and an uncertain future. (You can read me from Tuesday on the winners and losers the tariff would create in Minnesota.)
Conscious of his standing in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, Trump is betting this move will aid his fortunes and those of the GOP. But in the last week, POTUS has been relentlessly lobbied by members of his own party, and his own veep, people for whom free trade is an article of faith and tariffs like these are anathema, both politically and practically. (Billionaire GOP donors like the Koch brothers hated the move.) Over 100 House Republicans, including Reps. Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer, sent a letter to Trump asking him to reconsider the move, and instead impose targeted tariffs on countries that deserve them rather than broadly punishing all trading partners.
Trump has probably sustained more pointed public criticism from his party on this issue than anything else he’s done or said as president. Congress has the authority to pass legislation that would require their approval for tariffs like these — indeed, the Constitution outlines regulation of foreign trade as a key congressional responsibility — but it’s unlikely most Republicans, despite their posturing, would actually get behind anything reining in Trump on trade. Constitutional conservatism!
Reflecting dampered expectations all around, it was seen as a victory that the White House moved to exlude Canada and Mexico from the tariffs (even though Canada is the top source of steel imported by the U.S.) which is helping NAFTA negotiators breathe a sigh of relief.
Democrats, meanwhile, are split on this: pro-trade centrists have denounced the move, while those like DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents Minnesota’s Iron Range, have repeatedly defended the president’s moves in the last week. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both on the ballot this fall and carefully considering their approaches on all things mining, did not offer me any comment for my story on the tariffs, but there’ll be pressure on them to weigh in as the administration officially moves forward.
The tariff tiff has already had an impact at the White House: Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, announced he’d be leaving the administration after he failed to persuade the president to back down on the trade penalties. Cohn, a Democrat from New York and an alum of Goldman Sachs, was the administration’s avatar for Wall Street interests, and the key White House official working on the tax cut package passed last year.
Cohn has had a rocky tenure in the White House, where the more populist factions sneered at him as “Globalist Gary,” an epithet that Trump himself used to describe Cohn on Thursday. (The phrase has a deep history as an anti-Semitic dog whistle.) Bloomberg reports that in a meeting on Tuesday, Cohn refused to say he’d back the president on the tariff move, and tendered his resignation hours later. His departure could be an opening for others, like the populist trade hawk Peter Navarro, to gain more influence in this faction-driven administration.
Then again, no one seems to last that long here: the NYT reports that one out of every three top White House officials has left in the last year, and over half of the 12 positions closest to POTUS have turned over. The AP reports that those who have remained in the White House have stayed longer than they planned, and Cohn’s departure — and apprehension over Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation — has fueled speculation that more officials at all levels of the administration will leave.
Odds and ends on the tariff: the European Union has outlined plans to strike back if the tariffs move forward, and place penalties on U.S. products from steel to blue jeans. It’s responses like that one that have military and diplomatic types concerned the Trump move will harm U.S. cooperation with key allies in a number of areas, reports the Washington Post. Politico dives into the nitty-gritty of how the tariffs might be implemented.
Up on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Senate moved toward passing the first real rollback of financial industry regulations implemented by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation. The bill, backed by moderate Democrats and Republicans, would ease some restrictions on smaller community banks and credit unions, while culling the list of banks deemed “systemically important” — a.k.a. “Too big to fail” — freeing up nearly two-dozen banks from strict federal oversight.
A group of Democrats and Republicans have been working on this one for years, and ultimately 17 Dems voted to advance the package, giving it 67 yes votes — more than enough to override a filibuster. Klobuchar and Smith both voted no, as did anti-Wall Street crusaders like Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The bill does not go as far as some Republicans, particularly those in the House, might like in rolling back Dodd-Frank, but it looks like they’re willing to take something over nothing.
The Senate is expected to vote on final passage sometime before the end of the week, which would give the body — which has recently failed to compromise on guns, immigration, health care, and taxes — its first significant bipartisan, kumbaya moment in years. For more context, read WaPo with the big picture on rollback of financial regulations under Trump.
Over at the White House, the president, determined to combat the scourge of gun violence, convened a meeting on Thursday with lawmakers and representatives from the video game industry, and also moral crusader-types who are very concerned about the video game industry. POTUS has frequently mentioned violent movies and video games as a driver of gun violence, and the Daily Beast reports that, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, Trump plans to make video games a focal point of the White House gun violence push.
In stuff that the White House doesn’t really want to talk about: Stormy Daniels news cycle is apparently impossible to kill. The porn star, who has claimed that President Trump carried on an extramarital affair with her in 2006 — which Trump’s personal lawyer reportedly paid her $130,000 to not discuss — filed a lawsuit this week alleging that her non-disclosure agreement was void because Trump didn’t sign it. You can read the lawsuit here, and Slate has an analysis here that explains why it does (or, rather, doesn’t) matter.
KushnerWatch 2K18 continues: the presidential son-in law, who has no discernable diplomatic expertise, or expertise in general, met with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and other top Mexican officials in a hastily-arranged trip to Mexico City. Kushner is coming off an almost comically awful run of press, in which his dealings with foreign officials — some of which suggested he attempted to leverage his position for the benefit of his family’s real estate company — have been heavily scrutinized.
This was a great time, then, to send this dude for meetings at a moment when U.S.-Mexico ties are delicate. Icing on the cake: Kushner did not invite the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who has decades of experience in Latin America, to join him in the high-level meetings.
Minnesota midterm news: U of M law professor and former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter held a hotly anticipated press conference on Wednesday in which he made a grand announcement: he is considering running for the Senate seat vacated by Al Franken.
Painter has been a fixture on Twitter and cable news in the age of Trump, denouncing the president in increasingly harsh terms. He’s also been a leading defender of Franken amid the former senator’s sexual misconduct scandal, and even suggested a few weeks ago that Franken should consider a run for governor.
Painter’s announcement at the Capitol in St. Paul was long on drama — he has a website, replete with ominous quotes and even ominous photos! — but short on details. Painter didn’t commit to running, and even if he did run, he wasn’t sure if he’d do so as a Republican, Democrat, or third-party candidate. DFLers and Republicans both believe a Painter candidacy, in any event, would help them and hurt the other guys, because of course.
Regarding the current occupant of that seat: Politico sat down with Sen. Smith this week to talk about her path forward, in what I believe is Smith’s first wide-ranging interview with a D.C. publication. The article focused intensely on the specter of Franken; indeed, the headline of the Politico article doesn’t refer to Smith by name, but merely as “Franken’s replacement.” Smith, as the kids say, “clapped back” on Twitter.
On Wednesday, Smith also welcomed a few dozen constituents to her first “coffee with Tina” event at her D.C. office. She took questions on everything from net neutrality to copper-nickel mining. On the latter issue, which promises to figure prominently in this year’s elections, Smith responded to a question asking how she’d balance the concerns of mining workers with environmental concerns by saying she planned to pursue the Minnesota “traditions” of mining and water protection in the Senate.
Rumblings that DFL Rep. Collin Peterson might get another challenger on the Republican side in the race for the 7th Congressional District. Scott van Binsbergen, a former congressional aide who eyed a run in 2014, is close to announcing a bid in CD7, per a GOPer familiar. Trump won CD7 by 30 points, and Republicans badly want to knock Peterson off, but the Blue Dog Democrat has dispatched all his challengers for two-plus decades. National Republicans have apparently been trying to coax someone else into the race after GOP state Rep. Tim Miller ended his bid in December.
I reported at the end of last year on how former Minnesota congressman-turned-uber lobbyist Vin Weber got swept up in Mueller’s investigation of the Trump camp and Russia. If you want to dive into the nitty-gritty, the Daily Beast has a deep dive on how Weber, who once fashioned himself a champion of democracy, became a partner of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, a man who made millions lobbying for the interests of authoritarians.
Relatedly, the NYT reported this week that Trump’s Department of State had $120 million at its disposal over the last year solely to combat foreign election interference — and used none of it. Fiscal responsibility!
To close on a lighter-hearted note, the president showed he could modestly poke at himself at the Gridiron Club dinner last weekend, a staple of the D.C. media-political social circuit. The best jokes were at others’ expenses, though — particularly Vice President Mike Pence. The greatest joke of all, though, was POTUS’ declaration he appreciates the work of the press. Nice try, funnyman!
One last thing: this week is MinnPost’s spring membership drive. If you’ve ever enjoyed the good stories or bad jokes I share in this newsletter — or, failing that, the stellar coverage of Minnesota news and politics from my colleagues — please consider becoming a member, or upping your current membership. Your support could even make you the proud owner of an awesome MinnPost scarf. Wow!
This week’s essential reads
It’s a refrain you’ll hear over and over again in certain corners of the capital: foreign agents could use social media to meddle in U.S. elections in 2018, just as they did in 2016. As Election Day draws nearer, BuzzFeed reports that concern is growing that key platforms, like Facebook, have talked a big game about cracking down on election meddling — but haven’t done much to back it up. Alex Kantrowitz with the story:
Across the political spectrum, there’s worry that an ineffective national security apparatus is putting Facebook in position to fail again. “There’s expectations that Facebook and the other platforms are supposed to solve problems that the government and national security apparatus missed and thus far haven’t engaged,” Zac Moffatt, digital director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told BuzzFeed News. “Without the national apparatus, how could the platforms be successful?”
Meanwhile, concerns over the future weaponization of Facebook’s ad platform as a tool of micro-targeted voter suppression are growing. Jess Bahr, an advertising professional who has run local political advertising campaigns reaching millions of US voters, told BuzzFeed News that Facebook’s ability to identify and deliver advertising to very specific audiences based on political affinity and Congressional district could easily be misused to suppress voting in battleground states. “I would be shocked if didn’t happen,” she said. “Stopping the advertisement is only part of it. As soon as you put that information out there for people to share, Facebook loses control of it.” …
The company’s thus far uneven response to the 2016 crisis calls into question its ability to effectively mitigate the next one. Facebook has promised to tackle fake news for years, for instance, yet it’s still spreading on its platform. And despite the company’s declarations that it’s taking the problem seriously, there are still signs of denial inside its ranks.
The spat between Trump and his GOP allies in Congress has been one of the few points of serious contention in an otherwise good relationship. Even on a core issue like free trade, though, Speaker Paul Ryan has opted out of confronting Trump head-on, instead preferring to work him behind the scenes. The NYT uses the episode as a case study in how Ryan, once a brash, young upstart, has chosen to wield his gavel “gingerly” in the age of Trump. Cheryl Gay Stolberg with a deep read on Ryan:
On one contentious issue after another — the investigation of Russian interference in American elections, trade, immigration and gun control — a speaker who rose to prominence as an outspoken, almost brash leader, determined to bring his party along with his vision of governance, has receded. Instead, he wields his gavel gingerly. Even on one of his signature issues, free trade, he has mostly worked behind the scenes to change the president’s mind. …
Mr. Ryan had modeled himself as a different kind of leader, the youthful face of a new brand of conservatism that was to broaden his party’s appeal and move it beyond 1980s-style Reaganism. His 2012 run for vice president lifted his national profile and fortified his standing. So to critics, the leader once described as “the intellectual center of Republicans in the House” has abandoned principles to hang onto a job he ostensibly never wanted.
“I’m tired of saying deep in his heart there is a different Paul Ryan,” said Charles J. Sykes, a conservative commentator and former radio host in Mr. Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, who for years promoted Mr. Ryan as a potential presidential candidate.
Immigrants have kept the massive Swift meatpacking plant in Cactus, Texas, humming for years, churning out the beef that appears in grocery aisles and fast food restaurants nationwide. It was the target of federal raids during the Bush administration, but Americans didn’t step in to take those jobs — more immigrants did. WaPo’s Nick Miroff reports from Cactus, where the meatpacking plant and community that surrounds it is reflective of so much of the politics, economics, and social impacts of immigration in the age of Trump. The story:
In deep-red Moore County, where Trump won 75 percent of the vote, the president’s rhetoric on immigration has emboldened some of his supporters to freely vent their frustrations at the meatpacking plant they blame for bringing crime, drugs and civic decline. Their corner of northern Texas has been culturally and economically transformed, and they had never had an American president say the transformation was a bad thing.
And yet, no one seemed to believe the Cactus plant would be filled anytime soon with American workers. People here were not even sure they were American jobs in the first place. At least not since the Vietnamese and Laotians showed up in the late 1970s, a few years after the plant opened.
