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D.C. Memo: U.S. literally a global laughingstock

Kavanaugh hearings; Ellison calls for investigation; Trump at the U.N.; government funding; and more.

photo of donald trump
On Tuesday, POTUS gave a blustering speech touting a vision of Trumpian nationalism and was literally laughed at by the world leaders in the audience.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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This week in Washington, everything happened and I’m going to try to recap it for you in this email without collapsing.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, which is wrapping up of one of the most relentless and most consequential news weeks that I can remember. Buckle up.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who accuses Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in 1982, when both were high school students in suburban Washington, D.C. (This memo was written before Kavanaugh appeared on Thursday afternoon. The New York Times has a great recap comparing Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimonies.)

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You may have watched — the entire country seemingly did, reports the Washington Post — and it was something: the collected professor emotionally telling her story and saying that it was “100%” certain that Kavanaugh assaulted her is a moment for the ages on Capitol Hill. An attorney tasked with questioning on behalf of the GOP, Rachel Mitchell sought to poke holes in Ford’s story, focusing on stuff like her recollection of the volume of the music at the party and who drove her home after the alleged assault. There were a lot of questions about the usefulness format of the hearing — something that Mitchell herself lamented at the end of Ford’s testimony.

Per Talking Points Memo, GOP operatives saw the polished and sincere testimony from Ford as a disaster for them. Fox News, a certain president’s favored outlet, said that her testimony should raise questions for Republicans as to why they picked Kavanaugh. Senate Republicans did not find Ford’s testimony persuasive, but some of them were heated after the day’s events: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina complained the majority got “ambushed” and said that while Ford offered compelling testimony, it was not corroborated. “God help anyone else who gets nominated,” he fumed. Graham also groused that Democrats never get hit with misconduct allegations. (He might be forgetting an old friend from the Judiciary Committee.)

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, meanwhile, told reporters Ford was an “attractive” and “pleasing” witness, undoubtedly underscoring that while the optics of the GOP transfering questioning duties to a “female assistant” was not great, it definitely could have been worse.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar serves on the Judiciary panel and was one of the senators to directly question Ford. Unlike some other big names on the panel, like Sen. Cory Booker, Klobuchar kept her remarks to a minimum: the former prosecutor asked Ford a simple, direct question: “Can you tell us what you don’t forget about that night?”

It produced one of Ford’s most emotional and resonant answers: “The stairwell,” she said. “The living room. The bedroom. The bed on the right side of the room as you walk into the room… the bathroom in close proximity. The laughter, the uproarious laughter. And the multiple attempts to escape…”

The days leading up to Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony were intense, with a flood of reporting that suggested the SCOTUS nominee’s misconduct was broader and more serious than initially thought: More allegations surfaced against Kavanaugh from his time Yale University and beyond, including a sworn affidavit from a woman who alleged the nominee and his friend Mark Judge participated in gang rape as high school students.

A lot of reporting also came out about the hard-partying, elite milieu of Kavanaugh and his peers during this time — information that runs up against Kavanaugh’s portrait of himself as an earnest, studious, pious kid. His contemporaries found that characterization so blatantly false that they felt compelled to come forward. (Some, like Vox, have suggested Kavanaugh’s denials — under oath — of what was clearly a period of heavy drinking could be a big problem for him.)

In D.C., Republicans — at least publicly — held fast in support of Kavanaugh: President Donald Trump denounced the allegations against him as a “big, fat con.” (But he’s also keeping an open mind, or something.) On the Hill, a range of GOP lawmakers, like Sen. Graham, cast doubt on how it could ever be possible that a culture of abuse and sexual misconduct like that described in the Kavanaugh stories could endure for such a long time without scrutiny. (No such examples of that, surely.)

Privately, most Republicans sense that Kavanaugh’s nomination to the high court is hanging on by a thread: vulnerable red-state Democrats now have a pass to oppose the judge, and it would only take two Republican senators to oppose him to sink his nomination. Everyone is watching Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who raised concerns to GOP leadership about barrelling forward with the nomination in the wake of new allegations and the lack of a subpoena to require Kavanaugh’s friend Judge, who allegedly witnessed some of this behavior, to testify. (Scrutiny on Collins in her home state is so high, reports an editor from the Portland Press-Herald, it’s reminiscent of the lead-up to the Iraq War.)

Others to watch: Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who spoke in the Senate on Wednesday raising concerns that the Senate would schedule a vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation before hearing Ford’s testimony.

Looking way ahead: the New York Times has a look at the Democratic dream: block Kavanaugh, take back the Senate in November, and then stonewall a second Trump SCOTUS pick through the 2020 election — doing to Republicans exactly what they did to Barack Obama with the Merrick Garland pick in 2016.

Bigger-picture: this is such a huge moment that the nitty-gritty of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and whether or not he has the votes in the Senate to advance, seems almost like an afterthought. This is a watershed moment for the #MeToo movement and how it might impact U.S. culture and politics. There was so much good writing on this topic that I can’t relay it all, but I liked this New Yorker piece on the boys’ club that protects powerful men like Kavanaugh, WaPo’s look at how Kavanaugh symbolizes #MeToo divides, and Vox on how the episode will reveal if the reckoning over sexual harassment and assault has really changed the country.

There are short-term and long-term political ramifications too. Conservatives have been galvanized by the episode to loudly support Kavanaugh — mostly because they’re outraged at what they see as a targeted smear campaign from the left — and leaders see the episode as a unifier for the GOP base. (Notable #NeverTrumper commentator Erick Erickson, for example, has gotten increasingly personal and vile in his attacks on Ford and her supporters.) WaPo’s Daily 202 from Thursday has a good exploration of how contemporary tribalism has drawn core conservatives to Kavanaugh’s cause.

But there’s also concern among Republicans that no matter what happens, the way the party has handled the Kavanaugh business will push women voters to Democrats, fueling a “blue wave” in the midterms. Former Pennsylvania U.S. senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum said on CNN during the hearing that “there are other alternatives” for SCOTUS than Kavanaugh.

Also in #MeToo files: Rep. Keith Ellison told BuzzFeed he wants a House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations from his ex-girlfriend that he physically and emotionally abused her. (Ellison, who denies the allegations and says he wants to clear his name, is running for Minnesota AG.) There are good quotes in the BuzzFeed piece from notable Minnesota Dems on Ellison, who are being challenged by Republicans on the Ellison allegations, along with national lawmakers leading on #MeToo, like Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, who appeared on CNN earlier in the week and called for an investigation into Ellison. (Note that the Minnesota DFL’s investigation into the Ellison claims is slated to wrap up soon.)

While all of this was playing out, Trump was back in his hometown of New York City, attending the annual United Nations General Assembly, meeting with world leaders. On Tuesday, POTUS gave a blustering speech touting a vision of Trumpian nationalism and was literally laughed at by the world leaders in the audience. It seemed to even take Trump off-guard; note that being a laughingstock is a frequent motif in Trump’s psyche — he lamented that the world laughed at Obama, and it was his own humiliation at Obama’s hands at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner that some speculate set him on a course to run for president.

There was more from the U.N.: When Trump chaired a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, foreign leaders just laid into him and the U.S. to his face: “The United States could not care less about human rights or justice,” said Bolivian left-wing populist president Evo Morales.

What got the most ink from the U.N. week, though, was a stem-winding, all-over-the-place solo press conference that Trump gave on Wednesday. He does this occasionally, and everyone freaks out on Twitter as if the guy hasn’t been doing this for, like, three years now. You can read the breathless pundit coverage, like Chris Cillizza’s here, if you need a reminder why spectacles like these are the worst. The NYT’s media critic has a smarter take on the presser with some context here.

Elsewhere in the administration: it looks like a government shutdown may be averted, with both houses of Congress sending to the White House spending legislation to fund most of the government for the next fiscal year, and punt remaining spending obligations to after the midterm elections. The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the bills, which contain no money for Trump’s border wall, something POTUS has previously declared would force him to veto the bill and spark a shutdown fight. But WaPo reports that Trump may sign the bill, officially eliminating any Wall drama, and therefore any shutdown drama, before the November elections.

There was no shortage of drama earlier this week, though, when a Monday report from the news site Axios indicated that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general — a.k.a. the person in charge of the Russia investigation — was about to resign or get fired in the wake of an NYT story reporting that he floated the idea of someone wearing a wire to get Trump on tape.

But it didn’t end up happening: Trump didn’t give Rosenstein the axe, he didn’t resign, and a scheduled meeting for Thursday between the two men got postponed. The deputy AG’s ouster — which would ostensibly permit Trump to appoint someone else to oversee the Russia probe — is viewed as close to a worst-case scenario by Democrats and others who want to see Trump not influencing Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Keep an eye on this: Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, notified lawmakers that his agency may take as much as $266 million allocated for HIV/AIDS-related services to pay for detaining migrant children. (Note that, earlier in the month, FEMA announced it was diverting funds for the same reason.)

Finally, to the Midterms 2K18 MegaDoppler: two gun control advocacy groups are making big investments to defeat Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen: Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, is targeting Minnesota’s 3rd District with a $5 million ad campaign. Former Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, critically wounded by a gunman in 2012, has a group that’s dropping $1.3 million criticizing Lewis’ stance on guns in the 2nd District.

Lots of new ads this week in congressional races — I won’t recap them all here, but it looks like Team GOP is going nuclear in CD3: the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, released an ad arguing that DFL candidate Dean Phillips tried to market alcohol to teens while working for his family’s spirits company. (The claim centers on a 2014 complaint submitted to the American Spirits Council regarding cocktails inspired by the “Hunger Games” movie franchise.)

Phillips’ camp countered that the ad was another smear from Paulsen’s “patrons” — adding that the ad campaign in question happened after Phillips left his post as Phillips’ Distilling CEO, anyway.

MN-8 candidates Joe Radinovich and Pete Stauber debated on Wednesday in Duluth, and sniped at each other after, with the Republican accusing Radinovich of having it both ways on copper-nickel mining, and Radinovich firing back that Stauber didn’t have real policy positions. MinnPost’s Cyndy Brucato has a write-up of events here. Also, check MinnPost’s newest reporter, Walker Orenstein, who’s got a look at how environmental issues are playing in the agriculture-heavy 1st District.

Finally, Congress is poised do exactly nothing to improve U.S. election security before the 2018 midterms: legislation sponsored by Klobuchar and Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford to protect the electoral process from cyberattacks is, in Lankford’s own words, “impossible to get passed” before November 6. Thankfully, no one has any interest whatsoever in trying to hack the 2018 elections and it is definitely not so easy to hack elections that kids can do it.

This week’s essential reads

Senate Republicans have frequently chafed at their president’s love of combative personal attacks, but in the high-stakes Kavanaugh confirmation, the Capitol Hill GOP is fully embracing the Trump playbook in confronting Christine Blasey Ford: deny, attack, and go on Fox News. The Boston Globe:

In another sign of how Trump has taken over the GOP, he and Republicans have ripped up the rules for a high court confirmation and adopted Trump’s battle-tested, hyper-combative ways for the Kavanaugh fight. It comes after a relatively disciplined nomination process for his first nominee and a quiet process through much of the early stages of the Kavanaugh pick.

Not any more. The president — who earlier in the week called sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh “totally political’’ — ratcheted up his counteroffensive Tuesday in a bid to redefine allegations of sexual misconduct as partisan weaponry. …

The GOP strategy appears to be to show no weakness. Most Republicans continued Tuesday to aggressively pursue confirmation of their seriously wounded nominee, without qualification, even before hearing from the first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who is scheduled to testify Thursday.

Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican, has survived being targeted in his Democratic-leaning suburban Denver district by practicing a relentless form of community outreach. But he’s been tagged as one of the Republicans likeliest to be swept away by a blue wave, along with Minnesota’s Erik Paulsen, who has a similar district. A good time to check out this piece from BuzzFeed’s Alexis Levenson:

On a September Sunday, Coffman spoke to students and parents at a Chinese school, reading his recognition of the school on the House floor; spoke in practiced and poorly accented Spanish at a Spanish-language town hall, where reporters were asked not to take photographs of attendees because some might be grappling with immigration issues; spoke at a fundraiser for an Ethiopian charity, where he greeted the organizers warmly; and rocked out at the Ethiopian New Year celebration where he was lauded for his help in passing a House resolution condemning human rights abuses in Ethiopia.

“I’ve been able to be in these communities, to become a part of their community to break that narrative, and to earn their respect where they see me as their congressman, and the partisan affiliation is meaningless,” Coffman told BuzzFeed News in an interview that day.

For the past three elections, this has been enough. But this year, Democrats hope, and Republicans fear, that no matter how established Coffman’s personal brand is in his district, it will be no match for the personal brand of the Republican now in the White House.

One of the most baffling things about the ongoing U.S.-Canada trade standoff — a row that could very well destroy NAFTA — is that the wedge between them isn’t the auto trade or another big sector of the economy — it’s dairy. NYT’s Jennifer Steinhauer with a look at who’s crying over spilled milk:

The melee over milk is puzzling to many trade experts. The United States supports its dairy farmers with a complex price support system that is economically similar to Canada’s system of supply management.

And while American dairy farmers may want to sell more milk into Canada, trade observers say access to a relatively small sector of the agricultural economy is not worth jeopardizing a trade relationship that has become critical to industries across North America.

“Opening up Canada’s very tiny dairy industry is a pretty tiny gain to risk blowing up the most advantageous trade agreement in history,” said Tony Fratto, founder of Hamilton Place Strategies, a public affairs firm that advocates free trade. “But it won’t make more than a dime’s worth of difference to jobs and standards of living in either country. Try to fix these things? Sure. Blow up Nafta over them? That’s crazy.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Kent Sorenson was, for a time, one of the most important people in Iowa politics, an arch-conservative rabble-rouser who chaired Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign in the state before famously switching his backing to Ron Paul at the last minute.

That move embroiled Sorenson in a pay-to-play political scheme that exposed the transactional nature of the all-important first in the nation caucus state — bringing shame to Iowa, and landing Sorenson in prison.

Politico Magazine’s Tim Alberta caught up with Sorenson after he got out of federal prison — finding the former politico a new advocate for criminal justice reform — and offers a winding and epically-reported tale of Sorenson’s rise and fall.

Sorenson, the Republican state senator and Tea Party superstar with a clear path to Congress, had heard about disparities in sentencing. He had read about the statistical inequalities and crooked economics that are foundational to the American prison system. He had watched the demonstrators on television chanting about the devastation wreaked on minority communities by mass incarceration. And he didn’t buy any of it. Sorenson was a conservative—not just any conservative, but a fiery, in-your-face ideologue who preached punitive justice and individual responsibility. He was a law-and-order dogmatist. And he was, if he’s being honest, “a little bit racist,” with no time for the “bullshit propaganda” being peddled by the likes of Black Lives Matter.

Shame envelops Sorenson’s face as a thick snowfall begins to blanket the interstate. Shawnee warns that a blizzard is in the forecast and asks her husband to call the halfway house. He’s supposed to arrive in four hours, but this weather is bound to make him late. Kent picks up her cell phone and stares at it blankly. Shawnee senses his confusion, reaches over and unlocks the screen for him. She dials the number and hands it back. While it rings, Sorenson glances at me. “One year and I’m a zombie,” he shrugs. “Can you imagine coming out after 20 and seeing an iPhone?”

I can’t imagine a lot of things. How someone like Sorenson—a roughneck high school dropout with a winding rap sheet—won elected office as a Tea Party darling and became one of America’s most sought-after presidential endorsements. How the novice state legislator found himself starring in the biggest political scandal in Iowa’s history. How the defendant wound up sharing a cell with cartel members despite the federal prosecutors recommending probation. How the inmate with a hardened worldview had his eyes opened. And how, after enduring so much turmoil and tragedy, Sorenson is supposed to pick up the pieces.

What to look for next week

Before Kavanaugh and Ford testified on Thursday, Senate GOP brass said a vote on the judge’s nomination could be put in motion as soon as Friday. That would tee up a vote on Kavanaugh early next week, and keep the Senate in session over the weekend. (After the hearing, Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley scheduled a committee vote for Friday morning, setting up a final vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation early next week in the full Senate.)

The backdrop of this: calls for the vote to be postponed so senators can evaluate other allegations against Kavanaugh, from elected Democrats and Republicans too. As the president says, we’ll see what happens!

Meanwhile: on Friday, the House Intelligence Committee will release transcripts of interviews with key figures in the Trump-Russia probe, including former campaign aides like Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowski, and top former intelligence officials like James Clapper and Sally Yates. There could be some interesting stuff in there!

Beginning next week, the House is expected to be on recess through the midterm elections if there are no last-minute hijinks with the spending bills. It is, officially, full-on campaign mode now.

That is, mercifully, it for this week. See you back here next week — until then, write me at