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D.C. Memo: How Rep. Nolan handled a sexual-harassment claim in his office; Trump-Putin summit

REUTERS/Grigory Dukor
The only thing that everyone is talking about is Trump’s tête-à-tête with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

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This week in Washington, I have a big story about allegations of sexual harassment against a former top aide of Rep. Rick Nolan. In Finland, President Trump sidled up to Vladimir Putin after peeving the entire continent of Europe.

This week in Washington

Good afternoon from Washington. I don’t usually lead with my own stories, but we’ve got a big one this week: I spoke with several women who accuse the former legislative director of Rep. Rick Nolan of sexual harassment. That man, Jim Swiderski, was a longtime Nolan ally dating back to the 1970s. He was let go from the office in 2015 — only to be hired back by the Nolan campaign months later. Nolan, the DFL congressman for northeast Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District since 2013, is now running for lieutenant governor as Attorney General Lori Swanson’s running-mate.

We worked hard on this one — it’s a bit longer, but it’s worth your time. Read it here.

Onto the travels of President Donald Trump: boy, did he have himself a couple weeks abroad! POTUS’ Eurotrip saw him head to Brussels, where he ripped into our NATO allies, then onto London, where he angered tens of people by stepping in front of the Queen of England, and then onto Scotland, where he golfed and was heckled by a flying protester.

Of course, the only thing that everyone is talking about is Trump’s tête-à-tête with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The president’s first official summit with Putin began with a two-hour closed-door meeting between the two, followed by a bilateral meeting and capped by a remarkable press conference that set the collective blood of Democrats, the national security establishment — and even some Republicans! — to a high boil.

You probably know what happened: for 40-some minutes, Trump and Putin sounded like they had the same talking points about the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election, with both of them downplaying what happened, blaming the usual suspects — the press and the Democrats.

POTUS said he got a “strong denial” from Putin that Russia meddled in the election, which appeared good enough for him. (Not so much the conclusions of much of the U.S. intelligence community and the GOP-led intel committee in the Senate, which agreed that Russia did, in fact, meddle.)

Recall, too, that the Friday before the summit, the Department of Justice indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for their roles in interfering with the 2016 elections. (Putin refused to so much as look at the indictment document when it was handed to him by Fox’s Chris Wallace in a contentious post-summit interview.)

Also before the summit, Trump’s own intelligence director, Dan Coats, said at a conference that the U.S. was at a “critical point” regarding election meddling — even comparing current warnings about it to the warnings U.S. officials got about terrorism before September 11th. Coats defended his agents’ findings in the wake of Trump’s remarks in Finland, angering the White House. (Read WaPo for more on how the U.S. national security apparatus is preparing for Russian interference in the upcoming 2018 elections.)

Meanwhile, people are wondering what Trump and Putin privately discussed. Scrutiny has centered on Trump signalling openness toward shipping Kremlin targets, including an prominent American critic of Putin, former Russian ambassador Michael McFaul, to Moscow for questioning. (The D.C. foreign policy establishment, closing ranks around one of their own, has gone nuclear on that point.)

How’s the hangout in Helsinki playing? Generally very bad: strongly-worded statements sailed forth from Republican and Democratic lawmakers; Arizona Sen. John McCain’s probably took the cake. Chief of staff John Kelly, per Vanity Fair, lobbied GOP lawmakers to issue strong public rebukes of his own boss so he might walk the comments back.

Democrats, meanwhile, were as vocal as they’ve ever been about the theory that the Kremlin must have something compromising — such as this — they’re using for leverage over Trump: House leader Nancy Pelosi said “President Trump’s weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the President, personally, financially or politically.” NYT tracks the sharp rise in usage of the t-word — treason — in the wake of the summit.

For his part, 3rd District GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen tweeted that Trump’s performance was “embarrassing.” “An American President taking the side of a Russian dictator over American intelligence agencies is dangerous. It’s clear they meddled in our elections, and they should be held accountable for it.” (Nada from his Minnesota GOP colleagues, Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis, on this.)

Most Republicans mostly trotted out lukewarm reheats of past statements about Russian interference, supporting the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence agencies and generally avoiding any direct rebuke of Trump. (Vox has a good breakdown of the most important of those responses: that of Speaker Paul Ryan.) Other Republicans, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, took the opportunity to praise Trump for trying to improve relations with Russia. WaPo has a little more on why the vocal libertarian and one-time Trump critic was so on board with Helsinki.

But there was enough backlash that POTUS — under pressure from his aides — issued something like a retraction of his statement in Helsinki that he didn’t see “any reason why it would be Russia” who meddled in the 2016 election. On Tuesday, the president said that what he meant to say was there wasn’t any reason why it “wouldn’t” be Russia. “So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself,” Trump told reporters. (Sure does!)

Of course, people made fun of this move relentlessly, but it gave some GOP senators something of a fig leaf to pretend that Trump is remotely close to on their side about Russia. WaPo has a good piece exploring the art of the sort-of-but-not-quite Trump gaffe walk-back.

Anyway, as is often the case when Trump really blows it, Republicans are privately Very Concerned even as they issue mild statements or run away from reporters. Politico’s Playbook newsletter, a favorite dumping ground for anonymous quotes from congressional Republicans, argued Republicans have already done so much to push back against Trump on Russia that they have no idea, gosh-darn it, what else they can do. Others, of course have some ideas of what Republicans can do — like passing legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller and forcing the release of Trump’s tax returns.  

What does it all mean? Democrats will continue to debate how much to focus on Russia ahead of the midterm elections, as #Resist-type liberals intent on impeachment clash with populist left-wingers who want to see the party focus on bread-and-butter issues. On the other side, if Paulsen’s statement is any indication, at least a few vulnerable Republicans see no issue in vocally pushing back against POTUS on Putin — at least rhetorically. (WaPo has more on how Russia might play in the midterms.)

A wild story to keep an eye on: the arrest of a Russian gun rights activist, based in Washington, who U.S. authorities charge with being a conduit for a Kremlin-backed operation to influence Republican officials — a project that may have included a ploy to fund the Trump campaign through the National Rifle Association. The Daily Beast did some good reporting on the woman, a 29-year old named Maria Butina, last year.

In Congress, SCOTUS pick Brett Kavanaugh is making the rounds on Capitol Hill ahead of a confirmation hearing, date TBD. Former Sen. Al Franken, who would have had a chance to grill Kavanaugh on the Senate Judiciary Committee had he not stepped down in January over sexual harassment claims, wrote a long Facebook post slamming the federal judge for his statement at the White House that “no president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.” (The lengthy post, outlining a possible line of questioning in a hearing, was probably Franken’s biggest public splash in months.)

Scrutiny over Kavanaugh’s position on the precedent set by Roe v. Wade will be front-and-center as the Senate debates his nomination. At MPR, MinnPost alum Briana Bierschbach explores what Minnesota would look like in a post-Roe world.

It’s 2016 all over again: CNN’s KFILE unit, which specializes in digging up nuggets from politicians’ pasts, has some new audio of Jason Lewis’ syndicated talk radio show that ran from 2009 to 2014. Lewis’ inflammatory comments on women and slavery were widely known in Minnesota and fueled plenty of attacks on him during the 2016 cycle.

But CNN found new material in hours of Lewis chatter (via MinnPost contributor Michael Brodkorb), including his complaints that women could no longer be called “sluts.” “Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can't call her a slut?” Lewis asked. The Beltway press, which mostly missed the Lewis stuff when he was a candidate, suddenly discovered the CD2 congressman’s talk radio record and was promptly shocked. Dem-aligned groups are calling on him to resign; meanwhile, Lewis’ office says this is old news and that it was his job to be provocative on the radio. This probably won’t go away any time soon.

More politics: congressional candidates are reporting their fundraising numbers for the second quarter of 2018, which ran from April to June. We’re updating the info for federal candidates at MinnPost’s Campaign Finance Dashboard, which I highly recommend bookmarking through the end of this election season.

Some points that stick out: in the 2nd District race, DFLer Angie Craig outraised the incumbent Lewis, and is sitting on a quarter-million more heading into the July-September stretch. In the open-seat 1st District, DFLer Dan Feehan is sitting on more cash than the two Republican candidates — the endorsed Jim Hagedorn and state Sen. Carla Nelson — combined.

In the 3rd, Paulsen is continuing to raise money like there’s no tomorrow, and sits on nearly $3 million as he works to fend off Democrat Dean Phillips, himself no slouch with $923,000 in the bank. In the 5th District DFL primary, endorsed candidate Ilhan Omar has $150,000 to burn before the all-important August 14 primary, but former House speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher is not far behind with $128,000 on hand.

WaPo analyzed fundraising trends nationally and found that Democratic challengers are doing especially well, outraising GOP incumbents in 11 out of 17 key races.

Looking further down the campaign trail, some 2020 moves to keep an eye on: the NYT reports that Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, is taking the most definitive steps toward a White House run of anyone in the nascent field. Not far behind her are Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former veep Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

WaPo reports that Warren loves taking on Trump — and there’s probably no Democrat the president loves needling than Warren. Whoever Trump draws in 2020, he’s already preparing: his campaign has stashed away $33 million for his re-election.

This week’s essential reads

Trump’s stunning press conference in Helsinki prompted outrage from plenty of Republicans. But a lot of them shrugged — or even vocally defended Trump for something they would have howled at had Barack Obama done it. A good time, then, to explore the extent to which the GOP has become wholly Trump’s party — and what would have to happen for it not to be. Esquire’s Ryan Lizza:

The GOP is the party of Trump. Over the summer, as he hit the five-hundred-day mark of his presidency, his Gallup approval rating among his own party’s members—87 percent—was higher than that of any postwar president except George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. Trump famously said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and he wouldn’t lose supporters. A year and a half into his term, that statement has become more plausible than ever.

As the country awaits whatever conclusions Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation brings, the most important question in politics may be whether there is any red line Trump could cross and lose significant party support. Four and a half decades ago, Republicans stuck with Richard Nixon until incontrovertible evidence of his crimes emerged. Democrats never abandoned Bill Clinton because they believed his misdeeds weren’t impeachable.

What is the red line for a contemporary GOP increasingly built around a personality cult? I put that question to a dozen Republicans in the House and Senate, a mix from across the ideological spectrum and from every region of the country. The conversations revealed a lot about the Trump GOP, but the red line, with respect to Trump’s behavior generally, or his conduct specific to the Mueller probe, was vanishingly thin and difficult to detect. And every time you think you see it—pee tape, porn-star liaison, erratic diplomacy, threats to fire Mueller—it keeps moving. As Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona put it, “I don’t know that there is one.”

In the 1980s, a Guatemalan man named Francisco fled the violence in his home country and obtained asylum in the U.S. His son, Miguel, stayed behind. When he tried to obtain asylum in 2018, he was confronted with an asylum system that is undergoing fast and sweeping changes under the Trump administration, with an aim of erasing the reputation of the U.S. as a safe haven. The New York Times’ Caitlin Dickerson reports:

While migrants fleeing communist governments in Central America during the Cold War were welcomed in the 1980s, those arriving now do not fit into a larger American geopolitical agenda. Their afflictions — gang violence, domestic brutality and poverty — are neither American national security priorities nor anything that was originally intended to be covered under the laws of asylum.

Mr. Trump has taken monumental steps to shrink the asylum system and discourage people from applying based on a belief that the United States is taking in too many foreigners. The moves are part of a larger plan developing in Washington to reshape the reputation of America as a safe haven, one that has inspired generations of people like Francisco and Miguel to journey here.

