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D.C. Memo: White House leaks controversial FART … Act

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Axios reported that Trump is contemplating U.S. exit from the World Trade Organization.

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This week in Washington, The Apprentice: Supreme Court Edition continued as President Trump interviewed candidates for the high court’s vacancy, while the press got its hands on a leaked draft of legislation with huge implications for global trade — and bill title acronyms.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where the midweek Independence Day holiday and an intense heat wave are working together to ensure that not much is happening in our nation’s capital this week. (Except this fun and reliable newsletter!)

With Congress out of town this week, D.C. news was driven by President Donald Trump as he deals with a huge task for the second time in his presidency: selecting a new justice for the U.S. Supreme Court. POTUS announced that he will reveal his pick on July 9, next Monday. True to form for a showman who loves to build anticipation for big moments like these, Trump is publicizing his meetings with candidates for the high court and leaving the press to speculate about who the frontrunners might be.

So, the speculation: POTUS personally sat down with judges from various federal appeals courts, including Brett Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit Court and Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit Court in Chicago.

Kavanaugh, a former aide to George W. Bush and a member of Kenneth Starr’s team to investigate and impeach Bill Clinton, has emerged as something of a frontrunner. The New York Times reports that he’s the preferred candidate of the White House counsel, Don McGahn, and is a darling of conservative legal circles.

An note on Kavanaugh: in 2009, he wrote an item in the Minnesota Law Review in which he suggested civil litigation against a president could distract from the “vital duties” they must perform in office. Trump, of course, is the target of a whole slew of lawsuits, not to mention an investigation by a federal special counsel. Kavanaugh has also been a cheerleader for a strong executive branch and is seen as likely to side with broad presidential authority if confirmed to the SCOTUS bench — certainly a plus in the eyes of POTUS.

Kavanaugh, however, is not seen as sufficiently conservative by some right-wing activists, WaPo reports. Barrett, another leading contender, is a devout Catholic and former clerk to the late Antonin Scalia who is well-regarded by religious conservatives. (A WaPo editorial argued Barrett is the contender most “dangerous” to abortion rights.) Trump has also suggested he wants to appoint a woman to the high court, which would add some diversity to the all-male slate of conservative justices.

The NYT has a list with some background on a few more of the front-runners. Axios with a bit of inside baseball on how Trump will make the call. (It may be who he feels “most comfortable with in a personal setting,” which is definitely what you look for in a judge.) Politico reports on the “intense politicking” that has broken out behind the scenes over the SCOTUS decision.

Trump naming a justice, however, will mark only the beginning of what should be a tough confirmation fight. Democrats may not have the power to block a nomination like the GOP did in 2016, but they have 49 senators, meaning the eventual nominee has very little room for error.

GOP Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine moderate, has made clear she won’t support a nominee that does not respect the precedent set by Roe v. Wade, a decision Trump has said he wants to undo. (The conservative Weekly Standard writes that Collins basically will decide who the next SCOTUS justice is.)

If Collins breaks with the rest of the GOP, Vice President Mike Pence would have to break a tie on the SCOTUS vote. (Sen. John McCain, in Arizona for cancer treatment, is not expected in D.C. anytime soon.) But don’t assume Senate Democrats will unanimously block the pick: three of them, all from states Trump won by huge margins, voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch last year.

Trump sat down with that trioSen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana — last week at the White House. Liberal activists, meanwhile, are mounting an intense campaign to pressure these centrists not to side with Trump.

Dems’ options are limited here, and a lot of stuff will need to go their way for them to have any shot of blocking Trump’s nominee. Chuck Schumer and Co. may also try winning the court of public opinion: Democrats are clinging to the point that the GOP shouldn’t confirm a new justice before the midterm elections because of the whole Merrick Garland thing. (Some are also saying that Trump shouldn’t get to make a pick while he’s under investigation by Robert Mueller.)

Also dominating headlines this holiday week was news on trade, as the White House settles in to its multi-front trade war against hated rivals China and Canada. Rumblings that the president, egged on by hawkish trade advisors, is considering his most dramatic move yet to blow open trade: Axios scooped that he ordered aides to draft legislation that amounts to a withdrawal of the U.S. from the World Trade Organization.

Unlike NAFTA or the TPP, two trade pacts Trump has railed against, the WTO is an entity that acts as a regulator for global trade, and counts 164 countries as members. To be a part of the WTO, countries abide by a set of ground rules on things like maximum tariff rates and how countries can apply tariffs.

The legislation the White House drafted would give Trump authority to flout those rules, and it is called the U.S. Fair and Reciprocal Trade Act — or, if you’d rather, the U.S. FART Act. (This is where I have to say Washington politics is “Veep” and not “House of Cards.”)

Policy-wise, this FART is a real room-clearer: there’s absolutely no appetite on Capitol Hill to pass a bill to grant Trump even more authority to direct U.S. policy on trade. (Even if GOP senators can’t bring themselves to support a bill to give themselves more authority to counter Trump on trade.)

That’s because the Trump plan would essentially blow up the international trade order on the basis of a shaky claim to make sure the U.S. — always unfairly taken advantage of in the Trump worldview — would have a more even playing ground in the realm of global trade. (Read more from Vox on that.)

More on trade: POTUS continued to use his bully pulpit to pick on Harley-Davidson, the iconic Wisconsin-based motorcycle maker that announced in June it’d move some manufacturing out of the U.S. in response to Trump tariffs. (“The U.S. is where the Action is!,” @realDonaldTrump proclaimed on Tuesday morning.)

The Los Angeles Times reports this week from a nail factory in Missouri, where 60 people were laid off because of the administration’s new tariffs on imported steel. If you think this would make workers there turn on Trump, think again! One guy said he was still behind the president “100%” and thinks he’s doing a “great job.”

More broadly, the administration’s multi-front trade offensive is growing and is threatening to tarnish the U.S. economy and relationships with key allies like Canada, WaPo’s Daily 202 newsletter outlines. Politico reports, meanwhile, that GOP senators are continuing to just lose their gosh-darn patience with all this trade business and they are plotting a counter-attack against the administration — perhaps a strongly-worded letter, good sir!

It may have been a slow week in D.C., but I have good news for those of you who love news about EPA chief Scott Pruitt, a man who appreciates the finer things in life: first-class airfare, private email, and the little bottles of moisturizer that hotels give you. The stories over the past year about Pruitt’s unethical conduct really run an impressive gamut: there’s your textbook petty graft, more ambitious wide-reaching corruption, and the stuff that makes you go, “this guy!” 

A new WaPo story this week has a few things to add to all categories, reporting that Pruitt, who tried to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise, also tried to leverage his post to secure her a lucrative post at the Republican Attorneys General Association. Perhaps the most revealing detail in the story: Pruitt made his 25-year old executive scheduler book him $600 travel reservations on her personal credit card — and then didn’t bother to pay her back.

Again (for maybe the millionth time) it would have taken one or two of these kinds of stories for a normal president in a normal administration to give someone like Pruitt the boot. But Trump hasn't appeared to be terribly concerned about the conduct of his EPA chief, and hasn’t subjected him to the will-he-or-won’t-he chopping block dance that so many other Trump aides and cabinet officials have. CNN did have an item, however, from an unnamed “official” who said Pruitt was inching closer to the “tipping point.” (Update: late Thursday afternoon, Trump announced he had accepted a letter of resignation from Pruitt, who will leave the EPA to spend more time with the 15 ongoing investigations into his conduct. You can read the Atlantic on how it all went down. )

While Pruitt’s scandalous personal conduct commanded headlines, it’s worth thinking about how his ethical standards influenced the way his EPA handled its business, which is ostensibly to protect the environment. WaPo reports that Pruitt and other EPA officials have maintained close correspondences with representatives of the industries they’re tasked with regulating on behalf of the public, including the oil and gas industry, with which Pruitt was and has been deeply cozy.

This week’s essential reads

With the retirement of Anthony Kennedy from the Supreme Court, we’ve been talking a lot about the political mettle of Mitch McConnell, the man Trump can thank for having not just one but two SCOTUS picks. ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis argues Trump should thank McConnell for more: from his advocacy of big money in politics to his relentless opposition to Obama, he writes, McConnell is the man who made Trump possible. The story:

When I visited the room while researching my 2014 biography on McConnell, I was struck by what was missing: exhibits on actual governing accomplishments from the Senate majority leader’s four decades in elected office. That absence confirmed my thesis that McConnell, far more even than other politicians, was motivated by the game of politics — winning elections and rising in the leadership ranks, achieving power for power’s sake — more than by any lasting policy goals.

Well, that was then. Four years later, it is becoming increasingly clear that Mitch McConnell is creating a legacy for himself, and it’s a mighty grand one.

McConnell has created the world in which we are now living. Donald Trump dominates our universe — and now has the power to fill the second Supreme Court seat in two years. McConnell, who has promised a vote on whomever the president nominates “this fall,” is the figure who was quietly making it all possible, all along.

The worlds of Donald Trump and Fox News keep colliding: not only does the president watch the network constantly and appear on it regularly, its hosts are his trusted confidants, and now a top Fox head is going to work in the White House. As NYT’s Michael Grynbaum explains, Fox has morphed into an advocacy apparatus for Trump that is almost unprecedented in modern politics:

The symbiosis between Donald J. Trump and his favorite cable network has only deepened. Fox News, whose commentators resolutely defend the president’s agenda, has seen ratings and revenues rise. President Trump views the network as a convenient safe space where he can express himself with little criticism from eager-to-please hosts.

Now, the line between the network’s studios and Mr. Trump’s White House is blurring further. Bill Shine, a former Fox News co-president who helped create the look and feel of the channel’s conservative programming, is expected to be hired as the president’s new deputy chief of staff, overseeing communications. …

The Trump-Fox connection, though, extends beyond friendship and flattery to outright advocacy. The president is the beneficiary of a sustained three-hour block of aggressive prime time punditry, which has amplified his unfounded claims and given ballast to his attacks on the news media as the “enemy of the American people.”

The death of U.S. special forces soldiers in the west African country of Niger last year put a rare spotlight on a big but little-known story: the big footprint of the U.S. military in African countries, and how forces once involved in “advising” are now increasingly in charge of African countries’ troops. Politico’s Wesley Morgan on the “secret war” unfolding in Africa:

In repeated public statements, military spokespeople have said the American role in Africa is limited to “advising and assisting” other militaries. But for at least five years, Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other commandos operating under a little-understood authority have planned and controlled certain missions, putting them in charge of their African partner forces.

Under both the Obama and Trump administrations, the military has relied on partners in other countries to carry out crucial missions against suspected terrorists, to avoid American casualties after years of massive direct involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. But having Americans plan and retain operational control of the missions gives them greater ability to strike quickly against threats, according to supporters of the programs, even as it shields the true nature of the missions from critics in the United States and abroad.

“It’s less, ‘We’re helping you,’ and more, ‘You’re doing our bidding,’” said one active-duty Green Beret officer with recent experience in West Africa as he described the programs carried out under a legal authority known as Section 127e.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

If President Trump got elected on a promise to speak for the so-called “forgotten men and women” of America, it should have been good news for Cairo, Illinois, a once-thriving town on the banks of the Ohio River in that state’s far southern tip. Once envisioned as a new New York, Cairo shrank and crumbled over the years as investment and opportunities went elsewhere.

Now, Cairo’s remaining residents are depending on federal funding for public housing to keep them in their community. But Trump seems to have forgotten these people, and his Department of Housing and Urban Development has basically declared Cairo all but dead, and doesn’t seem too interested in saving it.

Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy has a rich dispatch from Cairo, filled with reporting and context about what the Trump administration’s policies are doing to places like it.

Cairo was the kind of troubled small town Donald Trump purported to champion—bypassed by the modern economy and starving for new investment. And no investment was as critical to its future as housing. Cairo’s fate would be one of the first major housing policy decisions of the Trump era, offering a glimpse of which priorities were real and which ones weren’t. So when HUD called a meeting in early April 2017, residents of Elmwood and McBride crowded into the pews at the nearby First Missionary Baptist Church, hoping for some good news.

Instead, HUD announced it was condemning the two projects. Residents would need to be out by July 2018, and HUD would give them vouchers for new apartments. The nicer high-rises across town, which had been favored with more attention and resources over the decades, would stay open, and a few residents would move into units there or find other arrangements nearby—but most of the African American families living in the segregated projects would have to leave Cairo. HUD claimed the city of 2,560 was “dying,” and that it would be pointless to replace or renovate 80-year-old buildings in a dying city. Such a sentence would be self-fulfilling—boarding up Cairo’s public housing would lead to an exodus of people, jobs, and funding.

Faced with the prospect of being scattered across the Midwest, Duncan and his classmates asked their sixth-grade teacher, Mary Beth Goff, whether there was anything they could do. With Ms. Goff’s help, they decided to write letters to the man who said their city was dying, the man with the power to make things right.

“Dear Ben Carson…”

What to look for next week

Trump’s big SCOTUS decision will be announced on Monday, so look for that to dominate news next week as Republicans and Democrats in Congress gear up for the confirmation battle to come. Remember: the GOP wants to move as quickly as possible on this; expect to see whoever the SCOTUS pick is making the rounds on Capitol Hill very soon.

Trump, meanwhile, heads to Brussels next week for a NATO summit. The president’s recent foreign policy forays have made big news, and don’t expect this one to be any different: POTUS has not been bashful about his view that European countries don’t contribute their fair share to the transatlantic defense alliance, and that the U.S., as always, is being bilked. (The NYT has a bit of table-setting on this one if you want more.)

After Brussels, Trump heads on to Helsinki to meet Vladimir Putin for their first one-on-one summit on July 16. Politico has a look toward that big meeting.

Congress will return next week after the Independence Day recess, but I will not: I’m on vacation next week, so look for your next D.C. Memo on July 19. Until then, I say to you: have a great weekend, and send me your thoughts at sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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