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D.C. Memo: Administration assures public that North Korea discussions will be extremely high

REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein
Over Easter weekend, CIA chief and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang to discuss denuclearization and set the stage for planned talks between Trump and Kim.

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This week in Washington, Trump hung out in Florida and played golf, Congress was in session a whole two days, and journalists celebrated the annual Pulitzer Prizes, which let us congratulate ourselves even more than we usually do.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington. No huge news this week — at least not yet, 5 PM on Friday is still ahead of us — but a lot of important things in the mix this week.

Last Friday, the U.S., along with France and the United Kingdom, launched airstrikes on Syrian government targets. This joint action was in response to overwhelming evidence that the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad conducted chemical weapons attacks against civilians.

Since those attacks, President Donald Trump had indicated there’d be a strong response from the U.S., even though he said just days before that he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria as soon as possible.

Indeed, Trump himself has been pretty much all over the place on the Syria issue and has made U.S. aims there muddled, but the strikes were applauded by much of the mainstream foreign policy establishment (and most of the U.S. public) for upholding a tough line on the use of chemical weapons, which the international community has worked to stigmatize.

In tweets after the strike, POTUS said everyone did a super great job and declared “mission accomplished.” (I wish I could make a joke here. But I can’t. Look at banner.)

On a scale of one to troop surge, how “mission accomplished” are we in Syria? Not very: Reuters reports that Syria’s chemical weapons facilities, designed to be directly handicapped by the strike, could still produce another attack. The Washington Post reports that Assad was in high spirits after the shelling, apparently unperturbed. New York Magazine with a take on just how far American bombs can go in policing the world.

Come across any chemical attack conspiracy theories on social media? BBC has a good look — and thorough debunking — of those peddling pro-Assad theories.

Meanwhile, back home, members of Congress had serious reservations about the constitutionality of the strikes and want a new authorization of military force to cover these engagements — and at least a formal debate over U.S. involvement in Syria. CNN reports that senators left a Trump administration briefing on Tuesday expressing some gosh-darn concern about their legal justification for military action. Most members are resigned to the fact that no new war authorization will materialize, reports BuzzFeed News.

News this week regarding Syria’s main patron, Russia: some complicated but ultimately pretty revealing moves from the Trump administration on additional sanctions on the government of Vladimir Putin.

WaPo reported last week that Trump was outflanked by his advisors on Russia, who ended up implementing far tougher actions on the Kremlin than the president wanted. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, went on TV to telegraph the administration’s stronger stance on Russia before POTUS walked them back. This prompted Larry Kudlow, the new top economic adviser, to state that Haley had been the victim of “momentary confusion” on administration policy. Haley’s memorable retort: “I don’t get confused.”

Why does it matter? Haley has been one of the few administration officials willing to brandish a tough line on Russia. Politico with the read on Haley’s message to the Russia doves in the administration, and the implications it could have going forward.

Big picture: Trump’s waffling over sanctions and big diplomatic items like the Trans-Pacific Partnership means that the rest of the world is starting to really tune him out, Politico reports.

WaPo with a big scoop: over Easter weekend, CIA chief and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang to discuss denuclearization and set the stage for planned talks between Trump and Kim. This was the highest-level meeting between the U.S. and North Korea since the Bill Clinton administration. (Indeed, Trump said on Twitter around then that talks were taking place at “extremely high” levels. Nice!)

Pompeo is positioning himself as the administration’s point man on North Korea, but he’s facing a lot of roadblocks — like, not even having enough support in the Foreign Affairs committee — as he seeks confirmation as Secretary of State. Meanwhile, CNN reports that Trump’s pick to replace Pompeo at the CIA, Gina Haspel, is running into serious trouble over her destruction of tapes documenting what the Intelligence Community calls, uh, “enhanced interrogation.”

Meanwhile, with West Wing staff increasingly marginalized, WaPo reports that Fox News host and fellow Michael Cohen client Sean Hannity has an open line to POTUS whenever he wants it, and that some in the White House are saying that Hannity is basically a shadow chief of staff. Nice!

Axios with your insidery piece of the week: VP Mike Pence is saving himself in the Trump White House by being out of town during scandals and making self-deprecating jokes about his finances to the big boss.

POTUS is tweeting a lot about my home state of California. “There is a Revolution going on in California. Soooo many Sanctuary areas want OUT of this ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept.” I’ll level with you, reader: I have absolutely no idea what this means, and my sources on the ground indicate no Revolution is taking place. (But “Breeding Concept” is a decent name for a metal band!)

I really like this WaPo piece digging into one of the president’s most recurring, and most perplexing, verbal tics: his tendency to claim “people don’t realize” something that most people, in fact, do realize.

Former FBI director and current thorn in Trump’s side James Comey is making the rounds to promote his new book, and he’s making plenty of headlines in the process for his catty comments about Trump. (The Onion, nailing it.) I’m not very interested in what Comey’s up to, but I’d recommend this sharp piece in the NYT on his media junket, if you feel you must read something.

Relatedly, 11 House Republicans released a letter this week calling for the Department of Justice to prosecute Comey, and a bunch of Democrats who they hate, like Hillary Clinton, former AG Loretta Lynch, and former FBI official Andrew McCabe. This will not happen, but it’ll be a good springboard for these enterprising folks to hop on Fox while POTUS is watching his shows.

Over at SCOTUS: new guy on the bench, conservative Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, raised eyebrows by siding with the high court’s liberal justices to strike down a law granting the federal government broad deportation authority, especially for immigrants who are criminals. NYT with the write-up of this interesting move.

Now, from the MinnPost Election Mega-Doppler 2K18™️: we had ourselves a busy political weekend in Minnesota, as party activists met in congressional districts around the state — with a historic storm bearing down, no less — to endorse candidates for U.S. House races.

A quick recap: in the south metro’s 2nd District, Democrats endorsed Angie Craig, the former medical device executive who ran in 2016, for a second campaign against GOP Rep. Jason Lewis. In the west metro’s 3rd District, Democrats went with Dean Phillips, the gelato and booze baron hoping to knock off GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen.

These are key races for Democrats, and party people in D.C. looooove both of these candidates, who already have legit campaign operations and have raised piles and piles of money. Less than ideal outcome for the DFL in northeast Minnesota’s 8th District: delegates failed to endorse a candidate, out of a field of five, after about 10 hours of debating and deliberating.

Democrats now move to an August 14 primary to figure out who succeeds retiring Rep. Rick Nolan and earns the chance to face GOPer Pete Stauber in the general. I was up in Duluth to cover the show — check out my big-picture write-up here. (Since my story published, Leah Phifer, the candidate who consistently had the most delegate support at the convention, dropped out. Now four DFLers will go to a primary.)

Of note on the campaign front: Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership fund is reserving $2.6 million in TV time to absolutely hammer whoever the DFL nominee is in the 8th Congressional District, one of the few bright spots on the GOP’s midterm map. As of right now, CLF is investing more in CD8 than any other district in the U.S. (Paulsen will get $2.3 million in air cover from CLF.)

Speaking of Ryan, Politico has some behind-the-scenes stuff on the political maneuvering taking place in the wake of his big announcement last week that he’ll be leaving Congress. The gist is that the camp of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, heir apparent to Ryan, is steaming because Ryan is insisting on serving out this term as Speaker, which could weaken McCarthy’s hand. The House Freedom Caucus, the hard-right group of 40 or so Republicans, could play kingmaker. This’ll get interesting.

Assorted Congress stuff: tax day was this week. As good a time as any, then, to debate the GOP tax bill, of which Republicans sang praises this April 17. Bloomberg reports the legislation, meant to save the GOP in the midterms, is playing so-so with voters, which could be a problem come November. WaPo’s Finance 202 offers a good look at the macroeconomic effects of the tax bill: it’s “happy hour,” not morning, in America.

The House Agriculture Committee began official consideration of its Farm Bill on Wednesday and boy, was it a doozy. Recall that Democrats and Republicans on the panel aren’t on speaking terms with one another due to GOP’s proposed changes to the food stamp, or SNAP, program.

At the opening of the hearing, Rep. Collin Peterson, top Dem on the ag panel, ripped the GOP majority for pushing a partisan bill — he called it an “ideological crusade” — in a committee that prides itself on working together. DFL Reps. Tim Walz and Rick Nolan, also on the panel, blasted the bill and the process. “Just say,” Walz asked Rs, “we don’t care whether you have a voice.”

Meanwhile, Senate Ag committee is working together, and the SNAP changes beloved by conservatives are unlikely to fly over there. “What are we doing here?” Peterson asked. (The committee ended up approving the bill on a party-line vote.)

It’s another week in Trump’s Washington, so that means there’s more news about powerful administration officials doing ethically dubious things!

An internal report found that EPA Chief Scott Pruitt broke federal law when he directed $43,000 of taxpayer money to go toward constructing a soundproof booth in his Washington office. Pruitt, also under fire for renting a D.C. room below market rate in a home owned by an energy lobbyist, and also a lot of other stuff, stayed in a luxury Colorado hotel for a trip and let a homebuilding company with business before the EPA foot the $400-plus bill.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke thought it would be super cool to emulate the British royal family and fly a special personal flag from Interior’s D.C. headquarters whenever he was in the building, a totally relatable and not hopelessly dorky thing to do. His department considered spending $200,000 on this.

The NYT has a good report on how Zinke is in favor of opening up public lands for resource extraction — just not in his backyard in Montana, where he’s moving to establish new protected areas.

Last thing about this administration and ethics, then I’ll stop for the week: a new report finds that, since 2015, businesses owned by the president have raked in $15 million from political groups, such as those associated with the GOP, and agencies in the federal government.

There’s evidence, however, that people just don’t care about this! WaPo’s James Hohmann writes up a survey that found that, of 11 things about the Trump presidency — from his “shithole countries” remark to his use of Twitter — the thing that bothered voters the least was Trump retaining ownership of his businesses as president.

Finally, a bit of news from the world of journalism: this week, the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes were announced, recognizing the year’s biggest achievements in journalism. Winners include the New York Times and the New Yorker, for their reporting on Harvey Weinstein that helped spark the #MeToo movement; the Washington Post, for its reporting on Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s predation of teenage girls; and both NYT and WaPo for their reporting on Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

A special shout-out for local papers: the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, California, was recognized for its coverage of the devastating wildfires that struck California last fall, and the Cincinnati Enquirer was awarded for its reporting on the opioid epidemic. (Alas, we didn’t win the Pulitzer for snarky newsletters. Better luck next year!)

The week’s essential reads

You may have heard that lots of women are running for office this year (including in Minnesota!) galvanized by the election of Trump and the #MeToo movement, prompting some to call it a redux of 1992, when a wave of women were elected to public office. The New Yorker talked to some of the women running this year, and put together a cool visualization of where and how they’re running. What will 2018’s “Year of the Woman” look like? Link:

The last time women challenged the overwhelming gender imbalance among elected officials this forcefully was in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman. Twenty-four women were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives that year—the largest group of women ever to enter the House in a single election. The number of women in the Senate tripled—though because there had only been three to begin with, the resulting total wasn’t exactly a throng.

One advantage women had in 1992 was an unusual number of open seats in Congress—many more than are open this year (though there are still opportunities for more seats to open, potentially narrowing the gap). Walsh says that part of her center’s job this year has been to temper some of the runaway enthusiasm about a new Year of the Woman. After all, she says, incumbents at all levels have historically won about ninety-five per cent of the time.

On the other hand, the politics of the Trump era are sui generis, and recent election results that might be taken as harbingers of the midterms have been, for women and Democrats, encouraging. Last November, for example, the Virginia state legislature replaced eleven men in the House of Delegates with women, including the first Latina, the first Asian-American, and the first transgender woman to be elected to the chamber. When conventional wisdom is up in the air, Walsh said, “some of our assumptions based on past performance, given the moment we’re in, might not translate to Election 2018.”

It seems like working in the Trump White House is tough: chaos, infighting, low morale and long hours seem the rule, not the exception, at 1600 Pennsylvania. So, say you’re a staffer and you’re thinking it’s time to go. White House staffers always land plush gigs on the outside, right? Wrong, reports BuzzFeed’s Tarini Parti: Trump White House staff are finding it difficult to find jobs elsewhere as think tanks and consulting firms steer clear of most everyone associated with the controversial administration. File to Dept. of Crocodile Tears:

The leadership at a prominent, bipartisan Washington public affairs firm went as far as to make an active decision not to hire from the Trump White House because of the “reputational risk” associated with it, a former White House official was recently told. The official asked BuzzFeed News not to disclose the name of the firm.

In another case, a White House official said he was rejected out of the blue for a job after being given indications he would be hired and was explicitly told his affiliation with the Trump White House had been a problem for some at the company.

The realities of the grim job prospects have also become clear to two associates who worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign but never went into the administration. They told BuzzFeed News they’ve been offering some of their former colleagues who now work at the White House regular advice in recent months on how to land job opportunities, but so far those colleagues have been unsuccessful. Both also said they were glad they ultimately chose not to join the administration after seeing their friends struggle.

“[Companies] are all worried about public backlash,” said a top recruiter who has been trying to place administration officials in new jobs. “That’s more real with these guys than I’ve seen with anyone else.”

Remember the immigrant caravan? The one Trump was tweeting about a few weeks ago that was going to sneak into the U.S. and take advantage of DACA? They’re still on the move, and the president’s talking points about the several hundred Central American migrants fleeing violence back home remain totally wrong. HuffPost reports with an update on the caravan from Mexico, and the circumstances that put them there:

Trump’s warnings are detached from reality. Here’s the real story: The caravans have been organized since about 2008 to help migrants from Central America find refuge in the United States or Mexico. Eighty percent of the people who joined this year came from Honduras. And as chronic violence and a deep political crisis roil their home country, Trump’s harsh rhetoric and U.S. policy in the region have done little to deter them from seeking safety.

On March 25, the refugee caravan set off from southern Mexico with more than 1,000 migrants. On Friday, about 600 people embarked on the last leg of the trip, from Mexico City to the U.S. border.

Corruption, unrelenting violence and rampant inequality have long driven Hondurans to leave. But last year’s contested presidential election has eroded the little confidence Hondurans had in their government even more.

“Honduras was on fire and the election crisis threw gasoline on it,” said Joaquin Mejía, a Honduran security expert and human rights lawyer. “It unmasked the reality of the country ― our institutions are broken and the president, because of the elections, has no legitimacy.”

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a likely candidate for president in 2020, has undergone many evolutions: a decade ago, she was a pro-gun Blue Dog moderate from upstate New York, now she’s a proud member of the “hell no” caucus bent on resisting the GOP’s every move. Recently, Gillibrand made headlines by being the first Senate Democrat to call for Al Franken’s resignation in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal. GQ’s Jason Zengerle profiles Gillibrand, looking at the ambitious New York senator’s transformations, and what they say about the Democratic Party and the Trump-#MeToo political moment:

Gillibrand’s defenders are more blunt, pointing out that within hours of her call for Franken’s resignation, more than 30 other senators did the same. “And no one’s mad at them,” says former Obama White House aide Alyssa Mastromonaco, who’s close to Gillibrand. “They’re just pussies who didn’t want to do it first.”

But even Gillibrand’s admirers concede that the Clinton and Franken episodes have ironically rekindled questions about her judgment. “Kirsten’s kind of a Rashomon politician,” says Anita Dunn. “People see very different things, depending on where they start.” Or as one prominent Democrat says, “She really put her chips in the middle on this one, and I think in a lot of ways 2020 will turn on that issue for her. Did she do it out of conviction? Or out of opportunism? What people decide the answer is to that question will determine her future in 2020.”

Should she run, Gillibrand’s campaign will be the most unapologetically feminist campaign of the 2020 cycle—and perhaps American history. While Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would beat the populist drum, and Joe Biden would try to win blue-collar voters, Gillibrand seems poised to cast herself as an antidote to the callousness of the current president. “I think women are often very natural caregivers,” Gillibrand told me. “I think being a woman makes you attuned to very different issues.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college in Virginia, is a bastion of American conservatism, and a site of major influence in GOP politics.

Turns out, reports ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis, Liberty isn’t just an innovator in campus conservatism: it’s also figured out how to make an absolute killing in the lucrative and barely regulated world of online higher education.

Though it is a nonprofit institution, Liberty has put to use the aggressive student-recruitment tactics of for-profit colleges to create an online learning empire that former professors and critics say seems designed to boost the university’s finances, not the quality of its education. In exploring the ambitious expansion of the so-called “evangelical Notre Dame,” MacGillis raises some interesting questions about who benefits, and what that means.

Jerry Falwell Jr., who has led the university since 2007, lacks the charisma and high profile of his father, who helped lead the rise of the religious right within the Republican Party. Yet what the soft-spoken Falwell, 55, lacks in personal aura, he has more than made up for in institutional ambition. As Liberty has expanded over the past two decades, it has become a powerful force in the conservative movement.

Liberty has also played a significant role in the rise of Donald Trump. Falwell was an early supporter of the reality-TV-star candidate, staying loyal through the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape and giving Trump a crucial imprimatur with white evangelical voters, who widely supported him at the polls. …

Such steadfast allyship has prompted ridicule even from some fellow evangelical Republicans. But it makes more sense in light of an overlooked aspect of Liberty: its extraordinary success as a moneymaking venture. Like Trump, Falwell recognized the money to be made in selling success — in this case, through the booming and lightly regulated realm of online higher education. Falwell’s university has achieved the scale and stature it has because he identified a market opportunity and exploited it.

The real driver of growth at Liberty, it turns out, is not the students who attend classes in Lynchburg but the far greater number of students who are paying for credentials and classes that are delivered remotely, as many as 95,000 in a given year. By 2015, Liberty had quietly become the second-largest provider of online education in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, its student population surpassed only by that of University of Phoenix, as it tapped into the same hunger for self-advancement that Trump had with his own pricey Trump University seminars. Yet there was a crucial distinction: Trump’s university was a for-profit venture. (This month, a judge finalized a $25 million settlement for fraud claims against the defunct operation.) Liberty, in contrast, is classified as a nonprofit, which means it faces less regulatory scrutiny even as it enjoys greater access to various federal handouts.

What to look for next week

Next week, Trump will host French president Emmanuel Macron at the White House. Notably, this will be the first formal state visit — complete with the very fancy state dinner ritual — of the Trump presidency. Trump was the first president in several decades not to host a state visit during his first year in office.

The two leaders will hold a joint press conference on Tuesday. France and the U.S. have just come off executing joint military strike, in concert with the U.K., on Syrian regime targets in the wake of chemical gas attacks carried out by the Assad government. Expect that move, and the prospect of further involvement in Syria, to be a big theme of the visit.

Macron and Trump are said to get along well, and they’re an interesting pair: both are populist political outsiders and governing novices accused of nursing authoritarian streaks. If you want to go to school on Macron: Vanity Fair has a good Q&A with him here.   

On Saturday, we’ve got some more endorsing conventions in Minnesota: the big one is in southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, where Democrats will seek to endorse someone amid a field of six. Watch the GOP side in CD1, too: Jim Hagedorn, the GOP candidate in 2014 and 2016, is very likely to get the endorsement again, but I’m interested to see how much support state Sen. Carla Nelson gets as she gears up for a primary. My primer on the CD1 race here.

Finally, some huge news: next Wednesday in D.C., the Minnesota congressional delegation will gather for that time-honored tradition: the Hotdish Competition. Hosted by former Sen. Al Franken the last seven years, the Hotdish-Off has been adopted by Sen. Tina Smith, who is convening the eighth contest to see which Minnesota pol (or their staffer) makes the best hotdish. (My dispatch from last year might be the most fun MinnPost article I’ve written.)

The Hotdish-Off has become a D.C. classic, a cheesy, starchy test of Midwestern culinary acumen and passive-aggressiveness that simmers hotter than a can of cream o’ mushroom. I’ll be covering the event, and I’ll also have the honor of emceeing it this year. Keep it tuned to my twitter, @sambrodey, for the Wednesday hotdish dish.

That’s all from me for this week. See you here next week. Until then, reach me with your thoughts and hotdish predictions at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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