You can get the D.C. Memo delivered to your inbox on Thursdays. Sign up here.
This week in Washington, President Trump had a lengthy playdate with French president Emmanuel Macron, which included a lot of hugging. A tuckered-out POTUS unfortunately couldn’t make it to Wednesday’s Minnesota delegation Hotdish-Off, but fear not: I was there, and have for you the full report.
This week in Washington
Bonjour from Washington, mes amies: big week in the capital for Franco-American relations, which have been more or less solid for centuries even accounting for that whole freedom fries phase.
On Monday, French president Emmanuel Macron arrived in Washington for a full state visit, and received honors only granted to the highest-profile visiting dignitaries: a black-tie state dinner at the White House, an address to a joint session of Congress, an awkward tree-planting ceremony.
Macron, the 40-year old political outsider and populist whose self-made En Marche party holds commanding majorities in Paris, seems to have captivated President Donald Trump, himself a political outsider and populist.
Trump and Macron were extremely complimentary of one another during the visit. The PDA may have actually been a little much, even by Parisian standards: The two presidents held hands. Grabbed each other’s backs. Kissed. Trump picked some “dandruff” off Macron’s lapel. This happened. (The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker has a fun story dissecting the very… physical bromance between the two leaders.)
That aside, the two leaders had a lot to talk about — trade, the conflict in Syria, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the Paris climate accords were all top-of-the-list — and Macron had an anxious continent behind him: back in Europe, he’s seen as something of a Trump whisperer, so hopes were high that he could steer POTUS back to the small-l liberal, internationalist positions held by his presidential predecessors.
Early read: no dice. Macron signalled that Trump seems likely to pull out of the Iran deal, which most of Europe thinks would have disastrous consequences. (There was talk of negotiating some extra agreement with the Islamic Republic, though specifics were in short supply.)
Though complimentary of Trump at the White House, Macron’s speech to Congress was a sharp rebuke of Trumpism, as the French prez pushed for free trade and aggressive action to counter climate change — two things his host doesn’t care much for.
I know what you’re thinking: but what did they have for dinner? Check it here. NYT has the guest list compiled here, and overall, it’s heavy on business titans, and light on the artists and writers that Barack Obama liked to invite to these soirees.
Sigh of relief from the White House: the U.S. Senate has confirmed CIA director Mike Pompeo as the new Secretary of State, after weeks of waffling from key Republican and Democratic senators endangered his nomination.
Earlier this week, the Senate Foreign Affairs panel narrowly approved the nomination of Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman known for his hawkishness and friendliness with hard-line Islamophobes, saving him embarrassment.
On Thursday afternoon, the Senate voted 57 to 42 to confirm Pompeo’s nomination, and he was sworn in shortly thereafter. The only Democrats to back him were vulnerable moderates up for re-election in 2018, like North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. The Senate behind him, it’s smooth sailing now for Pompeo, who has on his to-do list a historic negotiation with North Korea, managing the fires on trade, the Iran deal, and Syria, etc.
A disastrous PR week elsewhere in the Cabinet, however: Trump’s nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairs, White House doctor and Navy officer Ronny Jackson, withdrew himself from consideration after some truly explosive stuff came to light about his professional and personal past.
There had already been concern on both sides of the aisle over Jackson: though he served as the presidential doc for Obama and George W. Bush, he had no formal management experience to prepare him for the task of running one of the federal government’s largest bureaucracies.
Then: a report by the Democratic minority on the Senate Veterans’ committee, backed up by journalists elsewhere, detailed Jackson’s history of troubling behavior, which included getting drunk on work trips, harassing and berating colleagues, and dispensing medication so freely that he was called the “candyman.” The Dems’ scorching report on Wednesday had former Jackson subordinates saying he was literally the world’s worst boss — “The most unethical person I have ever worked with,” said one.
Anyway, Jackson’s withdrawal saved himself, and the Hill GOP, a massive embarrassment. Trump seemed inclined to back up the troubled doc, who he’s said to like, and when he withdrew, Trump said Jackson had a “perfect record” and was treated “really unfairly.” POTUS went on Fox News to threaten the Senate VA panel’s top Dem, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, with political retaliation. (Tester is on the ballot this fall, and Trump won Montana easily.)
Bigger-picture implications here: Congress, particularly those in the GOP majority, are getting fed up with the lack of basic vetting the Trump administration is doing on its nominees for key positions. WaPo’s James Hohmann with a worthwhile column expanding on amateur hour at the White House.
Former NYC mayor and Trump pal Rudy Giuliani is taking a leading role on POTUS’ legal squad. NYT’s Maggie Haberman reports on that, and how Giuliani is trying to set the terms of a potential Trump meeting with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Note: Senate Judiciary, upon which Sen. Amy Klobuchar serves, passed a bill by a 14-7 margin that would protect Mueller from being fired. Politico with more context on this act of defiance from the panel’s chair, veteran Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Update on swamp-draining: White House budget chief and director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney, was out just publicly saying what most already know to be true about Washington: lobbyists rule. Per the NYT, Mulvaney told a crowd of bankers (the people he’s tasked with regulating) that “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” This is what people used to call a “gaffe.”
Embattled EPA chief and enjoyer of the finer things in life Scott Pruitt appeared before lawmakers on Thursday to answer questions about his high-flying habits and questionable uses of taxpayer funds. A defiant Pruitt denied wrongdoing and said that the reported ethical lapses, which have sparked exactly a dozen government investigations into his conduct, are fake news. House Dems had a ton of fun ripping him and his propensity for “grift,” in the words of one Dem. Republicans cried McCarthyism. Sad!
NYT with an interesting angle on the continued bad press and embarrassment that oozes from Trump’s Cabinet: ironically, AG Jeff Sessions, one of the most scrutinized administration officials due to his role (or lack thereof) in the Russia investigation, is keeping his head down at the DoJ, eating $5 turkey sandwiches and eschewing first-class airfare as he churns out hard-line nativist policy on immigration.
Over at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary Ben Carson wants to increase rent for those receiving subsidized housing from the federal government — just one of many ways the former neurosurgeon and one-time Trump campaign rival is reshaping federal assistance programs around conservative ideas about welfare.
In Congress, of local interest: 2nd District Rep. Jason Lewis, big critic of the Met Council, is advancing legislation that would overhaul how the metro area’s transit and urban planning authority operates. The freshman Republican attached an amendment to a FAA funding bill requiring that members of the Met Council’s board be elected officials.
Currently, the governor can appoint someone to the Met Council’s board regardless of whether or not they hold public office. (Many of them do, anyway.) Lewis’ amendment would change that, and he says this simply brings the Met Council into compliance with every other metropolitan planning organization in the U.S., whose boards meet this requirement.
Lewis says this would increase accountability. But critics at the Met Council and gov’s office say the legislation would immediately designate the organization as being out of compliance with federal law — and thus ineligible to receive tens of millions of support for transit projects and other things. They’re fighting hard to stop this one; one lobbyist told me the amendment would create a “complete mess.”
At SCOTUS, the high court heard a case on Wednesday challenging the constitutionality of the Trump administration’s travel ban, which restricts the ability of nationals from seven countries, most of them majority-Muslim, to enter the U.S.
The executive order under consideration is the third version of the travel ban, which has been modified to withstand legal scrutiny. (The first version targeted only Muslim-majority countries.) The key issue is whether the intent of the policy is discriminatory — whether it is, as Trump declared on the campaign trail, a “Muslim ban.” Politico with the write-up of Wednesday’s oral arguments, during which the court appeared split. Venerable SCOTUSBlog says it’s likely the ban survives.
BuzzFeed with a quick report worth reading: Democratic officials in states like Missouri, Ohio, and Minnesota plan to steer clear of anything related to the Trump-Russia investigation as they seek to win back control of Congress this fall. Midwestern Dems say that Russia-heavy messaging from the Washington Democratic organizations like the DNC not only fails to help Democratic candidates in the Heartland — it might actually hurt them, too. (CC: Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesotan, and the #2 at the DNC.)
A good window into where the progressive base of the Democratic Party is right now: buzz this week in D.C. over a new federal job guarantee bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders. The legislation would guarantee a $15-an-hour federal job with health care benefits to anyone that wants a job. WaPo’s Jeff Stein with the write-up.
Interesting from WaPo’s Finance 202 newsletter: banking giant Wells Fargo, whose c-suite and corporate culture have deep roots in Minnesota, is reporting low levels of lobbying spending and D.C. action and has historically shied away from doing much in the capital. Now, as it faces record fines from federal regulators, Wells may be changing up its approach and boosting its profile.
A snide dispatch by the NYT from James Comey’s D.C. book party contains the following sentence: “In a city not known for snappy dressing…” Woof. Apparently only journalists, snubbed from POTUS’ state dinner, showed up, so the sartorial sniping could be right.
Finally, what you’ve all been waiting for: the dish on hotdish. This Wednesday, the Minnesota congressional delegation met for the 8th installment of the Hotdish-Off, the (mostly) friendly culinary competition that has now become a beloved institution among ‘Sota politicos — and easily one of the most fun things I cover.
This year, I had the honor of emceeing the event, now hosted by Sen. Tina Smith. In a dramatic turn of events, the judges produced a tie for first place — which I broke in favor of Rep. Tom Emmer’s deliciously, breakfasty hotdish. Coming in second was Rep. Rick Nolan, and third was Rep. Betty McCollum.
You can read my write-up — plus reviews and recipes for the hotdishes — here.
This week’s essential reads
Next door in Wisconsin, the GOP-led state government has worked to accomplish a core conservative policy priority: tweaking welfare rules to ensure that programs like food assistance are “efficient” and target only the most needy. In a revealing and affecting portrait of a family on Milwaukee’s impoverished north side, WaPo reporter Robert Samuels finds that the new welfare rules are making it much harder for Wisconsin’s poorest families to make ends meet. The story:
The results in this state have been limited. Since Walker put work requirements into place, the Health Services Department said it has cut spending on food stamps by 28 percent, from $1.2 billion in 2013 to around $867 million in 2017. Officials said 25,000 food stamp recipients — out of a statewide total of 700,000 — have found work.
State officials also said that more than 86,000 people have lost their ability to get food stamps and did not report getting new jobs.
There’s been no government study examining what happened to them. State officials say they presume some got new jobs and didn’t bother to report them, but advocates say they see swelling numbers at churches and food pantries, where more and more people go looking for help.
If public assistance is a trampoline for Howlett and Nadine, who asked that her last name not be used, it is one that is vaulting them all over the Milwaukee area, with no sure ground to land on.
Their recent troubles started in November, when Nadine lost one job cleaning a suburban hospital while waiting to start another five blocks from her apartment. Then Howlett’s car broke down, he had to dramatically cut back hours as a Lyft driver, and they couldn’t afford rent anymore. … “You try to keep your spirits up because you don’t want the kids to feel like something is wrong,” Howlett said. “Then you start to spiral. That’s what it’s like in Wisconsin. Help is so close, and so far away.”
When it looked like Trump would lose the 2016 election, people openly mused that he’d go on to start his own TV network — even speculating that was his endgame after all. Well, it’s now 2018, Trump is president, and the politician with the burgeoning TV operation is… Bernie Sanders? New York Magazine’s Gabe Debenedetti has your look at the Vermont senator’s guerilla video operation, where his interviews with Elizabeth Warren and Bill Nye rack up millions of views
The Vermont senator, who’s been comparing corporate television programming to drugs and accusing it of creating a “nation of morons” since at least 1979 — and musing to friends about creating an alternative news outlet for at least as long — has spent the last year and a half building something close to a small network out of his office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.
He understands, but resents, the comparison to the man who’s described the news media as the “enemy of the people.” His take is different, and he has his own plans. “[Am I concerned] that people might see me and Trump saying the same thing? Yes, I am,” Sanders conceded …
“My point of view is a very, very different one. My point of view is the corporate media, by definition, is owned by large multinational corporations: their bottom line is to make as much money as they can. They are part of the Establishment. There are issues, there are conflicts of interest in terms of fossil fuel advertising — how they have been very, very weak, in terms of climate change.” Needless to say, the content he produces is not sponsored by advertisers. …
Bernie TV (that’s my shorthand: there’s no one name for the enterprise) is online only, and there are no plans to move it elsewhere, cable or otherwise. There’s no profit scheme — it’s produced using Senate resources — and there’s no plan to expand it beyond social media. But the programming represents by far the most advanced evolutionary stage of Sanders’s longtime goal of finding new ways to get around the traditional media and spread his “political revolution” directly.
The “candyman” reputation that helped to sink Ronny Jackson’s nomination as secretary of the VA drew widespread shock and outrage that such freewheeling prescribing would take place at the highest levels of government. But a team of Politico reporters offers important context: from the White House to Congress and the Pentagon, the use of pills to stay alert or fall asleep is widespread, and seen as necessary to keep up with grueling travel and work schedules. The story:
By themselves, the charges that Jackson liberally doled out sleep drugs may not be enough to disqualify him in the eyes of lawmakers on Capitol Hill — because, they say, they use them liberally, too.
“I’ve seen it used. Like if you’re going across multiple time zones, people use Ambien to get their sleep schedule right,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “I don’t think it’s uncommon for people traveling across like eight time zones to get their sleep schedule right. But I don’t know if that’s what he did or not.”
The use of sleeping pills extends to the diplomatic corps and the military, where pill-popping in the ranks for performance and to encourage rest between missions has been standard practice for decades. Jackson himself is a two-star Navy officer who came up through military ranks. …
Others said it’s impossible to keep up with the physical demands of working a full day off a long-haul flight, which is expected when U.S. officials travel overseas. “On a long trip or multiday trip, if people needed an Ambien to try to get to sleep, you could get some Ambien. I thought that was appropriate because when people are working 16-hour days and going across time zones, that was pretty hard,” Brian McKeon said.
Of the many odd things about the political rise of Donald Trump, among the oddest has been the whole-hearted embrace of the man — a thrice-married real estate magnate accused of sexual misconduct by over a dozen women — by American evangelical Christians. Evangelicals have been willing to overlook Trump’s personal life to support his presidency, which has been a winner to them. Now, they’re planning an all-out campaign to back him and his agenda in the 2018 midterms. The NYT with a good look at this one:
Christian conservatives say Mr. Trump has also more than honored his end of the bargain that brought reluctant members of their ranks along during his presidential campaign. He has begun the process of moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, won the confirmation of numerous judges and a Supreme Court Justice who seem likely to advance their anti-abortion cause, moved against transgender protectionsthroughout the government, increased the ability of churches to organize politically and personally supported the March for Life.
“I don’t know of anyone who has worked the evangelical community more effectively than Donald Trump,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which this year plans to devote four times the money it spent in the 2014 midterms.
In essence, many evangelical leaders have decided that airing moral qualms about the president only hurts their cause.
“His family can talk to him about issues of character,” said Penny Young Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization that is framing the midterm elections to potential donors as a civilizational struggle.
The week in takes
DFL #mnleg candidate Ryan Winkler: The Hotdish-Off is a hokey attempt by “Metro Elites” to seem like “real” Minnesotans — and it’s all Garrison Keillor’s fault
Donald Trump, Jr.: Kanye West’s support of Trump marks a “cultural turning point”
The Week’s Jeff Spross: Bernie Sanders has officially conquered the Democratic Party
Conservative cause célèbre Kevin Williamson: Extend criminal penalties to women who get abortions
Splinter’s Emma Roller: The Trump administration is trying to get you to spend more money on self-care
Your weekend longread
We expect a lot of our presidents these days: the modern presidency has required that one person act as commander-in-chief, consoler-in-chief, policymaker-in-chief, and, depending on the day, a lot more.
It wasn’t always this way, and there’s a case to be made that the founders didn’t intend for the presidency to be the biggest and hardest job in the world. But here we are, writes John Dickerson in a big piece for the Atlantic, and for the first time in the modern era, a true outsider with no governing experience is assuming the trappings of a massive government apparatus that’s held to insanely high standards.
The provocative question at the heart of this one: is Trump a failure in the presidency, or is the presidency failing Trump?
Many of the responsibilities that vex Trump are ones that were not part of the job’s original design. They have accrued to the presidency over time, most in the recent past. The Framers, fresh from a successful rebellion against a tyrannical king, envisioned an executive who was limited in power and even stature. For a good long while, the design held. James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, was so concerned that the 11th president might enter a room unnoticed, she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to get people to turn their head when he arrived.
Today we notice when the president doesn’t show up. We are a president-obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens. And it may be that no man—or woman—can perform the ever-expanding duties of office while managing an executive branch of 2 million employees (not including the armed forces) charged with everything from regulating air pollution to x-raying passengers before they board an airplane.
Even the role of commander in chief, already one of the weightiest presidential responsibilities, has grown rapidly in its demands. National security is today threatened less by slow-moving armies than by stateless terror groups who might weaponize a rented truck and by rogue states who might weaponize an email. Rare is the day when one or more of these enemies don’t present an imminent danger requiring the president’s attention. “The modern presidency has gotten out of control,” Leon Panetta, who has served past presidents as the White House chief of staff, the secretary of defense, and the director of the CIA, told me recently. “Presidents are caught in a crisis-by-crisis response operation that undermines the ability of any modern president to get a handle” on the office.
The growth of presidential power is not new. When Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published The Imperial Presidency, in 1973, the term was already at least 10 years in use. But the office hasn’t just grown in power; it’s grown in scope, complexity, degree of difficulty. Each time a president has added to the job description, a new expectation has conveyed, like the Oval Office furniture, to the next man in line. A president must now be able to jolt the economy like Franklin Roosevelt, tame Congress like Lyndon Johnson, comfort the nation like Ronald Reagan.
What to look for next week
Trump’s BFF Macron has left D.C., and the White House’s next foreign guest is one with whom Trump has a chillier relationship: German chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrives on Friday. ABC News predicts the meeting will be “very sober.” Brookings, the think tank, has a good blog post situating Merkel’s visit in a “nadir” of relations between Berlin and Washington.
Also, it’s White House Correspondents Dinner season in D.C.! It’s a great, fun and not ethically problematic weekend during which journalists can enjoy the opportunity to rub elbows with C-list celebrities, lobbyists and generous corporate sponsors, and, most importantly, each other, as they celebrate the accomplishments and virtue of a free press.
For a second year, Trump is not going to the big dinner. At any rate, the last time Trump went to a WHCD, in 2011, Obama ribbed him mercilessly, and probably angered him enough to run for president in the first place. Thanks, Obama!
Congress is out next week, well, because. Folks have elections to run.
That’s all from me for this week. Thanks for sticking around. As always send me your hot takes and hot hotdish takes: firstname.lastname@example.org.