Great River Energy generously supports MinnPost's D.C. Memo. Learn why.

D.C. Memo: EPA chief says reduce, reuse (mattresses), and recycle

REUTERS
The Washington Post reported on Monday that Pruitt routinely enlisted EPA aides to assist him with personal tasks.

You can get the D.C. Memo delivered to your inbox on Thursdays. Sign up here.

This week, President Donald Trump celebrated his 500th day in office (time flies when you’re having fun!) and Mitch McConnell ruined everyone’s summer by canceling most of the August recess. Most importantly: Minnesota, for once, upstaged Washington in insane political news.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington! No shortage of news here, but for once, I’m going to lead with Minnesota politics because, well, Tuesday was probably the nuttiest political day our fair state has seen in a long time — and it has huge implications for Minnesota and its presence in the U.S. Capitol.

Attorney General Lori Swanson’s last-minute bid for the governorship was the shift that set off a ‘Sota tsunami: 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison then moved to run for attorney general, and the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office then clogged with a wave of Minneapolis Democrats filing to run for the seat Ellison plans to vacate. (Read my colleague Peter Callaghan, who has some great scenes from that day.)

As of now, eight Democrats have lined up to compete in an August 14 primary, and in this heavily Democratic district, the winner of the intraparty battle is virtually a lock to be the district’s next member of Congress. (CD5 prefers Democratic candidates by an average of 26 points.)

Who’s in? A few big names at the State Capitol: State Rep. Ilhan Omar, state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, and state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, along with the former state House Speaker, Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Meanwhile, this week’s news represents an unexpected closing of Ellison’s 12-year career in Congress: the Minneapolis lawyer arrived in D.C. nationally recognized as the first Muslim elected to Congress. He’ll leave as a top figure of the progressive Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, and the second-in-command at the Democratic National Committee.

Read me from Wednesday on what Ellison is leaving behind in D.C. — and why he’s making the jump to run for attorney general back in Minnesota. After this insane week, allow me to make a recommendation: Bookmark our Who’s Running page, which we’ll keep updating through Election Day.

Back to Washington: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just delighted the Capitol by canceling most of the August recess — the sacred period in which senators flee swampy D.C. for a blissful four-week reprieve — arguing that “historic obstruction” by Democrats has left the Senate behind in its work to appropriate funds and approve administration nominees. (Democrats, naturally, found it ironic that McConnell, who prevented Barack Obama from filling an empty Supreme Court seat for a year, would accuse them of historic obstruction.)

The conventional wisdom, which took hold quick, is that McConnell is trying to keep vulnerable Democratic incumbents off the campaign trail in August — a golden opportunity for some election-year politicking. Ten Democrats are up for re-election in states Trump won, while there are only really a couple of truly vulnerable incumbent Republicans. (Sen. Tina Smith, working toward her first Senate election in divided Minnesota, might also appreciate some campaign time in August.)

While McConnell might love watching Dems squirm, Brian Fallon, former Hillary Clinton press aide, raises an interesting point on Twitter: perhaps McConnell’s aim here isn’t to keep Dems in D.C., but to leverage election-year political pressure to get a slate of conservative judges through the Senate as quickly as possible. Judicial confirmations have been a top priority for McConnell, and he and President Donald Trump have touted how many new (conservative) judges they’ve confirmed. (Not enough, however, to avoid canceling recess. Hm!)

While Senate Republicans are busy with extremely important, recess-canceling tasks, they are also asking themselves: what else should we do? The 2018 calendar year has seen a lot of appointments and spending fights, but not much of a coherent policy agenda from the majority party. Read Politico on the party’s efforts — which include a survey — to figure out what they should be about in this election year.

Democratic leadership, meanwhile, is telling the GOP that if they want to keep everyone after class, they might as well try to fix health care. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is pressing McConnell to put several Democratic-backed measures to shore up the health care system to a vote on the Senate floor. (This will not happen.)

On the other side of the Capitol, House Republicans met Thursday to resolve their stalemate over immigration, and head off a rebellion from GOP lawmakers who want to see a compromise deal that results in a path to legal status for the Dreamers.

The reform camp is a few signatures away from passing a so-called discharge petition, which would force Speaker Paul Ryan to bring a set of immigration bills to the House floor for consideration, after he’s refused to do so for months. (Rep. Erik Paulsen, the 3rd District Republican, signed on to the effort; I wrote about it last week.)

The Thursday morning meeting was intended to craft a deal on immigration that’d satisfy moderates, hard-liners, and leadership, and avoid a messy floor proceeding that the petition could force. Surprise: there was no deal! NPR with more on what went down. Leadership will reportedly now draft bills and introduce them next week to quell the rebellion, but it seems the petition could move forward any day now.

Another week of brutal stories from the front lines of the trade war: after the Trump administration announced last week it would, after all, impose tariffs on Canadian, European, and Mexican steel and aluminum, Mexico declared it would move forward with $3 billion in tariffs on U.S. products, including a new 20 percent penalty on pork. This is very, very bad news for Minnesota, one of the top pork producers in the U.S. Minnesota exported some $717 million in pork in 2016, and Mexico is its second-biggest buyer. MPR checks in with some concerned farmers.

Meanwhile, Trump’s hard line on tariffs is straining his relationships with just about everyone. Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron, his one-time best buddy, had what CNN reported was a “terrible call” after Macron called out Trump for moving ahead with the penalties. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau complained to POTUS for saying steel imports constituted a national security risk, reports CNN, only for Trump to counter that it was the Canadians, after all, who burned down the White House in the War of 1812. (Must stay vigilant!)

But the gravest sign of the situation, perhaps, was the outrage and resistance to Trump’s move coming from the Republican Party. Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse called the tariffs “dumb” and said Trump shouldn’t “make America 1929 again.” Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chair of the Financial Services Committee, said in response to the tariffs that he “cannot be silent and complicit.” (Everything else is fine, though.)

Trump has crossed many red lines of GOP dogma before, but the howling on the tariffs is pretty widespread. GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee introduced a bill on Wednesday to limit some of the president’s authority to impose trade penalties — keep an eye on that. One person cheering Trump’s tariffs: Pete Stauber, the GOP’s candidate in the 8th District, home to the Iron Range, where mining advocates say the steel tariffs will boost the industry and the region.

It’s been a while since EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has appeared in the pages of this memo, but I am now delighted to report that he is back with a vengeance. The Washington Post reported on Monday that Pruitt routinely enlisted EPA aides to assist him with personal tasks, like running errands, finding him lodging and — in an all-time news hook — procuring a used mattress from Trump’s D.C. hotel. (People, uh, had some fun with that.) Reminder: federal ethics rules prohibit the use of government employees as personal gofers.

The Atlantic reported on Wednesday that a top aide, who had been with Pruitt since his time as Oklahoma attorney general, has resigned after testifying about what was going on in Pruitt’s office. An EPA spokesperson — whose Twitter reveals he is a Minnesota Vikings fan — confirmed the news, but not before telling the reporter on the story she was “a piece of trash.” What was it Trump said about having the best people?

Wait! There’s more: Pruitt also tasked his taxpayer-funded office with setting up a meeting with the CEO of fast food chain Chick-fil-A to discuss a “business opportunity” — which turned out to be him lobbying for his wife to become a franchisee, WaPo reports. In an interview, Pruitt did not appear to deny the story, saying: “My wife is an entrepreneur herself. I love, she loves, we love Chick-fil-A as a franchise of faith and one of the best in the country,” adding we “need more of them.” (No argument here — Chick-fil-A sauce is the best there is — but perhaps there is a way to grow the enterprise that does not involve graft.)

Even Pruitt’s GOP allies in Congress are getting tired of the seemingly endless supply of scandals and bad press the EPA chief is generating. Here is a running list of Pruitt’s scandals and reported ethical lapses, if you’re losing track.

Some news from POTUS himself: he has discovered the magic of the presidential pardon. On Wednesday, Trump pardoned Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year old woman serving a life sentence for drug offenses, after meeting with Kim Kardashian West on the topic. (For a moment, imagine reading this sentence in 2006.)

WaPo reports that Trump has become fixated on pardons — one of the areas where he has virtually unchecked authority. He has directed aides to compile a list of dozens of pardon candidates, and talks about it all the time. (Buckle up for a spell of “who gets pardoned this week?” drama.)

The backdrop of this pardon talk is Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia during the 2016 campaign, and the possibility that Trump might pardon those convicted of crimes during the course of the probe — maybe even himself! Trump declared on Twitter on Monday that he has the “absolute right to PARDON myself,” but of course will not need it because NO COLLUSION. Speaker Ryan bravely pushed back against the idea of the presidential self-pardon, telling reporters “no one is above the law.”

Finally, it was a big week for the 2018 primary season: on Tuesday, voters in eight states went to the polls, notably in “High Tax, High Crime” California, where many believe the battle for control of the U.S. House will be won or lost.

There was some concern that California’s “jungle primary” system, which sends the top two vote-getters to the general regardless of party, would shut Democrats out of some key races because so many were running in key districts. To the relief of national Dems – and after spending a ton of money – that didn’t happen. HuffPost has the write-up here.

This week’s essential reads

The distinguished excellencies representing the U.S. overseas during the Trump administration have, occasionally, not behaved so excellently: from Germany to the Bahamas, diplomats and ambassadors have upended protocol by making off-color remarks or even wading into politics — with a decidedly Trumpian bent. The NYT’s Gardiner Harris with a worthwhile story, as new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tries to remake the diplomatic corps:

There is nothing new about ambassadors making unfortunate remarks. But the growing list of top envoys who have provoked controversy even in posts of close allies, where diplomatic duties largely include party-giving and anodyne cheerleading, has been unusual — and, for the Trump administration, potentially perilous.

The administration is using its envoys, “even in our closest allies, to advance a nationalist and very aggressive agenda rather than maintain cordial relations,” said Nancy McEldowney, who had helped to train ambassadors for their posts as the former director of the Foreign Service Institute. …

But there is a widely held perception even among Republicans in Congress that the Trump administration does little to vet or coach its diplomatic nominees, and has proposed some candidates with zero relevant experience, unexplored controversies and huge gaps in basic knowledge.

Doug Manchester, nominated as the ambassador to the Bahamas, last year described the British Commonwealth realm as “for all intents and purposes” a protectorate of the United States, a description that was not well received on the islands. His nomination remains in limbo.

This week, David Koch — one half of the duo of billionaire brothers who are titans of conservative politics — announced he would retire, citing his health. His departure is prompting some to imagine a future without the Kochs — and they largely believe the conservative powerhouse the brothers built will endure after they’re gone. WaPo’s James Hohmann and Amy Gardner:

David Koch’s departure comes at a pivotal time for one of the most active and well-funded political forces in the country. For years, it has helped set the Republican agenda, and it was instrumental in securing and maintaining GOP majorities in Congress and in state legislatures across the country.

The brothers’ reach has been so wide that they became a household name — and have often been the subject of attack ads paid for by liberal groups that highlighted the scale of their contributions.

In recent months, however, the libertarian-leaning network had sought to remake itself as independent of the GOP. … And last week, Americans for Prosperity unveiled a digital ad buy in North Dakota to thank a Democrat, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who is in a tough reelection fight, for voting to roll back elements of the Dodd-Frank financial-services law. That show of independence privately irritated congressional Republicans, but in a show of just how powerful the Kochs have grown, those Republicans have said little in public.

Where’s Melania? It’s a question that’s been frequently asked in D.C. of late, as the First Lady spent a long time out of the public eye this spring on the heels of a medical procedure and the drip-drip airing of details about the president’s past affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. But as Lena Felton and Taylor Hosking explore at the Atlantic, the idea that First Ladies should be visible is a recent one, and maybe Melania has planned on subverting it all along:

Trump, meanwhile, entered the office following several decades of first ladies who each expanded the role in her own way; by these standards, Trump’s absences are a big and noticeable departure from the behavior of her recent predecessors. Her latest hiatus started after she accompanied Donald Trump to welcome home three American hostages from North Korea on May 10. Four days later, on May 14, her office announced that she had been admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to undergo a surgery for what they described as a benign kidney condition. Her absence stretched through June 4, when she attended a ceremony for families whose loved ones died on military duty.

But while Trump’s appearances have been few and far between, her behavior isn’t actually all that unusual in the context of the country’s broader presidential history. Former first ladies like Truman, and the very first, Martha Washington, occupied quiet offices—and they were afforded the freedom to shape them as they pleased.

“There’s an expectation that first ladies will build upon and enlarge what previous first ladies did,” said Stacy Cordery, a professor of history at Iowa State University. “But in fact we only feel that way because the first lady has no job description.” As our colleague Alex Wagner reported, Melania Trump doing things “her own way” has led to the left creating fantasies about her—ones that eclipse the far more likely possibility that Trump, like many first ladies past, simply wants to be left alone.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Earlier this year, President Trump put international attention on a “caravan” of migrants making their way through Central America, fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries of Honduras and El Salvador to seek asylum in the U.S.

For the group of activists leading the caravan, media attention was part of the plan: they hoped to spark international concern for the plight of the migrants, and hoped they would benefit from the sympathy that would inevitably followed. And it did follow — but they also got outraged tweets from Trump, endless Fox News segments, and got held up by the conservative base as the epitome of what is wrong with immigration.

In a deep and well-reported piece, BuzzFeed News’ Adolfo Flores takes us inside the caravan, tracing their every step, and showing how drawing the eyes of the world — and its most powerful man — both helped and damaged the migrants’ hopes for a better life.

Gina Garibo, a fast-talking political science professor at the Ibero-American University in the Mexican city of Puebla and a volunteer organizer for Pueblo Sin Fronteras, stood on the grass of the sports arena and watched as camera crews set up tripods and reporters rushed to get quotes from the Central Americans sitting next to a soccer field. A drone flew over the crowd. The glow of camera lights would be a constant in their lives for the weeks that followed.

It was too much — this was more media attention than we ever expected,” Garibo told me. “That’s when we realized that the media is like a double-edged sword.”

People all over the world knew about the caravan and the migrants propelling it forward, all with variations of the same tragic tale — forced from their homes by gangs, of loved ones threatened or raped or murdered.

But now they were also facing the wrath of Trump’s tweets, and soon they would feel the crushing weight of the US and Mexican governments, as the caravan became the center of a political game and a media storm, even as the migrants grappled with what it meant to suddenly become the face of their fleeing compatriots.

It was a lesson in the consequences, in the age of Trump, of getting the attention you thought you wanted.

What to look for next week

Next Tuesday is the big day: Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore to discuss a potential deal to get Kim to give up his country’s nuclear weapons program. It will be the first time a U.S. president and a North Korean leader have met face-to-face.

The U.S. negotiating team is frantically preparing for the summit, trying to put logistics and strategy into place for this historic event. POTUS, meanwhile, says he doesn’t really need to prepare much. “It’s about attitude,” he told reporters Thursday.

Not a whole lot on the line here, reports the LA Times, besides an entire region’s security, U.S. standing in the world, Trump’s presidency, maybe world peace. Attitude is key!

Before taking on Kim, however, Trump faces another hurdle: this week’s G-7 summit in Quebec. Usually, this would be a friendly meeting with close allies like Canada, France, and Germany. Not for Trump! It so happens these are the very countries whose leaders are outraged at Trump’s recent tariff moves. Expect some fireworks, reports the NYT. (WaPo reports that POTUS has complained about having to attend the summit and could flake at the last minute.)

Trump lawyer and walking gaffe Rudy Giuliani seems determined to spoil the summit, or is just really dumb, or both: he told people that Kim begged “on his hands and knees” for Trump to agree to attend the summit after POTUS formally pulled out a few weeks ago. Maybe not the best diplomatic play when dealing with a prideful country that believes its leader is literally divine.

White House officials are preparing to stay in Singapore two days if things go well. It could be a real political and diplomatic circus in the southeast Asian city-state: Trump BFF Sean Hannity will be among the people broadcasting from the ground.

That’s all for me this week — hope you can join me back here next Thursday. As always, send me an email: sbrodey@minnpost.com.  

No comments yet

Leave a Reply