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D.C. Memo: Very common among celebrities and people of wealth

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The president’s legal team is trying hard to narrow the scope of any interaction between President Donald Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller.

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This week in Washington, President Donald Trump shook up his legal team in anticipation of a possible meeting with special counsel Robert Mueller, while old pal and new addition to the team, Rudy Giuliani, may have implicated the boss in a violation of the law. Whoops!

This week in Washington

Congress was out of town for a weeklong recess in observance of Bird Day on Friday, but there was still lots of political news this week.

Let’s start with trade: a U.S. delegation is in Beijing on behalf of President Donald Trump to work on brokering a sweeping trade agreement that could avert a disastrous trade war and set new ground rules for the economic relationship between the world’s two largest economies.

The delegation includes Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, and economic adviser Peter Navarro, who once wrote a book called “Death by China,” so it’s safe to say there could be some competing points of view on the U.S. negotiating team.

POTUS, who rails constantly on the U.S. trade deficit with China, wants his team to get the Chinese to buy more U.S. products, per the NYT. Big-picture: the next few years could be a rough one for this bilateral relationship, explains WaPo’s Tory Newmeyer in a good column. Under leader Xi Jinping, China is aiming to shift to a high-tech manufacturing economy and compete in the areas the U.S. dominates in, like biotech and aerospace.

The backdrop: trade war tensions aren’t going away. China is conspicuously refusing to buy U.S. soybeans. (This is very bad news for Minnesota, which exported $2.1 billion worth of soybeans in 2016. Minnesota’s top foreign market for soybeans is China.)

Other Minnesota trade takeaways: the administration, which announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum earlier in the year, said this week that it will again extend an exemption granted to key allies and trading partners — Canada, Mexico, and the European Union — as they figure this out. (The U.S. is trying to gain an advantage in NAFTA negotiations, and they are finding the steel tariffs a useful tool.) Northeastern Minnesota’s miners and politicians love these tariffs, and they’re watching this one closely.

A busy week for the president’s various legal projects. Former NYC mayor and legal sharpshooter Rudy Giuliani said on Fox News that Trump reimbursed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen for a reported $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election. Recall that Cohen has vehemently denied Trump’s involvement in, or even knowledge of, the payment, and that POTUS has backed up that story before. It’s possible this was a violation of campaign finance law — Vox explores here.

In an uncharacteristically dense, legalese-laden set of tweets, POTUS assured the nation that everything was above-board and that such arrangements are common among “people of wealth.” WaPo reports that the White House was shocked at Giuliani’s admission. Meanwhile, Rudy said he didn’t mess up and that it’s all good. One week into his stint on the Trump legal team and he’s already solving problems!

The New York Times obtained a leaked copy of the questions special counsel Robert Mueller plans to ask Trump if the two meet in a sit-down interview. It’s one of the clearest glimpses yet into the direction of Mueller’s investigation into the Trump camp’s ties with Russia: he plans to ask about the firing of James Comey, Trump’s treatment of AG Jeff Sessions, and meetings at Trump Tower between Russians and Trump associates.

The president’s legal team is trying hard to narrow the scope of any interaction between Trump and Mueller. Giuliani said on Wednesday that any questioning of POTUS would need to be very narrow in scope and limited to two or three hours. That same day, a big shake-up on the legal team: Ty Cobb, who had been leading Trump’s defense in the Mueller probe, said he would step down and retire. Longtime white-collar defense attorney Emmet Flood will take over.

There’s continuity in this switch — the president still has a lead lawyer who sounds like a 19th century Wild West lawman — but Flood promises to bring a brasher approach to the job: Flood, who defended Bill Clinton in impeachment proceedings, is seen as a legal pitbull. WaPo with the background.

Elsewhere in the administration, the acting head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Thomas Homan, announced this week he will be stepping down. Homan was effectively in charge of Trump’s immigration crackdown, and he embraced that approach enthusiastically. Vox with a look at the situation and what it means for immigration policy.

Details coming out about embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s shady trip to Morocco to promote U.S. natural gas exports in his capacity as a government official. WaPo reports the junket was organized by a lobbyist who later nabbed a valuable contract with the Moroccan government.

Of more parochial interest: Pruitt’s EPA is playing around with federal policy on corn-based ethanol, of which Minnesota is the fourth-largest producer in the U.S. Under the law, oil refineries are required to blend a certain amount of ethanol into their fuel supplies, but the EPA can grant “financial hardship” waivers to refiners who have a hard time meeting those standards.

Reuters reports that refineries owned by billionaire Trump ally Carl Icahn got waivers from the EPA, saving him tens of millions of dollars. (I reported on Icahn’s vocal opposition to ethanol standards last year.) This news comes as the White House is mulling changes to the so-called Renewable Fuel Standard.

Big environmental news for Minnesota out of the swamp this week. After a year and a half of maneuvering, advocates for mining in northern Minnesota have scored a major victory: the Trump administration has reinstated leases, held by mining company Twin Metals, to copper-nickel deposits in Superior National Forest.

The Barack Obama administration cancelled those leases in 2016 and launched a process that could have banned mining for as long as 20 years in the area, which sits near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness. Pro-mining Minnesota lawmakers, particularly GOP Rep. Tom Emmer and DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, have been working to undo that decision.

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, meanwhile, is vowing a court battle challenging the Trump administration’s move. This one is far from over.

Additionally: Minnesota has joined 17 other states in a big lawsuit against the EPA, which cancelled stronger fuel efficiency standards from the Obama era.

To the MinnPost Election 2K18 Doppler: I’ve got a bunch of Senate race coverage for you this week! I wrote on Richard Painter’s bid for the Senate seat now held by DFL Sen. Tina Smith. If nothing else, Painter cuts a unique figure: the U of M law prof was once an ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, but these days, he’s become a hero of the #Resistance thanks to his virulently anti-Trump views, which have made him ubiquitous on cable news and Twitter.

He’s now running as a Democrat in the primary for Al Franken’s former seat — watch to see how much DFL primary support he gets by running on an intensely anti-Trump platform. 

There’s also that other Senate race happening in Minnesota — Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s re-elect — which you might not even know is happening. With a bunch of competitive races in Minnesota and elsewhere demanding attention, Klobuchar’s bid for a third term against a little-known GOP state legislator is a virtual lock.

But Klobuchar has worked very hard to make it that way. My dive on how Minnesota’s Senator Next Door™️ became untouchable, even in this politically divided state.

Of interest on the Senate front — 538 with a worthwhile data dive. You’ve probably heard that the 2018 Senate map is a brutal one for Democrats as they defend 26 seats, 10 of them in states won by Trump. It’s making the path to a majority more difficult, but 538 spotlights the flip side: the Dems’ likely advantage this fall could stave off a devastating loss of valuable seats.

Fun piece from Belt Magazine, which focuses on Midwestern culture and politics, asking a critical question: where have all the politicians with Midwestern accents gone? (Clearly, Belt didn’t talk to Rick Nolan.)

I feel a bit threatened by the New York Post, who talked to three Minnesota members of Congress for this interesting story on the phenomenon of lawmakers sleeping in their Capitol offices in order to save cash in pricey D.C.  

The tabloid snapped a paparazzo-like pic of Rep. Tim Walz, an office sleeper himself, in a Hill elevator wearing the shirt of D.C.’s professional soccer team. (Cue the very real, not at all trolly outrage from the Republican Governors’ Association.) The Post also caught Rep. Keith Ellison, who may or may not live in his office, and also maybe hadn’t had his coffee yet: he said he “deeply resent[ed]” being confronted by the press at such an hour.

Finally, some more important journalism news than whatever happened at the dinner last weekend: the Department of Justice eliminated language about the importance of press freedom from internal guidelines, terrorists in Kabul targeted journalists with a suicide bombing that killed 10 Afghan reporters, and venture capitalist firm Alden Global Capital is recording huge profits by eviscerating storied regional papers like the Denver Post.

This week’s essential reads

There’s been plenty of criticism of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ICE, and the aggressive tactics its agents have used to identify, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. Turns out they frequently mess up: an LA Times investigation finds that in the last six years, ICE agents have wrongly arrested and detained over 1,400 U.S. citizens or legal residents. The story:

Victims include a landscaper snatched in a Home Depot parking lot in Rialto and held for days despite his son’s attempts to show agents the man’s U.S. passport; a New York resident locked up for more than three years fighting deportation efforts after a federal agent mistook his father for someone who wasn’t a U.S. citizen; and a Rhode Island housekeeper mistakenly targeted twice, resulting in her spending a night in prison the second time even though her husband had brought her U.S. passport to a court hearing.

They and others described the panic and feeling of powerlessness that set in as agents took them into custody without explanation and ignored their claims of citizenship. …

Federal policies require ICE agents to “carefully and expeditiously” investigate any claim of U.S. citizenship. But throughout his detention, Sergio Carrillo said, ICE officers either ignored or scoffed at his repeated claims. When his son rushed to the downtown booking facility with his father’s passport and citizenship certificate, ICE officers refused to consider the documents, he said.

It was not until Carrillo’s fourth day in detention, when an attorney intervened and presented agents with Carrillo’s passport, that ICE corrected its error. Carrillo emerged from custody to find his phone filled with messages from angry clients. Several fired him.

“For ICE, it’s like, ‘Oops, we made a mistake,’” Carrillo said. “But for me on the other end, it tears up your life.”

The “Tennessee Star” sounds like a legitimate-enough newspaper, right? Its website is clean and boasts “news,” “politics,” and “schools” sections, like a local outlet might. Its headlines have been touted by politicians as if it were a mainstream news outlet, but mainstream the Tennessee Star is not: it is run by conservative activists and commentators emulating the style of far-right Breitbart News. Politico’s Jason Schwartz reports on the “baby Breitbarts” popping up around the country:

Though it looks like a normal newspaper site, many — if not most — Star stories lack a byline, and at the time the ad debuted the site had no masthead nor information explaining who owns or runs it. A click on the “Contact Us” tab revealed a phone number, a couple of email addresses, and a mailing address that goes to a UPS store in Franklin, Tennessee. But there was no information indicating that the Star is, in fact, a right-wing site, described by many as a “Tennessee Breitbart.”

Launched in February 2017, the Star is part of a growing trend of opaque, locally focused, ideological outlets, dressed up as traditional newspapers. From the Arizona Monitor to the Maine Examiner, sites with names and layouts designed to echo those of nonpartisan publications — and with varying levels of credibility — have emerged across the country, aimed at influencing local politics by stepping into the coverage void left by the collapsing finances of local newspapers.

The Star has successfully gained traction among the Tennessee political elite, raising questions over whether the current news climate is ripe for these type of Breitbart-like local sites to proliferate across the country.

Perhaps you’ve felt the pace of news in the Trump era altering your habits — middle of the night push notifications, Twitter scrolling before bed, feelings of anxiety after being off the grid for a few hours. (I’ve definitely never felt this way.) WaPo’s Ben Terris, a skilled observer of D.C.’s political class, finds that the breakneck pace of news that floods our minds and phones every day is driving Washington nuts — and making it harder for people to figure out what stuff really matters. The story:

For the uninitiated, Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, likes to tweet out big stories with one-word commentary: “Boom,” often with video of a tiny cannon blowing something up… “When you see a boom, it’s me saying this is a really big deal,” Wittes said. “The problem with that methodology is I’m not sure I know what the threshold of a really big deal is anymore.”

As 2016 lurched from one crazy headline to the next, reporters and commentators braced for the inevitable post-election comedown. The expected Hillary Clinton presidency would certainly have its share of scandals, but its lack of Trumpian churn and off-the-wall tweeting would lead to withdrawal-like symptoms. And then, even when Trump won, half of the chattering class expected him to “pivot” into something resembling a normal president, if only because no one could imagine the pace of news keeping up for four years, let alone eight. …

This idea of being “present” for the news, Schiller said, can give her this semblance of control in an otherwise out-of-control world. For some, being in the know is a cultural cachet. For others, it’s about marking history when it happened (I remember where I was when Comey got fired. I was on Twitter). And then, there are those people for whom wading through the news is the job.

“I go into every day thinking, ‘What’s the thing that’s going to hold until 7:30 p.m.,” said Shawna Thomas, the Washington bureau chief for Vice News. “I try to ask myself, is this something that’s either changing people’s lives or changing how our government is run. . . . It’s incredibly hard to keep an eye on what will matter.”

It’s become clear that the president’s most frequent saying isn’t his trademark “you’re fired” but something far less committal: “we’ll see.” Trump’s favorite speculative, who-really-knows response to questions on his plans for everything from North Korea to the fates of his aides and Cabinet officials are a defining verbal tic for a president with a lot of them. The NYT’s Katie Rogers reads the “we’ll see” tea leaves to see what it tells us about this POTUS:

“We’ll see what happens, I often say,” the president said a day earlier about relations with North Korea, apparently aware of his tendency to take an indefinite view on timely negotiations. “So the end result is, we’ll see,” Mr. Trump said last week, again broaching the summit meeting with North Korea.

At least two dozen times in the past month, the president appears to have shifted into full-on verbal tic mode, deploying some variation of “We’ll see what happens” as a cast of world leaders from France, the Baltic States, Japan and Nigeria rotated in and out of the White House or his Florida estate. Mr. Trump’s one-person guessing game came into play as he addressed topics including Mexico, Nafta, Russia, Amazon, North Korea, Mike Pompeo, Dr. Ronny L. Jackson, Iran and the special counsel’s investigation into his presidential campaign.

Republican and Democratic speechwriters and others who study the president’s speech patterns say “we’ll see what happens” may be a way to signal a veiled threat to unpredictable adversaries, like the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, amid delicate negotiations. But many who watch closely say Mr. Trump is using the phrase to avoid accountability.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

There’s way too much hand-wringing out there on the state of politics and free speech on U.S. college campuses, from the right, left, and a class of op-ed columnists who seemingly don’t pay attention to anything besides who gets invited or disinvited to speak at liberal arts colleges.

It’s rare to come across incisive journalism on campus politics and what they say about our broader politics, so that’s why this dispatch from California’s College Republicans convention is worth reading. BuzzFeed News’ Scaachi Koul reports from Santa Barbara, where buttoned-down college Republicans grimaced as their peers ecstatically screamed and cried to greet the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos like a rock-star conquering hero.

The moribund California GOP is deep in the political wilderness, and Koul shows that its next generation of leaders — particularly, its divisive chair Ariana Rowlands —  plans to find their way out with bullhorns and MAGA hats. Lots of color and great quotes to chew on:

The spring CCR convention kicked off with a casual welcome party at Goleta Beach Park, on the other end of campus, where 30 or so early attendees met up to drink Heineken in chilly weather. Rowlands was there in a one-piece Make America Great Again bathing suit, a California College Republicans flag draped over her shoulders (recently redesigned using the antifa colors), and white and gold Ivanka Trump–brand sneakers. Otherwise, it just looked like a bunch of college students on the beach, standing around drinking in their alma mater sweatshirts and listening to Drake. (Later in the weekend, they will combine their MAGA hats with suits and ties, alongside at least one Supreme/Louis Vuitton hoodie.) So, your average campus gathering, aside from the fact that everyone was talking about the scourge of socialism.

Rowlands often frames herself as an underdog, which is strange, because she’s the incumbent candidate with the loudest support of anyone here. “Sometimes she can be a little harsh with people,” said Dominick DiCesare, a 21-year-old UCSB student, a delegate, and a Rowlands supporter despite their minor disagreements. DiCesare, and most of the people hanging out at the park, felt like Rowlands represents a bigger, better, bolder direction all Republicans need to go in if they want the party to survive.

“Knocking on doors isn’t going to work. Activism works,” DiCesare said. “The left is going around and they have this high activism where they go march in protests and they make events and they videotape things. Why can’t we do the same?” The CCR gathering was briefly interrupted by a small crowd of men cheering on a guy who’s trying to chug a beer. (It takes a very long time.) …

Rowlands didn’t seem worried; her missions are much bigger, taking conservatism further right and hoping to become the voice not just of aggrieved college students who feel voiceless in liberal-leaning institutions, but to affect that kind of change for the Republican party itself. “I think that the type of conservatism we’ve adopted within CCR, the bold and unapologetic conservatism, is the way forward for the Republican party,” she said, adding that Trump has “really inspired a lot of people to speak up and not be afraid to speak their mind.”

What to look for next week

Congress returns next week to continue doing not that much now that election season is close. Speaking of which, primaries next week! NBC News has a a preview, but some interesting races on tap on Tuesday: Ohio Democrats will choose between former CFPB chief Richard Cordray and longtime progressive Dennis Kucinich for governor; in Indiana, two GOP senate candidates will attempt to settle a decades-long personal feud. An ex-con coal baron is running for Senate in West Virginia.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a confirmation hearing next week for Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, who’s encountering strong opposition over her involvement in Bush-era “interrogation” programs. The White House is pushing her nomination hard.

At the White House, the president’s team continues to prepare for a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which could happen as soon as late May. (We’ll see!) Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, called off a scheduled trip to Brazil in order to stick around and prepare for the meeting.

CNN reported that the meeting between Trump and Kim could occur at the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea — POTUS reportedly likes the symbolism, and mused about the possibility of a grand celebration at the site of the wartime barrier.

After signalling significant concessions in a meeting last week with the South Korean president, Kim is giving up more to Trump — the administration has hinted the DPRK will release three Americans being held prisoner. Meanwhile, South Koreans and House Republicans are suggesting that Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on Korea, which is definitely not having its intended effect on POTUS.

That’s all for this week — thanks for joining me. As always, get in touch at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 05/04/2018 - 11:19 am.

    The “Tennessee Star” sounds like the now defunct Soros funded “Minnesota Monitor”. Don’t recall any hair tearing from the left about that.

    Since there isn’t any “there” there, one might conclude that Giuliani’s real mission is to keep the TDS crowd in the media (alt-left and mainstream) distracted long enough for the President to get to the important work he is doing in China, Iran, Norko and our Southern border.

    I’m confident he will succeed in that position and wish him God’s speed.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/04/2018 - 11:51 am.

      Really, Really Funny

      I laughed out loud at the notion that Rudy the G is acting as a distraction to allow the President to accomplish his “agenda.” I swear, all that is missing from that plot line are four teenagers and a dog in a van.

      Did George Soros really fund the Minnesota Monitor? Honestly, those rootless cosmopolitans will interfere everywhere, won’t they?

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/05/2018 - 11:05 am.

    Hush money

    The fact that people of wealth structure slush funds for their hush money payments does suggest to me we give huge tax breaks to the wrong people.

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