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D.C. Memo: ‘Trump: Season 2’ running out of plot twists

Washington is closing out 2018 in the most 2018 way possible: cramming as much news as possible into a short period of time.

photo of president donald trump seated at conference table
An unpredictable president facing humiliation on his signature issue could play his veto card — setting up a showdown that the vast majority of Capitol Hill doesn’t want.

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, Congress tried to negotiate a way out of a year-end shutdown over the border wall, which would be a Christmas miracle at this point. Who will get the lump of coal: President Trump, Chuck and Nancy, or congressional Republicans?

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, which is clearly trying to close out 2018 in the most 2018 way possible: cramming as much news as possible into a short period of time. Let’s have at it.

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What does it take for President Donald Trump to fold on his last good chance to fund — now that we know Mexico’s not paying for it — the big border wall? We don’t yet know, but a government shutdown over the wall now looks likelier than ever, with government funding running out on Saturday morning at 12:01 am.

After a week of the White House distancing itself from a shutdown that Trump said he’d be “proud” to own, the president dispatched Speaker Paul Ryan to tell reporters on Thursday afternoon that Trump would not sign any year-end spending bill without the $5 billion in funding for the wall that he is demanding. The U.S. Senate had already passed a resolution to fund the government through February, sans a dollar for the wall, and many senators had skipped town for the holidays thinking they’d wrapped it all up.

Enter the U.S. House, where conservative leaders — sensing their last chance to secure money for the wall they support before Democrats take charge on Jan. 3 — seem to have pushed POTUS to the brink. The far-right Freedom Caucus and its allies forced GOP leadership to advance a spending bill with Trump’s wall money, which passed on Thursday night with all but eight House Republicans voting yes. (Outgoing Rep. Erik Paulsen was one of the no votes.)

That tees up an all-important Senate vote on the wall, hours before government funding runs out. Trump, warning of a “very long shutdown” if he does not get the votes for the wall, huddled with Mitch McConnell and GOP senators on Friday.

Before we get to other news, one last plug: rest assured there STILL IS TIME to contribute to MinnPost’s year-end fundraising drive. If you turned to us to keep you informed this year about all things Minnesota, please consider tossing a few bucks our way so we can keep you informed next year, too.

Some breaking health care news from last week continues to play out this week: on Friday, a federal judge in Texas dealt a huge blow to the Affordable Care Act, finding that its “individual mandate,” which requires all Americans to have health insurance coverage and is the foundation of the law, is unconstitutional. The challenge — which arose from the GOP tax bill, which sought to end the mandate by removing its enforcement mechanism, a tax penalty for not having health care — shakes up the already-shaken up health care system just as open enrollment for Obamacare plans is underway.

The ruling is expected to be appealed, and a lot of experts think some higher court (possibly the U.S. Supreme Court) will strike it down. In the meantime: You’d think that Republicans — who have been trying to get rid of Obamacare since the day it passed — would be taking a victory lap. While Trump and others praised the judge’s ruling as evidence that Obamacare can’t work, other Republicans forecast political blowback after a 2018 election that saw the health care law emerge as a popular thing for both Democrats and even some Republicans to defend.

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Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer, no fan of Obamacare, sought to reassure worried constituents in an email this week that their coverage isn’t going anywhere yet. “This move has injected fear and uncertainty back into the market,” he said of the Texas court decision.

From the Democratic POV: Making the Sunday show rounds, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the Texas ruling was “absurd” and would set the health care system “on fire.” All year, Klobuchar and other Democrats have talked about bipartisan fixes to shore up the ACA system — we’re sure to see a renewed push for that next year, which could get some oomph because one of its key GOP proponents, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, announced this week he’d be retiring in 2020.

Lots of action on Capitol Hill in the last week of this 115th session of Congress. We saw a legitimate bipartisan achievement, years in the making, finally pass: a bill reforming the criminal justice system, which focuses on making sentencing laws more lenient for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. I wrote about what’s in the bill, titled the First Step Act, last month.

It was a rare substantive piece of legislation that commanded the support of seemingly everyone — Trump, progressive Democrats, conservative Republicans, a range of outside groups from the Koch network to the ACLU. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was reluctant to move on it, but this week he relented, and the legislation cleared the Senate this week with minimal drama and overwhelming support: it passed by a margin of 87 to 12, setting up an expected passage in the House. Plenty of people in D.C. praised it as a landmark achievement, but a lot of folks (mostly on the left) emphasized the “First Step” part of the bill — and they’re expecting more action soon. “While a step in the right direction,” said Minnesota advocacy group TakeAction in a statement on the bill, “it’s not enough.”

CNN has a good play-by-play detailing how this unlikely achievement — possibly the only big bipartisan one in the Trump era so far — came together, thanks to a cast of characters that includes Kim Kardashian West and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Many political figures are saying goodbye to the Hill this week after distinguished, and not-so-distinguished, service in Congress. Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who frequently criticized Trump and occasionally acted on that criticism, gave a farewell speech warning of, you guessed it, “threats to our democracy.” Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri — who lost her re-election bid this year — subtweeted her Democratic colleagues who are gearing up to run for president.

For Reps. Tim Walz and Keith Ellison — Minnesota’s governor-elect and attorney general-elect, respectively — there’s no fond Capitol Hill farewell. The two members of the House class of 2006 have missed nearly all votes in the lame duck session as they prepare for taking statewide office. (Roll Call says they are #2 and #3, respectively, in the House for missed votes since the election. But both did show up in D.C. to vote against delisting the gray wolf as an endangered species.)

The biggest goodbye this week, though, is that of Speaker Paul Ryan, who is relinquishing the speaker’s gavel and the Wisconsin congressional seat he has held since 1999. The Ayn Rand-quoting, CrossFit-loving former veep nominee, just 28 years old when he took office, carved out a reputation for himself as Capitol Hill’s eminent fiscal hawk, spending years sounding the alarm about the spiraling federal debt and pushing deep spending cuts as the salve for America’s budget woes.

As speaker, though, Ryan not only failed to tackle the debt, but sunk the federal government deeper in the red. He presided over a House that green-lit a deficit-exploding 2018 budget deal that jacked up military and social spending to new heights. His crowning achievement, the 2017 tax cut bill, accomplished his dream of lowering taxes for people and corporations, but ballooned the budget deficit for this year to $779 billion, the highest annual deficit since 2012. (It will get worse in coming years.)

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Ryan’s departure pretty much destroys any remaining pretense that the GOP, now fully led by a man who called himself the “king of debt,” will make the debt a priority. Ultimately, the headline of Wednesday’s front-page Washington Post story on Ryan’s legacy says it all: he was the future of the Republican Party. Check out Ryan’s big farewell speech from Wednesday, if you like.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, senators made public a report which has arguably the clearest look yet at the extent of Russian disinformation campaigns in the 2016 election. The cybersecurity experts who did the report found that Russian operatives specifically targeted African-American voters with content designed to persuade them from supporting someone besides Hillary Clinton or just not showing up to vote in general. Russian trolls also cast a wider net than previously thought, targeting Americans with propaganda on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

This week at the White House: we got a sort-of resolution to the interminable chief of staff drama late last week, when Trump announced that Mick Mulvaney, his budget chief, would be taking over as an “acting” chief of staff when the embattled John Kelly is put out of his misery and departs 1600 Penn at the end of the year. Most insiders expect Mulvaney to serve indefinitely, however, so get to know the former congressman and Freedom Caucus founder.

It’s curtains for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who will be leaving his post at the end of the year. The Montanan accomplished quite a bit during his time in the administration: namely, he earned 18 (!) federal investigations into actions he took in office, from allegedly censoring federal reports on climate change to his liberal use of taxpayer-funded (and oil executive-funded) air travel. (Zinke piled up more federal misconduct probes than former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, setting a Trump-era Cabinet record. Mazel tov!)

Reporting revealed that White House officials were trying to give Zinke the boot for months; he hung on in order to have a jolly good time at the Interior Christmas party. (You can’t make it up.) Zinke’s foes in Congress — including the soon-to-be House Natural Resources chairman who the secretary publicly smeared as a drunk in a shocking episode last month — are vowing to keep investigating the embattled secretary even after he leaves office.

It’s unclear who will succeed Zinke, but Mother Jones magazine has a profile of his deputy, David Bernhardt, an ex-oil lobbyist who’s reportedly been “pulling the strings” at Interior and is likely to be doing that for the foreseeable future. Rep. Betty McCollum, soon to be the lead appropriator for the Interior Department, said Zinke’s departure is “welcome news” and that his “mountain of ethical problems & pro-extraction & exploitation agenda cast a dark shadow on the secretary’s office.”

On Tuesday, a federal judge brought down the hammer on Michael Flynn, the former Trump adviser and national security adviser guilty of lying to the FBI about the extent of his contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. At a sentencing hearing where some anticipated judge Emmet Sullivan would show leniency, Sullivan instead said he was disgusted by Flynn’s conduct and told him point blank, “you sold your country out.” As of now, we still don’t know how much time Flynn will get in jail, if any, but he’s staying true to a plea deal that entails cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller. Brookings’ Lawfare blog has a take on how Sullivan’s rant may have made both Flynn and Mueller wince.

The administration is getting around to doing something that people in both parties have pushed for since the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017: banning bump stocks, the firearm accessory that enabled the Las Vegas shooter to effectively turn his weapon into an automatic rifle, killing 59 people and injuring hundreds. The NRA expressed its “disappointment” with the move.

Mission accomplished? On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that the U.S. has “defeated ISIS in Syria,” signalling that he’d be withdrawing the 2,000-some U.S. troops currently on the ground there, deployed mostly in order to train local forces. The Daily Beast followed up with some more, newsy details. (An odd point: Trump’s own State Department said just last week that there was no timeline for pulling out of Syria, and “nobody is declaring mission accomplished.”)

Russia was pleased at the move; many lawmakers, including a lot of Republicans, were not: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally who never met an overseas military venture he didn’t like, fumed that withdrawal from Syria would be a “huge, Obama-like mistake.”

Finally, you’re not escaping 2018 without more 2020 news from me: a new poll from Iowa group Focus on Rural America shows Amy Klobuchar picking up ground in the first-in-the-nation caucus state: she notched 10 percent support among potential Democratic caucus goers, putting her at fourth place in a big field, trailing only Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Beto O’Rourke. Politico’s top-line takeaway from the poll: “Klobuchar rising.”

WaPo’s Matt Viser has a nice story with lots of details on how the candidates-in-waiting are already courting Iowans — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is taking lots of selfies and sending personal thank-you notes — and it’s a good preview of the very personal caucus process. (Viser reports that Klobuchar is among the possible candidates who have put feelers out to would-be campaign staff.)

Klobuchar also talked to the New Yorker about how Democrats can beat Trump in 2020. Some stuff worth looking at in there; but Klobuchar affirmed she’s still considering a presidential bid. “I think that there are a lot of good people considering this, but I do think you want voices from the Midwest,” she said after talking about her annual 87-county tour of Minnesota.

The week’s essential reads

Special counsel Robert Mueller is, seemingly, everywhere: his investigation is talked about on cable news 24/7, his name splashes newspaper front pages and animates the president’s Twitter feed on a daily basis. Yet, as WaPo’s Roxanne Roberts reports in a good profile, Mueller the man is a ghost — photographed publicly just three times since he took the gig — who, despite his omnipresence, prefers to let his work speak for itself. The story:

Such is the peculiar nature of Washington that a powerful man who shuns the spotlight should become an object of fascination, and the specific character of Mueller — an old-school WASP indifferent to entreaties for speeches, interviews and photo-ops. More people have seen Robert De Niro playing Mueller on “Saturday Night Live” than have seen the special counsel himself.

“I always joke that Bob Mueller has turned down more interview requests in his career than most people in Washington ever get in the first place,” says Garrett Graff, author of “The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror” and Mueller’s de facto biographer. “Contrary to every single thing that the president tweets today, Mueller is and always has been probably the most apolitical nonpartisan person in the city. He does everything that he can to avoid the public spotlight and anything even slightly resembling politicking.”

Mueller is content to be known and respected within a very small circle of close friends and colleagues. That’s rare in a town filled with former high school class presidents with enough egos to “float battleships,” as former senator Alan Simpson put it. Politicians love cameras — and Twitter feeds, Instagram and more — but Mueller’s only public statement as special counsel came on May 17, 2017, the day he was appointed: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”

You might know Congressman Devin Nunes of California for his work on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, where as chairman, he’s an ardent defender of President Trump. What you might not know is that Nunes hates his hometown newspaper, the Fresno Bee, so much that he runs attack ads against it like it were a rival candidate. GQ’s Zach Baron explores their fraught relationship at a time of decline for journalism — especially local journalism, in places like Fresno:

What fills the void left behind by dead newspapers? The fake news that Facebook can’t or won’t rid itself of. The Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of individual television stations in the country, which forces its anchors to read scripts about so-called media bias or to air “must-run” segments in defense of gassing asylum-seeking migrants at the border. Fox News or MSNBC, going 24 hours in the homes of your increasingly agitated parents and grandparents. It’s not that local newspapers like The Fresno Bee are perfect—far from it. It’s just that they…contain news. Lose them and you lose the basic building blocks of any political or social conversation, which are facts. Information. Knowledge. Are your schools good or bad? Does your air have poison in it? What exactly does Devin Nunes do every day in Washington, when he’s not in Fresno? You either know or you don’t.

The question I had, going up to the Bee for the first time, was basically: What is it like to do this job at this time? Their congressman is running ads against them. They’re worried about the future of journalism and the future of their jobs. They’ve got a bunch of yellow safety vests hanging in the newsroom for covering wildfires. They’re trying to write about water and food and transit and politics: all the things that will ultimately determine the fate of the state. How do they do it?

When I got there, after a luxurious drive north from Los Angeles, and a restful night of sleep at the local DoubleTree hotel, and a few hours wandering around the Bee’s newsroom, taking occasional notes and going out for snacks, their question for me was: How do I get a cushy job where I write one of these features every once in a while, like you’re doing right now, loitering in our workplace on a Monday for hours, asking us about our feelings, instead of doing what we do, which is reporting out four or five stories a week about people who have decided to hate us, for a readership that increasingly tells us they don’t care if we live or die?

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

President Trump spent most of his year on the global stage sidling up to autocrats in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Russia while castigating — often in very harsh terms, publicly and privately — key U.S. allies in Canada, the U.K., and beyond.

But few American allies have gotten more flak from Trump than Germany, the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser writes, and perhaps no American ally has a more fraught relationship with the president than Germany’s longtime leader, Angela Merkel. That antagonism reveals broader questions that Glasser explores in this worthwhile story: is Trump hell-bent on destroying the European Union — and blowing up the postwar order the U.S. created?

European leaders now worry that Trump’s illiberal aims go well beyond his insistent demands on Merkel to pay more for NATO and stop shipping so many cars to the U.S. “Many European leaders have told me that they are convinced that President Trump is determined to destroy the E.U.,” a former senior U.S. official told me. Trump has begun publicly calling the E.U. a “foe,” and promoting the resurgence of nationalism, which Macron and Merkel see as a direct threat. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a recent speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, attacked the United Nations, the E.U., the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and derided what he called Europe’s flawed vision of multilateralism as “an end to itself.”

Europe has had many fights with American Presidents over the years, but never in the seven decades since the end of the Second World War has it confronted one so openly hostile to its core institutions. Since Trump’s election, Europe’s leaders have feared that it would come to this, but they have disagreed about how to respond to him. Many hoped to wait Trump out. A few urged confrontation. Others, especially in nations more vulnerable to Russia, urged accommodation. (Poland offered to name a new military base Fort Trump.) Macron tried flattery, and then, when that failed, he reverted to public criticism of Trump-style nationalism.

The challenge from Trump has been especially personal for Germans, whose close relationship with the United States has defined their nation’s postwar renaissance. Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany and credits the United States as essential to the liberation of the East and to German reunification. As the head of Europe’s largest and wealthiest nation, she has sought to guide the Continent through the standoff with Trump, but has struggled, because the President’s harsh words reflect a painful truth: Europeans are dependent on the United States for their security and increasingly divided as Putin’s Russia threatens the nations in the east. “Not all of what he says is wrong,” said the senior German official, one of ten who spoke with me. “Europe has been free-riding for some time.”

What to look for next week

Maybe there will be a shutdown! Who knows. The House and Senate remain in session to vote in case of an emergency, and the White House says the president will delay his planned trip to Florida for his Christmas vacation so he can remain in Washington in the event of a shutdown.

We’ll be taking some time off, too: this is the last D.C. Memo of the year. We’ll ring in 2019 with a fresh edition of the Memo on Thursday, January 10. (Mark your calendars: The new Congress — and Minnesota’s five new members of the House — will be sworn in on January 3, 2019.)

Until then, look for a MinnPost from me in the coming week or so, wrapping up the year in 2018 news and offering a quick forecast of big stuff coming in 2019.

Thanks for sticking with me this week — and this crazy year. Best wishes for a relaxing holiday season, and I’m hoping to see you back here in 2019. I’ve still got email: