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D.C. Memo: Trump proposes bale-out for farm country

Duluth pols call for Nolan resignation; Speaker Ryan defends Rep. Lewis; tariff talk; and more.

Trump announced he’d establish a $12 billion “emergency aid” fund to assist farmers hit with any blowback from the trade war.
REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

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This week in Washington, Congress made important Minnesota-related moves, Rep. Jason Lewis continued to face heat for recently-unearthed comments from his radio career, and President Donald Trump decided to help farmers hurt by his trade war by continuing the trade war and giving them money.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, which has finally dried out after an epic stretch of torrential rains. (That didn’t stop President Donald Trump’s White House from citing “bad weather” in order to bypass reporters on his way to Andrews Air Force base, but hey. Why believe what you’re seeing, anyway?)

Let’s lead off this week with some Minnesota news: my report from last Thursday on sexual harassment in the office of Rep. Rick Nolan has continued to reverberate this week.

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On Tuesday, seven elected Democrats in the Duluth area, from state legislators to city council members, called on Nolan to resign his seat in Congress in the wake of my story, in which I detail how in 2015, Nolan and his top aides allowed his legislative director, an accused sexual harasser, to resign instead of facing formal disciplinary consequences. Months later, the aide was hired to work for Nolan’s re-election campaign. This week, DFL Party organizations in Duluth and Cook County have also called on Nolan to resign.

Meanwhile, Minnesota AG Lori Swanson, who selected Nolan as her running-mate in a last-minute bid for governor launched in June, is standing by Nolan amid calls for her to rebuke him and/or drop him from the ticket.

Another Minnesota rep under scrutiny: Rep. Jason Lewis, the 2nd District GOP congressman, is seeing his past life as a conservative talk radio host getting another airing. Twice in the last week, CNN posted headline-grabbing segments from Lewis’ radio days, which include gems such as: “are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can’t call her a slut?” and “when there is a predominantly black festival, there’s trouble.”

On Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan defended Lewis, saying that the freshman congressman had changed from his radio days. I have a new piece exploring this story, and what it means for the closely-watched rematch between Lewis and DFLer Angie Craig in the 2nd Congressional District.

Congress made some moves this week with Minnesota impact: on Tuesday, lawmakers struck a proposal in the annual defense spending bill, pushed by DFL Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, that would have cleared a major hurdle for the mining company PolyMet as it seeks to open Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine. The project, which would be near Hoyt Lakes, needs an exchange of land with the federal government in order to move forward; the Senate’s defense appropriations bill expedited that land swap but a bicameral group of lawmakers got rid of it.

The land swap amendment has given Smith’s rivals some ammunition: Richard Painter, the George W. Bush administration lawyer challenging her for the DFL nomination, used the failure of the amendment to criticize Smith’s moderate mining stances and to call for more pro-environment politicians. Meanwhile, state Sen. Karin Housley, the likely GOP general election candidate, blamed Smith for not closing the deal. (Here’s my piece from June on all this business.)

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, passed legislation to permanently end the medical device tax that is a plank of the Affordable Care Act. Getting rid of the excise tax on medical devices is something that unites basically all of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, and the state’s considerable medical tech sector has lobbied hard on this one over the years. GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, whose west metro 3rd District is home to a lot of that business, has positioned himself as point man on this one. (He’s literally the face of the repeal effort in the Wall Street Journal’s article on the vote.)

Five Minnesota reps voted yes on the bill; DFL Rep. Betty McCollum voted no, and cast it as part of GOP efforts to gut Obamacare. Reps. Keith Ellison and Tim Walz were campaigning back in Minnesota and missed the vote.

The medical device tax is D.C.’s version of a horror villain: every time you think it’s dead, it springs back to life to terrify you with a 2.3 percent sales tax on medical devices. (During February’s shutdown, Congress extended the last suspension of the medical device tax, which expired at the end of 2017, but it’s set to kick in again in 2020 without further action.) Unclear if and when the Senate will move on the medical device repeal.

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Big week for President Donald Trump, who is gradually backing up from the warm fuzziness of his Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin. There, he eagerly extended an invitation for Putin to visit the White House later in the year — but GOP leaders in Congress made clear that the Russian president would not be welcome on the Hill. On Wednesday, Trump announced that the Putin visit to D.C. should happen “after the Russia witch hunt.”

Trump also attempted to forcefully affirm the widespread fear that Russia will repeat its election interference tactics for the 2018 elections… by arguing that they’ll try to trip the scales for Democrats.

“I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election,” @realDonaldTrump warned. “Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!” (Recall that, in Helsinki, Putin affirmed that Russia did, in fact, want Trump.) Here’s one reporter’s summary of this week at the Trump White House.

On to trade: as Trump digs in with tariffs, his camp is considering the political consequences of their actions, particularly among farmers, a group that stands to be first and hardest-hit by trade wars. Farmers were also a very supportive constituency for him in 2016, and alienating them could create huge problems for the GOP in the midterms, not to mention Trump’s 2020 prospects.

To that end, this week, Trump announced he’d establish a $12 billion “emergency aid” fund to assist farmers hit with any blowback from the trade war — like, for example, steep tariffs on U.S. soybeans put in place by China, or new penalties on U.S. pork from Mexico. (The mechanism for the program, which allows the government to borrow up to $30 billion, is from the Depression.)

The administration declared this was a sound policy to insulate farmers and show foreign adversaries that the U.S. will not “cave in” on trade, as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. But Republicans in Congress and farm groups thought otherwise: Sen. Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said the USDA “is trying to put a band-aid on a self-inflicted wound. The administration clobbers farmers with an unnecessary trade war then attempts to assuage them with taxpayer handouts.” (Note that Toomey said the USDA was responsible for this — not Trump. Republicans are loath to call POTUS out by name even when he does things they loathe.)

For more: the Chicago Tribune checked in with Illinois farmers to ask them what they think about the emergency fund.

Trump raised eyebrows on Wednesday, though, with an unexpected tariff move: as he headed into a White House meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, with potentially sweeping, devastating tariffs on automobiles on the line, people expected disaster — a further escalation of trade hostilities with the E.U. on top of existing skirmishes with China, Mexico, Canada, and others.

Instead, the two appeared at the Rose Garden to announce a vague agreement under which the U.S. would hold off on auto tariffs in exchange for the E.U. buying more soybeans and natural gas. Some people aren’t buying this new trade-dove Trump, however. WaPo’s Finance 202 newsletter has some context and analysis on this.  

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Still, the tariffs and counter-tariffs that have already been imposed are doing damage to the U.S. economy. CNBC reports on Whirlpool, the washing machine company, which pushed for tariffs on foreign imports to benefit its own business only to see the value of its stock fall 15 percent in the wake of counter-tariffs on the aluminum it needs to build its products. NPR has a story here on the broader “chilling effect” these trade wars are having on U.S. businesses.  

NBC News has a new poll of voters in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all states that Trump either won or came close to winning, and all of which have been at the front lines of the trade war. POTUS is down big in all three: Trump’s approval rating is 13 points underwater in Minnesota, 16 in Wisconsin and 18 in Michigan. One-third of Minnesotans said Trump deserves re-election, while two-thirds said he didn’t. Much more here.

Immigration news: Thursday was the administration’s deadline, ordered by a federal judge, to reunify the migrant families that it separated at the U.S.-Mexico border earlier in the summer. Tasked with reuniting roughly 2,500 families, as of Thursday federal authorities have reuinted 1,442 families, and declaring that 711 families were ineligible to be reuinted. On that basis, the administration says it has met the deadline, but critics aren’t having it. 

For more: the San Diego Union-Tribune details the situation. WaPo explores what happens to families after they reunited, and the bureaucratic messes that lay ahead.

I’ll end with something more like dessert: the Atlantic’s dispatch on disgraced former press secretary Sean Spicer’s book party, a breezy and well-observed illustration of Swamp culture.

The week’s essential reads

Past the headlines about Russia and Europe and tariffs, thousands of people are still grappling with the aftermath of the administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. With federal authorities running up on a deadline to reunite all families, the Texas Tribune takes us inside detention facilities, where migrants are still being blocked from basic communication. The story:

Since Wednesday, Carlos has been held virtually incommunicado at the Port Isabel facility, designated by the government as the primary removal and reunification center for separated migrant families.

It’s a situation that’s befallen dozens of migrants bused to Port Isabel in the last five days, as Thursday’s court-imposed reunification deadline draws near, say advocates who visited the facility as recently as Saturday.

On the brink of being released from detention and reunited with children separated from them sometimes months ago, migrant parents are being held at the South Texas facility in a sort of limbo — not free to leave, but with limited or no access to phones or commissary accounts that regular detainees get, those advocates say.

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Increasingly, news consumers — particularly ones who live in rural areas where strong local news outlets are gone or dying — are relying on national outlets that often have a partisan bent. From a left-of-center perspective, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff explores the trend of the “news desert” and what it means for our politics:

The slow death of local media has contributed to the epistemic closure in conservative circles, especially in rural areas. That’s led to the proliferation of so-called “fake news” stories, widely spread on Facebook, which are sometimes outright untrue and sometimes just a hugely misleading presentation of a true news story.

No one has been sure how to puncture that conservative media bubble, to combat the narratives that lots of rural white voters have come to believe are true. It’s impossible to contradict fake news with “real news” when the sources offering that real news aren’t trusted.

But local media outlets, which used to carry that sort of clout within their communities, are being economically strangled by an environment that increasingly requires turning to nationally syndicated programs and stories, rather than the sort of local focus that used to mark these outlets.

So if the solution to these problems probably involves more robust local media — and specifically more robust local media online — well, good luck figuring out how to pay for that.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota is the exact kind of Democrat that conservative groups are pressuring to support Trump’s new SCOTUS pick, Brett Kavanaugh. Heitkamp is a Democrat up for re-election in a state Trump won by 30 points. But as the NYT reports, dateline Petersburg, N.D., the Supreme Court is just one of Heitkamp’s many midterm headaches:

Confirmation hearings for Judge Kavanaugh are still weeks away, but already the pressure on Ms. Heitkamp is mounting. Abortion opponents, hoping for a rebalanced conservative court to overturn Roe v. Wade, gathered this month outside her office in Bismarck, the state capital, to urge her to vote in favor of his confirmation. The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group, has aired commercials in North Dakota promoting his nomination, and it released a new ad on Monday that frames Ms. Heitkamp’s choice in stark terms.

On the other side, a liberal group, Demand Justice, has targeted her with advertising calling for her to vote against the judge, warning that as a member of the Supreme Court, he could put at risk protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Ms. Heitkamp is playing her cards close to her vest; she says she will not make a decision until after the hearings. As for her initial impression, she said, “He seems to be a fairly standard conservative judge, and obviously highly qualified.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

The rise of “fake news” — both as a real phenomenon and as a glib, politically-loaded catchphrase — has proven difficult to stop. Reporters and ivory-tower types alike have both thought a lot about ways to push back on the proliferation of misinformation.

In the Ringer, Kate Knibbs reports on one way that fake news could be countered: bigger and better fact-checking. But as social media has transformed how people consume news, the task of improving fact-checking won’t an easy one:

Unlike internal fact-checking departments, which attempt to perfect the accuracy of writing before it is published, these externally focused operations scrutinize statements that have already been made by public figures, attempting to offer a corrective to the record. Some are armed with full newsrooms and ample cash, like PolitiFact. Some, like Schenk’s Lead Stories, resemble hobbyist operations. …

As more fact-checking groups have begun policing media outlets, viral stories, and public officials, the world of fact-checking has ballooned to include more than just stump speeches and campaign ads; the Mexican fact-checking project Verificado 2018, for example, has attempted to debunk false information spread through WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Facebook. Major platforms like Google and Facebook have pushed the stream of information into hyper-speed. Their information feeds have created the conditions for instantaneous amplification of the news—which is a term that now also often applies to unvetted, deliberately misleading, and sensationalist content. These companies are expert at surfacing stories that grab attention. They are far less authoritative when it comes to surfacing stories that have been verified by experts as accurate. To try to stem the tide of misinformation they have allowed, these platforms have recently begun asking fact-checking organizations for help.

While fact-checking organizations originally sprang up as attempted antidotes to political misinformation and hoaxes, their role has ballooned into ad hoc and woefully incomplete corrections departments for the digital world. Some major fact-checking organizations have entered into asymmetrical relationships with big platforms, which means their efforts at debunking misinformation rely on the same social networks responsible for spreading misinformation. The end result is maddening for anyone trying to figure out where to find trustworthy information. The rise of fact-checking has not resulted in a more orderly or easy-to-understand internet. Right now, fact-checkers fighting lies online resemble volunteer firefighters equipped with pails of water to fight a five-alarm blaze.

What to look for next week

As of Thursday, school’s out in Washington — at least for the House of Representatives. They’ve taken off for the five-week August recess, and will be back in their home districts through Labor Day.

Meanwhile, the Senate is stuck in D.C. for most of August, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vows to press ahead on confirming administration nominees. The upper chamber is also expected to make some progress passing appropriations bills for the upcoming fiscal year.

About that: funding for the government runs out on September 30, which seems like a long ways away until you consider that both chambers of Congress will only be in session for 11 days before that deadline. There’s a lot more work to do on the appropriations front, meaning that lawmakers are likely to give themselves some kind of extension, possibly kicking a funding fight past the November midterms.

For a while, it had been conventional wisdom that Trump — still stewing over his inability to secure more money for his border wall earlier in the year — would risk a government shutdown in order to get more money for it (a $5 billion “down payment”) in the upcoming fiscal year. But Politico reports that McConnell and Paul Ryan presented a plan to POTUS to kick the Wall fight until after the midterms, and that the president was reportedly receptive. This president is unmatched in his capacity for changing his mind constantly, but some sense a trend of him backing down from possibly damaging fights until after the midterms.

Speaking of the midterms: Minnesota’s primaries are in less than three weeks! And people are already voting. Look to us for all your pre- and post-primary coverage needs.

That’s all for today — thanks for joining me. See you next week. Until then, email me: