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This week in Washington, the Speaker of the House announced he will be putting aside his gavel at the end of this year, having achieved his lifelong dream of slashing the corporate tax rate by nearly half and helping ordinary Americans get more take-home pay from their pass-through corporations. Happy trails, Paul!
This week in Washington
Congress is back and it’s a big, big week in news from Washington. Let’s start with Paul Ryan, who’s had enough of Washington: the sitting Speaker of the House of Representatives announced on Wednesday morning that he will not seek re-election, and that 2018 will be his last year as Speaker and as a member of Congress.
The news was not especially surprising: since December, plugged-in reporters from Politico and HuffPost published detailed stories indicating that Ryan was eyeing the exits, having put his biggest priority — a sweeping tax cut — into law. Ryan’s office dismissed these stories as inaccurate hearsay until the Speaker confirmed them this week with his announcement. (Another good reminder: don’t believe politicians!)
Ryan told reporters that he’s hoping to spend more time with his family back in Janesville, Wisconsin, after spending the last two decades in Congress. (Look! ’90s Paul Ryan!) But the former budget and tax committee chief — and the 2012 GOP veep nominee — never really craved the speakership. He stepped up in 2015 when John Boehner gave up the gavel, having grown tired of fending off mutinies from the party’s most conservative members.
It seems the one-time Wisconsin wunderkind is also tired of the game. The prospect of another term trying to corral a fractious conference and navigate a treacherous presidency — with the risk of being demoted to minority leader after November — Ryan decided he’d rather not stick it out. (He affirmed, though, that the political environment didn’t factor into his decision-making.)
Ryan’s departure will deprive the congressional GOP of its most high-profile figure and its most prolific fundraiser. He’s also been a key ally and rainmaker for like-minded Republicans like Rep. Erik Paulsen. So, who can fill Ryan’s shoes? Politico reported (days before he made the announcement, ahem) that the leading candidates are Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
McCarthy, a California Republican, has been in this spot before: he was Boehner’s heir apparent in 2015, but couldn’t close the deal. He very much wants to now, and he’s got a Trump card: the leader has made himself President Donald Trump’s indispensable man on the Hill. (Trump calls him “my Kevin.”) Scalise, meanwhile, has suggested he wouldn’t run against McCarthy, but he’s not considered out of the mix. (Of note: the Louisiana Republican is fresh off recovering from a near-lethal gunshot wound he sustained last summer, when a man open fired on lawmakers playing baseball.) If you’re so inclined, Politico Playbook, at its most insidery, goes deep into the jockeying for the speakership.
Ryan’s district, which encompasses southeastern Wisconsin, will also see its most competitive contest in decades, and some election forecasters immediately branded it a “toss-up” race on Wednesday. The ripple effects extend beyond WI-1: Ryan’s retirement is seen as another bad sign for Republicans’ chances in the 2018 midterms: FiveThirtyEight has some early analysis here. There’s also morale to consider: Politico with your pull-quote of the week from a former GOP congressman, who said “this is like Eisenhower stepping down before D-Day.”
Big picture: BuzzFeed with the broader look at Ryan’s political legacy. Politico’s Tim Alberta has perhaps the most generous political obit to date on Ryan, who he casts as something of a “tragic hero.” WaPo’s James Hohmann elucidates the strongest point: the GOP just doesn’t belong to people like Ryan anymore.
Is this really the end for Ryan? The guy’s only 48 and doesn’t lack ambition. He told CNN’s Jake Tapper he’s unlikely to run for anything again, at least while his kids are still “growing up.” Until then, he’ll probably rake in the GDP of a small country on the speaking circuit, or as a lobbyist.
Onto the other big story in D.C. this week: what the president will do about Syria. The White House is weighing some kind of retaliation against the regime of Bashar al-Assad after his forces almost certainly carried out a chemical weapons assault that killed dozens of people in a city near Damascus.
Trump has taken to calling the Syrian dictator “Animal Assad” and has repeatedly say he must pay a “big price” for using chemical weapons. Last year, Trump approved U.S. military strikes on a Syrian airfield after a chemical attack was carried out by Assad’s regime.
Things are, to say the least, more complicated now. Last week, Trump declared his intention to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, there to combat the Islamic State, over the strenuous objections of his advisors. (Read the Associated Press with background here, highlighting some truly incredible verbal gymnastics from the administration as they try to make it seem like this isn’t Trump telegraphing U.S. moves, something he blasted Barack Obama for.)
The president has said… a lot of things about Syria this week. He appeared to, again, violate his policy of not telegraphing moves by declaring on Wednesday that he’d order “nice, new, smart” missiles to hit Syrian targets, in response to Russian officials saying that they’d shoot down any U.S. missiles headed toward regime targets. (The U.S.-Russia escalation in Syria is a real thing, and some Kremlin-connected people have said this could lead to World War III. So, yeah, cooler heads and all that.)
On Thursday, POTUS tried to play coy again, tweeting that a strike on Syria could be “very soon” or “not so soon.” What could that move look like? We don’t really know, but the White House says “all options are on the table.” Expect this to probably be more extensive than last year’s strike.
In that vein: worth noting that this is the first week in the White House for John Bolton, the new national security adviser. Bolton, an old Bush administration hand, is D.C.’s biggest war hawk, and is likely to be an aggressive advocate for an aggressive military answer to Syria. The Onion, spot-on: “Bolton arrives in office excited to see so many familiar wars.”
Odds and ends: Congress continues to be salty about being sidelined for war authorization, which it has not explicitly granted for Syria. Good analysis from WaPo’s Ishaan Tharoor on the high-risk, low-reward situation that Trump is facing in Syria.
The other, other big story this week: major developments in the investigation of Trump and his associates by special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI. It wasn’t Mueller’s team that made the biggest news this week, but FBI agents in New York City, who carried out a raid of the home and offices of Michael Cohen, Trump’s tenacious and combative personal lawyer.
This is a big deal: the feds are sniffing around a guy with deep, complex ties to Trump and a paper trail as high as Trump Tower. They reportedly had search warrants related to documents about the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, as well as the $130,000 hush money dealt to porn star Stormy Daniels that Cohen says he orchestrated himself, days before the 2016 election, without Trump’s knowledge. (Vox with the big picture here.) Cohen himself is reportedly under investigation for bank fraud. AP has a good backgrounder on the president’s longtime fixer and consigliere.
Trump is absolutely livid — perhaps the angriest he’s ever been in office, reports NYT Trump-whisperer Maggie Haberman. Department of Justice officials signed off on the FBI raid, including deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who is in charge of the Russia investigation because his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, recused himself.
Growing buzz that POTUS will fire someone in the coming days — perhaps Rosenstein, or Sessions, or even Mueller himself. Steve Bannon — remember that guy! — is apparently pitching his old boss on a strategy to fire Rosenstein and enact, uh, “retroactive executive privilege.”
Trump tweeted on Thursday that if he had wanted to fire Mueller, he would have done so already, in response to an NYT report that Trump repeatedly asked about firing the special counsel back in December. On Monday, Trump responded to a reporter asking why he doesn’t just “fire the guy” by saying “many people” have been advising him to fire the special counsel, but suggested he’ll hold off for now. (In Obama-bro rag Crooked Media, a good analysis of why it’s problematic to goad this president like that.)
Lawmakers in both parties are pushing a bill to protect Mueller from being fired. Partisan Republicans have long claimed it’s not necessary because the president would never do such a thing, but that argument is looking hollower and hollower by the day. Senate Judiciary chief Sen. Chuck Grassley wants a vote, but the bill might not succeed. Watch this one closely in the next week.
Big picture at 1600 Penn: Trump is isolated and basically running his own show. Chief of Staff John Kelly, WaPo reports, has been significantly marginalized in recent weeks.
On the Hill: this week saw the spectacle of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook and one of the world’s most powerful people, answering basic questions from members of Congress about how his platform works. (You could say there was some interest.)
Members of Congress hauled Zuckerberg up to the Hill for testimony in the wake of mounting scandal about the social media giant’s privacy practices, which have left literally billions of users vulnerable to third-party actors looking to access their personal data and use it for their own ends. (Such as, for example, winning the 2016 presidential election for Donald Trump.)
It’s a time of profound unease about the role big tech companies play in our society and in politics. So it wasn’t especially comforting to watch these hearings — two marathon sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday — in which observers, like the NYT’s Kevin Roose, witnessed lawmakers demonstrate how unequipped Congress is for the difficult task of writing smart policy governing the tech sector.
The Atlantic explores one exchange between Zuckerberg and Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy as a metaphor for the whole episode, and for the complexity of the problem. (Preview: no one can seem to articulate what the problem is.)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar had a chance to question Zuck, an opportunity she used to tout her so-called Honest Ads Act, which would subject political advertisements that run on social media to the same disclosure and transparency rules that TV and print ads are subjected to. The idea is to give social media users a better idea of who is behind shadowy online ads, after Russia and others took advantage of them to shape public opinion ahead of the 2016 elections. (You can read my primer on it here.)
Facebook has, essentially, agreed to implement the Honest Ads Act on its own, but Klobuchar and others want to pass the bill. Relatedly: a new Politico poll finds over 70 percent of people don’t trust Facebook to do the right thing on its own.
In general, though, some real news and progress was made, past the tech support jokes. Zuckerberg did a few key things: he took ownership of what’s going on with his company, and apologized for it. He publicly affirmed that Facebook is responsible for what appears on its site, which sounds simple but is actually a big deal with major implications, per Business Insider.
Assorted stuff: WaPo rounds up some of the key news from Zuckerberg’s appearance, in both the Senate and the House sessions. The Guardian has the five biggest takeaways. Zuckerberg was praised for his performance — and the market rewarded him, with Facebook’s value increasing by several billion dollars during his Tuesday hearing — but the Intercept’s David Dayen argues he was incredibly evasive on the stand.
A little Minnesota grab-bag: national coverage of a potential trade war between the U.S. and China, which would slam the agriculture industry first and hardest, has framed Minnesota as ground zero, with outlets like the Washington Post notching Mankato datelines.
I wrote this week on how the administration’s trade moves are playing differently in Minnesota’s 1st District — home to ag interests deeply troubled by what’s happening on trade — and Minnesota’s 8th, where mining interests are cheering tariffs on imported steel. Both are big Trump districts, and both are seen as must-win pick-ups by the GOP.
The prospect of a wider trade war that drags farmers is creating headaches for pro-Trump candidates like Jim Hagedorn, running in CD1, who simply told me that trade stuff is… “unfolding.” You could say that again: on Thursday, the president said he’d consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 11-country trade pact, as a way of protecting U.S. farmers, who loved the Obama-backed deal. As a candidate, of course, Trump railed against TPP and when he took office, he cast his official withdrawal of the U.S. from the pact as a major achievement.
Relatedly, the House Agriculture Committee just released its version of the Farm Bill, the nearly $1 trillion piece of legislation that lays out nutrition and farm funding for several years. Dems are livid over the bill because it makes deep cuts to SNAP, or food stamps. Read me from a few weeks ago on the impasse, and the low prospects for compromise on the Farm Bill this year.
Finally, the Trump administration — after months of foot-dragging — named a nominee for U.S. attorney for Minnesota, Erica MacDonald. She is a former assistant U.S. attorney and current Dakota County judge, and her nomination was praised by Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Panel.
This week’s essential reads
For the fired-up Democratic Party base, getting control of the House is essential, in order to check the president — and, possibly, to have a shot at impeaching him. Now, anxious Republicans are trying to turn this around on them, by using Dems’ calls for impeachment as a way to gin up the conservative base to show up in November and stop a “coup” of Trump. The NYT’s Jonathan Martin with the story:
The appeals have become a surefire way for candidates to raise small contributions from grass-roots conservatives who are devoted to Mr. Trump, veteran Republican fund-raisers say. But party strategists also believe that floating the possibility of impeachment can also act as a sort of scared-straight motivational tool for turnout. Last week, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas used his re-election kickoff rally to introduce a video featuring a faux news anchor reading would-be headlines were conservatives not to vote in November.
“Senate Majority Leader Schumer announced the impeachment trial of President Trump,” one of the anchors says. …
Democrats are divided on how to respond to the charge. Many top officials in the capital fear it is a political trap that would distract from their core message and possibly even boomerang to harm them in November. (Mr. Schumer himself has said he thinks impeachment is premature at the moment.) But other more progressive figures see impeachment as a rallying cry of their own to galvanize the left’s anti-Trump base.
It’s been about six months since Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s arch-conservative budget chief, took the reins at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the finance industry watchdog celebrated by liberals. Mulvaney has previously called the agency he leads “sad” and “sick,” and like many Republicans, he’d prefer it didn’t exist. The way he’s leading it, the CFPB might as well not exist. The Associated Press finds that CFPB activity is at an all-time low:
A review of a CFPB database obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information request shows that the bureau issued an average of two to four enforcement actions a month under former Director Richard Cordray, President Obama’s appointee. But the database shows zero enforcement actions have been taken since Nov. 21, 2017, three days before Cordray resigned.
Before Mulvaney, the bureau used enforcement actions to extract billions of dollars in relief for consumers from financial companies and to stop companies from doing harm. Bank of America was ordered to return $727 million to consumers for deceptive credit card practices in 2015 — the largest award in the bureau’s history — but the CFPB has issued dozens of smaller actions to get relief for student borrowers, victims of debt collection companies and bank customers. …
While consumer advocates expected fewer enforcement actions under a more business-friendly Trump administration, the fact that the database indicates they have stopped entirely raises concern that consumers have been left vulnerable. There were some periods under the Obama administration where bureau enforcement actions slowed, but those appear largely tied to the fact the agency was just getting underway. This is the longest stretch without enforcement actions in the CFPB’s history.
We all know that Donald Trump came to office promising to “drain the swamp,” and there are many examples of POTUS not draining the swamp but making it, in fact, swampier. This week sees another good example: McClatchy finds that, in filling administration and federal posts, Trump-world has passed over the outsiders and loyalists that propelled Trump to the presidency, instead elevating swampy establishment figures to key posts. Anita Kumar with the story:
All across the country, the White House has passed over diehard Trump supporters for state-based federal appointments, instead handing those jobs to people who didn’t back Trump, didn’t help Trump, didn’t even agree with Trump.
“My big joke is if I wanted a job in the administration I should have supported Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush,” said Scottie Nell Hughes, an outspoken supporter of Trump from Hendersonville, Tenn.
In more than two dozen interviews with Trump supporters in 13 states stretching from Florida to California, McClatchy found the Trump base seething over a White House that has sidelined people who worked to get this unconventional candidate elected in favor of establishment Republicans and veteran operatives — the wealthy and elitist “swamp-dwelling” insiders this president swore to rid from government.
Worse, according to Trump’s backers, is that his team is appointing not only establishment Republicans, but Republicans who supported Cruz, Rubio and Kasich or worked for the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
The era of Donald Trump — as candidate and as president — has seen a shocking, but perhaps not surprising, spike in bashing of Muslims and Muslim-Americans by elected officials and party officers, who are almost always Republicans. A BuzzFeed News investigation found that since 2015, some anti-Muslim incident has happened in 49 out of 50 states, whether it was a Nebraska lawmaker insisting Muslims eat pork before entering the U.S. or a Rhode Island politician advocating to put Syrian refugees into camps. The details:
Those are among dozens of examples of state and local Republican politicians and officials publicly attacking Islam in 49 states since 2015, typically with impunity, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis. Some elected officials shared hate-filled social media posts urging violence against Muslims, while others used subtler, loaded language to smear Islam as they opposed mosque-building projects or wrote bills aimed at what they portrayed as the threat of Sharia.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric in virtually every state reflects the general coarsening of political speech in the anything-goes era of President Donald Trump, who’s lashed out at Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, women, and other targets. Still, the jabs at Islam are set apart by their sheer ugliness as well as by companion efforts aimed at restricting Muslim civil liberties and immigration. Muslim groups worry that politicians’ unchecked vilification of a religion followed by more than 3.3 million Americans opens the door for even bigger blows than the travel ban.
“It has become an acceptable plank within the Republican Party to demonize Muslims,” said Robert McCaw, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group. “Policymakers take ideas and turn them into action. That can endanger communities like American Muslims if Islamophobic sentiment is turned into law.”
The week in takes
HuffPost’s Matt Fuller: Paul Ryan’s real legacy is Donald Trump
WaPo’s Karen Attiah: We should pay Trump to resign
The New Republic’s Brian Beutler: The surrender of the Confederacy (150 years ago this week) should be a national holiday
Conservative think tank guy Michael Rubin: It’s time to assassinate Bashar al-Assad
The Wall Street Journal’s Moby: The government should prohibit people on food stamps to buy junk food
Your weekend longread
The Trump era has seen a lot of noise about campus politics — specifically, the leftward tilt of those politics, and the notion, widely held among conservatives, that they are being shut out of students’ worlds by overzealous liberal professors and institutions.
Enter Turning Point USA, a conservative youth group led by Charlie Kirk, a 24-year old who is the buttoned-down picture of Reaganite college Republicanism. Kirk, backed by billionaire conservatives, is vowing to change all that by sparking a grassroots movement on America’s campuses to show students the light of free-market capitalism.
Politico Magazine’s Joseph Guinto has a good, deeply-reported look at Turning Point and Kirk, raising some legitimate questions as to how effective the group’s mission and tactics really are.
Making conservatism cool isn’t officially one of Turning Point USA’s objectives, but it’s never really far from the agenda. The group’s motto is “Big Government Sucks.” Or, as it is usually rendered, #BigGovSucks. Its chapters hold meetings and stage events in support of limited government and the free market; its national office publishes liberal-tweaking pamphlets and crafts social-media memes.
The mission might sound clear enough, but some of what Turning Point USA actually does is anything but. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Turning Point USA is required to be “nonpartisan,” which means it can’t endorse candidates or support political campaigns. But a recent New Yorker investigation found former employees who said Turning Point USA had done work for two different candidates in the 2016 presidential race.
Adding to the murkiness, Turning Point USA also says it is running a campus leadership program that has—through training or direct financial support—helped more than 50 conservatives be elected student-body president, including at left-leaning campuses. It’s proud of the program and uses it to fundraise, but when I started making calls, I found that success rate to be considerably overstated. In fact, some of the students that Turning Point USA claimed to have backed flatly condemned the organization and said they’d never spoken to anyone who works for it.
At the center of the puzzle of Turning Point USA stands one person: 24-year-old Charlie Kirk, the founder, public face and chief fundraiser for Turning Point USA. He started the group just one day after he graduated from Wheeling High School in suburban Chicago, saying back then that Turning Point USA’s mission was to cheerlead for the free market. The donors I spoke to for this story still see that as central to this mission.
But Kirk, not unlike the GOP overall, has become split between Trump—an ardent trade protectionist whose policies could push the federal deficit over $1 trillion—and the free-market, limited-government principles espoused in the group’s charter.
What to look for next week
Trump was slated to head to Lima, Peru, on Friday for the 8th Summit of the Americas, a big meeting of leaders of Western Hemisphere nations held every three years.
Citing the need to monitor developments in Syria, however, Trump announced he will skip the summit, and send the vice president in his stead. This marks the first time ever a POTUS has skipped this Americas meeting since it began in 1994. Recall that when he ordered the military to strike a Syrian airfield last April, Trump was at his Mar-A-Lago club in Florida. Some more cynical observers think it’s more likely that a stewing Trump wants to stay home to monitor developments in the Mueller investigation and the Cohen break-in.
Also in foreign policy, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee is slated to vote next week on advancing the nomination of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. Pompeo is the current CIA director, and a former Kansas congressman known for his hard-line conservative views. His confirmation hearing was today, and some early takeaways: Pompeo pushed back on the idea he is a hawk (while advancing hawkish views on North Korea), revealed he’d been questioned by Mueller, and faced scrutiny over his controversial views on Muslims. He faces a very tough path to confirmation, preview from Foreign Policy here.
Closer to home, Democrats meet in Duluth this weekend to endorse a candidate for the 8th District congressional race. This should be a contentious battle, with five candidates vying for the party’s nod, none of whom are clear favorites. (I’ve got your broad look at the race here.)
I’ll be braving the snow and driving up to Duluth this weekend to cover the convention, so follow my updates in what could be Minnesota’s most contentious intra-party fight this cycle. I’m on Twitter at @sambrodey, if that’s your thing.
Until then, thanks for sticking with me. Send me your thoughts on this newsletter — and tips on what to do, see, and eat around Duluth, at firstname.lastname@example.org.