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D.C. Memo: We’ve always been at trade war with Eastasia

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On Thursday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that exemptions that the U.S. granted to allies from tough steel and aluminum tariffs would expire.

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This week in Washington, President Trump was on a roll: he decided to put new trade penalties on U.S. archrivals Canada, Mexico, and Europe, told everyone he was being treated very unfairly, and then also told everyone that his loyal attorney general is the worst.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where Congress is off, Capitol Hill’s out-of-office messages are on, and President Donald Trump’s Twitter account is very, very much logged on.

Despite being the most powerful law enforcement official in the country, Attorney General Jeff Sessions can’t seem to catch a break: once again, he was on the receiving end of a particularly acid set of @realDonaldTrump proclamations this week.

Backstory: the New York Times scooped this week that POTUS pressured Sessions to reassert control over the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia, right after Sessions recused himself from the probe in March 2017 following inconsistency in his congressional testimony about his contact with Russian officials.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is very interested in this, per the NYT, which suggests the investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice could have more to do with the attorney general’s role than previously thought. (Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, is pushing for questions about Trump’s conversations with top officials to be off-limits in any meeting between POTUS and Mueller.)

So, in a series of Wednesday morning tweets, Trump quoted Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, who said on CBS that if he were in Trump’s shoes, he would be “frustrated too” at Sessions’ recusal and would have asked Sessions “why didn’t you tell me before I picked you… There are lots of really good lawyers in the country, he could have picked somebody else!”

Trump added cheerily: “And I wish I did!” (It was only the second most vicious diss this week.)

How is it possible that Sessions, who has sustained more public abuse than any member of this beleaguered Cabinet, hasn’t quit or been fired? White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wouldn’t say why Trump hasn’t fired a man he has publicly described as “weak.” It was reported in April that Sessions reportedly threatened to quit if Trump fired deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, the man in charge of the Russia probe.

How It’s Playing: Axios, the news startup that provides newsy and bite-sized White House updates, sheds a snackable tear for Sessions, framing him as a tragic hero — an “honorable man” who attained his professional dream, only to be repeatedly humiliated by Trump. (The good folks over at Splinter News have a headline, again, that sweetly sums up the reaction to that story from the left.)

Last week, top Trump officials declared the trade war with China “on hold.” Well, I’ve got good news for trade war fans: POTUS is set to start another one with Mexico, Canada, and the European Union. On Thursday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that exemptions that the U.S. granted to allies from tough steel and aluminum tariffs would expire.

Mexico has already signaled it will put counter-tariffs on U.S. steel, cheese, pork, and fruit. European officials have also announced retaliation plans, and are arguing Trump is running afoul of global rules. Sen. Bob Corker, channeling many Republicans, is out here saying this is really bad for the U.S. economy.

Regular readers of this newsletter may recall that, last time, I tipped you all off that the board of the Federal Reserve Bank was meeting this week to consider changes to the Volcker Rule, a reform implemented after the 2008 financial crash that prohibits banks from making certain risky investments with their customers’ money.

An update on that: the Fed did, in fact, provide a reprieve from the Volcker Rule for Wall Street: big banks will now get much more discretion to decide what kind of investments they can make with other people’s deposits, which are secured by the federal government under law.

WaPo’s Finance 202 newsletter has some good context: the rollback of Volcker wasn’t as sweeping as its defenders had feared. But DFL Rep. Keith Ellison slammed the move on Twitter, and addressed his GOP colleagues: “we were not elected to work for Wall Street.”

Note that Neel Kashkari, chair of the Minneapolis Fed, went on NPR last week to express caution that easing Dodd-Frank rules on big banks could lead to another crisis — and to more taxpayer-funded bailouts.

Elsewhere in big business: this week, the Department of Justice approved a mammoth, $66 billion merger of the Missouri-based agribusiness powerhouse Monsanto and the German pharmaceutical and chemical giant, Bayer. The combined corporation will be among the most powerful forces in food, medicine, and chemicals in the world. DoJ regulators are forcing the two companies to divest some $9 billion in assets, which the administration says is the largest divestiture ever required by the federal government in a merger.

Further afield: that historic meeting between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which POTUS dramatically called off in an open letter last week, may still be on, we hope, if things go well — we’ll see what happens.

In the last week, U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams have met in Singapore, where the Trump-Kim summit was planned for June 12. A high-ranking delegation of North Koreans made a trip to New York to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a key regional player, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, will come to the White House to discuss the talks.

The Washington Post reports that Trump is now fixated on maintaining the June 12 summit date that he once scuttled, sparking this flurry of activity. WaPo’s John Hudson reports from Singapore — where he worked his way into a hotel where American and Korean teams were talking — and sets the scene for the huge diplomatic task that all parties have ahead of them.

NYT with important context: some leading experts believe denuclearization of North Korea — the stated goal of the U.S. and its allies — could take 15 years, easy.

There was a real, bona fide Kim summit this week: Kim Kardashian West met with Trump in the Oval Office on Wednesday to discuss criminal justice reform and pardoning of nonviolent drug offenders. Tabloid gloss — and the specter of Kardashian’s Trump-supporting husband — aside, this is politically interesting: Trump is surrounded by hard-liners on drug policy, like Sessions, along with reform-minded advisers like Jared Kushner. (NYT reports on the “turf war” between the two over prison reform, which is stalling congressional efforts on the topic.)

Trump did end up pardoning someone: conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. (He’s a good dude.) POTUS is also publicly mulling a pardon of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving 18 years in the federal slammer for trying to auction off a U.S. Senate seat. (Blago once appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice,” where Trump had lots of good things to say about the embattled, similarly helmet-haired guv.)

Immigration news: the rising number of unaccompanied young migrants at the U.S. border continues to be a serious issue. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that it had nearly 11,000 children in custody who were separated from their parents — a 21 percent increase since April.

Recall that last month, Sessions and Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen laid out a “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute anyone crossing into the U.S. illegally, even if it means holding their children in shelters around the U.S. while parents await legal proceedings in jail. Vox has more here.

You may have heard — and been outraged — at news that the federal government “lost” 1,500 migrant children in their custody. That’s not quite accurate, as CNN explains. NYT’s podcast, the Daily, goes into depth on this one, and their conclusion — that these children are accounted for but basically lost to their families — is still pretty sobering.

A Harvard University study of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico, had some shocking and sobering findings this week: it estimates the the death toll from last fall’s storm at 4,645 people, at least — far higher than the 64 deaths that the federal government had claimed.

Trump once crowed that Maria was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, which led to the deaths of roughly 1,830 people on America’s Gulf Coast. From a left-leaning perspective, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has a take on how Trump’s botched response to Maria underscores the human toll of his novice leadership.

Over at the 2018 Election MegaDoppler, a bit of quiet: no primaries this week. At home, Rep. Erik Paulsen held three town halls in his 3rd Congressional District — the first time in years that he’s held open Q&A sessions in front of constituents. Some CD3 activists were relentless in hammering Paulsen for not scheduling any town hall meetings, and this week, they finally got their chance to ask the congressman questions on a number of topics. MPR with a write-up of the scene.

Finally, pop your popcorn: the NYT has a little preview of the forthcoming memoir by Ben Rhodes, a former top aide to Obama, that sheds some light on what the 44th president was thinking after Trump’s stunning 2016 win. (“Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” Obama reportedly mused.) A choice anecdote: German chancellor Angela Merkel shed a single, teutonic tear after parting with Obama for the last time. Traurig!

This week’s essential reads

The 2018 election cycle is already getting a lot of buzz as the so-called “year of the woman,” as record numbers of female candidates, particularly Democratic ones, are filing to run for office around the country. But there’s another compelling nuance to that phenomenon: many of these candidates are challenging established male incumbents, or taking on big-name male politicians in a primary. The NYT’s Susan Chira and Matt Flegenheimer show how these women are shaking up political convention:  

As Democratic women run for House, Senate and state offices in historic numbers this year, many are bucking the careful and cautious ways of politics. As Stacey Abrams showed last week, a black woman can win the Democratic nomination for governor in Georgia by running a proudly liberal campaign, for instance. For dozens of these candidates, confronting President Trump and winning seats and offices for Democrats are not the only goals: They want to run and win on their own terms. Some are coming for their own party. And many are not waiting their turn, as past generations were mostly content to do.

Like Ms. Abrams, many of these challengers are women who lean left, and many are women of color, raising pointed questions for a Democratic Party wrestling with its relationship to identity politics. Some are mounting primary challenges to white male incumbents. Others are turning primaries into evermore crowded races, to the frustration of party leaders who would like to cull the fields and save resources for the general election.

“I had to spend the first days of this campaign just defending my right to run,” said Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman to serve on Boston’s City Council, accepting a union endorsement last month in her House race against Representative Mike Capuano, a white, well-funded and consistently liberal incumbent. More than half of the district’s residents are minorities, noted Ms. Pressley, who was among the first candidates last Tuesday to post congratulations to Ms. Abrams on Twitter.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, is one of the most vulnerable incumbents facing voters this fall — her state preferred Trump by a 30-point margin in 2016. She is at the top of the national GOP’s target list; yet, somehow, Heitkamp keeps popping up around the White House — and has even earned praise from POTUS, who personally recruited Heitkamp’s Republican opponent. Politico on how this red state Democrat is working her Trump ties:

As the president signed a banking deregulation bill into law before a national audience, Heitkamp was right next to him, the only Democrat in the room.

As the election year kicks into high gear, Republicans have grown increasingly frustrated with Trump’s ongoing flirtation with the freshman senator. At a time when many in the GOP fear that the president’s unpredictable style will undercut their best-laid midterm plans, the relationship has given Heitkamp — who is seeking reelection in a state where Trump won nearly two-thirds of the vote — fodder to portray herself as a presidential ally.

Her office keeps a running list of the dozen-plus meetings Heitkamp has had with Trump and his top advisers since the 2016 election. And the senator is fond of noting that she forged close ties with Trump’s former top economist, Gary Cohn. The president met with Heitkamp in Trump Tower after the 2016 election to discuss a possible Cabinet position, asked her to join him on Air Force One, and invited her onstage to join him and her Republican opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, during an appearance in North Dakota. …

“We will see footage of this on every platform,” said Doug Heye, a former top Republican National Committee official. “It’s a huge gift for her campaign.”

The demographic data from 2016 may indicate that Trump surged to victory on the strength of turnout from older, white voters. Even if younger voters prefer Democrats, HuffPost reports that conservatives are building the groundwork to groom the Republican candidates, operatives, and activists of tomorrow — by paying young ideologues for entry-level jobs, something progressive groups mostly don’t do. Michael Hobbes with the story:

Progressives aren’t just out of sync with their own need to recruit and retain young people. They’re also lagging behind conservative interests. A 2017 study found that between 2008 and 2014, conservative donors gave three times more to millennial outreach groups than liberal donors. Much of that funding, Thompson says, went to things like paid fellowships, travel stipends and study grants ― creating the feeder system that will guide young people into actual jobs with political campaigns and think tanks.

Though harder to quantify than political donations, it appears that conservatives have built a recruitment, retention and leadership development apparatus that dwarfs that of the left. The Charles Koch Institute has an “associates program” that places young professionals in conservative think tanks and pays an average of $41,000 per year. The Leadership Institute, a conservative youth organization, offers interns free accommodation, free food, an $825-per-month stipend and a $200 “book allowance.”

Thompson is on the mailing lists for several conservative youth organizations, and says they feature “nonstop travel scholarships, fellowships and opportunities.” Her progressive lists don’t offer nearly the same volume of funded positions. …

“We pride ourselves on supporting young people in our ideology, but then we don’t give them any options,” said Maxwell Love, a former president of the U.S. Student Association. He attended several left-wing political trainings as a student, he says, but there were few paid opportunities available. He’s watched many of his peers drift away from politics.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Stephen Miller, a top aide and speechwriter for the president, might be the most reviled person who currently works for Trump. A protege of Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon, Miller’s calling card is an uncompromising, hard-line stance on immigration that echoes in speech after speech from Trump, framing immigration as perhaps the gravest existential threat the U.S. now faces — a challenge to the country’s economy, safety, and identity.

Miller has proven a true political survivor, delighting the president with his bomb-throwing and trolling. He’s outlasted many other top aides — no small feat in this White House — and his influence seems to only be getting stronger. As Trump declares immigration a top focus of the 2018 campaign and ratchets up his heated rhetoric against immigrants, let the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins introduce you to Miller.

Coppins is a great reporter and writer, and there’s plenty of remarkable detail in here. At the heart of this piece is the question he poses early on: “What happens when right-wing trolls grow up to run the world?”

Perched on a high-backed chair, Miller looks as if he’s posing for a cologne ad in a glossy magazine—his slender frame wrapped in an elegantly tailored suit, his arm draped over the backrest, his legs crossed at the knee just so. As President Donald Trump’s top speechwriter and senior policy adviser, the 32-year-old aide has cultivated a severe public image, his narrow features forming a kind of perma-glower when he’s on television. But in person there are glimpses of something else—not charm, exactly, but a charisma-like substance. He can be funny and self-aware one moment, zealous and hostile the next. In conversation, he slides from authentic insight into impish goading and back again. It’s a compelling performance to watch—but after an hour and a half in his office, I realize I’m still straining to locate where the trolling ends and true belief begins.

In the campy TV drama that is Donald Trump’s Washington, Miller has carved out an enigmatic role. He lurks in the background for weeks at a time, only to emerge with crucial cameos in the most explosive episodes. The one where Trump signed a havoc-wreaking travel ban during his first week in office, unleashing global chaos and mass protests? Miller helped draft the executive order. The one where the federal government shut down over a high-stakes immigration standoff on Capitol Hill? Miller was accused of derailing the negotiations. (“As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we’re going nowhere,” Senator Lindsey Graham grumbled.) To watch him in his most memorable scenes—theatrically hurling accusations of “cosmopolitan bias” at a reporter; getting his mic cut in the middle of a belligerent Sunday-show appearance—is to be left mesmerized, wondering, Is this guy serious?

This is what makes Miller different from all the other Republican apparatchiks who became supervillains when they joined the Trump administration: He has been courting infamy since puberty. From Santa Monica High School to Duke University to Capitol Hill, his mission—always—has been to shock and offend the progressive sensibilities of his peers. He revels in riling them, luxuriates in their disdain.

What to look for next week

Lots going on next week, both in D.C., where Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess, and around the country, as eight states hold primary elections on Tuesday.

In the next week, the House GOP conference is set to confront its rebellion on immigration: a group of two dozen reform-minded Republicans are trying to force votes on legislation to provide the young, undocumented youth known as Dreamers a path to remain in the country, after Trump terminated their legal status in September.

Republicans just need five more signatures on a petition that would automatically bring immigration bills to the floor, bypassing Speaker Paul Ryan and GOP leadership, who would rather avoid this vote in an election year. Rep. Paulsen signed onto the so-called discharge petition — you can read more from me here on what that says about the immigration debate, Paulsen’s own political chances, and the battle for control of the House.

At a closed meeting Thursday, House Republicans will be presented with a deal reached “in principle” between GOP leadership, moderates, and conservatives. It should be testy; and if an agreement doesn’t pan out, leaders of the petition effort say they have the signatures to force votes on DACA.

On 2018’s Super Tuesday: key states in the battle for control of Congress — particularly California, Iowa, and New Jersey — hold primaries in a few days. California’s contests will be very interesting to watch: Democrats view the Golden State as central to their hopes of flipping the House, with lots of open seat contests and vulnerable GOP incumbents.

But California’s jungle primary system — in which the top two vote-getters advance, regardless of party affiliation — has Dems spooked that their candidates could be edged out in crucial races. WaPo’s Dave Weigel and Amy Gardner with more on that here.

That’s all from me for this week — thanks for sticking around. Until next week, get in touch with me at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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