“Cactus wouldn’t exist without the plant,” said the city manager, Aldo Gallegos, who grew up in the town after his parents moved from Arizona in 1992 to work for Swift. He estimates that about half of all floor workers are refugees and that half are Latino, mostly immigrants. “The plant didn’t skip a beat,” Gallegos said. “Everyone’s got to eat steak.”
Takes of the week
The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey: Richard Painter, like many Americans, has been radicalized by Trump
NYT columnist Bari Weiss: Student reaction to campus speakers means everyone is now a fascist
Former Bush aide Matthew Dowd: It’s sad that Gary Cohn and Paul Ryan’s red line with Trump wasn’t Charlottesville, or sexual assault, but… tariffs
The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel: Establishment Dems need to make way for upstart progressive candidates, not shove them out of the way
The Week’s Linda McCormack: Your “office dog” is ruining the workplace
Your weekend longread
One of the strangest things about Trump’s presidency — at least in the realm of policy — has been his relationship with Wall Street. The New York billionaire came to office as a saber-rattling populist who antagonized the elites who left the “forgotten man” behind. Yet, he’s enthusiastically led a campaign of deregulation in the financial sector, and pushed a tax package that fulfilled Wall Street’s wildest dreams. And there’s nothing more the president loves than to remind people of the stock market’s “record” rises during his time in the White House.
A year into Trump’s presidency, Politico’s plugged-in finance reporter, Ben White, asks another question: how has Wall Street regarded this president? White finds that the masters of the universe have been shocked that the unpredictable president hasn’t set off a “black swan” — a.k.a. Market-cratering — event. But, even as they cheer his policy moves and marvel at markets’ resilience, they’re not ruling out that Trump could still blow the whole thing to pieces.
Over his first year, Trump in the White House has proved every bit the disruptive force he promised to be. Much of the disruption was aimed at the business world. Even before the inauguration, he began jawboning individual companies—something presidents generally avoid, and that frightens CEOs. He started making noises about punishing our top trading partners; he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and threatened to pull out of NAFTA.
As each new disruption set off waves in the political realm, something totally unexpected happened in the markets: They ignored it. Stocks, already on an eight-year upward march, just kept rising, calmly breaking one record after another. The volatility index was down, as the market bet that prices would not just keep going up, but do so calmly.
To Wall Street pros, the story of Trump’s bull market is part luck, part policy and possibly a whole lot of irrational exuberance. When investors look past the daily theater, they mostly love Trump’s embrace of traditional Republican policies. He’s slashed regulations and cut corporate tax rates nearly in half, juicing profits and pumping cash into the economy. And they’ve guessed—correctly so far—that Trump the trade warrior and nuclear saber-rattler would remain mostly a cartoon character with little or no real-world impact.
What to look for next week
Congress is in session next week, but it’s safe to say the Beltway’s eyes will be on western Pennsylvania: voters in that state’s 18th District will go to the polls on Tuesday for a special election to replace former Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who resigned after being hit with a pretty salacious sex scandal.
PA-18, which encompasses the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh, has been a reliably red district — but Republicans could plausibly lose it in Tuesday’s special. The district leans Republican by an average of 11 points and went for Trump by 19 points, but the unabashedly pro-Trump GOP candidate, Rick Saccone, has struggled to gain traction on the campaign trail, and Republicans have taken to trashing him in the press. Democrats, meanwhile, are buzzing about their candidate, 33-year old Conor Lamb, a telegenic, Ivy League-educated ex-Marine.
Polling has shown the two neck and neck, while on-the-ground reports, like this from the NYT, have shown that a lot of the area’s Trump voters are eager to back the fresh-faced Lamb. The last year has seen its fair share of breathlessly anticipated special elections that were supposed to portend a Democratic wave or GOP strength this fall (remember this dude?) but with the midterms about eight months away, the conventional wisdom is that a win for Lamb would be a clear sign that Democrats have a great shot at taking back the U.S. House.
Reflecting those stakes, an insane amount of money has poured into PA-18: outside Dem and GOP groups could spend as much as $12 million in ads alone when the dust settles.
That’s all for this week — thanks for sticking with me. Hope to see you back here next week. Until then, get at me at email@example.com.