The most extreme proposal yet would upend the system by eliminating the use of offices along the border, known as “ports of entry,” as asylum processing centers. Introduced this spring by members of the leadership of United States Customs and Border Protection, according to a government official with direct knowledge of the plan, it would allow hopeful refugees to apply for protection only from abroad, stranding them for much longer in the conditions they hope to escape.

A policy proposal that’s picking up steam in the progressive movement is the idea of universal basic income — giving every person a set paycheck every month, no strings attached. Governing Magazine reports from Stockton, California, a working-class town with a millennial mayor who’s putting the left’s hottest idea to the test. Keep an eye on this one:

Six years ago, facing housing foreclosures and a corruption investigation by the state, Stockton, Calif., became the largest city at that time in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. Now, the diverse, working-class community is out of bankruptcy, and the city’s 27-year-old mayor, Michael Tubbs, has a radical plan he's testing to reinvent his hometown: Give every resident $500 a month.

The idea is called universal basic income (UBI). It can be traced back to the 16th century but has only started to be tested in the 20th century -- and largely outside of the United States. Several California cities -- Stockton being the latest -- are getting in the game, thanks to financial backing from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Mayor Tubbs’ office has partnered with the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition and the Economic Security Project -- co-chaired by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes -- to launch the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED). Starting in early 2019, 100 Stockton residents will receive $500 a month for 18 months. The goal is to document the effect of a guaranteed income on their quality of life.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

We’ve all gotten used to stories about how toxic some corners of the internet have become — especially those of the far right. BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein, who covers this conspiracy-addled world for a living, has a powerful story about a tragic example of that toxicity spilling over into reality, when a dangerous, unstable troll murdered his own father in a quiet Pacific Northwest town.

The slaying shocked Samish, a remote, 2,000-person village of wealthy empty nesters, vacationing Seattleites, burrowed-in natives, and wind-chapped oyster farmers. Catherine and Chuck Davis, whom the local paper referred to as “Mr. Samish,” had almost never spoken publicly about their adult son, except to apologize to neighbors for the screaming arguments that sometimes came from inside the house, puncturing the island quiet. And Samish Island, nestled dazzlingly between two bays and enclosed by a ring of thick Douglas firs, is a place where people don’t pry.

In the following days, people coming to pay their respects to Catherine saw hints of the reclusive life Lane had been living: dozens of empty beer bottles and piles of refuse hauled out of his wing of the house. Local news stories gestured at a dark conflict over Lane’s beliefs; Chuck Davis had apparently called his son a racist and a Nazi just before he died.

Lane was immersed in the digital chaos of reactionary culture and politics that has become an inescapable part of American life. Writing under the name “Seattle4Truth,” Lane was an indefatigable culture warrior and a wildly inventive conspiracist. He left a footprint online as wide and weird as his imprint on the physical world was small and sad: hundreds of YouTube videos, thousands of tweets, hundreds of blog posts, hundreds of Reddit comments, and most of all years of chats — Slack messages and Google Hangouts — with his fellow travelers.

But none of those people, the ones who called him Seattle, the ones who called him a friend, had met Lane in person. None of them knew, nor would most of them know for months, what he had done to his father. And none of them had any idea what this man they spent all day online with was capable of. Including me.

What to look for next week

Next week is the final week both houses of Congress are scheduled to be in session before the month-long August recess. The House will take off by the end of next week; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has promised to keep his chamber in session to deal with a backlog of confirming administration nominees, blaming Democrats’ obstruction. Exactly how much of swampy, sweaty August the Senate will enjoy in D.C. remains to be seen.

In the wake of the Trump-Putin summit, lawmakers on both sides are weighing hearings and legislation to counter Russia. McConnell has asked for hearings on legislation that would fully implement new sanctions on Russia, in addition to compelling the administration to disclose what else Trump and Putin discussed on Monday. Watch this one — it seems to be the avenue that Republicans are taking to register their displeasure on Trump’s Russia moves and to show that the legislative branch still retains some authority as a check on the executive.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to get in touch at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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Comments (1)

Just emailed Swanson's campaign

Is Nolan STILL the Lt Gov candidate.