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D.C. Memo: Et who, Brute?

photo of pompeo, trump and pence
REUTERS/File photo/Jonathan Ernst
Trump called the writer of an anonymous New York Times op-ed critical of his leadership a “gutless coward.”

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This week in Washington, members of Congress returned to town to handle a Supreme Court confirmation and interrogate Silicon Valley. At the White House, President Trump dealt with the fallout of an explosive anonymous op-ed and a new Bob Woodward book that confirmed what few of us knew: sometimes he calls people bad names.

This week in Washington

Greetings from D.C., where it feels more like July than September outside, but the Swamp went back to school, anyway — and the place is crazier than ever.

Both houses of Congress returned from the August recess, and the Senate hit the ground running with three days of hearings on the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kavanaugh, a judge on the prestigious D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that has often been the farm team for the high court, is President Donald Trump’s second nominee to the Supreme Court in as many years.

Unlike the successful confirmation last year of Justice Neil Gorsuch, nominated to succeed the late arch-conservative Justice Anthony Scalia, Kavanaugh’s confirmation would shift the ideological balance of the court to the right: he is poised to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s resident swing vote on key cases. (The New York Times pondered what a conservative six-to-three majority on the court would look like.)

So Democrats are hoping to put up a big fight on Kavanaugh, still knowing that the math of the Senate (the GOP holds a slim majority) and election-year politics (plenty of red-state Dems up for re-election this year) may smooth the judge’s path to the high court. (CNN handicaps Dems’ long odds to stop him.)

In marathon hearings — Wednesday’s went from roughly 9 A.M. to 10 P.M. — Kavanaugh re-iterated over and over that he’d be an independent-minded judge. But it’s hard to ignore the lawyer’s long history in GOP politics: he was a member of Ken Starr’s team to impeach President Bill Clinton, and he was a high-ranking aide in the White House of George W. Bush.

So, as you might imagine, Democratic senators tried to nail Kavanaugh on his views on Roe v. Wade and gun policy, as well as his expansive view of presidential power, expressed in his past writings, and the implications those might have on the ongoing investigations of the president and his team. Kavanaugh dodged on most of these questions, saying he’d respect precedent or that he could not weigh in on a hypothetical situation — like if the president were to pardon himself, for example. (Politico dove into one vexing Russia-related question posed by California Sen. Kamala Harris.)

DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar is Minnesota’s senator on the Judiciary Committee, the panel that’s been interrogating Kavanaugh. She gave an opening statement Tuesday that hammered one point: this confirmation, and the circumstances around it, are “not normal.” For more on that, I have a story from Wednesday on how Klobuchar and DFL Sen. Tina Smith are approaching the SCOTUS fight.

Klobuchar’s questioning to Kavanaugh on Wednesday focused on issues of consumer protection, campaign finance, and antitrust; it was detailed and lawyerly stuff, but the senator generally tried to paint a picture of Kavanaugh as an activist, conservative judge inclined to second-guess Congress and overrule its moves.

Much harrumphing and hand-wringing over the atmosphere of the hearings, during which dozens of shouting protesters were arrested and Democrats opened up the proceedings by interrupting Judiciary chief Chuck Grassley and generally raising a stink. WaPo’s Daily 202 newsletter cut through the mud-slinging, holding it up as an example of the decline of the once-august Senate.

Questioning of Kavanaugh continued on Thursday, with some intrigue: two Democratic senators released to the public documents intended solely for the committee’s consideration — a breach of Senate rules that can constitute grounds for expulsion from the chamber.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey released documents from Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House that illuminate his views on abortion and affirmative action. (Booker basically dared the majority to formally castigate him for doing so, which would make good B-roll for his 2020 presidential campaign ads.)

A big week elsewhere on Capitol Hill: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg appeared before lawmakers from both chambers to answer questions about the spread of misinformation on their platforms, and efforts of foreign actors to manipulate social media users to influence U.S. politics. (Google didn’t show.)

The Silicon Valley brass acknowledged the problems plaguing social media, and even that they’d been slow to address them — though senators grilled them both for not doing enough to counter misinformation. In the House, the questioning took on a more partisan tone, with Democrats and Republicans sparring over which side has been most damaged by perceived bias and shortcomings from Facebook and Twitter.

In a huge shocker, the whole thing was rife with sideshows that became center-stage circus fodder: conspiracy theorist and fish oil salesman Alex Jones showed up and tried to pick a fight with Sen. Marco Rubio, and an anti-Muslim conservative activist who crashed Ilhan Omar’s victory party in August tried to disrupt the House’s questioning of Dorsey, only to be drowned out by a congressman who also happens to be a seasoned auctioneer.

In the administration this week: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the U.S Forest Service, officially scuttled a process that could have blocked mineral extraction and exploration in a large swath of Superior National Forest for as long as 20 years. Over the past year, the Trump administration has slowly been removing roadblocks — established by a late 2016 decision from the Obama administration — to mining in an area near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

This week’s move gets rid of a big roadblock — a two-year assessment of the environmental impacts of mining — and it was hailed by mining advocates like GOP Rep. Tom Emmer as a huge victory; environmentalists like those at Save the Boundary Waters slammed it as enabling environmental disaster in the pristine area.

As children head back to school around the country, WaPo checks in on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and how things are going with her effort to promote school-choice initiatives that are beloved by conservatives. Spoiler alert: they are not going very well, as the conservative Michigan billionaire struggles to recover from a bruising confirmation fight last year.

News in the family separation and immigrant detention situation: on Thursday, word got out that the Trump administration is making moves to circumvent a 1977 court ruling that set, among other things, limits on how long migrant youth could be placed in detention. Keep an eye on this one.

Man, Attorney General Jeff Sessions just cannot catch a break. Earlier in the week, the president castigated his Department of Justice for prosecuting two Trump-backing GOP congressmen, Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, accused of insider trading and misuse of campaign funds, respectively. He falsely claimed that these were “long-running Obama era investigations,” and said Sessions put the GOP majority in the House at risk.

“Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time,” @realDonaldTrump huffed. “Good job Jeff…” (Yeah, JEFF!!)

It was a hell of a week in the West Wing for anonymous people who are pissed off at their boss. At long last, the hotly anticipated Bob Woodward book on the Trump White House landed: Excerpts filtered through the press this week, and boy! Were they a doozy.

Go on — read the juicy stuff, if you haven’t already. Broadly, the legendary journalist paints a picture of epic dysfunction in the White House that seems richly detailed but hardly revelatory: who knew that the climate around POTUS seems deeply toxic and that working for him seems very difficult!

It took a while for the White House to respond — aides spent much of Tuesday asking reporters if they were mentioned in Woodward’s book — but the press shop rolled out the very people quoted as dumping on Trump to forcefully deny the reports. (Chief of Staff John Kelly definitely has not ever thought his boss is an idiot.) CNN reports that the book is sparking an internal WITCH HUNT in the West Wing.

Something new in the world of anonymous White House dishing: the NYT published an op-ed from an unnamed official in the Trump administration, granted anonymity to speak freely, for fear of losing the heroic job he describes in the op-ed — namely, being part of an internal resistance to keep Trump in check and mitigate his “worst impulses.”

POTUS responded in classic form, calling the writer a gutless coward and calling on the “failing” NYT to reveal the author of the column because, well, national security. The NYT’s Trump whisperer, Maggie Haberman, reported POTUS raged behind closed doors at the op-ed, with aides scurrying to figure out how to contain his fury.

Some in media worried, even before that response, that this op-ed would backfire and fuel Trump’s complaints of a media, deep-state conspiracy against him. (Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, in an interview, said the content of the op-ed “is just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week.” Casual.)

Meanwhile, Jodi Kantor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning NYT reporter, wondered if the paper’s reporters would be put in the difficult spot of working to uncover the identity of someone their opinion section vowed to protect. Master sleuth at CNN, Chris Cillizza, has a list of 13 possible authors of the column, from the disgruntled Kelly to the beleaguered Sessions. (I bet it’s none of them.)

In what would surely be a solid use of legislative branch resources, Rep. Mark Meadows, chair of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, told reporters Thursday he is looking into “legislative options” to deal with the op-ed, including hearings.

Now that Labor Day has come and gone, this Memo will be cutting over to the Midterm 2k18 MegaDoppler more than ever. On that front: I have a profile out on Karin Housley, the Republican running in the special election for the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by Al Franken.

Housley, a Republican state senator, was thought to face long odds against incumbent Sen. Smith, who was appointed to the seat in January by Gov. Mark Dayton. But Republicans are liking Housley’s chances more and more. If you don’t know much about her, give my piece a read.

Over at the polling desk: Democrats now lead Republicans on the generic congressional ballot by 14 points, the party’s highest watermark since last winter. Even some conservatives are saying this is wave territory.

The Wall Street Journal had a worthwhile look at a pillar of the GOP’s midterm messaging — improving economic metrics — and how they’re being experienced unevenly in different districts, which could complicate things for Republicans.

Finally, another longtime Democratic congressman was felled this week by a progressive primary challenger: in Boston, Ayanna Pressley, a member of the City Council, shocked 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano, beating him by nearly 20 points as voters went to the polls in Massachusetts’ primary on Tuesday.

The upset in Massachusetts’ 7th District — a seat once held by John F. Kennedy and Tip O’Neill — defies some of the Democratic primary narratives we’ve seen this year. A veteran of Capitol Hill and Clinton-world, Pressley was no outsider; the incumbent Capuano, meanwhile, is one of the most reliably left-wing voters in the U.S. House and saw the challenge coming, unlike New York’s Joe Crowley.

But Capuano lost anyway, acknowledging that voters wanted change. Politico’s Playbook has some insidery analysis for you. Pressley is now poised to be the first black woman that Massachusetts will send to Congress — it’ll be fun to watch a young turks caucus form there next year, which is likely to include Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and now Pressley.

This week’s essential reads

This election season, from Massachusetts to Minnesota to Arizona, Democrats are putting forward a more diverse slate of candidates for office than ever before. But, as HuffPost’s Molly Redden reports, the operatives tasked with helping them win — and winning over diverse voters — are still overwhelmingly white, leaving them ill-equipped to staff the Dems’ new wave:

In 2018, the party still relies in the extreme on white political consultants and campaign professionals — with potentially disastrous results.

Sometimes that means they push a message that rings false with constituents; Democrats air so many mistranslated Spanish ads, said Chuck Rocha, the founder of the Latino-owned consulting firm Solidarity Strategies, that he barely notices anymore.

Other times, a lack of diversity comes with critical blind spots. McDonald, who is part of the media consulting firm 76 Words, recently worked for a black candidate whose other consultants were all white. Facing a crowded primary field, they brainstormed ways to differentiate the candidate from the rest of the field.

“We talked and talked about everything except for the fact that this candidate was black and would be the first black person to represent that constituency,” McDonald said. “If you have a team that can’t even have that conversation, you’re potentially missing something.”

Chances are, if you read a major magazine, you have heard the name Beto O’Rourke, the Texas congressman challenging Sen. Ted Cruz in what was once a longshot Senate bid. But the Democrat’s media savvy has translated into tons of press attention, which has translated into tons of cash and a chance to win. WaPo’s Ben Terris, who was early to the Beto phenomenon, explains how this could be a blueprint for Dems in the Trump era:

Over the past 16 months, but especially recently, the campaign has become a sensation — at least of the media variety — transforming O’Rourke from a relative nobody into the most-watched candidate of the year.

It’s partly because he’s a charismatic candidate running a surprisingly effective liberal campaign — new gun laws, universal health care, loosening the laws on marijuana — in a state redder than a stop sign. But it’s also because O’Rourke is a willing participant. He’s certainly the only politician to ever be interviewed by GQ, Town & Country, Politico and Ethan Hawke.

His is a candidacy born of the Trump era, testing whether the left can have an equal and opposite reaction to the 2016 presidential election, and whether the best way to achieve that goal is to figure out the memeing of life.

O’Rourke is betting that by broadcasting himself on a live stream while campaigning in places he isn’t supposed to show up and saying things he isn’t supposed to say, he can encourage new voters to go to the polls, and even win over some Republicans who may not agree with him on all issues.

N.F.L. football officially begins this weekend, but the real on-field action centers on who will kneel for the national anthem before kickoff. With the league squarely within the battle lines of Trump’s culture war, the return of football is good news for Republican candidates and message-men who see it as a wedge issue they can exploit in the elections. BuzzFeed News’ Tarini Parti and Henry J. Gomez:

Sen. Ted Cruz’s isn’t the only Republican campaign eager to see the NFL kick off this week. Republican strategists and campaign staff tell BuzzFeed News that they see opportunities for candidates to make the NFL protests a political liability for Democrats defending seats in states President Donald Trump won in 2016.

“I can’t imagine there is a single voter who will cast a ballot exclusively on the issue of NFL kneeling, but it’s a powerful tool against liberals who are trying to make cultural inroads into a conservative electorate,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“It reaffirms conservative skepticism about whether a liberal candidate sees the world the same way as they do. Unfortunately for a lot of Senate Democrats, this is a demographic they need to compete with in order to hold these red states in November.”

NFL owners unanimously voted on a new policy this summer to ban players from kneeling while giving them the option to stay in their locker rooms for the anthem. The policy is on hold, pending talks between the players union and the owners, and the uncertainty has done nothing to tamp down the outrage Trump has been stoking for nearly a year.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Tangier Island, a tiny strip of land in the Chesapeake Bay, is sinking. It is home to some 450 people, whose families have worked the low-lying waters for crab and fish for generations. Most of them are deeply religious conservatives who do not believe that the island is sinking. President Donald Trump himself called the mayor of Tangier, a crabber who goes by the nickname Ooker, to express his support for the community.

But as the waters rise, and Tangier’s residents increasingly become forced to adapt, there will have to be a reckoning about politics, the environment, and this place’s storied traditions. In Pacific Standard, Eliana Plott explores the messy convergence of those things in a unique exploration of Trump’s America and the era of climate change.

Trump endeared himself to Tangier not just because he affirmed what they were seeing, but also because he believed in what they weren’t seeing. Most Tangier residents insist that sea levels aren’t rising because, quite simply, they don’t see it happening. “It’s not a political issue to me. I’m not lyin’ about it,” Mayor Eskridge says. “I’m just tellin’ folks what I see. … I’m not a scientist, but I’m a keen observer, and I don’t see it.” How empowering it is, then, when the leader of the free world tells you that he agrees, and pledges that your home will be safe for hundreds of years yet.

So say Eskridge and his closest friends, gathered one afternoon in what they call the Situation Room. They congregate almost every day in this small, teal-tiled space that used to be part of the old health center. In fact, some of the men were born in this room. They now use it to gossip and talk politics.

“I wish we could get him to come here,” Jerry Pruitt, who is in his seventies, says of Trump. A few minutes later, he turns in his chair toward Eskridge. “You should call him and say you’d like to have a meeting with him—you might get him.”

“Yeah, you know, Donald Trump could put the wall around here,” Eskridge says, his arms outstretched. The six men chuckle. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ll take the wall, and we’ll even name it after him.’ The Donald Trump Seawall.” …

Their conversation offers a glimpse into the unshakable loyalty of Trump’s base. To feel seen is powerful, especially when the last Republican president turned out to be a country-club conservative like all the others. To feel seen is enough to make the islanders of Tangier trust that what Trump promises is, in fact, coming. But it’s tough to overstate the stakes: For them, the difference between Trump being right and Trump being wrong is not bragging rights, or more-favorable mid-term elections, or fewer brown people in America. It is the difference between their home—and way of life—being above water or below it.

What to look for next week

With Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings mercifully wrapping this week, a vote to advance his nomination out of the Senate Judiciary Committee is slated for Sept. 20, two weeks from now. A full vote in the Senate on his confirmation could happen as soon as Oct. 1, which would maximize the salience of the vote in the November midterms.

The 10 Democrats on the ballot this fall in states Trump won, from Montana and North Dakota to Indiana and West Virginia, will be under pressure to back Kavanaugh. (Three in this group, facing scrutiny last year, voted for Gorsuch.) The Atlantic has an early look at that vote.

The shutdown clock is ticking again: government funding runs out on Sept. 30, and there’s still no clear path through the mess, with plenty of bills left to be passed and the president threatening to risk a shutdown if he doesn’t get the funding he wants — mainly for the border wall.

Where Trump is really at on this is totally unclear, as usual. But Speaker Paul Ryan said this week that he expects the House to move full-steam ahead on spending, and on legislation to make the 2017 tax bill’s cuts permanent.

The last thing congressional GOP brass wants, reports Politico, is a mostly self-inflicted shutdown on the eve of the midterms, when a lot more people will be paying attention. Republicans’ ideal scenario is to handle this quickly, save the hardest work for after the election, and spend a good chunk of September away from D.C. and campaigning.

We’ll be following that and more as fall heats up. Until then, thanks for sticking with me, and see you back here next week. Email me: sbrodey@minnpost.com.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Pat Brady on 09/07/2018 - 10:33 am.

    Thanks for your DC Memo column. It will take me all weekend to read follow the links in your memo.
    And the Friday night news drop will add to my weekend reading.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/07/2018 - 11:12 am.

    Is there anyone in political life who is now more despised than Anonymous?

    Conservatives hate them because of their disloyalty to Our Beloved Leader.

    Liberals hate them for hiding behind the wall of anonymity while continuing to enable Trump.

    Anyone with a regard for the Constitution hates them for pulling off what amounts to an administrative coup. Invoking the 25th Amendment is not a constitutional crisis (after all, the 25th Amendment is part of the Constitution). Having unelected officials manipulate policy decisions by the President is.

    Trump hates them, because he can’t pronounce their name.

    I don’t think this was how it was supposed to go down.

  3. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 09/07/2018 - 04:06 pm.

    There are some pretty bright people in the WH – even if you think they’re misguided. There is no way the actions described in the opinion piece could be going on as extensive as described, and for any length of time, UNLESS Trump’s Chief of Staff, Staff Secretary, and multiple senior advisers are complicit or at least turning a blind eye.

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