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D.C. Memo: Painter thinning DFL’s patience

Franken’s maybe return; Vin Weber’s Manafort connection; tax-cut for the rich; and more.

Richard Painter’s Senate candidacy has been unexpectedly strong.
Painter for U.S. Senate

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This week in Washington, the Trump administration explored how to help out rich people, the president professed a desire to meet up with Iran, and Al Franken isn’t ruling out another run for office — but he’s not ruling it in, or something?

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where August — swampy, swampy August — is taking full effect. It’s been a relatively busy week in D.C., but I’ll lead off with some news about former Sen. Al Franken: on Monday, he spoke at the dedication of the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in northern Minnesota, in what was his first major public appearance in his home state since leaving office in January after a sexual misconduct scandal.

Franken was at the “Bug” school, which serves children of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, to celebrate a painfully overdue renovation — made possible by Congress finally finding $12 million for it after many years —  to what was once one of the worst schools in Indian Country. (The Star Tribune’s Jennifer Brooks has a column worth reading on how meaningful this all is to members of this community.) In his time in the Senate, Franken pushed hard for funding to renovate the Bug school, along with DFL Rep. Betty McCollum, who was also on hand for the ceremony. (Present, too, from the federal side were Rep. Tim Walz and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.)

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At the festivities, Franken told WCCO that he misses the “whole job” of being senator. “I would still like to be there,” he said. When Esme Murphy asked him if he planned to run for office again, Franken said, “Well, see, if I say anything there you will put it in the story,” he said. “I don’t know. I haven’t ruled it out, and I haven’t ruled it in.” (That launched about a million articles from D.C. press about Franken’s ambiguous future plans.)

Speaking of #metoo: a big report in the Timberjay, the newspaper based in the northern Minnesota town of Ely, tells the story of a young man who experienced harassment as a field employee for the state DFL Party when he was assigned to the 2016 campaign of DFL Rep. Rick Nolan.

The man, 26-year old Chris Horoshak, tells the Timberjay that he struggled to get an adequate response to his complaints, and hit dead ends with higher-ups at the DFL and in Nolan’s campaign. (He alleges that Nolan laughed in his face after he told the congressman about the harassment he experienced. Nolan’s office denied that the meeting happened.)

The story is worth a read, if only to get a sense of how woefully behind the world of political campaigns is when it comes to addressing these kinds of complaints in a timely and fair way.

Finally, you might recall that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had taken an interest in former Minnesota congressman and D.C. power-lobbyist Vin Weber, whose firm did work in Washington on behalf of the government of Ukraine via a shady third-party group set up by Paul Manafort, the one-time Trump campaign manager on trial in federal court this week. As the Manafort trial began, CNN reported that Mueller referred an investigation into Weber’s work — and that of Democratic lobbying king Tony Podesta — to federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

On Manafort: the Atlantic has a nice set-up for what the trial means. Politico has a dispatch from Thursday’s proceedings. The prosecution has revealed that Manafort bought a very, uh, striking $15,000 jacket made of ostrich.

Onto the world of President Donald Trump and his administration: the Washington Post had a big story detailing a culture of sexual harassment at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, focusing on the conduct of one top official who allegedly leveraged his post to give him and his friends at the agency opportunities to pursue women.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Monday that the administration is mulling ways to bypass Congress to adjust the capital gains tax to benefit the super-wealthy. Mnuchin, according to the New York Times, spoke at a conference about allowing taxpayers to account for inflation in determining their tax liability for an asset sold that appreciated in value since it was bought.

This change would be an enormous boost to the pocketbooks of the richest taxpayers: WaPo’s Christopher Ingraham writes that 86 percent of the estimated $100 billion in savings created by the tax break would flow to the wealthiest one percent of Americans. Sixty-three percent would go to the top 0.1 percent. (The top one percent claims 20 percent of all wealth in the U.S., double what it claimed in 1980.)

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But even cheerleaders of the change think that Congress, not the executive branch, should be in charge of making it happen. In the Wall Street Journal, Princeton economist Alan Blinder makes that case. (Meanwhile, the WaPo editorial board took some column inches to slam the whole idea.)

Government funding doesn’t run out until September 30, but I think it’s time to re-initiate Government Shutdown Watch: I know I said in last week’s Memo that Trump seemed to be on board with entreaties from congressional GOP leadership to kick funding fights — particularly over his border wall — past the midterms in order to avoid headaches for Republicans on the campaign trail.

Who could have possibly foreseen that, this week, Trump would totally blow things up and vocally threaten a government shutdown if his demands aren’t met? “I don’t care what the political ramifications are,” @realDonaldTrump proclaimed on Tuesday, “our immigration laws and border security have been a complete and total disaster for decades, and there is no way that the Democrats will allow it to be fixed without a Government Shutdown.” NPR has some good background on the situation.

Meanwhile, news on the foreign policy front: after a fruitful summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, North Korea is… clandestinely advancing its weapons program anyway. WaPo reports that U.S. spies have discovered that North Korea is continuing to develop long-range ballistic missiles, despite Trump’s declaration that the totalitarian regime was no longer a “nuclear threat.” We’ll always have Singapore!

Additionally, a week after personally threatening the president of Iran on Twitter — in all caps — the president said on Monday he would be open to meeting with him without any preconditions. This is baffling, considering that Trump made a huge show of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and that he’s basically arrayed his Middle East policy around countering the Shiite Muslim power. (The New Yorker recently had a very long, very good piece exploring that.)

Recall that Republicans slammed then-candidate Barack Obama for saying he’d meet with the leaders of countries like Iran and Cuba without preconditions. After all that, though, Iran doesn’t want to meet up with Trump in the first place.

Over to the MinnPost 2K18 Midterm Megadoppler, which is firing up big-time with Minnesota’s primaries less than two weeks away — and the general election less than 100 days away.

I have two stories this week previewing the two contentious DFL primaries in Minnesota’s 5th and 8th Congressional Districts. In CD5, the winner is almost certain to be the district’s next member of Congress, while in CD8, the winner must hit the ground running for a tough, expensive duel with Trump’s man in Minnesota, Pete Stauber.

Plenty of barbs thrown this week in the unexpectedly tense, nasty primary battle between DFL Sen. Tina Smith and her challenger, the former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter. The one-time Republican’s candidacy has been unexpectedly strong, but the Smith camp has left most of the oppo work to the state DFL, which has slammed Painter for his refusal to embrace the party label and linked him to organizations supported by the conservative Koch brothers. In one statement, DFL chair Ken Martin said Painter should denounce Bush administration torture abuses. (Puzzlingly, Martin is quoted in the Star Tribune saying the party welcomes candidates who don’t agree with most Democrats on issues like abortion and, notably, same-sex marriage so long as they embrace the DFL label. Huh?)

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Painter, meanwhile, has needled the DFL and Martin with criticisms they’re coming after him unfairly and rigging the game for Smith. Overall: Smith is still the strong favorite here, but the primary is getting at tensions bubbling beneath the fired-up DFL.

Keep an eye on this: 2018’s round of election meddling is already underway. This week, Facebook announced that it had detected a “coordinated disinformation operation” on its platform, seeking to amplify divisive political messages, particularly related to Trump, ahead of the midterms. It found 32 false pages — one of which is linked to Russia’s infamous troll farm, the Internet Research Agency — that reached 290,000 Facebook users.

NBC News with some good follow-up reporting, showing that Facebook omitted the most controversial pages from its influence report. Those pages tended to target liberal voters on issues of race and immigration. The Daily Beast reported, meanwhile, that Russian hackers have already targeted a Democratic senator up for re-election — Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who faces a tough re-election battle in that red state.

The NYT has a big-picture look at the midterm political climate, as general elections around the country heat up. Want to look even further ahead? Because it’s recess, here’s a roundup on what possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have been up to, preparing their bids behind the scenes.

This week’s essential reads

With the administration pushing a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, some migrants aren’t giving up on trying to get to the U.S. — they are just taking more dangerous routes. BuzzFeed News’ John Stanton traveled to the scorching desert of Mexico’s Sonora state to report on the most dangerous place to cross into the U.S., and the people who are taking the risk:

While families and children have been crossing and dying in the desert for years, it remained relatively rare even during crackdowns like the 2014 Obama push that sent Romero to Caborca. Even for healthy, well-provisioned adults, it’s extraordinarily dangerous to cross the Sonoran Desert, where a sprained ankle can mean a death sentence.

So most families avoided the area entirely, heading to either eastern Texas or far western California to try to cross illegally. Families that did end up on the Arizona border almost always made their way to ports of entry like Nogales and San Luis, Mexico, to ask Customs and Border Protection officials there for asylum.

But things began to change in early 2017, as President Trump and his team were coming into office. Although deterrence has been the cornerstone of US immigration policy since former president Bill Clinton first used punitive enforcement measures as part of his Prevention Through Deterrence initiative, under Trump the Department of Homeland Security has taken it to whole new level.

It wasn’t long ago that the small-government philosophy of libertarianism was on the rise within the GOP, with upstarts like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul ushering in a “libertarian moment.” That moment is basically over, with Paul squarely within Trump’s camp. WaPo’s Dave Weigel checks in with Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, the last true libertarian in a party being transformed by a tariff-loving, big-spending president:

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Amash, who is 38 years old and in his fourth term representing Grand Rapids and its exurbs, is often on the losing end of the roll call. A self-described “Hayekian libertarian” — after F.A. Hayek, the Austrian-British libertarian economist — he’s been compared to the Texas libertarian, former congressman and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul, who embraced the nickname “Dr. No.”

These days, Amash doesn’t even agree with Paul on the direction of the Trump-era GOP. Since the summer of 2015, as his presidential campaign took off, Trump has split the libertarian movement that once largely united behind Paul.

That has left Amash as the only consistent representative of a wing of libertarianism that remains alienated by Trump — advocates of a government shrunk down to a pre-New Deal size, and advocates of freer trade and immigration policies.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — an ambitious Democrat thought to have her eyes on the 2020 presidential race — was the first of many Senate Democrats who called on Al Franken to resign last year. Since, Gillibrand has become the top target of criticism from Franken loyalists who believe she railroaded him to serve her own political ambitions. HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel reports on that, and the donors who may close their pocketbooks when Gillibrand comes calling later:

Most prominently, Gillibrand has attracted the ire of billionaire George Soros, who has long funded Democratic candidates and causes. Soros recently said he wasn’t sure whom he was supporting for 2020, but that it absolutely wouldn’t be Gillibrand. He accused her of going after Franken, “whom I admire,” to “improve her chances” for president.

“If standing up for women who have been wronged makes George Soros mad, that’s on him,” Gillibrand said in a statement to HuffPost. …

HuffPost spoke to dozens of elite donors who contributed significant amounts of money to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Gillibrand, at one time, was part of the tight, loyal Clinton world. The Clintons were early supporters of hers and Hillary wrote the foreword to Gillibrand’s book.

Many of these donors said that either they were unhappy with Gillibrand or knew plenty of people who were. The 2020 race is still years away, but as donors start to shop around, her comments on Clinton and Franken could be a factor.

“I viewed it as self-serving, as opportunistic ― unforgivable in my view,” said Rosalind Fink, a New York donor. “Since then, I have not purposely attended any fundraiser where she was there. And there is absolutely no way I will support her.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread — the online classified platform that has become America’s biggest conduit for the buying and selling of sex online — has become a scourge on Capitol Hill, with consumer protection-minded lawmakers like Sen. Amy Klobuchar touting their efforts to make it harder for the site to operate.

Klobuchar and many of her like-minded senators have succeeded in going after the “bad guys” who run the site, which they say has enabled a bold human trafficking business. Politico Magazine’s Paul Demko has a worthwhile story on the unlikely roots of Backpage — combative Arizona journalists Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, who built an alt-weekly empire that once included City Pages — and how the site’s operation has become a question of First Amendment privileges:

The longtime business partners portray themselves as First Amendment martyrs, fighting to preserve free speech on the internet. They believe this battle isn’t just a self-preservation strategy but a natural extension of the pioneering newspaper company they planted in the Arizona desert more than four decades ago, a network of alternative weeklies that would span the country before taking a massive revenue hit from the internet. Their innovation — — not only saved the company, they say, but it brought needed sunlight to a sexual underground.

“Backpage is part of the solution,” Lacey bragged in a draft editorial quoted in the indictment. “Eliminating adult advertising will in no way eliminate or even reduce the incidence of prostitution in this country. … For the very first time, the oldest profession in the world has transparency, record keeping and safeguards.”

The sex-trade profiteering that helped make Larkin and Lacey incredibly wealthy leaves First Amendment purists feeling queasy. Not even their former colleagues can agree on whether to admire or renounce them.

But Jana Bommersbach, who joined Phoenix New Times in 1976 and helped it become a tenacious, respected newspaper, takes a very different stance. “They were using the First Amendment as a shield to make themselves filthy rich,” Bommersbach said. At the heart of the case is a legal defense that has so far proved remarkably effective.

What to look for next week

The halls of the entire Capitol will be quiet for the next two weeks: on Wednesday, the U.S. Senate adjourned until August 15. The U.S. House is already on its recess, which lasts until Labor Day; Senate Majority Mitch McConnell will bring back the upper chamber to handle administration nominations, cutting short the full August recess, as he promised months ago.

So, D.C. may get quiet, but the political world won’t be: next Tuesday will see a few primary contests to watch around the country. A special election for U.S. House in a central Ohio congressional district is attracting national attention: Republicans are worried that their candidate, Troy Balderson, will lose to Democrat Danny O’Connor in a district Trump carried by 11 points. Most recent polls have the two candidates more or less tied.

VP Mike Pence has already visited to boost Balderson; Trump himself is expected to stump on his behalf on Saturday. WOSU in Columbus has a good overview of the race and why it’s being studied as a bellwether for a “blue wave” for Democrats in the midterms.

Speaking of Pence: he’ll add to his midwestern travels with a visit to Minnesota’s 8th District next week to fundraise on behalf of Republican candidate Pete Stauber. If Republicans are in danger in places like suburban central Ohio, they need to perform in places like northeast Minnesota if they want to retain their House majority. With Trump and Pence making trips to Duluth, Republicans are showing just how important CD8 is to them this year.

Another primary to watch on Tuesday: the governor’s race in Michigan, where several Democrats are vying for the chance to recapture that state’s governorship after eight years of Gov. Rick Snyder. Gretchen Whitmer, a former state legislator backed by the Michigan Democratic establishment, is facing off against Abdul El-Sayed, a millennial public health official backed by Bernie Sanders who wants to be the country’s first Muslim governor. WaPo frames it as a test of how far left Dems want to go in this year’s midterms.

As for me, next week, I’m heading west: specifically, to Redwood Falls, Minnesota, to cover the annual ag-politics confab known as Farmfest. Got any tips? Email me: