Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Great River Energy generously supports MinnPost's D.C. Memo. Learn why.

D.C. Memo: The Kanye West Wing

Kavanaugh joins the court; Nikki Haley to resign as U.N. Ambassador; Trump moves to boost ethanol use; and more.

photo of kanye west showing phone to donald trump in oval office
Rapper Kanye West shows President Donald Trump a picture on his mobile phone of what he described as a hydrogen powered airplane that should replace Air Force One during a meeting in the Oval Office.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

This week in Washington, Justice Brett Kavanaugh took his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, the president’s U.N. ambassador quit her job to do… something, but definitely not to run for president. Kanye West paid a visit to the president, and is gonna let him finish.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where Kanye West was just at the White House having lunch with President Donald Trump. Over roast chicken and caprese salad, they discussed Trump’s “historic work to benefit all Americans,” per the White House press office. They ultimately talked about hydrogen-powered planes, or something.

With that out of the way, on to a big week of news: you may have heard that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The newly-minted Justice Kavanaugh was feted at the White House on Monday, which was the judge’s first day hearing oral argument in the high court. Reuters has some scene from his first hours on the bench, where he chatted and laughed with his new colleagues.

Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court will have long-term implications: the Washington Post has a big-picture look, framing his ascendance to the court as a historic victory for Republicans, giving them their most sweeping hold on power in Washington since the 1920s. The new five-member conservative majority on the court has Democrats thinking of ways to strike back, a conversation that has revived the idea of “packing the courts,” which FDR tried and failed to do in the 1930s.

Article continues after advertisement

The confirmation, which came to be defined by the allegations of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh, also promises to have long-term impacts on the #MeToo movement, which turned a year old this week. The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino has a comprehensive essay on this.

In the short-term, though, there’s a hotly contested midterm in less than a month, and D.C. is debating how much the Kavanaugh fight will influence who shows up and how they vote: to hear Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tell it, unfair treatment of Kavanaugh by Democrats galvanized the conservatives and will power Republicans to victory in the midterms. Part of that: raucous public protests from liberals over the nomination have given Republicans an opportunity to paint the “Resistance” as lawless anarchists.

A lot of Dems, meanwhile, are arguing that the GOP is advancing B.S. spin, and say the Kavanaugh fight fired up their supporters just as much as it did Republicans. Some recent polling from Politico questions how much of a “Kavanaugh bump” there really was for Republicans.

Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see how this moment will affect the fortunes of key senators involved. The Arizona Republic reports that the reputation of Sen. Jeff Flake, the retiring Arizona Republican, is in tatters following his pained public back-and-forth on Kavanaugh, which led to a yes vote that seemed to satisfy no one. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a critical yes vote for the judge who announced her support in a Senate floor speech last Friday, is now straight in the Resistance’s spotlight, and could face a possible re-election challenge from Susan Rice, the former national security adviser in the Obama White House.

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — who faces voters this fall in that deep-red state — was poised to vote yes on Kavanaugh, until she studied the judge’s body language while he asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar if she ever blacked out, a reflection that persuaded her to vote no. That move confirmed, to some, that Heitkamp’s re-election bid is toast.

Moving on from Kavanaugh: there was a surprise announcement at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this week. Seemingly out of nowhere, United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley said she would be resigning at the end of the year. Haley left her gig as the Republican governor of South Carolina to represent the Trump administration at the U.N., and became perhaps the most broadly respected member of his cabinet. On Tuesday, Haley sat next to her boss in the Oval Office and, in a very unusual sight in this administration, made her announcement as Trump and other officials praised her in the highest terms.

The timing of her move raised eyebrows. Haley said that she’d told her boss she wanted to serve for two years and then move on. To what? Who knows, but the D.C. rumor mill is generating endless buzz about the next steps for someone widely regarded as one of the party’s rising stars and a possible future face for the post-Trump GOP. (Haley went out of her way to mention she would campaign for Trump’s re-election in 2020 — quashing any speculation she might run herself.) WaPo’s Daily 202 has more exploration of Haley’s move here.

Meanwhile, former economic adviser Dina Powell, who left the Trump White House to work for Goldman Sachs, is rumored to be at the top of the president’s list to replace Haley, which is already providing the White House’s warring factions with another proxy fight.

A serious foreign policy crisis confronted the White House this week: Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi is missing after last being seen heading into the Saudi ambassador’s residence in Istanbul last week. According to U.S. intelligence intercepts, top-level Saudi officials discussed a plan to lure Khashoggi, a critic of the autocratic government, to Istanbul so they could send him back to Saudi Arabia to be detained. The plan likely had the backing of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a man touted as a next-generation reformer who boasts a close “friendship” with Trump administration notables like Jared Kushner.

Khashoggi’s allies and other human rights advocates increasingly believe he was murdered in Istanbul; Turkish officials have concluded he was likely murdered by a team of assassins. Many Western leaders are jacking up the pressure on Saudi Arabia and asking for answers; Trump has responded by saying, well, the whole episode seems pretty bad and issuing vague calls for Riyadh to investigate. On Thursday, he talked about it at the White House, the sum of his response seemingly “it’s not our problem. People in the foreign policy and intelligence communities are worried he’ll just sweep this under the rug. (Congress seems to be taking a tougher line on Saudi Arabia, WaPo reports.)

Article continues after advertisement

In a vintage “it’s almost the midterms” move, this week Trump answered the prayers of big corn-producing states by opening up more avenues for the sale of corn-based ethanol fuel. With this decision, so-called “E15” fuel — a petroleum blend consisting of 15 percent ethanol — will now be sold in the summer months; previously, the EPA prohibited the sale of higher-grade ethanol due to Clean Air Act regulations.

Like other midwestern lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, DFL Sen. Tina Smith applauded the administration’s move, saying it’d boost the farm economy. (Like other Dems, though, she made clear her skepticism on the White House’s ability to follow through by noting she’d continue to press them on ethanol.)

On Capitol Hill — which is seriously entering the pre-midterms lull — the press is reflecting on what didn’t get accomplished in this 115th session of Congress. Read WaPo on how proposals to reform how the Hill deals with sexual harassment complaints — something the #MeToo movement revealed to be a trying and overly difficult process — have stalled. It’s a setback for lawmakers who championed these bills, which really seemed like they’d be moving forward.

About those Midterms! Somehow, there are only 26 days — and three more of these newsletters! — until November 6. Minnesotans are voting now, as are people in a bunch of other states. It’s all happening!

Where we are right now might be one of the most important stretches of campaign season. People are paying attention to the election, but many voters are still making up their minds about how they’ll vote — or if they’ll vote at all. The cake, as they say in politics, is starting to get baked, and fast. Campaigns are firing on all cylinders right now to make sure that cake tastes like victory.

POLLWATCH! NBC News/Marist was out on Wednesday with a big poll that found major DFL candidates leading in key races: in the U.S. Senate special election contest, for example, Tina Smith was up 16 points on GOP state Sen. Karin Housley. Other takeaways: no one seems to know who anyone is except for Amy Klobuchar, and Trump’s approval rating is 18 points underwater. In short, this is a really, really good poll for Democrats — perhaps too good. MinnPost’s Eric Black broke it down in a post here.

In the open-seat 8th District race — one Republicans think is probably their best pick-up chance in the country — Democrats have to like how Joe Radinovich is faring. He raised an eye-popping $1.2 million over the last three months and third-party election-watchers seem to think he’s holding his own: Politico has moved the CD8 race from a “lean Republican” seat back to a “toss-up.” (That was one of a handful of races the outlet moved in Dems’ direction as they argue that the GOP House majority is, increasingly, crumbling.)

Northland political observer Aaron Brown points out that Radinovich raised more in Q3 than retiring Rep. Rick Nolan did in his entire 2012 campaign. (Brown has a worthwhile post previewing the final stretch of the CD8 race this week.)

Meanwhile, things are getting nasty down in the 3rd District, where GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen and Democrat Dean Phillips have been going after each other pretty ruthlessly since early in the summer. The two debated last Friday in an acrimonious face-off that seemed defined by campaign ads; on Twitter, Paulsen’s campaign manager called Phillips a “creep” because his campaign followed one of Paulsen’s daughters on Instagram. (These two teams just do not like each other.) Definitely read my former colleague Briana Bierschbach at MPR with a good write-up of the unusual race in CD3.

In CD2, meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson is all the way behind Angie Craig’s bid for Congress. How much? He’s doing chores around her house.

In GOP-world, America First PAC, the biggest outside group associated with the president, made a big splash in Minnesota this week, dropping $3 million worth of ad buys to support Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber, the Trump-backing candidates in CD1 and CD8. The initial ads attack their DFL opponents on pretty traditional partisan lines. These two districts are priorities for Trump and the GOP, but the PAC says all of Minnesota is a focal point, so we could see some investment on 2nd District Rep. Jason Lewis’ behalf at some point. (I think they’ll be shutting their pocketbook for Paulsen, which is probably fine by him.) In case you want to revisit — here’s my primer from last month on the outside groups spending big in Minnesota for the midterms.

Speaking of ads: the Wall Street Journal has a worthwhile breakdown looking at what campaign ads from Democratic and Republican candidates have focused on. For Dems, there have been four times as many ads mentioning health care than the next most popular topic, the economy. For Republicans, ads about taxes, immigration, and supporting Trump lead the way. (Smith and Radinovich’s latest ads highlight their work on health care; Hagedorn’s latest says he’ll lend a hand for Trump in D.C.)

Finally, I liked this cool feature from the online outlet CityLab exploring how the art and science of design is influencing the 2018 midterms, from minimalist lawn signs down in Texas to the Obama-style posters for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This week’s essential reads

Trump’s crack in Rochester last week that Al Franken folded like a “wet rag” under sexual misconduct allegations — as Brett Kavanaugh was poised for elevation to the Supreme Court — gets to the heart of a key Democratic anxiety, writes Politico’s John Harris: what if Democrats just don’t give politics the total-war treatment the GOP does?

Whether Trump knew it or not, his remarks were perfectly pitched to stoke anxieties that have haunted many top Democratic operatives for a generation: the fear that their party loses big power struggles because Republicans are simply tougher, meaner, more cynical and more ruthless than they are.

A belief in one’s own virtue feels good. Losing a battle that could shape the American political landscape for decades feels bad. The tension between the two left some Democrats grappling anew this weekend with the implications: Maybe they really are the Wet Rag Party.

“They are more ruthless,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who over a quarter-century has served as a top aide to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “And I don’t want to be like them. … The answer can’t be for Democrats to be just as cynical.”

This week, a historic hurricane devastated Florida; the U.N. also issued a comprehensive report suggesting that, barring unprecedented and extraordinary action to mitigate it, the world will experience widespread and damaging effects of climate change sooner than previously thought. The New York Times has an important investigation this week exploring the way we pay to rebuild after natural disasters — and how it will perpetuate cycles of more destruction and waste unless changes are made.

Since at least 1950, an empathetic nation has supported the impulse to rebuild in place by financing much of the cost of disaster recovery through the federal budget. But the process adheres to the American conviction that, regardless of who pays, decisions about land use and infrastructure should be made as locally as possible.

With local officials often incentivized to replicate the past, experts in disaster relief say changes in federal law and regulations may be needed to reorient the system to reflect climate realities.

Yet the Trump administration, if anything, is moving in the opposite direction. In August last year, President Trump rescinded an executive order signed by President Barack Obama that required consideration of climate science in the design of federally funded projects. In some cases, that had meant mandatory elevation of buildings in flood-prone areas. Then in March, FEMA released a four-year strategic plan that stripped away previous mentions of climate change and sea-level rise. …

As a result, government spending for relief and recovery will outpace economic growth and devour an ever larger share of gross domestic product, the analysts concluded.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan has dragged on long enough that young people are enlisting to fight in a war that began before they were born. BuzzFeed News looks at what the endlessness of the war means for the military recruiters trying to get teenagers to risk their lives to fight it — and for the future of the U.S. military:

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 18th year and the US Army falls thousands short of its recruiting goals, the Pentagon is recognizing it has to do something different to recruit an age group that does not remember 9/11 and for whom the “war on terror” has been background noise their entire lives. This includes rethinking some of its traditional military PR, which has unintentionally turned the corner from inspiring to morbid by highlighting that some of the young people enlisting today are taking over the same tasks in the very same places their parents fought almost a generation ago. …

But this underscores a very real concern for military leaders — that the cost of the US “war on terror” is being borne by an increasingly smaller number of families, isolated and unnoticed by the rest of the country. At the same time, the US military footprint across the globe has expanded rapidly since former president George W. Bush ordered US troops into Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, 2001. The US still has 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, but last year Americans also died in combat in places like Yemen, Niger, Syria, and Somalia, where most people back home — including some members of Congress — were not even aware the US was fighting.

“Most Americans are only vaguely aware that we’re still fighting overseas, and the reason for that is that they don’t have any skin in the game,” retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former US commander in Afghanistan, told BuzzFeed News.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is known for the massive amounts of money he spends to bankroll GOP candidates — at least $50 million in these midterms and $20 million to Trump’s 2016 campaign — and his relentless advocacy for right-wing positions on Israel issues.

But, as a comprehensive investigation from ProPublica’s Justin Elliott shows, Adelson is, if nothing else, focused on his business — and he expects Trump and Republicans to provide return on investment. The story spotlights a remarkable 2017 episode in which Trump, pushed on by Adelson, personally raised his patron’s bid for a casino in Japan with that country’s leader, Shinzo Abe. The story:

His reputation as an Israel advocate has obscured a through-line in his career: He has used his political access to push his financial self-interest. Not only has Trump touted Sands’ interests in Japan, but his administration also installed an executive from the casino industry in a top position in the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. Adelson’s influence reverberates through this administration. Cabinet-level officials jump when he calls. One who displeased him was replaced. He has helped a friend’s company get a research deal with the Environmental Protection Agency. And Adelson has already received a windfall from Trump’s new tax law, which particularly favored companies like Las Vegas Sands. The company estimated the benefit of the law at $1.2 billion.

Adelson’s influence is not absolute: His company’s casinos in Macau are vulnerable in Trump’s trade war with China, which controls the former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. If the Chinese government chose to retaliate by targeting Macau, where Sands has several large properties, it could hurt Adelson’s bottom line. So far, there’s no evidence that has happened. …

Adelson has spent the Trump era hustling to expand his gambling empire. With Trump occupying the White House, Adelson has found the greatest political ally he’s ever had.

“I would put Adelson at the very top of the list of both access and influence in the Trump administration,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’ve been studying money in politics for 40 years.”

What to look for next week

With Hurricane Michael having just slammed into Florida with 150 mile-per-hour winds, leaving at least two people dead, the president is slated to visit the Panhandle to tour the damage at some point.

POTUS decided to hit a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, the night the hurricane hit; he has two rallies on his schedule this weekend — one in Ohio and one in Kentucky — so it remains to be seen when he’d work in a Florida trip.

By the way, expect Trump to be on the campaign trail constantly until Nov. 6, with his hour-plus stemwinding rallies a near-daily event. To prepare yourself, I liked this Los Angeles Times “anatomy of a Trump rally,” treating it very much like a piece of theater.

This upcoming Monday, October 15, is one of the last big fundraising deadlines of the election season: by that day, congressional candidates must report how much they raised in the third quarter of the year, which covered July, August, and September. Look for lots of posturing and spin from campaigns as they reveal what they have to run on cash-wise through the November finish line.

For now, that’s it from me. Enjoy your weekends, and I’ll see you back here next Thursday. Email me: