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D.C. Memo: Tariffs out, camouflage in at this year’s FarmFest

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
2018 FarmFest attendees mingling prior to the gubernatorial forum on Wednesday.

This week in Washington, a sitting congressman was indicted on insider trading, but not a whole lot else happened. In the rest of America, there were important primaries, and in Minnesota, a bunch of politicians showed up in a field in western Minnesota to talk about how important farmers are to them.

This week in Washington

Good afternoon, everyone, not from Washington but somewhere in southern Minnesota, where I’m working in some reporting before Tuesday’s primary elections.

I’ve been on the road in Minnesota all week, covering the all-important FarmFest ag industry confab in western Minnesota and the primary race in southern Minnesota’s 1st District. You can check out my write-up of Tuesday’s forums for congressional candidates here, and my colleague Peter Callaghan’s report on Wednesday’s governor forums here.

This Memo will be a little shorter than usual, but let’s go over this week’s big news: Voters in Ohio, Michigan, and Kansas went to the polls on Tuesday for a closely watched round of primaries. In Ohio’s 12th District, centered on the safe Republican turf of suburban Columbus, the GOP is barely ahead in a U.S. House election that remains too close to call.

In that race, Republican Troy Balderson is ahead of Democrat Danny O’Connor by a close margin — about 1,500 votes — in a district President Donald Trump won by 11 points in 2016. Balderson claimed victory on Tuesday, but a late surge of Democratic votes in a suburban county has brought the race closer, with a few thousand absentee ballots left to count.

When all votes are counted, a difference of 0.5 percent would trigger a recount. A Democratic win here could fuel momentum for the all-important Blue Wave in November’s elections; Republicans, meanwhile, are desperate to show they’re still able to win in districts they should be winning. 

All told, both sides and their allies have spent a combined $8.4 million on this one race. Trump, meanwhile, stumped for Balderson and claimed credit for his showing on Tuesday night as returns indicated a GOP win. (The New York Times had an analysis piece on how Trump views himself as an indispensable boost to the GOP’s 2018 prospects — even as many Republicans privately fret he’s a drag.)

Early analysis, like this good column from the Washington Post’s James Hohmann, is that the battle in Ohio’s 12th — if it ends in a GOP win — would be something of a Pyrrhic victory: This is a seat that should be relatively safe, and the candidate the GOP ran was a solid recruit. Republicans are defending 72 seats rated less Republican than this one, and if Democrats can pick off some of these — not to mention the two dozen or so true toss-up seats held by Republicans — they believe they’ll be in good shape to reclaim the House majority.

The political prognosticators agree: Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report tweeted that the Ohio 12th result “reinforces our view that Dems are substantial favorites to retake the House in November.” (Politico’s Playbook with a dash of reality check for Dems: Moral victories aren’t victories.)

In Kansas, a virtual deadlock in that state’s GOP governor’s primary, where hard-right conservative and Trump ally Kris Kobach has challenged sitting Gov. Jeff Colyer. Kobach, who was endorsed by the president and was tasked to serve on his voter fraud commission, leads Colyer by a few hundred votes. A recount is possible — and Kobach is the Kansas secretary of state. (He won’t recuse himself in the event of a recount, making himself in charge of his own recount. Imagine if Al Franken or Norm Coleman had insisted on overseeing his own recount in 2008?)

If Kobach prevails, it’d be a huge win for Trump and a remarkable rise for someone once confined to the activist far right. Democrats hope he’d also put the governorship of deep-red Kansas in play in November with his extreme views. (Others say not so fast.)

Generally: Tuesday was not a great night for the left, as Bernie Sanders-backed candidates in Michigan and elsewhere were defeated. But in red Missouri, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure overturning that state’s “right to work” law.

Meanwhile, back home in Minnesota, Vice President Mike Pence visited Duluth to stump and fundraise for the GOP’s candidate in the 8th Congressional District, Pete Stauber. He also talked up how the Trump administration has brought Minnesota’s mining industry back — a point that surely caused some grumbling among 8th District Democrats who have been pushing pro-mining measures for years.

Pence’s visit comes less than two months after his boss’ big Duluth rally on behalf of Stauber; and this is just another sign of how all-in national Republican types are for Stauber, the clean-cut former Duluth police lieutenant. MinnPost’s Cyndy Brucato has more on the event.

More fresh audio unearthed this week from Rep. Jason Lewis’ past in talk radio: BuzzFeed News reported on segments from his show, recorded in 2013, in which he suggested same-sex couples were harmful for their kids and that the gay and lesbian “lobby” is “shredding the Constitution.”

Lewis’ opponent for the closely watched general election in Minnesota’s 2nd District is Democrat Angie Craig, who is seeking to become the first openly gay person elected to Congress in Minnesota. Craig and her son Josh weighed in on Lewis’ comments on Wednesday, as did the DFL and aligned organizations. “I have fought for my family and the right to adopt Josh,” Craig said in a statement. “My four sons are amazing young men and I am so damn proud to be their mom — it’s the most important job I’ll ever have.”

Last month, CNN released several inflammatory Lewis segments featuring comments about race and women. 2nd District voters knew in 2016 that the one-time talk radio pontificator had a record of making these kinds of statements — this fall, we’ll see if this raft of comments will move voters away from him.

A relatively quiet one back in D.C., where both the House and Senate are off and Trump is at his New Jersey golf club for a “working vacation.” A few things worth keeping an eye on in the administration: The government’s trade and commerce authorities continue to defend domestic steel producers in the wake of Trump’s tariffs on imports. The New York Times reports that giants like U.S. Steel have successfully petitioned the feds to block requests from companies that buy steel for waivers exempting them from the new tariffs on imported steel.

The trade war quietly continued this week: China announced it’d move forward with $16 billion worth of new tariffs on U.S. products. Already, reports of U.S. industries that could face blowback from that — seafood, and vaping. The Chinese government has also signaled that it is open to targeting major U.S. companies like Apple in further tariffs.

It was a banner week for Draining the Swamp: Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican and the first sitting congressman to endorse Trump’s 2016 bid, was arrested by FBI officers on charges of insider trading. A detailed indictment shows how Collins, who sat on the board of an Australian pharmaceutical company while in office, notified friends and family who held stock in the company that a key product had failed a test — allowing them to sell their stock before it tanked.

Collins has denied the charges and has promised to fight them — and to stand for re-election in his Buffalo-area House district. The Buffalo News reports that this move unexpectedly puts the deep-red 27th District in play for Democrats this fall.

ProPublica reports on a wild, and quintessentially Trumpian, influence and access story: Several members of the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, business titans with no experience in government or the military, are acting as something like a “shadow cabinet” for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

A remarkable passage describes the trio, dubbed the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd” as such: “a previously unknown triumvirate that hovered over public servants without any transparency, accountability or oversight. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd spoke with VA officials daily, the documents show, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions. They prodded the VA to start new programs, and officials travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views.”

Cue the outrage: 1st District Rep. Tim Walz, top Dem on the House Veterans’ Committee, called for an investigation into the situation. “This situation reeks of corruption and cronyism,” he said.

This week’s essential reads

A year ago, the president responded to a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, by saying there were good people on “both sides” of the clash. It was a low water mark for his first year, and it brought more consequences than usual for his actions. Whatever the consequences of Charlottesville were, they have since faded, and Trump is more defiant than ever on issues of race. Politico’s Annie Karni:

That moment temporarily left Trump on an island, abandoned by Republicans on the Hill and corporate executives who had previously played nice with the president on his business councils, and was a low-water mark of his presidency — one that, according to presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, “puts him in the dung heap of presidents who are completely insensitive of race in the United States.”

If that proves to be the case in the long run, a year out from Charlottesville tells a different story and is less clear cut. In fact, while Trump hasn’t changed, he’s no longer isolated, and his race and culture wars now pose one of the biggest challenges to Democrats plotting how to win back the House in 2018 and to take on Trump in 2020.

“The big picture is the fizzle,” said Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard and a prominent Never Trump conservative. “He’s not in good shape politically, but he’s not in worse shape. Charlottesville didn’t change his numbers. Everything has just become more the way it was.”

While some of Trump’s Cabinet deputies have drawn attention — and lost their jobs — over their high-flying habits and ethical lapses, Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary, has largely avoided it. But Forbes’ Dan Alexander reports that Ross, worth some $700 million, has left a long paper trail of lawsuits and broken business relationships in his private sector career, painting the picture of a world-class grifter:

It is difficult to imagine the possibility that a man like Ross, who Forbes estimates is worth some $700 million, might steal a few million from one of his business partners. Unless you have heard enough stories about Ross. Two former WL Ross colleagues remember the commerce secretary taking handfuls of Sweet’N Low packets from a nearby restaurant, so he didn’t have to go out and buy some for himself. One says workers at his house in the Hamptons used to call the office, claiming Ross had not paid them for their work. Another two people said Ross once pledged $1 million to a charity, then never paid. A commerce official called the tales “petty nonsense,” and added that Ross does not put sweetener in his coffee.  

There are bigger allegations. Over several months, in speaking with 21 people who know Ross, Forbes uncovered a pattern: Many of those who worked directly with him claim that Ross wrongly siphoned or outright stole a few million here and a few million there, huge amounts for most but not necessarily for the commerce secretary. At least if you consider them individually. But all told, these allegations—which sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine—come to more than $120 million. If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

“Abolish ICE” has become the signature rallying cry of the left in 2018, a reaction to the aggressive immigration policies of President Trump and the sometimes shocking tactics of the agency tasked with carrying them out.

In a lengthy and deeply-reported piece, the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer reports from communities, like the Mauritanian immigrants of central Ohio, who have seen their lives changed radically since Trump took office. He traces that to how Trump himself has radicalized an agency that believes the president has unshackled it so it can perform its true mission.

Fear is a contagion that spreads quickly. One ICE officer warned some Mauritanians sympathetically, “It’s not a matter of if you’ll be deported, but when.” Another flatly said, “My job is to get you to leave this country.” At meetings, officers would insist that the immigrants go to the Mauritanian consulate and apply for passports to return to the very country whose government had attempted to murder them.

One afternoon this spring, I sat in the bare conference room of the Columbus mosque after Friday prayer, an occasion for which men dress in traditional garb: brightly colored robes and scarves wrapped around their heads. The imam asked those who were comfortable to share their stories with me. Congregants lined up outside the door.

One by one, the Mauritanians described to me the preparations they had made for a quick exit. Some said that they had already sold their homes; others had liquidated their 401(k)s. Everyone I spoke with could name at least one friend who had taken a bus to the Canadian border and applied for asylum there, rather than risk further appointments with ICE …

In 21st-century America, it is difficult to conjure the possibility of the federal government taking an eraser to the map and scrubbing away an entire ethnic group. I had arrived in Columbus at the suggestion of a Cleveland-based lawyer named David Leopold, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Leopold has kept in touch with an old client who attends the Mauritanian mosque. When he mentioned the community’s plight to me, he called it “ethnic cleansing”—which initially sounded like wild hyperbole. But on each of my trips back to Columbus, I heard new stories of departures to Canada—and about others who had left for New York, where hiding from ice is easier in the shadows of the big city. The refugees were fleeing Refugee Road.

What to look for next week

This Tuesday, finally, is the big day: Minnesotans will head to the polls to vote in primary elections big and small, from governor to local council races.

The primaries are a critical step in the road to Washington in a few nationally-watched races that could decide control of the U.S. House and Senate. In the open-seat 1st District, Republicans decide whether endorsed candidate Jim Hagedorn or state Sen. Carla Nelson will take on Democrat Dan Feehan in the general. In the deep-blue 5th District, the winner of the five-person DFL primary is virtually guaranteed to be that district’s next representative. Up in northeast Minnesota’s open-seat 8th District, the winner of the five-person DFL primary will face Republican Pete Stauber in the general election.

I’ll also be watching the DFL primary for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Franken: incumbent Sen. Tina Smith is facing a challenge from Richard Painter, the former George W. Bush ethics lawyer who’s transformed himself into a crusading, anti-Trump populist.

Two members of the Minnesota congressional delegation are on the ballot elsewhere: Rep. Walz is running in the hotly-contested DFL governor’s primary, and Rep. Rick Nolan is governor candidate Lori Swanson’s running-mate.

At MinnPost, my colleagues and I will be covering primary night and its aftermath. Check out our homepage for live results as they roll in, and be sure to follow me and the MinnPost team on Twitter as we report and weigh in on the results.

It should be an exciting one, and there’ll be plenty to digest in next week’s Memo. Until then, thanks for sticking with me, and feel free to get in touch at

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