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D.C. Memo: The mourning NAFTA

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump announced that the U.S., Mexico, and Canada have agreed on a framework for a new, trilateral trade pact to replace the 25-year old North American Free Trade Agreement.

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This week in Washington, the U.S. Senate continued to wrestle with the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, while the FBI conducted a very thorough and detailed investigation into the claims, which we knew wouldn’t change anyone’s minds from the get-go. We also got a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, which President Donald Trump left behind on Thursday to be with you all in Minnesota. POTUS hit a fundraiser for Republicans in Minneapolis before heading to a rally in Rochester to stump for Jim Hagedorn, the GOP candidate in the 1st Congressional District, 2nd District Rep. Jason Lewis, and U.S. Senate candidate Karin Housley.

Back in Washington: at 4 o’clock Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee received a report from the FBI summarizing its investigation into the sexual assault accusations made against Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This investigation was the product of an 11th-hour maneuver last Friday: with the Judiciary Committee set to vote on Kavanaugh the day after emotional, heated testimony from Kavanaugh and one of his accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, Democrats convinced on-the-fence Senate Republicans like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to withhold support for the nominee until the FBI could further explore the allegations.

Flake and others cast that move as doing “due diligence;” it also gave them cover, saving them from looking as if they were rushing Kavanaugh’s confirmation. With Republicans owning a narrow two-seat majority, and with all but one or two Democrats poised to vote no on Kavanaugh, GOP brass and the White House acquiesced to a probe “limited in time and scope.”

And it was a really, really limited probe, if reporting from this week is on the mark: federal agents did not interview Ford or Kavanaugh, per Bloomberg, and the Washington Post reports that agents interviewed six witnesses — but they apparently did not interview more people who contacted them to share information about Kavanaugh.

The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer and Ronan Farrow, who have broken a lot of news on this, have more on that front; ABC News reports that a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s says he was not contacted by the FBI and believes Kavanaugh was lying under oath about his drinking habits, a thread that the judge’s opponents are increasingly pulling to demonstrate his lack of credibility.

The White House believes that the report found no corroboration to the allegations against Kavanaugh. While senators took turns reviewing the FBI report in a secure room in the U.S. Capitol — and Capitol Hill press recording their every move — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has moved ahead with Kavanaugh’s confirmation, officially teeing up a key first procedural vote on Friday morning. Senate Judiciary Democrats, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have expressed their displeasure on this front: the senator noted on Twitter that McConnell put a vote in motion Wednesday night, before the FBI report had even been released.

That the investigation is shaking out like this is predictable: with their majority on the line in the midterms, Trump and McConnell want to confirm Kavanaugh ASAP — the New York Times’ chief McConnell-watchers have more on that here — and they’d never allow a probe as extensive as Democrats want. The top Dem on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, called on McConnell to push back the Kavanaugh vote so the FBI could have more time, but that was never going to happen.

Also predictable: those key swing-vote senators are have said that they aren’t finding anything in the FBI report to give them second thoughts about Kavanaugh. Flake and Maine Sen. Susan Collins are sure sounding like “yes” votes, which would make the possibility he is not confirmed very slim — a far cry from last week, when it seemed like Kavanaugh was hanging on by a thread. Even West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin could also be a yes vote.

No matter what, though, it looks like these intense, bitter few weeks will resonate far into the future — and certainly in the short term, to November’s midterms. I have a new story up exploring a best-case scenario for Republicans: that core conservative voters are so fired up by how Democrats handled Kavanaugh that they show up in greater numbers on November 6, blunting the impact of the Democrats’ anti-Trump wave of enthusiasm. (WaPo, meanwhile, explored the “eruption of male resentment” fueling the GOP right now.)

Looming over how Kavanaugh is playing in Minnesota: Rep. Keith Ellison, and the allegations of emotional and physical abuse made against him by his ex-girlfriend. This week, the DFL Party-commissioned probe into the claims wrapped up and cleared the Minneapolis congressman and attorney general candidate of wrongdoing; party officials are now trying to refer it to a law enforcement agency, but that’s been unsuccessful so far.

Since calling for a House Ethics Committee investigation, Ellison has signalled he may step down as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee so he can focus on his bid for AG. The situation is getting a lot of attention from national press; HuffPost traveled to Minnesota to explore how the allegations are affecting Ellison’s campaign and found that 3rd District DFL candidate Dean Phillips did not commit to voting for Ellison.

In other news on Capitol Hill, the Senate momentarily hit pause on its nasty civil war over Kavanaugh to pass legislation addressing the opioid epidemic: By a vote of 98 to 1, the chamber approved a $1.5 billion package that makes a number of changes intended to counter the public health crisis — WaPo sums up those changes, and the bipartisan work that went into this over several years.

With House approval already locked up, the bill will head to the White House for Trump’s signature. This is a classic election-season good news piece for Democrats and Republicans, and many senators were quick to draw attention to the bill’s passage. Sens. Klobuchar and Tina Smith have both been vocal on the opioid issue: on Wednesday, Klobuchar pointed to three of her bills that were included as part of the package, while Smith — the only one of the two facing a tough re-election — touted a provision authored with GOP Sen. Murkowski on expanding mental health services in schools.

Over at 1600 Penn: developments on trade this week for a president hungry for good news on this front, with the elections a month away. Trump announced that the U.S., Mexico, and Canada have agreed on a framework for a new, trilateral trade pact to replace the 25-year old North American Free Trade Agreement.

The White House dubbed the new agreement the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, which definitely doesn’t sound like an obscure industry association or something really generic like that. The breakthrough comes after months of Trump-style hardball with Mexico and, especially, Canada — whose officials cautioned this week that U.S. tactics in this trade spat left a lasting stain on the two allies’ relationship. (Soo-ry, neighbors.)

Vox breaks down the biggest changes to trade contained in the agreement — important impacts here for the auto and agriculture industries, and for people who buy their products. There are also big implications for intellectual property rights, too, in ways that are very likely to benefit big pharmaceutical companies. The Wall Street Journal reports that investors and big business is relieved that the deal came through — phew!

Observers have been quick to point out that, though Trump has spent years railing against NAFTA — and the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact that Trump officially killed last year — USMCA appears to borrow liberally from both of those deals. USA Today has more.

Now, legislators in all three countries have to ratify the new trade deal. That likely won’t happen in Congress until next year, and it’s hard to predict how that fight might shake out before we know who will be in the majority. But Democrats don’t seem to hate USMCA so far, if Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is to be believed. (POTUS is already working the Hill: he sent a package to every lawmaker proclaiming that the USMCA is “one of the best [trade deals] ever made,” and included an editorial in the tabloid New York Post backing him up.)

A blockbuster story from the New York Times came out this week, revealing how the president and his family have taken almost every possible opportunity to game tax law and real estate rules to inflate their fortune by avoiding taxes as much as possible — activity that the Times reporters say rises to the level of “outright fraud.” (This is very, very strong language to use, which conveys how good the NYT feels about its reporting.) The Times provided a quicker TL;DR rundown of the story, too.

The story, which was two years in the making, landed with a splash in D.C., and was instantly hailed as one of the most important stories yet on Trump. POTUS hit back against the “failing New York Times” in classic fashion. It hit a nerve, probably: Trump’s former ghostwriter says the story obliterated the myth of Trump as a self-made man. Meanwhile, Democrats renewed their calls for Trump to release his tax returns — and are promising that they’ll exercise congressional power to compel him to do so if they take control of the House.

Over to the MinnPost Midterm 2K18 MegaDoppler, which is detecting that the Blue Wave, or the Red Tsunami, or whatever tidal metaphor you prefer to describe the elections, is only 33 days away.

A slate of new polls in Minnesota’s key races: I wrote up a NYT/Siena live poll of the 2nd District race between Jason Lewis and Democrat Angie Craig, which finds Craig up by a commanding 12 points, 51 percent to 39 percent. This is the best result yet by far for Craig — most polls to date have put the two within a few points of each other — but Team Lewis contends this is an outlier poll fueled by questionable methodology. (His pollster told me they’ve never seen Craig crack 50 percent in two years of polling the race.)

The Lewis camp has their own internal poll this week, showing the Republican beating Craig by three points. As national press buzzes about which vulnerable GOP incumbents will get “cut off” by big-money conservative groups, it’s looking like a live one down in CD2.

A KSTP poll of the race between Rep. Erik Paulsen and Phillips in CD3, meanwhile, gives the Democratic challenger a five-point lead. No publicly released poll to date, internal or otherwise, has shown Paulsen with a lead.

Also, President Barack Obama endorsed a bunch of candidates in Minnesota! The group includes the DFL candidates in CDs 1, 2, 3, and 8, as Rep. Tim Walz and Tina Smith. Missing from the list: Ellison.

Looking nationally: a good setting of the Senate scene a month out from the midterms from Politico, which finds the majority very much up for grabs, even with a map that would be a disaster for Democrats in basically any other year. On the other side of the Capitol, the center-right Washington Examiner paper observes that national GOP types are looking at the piles of cash raised by Democrats and are increasingly resigned to the possibility of losing their House majority.

This week’s essential reads

Health care, immigration, guns, trade — those issues are all poised to be top-of-mind for voters as they make their decisions on election day. But climate change, an issue many Americans consider to be of existential importance, is basically missing from the 2018 campaign trail. The NYT’s Trip Gabriel explains why:

As a candidate in a conservative-tilting battleground district, Mr. McCready’s environmental message is much more muted. Climate change is not directly named among 13 top issues on his website. And though his latest TV commercial features solar panels and boasts that the 35-year-old, first-time candidate helped make North Carolina a leader in solar power, the ad highlights Mr. McCready’s ability to balance a budget and meet a payroll. It does not mention “environment” or “climate change.”

In an election year that has included alarming portents of global warming — record wildfires in the West, 500-year floods in the East, a president walking away from a global climate accord — the one place that climate change rarely appears at all is in the campaigns of candidates for the House and Senate.

The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans running for federal office do not mention the threat of global warming in digital or TV ads, in their campaign literature or on social media.

Environmental activists and political scientists say it is a reflection of the issue’s perpetual low ranking among voters, even Democratic voters, and of the intense polarization along party lines that has developed around global warming, even as the science of human-caused warming has become overwhelming.

Endangered House Republicans are in a pickle: they need Trump-loving conservatives to show up to vote for them, but they also need to sway bipartisan-minded independents. Politico’s Rachel Bade checks in on the “double life” of Virginia GOP Rep. Dave Brat, whose struggles are a stand-in for those of many Republicans in 2018. Echoes of dynamics in CD2 and CD3 here:

The two sides of Brat, a member of the Freedom Caucus, highlight the dissonant strategies House Republicans are deploying in their struggle to keep the House. As national Republicans implore endangered members to localize their races and tout bipartisan victories, hard-liners are urging them to embrace the president to get Trump voters to the polls.

Survival might ultimately depend on Republicans successfully doing both — not an easy feat since Democrats are reminding voters of their ties to Trump at every opportunity. But the conundrum is clear: GOP office-holders in swing districts can’t afford to repel independents by appearing too cozy with Trump, yet they also need Trump’s followers to turn out in force.

“I would argue it’s best in the vast majority of congressional seats to nationalize the election,” Jordan, a guest speaker, told the crowd during the fundraiser for Brat in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 7, according to the recording. “And even in those swing districts you still have to embrace the president. Maybe not as much in Dave’s as in ours” — Jordan represents a solidly Republican district in Ohio — “but I think it’s important we run toward the president.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

With the president in Minnesota for a big campaign rally, it’s a fitting moment to check out this story from Ben Bradlee, Jr., in Politico Magazine profiling one Lynette Villano of Pennsylvania — a 72-year old woman who bills herself as Trump’s Number One Fan. She’s one of the many Trump supporters who consider his near-weekly campaign rallies as appointment viewing — or even big occasions to travel to — and hang on the president’s every word as he tosses out red meat to his supporters.

“I came out for Trump the day he came down that escalator in Trump Tower,” she recalls. “I went right online and got some pins. I did it to see what kind of reaction I’d get when I wore them in public. Most of the time it was positive. Sometimes it was relief—like, ‘Oh my God, here’s another Trump supporter I can talk to.’ People liked Trump because he had the answers to all our frustrations!” …

I first met Lynette in December 2016 after traveling to Luzerne County in Northeast Pennsylvania for my book about why this traditionally Democratic area, a pivotal county in a crucial swing state, surged for Trump in 2016. Trump voters in Luzerne generally had a contempt for Washington and the powers that be, who they felt had mostly abandoned them and left them marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change and a dominant liberal culture that mocked their faith and patriotism. They felt like everyone’s punching bag, and that their way of life was dying. They sensed a loss of dignity and stature. They felt like others were cutting in line, and that government is taking too much money from the employed and giving it to the able-bodied idle. They felt government regulations had become strangling to small and large businesses, and that the country was in danger of being inundated by immigrants, both legal and illegal. …

But one of the most fascinating people I encountered was Lynette Villano, whose support for Trump, like many others in Luzerne, is total, unconditional and unshakeable. These are the people Trump was talking about when he said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing any voters. To them, Trump’s scandals are barely worth mentioning, and his failures to follow through on many of the economic promises he touted in the campaign are unimportant, mostly because, on his Twitter feed and at his ongoing campaign rallies, he has fed them a steady diet of entertaining, rhetorical red meat. They know all his lines, and still thrill to hear him deliver them.

What to look for next week

If senators advance Kavanaugh’s nomination during a procedural vote on Friday, a vote on his final confirmation could take place as soon as Saturday evening — setting up a final weekend of debate in this saga. The embattled judge could join the eight Supreme Court justices next week, as the court begins hearing cases in the newly-opened October term.

Kavanaugh’s successful confirmation would take one major item off the Senate’s plate before the November midterms; it’s unclear whether McConnell will put the chamber in recess for the campaign’s home stretch. (House leaders have already turned the lower chamber loose through November 6.)

If he does — and it’s not a sure thing, because McConnell might rather keep the dozen-some vulnerable Senate Democrats tied up in D.C. than campaigning back home — the capital would be poised for a quiet few weeks as the midterm battles play out around the country. We’ll be following all that and more next week; until then, thanks for joining me. Send me an email at sbrodey@minnpost.com, or tweet at me @sambrodey.

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