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D.C. Memo: No deal or no deal

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Trump and Republicans have argued the Iran deal was a give-away that didn’t stop them from developing a bomb later on.

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This week in Washington, President Trump moved to terminate U.S. involvement in the Iran nuclear agreement, causing consternation in the international community, heightened tensions in the Middle East, and John Kerry to sit back in an armchair and shake his head somberly.

This week in Washington

There was so much news this week, it felt like a month, so let’s get cracking. President Donald Trump took one of his most significant steps yet toward undoing the legacy of his predecessor: announcing the U.S. would break the so-called “nuclear deal” that Barack Obama made with Iran and five other world powers.

For years, Trump has said the Iran deal was one of the worst ever made, a total embarrassment to the U.S. His announcement on Tuesday came as no surprise — in fact, close Trump-watchers were surprised it took him so long to do it.

The basis of the agreement is that the U.S. and the other signatories of the agreement — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China – would lift crippling economic sanctions on Iran in return for Iranian leaders promising to halt their nuclear program and agreeing to a strict accountability regime that included random inspections of their energy facilities.

Trump and Republicans have argued the deal was a give-away to Iran that didn’t stop them from developing a bomb later on — or from engaging in other things, like supporting militant groups like Hezbollah and developing ballistic missiles, right now.

So the U.S. will exit the deal, which was painstakingly brokered by Obama and his top diplomat, John Kerry, over the course of several years and alongside close allies and rivals alike. (The Boston Globe has a good reflection on that effort.) The deal isn’t technically dead without the U.S., but with Trump promising to reinstate tough sanctions on Iran, the dynamic of the pact has fundamentally changed. Iran and the remaining five countries have talked about trying to push forward, but no one sounds especially optimistic.

Republicans celebrated Trump’s move as one that makes the U.S., Israel, and the region safer. Democrats slammed it as a step on the road to war, and a serious hit to whatever credibility the Trump administration had left on the global stage. (Vanity Fair’s Abigail Tracy outlines the possible road to armed conflict with Iran that Trump’s move may have set off.)

I rounded up the reaction to the decision from Minnesota’s members of Congress, and it split along party lines. Of note, though: conservative Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, who voted against the Iran deal when it came to Congress in 2015, said exiting the agreement now is a mistake.

More on this important and complicated move: Vox has a good post explaining what happened and outlining the top-line impacts. The New York Times with a dispatch from Tehran, where Iranians are afraid the U.S. move will hurt an already bad economy. Closer to home: big companies — like Boeing, which had a $20 billion contract to provide planes for an Iranian airline — are already feeling the negative effects, writes the Guardian.

Looking ahead: the NYT explores what Trump’s breaking of the Iran deal means as the U.S. heads into hugely consequential talks with North Korea over that country’s nuclear program. Reuters on how Trump’s move is a huge win for Iran’s arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia, which is vowing to build a bomb of its own if Iran moves forward with its program. Israel, perhaps the biggest cheerleader of Trump’s move, has traded live missile fire with Iran in the last day or two, with Israel striking a range of Iranian targets in Syria and Iran sending missiles into Israel for perhaps the first time.

Big confirmation hearing this week on Capitol Hill: Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to answer lawmakers’ questions. Hers is one of the president’s more controversial appointments: a longtime U.S. spy, Haspel was tasked with running a secret CIA “black site” prison in Thailand after September 11.

There, Haspel’s facility carried out “enhanced interrogation” — including waterboarding — and she destroyed video evidence of interrogations. (The NYT ran a harrowing op-ed from a woman who was detained, while pregnant, at the Thailand prison.) Those facts alone make Haspel a no-go for many senators, including Republicans like Sen. John McCain, even though she promised never to revive the Bush-era torture program.

Haspel was legalistic and technical in her responses to senators, who were most interested in getting at her moral character — particularly, say, if a certain president were to have a mind to reinstate past torture techniques. Many Democrats left unsatisfied: the Washington Post’s Ben Terris wrote that their attempts to get specifics out of Haspel was like “interrogating vapor.”

But thanks to the likely support of some Democrats — i.e. those up for re-election in Trump states this fall — Haspel is expected to be confirmed. Sen. Tina Smith will vote no on Haspel, saying on Facebook that torture has “no place in American government.” Far as I can tell, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has not indicated how she might vote. (Last year, Klobuchar expressed reservations about now-Sec. of State Mike Pompeo as CIA chief, but voted for him in the name of having someone in charge of the agency.)

The saga of Michael Cohen, the president’s embattled personal lawyer, just keeps getting weirder: recent reporting indicates that Trump’s longtime fixer was shopping himself around to corporate interests after the election, looking to score big paydays from execs hungry for intel on the new president. WaPo reports that Cohen raked in at least $2.3 million from the private sector, and told people last summer he was “crushing it.”

Two companies — Novartis and AT&T — have confirmed that they paid Cohen hefty sums of money in exchange for his “insights.” StatNews reports Novartis, the pharmaceutical giant, paid Cohen $1.2 million, with a former employee saying “Cohen promised access to not just Trump, but also the circle around him. It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist.”

Novartis declined to renew Cohen’s contract, Stat reports, after just one meeting convinced their team that Trump’s right-hand man was way out of his depth. (The only reason Novartis didn’t cut Cohen loose immediately: fear of angering Trump.)

Cohen was also paid $200,000 by AT&T in a similar scenario. Congressional watchdogs, like Sen. Klobuchar, who serves on the Senate’s antitrust panel, raised concerns that AT&T was hoping to influence the government’s decision about its proposed merger with Time Warner. (A wrinkle: AT&T put the money into the shell LLC that Cohen set up to pay off Stormy Daniels.)

All of this influence-peddling is reportedly very interesting to one special counsel Robert Muller. Crushing it, indeed!

After lots and lots of talk and many Infrastructure Weeks, the White House is now signalling it’s unlikely this year will see a grand infrastructure bill like the one POTUS promised. On Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “I don’t know that there will be one by the end of the year.” (Recall this was the thing where everyone seemed to want to work together.)

TO CABINET: CNN reports that there’s a renewed push inside the White House to get Trump to fire EPA chief and renewable scandal generator Scott Pruitt. Trump seemingly is the only person who doesn’t want to see Pruitt go. But an Atlantic report last week indicated that Pruitt’s aides were trying to plant negative stories about Interior chief Ryan Zinke in order to take the heat off their boss — which reportedly isn’t sitting well at 1600 Penn. We’ll see!

Fight at the country club! 3rd District GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen took to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to ROAST very respectfully disagree, sir, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who went off-message last week and said that the Republican tax plan was encouraging companies to re-invest in shareholders, as expected, as opposed to hiking worker wages like Republicans said they would.

WaPo’s Finance 202 newsletter with a good primer on major financial regulatory changes making their way through Congress this week: the House appears primed to accept a Senate-approved rollback of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill, while the House sent to Trump’s desk a resolution overturning a rule from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau designed to punish auto lenders who discriminate against minorities.

A hell of a story from the New Yorker this week, detailing vile and abusive behavior from New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democratic star who had been a chief opponent of Trump and his administration’s policies. Schneiderman, a public champion of the #MeToo movement, physically and verbally assaulted at least four women he had dated. He resigned hours after the New Yorker’s story published. (Trump aides couldn’t help reveling in the schadenfreude despite, well, you know.)

We had some primaries this week! West Virginians avoided nominating an ex-con, coal baron cartoon villain as a GOP candidate in the U.S. Senate race. But a red flag for Dems: in Ohio, 150,000 more people voted in the GOP primary than in the Democratic one. That should set off some alarm bells for Dems hoping to retake Trump country this fall. (Cleveland Plain Dealer with some analysis.)

MoneyWatch: NYT has a story on the wealthy Democratic donors behind the so-called “House Victory Project,” who want to raise $10 million to take back the House, focusing firepower on 24 “highly-curated” seats. DFLer Angie Craig in Minnesota’s 2nd District is on the initial list of ten.

Team GOP is going to up the ante: this week, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson reportedly cut a check for $30 million to benefit the Congressional Leadership Fund, Speaker Paul Ryan’s PAC. (Politico reports it was former MN Sen. Norm Coleman that made the ask to assembled GOP donors.)

The week’s essential reads

Barack Obama is no longer the president, but he could still be the key to the future of the Democratic Party as it searches for candidates to retake control of Congress, and someone to unseat Trump in 2020. CNN’s Hunter Schwartz reports that dozens of Obama administration alumni are running for office this year, and they’re applying the lessons of the Obama playbook to their own races. A glimpse into the quest to build a “million Obamas:”

“People miss President Obama,” said Brian Forde, a former senior advisor in the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology. “It’s not just Democrats.”

Forde is now running for Congress in California’s 45th district, in Orange County. The founder of a phone company in Nicaragua before he got into government, he’s positioned himself as a tech-literate, Bitcoin-friendly candidate. And he’s not the only Obama alum running.

This year, more than 60 former members of the administration are running for elected office, according to the Obama Alumni Association. There are former interns and campaign staffers, an ex-ambassador to Denmark, and the former director for Iraq in Obama’s National Security Council. More than two dozen alumni are running for Congress, and others are running for state offices in 13 states.

“We learned a lot working for him,” Forde said. “And the most good we can do is go back home, taking what you learned, and applying it to help people locally.”

Forde and the other alumni candidates are the first wave of neo-Obamas. They’re doing what their old boss asked them to. Action is a hallmark of Obamaism, true to its community-organizing roots. Don’t boo, vote, he’d say campaigning. Today, the message is don’t resist, run.

Single-payer health care, or Medicare for All, is becoming a mainstream idea in the Democratic Party. But most proponents agree it’ll take years, and big Democratic election wins, to make that policy a reality. In the meantime, activists from Maine to Idaho are pulling together campaigns to expand Obamacare and Medicaid — with the hopes that it’ll pave the way to single-payer. Yahoo News’ Christopher Wilson with a profile of government health care “guerillas:”

Assisting Strizich’s group is the Fairness Project, a nonprofit organization that pushes progressive ballot measures at the state level. The group is helping with Medicaid expansion in all four states that are considering it this year, helping them write the language of the bill and then assisting with the campaign until Election Day. Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the group, is optimistic.

“Every attempt to repeal the ACA increasingly clarified two things for Americans: what was at stake for them and their families and just how committed opponents of the ACA were, even if it meant millions losing coverage and personal costs skyrocketing,” said Schleifer. “It became clear to Americans that they could not count on D.C. nor their statehouses to do the right thing. So they decided to grab a clipboard and take their future into their own hands.”

The organization found success in Maine last fall, when 59 percent voted yes on a Medicaid expansion that would provide health care to an estimated 70,000 low-income residents. It’s a result that provided encouragement to other states considering similar action. …

Tim Faust relishes rattling off wins, whether it’s the effort in Maine, a needle exchange program in Cincinnati or a paid sick leave program in Austin, Texas, and he dismisses partial solutions such as an adjustment to insurance markets, a proposal put forth by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, last summer. These local victories are integral to Faust’s primary political theory: Give people something to fight for and that’s exactly what they’ll do.

Many pixels have been spilled in this memo about the Trump administration’s deconstruction of the regulatory state. I’ve gotta spill some more this week: the NYT has a deep, worthwhile look into the quest of Mick Mulvaney – Trump’s budget chief and the guy tasked with holding corporate America accountable at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – to undermine the missions of the agency he runs. The story, with a cameo from Keith Ellison regarding frosted glass:

“There are lots of targets of opportunity over there for Mick,” said Marc Short, Mr. Trump’s legislative affairs director. “He’s like a mosquito in a nudist colony.”

Testifying last month about the bureau before the House Financial Services Committee, Mr. Mulvaney looked forlorn as he slumped under a whirring national debt clock projected on the wall by committee Republicans, a reminder of his failure to rein in federal spending. Then Democrats started attacking him and he sprung to life like a Jack Russell terrier off leash.

Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota struck first, chiding Mr. Mulvaney for installing frosted glass on the glass walls of his office, what he described as a literal effort to subvert “transparency.” “I’ve been to your office,” Mr. Mulvaney shot back. “I can’t see into it.” But Mr. Mulvaney’s intentions at the bureau are anything but opaque.

Since taking over in November, he has halted all new investigations, frozen hiring, stopped data collection and proposed cutting off public access to a database of consumer complaints. He dropped most cases against payday lenders — a primary focus of the consumer bureau — and also proposed scrapping a new rule that would have heightened scrutiny of an industry accused of trapping vulnerable customers in a cycle of debt. And he has tried hard to persuade Congress to take away funding authority for the bureau from the Federal Reserve — so that Congress can cut it.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

You’ve probably heard about the role U.S. military contractors have played in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — or even, recently, helping nations like China achieve their security objectives, like the American founder of the notorious firm Blackwater has.

But it’s rare to hear a story like the one BuzzFeed News’ Aram Rostom has reported: that of “General Steve,” a former officer in the U.S. Army who is now in charge of the helicopter unit of the United Arab Emirates’ military.

General Steve has insisted that he is acting above-board as a private contractor in helping the U.A.E. coordinate its military efforts; at the same time, he’s embraced the rank, trappings, and status of being a foreign general – one who is overseeing a military unit involved in prolonging a brutal civil war in Yemen. It’s an illuminating and troubling trip into the blurry wild west of hired guns in this delicate geopolitical moment.

A UAE government website proclaims that “His Excellency Major General Staff Pilot Stephen A. Toumajan” is “Commander” of the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command, which, according to experts on the UAE’s military, operates most of the nation’s combat helicopters. The website says he is responsible for training, combat readiness, and “execution of all aviation missions.”

“I’m the commanding general for the Joint Aviation Command in UAE,” he says in a video on a US Defense Department website. “The UAE is a very small country,” he continues. “We” — meaning the UAE — “don’t have the landmass that you” — the Americans — “have for these types of training events, so we certainly appreciate the hospitality that you’ve shown the United Arab Emirates and to my soldiers.”

Yet he also insists he is not actually in the UAE military. “I’m a major general for the United Arab Emirates,” he testified in a child custody hearing in Florida. “I hold the duty, rank, the responsibilities of a major general.” But in the very next breath, he stated, “I’m not currently in their armed forces.” …

If other Americans follow his lead — and there are surprisingly few laws to stop them — then former US officers could command foreign troops in ways that could harm US interests or lead to war crimes. “There is kind of a ‘genie is out of the bottle’ with this,” said McFate. “Let’s say his intentions are good,” he said of Toumajan. “Let’s say we have another lieutenant colonel who doesn’t share his responsible views, who can work for China. The precedent is now set.”

What to look for next week

Primary season (for normal states) continues next Tuesday. The big one is Pennsylvania, where a court-ordered redraw of the Keystone State’s gerrymandered congressional districts has shaken up the political landscape in this swing state ahead of the midterms. (A preview of PA’s crowded ballots here, by the AP.)

In Congress, keep an eye on this: Democrats and some Republicans in the House are attempting to use some parliamentary maneuvering to force votes on immigration — in particular, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has been in legal limbo for the better part of a year.

The Federal Communications Commission has set an end-date for the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules: June 11. The Senate could vote as soon as next week on a measure to repeal the FCC’s move, but it’s unclear how much support it would have.

There is a date and place for Trump’s big meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un: June 12 in Singapore. Early Thursday morning, POTUS personally welcomed home three Americans who were detained, then released, by North Korea ahead of the big summit. Trump, perhaps trying to warm up Kim, said the dictator had been “really excellent” to the “incredible people” he took hostage. Good feelings all around!

That’s all for this week. I’ll be back next Thursday. Until then, send me emails: sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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