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D.C. Memo: President makes dubious claim on Twitter

Trump disputes Hurricane Maria death toll; Republicans float new tax bill; Jeff Sessions’ future; Minnesota congressional candidate gets Trump endorsement; and more.

As Hurricane Florence neared the Carolina coast, President Trump defended his administration’s handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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This week in Washington, President Trump truthered the impact of Hurricane Maria, solemnly commemorated September 11th, and endorsed a Minnesota congressional candidate. Congress worked to avert a government shutdown and pretended not to read Trump’s tweets.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, which looks like it will be spared any major effects from incoming monster Hurricane Florence — unlike the Carolinas and Georgia, which are bracing for the storm of a lifetime.

With federal authorities preparing for what looks to be the fourth devastating hurricane to hit the U.S. in two years, President Donald Trump thought it would be a good idea this week to relitigate his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, which wrecked Puerto Rico a year ago.

Nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died in the months following the storm due to widespread power outages and poor distribution of vital supplies, according to a new independent study commissioned by the territory’s governor.

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For that tragic outcome, many blamed a sluggish response from the federal government, marred by questionable decisions from administration officials: There was the $150 million emergency food contract given to an Atlanta caterer with no large-scale experience; the hundreds of thousands of water bottles meant for victims that were instead left stranded on an airstrip on the island. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, it was reported this week, responded to 3 percent of requests from Puerto Rico residents for help in burying a dead family member.

But Trump, at a briefing this week on Hurricane Florence, said the response to Hurricane Maria was one of the “unsung successes” of his administration. (“One of the best,” he proclaimed.) After widespread backlash, we were treated on Thursday to a classic Trump double-down: he accused Democrats of inflating the storm’s death toll to make him look bad. (Only a few dozen people died during the storm, he said, so how could it be that people died after? A good question!)

The baffling tweet sparked one of my favorite things about the Trump era: congressional Republicans pretending not to have seen the tweet from their president when a reporter tells them what the tweet said. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, for example. Didn’t see it! (Speaker Paul Ryan, practically a profile in courage, said “there’s no reason” to dispute the death toll.)

This week marked the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. After offering a moving commemoration, Trump visited the Pennsylvania field where United Flight 93 crashed after passengers confronted hijackers; VP Mike Pence spoke at the Pentagon. A sobering report, from the Los Angeles Times, after 17 years of the War on Terror: al Qaeda is stronger than it’s ever been.

Before we get into more D.C. news: this week, MinnPost kicked off our fall member drive, and if you’ve been relying on our political coverage during this busy election year, please consider making a contribution. With less than two months to go before the midterms, we’ve still got a lot more to cover and a lot more stories to tell, and your contribution helps us do that work.

A brief work-week on Capitol Hill, due to the Jewish high holidays earlier in the week and both chambers skipping town before Friday. But House Republicans did take the time to roll out what they’re calling Tax Reform 2.0 — an effort to make permanent the tax cuts for individuals and families that were part of the 2017 tax bill. Currently, those cuts expire in 2025. (Note that dramatic cuts in corporate tax rates were made permanent in the original bill.)

The new tax package is highly unlikely to become law this year, as Vox writes, and it’s better interpreted as an effort to shore up last year’s tax bill — which ended up being far less popular than the GOP had hoped — ahead of the midterms.

More tax stuff: On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Charles Rettig, a high-profile Los Angeles tax attorney, to head the Internal Revenue Service. Fifteen Democrats voted with the GOP majority to confirm Rettig by a 64 to 33 vote. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith voted no. Politico sets the scene for Rettig’s arrival: The agency heads in to its first year of handling the big changes to tax filing that were passed last year, but also faces a funding shortfall.

In the administration: More questions about the status of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as GOP senators speak up to say that if Trump fires him, it’s highly unlikely that any replacement nominee could get confirmed in the Senate.

Despite being on the chopping block all the time, Sessions is very busy at the Department of Justice to promote his hardline vision of immigration law — and is arguably more effective in that mission than anyone else working for Trump. For one: Sessions’ DoJ is bringing on scores of new judges to process immigration cases — it is, he says, the largest number of active judges to ever work for the department.

BuzzFeed reports that Sessions told new judges to show less sympathy for the plight of immigrants: “When we depart from the law and create nebulous legal standards out of a sense of sympathy for the personal circumstances of a respondent in our immigration courts, we do violence to the rule of law and constitutional fabric that bind this great nation,” Sessions said. (The AG also said that migrants and their lawyers are trying to circumvent the law like “water seeping through an earthen dam.”)

At the border: This week, the Border Patrol said that illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border surged in August; the federal government also announced it would triple the size of a “tent city” to detain migrants near the border in Texas. The population of child migrants in detention in the U.S. has never been higher.

Your reminder that this stuff costs money: the New York Times reported that $10 million was diverted from FEMA — an agency that may have a long to-do list very soon — to pay for the administration’s family detention policy.

Onto the midterms portion of the memo: I’ve got a couple of posts for your consideration this week. On Monday, I wrote about a new set of polls from the NYT/Siena College, which gave us the clearest look yet at the very competitive races in the 3rd and 8th Districts. On Tuesday, I reported on how Republican incumbents like Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen are leaning hard on a stronger economy as they fight to save their House seats.

A Minnesota candidate got a Twitter shout-out from POTUS this week, and it was kind of a surprising one: Dave Hughes, the Republican running for a second time against DFL Rep. Collin Peterson in the 7th District, received Trump’s “Total Endorsement,” thanks to his strength on “Crime, the Border, our 2nd Amendmen [sic], Trade, Military and Vets.”

The sudden show of support from Trump is no doubt a big boost for Hughes, who has struggled to raise money so far and put the CD7 race on the national midterm map, even though Trump won this western Minnesota district by 30 points in 2016. (Hughes lost by 5 points that year, a surprisingly strong result for such a lean campaign.)

Peterson, who has been in Congress since 1991 and is the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee — a big deal in this ag-heavy district — is one of the last true moderate Blue Dog Democrats, and as formidable an incumbent as they come. Trump branded him “Pelosi Liberal Puppet Petterson” in his tweet, which… well, you can say a lot about Peterson, but the idea he’s a puppet for Pelosi is laughable. (He routinely makes liberals tear their hair out; per GovTrack, Peterson is a more reliable vote for Republicans than several dozen… Republicans.)

Hughes is the second Minnesota Republican congressional candidate to get @realDonaldTrump’s stamp of approval; the other is CD8 candidate Pete Stauber, who’s already benefited from a presidential visit and has received the coveted, top-tier “Full and Total Endorsement” from Trump.

I’d imagine Jim Hagedorn, the Republican running in the solidly Trump turf of Minnesota’s 1st District, is hoping he’ll be next for a Trump Full and/or Total Endorsement. Hagedorn did get some media attention of his own this week, when the Daily Beast reported on continuing fallout from his past as a bomb-throwing conservative blogger: the chair of the NRCC, the House Republican campaign arm that has identified Hagedorn as a top recruit, said he had no idea his candidate had made such inflammatory remarks.

On the Senate side: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is sounding increasingly shaky about the GOP’s chances of holding a Senate majority, which was considered a virtually sure thing even earlier this year. Incumbent Dems in Trump states like Michigan and Pennsylvania are looking safer, and Dems are on the offense in places like Texas and Tennessee. “I hope when the smoke clears, we’ll still have a majority,” McConnell said in Louisville this week.

Take McConnell’s candid moment with a big ol’ grain of salt: the Kentuckian is a strategic operator, and he may be sounding the alarm to amp up donors and remind the GOP base they need to show up in November. (Also, I’m old enough to remember the last time the Senate GOP majority was really in trouble.) Still, Politico reports that McConnell may keep the Senate in session in October, a key campaigning month, to keep Dems off the trail — and to churn through judicial appointments while he still has the majority.

This week saw the last round of primary elections — the biggest being in New Hampshire — and you can read about them here.

Finally, something to think about going forward: Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, gave a preview this week of what a Democratic House majority might do next year. In a Wednesday speech, he outlined a series of ethical and good-government reforms that Democrats would prioritize from the get-go if they’re in charge. It dovetails nicely with a lot of the clean-up-Washington messaging we’re seeing from Dem candidates like Dean Phillips in CD3 and elsewhere in the country.

This week’s essential reads

As the Trump administration’s family separation crisis has gradually receded from the headlines, the impacts on migrant families and children are lingering, and will for a very long time. A team of reporters at ProPublica in Chicago found that several children in the area have still not been reunited with their families, and are suffering from severe trauma — with no end to the separation in sight for some of them. An important read:

Similar to minors who arrive in the United States on their own, the children separated from their parents had often fled danger and arrived at the shelters scared and confused. But they tended to be younger and more traumatized by their detention. Suddenly alone, the children agonized over missing their parents and acted on their anguish by threatening to harm themselves or others, the files show.

Seven of the separated children in Chicago still haven’t been reunited with their families.

One of them, a 12-year-old boy named Erick — in custody nearly four months after immigration officials took him from his father — became so depressed that he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a week, diagnosed with adjustment disorder, according to the records. …

In June, an 11-year-old boy from Guatemala, housed at a Heartland shelter in suburban Des Plaines, cried inconsolably and said, “I want to die here,” the records show. Employees there told him “he needs to live to see his family.”

Liberal Hollywood has long been a key source of support and campaign cash for Democratic candidates, but Trump has fired up Tinseltown to new levels: this year, the entertainment industry there is shelling out record amounts of donations for Democratic candidates for a midterm election. WaPo’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee on L.A.’s “nerdy new hobby” — taking back the House:

People who work in the television, movie and music industry in the Los Angeles metro area have given $2.4 million to House candidate committees so far this election, with the vast majority going to support Democrats, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That is the largest sum from these donors to House Democratic campaigns since at least 2008, and it’s nearly $1 million more than they gave for the 2016 elections. …

The latest House race ratings by the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapping website, has become part of the vernacular. When they’re not pitching pilots to studios, screenwriters are piling into Mercedes-brand buses to knock on voters’ doors for House races in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Candidates running in key House races out of state — including in Texas, New Jersey and Iowa — are swinging through Los Angeles so frequently that donors have difficulty recalling which recent fundraiser was for whom.

“Flipping the House has become a major, major pastime in Hollywood,” said Donna Bojarsky, longtime political consultant and organizer in Los Angeles. “People are handicapping races. . . . There’s this constant sharing of political updates, much more than there ever was before. People are texting me, ‘Oh my god, what about this candidate in Iowa? How’s that race going?’ ”

Not that long ago, mothers who ran for political office were faced with questions about who was looking after their children or if they had time for politics. This election, however, mothers who are running for Congress are embracing the role wholeheartedly, arguing that having children makes them more qualified, not less, to hold office. The NYT’s Kate Zernike:

Mikie Sherrill reached down and cleaned the face of her 6-year-old daughter, Marit, who squirmed, pigtails shaking. “I’m doing it,” Ms. Sherrill insisted. Her 8-year-old seized on the distraction to ask if he could have a cookie. “One,” his mother told him.

She briefly chided her 12-year-old for letting Marit get chocolate on her face, then took her seat on stage, settling in with a broad smile and the perfect posture honed by her days at the United States Naval Academy — apparently immune to the funny faces Marit was making from the front row.

Ms. Sherrill is often introduced as “Navy pilot, federal prosecutor and mother of four,” as if the descriptions should be hyphenated. But as she campaigns around this suburban battleground House district her role as a mother is the one most on display. Her children march in the front row of parades, tumble out of the family’s SUV with lacrosse sticks in a television ad, and milled in the crowd at Ms. Sherrill’s event with Joe Biden along with the children of her volunteers, many of whom are mothers from her children’s schools.

It is also the role that makes her campaign — and that of many other women running for office this year — so revolutionary.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Washington is filled with expat residents from all over the world. But as U.S. opinion of Russia hardens to Cold War era-levels — and an apparent Kremlin influence operation conducted through a young Russian student gets a high-profile airing — no group of foreigners may be having a tougher time than the Russians who live, work, and study in D.C.

Politico’s Ben Schreckinger has a rich exploration of the Russian expat community in D.C., including enemies of Vladimir Putin’s government who are seeking refuge here, detailing the cold slights, missed opportunities, and snarky comments greeting them in 2018 Washington.

Now, more so than ever, the capital’s young Russiantonians find themselves living in a battlefield of the new Cold War.

Their Tinder dates keep asking them if they’re spies. Their landlords are interrogating them. Their résumés are getting tossed in the trash, and when they do get the job, their boss might warn them not to mention their nationality to people at the office. If that sounds bad, many of them—especially opposition figures and gay men in exile—are regarded with more suspicion by their own government back home than by their new neighbors here.

To be young and Russian in Washington is, often, to live in the gray ambiguities of a John le Carré Cold War spy novel. You’re pretty sure those questions about being a spy are innocent flirtations, and your boss might be joking when he asks you to keep your birthplace to yourself, but it is not totally clear. Then there’s the too-good-to-be true job offer on LinkedIn: Have you lucked out, or are you being recruited for something else?

When friends with ties to official Washington bail on plans to hang out, a calendar conflict can take on more sinister overtones. “Are they really busy? Who knows?” mused Maria Snegovaya, a young academic from St. Petersburg who recently entered the fog of Russian expat life in D.C. “You’re not hired for that job. Why is that?”

What to look for next week

Congress is out next week, so the Sept. 30 deadline for funding the government is looming larger than ever. The Senate passed a slate of spending bills this week, with the House expected to follow suit on Thursday afternoon, which would mark an important step away from a government shutdown.

Lawmakers seem to be in agreement about wanting to avoid a shutdown, meaning they would punt the thorniest spending-related issues, like funding for the border wall, to after the November elections. Again, the big question is whether Trump is okay with that — and whether he’d really risk a government shutdown if he’s not.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh on Sept. 20, a week from Thursday. If he advances, as expected, the full Senate would aim to vote by the last week of September. Democrats are continuing to campaign against Trump’s second SCOTUS nominee, but it doesn’t appear that he faces a major obstacle to confirmation.

A good time to highlight the remarkable progress that the administration and the Senate GOP have made, as BuzzFeed News does here, in confirming scores of lower-court judges as part of a sweeping and successful project to remake the judiciary.

That’s it for now — see you back here next week. Until then, email me: