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Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker

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, new lawmakers-to-be arrived on Capitol Hill, a group that included five Minnesotans, a diverse class of Democrats, and a lot of dudes named Mike and Mark. President Trump grappled with setback in a way we can all relate to: holing up in his room, getting irritable with those around him, and yelling at the British prime minister for no reason.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where the conventional wisdom about last week’s midterms — along with more than a few results — has shifted: what was looking like a pretty good election for Democrats has shaped up into a rout in the U.S. House, and an impressive hold in the U.S. Senate, all things considered.

Flashback to last week: Democrats had won a House majority but not a commanding one. They were on track to lose several seats in the Senate. In this space, I was declaring there was no “blue wave.” (I maintain that debating what is or is not a “wave” is sort of pointless, but I’m trying to be accountable here.)

As of Friday, Democrats have picked up 36 House seats and are on track to pick up several more — particularly in California, where late surges of absentee ballots (votes count there if they’re postmarked on election day) have swung key races and padded the Democratic majority. 2018 is already the best Democratic House pick-up year since the post-Watergate election of 1974; favorable districts for the GOP enabled by gerrymandering played a big role in stopping a total blue sweep.

The Senate picture is also shaping up to be better for Democrats than we thought last week. Facing a historically bad midterm map — 10 Democratic incumbents were up for election in states won by Donald Trump — the party faced a longshot to get in the majority this year. It looked like the party would come out weaker, losing four Trump-state seats while capitalizing on only one pick-up opportunity, Nevada.

Now, it looks like Democrats may come out of the ringer breaking close to even. In Arizona, a deep-red state turning purple, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema came from behind to win the Grand Canyon State’s Senate race, filling the seat vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake and once held by Barry Goldwater. In Florida, a recount is underway in the race where Gov. Rick Scott currently leads incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by some 12,000 votes — and Nelson likely needs a run of really good luck to make up that difference, but it’s possible. (Read the New York Times on how Republicans are attacking the recount process.)

A lot of these races that are breaking for Democrats are being decided by razor-thin margins. One of them that might have some interest to you: the contest in Maine’s 2nd District, which hinges on ranked-choice voting. Maine is currently the only state that uses RCV in federal general election contests; Minneapolis and St. Paul are two of a few major cities that use it for their own elections.

In Maine, incumbent GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin had led Democrat Jared Golden by less than one percentage point. But since neither candidate had a majority of votes, the RCV process kicked in, and officials began tabulating the second choices of those who had voted for third party candidates. That produced a win for Golden, declared on Thursday. (Poliquin filed a lawsuit challenging the RCV system, but it’s considered a longshot. I’d bookmark this case.)

The aftermath of all this: Democrats are elated. Republicans — most of them, anyway — have been pretty clear-eyed: it was a bad night for them. Conservative pundit Jim Geraghty lays out that case at NRO.

How is our famously thin-skinned president taking it? The Los Angeles Times reports that Trump has turned inward into, I quote, a “cocoon of bitterness and resentment,” avoiding public events and lashing out at literally everyone, including the Prime Minister of the U.K. The LAT notes Trump is worried about what might come from oversight of a Democratic House and Robert Mueller’s investigation, but it’s also the case that he’s smarting from a midterm that was a pretty stinging rebuke of his presidency. (“It’s like an episode of Maury,” one former aide quipped to Politico. “The only thing that’s missing is a paternity test.”)

Not only did Democrats win a lot, many of the candidates the president backed with Strong and/or Full and Total endorsements on Twitter did not win. Moreover, in several high-profile cases where Trump intervened in a GOP primary on behalf of his preferred candidate or against a rival, Democrats ultimately won the race. (See: Arizona Senate, Kansas governor, South Carolina U.S. House.)

Fortunately, now that he’s not constantly on the campaign trail, the president can spend more time warning Americans about the dangers of the caravan of migra… just kidding. Trump hasn’t talked about the caravan at all since people stopped voting. (His rhetoric and posturing over the thousands of refugees heading to the border to claim asylum, however, has created something more lasting: a mess of issues that others must now clean up.)

Someone else who is not taking last week’s election loss very well: Minnesota’s own Rep. Jason Lewis. After losing in Minnesota’s 2nd District to Angie Craig, the former conservative talk radio host penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the person responsible for the GOP’s midterm losses was… John McCain. (Uff-da. Did I say that right?)

Lewis’ argument was that the late Arizona senator’s vote against the GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, one of three that tanked the legislation in the U.S. Senate last year, helped Democrats paint Republicans as insufficiently supportive of protections for people with pre-existing health conditions. Basically everyone who wasn’t a House Republican predicted that the GOP legislation would have weakened protections for pre-existing conditions, something Democrats seized on to ensure the defeats of incumbents like Lewis. As anyone who watched the health care debate pointed out, McCain’s vote did not enable Democratic attacks on the issue — Republicans who supported the bill did.

The congressman’s op-ed accomplished something rare in D.C. these days: generating near-universal ridicule, from usual suspects on the Democratic side to some even on the Republican side, like a former George W. Bush economics adviser who called Lewis’ column “ridiculous and laughable.” (McCain’s daughter Meghan had a choice word on the op-ed, published on Veterans’ Day.) The authors of Politico’s Playbook, who know House dynamics well, summed up much of the establishment reaction: “THIS IS TASTELESS, for starters,” they wrote. “And it also doesn’t make any sense.”

In the week since the midterms, we’ve gotten an early taste of what a Democratic majority will be like: the president’s prompt firing of Jeff Sessions, for example, provided a quick test of how Democrats will use their new authority to investigate and provide oversight of the administration. Rep. Jerry Nadler, soon-to-be chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he planned to summon current acting AG Matt Whitaker before his panel next year (by subpoena if necessary) to investigate Trump’s ouster of Sessions. (More stuff about Whitaker and his past is coming out — some of it troubling from a governing perspective, some of it just straight-up… weird.)

On the policy front, Democrats plan to introduce a slate of democracy reforms as their first big piece of legislation — a package that reportedly includes automatic voter registration, re-establishment of campaign spending limits, and anti-gerrymandering language. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, has a good look at action on the committee level — like the Financial Services panel, where Rep. Maxine Waters is planning to turn up the heat on institutions like Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank.

The big takeaway for Dems this week, though, was that they should get ready for a loud, passionate, and unabashedly progressive faction of new lawmakers eager to go right after the party establishment. And they’ve already arrived: on the second day of this week’s new member orientation on Capitol Hill, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, member-elect from New York, participated in a sit-in protest at Nancy Pelosi’s office over climate change. Expect Ocasio and a group of freshman progressive women — Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — to bring fight and energy to Democrats’ left flank in Congress next year. (“Squad goals,” indeed.)

And it’s not just the young lefties: a group of centrist Democrats, like Dean Phillips in CD3, are populating the ranks of the new majority. Many of their candidacies were strengthened with promises to back “new leadership” in the party — widely perceived as a sign they would not back longtime Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Some Pelosi critics, who are mostly on the party’s right flank, say they have enough votes to deny her the speaker’s gavel.

The leadership fight is putting pressure on incoming lawmakers, like Phillips and Craig, both of whom were tepid on Pelosi on the campaign trail. The centrist “Problem Solvers Caucus,” which Phillips promised to join, is complicating Pelosi’s path to the speakership, reports the Hill. (Both of Minnesota’s new suburban Dems, however, signed a letter of support this week for Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland — who has been in House Democratic leadership since the George H.W. Bush administration — to be the party’s majority leader.)

As of now, though, there’s no viable alternative speaker candidate to Pelosi — which is sort of by design, the Atlantic explains, as the Californian’s long hold on leadership has frozen out stronger challengers. Democratic leadership elections aren’t until after Thanksgiving, so this long-simmering drama will continue to play out.

On the Senate side of the Capitol, meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans voted for continuity: each party will be led by the same people into the next Congress. Many on the left are starting to wonder why there’s a battle over Pelosi — arguably the most important person in helping Democrats get back the majority — but not over Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Some have a few ideas.)

In a piece from earlier this week, I explored the emerging dynamics in the new House Democratic majority, and GOP minority. (Of interest, via a WaPo reporter: the faces of the Democratic and Republican freshmen classes in the House.)

Over at team GOP: Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a top Trump ally on the Hill, was elected minority leader. He’s casting the party’s now-diminished role primarily as the first line of defense for Trump. Rep. Tom Emmer, of Minnesota’s 6th District, is poised to have a leading role in the effort to get Republicans back in the majority in 2020: he was elected as the chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee for the upcoming election cycle.

In addition to bankrolling negative ad campaigns — you may remember some of their greatest hits from Minnesota this year — the NRCC identifies promising candidates to support, and it generally helps to influence the battle lines on the House election map. This is a prestigious and important job, and it’s another sign that Emmer’s stock is on the rise in D.C. as he concludes his second term in Congress. (Next year, the four-year veteran of Congress will be the most senior Minnesota Republican member of Congress.)

It’s been a whole week since our last election, so it’s a perfect time to start thinking about the next one. I have a new story out breaking down the growing buzz of presidential speculation around Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who romped to a third term in the U.S. Senate last week, and could be poised to assume the role of Dems’ great Midwestern hope in the 2020 presidential race.

The week’s essential reads

The blockbuster story of the week in Washington was, no doubt, the shocking expose from the NYT on Facebook’s intense efforts to block congressional regulation of their platform after the 2016 election, discredit their critics and Silicon Valley rivals, and generally downplay the whole election meddling disaster. Some D.C. power players come off looking very bad in this. (Not Klobuchar, however!) Just read it:

While Mr. [Mark] Zuckerberg conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. [Sheryl] Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

In Washington, allies of Facebook, including Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, intervened on its behalf. And Ms. Sandberg wooed or cajoled hostile lawmakers, while trying to dispel Facebook’s reputation as a bastion of Bay Area liberalism. …

Trust in the social network has sunk, while its pell-mell growth has slowed. Regulators and law enforcement officials in the United States and Europe are investigating Facebook’s conduct with Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm that worked with Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, opening up the company to fines and other liability. Both the Trump administration and lawmakers have begun crafting proposals for a national privacy law, setting up a yearslong struggle over the future of Facebook’s data-hungry business model.

Across the border in Iowa, a longshot Democratic candidate came very close to unseating Republican Congressman Steve King, whose (long public) white supremacist and Islamophobic views got increased scrutiny late in the campaign, after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. HuffPost caught up with J.D. Scholten, who received congratulatory calls from Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats — but will still wake up a “single thirty-something” tomorrow:

Yilma said he’d heard King didn’t like immigrants. He decided to vote for King’s Democratic opponent, J.D. Scholten, after seeing one of Scholten’s campaign ads on YouTube. “I trust him,” Yilma said. …

But by late Tuesday night, the dream of a Democratic upset here was over. Scholten — a towering, 38-year-old former minor league baseball player and paralegal with a shaved head — walked around his election night party at a hotel on the Missouri River. He hugged and thanked supporters, posed for selfies and did interviews with local TV stations.

As the party died down, Scholten was a couple of beers deep and feeling candid. Earlier, he’d done the polite and customary thing of calling King to congratulate him. “Straight up, it sucked,” Scholten told HuffPost about the call. He’d lost to King by 3 percentage points.

President Trump doesn’t seem to take to comforting and empathy, but he’s at least given it a try in the aftermath of disasters in places like Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. In deep-blue California, however, Trump hasn’t comforted victims; instead he’s sought to assign blame. WaPo explores how the president’s obsession with “loyalty” extends to who gets help and sympathy when tragedy strikes:

But as California has convulsed in tragedy — a mass shooting and an outbreak of wildfires that included the deadliest in the state’s history — the president has not only offered little comfort; he has also heaped on criticism. He’s blamed the forest fires on “gross mismanagement,” threatened to withhold federal payments and instructed officials there: “Get Smart!”

The disparity in the responses to red states and blue states is one that continues to exacerbate the nation’s partisan complexion, injected now even into natural disasters.

A president who prizes and craves loyalty more than any other attribute, Trump has divided states into ones that voted for him and the ones that didn’t, and found that last group wanting. In California, that has meant state officials are having to fight not only killer fires but also the combustible rhetoric coming from Oval Office.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

Since taking office and launching a strict crackdown on immigration, the Trump administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has gone to farms, retailers, and other workplaces across America to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.

One company that has emerged as the top target: 7-Eleven convenience stores — close to 100 7-Eleven locations around the country were raided by ICE agents on one recent day. Bloomberg Businessweek dives into how 7-Eleven has become a focus in the Trump-era immigration battle, and how that battle has pitted store franchisees against an exacting and sometimes ruthless corporate leadership.

It’s a huge headache and a public-relations nightmare for the company and its chief executive officer, Joe DePinto. But the immigration crackdown has also given 7-Eleven something potentially useful: the names of franchisees who might be in legal jeopardy. Store owners found in violation of immigration law could be in breach of their franchise agreements. And as they well know, 7-Eleven has the contractual right to take back a store from someone who’s violated his or her agreement. …

All’s fair in the bitter, protracted war between 7-Eleven and its franchisees. The tensions have built steadily in the years since DePinto, a West Point-educated veteran, took charge and began demanding more of franchisees—more inventory, more money, more adherence in matters large and small. Some franchisees have responded by organizing and complaining and sometimes suing.

As detailed in a series of lawsuits and court cases, the company has plotted for much of DePinto’s tenure to purge certain underperformers and troublemakers. It’s targeted store owners and spent millions on an investigative force to go after them. The corporate investigators have used tactics including tailing franchisees in unmarked vehicles, planting hidden cameras and listening devices, and deploying a surveillance van disguised as a plumber’s truck. The company has also given the names of franchisees to the government, which in some cases has led immigration authorities to inspect their stores, according to three officials with Homeland Security Investigations, which like ICE is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security.

7-Eleven says it had no advance warning of the January raids, or any raids, and gives the government information about a franchisee only if it has reason to believe crimes are occurring inside a store. Still, franchisees, after years of conflict with the company, went from suspicious to paranoid when word spread that ICE had shown up at stores run by men and women who were in legal disputes with 7-Eleven or were prominent critics of DePinto. Bloomberg has documented raids on four such people, including Sandhu, who’s been involved in two lawsuits against the company. That’s why he can’t stop wondering: Why him? Of hundreds of 7-Eleven stores in Los Angeles County alone, why his?

What to look for next week

Congress is off for the Thanksgiving holiday next week — and I’ll be, too. The next D.C. Memo will hit your inbox on Thursday, November 29, the first real week of Congress’ lame-duck session, during which House Republicans are expected to make one final stand for the border wall.

Until then, enjoy the holiday, and thanks for following along with me. As always, email: sbrodey@minnpost.com.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/16/2018 - 09:36 am.

    “THIS IS TASTELESS, for starters,” they wrote. “And it also doesn’t make any sense.”

    Jason Lewis’s entire career, in a nutshell.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/16/2018 - 10:05 am.

    Thank you, RB Holbrook. I need add nothing.

  3. Submitted by jouni pesonen on 11/17/2018 - 08:39 am.

    Schumer is a phoney. Backs Facebook – his daughter is exec there.

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