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D.C. Memo: Supreme thwart

Supreme Court upholds dark money donor disclosures; Trump disappointed in Sessions; update on the trade war; and more.

Allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a woman when they were both teenagers totally consumed Washington this week.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The D.C. Memo is a weekly recap of Washington political news, journalism, and opinion, delivered with an eye toward what matters for Minnesota. Sign up to get it in your inbox every Thursday.

This week in Washington, a #MeToo scandal blew up President Trump’s second Supreme Court nomination, throwing D.C. into turmoil and setting up the possibility of a high-stakes hearing on the Hill next week. Amid the crisis, POTUS found time to threaten a shutdown, hug a hurricane victim, and make Jeff Sessions feel even worse, if that’s even possible.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, which is totally consumed with the explosive sexual assault allegations levied against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by a California college professor named Christine Blasey Ford, who came forward to say that a 17-year old Kavanaugh drunkenly accosted her at a suburban D.C. party in the 1980s.

Ford’s allegations have totally derailed Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the high court, which was looking solid just a week ago. A vote to approve him in the Senate Judiciary Committee was slated for Thursday before getting postponed, and now we await a potentially momentous Monday: that’s the day that Senate GOP leadership has marked for Kavanaugh and Ford to testify about what happened.

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Or not: Ford, who was reluctant to go forward with her story, has said this week she wants an investigation from federal law enforcement before appearing in front of senators to testify. That call has been echoed by many Democrats and the op-ed boards of major newspapers. Along with several other Senate Democrats who are former prosecutors, Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote the White House on Thursday calling on the administration to reopen the FBI background check into Kavanaugh.

Senate Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley, backed up by basically every Republican, says that’s not going to happen, and gave Ford until Friday to decide if she will appear before the committee, and basically the entire country, on Monday. (Thursday’s Daily 202 newsletter from the Washington Post’s James Hohmann is a good dive into the role the FBI investigation is playing here.)

The New York Times reported Thursday afternoon that Ford and her lawyers are negotiating with Judiciary Committee staff about her coming to testify next week — but not on Monday.

Meanwhile, Kavanaugh — who denies Ford’s allegation — is preparing with his allies as if a hearing next week will happen, though it’s unclear if it will go forward if Ford is not present. He’s spent a few days at the White House subjecting himself to mock grillings.

The early days of this week were uncertain, with the hovering possibility Kavanaugh could withdraw, but now it looks like the White House and GOP brass are committing to moving forward with the embattled nomination, and they’re feeling confident about their decision to do so.

Republican senators seem to have settled on a comfortable line: they have (mostly) deemed Ford’s allegations serious and called on her to come forward and share her story — but if she does not do so on Monday and under the committee’s parameters, well, they say they’ll have made a good-faith effort to hear her out and should move to hold a vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation without delay.

Per Politico, GOP brass is aware of the very bad optics of the Senate Judiciary Republicans — all of whom are white men — questioning a woman who says she is a victim of sexual assault. They are trying to take some steps to avoid a disaster if Ford does come in to testify.

But there were some unforced errors on the sensitivity front from the Republican men of the Senate, some of whom were very dismissive of Ford: Sen. Lindsey Graham said that this was a “drive-by shooting” on Kavanaugh and that he’d “listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.” Sen. John Cornyn, the number two Senate Republican, said there were “gaps” in Ford’s story. (“The problem is, Dr. Ford can’t remember when it was, where it was or how it came to be,” he said of the allegations.)

#NotAllRepublicanMen? Arizona Never-Trumper Sen. Jeff Flake stepped up to bravely tweet a denouncement of a joke that Large Son-in-Chief Donald Trump, Jr. made online at Ford’s expense. (Trump Jr. will be in Minnesota for a fundraiser benefiting the Minnesota GOP next week, for those interested.)

Senate Democrats say there’s no reason to rush all this with an artificial deadline; Obviously, Republicans see a reason to rush: their window to confirm Kavanaugh or another nominee before the November midterms is closing, and Democrats have an outside shot to claim control of the Senate. Politico has some behind-the-scenes reporting on how Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s driving the GOP response to the Kavanaugh allegations, has been crafting strategy.

For once, President Donald Trump seems to have bit his tongue here, for the most part. Keeping with his tradition of showing sympathy for men accused of sexual misconduct (who aren’t Al Franken), POTUS has said this week that it’s “very sad” what Kavanaugh and his family are going through, but has stuck to the GOP line that Ford should get a hearing. (CNN reports that White House aides are stunned at this show of class and restraint.) The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that Ford has received death threats and has been forced to move out of her home; when asked, Trump would not say if he felt bad for her.

Trump and other Republicans have focused instead on criticizing Democrats for what they say is an 11th-hour torpedo to Kavanaugh’s nomination. Scrutiny centers on California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who became aware of Ford’s story in a letter she obtained in July, but she sat on it because Ford insisted on anonymity. The letter exploded last week, after Kavanaugh’s hearing, when Feinstein released a statement saying she had referred a matter regarding Kavanaugh to the FBI. BuzzFeed News has a dive on Feinstein’s handling of all this, which is a fascinating and could reverberate through the process.

The Kavanaugh news from this week reverberated in Minnesota, particularly in the U.S. Senate special election contest between DFL Sen. Tina Smith and GOP state Sen. Karin Housley. Smith has opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, prompting Housley to label her an obstructionist. When the allegations broke, Housley echoed the GOP line and called for Ford to tell her story, but was quick to pivot to Keith Ellison, whose own abuse allegations Republicans are trying to turn into radioactive toxic waste for any Minnesota Democrat who hasn’t explicitly denounced him.

Housley said Smith and Democrats should apply the same scrutiny they’re applying to Kavanaugh to Ellison. It’s unclear what that would look like, but there’s no question that Democrats have been more forthcoming about ideas to get to the bottom of the Kavanaugh allegations than they have about those against Ellison. Look for Republicans to continue to make hay out of this as this plays out.

Looking beyond Minnesota: the Kavanaugh allegations are a far bigger deal in the 10 U.S. Senate races where an incumbent Democrat is up against a Republican challenger in a state Trump won in 2016. The NYT checks in on how red-state Dems are navigating this, which includes a paradoxical take: apparently, Dems are worried that Kavanaugh failing would make the midterms a referendum on the Supreme Court and gin up GOP base turnout; Republicans fear very same outcome would deflate their core supporters and hand majorities to the Democrats.

The historical symmetry of the Kavanaugh episode to that of SCOTUS justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused by Prof. Anita Hill of sexual harassment after Thomas’ confirmation hearing in 1990, is overwhelming. WaPo’s Paul Kane, a veteran Capitol observer, has a good column on that. Hill herself had an op-ed in the New York Times with thoughts on how this apparent rerun of her saga should go. NYT’s Kate Zernike has a look at #MeToo as a backdrop for the debate on the Kavanaugh’s allegations, highlighting the stakes for what happens next.

One final note on this: the rumor mill is swirling in D.C. that Kavanaugh could either get exonerated with definitive evidence — or that more women will come forward with stories. (On that note: the Guardian reports that Judge Kavanaugh’s female law clerks tended to have a certain, uh, “look.”)

Big news from the Supreme Court in terms of actual law stuff: the high court moved to shine a spotlight on dark money in politics by letting a ruling stand that requires political nonprofits to disclose who some of their donors are. That means the public will know a lot more about who funds the political ads aired by “social welfare” 501(c)4 nonprofits, many of which are conservative big-money groups like the NRA. The disclosure requirement kicks in soon, meaning we’ll have a better idea of dark money before Election Day 2018.

On that topic: check out my story from last week on the handful of big-money groups — from party committees to super PACs to 501(c)4s — poised to leave the biggest marks on Minnesota’s key races this year.

Moving on: Hurricane Florence — a “1,000-year” rain event — slammed into the Carolinas over the weekend, so Trump traveled to visit affected areas on Wednesday, show human emotion, and check in on a golf course he owns around there. A reporter for the Tennessean newspaper was taken aback by Trump’s style at his hurricane “briefing.”

On the disaster front: FEMA chief Brock Long has a lot on his plate this week — and that’s before you get to the fact that he’s under investigation for using government vehicles for routine personal travel, and faces a possible criminal probe.

News from the administration, which announced this week that it will only admit 30,000 refugees in the coming year, the lowest total in decades.

Another god-awful week for Trump’s chief immigration enforcer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In an interview, Trump reiterated he is “very disappointed” in Sessions, at one point claiming, “I don’t have an attorney general.” Opaque as usual, POTUS suggested options might be available to replace him, but it seems like the strategy is to make his old pal so sad that he quits. (Call it “self-deporting.”)

The seemingly interminable trade war continued this week: new tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods — fully half of what the U.S. imports from that country — are set to take effect, covering consumer goods like air conditioners and lamps. China hit back with $60 billion in tariffs on U.S. imports, but the NYT reports that Chinese leadership is increasingly at a loss over Trump’s strategy, and is running out of options to retaliate. The NYT asks the big picture question: is this an economic Cold War we’re seeing unfold? (Counterpoint from the Atlantic: No.)

To the Midterms 2k18 Mega-Doppler: According to our advanced forecasts, there are 47 days until the election. Some illuminating stuff from the world of polls and prognostication this week: Bloomberg scoops that internal polling from the Republican National Committee revealed conservatives don’t believe Democrats will take back Congress. (They’ve been listening to their president!)

As history has shown us, voters who think their side is in fine shape to win often don’t show up to vote — bad news for Republicans, who face a disadvantage in these midterms already if historical trends are to be believed.

Relatedly: I have a blog post on MN-3 and whether victory there is slipping out of incumbent GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen’s grasp, with two major election forecasters — the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics — moving the race to the “leans Democratic” column from “toss-up.” It’s uncommon for a veteran incumbent like Paulsen, who’s typically won in the west metro without breaking much of a sweat, to be rated as a clear underdog in his re-election. (The Cook Political Report also moved CD2, where GOP Rep. Jason Lewis has long been tagged as vulnerable Republican, to “leans Democratic” from “toss-up” status.)

So it was a good week, overall, for Paulsen challenger Dean Phillips, even before you account for his viral moment: His campaign released an online ad in which “Bigfoot” attempts to find evidence that Paulsen, apparently so busy meeting with pharma companies that he can’t be found, actually exists. The spot was widely praised by national political types and got written up in progressive media as one of the best ads of the 2018 cycle. No doubt, it was a creative way to try to stick a narrative about an opponent — and had the slick production that’s defined the gelato entrepreneur’s campaign. (Almanac dove into claims made by Republicans that the financing for the ad was not above board.)

The NYT had a cool interactive feature exploring the kinds of places — suburbs, exurbs, rural areas — where the battle for the House will be decided this fall. It featured fun illustrations of these places’ landmarks, and I’ll tell you that the Mall of America, Paul and Babe, and the Jolly Green Giant made the cut.

At MinnPost, be sure to read my colleague Peter Callaghan’s great story about political “trackers,” the iPhone-brandishing junior operatives who show up to every political event in hopes of catching their campaign rivals making a mistake.

On that note: if you’re enjoying the great election-year coverage from the whole MinnPost team — and even this humble newsletter — there is still time (!) to support our fall membership drive. We’re going to be relying on your support to help deliver smart and important stories on these crazy midterm elections, so please consider stepping up with a donation.

This week’s essential reads

President Trump’s move to pull the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal was criticized for plenty of reasons, but many were alarmed that re-imposing sanctions on Iran could throw the global oil market into turmoil. But with sanctions set to take effect, Trump’s Iran gambit appears to be working, for now — leaving experts scratching their heads. The NYT’s Clifford Krauss:

Nearly two months before American oil sanctions go into effect, Iran’s crude exports are plummeting. International oil companies, including those from countries that are still committed to the nuclear agreement, are bailing out of deals with Tehran.

And remarkably, the price of oil in the United States has risen only modestly while gasoline prices have essentially remained flat. The current global oil price hovers around $80 a barrel, $60 below the highs of a decade ago.

“The president is doing the opposite of what the experts said, and it seems to be working out,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, a research and consulting firm.

Initial signs of a foreign-policy success could benefit Mr. Trump politically as Republicans try to hold on to control of Congress. The president and lawmakers allied with him could point to the administration’s aggressive stand toward Iran as evidence that his unconventional approach to diplomacy has been much more fruitful and far less costly than Democrats have been willing to acknowledge.

Democratic megadonors tend to be Wall Street and Hollywood elite — but not Deborah Simon and Cynthia Simon-Skjodt, sisters who hail from an Indiana shopping mall dynasty. The “Simon sisters” have spent years antagonizing VP Mike Pence in the Hoosier State and have already put $12 million toward boosting Democrats in the midterms. Politico’s Maggie Severns:

The Simon sisters, as these members of Indiana’s most famous business family are called around Indianapolis, are still relatively unknown figures on the national stage. But their turn to big-league giving, mostly to help Democrats retake the Senate, comes after years of donations to progressive nonprofits such as Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Defamation League — and as Democratic donors have gone into hyperdrive after the election of President Donald Trump. …

The Simons, too, were fired up by the success of Trump — and his running mate, friends of the family and Indiana operatives said in interviews with POLITICO. The sisters, who generally avoid media attention, did not respond to requests for comment.

But their focus on progressive causes in Indiana is well known in political circles. The state has long hosted fiery debates over how the government should address social issues such as abortion, gay rights and sexual assault, and the Simon sisters donated millions of dollars to left-leaning nonprofits.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

When we think of tax havens where rich people go to hide their money, places like Monaco and the Cayman Islands come to mind — not Puerto Rico. Yet, the U.S. territory has become a preferred destination for the super-rich and their fortunes, thanks to loopholes in the island’s tax laws.

GQ’s Jesse Barron reports from gilded gatherings of the one percent in Puerto Rico, a place already beset by severe income inequality, where much time and energy is devoted to complying with the tax haven requirements. Seems like they still make time to have fun!

From the valet station, guests had entered a red-carpeted freight elevator, where bartenders poured them sangria. There were reasons to raise a toast. In 2012, Puerto Rico had passed two laws intended to make the island a “global investment destination.” Act 20 allows corporations that export services from the island to pay only 4 percent tax. Act 22 goes much further: It makes Puerto Rico the only place on U.S. soil where personal income, capital gains, interest, and dividends are untaxed.

In order to qualify for Act 22, individuals must prove to the IRS that they have become bona fide residents of Puerto Rico, without “close contacts” on the mainland. (Most native Puerto Ricans are not eligible for the exemption.) At the party, I heard about a man who had lost his tax-free status because the IRS smoked out a wife back in Dallas. I asked Gold, 63, whether his wife had moved along with him. “Now, this is where the colorful-character shit comes in,” he said. “My third wife, she’s 25. She was in college. I told her, ‘Babe, you gotta go to college in Puerto Rico, I’m really sorry. We have this opportunity that I cannot pass up. You can stay if you want, but if you stay, we gotta get divorced.’ ”

Though the law requires him to spend at least 183 days a year on the island, Gold claimed he spends closer to 250. “Soy boricua,” he said proudly—I am Puerto Rican.

The mainlanders who have relocated are not quite Forbes-list billionaires, who have access to more complex tax strategies than leaving town; they belong to the middle class of the ultra-rich. They are new-money people who might not have their congressman’s cell-phone number back home but who wield influence here in Puerto Rico. “Back in the States, I’m just one of 300 million voters,” James Slazas, a hedge-fund quant, told me at the party. “Here I’ve already met a lot of the key players.”

What to look for next week

As you might imagine, the question looming over the next week is whether or not Ford, or Kavanaugh, or both, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the sexual assault allegations — and when that hearing might happen.

Something else to think about in that vein: the Supreme Court’s October term begins the following week, basically kicking off the upcoming year on the high court. With Kavanaugh unlikely to be on the bench by the 1st of the month, the National Law Journal takes stock of what an eight-member court might look like this term.

With government funding set to run out on Sept. 30, the Senate took a big step to avoid a shutdown, voting this week in favor of a continuing resolution to fund the government until December 7. The House will vote on that package next week. Trump, however, fumed on Twitter about the deal and made clearer than usual that he wants a spending deal with border wall funding, and now. “REPUBLICANS MUST FINALLY GET TOUGH!” @realDonaldTrump proclaimed. So, yeah, start that shutdown clock.

We’ll be following all that and more next week. For now, thanks for sticking with me through this crazy week. Get in touch: sbrodey@minnpost.com.