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D.C. Memo: In victory for civility, Trump avoids insulting dead president

The Bush funeral; Mueller investigation; the trade truce; and more.

photo of president trump, first lady melania trump, former president barack obama and former first lady michelle obama and former president bill clinton at george hw bush funeral
Bush and his family received all the honor and pomp of a full state memorial in D.C., capped by a Wednesday service at the Washington National Cathedral attended by President Donald Trump and four former presidents.
REUTERS/Pool/Alex Brandon

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 political world gathered to commemorate the life of a president. It was an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to mourn the loss of civility and decency in government, and an opportunity for the current president to mourn a political spectacle that did not have him at the center. Meanwhile, Tariff Man made an appearance, but he didn’t save the day.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, where most business was put on hold this week in order to honor the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, who died last Friday at the age of 94.

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Bush and his family received all the honor and pomp of a full state memorial in D.C., capped by a Wednesday service at the Washington National Cathedral attended by President Donald Trump, the other four former presidents, scores of U.S. senators (including Sen. Amy Klobuchar), notables from around the world and seemingly the entire D.C. political establishment.

The 43rd president, George W. Bush, delivered a moving eulogy of his father, and overall, the memorial was a tribute to a supposedly kinder, gentler political climate, embodied by the Bush patriarch, which predictably made D.C.’s pundit class wax philosophical amid the nostalgia and pageantry. (Lots of people also, predictably, read way too much into the spectacle of Trump sitting next to Barack and Michelle Obama, who sat next to Bill and Hillary Clinton.)

The funeral was one major, and increasingly rare, moment in Trump’s Washington that was not about the president at all. Rest assured, however, that some pundits managed to make it about Trump: as Politico’s John F. Harris wrote, anything celebrating the political past is an implicit rebuke of Trump. (You may also rest assured that Trump was reportedly annoyed that he was not the center of attention this week.)

But the president managed to survive a few days without insulting anyone living or dead, which is apparently an achievement now. It is true that there was no love lost between the 45th president and presidents 43 and 41: Trump has repeatedly made clear his distaste for the Bush clan — including one “low-energy” member — and H.W. is said to have voted for Hillary in the 2016 election. (“I don’t like him,” he once said of Trump.) But there were reports that Trump kept things civil after being assured repeatedly that the Bush funeral wouldn’t function as a personal roast of him, like the recent memorial for John McCain sometimes was.

Some things I’ve read that helped me understand H.W. and his legacy: the Post’s Carlos Lozada wrote about 41’s lack of a real memoir, and why that’s a loss for us. A journalist who was an activist during the AIDS epidemic recalls that tragic time, and argues that Bush’s lack of response to the crisis should define his legacy. In Esquire, Charles Pierce, who covered Bush’s 1980 run for president, thinks about how the impeccably-qualified (or résumé-padding?) Bush ultimately was a victim of his own ambition.

In What It Takes, the 1,000-plus page epic about the 1988 presidential election — which is and likely will remain the best book ever written about American politics — author Richard Ben Cramer paints H.W. as a driven and dedicated man, but more importantly, an often-lucky son of privilege. “That was the privilege of being Poppy,” Cramer writes, using H.W.’s New England nickname. “Just playing the game, being a friend, being like he was, and having it come out right, without thinking too much.”

Broadly: the Los Angeles Times had a worthwhile piece on how Bush’s funeral marks the end of the Greatest Generation’s long presence in public life and its hold on power. (A symbol of that: 95-year old WWII vet and Bush’s longtime rival, former Sen. Bob Dole, being helped out of his wheelchair to salute Bush’s casket.)

On to the week in D.C. news: special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia may be reaching its endgame. In a heavily-redacted memo released this week, Mueller’s team announced it would be recommending no jail time for Trump’s former adviser, Michael Flynn, due to the former general’s extensive cooperation with the investigation.

That’s a really tantalizing bit of news for followers of the Russia probe: Flynn was a major player in the 2016 campaign and, briefly, in the White House. His cooperation and testimony could make Mueller’s findings explosive. As always, WaPo’s Daily 202 has some more smart stuff on the Flynn memo. Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff, who’s written extensively on Russiagate, sets the scene for Mueller’s final act, as more memos are expected shortly regarding other targets of the probe, like former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and former campaign chair Paul Manafort.

Trade is in the headlines this week, following a high-profile meeting between Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit last week in Argentina. Under pressure to deliver some good news to constituencies hard-hit by the ongoing, multi-billion dollar trade war between the U.S. and China, Trump emerged from the meeting declaring a “truce,” saying he secured commitments from Xi on trade reforms that his administration wants. He tweeted, for example, that Xi had agreed to “reduce and remove tariffs” on American-made cars coming into China.

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But there’s no indication of meaningful movement toward an end to the trade war, hoped to come in the form of a lasting, bilateral agreement to govern trade relations between the world’s two biggest economies. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow conceded there was no specific agreement about the auto provisions Trump touted.

So, for whatever reason, Trump followed up the “truce” by reiterating his willingness to penalize China, and other countries, with tariffs if any deals fall through: in an instant-classic tweet, POTUS declared, “I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so. It will always be the best way to max out our economic power.”

The internet had a field day with Tariff Man, but global markets didn’t: reacting to Trump’s mixed signals and bracing for the possibility of more tariffs, the Dow plunged by 800 points, or about 3 percent, on Tuesday, and the S&P 500 declined by over 3 percent, shedding about $800 billion in value. The stock market-conscious POTUS moved to damage-control mode and again touted “positive signs” from Beijing. What can’t Tariff Man do?

Something to keep an eye on heading into next year: a steady stream of troubling headlines that indicate ongoing mismanagement at the Veterans’ Administration. Last week, VA officials caught intense backlash from Congress for saying the agency would not pay some 80,000 veterans their full tuition benefits, to which they’re entitled under the G.I. Bill, due to computer problems.

As the VA tries to put out that fire, some new reporting raises the specter of another one: ProPublica, which reported earlier in the year about a “shadow cabinet” of Trump Mar-A-Lago pals who were seemingly calling the shots at the VA, reported on newly-released emails that show a trio of millionaires making key decisions about an expensive overhaul of veterans’ health records — even though the trio has zero experience in government, military, or health care. Their interest, as ProPublica shows, is probably not born of altruism.

Dispatches from the new Congress: a group of 46 incoming Democrats, including Angie Craig and Dean Phillips of Minnesota’s 2nd and 3rd Districts, signed a letter asking party leadership to focus on passing legislation — not investigating Trump. They also called on leaders to, in their view, heed voters’ message in the 2018 midterm by putting freshmen on key House panels like Appropriations and Ways and Means. The eagerness of these freshmen Democrats, from moderates to progressives, to challenge Pelosi and shake up the party, will be one of the most interesting storylines to keep an eye on next year.

We got a preview of GOP intrigue in the next Congress, too: Rep. Elise Stefanik, a 34-year old Republican from New York state, spoke to Roll Call this week about the “crisis level” of women in the incoming GOP conference: there will be just 13 female Republicans in the House next year, down from 23 this year. Stefanik said she plans to get involved in Republican primaries to support female candidates — something she did in the last cycle, backing state Sen. Carla Nelson in her failed primary bid against Jim Hagedorn in the 1st District.

Rep. Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican who was just elected to take charge of Republicans’ efforts to win back the House in 2020, responded by saying it was a “mistake” to get involved in primaries on the basis of gender. (Stefanik, one of the House’s few millennials, “clapped back” at Emmer on Twitter, it could be said.) This feud is a good example of how Republicans will have to navigate gender politics after an election that saw women overwhelmingly prefer Democrats.

Still stuff going on in this Congress, though, during the lame duck session: lawmakers are likely to move soon on the Farm Bill, the five-year, $867 billion agriculture and nutrition bill that has been held up for months due to disagreements between Republicans and Democrats about new work requirements for the federal food-assistance program, or SNAP.

The top Dem on the House Agriculture panel, Rep. Collin Peterson of the 7th District, made the rounds this week to announce that a deal has been reached. My colleague Walker Orenstein caught up with Peterson and has the rundown on this really important legislation — which could be Congress’ last big one of the year.

The administration bowed to pressure and allowed the CIA director, Gina Haspel, to brief some U.S. senators on Wednesday regarding what they know about the murder of Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Senators left that briefing convinced that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was personally involved in the journalist’s killing — something that, at various points, Trump and his top lieutenants have denied, stressing the need to maintain a strong relationship with the kingdom.

A frequent Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said that the U.S. should come down on Saudi Arabia like “a ton of bricks.” The Senate already rebuked Trump and the Saudis by passing a resolution revoking support for the kingdom’s war in Yemen — it’s possible lawmakers could now take additional steps.

Some intriguing Trump-Saudi news: WaPo reports that month after Trump’s 2016 victory, lobbyists for the kingdom reserved 500 rooms at Trump’s D.C. hotel, spending more than a quarter of a million dollars.

I was wrong last week when I said the midterms were done! There appears to be an ongoing what the hell is going on situation in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where credible allegations of voter fraud in favor of Republican candidate Mark Harris — which include the disappearance of absentee votes — are sparking talk from both sides of an election re-do. N.C.’s News & Observer has the roundup of the crazy story here. Capitol Hill is taking note, and House Dems could investigate, reports BuzzFeed. (Looks like the voter fraud the GOP feared is very real!)

Last, but not least: 2020 news! Sen. Klobuchar went on Chris Matthews’ MSNBC show and confirmed she’s considering a White House bid, which is about as explicit as she’s ever been on that subject. Axios reports she’s recently spent some time out west, meeting with deep-pocketed Hollywood donors who could propel a bid. And she went to Iowa again over the weekend, testing out some possible campaign themes — “heartland economics” was the buzzword — in appearances before local Democrats.

Behind the scenes, the Democratic field is forming, and fast, reports CNN. Out in public, some would-be candidates moved this week to rule out campaigns. (Please: Do not cry for Avenatti.) Still in the mix: former veep Joe Biden said he is the “best-qualified” person to run. People in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ world are talking about him running a bigger, badder campaign than he did in 2016. And Barack Obama met privately with Beto O’Rourke, the failed Senate challenger for Texas who’s generating lots of 2020 buzz, along with comparisons to Obama himself.

This week’s essential reads

Big election losses usually prompt soul-searching: the GOP produced an “autopsy” report when Mitt Romney lost in 2012; Democrats continue to scheme about winning back rural white voters after Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. After getting smoked in the 2018 midterms, though, Republicans largely aren’t asking why they lost — and they don’t look like they’re planning to change much. The NYT’s Jonathan Martin:

Neither Speaker Paul D. Ryan nor Representative Kevin McCarthy, the incoming minority leader, have stepped forward to confront why the party’s once-loyal base of suburban supporters abandoned it — and what can be done to win them back.

The quandary, some Republicans acknowledge, is that the party’s leaders are constrained from fully grappling with the damage Mr. Trump inflicted with those voters, because he remains popular with the party’s core supporters and with the conservatives who will dominate the caucus even more in the next Congress.

“There has been close to no introspection in the G.O.P. conference and really no coming to grips with the shifting demographics that get to why we lost those seats,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, an upstate New York Republican who is planning to repurpose her political action committee to help Republican women win primaries in 2020.

I’ve included a bit in this space about what’s happening over at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the consumer watchdog set up by Barack Obama that Republicans are eager to dismantle. WaPo has one of the deepest looks yet at how Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget and CFPB czar, is methodically destroying the agency from within, making D.C. again a friendlier place for Wall Street interests:

Over the past year, the agency’s workforce has dropped by at least 129 employees amid the largest exodus since its creation in 2010, agency data shows.

Created by Congress to protect Americans from financial abuses, the bureau under Mulvaney has adopted the role of promoting “free markets” and guarding the rights of banks and financial firms as well as those of consumers, according to statements by Mulvaney and bureau documents. …

Even as the agency curtailed its operations, Mulvaney repeatedly said he was making it more efficient, documents show.

“It’s like ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,’ ” said one official, referring to Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of a fear of reprisals.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

For over a century, a few canyons in the remote reaches of northern Idaho supplied a huge portion of the heavy metals — lead, zinc, silver — that made America great, powering its military and economic might. But the prolific Bunker Hill mines poisoned the environment, and after a lengthy, expensive clean-up, the area has rebounded and is growing, but it’s still not quite the same.

But, as Bloomberg’s Peter Waldman reports, the Trump administration is eyeing opening up the Bunker Hill mines to corporate interests once again. In doing so, it may open up the most explosive front yet in the ongoing war between Trump’s EPA and environmentalists.

Today, after 35 years and almost $900 million in cleanup costs, Bunker Hill’s tailings heap still oozes 400 pounds of toxic metals a day into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. Tundra swans still flap and stagger in the marshes. After picking up more mine waste downstream, the river dumps almost 400 tons of lead and 700 tons of zinc into Lake Coeur d’Alene every year.

You’d never know it on the shores of the azure lake, a vacation jewel of the inland Northwest. The region has moved on. Timber and minerals have given way to tourism, outdoor recreation, and second homes. The new economic base is additive, not extractive. It relies on healthy forests, fish, wildlife, and an abundance of clean rivers and lakes—clean, at least, to the naked eye.

So far, much of the metals pouring down from Silver Valley has settled innocuously on the bottom of the lake, undiffused in the overlying water. But the pollution is a ticking time bomb. Coeur d’Alene’s rapid development is loading the lake with nutrients from septic systems, lawn runoff, and logging activity, among other sources. …

The Trump EPA doesn’t do healing. In March, the agency disclosed a shocker: After months of secret talks, it had signed an agreement with a Canadian company to reopen the Bunker Hill Mine. Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator until his ouster in July, said in a statement that the pact would restore mining jobs, contribute $20 million toward cleanup costs for the Bunker Hill Mine, and provide almost $1 million a year for water treatment. In exchange, the new Bunker Hill Mining Corp. and the property’s previous operator were absolved of any responsibility for past toxic releases. The slate, if not the Coeur d’Alene watershed, would be wiped clean.

What to look for next week

As noted above, more Mueller-related news will come this week: a sentencing memo for Michael Cohen is due to be filed by Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile: the new deadline to avoid a government shutdown is December 21: the House moved to cancel votes this week in light of memorial services for President Bush, postponing planned negotiations between Trump, Democrats, and Republicans over funding the government ahead of a December 7 deadline. On Thursday, Congress passed a continuing resolution to keep the lights on until the 21st.

Where do things stand? There’s not much more movement regarding a deal on funding Trump’s border wall, which is the main sticking point in avoiding a shutdown. Top congressional leaders, like Mitch McConnell, say they want to avoid a shutdown and don’t think it’s necessary. Trump may have other ideas.

We’ll be watching that, and more, through next Thursday. Until then, have a great weekend. As always, email me: