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D.C. Memo: If you’re getting this memo, it means the sinkhole hasn’t gotten me yet

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The White House sinkhole, contained.

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This week in Washington, Congress actually passed some significant legislation, the president whiffed on his big chance at a Nobel Peace Prize, and the Capitol’s immigration fights are threatening to derail Paul Ryan’s slow sailing into the sunset.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where a large and growing sinkhole is developing on the White House lawn. Irony is dead; the Swamp is literally alive and well.

Who could have possibly seen this one coming: the much-anticipated June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has been canceled. Kim’s recent softening of tone gave way to North Korea’s signature saber-rattling style, with his camp growing angry at U.S. insistence they give up their nuclear program. Also not helping things was rhetoric from Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, comparing North Korea to Libya — where dictator Muammar Gaddafi once gave up a nuclear program. Things did not turn out super well for him later on.  

On Thursday, Trump sent a letter to Kim formally calling off their scheduled meeting in Singapore. (Politico annotated the letter, if you want more context.) Some early reports indicate that Trump’s scuttling of the meeting may have caught the South Koreans off-guard — not a great sign of the White House’s commitment to working alongside its most important partner in this negotiation.

The first face-to-face meeting between a U.S. and North Korean leader — which could have led to a landmark peace deal — is now tabled, indefinitely. What they’re saying: Vox’s Matt Yglesias wonders why Trump’s diplomacy on Korea was ever taken seriously; prominent international think-tank type Richard Haass said Trump set himself up for failure by setting the bar for the summit too high; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says Kim was sabotaging the summit and that it was smart to walk away.

My take: the most important thing here is what will happen to all the special “challenge coins” that the government already made and issued to a commemorate a summit that has not, and will not, happen. And what happened is they are now the “deal of the day” on the White House’s online gift shop — yours for the low, low price of $19.95!

It was a busy week on Capitol Hill: the president signed into law three significant pieces of legislation that cleared Congress. One was a modest rollback of some regulations on the financial sector, put into place by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, which had been in the works for months. (You can read my story on the legislation, from March, here.)

The House voted on Tuesday, 258 to 159, to approve the legislation, after key House conservatives agreed to advance the Senate’s version of the bill, which was more limited than the House’s, and seen as less of a blow to Dodd-Frank. A few dozen Democrats voted in favor of the bill, including Rep. Collin Peterson of the 7th District — who frequently votes with Republicans — and Rep. Rick Nolan of the 8th District.

Minnesota’s two reps on the Financial Services panel had two very different stories to tell about this bill: Rep. Keith Ellison called it a “disgraceful handout to Wall Street;” Rep. Tom Emmer said it was “a major step forward for this country, its economy and for all Americans.”

On Tuesday, the House also sent to Trump’s desk the so-called “right to try” bill, which makes it easier for terminally ill people to access experimental medications that could save their lives. (Nearly all Democrats opposed it.) NPR has a good breakdown of the legislation, including reasons why major groups like the American Lung Association opposed it.

Congress has also sent to 1600 Penn an overhaul of the way veterans get their government-guaranteed health insurance: by overwhelming margins, lawmakers approved the $55 billion VA Mission Act that would expand vets’ ability to go to private doctors. It’s a response to long-simmering issues at the Veterans Administration

The capital’s big fight over immigration continued to brew this week: more Republicans have signed on to a petition that would force a roll call vote on a slate of immigration bills, including ones that would offer some lasting solution for the young, undocumented youth known as Dreamers who are currently in limbo.

On Wednesday, Rep. Erik Paulsen signed onto the discharge petition, saying in a statement that Trump and GOP leaders have failed to fix DACA and that it’s time for lawmakers to act. As of now, by my count there are 23 Republicans, mostly moderates facing tough re-election battles, who have signed on to the petition. With all Democrats expected to join them, just five more Republicans are needed to force votes. 

GOP leadership, particularly Speaker Paul Ryan, has worked very, very hard to avoid this scenario. While the Senate had a freewheeling but ultimately fruitless immigration vote in February, Ryan has so far refused to entertain anything like that.

The outgoing speaker is under pressure not just from centrists, but the far-right Freedom Caucus as well: last Friday, Republicans from that group sank the Farm Bill because Ryan wouldn’t guarantee a vote on a Trump-approved immigration bill that they want to advance.

Leaders of the discharge petition effort said Thursday that the factions have worked out a deal “in principle” on immigration votes, which will settle as lawmakers head home for the upcoming Memorial Day recess. The Republicans who could push the petition to the 218 signatures required to force votes on immigration say they’ll wait to see what the deal looks like when the House returns in June.

Broadly, it’s rebellion on all sides for Ryan — who has vowed to serve out the rest of his term as speaker — and multiple outlets have reported this week (NYT here, Politico here) that the immigration episode is sucking away whatever juice he had left, boosting calls for him to step aside and allow his heir apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, to get started.

In the Senate, a breakthrough on changes to the way Capitol Hill deals with harassment claims: Sen. Amy Klobuchar reached a deal with Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, to rework the system to make it easier for victims to file claims by cutting existing red tape. It also aims to place more “accountability” on offending lawmakers, who to this point have enjoyed taxpayer-funded settlements of harassment and misconduct claims.

The deal has its fair share of critics, however, particularly on the House side of the Capitol, which already passed a fairly strong harassment procedure reform act this year. California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, a leader on the issue, said the Senate deal “appears to shift the power back to the institution instead of the victims.”

Farther afield: Trump administration negotiators are declaring a cease-fire in the trade war between the U.S. and China this week. Treasury chief Steven Mnuchin, leading the team working with China, said the two countries will drop the hundreds of billions worth of threatened tariffs for now, as they work toward a broader agreement to lay down a framework for economic relations.

Trump’s team is laser-focused on reducing the U.S. trade deficit with China by compelling the Chinese to buy more American products. Critics are saying that’s not enough, and think the real prize is an agreement on intellectual property protections. But there’s discord on the White House’s China team: Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is more inclined to compromise with Beijing, while a key economic adviser, Peter Navarro, views China as an enemy and existential threat to the U.S.

The Daily Beast reports the two men have gotten into screaming matches, with Navarro comparing Mnuchin to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Hitler. The New York Times reports on how that schism is undermining the administration’s effectiveness.

Bigger picture: WaPo’s Heather Long says China is winning the trade war, anyway. This photo of U.S. and Chinese negotiators at the table is going viral on Chinese social media, and the backstory is pretty fascinating.

Another school shooting — this time in Santa Fe, Texas, which claimed 10 lives. Hardly a peep on Capitol Hill about gun measures. WaPo asked every member of the House where they stand on the Parkland activists’ gun control agenda; it’s worth checking out. Vox reports student activists are renewing their push after the Texas shooting.

The president, growing increasingly wary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is trying to make “spygate” a thing, following reports that a longtime U.S. intelligence source, Cambridge professor Stefan Halper, made contacts with the Trump campaign ahead of the 2016 election in hopes of assessing any Russian influence on the campaign.

In other Mueller news, Trump’s Israel/Mexico/Middle East/business innovation czar, Jared Kushner, was interviewed by the special counsel a second time, sitting for questioning for seven hours. A hearty congratulations to Kushner for finally getting his official security clearance — just in time, too, since it seems he’s extremely influential in the White House these days.

To the MinnPost Elections MegaDoppler: at an event for a pro-life group, POTUS joked that it’s less important for Republicans to get out and vote in 2018 than it was in 2016. (The key difference seems to be that Donald Trump is not on the ballot.) Certainly, Trump ally Mitch McConnell is super happy about that.

Speaking of 2016, I’ve got a story to plug: you might recall, during that year, former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman declared in a dramatic Star Tribune op-ed that he would “never vote for Donald Trump.” I can report that, two years later, Coleman, now a D.C. power-lobbyist, very much plans to vote for Trump.

This week’s essential reads

There might not be a story that better sums up how Trump’s administration has filled the Swamp than the tale of Elliott Broidy, a Trump-backing GOP money man, and his associate George Nader, two power and money-hungry lobbyists who aimed to take advantage of the administration to advance the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — and make themselves rich in the process. The AP’s Desmond Butler and Tom LoBianco have the comprehensive investigation, which is so worth your time:

Broidy and his business partner, Lebanese-American George Nader, pitched themselves to the crown princes as a backchannel to the White House, passing the princes’ praise — and messaging — straight to the president’s ears.

Now, in December 2017, Broidy was ready to be rewarded for all his hard work. It was time to cash in.

In return for pushing anti-Qatar policies at the highest levels of America’s government, Broidy and Nader expected huge consulting contracts from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to an Associated Press investigation based on interviews with more than two dozen people and hundreds of pages of leaked emails between the two men. The emails reviewed by the AP included work summaries and contracting documents and proposals.

The AP has previously reported that Broidy and Nader sought to get an anti-Qatar bill through Congress while obscuring the source of the money behind their influence campaign. A new cache of emails obtained by the AP reveals an ambitious, secretive lobbying effort to isolate Qatar and undermine the Pentagon’s longstanding relationship with the Gulf country.

Broidy’s campaign to alter U.S. policy in the Middle East and reap a fortune for himself shows that one of the president’s top money men found the swamp as navigable as ever with Trump in office.

One of the many compelling political stories of the Trump presidency has been evangelical Christians’ enthusiastic backing of a man who, though perhaps not especially pious himself, has set about fulfilling the wishlist of the religious right. An under-reported side of the story is the rise of the religious left — a diverse coalition of faith leaders who are trying to redefine religious politics around economic justice, not social issues. The Guardian’s Lauren Gambino with more:

As one group of faith leaders celebrates the fruits of a decades-long alliance with the Republican party, another is mounting a multi-faith challenge to the dominance of the Christian right, in an attempt to recapture the moral agenda.

“There is no religious left and religious right,” Rev. William Barber, a pastor and political leader in North Carolina, told the Guardian. “There is only a moral center. And the scripture is very clear about where you have to be to be in the moral center – you have to be on the side of the poor, the working, the sick, the immigrant.”

Frustrated by conservative Christians’ focus on culture wars over issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Barber leads an ascendent grassroots movement that is trying to turn the national conversation to what they believe are the core teachings of the Bible: care for the poor, heal the sick, welcome the stranger.

The Poor People’s Campaign, a revival of Martin Luther King’s final effort to unite poor Americans across racial lines, last week brought together activists from several faiths, the Women’s March, the labor movement and other liberal organizations to launch 40 days of civil disobedience and protest against inequality, racism, ecological devastation and militarism. As many as 1,000 people were arrested during the first wave. More expect to be held in future.

Kellyanne Conway has become a household name for guiding Trump to victory in 2016 and relentlessly defending him on TV ever since. Her husband, a prominent conservative attorney named George Conway, has made a name for himself for a different reason: slamming the president on Twitter. Politico’s Annie Karni has the dish on the Conway household, which doubles as an interesting look into how an influential group of conservative lawyers is navigating the Trump era:

The pushback coming from inside the house of Trump’s lead cable-news defender has become one of Washington’s favorite family dramas. In “Conway versus Conway,” George attacks the president, or seems to defend the Mueller probe, while Kellyanne puts her own credibility on the line to defend Trump, who has escalated his verbal assaults on the Russia inquiry and this week even demanded an investigation of the investigation.

Conway now has nearly 50,000 followers, and his tweeting—the majority of it retweets, rather than his own commentary—has attracted the notice of everyone from conservative legal scholars to TV host Whoopi Goldberg, who gave him a shoutout on a recent episode of ABC’s “The View”: “I say George, keep it up, honey. Whether your wife gets it or not, stay sane. It’s a good thing to stay sane.”

Asked to explain his public feud with his wife’s boss, Conway declined to comment or elaborate on his tweets. “If I wanted to say anything publicly,” he said in a direct message on Twitter, “I would just say it.”

But friends and professional acquaintances say Conway’s tweets are just the tip of an iceberg of frustration with Trump that has only grown over the past year. While Conway has always been known as a contrarian, however, some friends have been surprised and disappointed by the public airing of anti-Trump sentiment from a man who is known to value discretion.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Whenever there’s something new from Mark Leibovich, it’s always a drop-what-you’re-doing situation. Thankfully, in time for the Memorial Day weekend, the New York Times Magazine’s chief political writer has another well-reported, sharply-observed, and smoothly-written dispatch from Trump’s Washington — this time, about the men and women who go to work every day to speak on behalf a president whose signature calling card is speaking for himself at all times and under any circumstances.

In peeling back the personalities and proclivities of the people who have become memes, household names, perma-fixtures on cable TV and SNL bits in the age of Trump, Leibovich gets to a deep well of weirdness of this political moment and president: how the least relevant communications staff in modern history has become more famous, embattled, reviled, and stressed-out than any who came before it.

Who is Hogan Gidley? Or “What’s a Hogan Gidley?” as Senator Lindsey Graham asked of Senate aides after Gidley, a deputy White House press secretary, accused the South Carolina Republican in March of supporting an immigration policy “that sides with people in this country illegally and unlawfully.”

In real life, a Gidley is an unmarried 41-year-old from South Carolina whose West Wing office is stocked with bottles of Muscle Milk. He is a mop-haired Republican flack who has bounced around government and campaign jobs and dresses better than most political operatives do, a fact he attributes to his mother’s previous work as a high-end accessories buyer at an apparel store. …

To speak for any White House is a delicate exercise even in the best of circumstances. You’re trying to relay a president’s message while also disseminating little actual information; you’re taking abuse from the press while trying, theoretically, to assist them; you’re selling the president’s agenda while not stealing too much of his spotlight. Also, be careful: Your words can move markets, offend entire religions and trigger international incidents — or, in this case, trigger the “audience of one” tuned in to his surrogates from upstairs.

But speaking for President Donald J. Trump presents a particular set of challenges. In Gidley’s case, it means saying things that Gidley might normally not be inclined to say, or defending things he might normally have a hard time defending, or offending people in ways that might defy his otherwise pleasing nature. But Gidley is willing to do it, and that, perhaps more than any of his other qualities, is why I had become fascinated with him.

What to look for next week

Congress has already taken off for its 11-day Memorial Day recess. Capitol Hill will be quiet until June 4. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is talking about canceling the Senate’s August recess to complete the very important work that the Senate is most certainly behind on.

Washington may just be getting started on rolling back Dodd-Frank: next week the Federal Reserve Bank’s board will meet to consider changes to the Volcker Rule, which prohibits banks from making certain kinds of risky investments with federally-secured deposits, also known as people’s money. Implemented after the financial crash, the Volcker Rule — named for Paul Volcker, Fed chair in the Carter and Reagan years  — is loathed by Wall Street’s biggest institutions, and they’re pushing for major changes. WaPo’s Tory Newmyer has a good round-up.

That’s all for me for this week. Thanks for sticking with me. Enjoy the long weekend, and feel free to drop me a line at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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