Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

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

D.C. Memo: Nah-FTA

McCain memorials; Jeff Sessions on thin ice; White House counsel to leave; Trump takes on Google; and more.

photo of donald trump at desk
POTUS rolled out, to awkward fanfare, a new trade deal between the U.S. and Mexico.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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

This week in Washington, the Capitol mourned the passing of John McCain, while the President raged that good things about him are too hard to find when you use the Google. He also announced that his chief counsel would leave later this year, which was news to his chief counsel.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where the capital has been preoccupied with memorializing one of its most towering figures: Sen. John McCain, who died last Saturday at age 81 from brain cancer.

The Arizona Republican, who had served in Congress since 1983 and twice ran for president, played many roles in his long career and leaves behind a complicated legacy: a crusading “maverick” who later became the picture of a stale status quo next to a certain Illinois senator, an unapologetic Iraq War hawk who was later honest about his failure, a frequent partner of Democrats who made a lasting impact on today’s rancorous political climate by picking Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate.

Article continues after advertisement

Lots of remembrances from members of the media, who famously loved the charming, mercurial senator — maybe a little too much, some suggest — but I liked this one from Sasha Issenberg, writing in Politico about McCain’s “radical candor” as a politician and how it was a fatal flaw.

McCain will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda on Friday, and there will be a memorial for him at D.C.’s National Cathedral that will be filled by several decades’ worth of Washington power players. (Cathedral officials said it would be their biggest memorial service since the funeral of former president Gerald Ford in 2007.)

Without doubt, McCain is getting a kind of send-off usually reserved for presidents. One man who does not have a reserved spot in the pews, however, is President Donald Trump. It’s no secret that McCain and Trump had little affection for one another — the bad blood started early on in Trump’s 2016 run and just kept flowing — and after the senator’s death, it looked like Trump was going to deny McCain many of the usual ceremonial rites for a man of his status. POTUS ultimately relented after an immediate leak from a McCain fan in his administration over Trump’s lack of a public statement. (The press was riveted by all this, naturally.)

Trump, per McCain’s dying wishes, will not attend any of his memorial services; the senator asked Barack Obama, who defeated him in the 2008 election, and George W. Bush, who defeated him in a 2000 presidential primary in which McCain was smeared ruthlessly, to eulogize him. (CNN with more on that.)

In light of all this, WaPo’s Ashley Parker writes about Trump as a “president non grata,” someone unwilling to let the duties of his office supersede his personal feelings about someone or something. The New York Times suggests that, in snubbing Trump, McCain got his last word.

The governor of Arizona, Republican Doug Ducey, says he will appoint a replacement for McCain after the memorials end. That person will likely be a Trump-backing Republican who will serve through to 2020. Vox has a look at how the selection process might play out; Politico reports that McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, is exerting a lot of influence with Ducey.

An unexpected bit of D.C.-centered fallout: some senators, led by Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have proposed renaming Russell Senate Office Building, the stately marble structure across from the Capitol where McCain worked for six terms, in his honor. Strangely, that proposal has split Republicans — particularly southern ones, who are wary of dethroning the building’s current namesake, Richard Russell, a Georgia Democrat who opposed civil rights and was a steadfast ally of racists and segregationists in his time.

WaPo’s James Hohmann had a good column on this issue from Tuesday. Google Maps seemed to rename the building on its own — at least for a few hours on Wednesday.

To Capitol Hill business, or what passes for it in late August: the U.S. Senate was in session for about a day, hitting fast-forward on the process of confirming 15 Trump administration nominees to the federal bench. It was a coup for Republicans, who are making remarkable progress in reshaping the judicial branch under Trump. In exchange, Democrats got… to go home early. Liberals were mad; even Schumer’s former press guy publicly slammed his old boss for raising the white flag. #Resist!

In the administration: a big week on trade! POTUS rolled out, to awkward fanfare, a new trade deal between the U.S. and Mexico that he is touting as an improvement over the 25-year old North American Free Trade Agreement that he so loathes.

The Monday announcement was vintage Trump: long on theatrics and light on specifics. While Trump proclaimed a big win for the U.S., there’s still no formal agreement between the two countries. But initial reporting on the outlines of a deal has focused on the impact it could have on the auto industry and farmers. (It’s very much a mixed bag.)

But there’s a hiccup in this New NAFTA business: the conspicuous absence of our neighbors to the north. Trade negotiations with Canada over the last year have been fraught — affecting a range of products, from milk to lumber — and Trump appears to be using the prospect of a U.S.-Mexico pact that excludes Canada to strong-arm the government of PM Justin Trudeau to get on board.

Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland cut short an overseas trip to return stateside and move full steam ahead on negotiations with the U.S. Holding tough, Trump’s commerce chief, Wilbur Ross, said that the administration would be fine excluding Canada from a deal.

Some important caveats: Congress retains authority to ratify any new trade pact, and it is already thinking about this one. And Trump’s Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, is a lame duck, with leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador taking over the reins of government in Mexico City later this year. He has his own ideas on trade.

The president’s allies, nevertheless, held up the agreement as a major achievement — and it’s one they’re hoping will spare them the ire of constituencies negatively impacted by the trade war. GOP candidate Jim Hagedorn, running in the agriculture-heavy 1st District, hailed the deal as proof Trump’s “aggressive negotiation will bring solid results.”

Elsewhere: whispers circulated about embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions being on the chopping block for what seems like the millionth time. Trump has continued to fume at his AG for a bunch of things, most recently that he has lost control of the Department of Justice. (That prompted a rare, public rebuke from Sessions last week to the contrary.)

The consensus seems to be that Trump will axe Sessions some time after the November midterms. But POTUS has, per WaPo, been talking to aides more and more about firing him before that, and Politico reports that he’s personally pressing senators to turn against their former colleague — and also that Trump has grown annoyed at his former buddy’s southern accent. (Yikes!)

Now, even people who should strongly be backing the AG, like Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, aren’t exactly taking up arms to defend him. “Nothing lasts forever,” Shelby told WaPo in response to a question about how long Sessions would last as AG.

Someone who actually is leaving the administration: White House counsel Don McGahn, who will depart his post at the end of the year, after the likely confirmation of SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which POTUS announced in a tweet on Wednesday. (Some reported that McGahn learned the news via tweet.) McGahn has quarterbacked Trump’s efforts to pack the federal judiciary, but he’s come into conflict with his boss for cooperating with the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. (NYT with some more context.)

Big news break from WaPo: the Trump administration is denying passports for U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent in Texas — and, in some cases, is detaining them and putting them in deportation proceedings. Keep an eye on this one.

Also at the Department of Homeland Security — the agency responsible for a broad range of immigration-related duties — a policy analyst was exposed as having connections to white nationalists by the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray. The man, Ian Smith, has since resigned his post.

The preferred punching bag of @realDonaldTrump this quiet August week was Google, which POTUS claims is suppressing good news about the president and elevating bad “Fake News Media” stories; he also claimed the tech giant obscured his State of the Union address. In a sign there’s more to this — or that the boss needs to be placated — economic advisor Larry Kudlow told reporters that the administration is looking into the idea that Google is prejudiced in how it presents information related to the president.

Minnesota won a legal battle with the Trump administration, which agreed to give the state some $85 million in federal subsidies to shore up Minnesota’s “basic health program,” funds D.C. officials had declined to issue even though they were owed. (Minnesota and New York were the only states to establish a BHP under the Affordable Care Act.)

MidtermWatch: media focus continues on allegations of abuse levied at Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL candidate for attorney general, by his ex-girlfriend. Politico reports on how the GOP is trying to make Ellison a drag on the entire DFL ticket; on Thursday, the Ellison story got the full New York Times treatment in a deep-dive piece.

MPR’s Brian Bakst reported on Thursday that the national GOP organization for attorney general races is officially on the ground in Minnesota on behalf of their candidate, Doug Wardlow, who was considered a longshot just a few weeks ago.

With Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Florida — recaps here, including a big upset in the Sunshine State’s Democratic governor primary — primary season is drawing to a close nationwide, with just a few more states left. The Wall Street Journal crunches the numbers and finds that all but two of the three-dozen GOP candidates Trump endorsed won in their primaries, proving his enduring, sweeping hold on the party.

Finally, big news from North Carolina, home to a couple of important U.S. House races: a federal court ruled this week that its congressional districts are gerrymandered, and ordered the state to redraw the districts — possibly before the November midterms. The Charlotte Observer answers the big questions about what happens next.

The week’s essential reads

Like he has on many issues, Trump has been hazy when it comes to legalizing marijuana, at various points favoring the policy while he surrounds himself with anti-drug hardliners. BuzzFeed News’ Dominic Holden reports that the anti-pot crusaders in the administration are launching an internal “War on Weed,” just as legalization is reaching unprecedented public popularity:

The Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee, as it’s named in White House memos and emails, instructed 14 federal agencies and the Drug Enforcement Administration this month to submit “data demonstrating the most significant negative trends” about marijuana and the “threats” it poses to the country.

In an ironic twist, the committee complained in one memo that the narrative around marijuana is unfairly biased in favor of the drug. But rather than seek objective information, the committee’s records show it is asking officials only to portray marijuana in a negative light, regardless of what the data show. …

The committee’s hardline agenda and deep bench suggest an extraordinarily far-reaching effort to reverse public attitudes and scrutinize those states. Its reports are to be used in a briefing for Trump “on marijuana threats.”

Amid personnel shake-ups and investigation-related crises in the West Wing, there have been few constants. One of them is Stephen Miller, Trump’s top aide on immigration who has been ruthless in advancing his hard-line views. As the effects of the administration’s family separation crisis linger — and reports air that citizens are being detained — Politico’s Nahal Toosi details the 33-year old’s rise:

Miller’s hard-charging approach to the discussion offers a glimpse into just one of the many tactics — psychological and otherwise — he has used to secure an iron grip on Trump’s immigration policies, surviving blowups such as the initial blowback over the president’s travel ban and the more recent fracas over the migrant family separation policy.

One major reason Miller remains a powerful player on immigration is that he’s so close to Trump, who agrees with many of his hard-line views. But according to nearly a dozen current and former U.S. officials and others who deal with migration, Miller also has managed to set the agenda on Trump’s signature campaign issue through another quality: sheer bureaucratic cunning.

He has installed acolytes across key U.S. agencies, such as the State Department. He has inserted himself into NSC deliberations to an extraordinary degree for someone not in that elite group’s ranks. He takes care to limit his paper trail, avoiding email and keeping his name off documents when possible. He has cajoled and bullied some career staffers into implementing his vision of radically tighter U.S. borders — a vision that, according to a former White House official, even Trump has privately suggested can be extreme.

It’s that time again for NFL football, America’s most popular sport that has become an unlikely weapon in President Trump’s culture war. Mark Leibovich, the NYT writer best known as a chronicler of Washington’s excesses, turns his gaze to the league in a new book. He finds that the NFL and D.C. aren’t all that different, plagued by similar flaws and similar powerful white men. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis writes up Leibovich’s book:

Leibovich argues that the NFL and Washington, D.C., have evolved in such a way that they’ve become parallel universes. They are run by the same kind of oligarchs and reported on by the same “insiders” and haunted by the same president. The NFL, he writes, is a “swamp.”

Leibovich’s previous book, 2013’s This Town, was a chronicle of Washington when its self-regard seemed to have reached the terminal stage. Similarly, Leibovich felt he’d arrived on the NFL beat in “the late stages of a really big party.” Pro football might not be “dying,” but the idea that it could be made the guys who run the league just vulnerable enough to talk—to reveal what makes them tick. As a study of the power class eating itself, Leibovich might have called his book This League.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

For your Labor Day weekend, I’ll include something like a feel-good longread, for once. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan spent some time with President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, as they live quiet, modest lives in their small hometown of Plains, Georgia — still active and walking around town, even in their early 90s.

Carter has had the longest ex-presidency of anyone in history, and it’s possible what he’s done with it — shunning lucrative speeches and boards, preferring to build homes for Habitat for Humanity and teaching Sunday school — might be remembered as much as what he did in office. The story reads something like a postcard from a different political time.

On this south Georgia summer evening, still close to 90 degrees, they dab their faces with a little plastic bottle of No Natz to repel the swirling clouds of tiny bugs. Then they catch each other’s hands again and start walking, the former president in jeans and clunky black shoes, the former first lady using a walking stick for the first time.

The 39th president of the United States lives modestly, a sharp contrast to his successors, who have left the White House to embrace power of another kind: wealth.

Even those who didn’t start out rich, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have made tens of millions of dollars on the private-sector opportunities that flow so easily to ex-presidents. When Carter left the White House after one tumultuous term, trounced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, he returned to Plains, a speck of peanut and cotton farmland that to this day has a nearly 40 percent poverty rate.

The Democratic former president decided not to join corporate boards or give speeches for big money because, he says, he didn’t want to “capitalize financially on being in the White House.”

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said that Gerald Ford, Carter’s predecessor and close friend, was the first to fully take advantage of those high-paid post-presidential opportunities, but that “Carter did the opposite.”

Since Ford, other former presidents, and sometimes their spouses, routinely earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per speech. “I don’t see anything wrong with it; I don’t blame other people for doing it,” Carter says over dinner. “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”

What to look for next week

Washington’s sort-of-not-quite August recess decisively comes to a close on Tuesday, when both houses of Congress return to the Swamp for a consequential September of legislative business.

First on deck: on Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will question Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Mitch McConnell and Republicans want to get the federal judge confirmed in the full Senate before November’s midterms, and it isn’t looking so far like his nomination is in trouble. Kavanaugh will be introduced to the committee by fellow George W. Bush administration alum Condoleezza Rice and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.

Look for Democrats on the committee — like Sen. Amy Klobuchar — to question him on his views on executive authority, of which he was a cheerleader in the Bush administration, and hot-button issues like abortion access.

Funding for the government runs out on September 30, and with Congress behind on its appropriations for the next fiscal year, it’s unclear yet what the path forward is for avoiding a shutdown. Politico has a running round-up of shutdown-related news.

Bigger picture: BuzzFeed looks at an unofficial deadline — 60 days before the midterm elections, coming up early September — for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to release any findings to the public before the nation votes.

That’s all for me this week. Enjoy the Labor Day weekend — rest up for what should be a wild, exciting fall in D.C. and on the campaign trail. Email me: