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D.C. Memo: President Individual 1

Trump’s legal troubles; Klobuchar’s presidential star rises; Gillibrand’s presidential star sinks; the return of Al Franken; and more.

photo of president donald trump pointing
President Donald Trump’s legal problems, and the investigation into his 2016 campaign’s ties with Russia, resurfaced this week and dominated the news cycle more so than in months.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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, the knives were out: Michael Cohen turned on President Trump, Paul Manafort turned on Robert Mueller, Trump turned on General Motors and his own Fed Bank chairman, and Congress turned on its former fave, Saudi Arabia.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where I’m re-acclimating to the Swamp after a week overseas and unplugged from the news. Hope you all got a chance to recharge, too, because this post-Thanksgiving week of D.C. news has been a doozy.

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Starting off: President Donald Trump’s legal problems, and the investigation into his 2016 campaign’s ties with Russia, resurfaced this week and dominated the news cycle more so than in months. In a New York City federal courtroom on Thursday, former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen cut a surprise plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller: Cohen admitted guilt in lying to Congress about his work to advance Trump’s business interests in Russia during the 2016 campaign. Cohen is already facing sentencing for bank and tax crimes by federal prosecutors in New York; this is the first time he’s been charged by Mueller — who might help him get a lighter sentence in exchange for valuable testimony.

A court filing released by Mueller features Cohen testifying that he discussed with his boss a Trump Tower development in Moscow multiple times during the 2016 election, and that he “agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project and took steps in contemplation of Individual 1’s possible travel to Russia.” (“Individual 1” is the president.) This BuzzFeed story from May was right on the money and outlines much of what’s in the court filing. (Recall that Trump said publicly during the campaign that his business had nothing to do with Russia.)

POTUS told reporters on Thursday that Cohen is a “weak” individual and that he only gave him a job because “a long time ago he did me a favor.” As Cohen is set up to sing to the feds, their cooperation with another would-be star witness appeared to break down this week: Mueller’s team accused Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair, of repeatedly lying to them, violating terms of a plea deal to give the former lobbyist hotshot less time in prison — he’s facing a lot of it — in exchange for information about the Trump campaign. Manafort can’t get out of his guilty pleas as part of the deal, but the move from Mueller’s camp suggests they won’t be able to rely on him in building a case against Trump and his team.

Beyond that, the New York Times broke on Wednesday that Manafort’s lawyers frequently briefed Trump’s lawyers about the nature and substance of their client’s conversations with Mueller — something the NYT called a “highly unusual” arrangement that adds to mistrust between Manafort and the special counsel. In an interview with the New York Post this week, Trump said he wouldn’t take off the table the option of granting a pardon for Manafort.

The backdrop of all this is an explosive story from the Guardian newspaper, reporting that Manafort met with WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange, currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, before and during the Trump campaign. This would expose the closest link yet between Trump’s campaign and the man who orchestrated a series of damaging email leaks, possibly in concert with top Russian officials, targeted at the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Manafort’s team denied the Guardian story and threatened to sue over it, and CNN reports that in written answers to questions from Mueller, Trump denied that he knew ahead of time about WikiLeaks’ email dumps.

How is the president responding? “When will this illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt, one that has shattered so many innocent lives, ever end-or will it just go on forever?” @realDonaldTrump mused. CNN has some analysis on what Trump’s pardon talk and angry tweets mean, casting it as an effort to define the “endgame” of Mueller’s investigation.

Apropos of nothing at all, Trump’s approval ratings are at their lowest in a year: Gallup finds his approval at 38 percent, and his disapproval at 60 percent.

While I was away: buzz continued to grow over presidential prospects for Sen. Amy Klobuchar following her easy romp to a third term in the November elections. The NYT had a big (and pretty good) story diving into the 2020 speculation and breaking down some of the pros and cons of a Klobuchar bid. In case you missed it, check out my post-election story on the people talking up Minnesota’s senior senator for a White House bid.

In former Minnesota senator news: another big story out this week from a national outlet exploring how Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s call for the resignation of Al Franken during his sexual misconduct scandal last year is costing the New York Democrat big in the long term. Politico reports that Gillibrand, a possible 2020 candidate, is very much persona non grata in the Democratic donor community, where Franken was a darling. Lots of good quotes and color in the story, which shows how the Franken saga continues to reverberate a year later.

Meanwhile, Franken posted a Thanksgiving message on Facebook, saying he has “spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about the broader conversation we’ve been having about the experience of women in this country,” adding that he won’t weigh in but “will continue to listen and learn.” He also hinted some kind of return to public life: “While I’m certainly not running for anything, I hope that, in the next year, I’ll have the chance to help make a difference again.”

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What could that look like? There was a clue this week: Franken released what he called an “experimental” podcast this week, an hour long discussion of health care politics with Minnesota native Andy Slavitt, who was Barack Obama’s Medicare and Medicaid chief.

In the administration this week: the president and his team scrambled to respond to news that General Motors will soon move to shutter four of its auto plants in the U.S., and one in Canada, in response to decreased demand for some of the auto giant’s car models. Around 14,000 workers are expected to lose their jobs when the closings hit next year — some 15 percent of all its salaried workers globally.

The president expressed outrage at the move in a vintage, vaguely threatening tweet. POTUS also said he was “very tough” on GM’s CEO in a private conversation, and is threatening to cut subsidies to the company, without specifying exactly what subsidies he was talking about. Top economic adviser Gary Kudlow ventured on Tuesday that the feds could cut a subsidy available to people who buy electric cars, since one of the plants targeted by the company makes Chevrolet’s electric model. Worth noting, too, that GM has been criticized harshly for the move by Democrats, like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who called their move “corporate greed at its worst.”

For Trump, though, there’s some irony in the timing of the news: at the beginning of his first term, GM announced (after several years of mulling the decision) it would invest $1 billion in manufacturing in the U.S. The new president crowed and pointed to the move as an early success of his #MAGA economic policy. At a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, around that time — the location of a historic plant that will now be closing — Trump told residents not to sell their homes, because GM would be roaring back. Nearly two years later, GM is going away, and that community is facing a painful and uncertain future after a half-century of making cars. WaPo’s Finance 202 newsletter has a good take on how the news is puncturing the heart of Trump’s populist and economic message.

Trump himself — big surprise — isn’t accepting any blame for the situation. In an interview with the Post, he turned on his appointee to head the Federal Reserve Bank, Jerome Powell, saying he was “not even a little bit happy” with Powell’s work there, which has included raising interest rates. (Relatedly: in a speech this week, Powell suggested interest rates could be near where he wants them to be — sparking the biggest stock market rally since March.)

A bombshell report on climate change, years in the making, was released this week by the federal government. The news is bad: scientists find that climate change’s effects are being felt now, and they’ll only get worse — meaning the U.S. faces a future filled with more wildfires, natural disasters, poorer health, overtaxed infrastructure, all amounting to a significant hit on the environment and the economy. My colleague Walker Orenstein has a good overview of what the report means for Minnesota.

The president, meanwhile, dismissed the dire warning published by his own administration. He straight-up said he doesn’t believe the report, claiming to the Washington Post that “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers.” (POTUS then went on to say that air and water are at a “record clean” and talked about pollution in our “very small” oceans.)

A lot of news from the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two weeks, as a group of hundreds of Central American migrants reached the Mexican border city of Tijuana in order to apply for asylum in the U.S. Vox has a good roundup of what happened, which included clashes between migrants and border authorities, who the president authorized to use “lethal force” if necessary. The NYT has a dispatch on the experience at the border, defined by long waits — officials are processing asylum claims at a slow rate, meaning six week-long waits are in store for migrants. Many are considering giving up and going back home.

On Capitol Hill: House Democrats met to nominate their leaders for the 116th Congress. Despite lots of heated rhetoric and posturing from some Democrats over a serious challenge to longtime leader Nancy Pelosi, the veteran California Democrat ran unopposed for the job of Speaker of the House. At a Wednesday vote, Pelosi won the speaker nomination by a count of 203 to 32. Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar was among the crop of progressive newcomers backing Pelosi; some freshmen Democrats who suggested they wouldn’t back Pelosi and called for “new leadership,” like Rep.-elect Dean Phillips, wouldn’t address their voting choice, per a CNN reporter.

Pelosi needs 218 votes to become Speaker, but the official election won’t happen until January, so she has time to whip the votes. (Some Republicans have even expressed openness to voting for her.) Democrats voted overwhelmingly to elevate Pelosi’s two longtime lieutenants, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, to Majority Leader and Majority Whip, respectively. Some Republicans, like Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota’s 6th District, were eager to point out that the leadership of the new Democratic majority is the same as it was when Democrats took the majority over a decade ago.

On the Senate side, two consequential votes this week: the U.S. Senate needed VP Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie to advance the nomination of Thomas Farr to the federal judicial bench in North Carolina. Farr has been a prominent GOP attorney in that state, and is behind several initiatives that many argue amount to voter suppression efforts targeted at minority voters. It’s unclear if Farr will survive a final confirmation vote, with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the chamber’s only black Republican, indicating his vote is in play. On Thursday, Senate brass postponed a final vote on Farr, a good sign they don’t have the votes for him right now.

On Wednesday, the Senate floor saw something exceedingly rare: a formal rebuke from Congress of strong U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. The Senate voted 63 to 37 to advance a resolution to end U.S. support for a joint Saudi-United Arab Emirates military effort in Yemen’s civil war, a conflict that has been inflamed by the Gulf states’ involvement and has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of children due to widespread famine, making it possibly the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

A similar resolution on Yemen failed earlier this year. What’s changed is declining support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of tragic news and photos out of Yemen, but mostly the shock of the Jamal Khashoggi saga. Some, including Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, framed the Yemen resolution as a way to rebuke the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for his likely involvement in the assassination of a Saudi dissident inside the kingdom’s embassy in Istanbul.

Trump and his administration brass, who have largely gone to bat for Saudi Arabia and muddied the waters on the kingdom’s behalf, seemed to have set off senators with a briefing this week urging them not to vote for the resolution based on their intelligence assessment and claims that there is no “direct reporting” that the crown prince was involved in the Khashoggi murder. (Spoiler: there was.)

Finally, it’s been over three weeks since the midterm elections, but that won’t stop me from activating the MinnPost Midterm Desk one last time. With the last few tight races being called in California, it looks like we now have a final number for House Democrats’ gains: 40 seats. That blows past expectations for their midterm performance — most prognosticators estimated a Democratic gain in the low 30s. Their advantage in the national popular vote was eight points.

That’s a romp, or a wave, or whatever you want to call it: either way, the 2018 midterm gives Democrats an 11-seat advantage over Republicans in the House next year.

This week’s essential reads

To me, one of the most interesting sub-narratives for the drama involving Paul Manafort and Roger Stone is that the two Trump confidantes, back in the 1980s, helped to pioneer the all-purpose lobbying and consulting operation that now defines business in the “Swamp” the president promised to drain. WaPo’s Manuel Roig-Franzia with a worthwhile read:

The little shop that Manafort opened in Alexandria, Va., was envisioned as a political consulting business, like so many others in the capital. But in the coming months — as the candidate he worked for, Ronald Reagan, swept into the White House — Manafort had another idea to bounce off his two partners, Charlie Black and Roger Stone.

They should be lobbyists, too. “I said, ‘Why in the hell would we want to do that? It’s boring as hell!’ ” Black recalled in a recent interview. “Paul said it wasn’t at all boring.”Manafort had one more thing to say: “It paid well.” That caught Stone’s attention. “You bet,” Stone recalled. “I’m interested in making a living!”

None of them knew it then, but that one conversation, a chat among three ambitious young Reaganites — Stone was just 28 and Black only 33 — would have a transformative effect on the capital, nudging Washington into a generation-long evolution. Their business would morph into a then-unheard-of hybrid, a bipartisan firm that would help elect politicians — sometimes hedging by playing both sides in the same race — then lobby those same politicians. Radical, disruptive and frequently criticized as ethically unsavory at the time, the mix is de rigueur now.

Months after the Trump administration officially ended its “zero-tolerance” policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, loopholes in the tenuous legal framework around the crisis are allowing federal officials to continue separating families at the border, a practice some in the administration believe is a deterrent against migration. ProPublica with the report:

Over the last three months, lawyers at Catholic Charities, which provides legal services to immigrant children in government custody in New York, have discovered at least 16 new separation cases. They say they have come across such instances by chance and via their own sleuthing after children were put into temporary foster care and shelters with little or no indication that they arrived at the border with their parents.

ProPublica stumbled upon one more case late last month after receiving a call from a distraught Salvadoran father who had been detained in South Texas, and whose 4-year-old son, Brayan, had literally been yanked from his grasp by a Customs and Border Protection agent after they crossed the border and asked for asylum. Julio, the father, asked to be identified only by his first name because he was fleeing gang violence and worried about the safety of relatives back home.

“I failed him,” said Julio, 27, sobbing uncontrollably. “Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.”

A recent outbreak of the deadly E. coli bacteria linked to romaine lettuce killed five people and sickened hundreds. Scientists have identified contaminated irrigation water on farms as a catalyst for outbreaks — but the Trump administration is tabling a regulation designed to stop them. The story, from Reveal:

For more than a decade, it’s been clear that there’s a gaping hole in American food safety: Growers aren’t required to test their irrigation water for pathogens such as E. coli. As a result, contaminated water can end up on fruits and vegetables.

After several high-profile disease outbreaks linked to food, Congress in 2011 ordered a fix, and produce growers this year would have begun testing their water under rules crafted by the Obama administration’s Food and Drug Administration.

But six months before people were sickened by the contaminated romaine, President Donald Trump’s FDA – responding to pressure from the farm industry and Trump’s order to eliminate regulations – shelved the water-testing rules for at least four years.

“Mystifying, isn’t it?” said Trevor Suslow, a food safety expert at the University of California, Davis. “If the risk factor associated with agricultural water use is that closely tied to contamination and outbreaks, there needs to be something now.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire hedge fund manager and pal to Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, was charged a decade ago for sex crimes involving dozens and dozens of underage girls, who he lured to his Palm Beach mansion through a pyramid scheme-like network. His crimes could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, but he got a too-good-to-be-true plea deal, brokered by Alex Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida and now Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary. Epstein ultimately spent 13 months in a county prison, and was given a rare break allowing him to spend his days outside prison at his personal office.

In a blockbuster, must-read investigation, the Miami Herald exposes not only the scope of Epstein’s evils, but the extent to which Acosta and federal prosecutors protected him, and his conspirators, in every conceivable way. Watch for this story to have major implications as Epstein goes to court next month in new civil suits — and Acosta is floated as a possible attorney general nominee.

This is the story of how Epstein, bolstered by unlimited funds and represented by a powerhouse legal team, was able to manipulate the criminal justice system, and how his accusers, still traumatized by their pasts, believe they were betrayed by the very prosecutors who pledged to protect them.

“I don’t think anyone has been told the truth about what Jeffrey Epstein did,’’ said one of Epstein’s victims, Michelle Licata, now 30. “He ruined my life and a lot of girls’ lives. People need to know what he did and why he wasn’t prosecuted so it never happens again.”

Now President Trump’s secretary of labor, Acosta, 49, oversees a massive federal agency that provides oversight of the country’s labor laws, including human trafficking. He also has been on a list of possible replacements for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned under pressure earlier this month. …

“The damage that happened in this case is unconscionable,” said Bradley Edwards, a former state prosecutor who represents some of Epstein’s victims. “How in the world, do you, the U.S. attorney, engage in a negotiation with a criminal defendant, basically allowing that criminal defendant to write up the agreement?”

As a result, neither the victims — nor even the judge — would know how many girls Epstein allegedly sexually abused between 2001 and 2005, when his underage sex activities were first uncovered by police.

“This was not a ‘he said, she said’ situation. This was 50-something ‘shes’ and one ‘he’ — and the ‘shes’ all basically told the same story,’’ said retired Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter, who supervised the police probe.

What to look for next week

The president travels on Thursday to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he’ll attend the G20 Summit. CNN has a good preview of the meeting of leaders of the world’s most powerful countries.

Trump plans to meet with Chinese premier Xi Jinping, which will happen at a consequential moment: the U.S. and China are in the middle of a damaging trade war, and negotiators from both countries are working on a bilateral trade deal to end that trade conflict. Trump said on Thursday that they’re close to a deal but that he’s “not sure” he wants to go through with it, whatever that means.

News from the heartland this week is underscoring the stakes of their meeting: the Federal Bank of Minneapolis found evidence of mounting troubles in the upper Midwest’s farm country, which produces many of the commodities that have been hit in the trade war. More and more farms are going bankrupt: over 80 across a yearlong period of 2017 and 2018, more than double the number from periods in past years. Sinking prices for soybeans, corn, and milk are being blamed. It’s a trend that started before Trump, experts say, but the trade battle with China and other countries isn’t making it any better.

Back in D.C., government funding is set to expire on Dec. 7, next Friday, and Trump, the GOP, and Democrats appear no closer to an agreement to resolve an impasse over how much, if anything, should be spent on a border wall with Mexico. In a sit-down with Politico, the president held a hard line, saying he’ll risk a shutdown if Congress won’t appropriate $5 billion for the wall. Sen. Schumer said he won’t go above $1.6 billionwhich is $1.6 billion too far in the eyes of many liberals, who have torched the Senate leader over his bargaining play.

That’s all for this week — thanks for hanging with me. Email as always,, and have a great weekend.