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D.C. Memo: With Fox and Friends like these, who needs enemies?

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Trump had a busy week.

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This week in Washington, Trump tweeted a lot of things in all-caps, affirmed the U.S. can’t lose a trade war, and assured the public of his “confidence” in the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, which means he’s got about a week until he gets fired.

This week in Washington

With Congress off again this week, President Donald Trump was on his phone — and on the warpath. Seemingly each day brought a fresh, fiery tweetstorm: one day against immigrants, Mexico, and Democrats, the next against China, or another against Amazon and its merciless robbery of the Postal Service. Need wall!

Let’s break it down: ensconced at Mar-A-Lago over the Easter weekend with his most hard-line adviser on immigration, Stephen Miller, Trump set some new immigration policy priorities in a series of tweets, as he continued to fume over Congress’ spending deal failing to advance his immigration priorities and granting just $1 billion for his beloved border wall.

It now appears the president’s focus is now on securing the border with Mexico: he has made clear his intent to send the U.S. military to guard the border in response to what he seems to believe is an urgent crisis in which massive flows of migrants are heading north.

“Honduras, Mexico and many other countries that the U.S. is very generous to, sends many of their people to our country through our WEAK IMMIGRATION POLICIES,” Trump declared on Monday. “Caravans are heading here. Must pass tough laws and build the WALL. Democrats allow open borders, drugs and crime!”

The “caravan” in question is a group of about 1,200 migrants, mostly Hondurans fleeing violence in their home country, who are making their way through Mexico to apply for asylum in the U.S. The “caravan” stuff has been picked up heavily on Fox News, which means it’s been picked up heavily by POTUS, who continues to treat the conservative news giant as an agenda-setting force. (WaPo has some on-the-ground reporting on what is actually going on with the caravan.)

To stop people and contraband from coming in, the administration will send the National Guard to the border in coming days — not to apprehend migrants, but to provide additional surveillance support and general backup. Past presidents have sent the Guard to the border in a similar fashion; President Barack Obama even routinely did so.

But that’s only happened at times when rates of illegal border crossings were high, like in the early 2000s, when there were millions of undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. 2017 saw about 300,000 illegal border crossings — the lowest level in 45 years. The administration counters that border crossings “surged” by about 37 percent in March.

For that, POTUS blamed DACA, the Obama-era program he terminated last year that allows young, undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally. “These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA,” he tweeted. “They want in on the act!”

That’s a hall of fame whopper, even from Trump: DACA only applies to young migrants who got to the U.S. at 2007, at latest. None of the people making their way to the U.S. border now could claim DACA; in fact, most plan to claim asylum. (There’s a strong case to be made, as the Baltimore Sun editorial board does here, that the president doesn’t really understand, or care, what DACA is or what it does.)

The Los Angeles Times has some more details about the National Guard’s border mission, about which key questions remain unanswered, such as: how long will the Guard be there? How many are going? What will it cost? Who knows! (It’s almost as if this significant decision was made entirely on the fly.)

If securing the border is one piece in the administration’s eyes, doing away with “weak” laws is the other. Trump suggested again that the Senate end its 60-vote threshold for passing legislation. This is a total non-starter, but even if it weren’t, the president’s preferred tough-on-immigration plan failed to get 40 votes in the Senate back in February, much less 50.

Key administration officials are reportedly working with congressional Republicans to put forward policy that would close “loopholes” in U.S. immigration law, in particular making it easier for U.S. authorities to quickly deport detained migrants, including children who are traveling unaccompanied, reports the NYT.

On to trade, the other big thing on the presidential brain this week: Trump had some things to say this week about the prospect of a trade war with China, which sharply increased this week after China unveiled a series of tariffs on over 100 U.S. imports, in response to new U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods. (CNBC has the full list, from whiskey and tobacco to pork and cotton.)

POTUS assured the nation, and anxious markets, that the U.S. needs to do something about trade, and it can’t get any worse because we’re already in the hole. “When you’re already $500 billion DOWN, you can’t lose!” the former casino mogul exclaimed.

Many would beg to differ with that claim: a lot of the products China is targeting — pork, soybeans, corn, cars — seem tailor-made to hurt the president’s standing in the Midwest and Rust Belt states that helped him most, by ravaging key industries.

With soybeans, for example, the top seven soybean-producing states include Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, and Indiana, all key to the 2016 Trump coalition. Soybeans are Minnesota’s top agricultural export, accounting for 30 percent of the state’s $7 billion in exports in 2016.  And China is the top destination for U.S. soybeans, buying two-thirds of all exports.

WaPo with some early political analysis, suggesting that the levies on soybeans, cherries, almonds, pork, and more could give Democrats a useful weapon to use against GOP incumbents in ag-heavy districts in the midterms. CNN reports that the move is also making life difficult for Trump-loving Republicans seeking to win Democratic seats; they focus on Jim Hagedorn, the Republican running to succeed Rep. Tim Walz in Minnesota’s 1st District, the “Bacon Capital of the World,” which could take a real hit with pork tariffs.

Farm groups are begging the White House to reconsider, reports Bloomberg. The soybean play could be China’s ace in a trade war, Yahoo speculates, given the howls of protest that are coming from the heartland on the soybean penalties.

Big picture: These penalties are much stronger than many expected, but it’s important to note that they’re simply proposed tariffs. Borrowing a page from the Art of the Deal, China might be making a splashy opening bid to get the Americans to the negotiating table — raising the possibility this could all be resolved without a back-and-forth of escalating tariffs, which is what the administration says it wants all along. (Reuters reports Wednesday that the U.S. is floating talks after the past week’s slugfest.)

Finally, the president also used his Twitter handle this week to go to war with Amazon: Trump has slammed the “stupid” e-commerce giant, saying it’s taken advantage of a favorable deal with the U.S. Postal Service to fleece taxpayers and subsidize its massive operations. Vox has a good run-down of what the president is charging here, and locates in Trump’s fuming a troubling trend — his tendency to go after individual companies and use his bully pulpit to put his thumb on the scales of the business world.

There’s score-settling involved in this one, reports Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman: POTUS apparently has an intense vendetta against Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who owns Trump’s bête noire, the Washington Post. Sherman’s White House sources say this is just the beginning of a “multi-front war” POTUS is envisioning against Bezos. (Isn’t there a saying about picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel? And also is the world’s richest man?)

This week in Cabinet Officials Behaving Badly: we’ve seen an all-time awful run of headlines for Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency who is notably not very big on the environmental-protecting part of the job.

ABC News reported over the weekend that Pruitt rented a room (at well below market rate) in a D.C. condo owned by a lobbyist working on behalf of energy interests — in particular, Cheniere Energy, a huge exporter of U.S. natural gas, the extraction of which happens to be a big business in Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma.

Months into Pruitt’s stay there, the EPA approved a pipeline that was being pushed by a client of the lobbyist landlord, per the NYT. The condo, the Daily Beast reports, was also home to fundraisers for GOP lawmakers.

The condo stuff was bad enough, but there’s more: the Atlantic reports that Pruitt used an obscure EPA hiring provision to give big raises to two top aides, circumventing the White House, which had rejected the proposed raises.

The EPA also considered a $100,000 per month private jet service to facilitate Pruitt’s travels as chief. This idea was shelved, so Pruitt just went on to spend a total of $168,000 to jet around the U.S. and abroad using commercial and military transport. One destination of Pruitt’s: Morocco, where he traveled to tout the benefits of buying U.S. natural gas. This is an unusual task for an EPA chief, or even a Cabinet official in general. (Consider again who Pruitt’s D.C. landlord was!)

In a different time, it’d take just one of these several bad stories to send Pruitt packing. Various outlets have reported that Trump is mad at Pruitt and that his job is in jeopardy. Chief of Staff John Kelly has wanted to give Pruitt the axe. But the EPA chief is among the president’s staunchest defenders, always a good path to sticking around, so Trump told reporters Thursday he still has confidence in Pruitt, though his press deputy said questions “need to be answered” about his conduct. See what happens on next week’s episode of The President!

For the first time, a charge from Robert Mueller’s team is leading to jail time: on Tuesday, a D.C. court sentenced Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer, to 30 days in jail and a $20,000 fine for lying to the special counsel about his contacts with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate, Robert Gates, both of whom face far more serious charges. Van der Zwaan, critically, also deleted emails that were requested by the special counsel, which was a bad idea.

WaPo’s Dana Milbank has some nice “Mueller time” scene from inside the courtroom. Dems, like Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, are saying this is a shot across the bow to the bigger players swept up in the investigation: lie to Mueller, and you’ll get jail time.

Relatedly, WaPo reports this week that the president is not seen as a criminal target by Mueller’s team — yet — meaning his team may not be issuing an indictment against him. However, they are expected to release a series of reports detailing a whole bunch of their findings on Trump-world’s ties with Russia, and any obstruction that may have taken place when Trump came into office. CNN reports that the special counsel’s team has been stopping Russian oligarchs upon entry to the U.S. to ask about any contributions to the Trump campaign.

WaPo’s Daily 202 has a good outline of what’s at play here, and what it means for the endgame of the special counsel’s probe.

Finally, some election news: a big night on Tuesday for Democrats next door in Wisconsin, where a left-leaning candidate for the state’s Supreme Court easily dispatched a right-leaning candidate in a closely watched contest.

After it was called, Gov. Scott Walker took to Twitter to warn Republicans that a blue wave will hit Wisconsin if they don’t step it up. BuzzFeed has a good report on what Walker is up to and how the one-time presidential favorite is quietly maintaining his national profile in the age of Trump.

The race in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District gets the New York Times treatment this week. CD8’s five DFL candidates had a debate on Wednesday, catch the Duluth News Tribune on it here.

More Minnesota in the NYT: the paper explores the growing trend of women managing major political campaigns, and talks to Minnesota’s own Becky Alery, who is managing the re-election of GOP Rep. Jason Lewis in Minnesota’s 2nd District. The whole piece is worth a read.

The week’s essential reads

The past year-plus of the Trump administration has seen battles over limiting travel to the U.S. by, mostly, nationals of Muslim-majority countries. Though those policies have been tied up in the courts, Politico crunched the numbers and found that in general, visa applications to the U.S. are down 13 percent under Trump, a trend that has accelerated in the last six months. Some cool graphics and charts here, too:

It’s unclear whether the drop is due to fewer people applying or more rejections of applications. The cause is likely some combination of both. The State Department furnishes data on how many visitor visas are granted per country, but releases only limited information on how many applications are received or refused.

But the decline comes as Trump is once again underscoring his hard-line views on immigration. … Evidence plainly indicates that Trump’s desire to restrict foreigners’ access to the U.S. has become a reality. Critics say that, by imposing new procedural and security hurdles, Trump and his aides are building a figurative wall to keep people out of America, even those who just want to come for a brief visit. The critics fear the drop in visas could damage industries, ranging from tourism to higher education.

“There’s been a concerted effort … to really slow down the wheels of immigration,” said Sirine Shebaya, a senior staff attorney with Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy organization. “There are particular immigrant populations that this administration does not see as fully belonging here in the United States, and it includes Muslims, it includes immigrants of color [and] it includes people from Africa.”

The rumors have been percolating for a while now: 2018, it seems, could be Paul Ryan’s last year as Speaker of the House — and possibly, his last year in Congress. Those rumors were fueled when a GOP backbencher from Nevada declared last month that Ryan would be gone within two months. Vox takes a look at the circumstances surrounding Ryan’s likely departure, and what it says about the GOP that its one-time savior is heading for the exits. Tara Golshan with the story:

On Capitol Hill, the likelihood of Ryan’s departure is no longer a question of will it happen but a matter of when and how. Will Ryan run for reelection first? Probably. Will he push for one more signature achievement, like entitlement reform, before he leaves? That seems less likely.

Underlying the chatter among Republicans is an understanding that the speakership has always been a thankless job, and has become all the more fraught under the Trump presidency. When Ryan took over the post, his ascendency was meant to usher in a new era in GOP politics, unified behind Obamacare repeal, tax cuts, and dismantling the welfare state. Instead, Ryan has placated a president who has no interest in his agenda, and who in many cases — like on immigration, trade, and entitlement reform — breaks with the party altogether.

Ryan’s conservatism is no longer seen as a uniting force in a fractured Republican House. Instead, Ryan has become an avatar for the Republican civil war.

America’s paper of record is thriving during the age of Trump, breaking essential stories about the administration and leading the way in reporting that gave rise to the #MeToo movement. But a big generational conflict is taking place inside the New York Times over those very issues, pitting the politics and sensibilities of the old guard versus a new crop of young, vocal journalists. Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has a look at the dynamic:

For most of its history, the Times has been an autocracy, with a church-like reverence for its values and traditions. Rebellion, as against executive editor Howell Raines in 2003, has often been to restore the old order rather than to overthrow it. But, as at many newsrooms and media offices, and in the culture at large, this is a moment of generational conflict not seen since the 1960s. “I’ve been feeling a lot lately like the newsroom is split into roughly the old-guard category, and the young and ‘woke’ category, and it’s easy to feel that the former group doesn’t take into account how much the future of the paper is predicated on the talent contained in the latter one,” a Times employee in that latter group told me a couple months ago. “I know a lot of others at the paper with similar positions to mine, especially women and people of color, who feel that senior staff isn’t receptive to their concerns.”

There have been various flash points with this conflict. When Vox revealed in November, for instance, that star political reporter Glenn Thrush had acted inappropriately with several female journalists who were more than a few years his junior, there was a contingent of predominantly younger, next-gen Times employees who felt strongly that the Times could not credibly continue to employ Thrush while also leading the charge in covering the cultural reckoning that had entangled him…

The most fractious convulsion along these lines has been the recent uproar over the Times’s op-ed section, specifically as it relates to a pair of new additions—conservative pundits Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss—who each possess certain contentious views.

As far as D.C. lobbying gigs go, it’s a pretty good one: head of the Motion Picture Association of America, which advocates on behalf of Hollywood’s studios. Charles Rivkin is now tasked with heading the MPAA, and is by all accounts perfect for the job: the business mind behind the Muppets empire rose to become a top diplomat in the Obama administration. But Trump’s Washington could be an inhospitable place for the movie biz, which is facing increasing financial and political pressures. The NYT takes a look at Rivkin and an important juncture for Hollywood in the world:

Depending on your perspective — and whether or not you see opportunity in upheaval — Mr. Rivkin’s timing either is perfect or couldn’t be worse.

There is little doubt about his point of view. Over dinner with a reporter at Bouchon Beverly Hills, he was in such a good mood about returning to moviedom that he broke into song as Gonzo, rasping out a couple of lines from “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” a song from “The Muppet Movie.” Mr. Rivkin then merrily downed an oyster, pinkie in the air, and called his new position “possibly the best job in the world.”

But Hollywood has changed immensely in the time he has been away. Attendance at theaters in the United States and Canada dropped 6 percent in 2017, to a 22-year low. Yet studios are more reliant than ever on the box office. … Many studio executives, while publicly silent, privately worry that Mr. Trump’s position on trade, in particular his aggressive stance toward China, will hurt their profitability.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

We’ve heard a lot lately about the MS-13 street gang from El Salvador — mostly out of the mouths of Trump and his deputies as a justification for hard-line policy to counter immigration both legal and illegal.

Federal law enforcement authorities are trying hard to counter the brutal and lethal gang, which has deep roots in Salvadoran expatriate enclaves around the U.S. Suffolk County, on New York’s Long Island, has been particularly violent, and a focal point of federal efforts.

In ProPublica, Hannah Dreier tells the remarkable story of one young MS-13 member on Long Island who had fallen in with a clique of gang members at his high school — “bored and anxious teenagers with machetes.” After this group perpetrated a murder, he made the decision to become an informant for the feds — but instead of protecting him, authorities will send the young man back to El Salvador, where he will likely be murdered himself. It’s a cycle that could have consequences for anyone thinking about coming forward with information on MS-13, making the task of countering the gang even harder.

He tore out the pages and hid them inside another assignment, like a message in a bottle. Then he walked up to his teacher’s desk and turned them in.

A week later, Henry was called to the principal’s office to speak with the police officer assigned to the school. In El Salvador, Henry had learned to distrust the police, who often worked for rival gangs or paramilitary death squads. But the officer assured Henry that the Suffolk County police were not like the cops he had known before he sought asylum in the United States. They could connect him to the FBI, which could protect him and move him far from Long Island.

So after a childhood spent in fear, Henry made the first choice he considered truly his own. He decided to help the FBI arrest his fellow gang members. Henry’s cooperation was a coup for law enforcement. MS-13 was in the midst of a convulsion of violence that claimed 25 lives in Long Island over the past two years.

President Trump had seized on MS-13 as a symbol of the dangers of immigration, referring to parts of Long Island as “bloodstained killing fields.” Police were desperately looking for informants who could help them crack how the gang worked and make arrests. Henry gave them a way in.

Under normal circumstances, Henry’s choice would have been his salvation. By working with the police, he could have escaped the gang and started fresh. But not in the dawning of the Trump era, when every immigrant has become a target and local police in towns like Brentwood have become willing agents in a nationwide campaign of detention and deportation. Without knowing it, Henry had picked the wrong moment to help the authorities.

What to look for next week

Congress returns, at long last, from its two-week Easter recess. What’s on the agenda? Reports that Speaker Ryan wants to put something big on the floor: an amendment to the Constitution requiring that the annual federal budget be balanced — in other words, that Washington’s expenses equal its revenue.

This idea is couched as a way to attack the $20 trillion federal debt, and it has been popular in conservative circles — and even Democratic ones — at various points for decades. But most people think it’s a pretty bad idea, and it’s virtually guaranteed to have no chance of getting the two-thirds support needed to pass. So why are Republicans — who just passed a tax bill and budget that will add trillions to the debt — taking up the fiscal crusade now? Read me from this week on it.

In a more realistic spending-cut move, there’s talk that House Republicans will hold votes on retroactively cutting funds that were appropriated in last month’s spending legislation. Considered alongside the balanced budget amendment, you sense a whole lot of anxiety from GOP types about their “fiscal conservative” branding.

Finally, next week, Mark Zuckerberg will make several appearances before members of Congress to answer their questions about Facebook’s roles in a mounting scandal involving privacy policy and the ability of third parties to take advantage of users’ personal data, sometimes for political purposes. Some juice was added to the scandal this week, as Zuckerberg revealed that “most” of Facebook’s two billion users have had their data compromised in some way, and that Cambridge Analytica, the digital firm that worked for the Trump campaign, got access to 87 million profiles, not 50 million, as was previously believed.

On Tuesday, Zuckerberg will appear before the Senate Commerce and Senate Judiciary Committees. (Sen. Amy Klobuchar is on the Judiciary Committee and has been vocal on the Facebook stuff, so watch her during the hearings.) On Wednesday, he’ll appear before the House’s commerce panel. To get you started, Bloomberg has a list of a few dozen questions lawmakers could ask.

That’s all for this week — thanks for sticking with me. As always, please drop me a line at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/06/2018 - 12:04 pm.

    We…

    We are now at the point when in his business life he would declare bankruptcy, screw everyone and start over with a new bag of schemes.

    Could some Trumpian explain how this translates to running the US Government?

    Maybe he relocates and starts over? Goes to Mexico and make us pay for the wall?

    I’m warming up to paying for the wall if he leaves in return.

    Can we give him North Dakota and he just goes away?

  2. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 04/06/2018 - 12:34 pm.

    Trump and tweets slamming business

    Anyone else wonder or suspect that every time Trump tweets an attack on a business such as Amazon or Boeing and drives the stock down that his family or other close to him make a profit off a short sale? A bit of insider trading and intentional manipulation of the market?

  3. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 04/06/2018 - 07:42 pm.

    Here’s where the trade war will end.

    We will roll back virtually all of the proposed tariffs. China will give us some minor, symbolic, benefits.

    Essentially nothing changes but Trump will declare victory.

    China’s playing chess, we’re playing tic-tac-toe.

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