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D.C. Memo: Where’s wall, though?

REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
President Donald Trump said he’d be “proud” if the government closed if it meant fighting for funding for his Big, Beautiful Wall on the southern border.

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This week in Washington, the president said he’d own it if the government shut down over his border wall demands, which would be a historic moment of responsibility-taking from POTUS. Meanwhile, his former right-hand man is going to prison, and Congress signed off on a Farm Bill that makes everyone – Democrats, farmers, Saudi Arabia — happy. So much winning!

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, which is on the brink of a partial government shutdown after President Donald Trump said he’d be “proud” if the government closed if it meant fighting for funding for his Big, Beautiful Wall on the southern border.

Before we dive into a big week of D.C. news, a quick plug: we’re in the thick of MinnPost’s year-end membership drive. If you’ve appreciated this newsletter this year — or if not, the great reporting from our newsroom — please consider contributing so we can keep you informed in what’s shaping up to be a wild 2019.

Alright, so about that wall fight: after months of can-kicking from Congress, funding for about 25 percent of the federal government will run out on Dec. 21. All year, the president has said he’d risk a shutdown if Congress didn’t send him a spending bill that had at least the $5 billion he’s demanding to get the wall project started. With Democrats set to take over the U.S. House in January, the year-end spending bill — which has to pass eventually — is Trump’s last chance to secure wall funding for at least the next two years. I have more on that, and on the wall itself, in a Wednesday story.

With unanimous GOP support for the wall money unlikely, Democrats have a bit of leverage here, and they’ve exploited it. Party leaders have offered some $1.6 billion for “border security” measures, but they’ve made clear that won’t go toward a wall. In a wild, partly televised meeting on Tuesday in the Oval Office, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer somehow goaded Trump into taking ownership for any shutdown: “I will shut down the government. I am proud to shut down the government,” POTUS said. “I will take the mantle.”

Politico reported on GOP reaction to the meeting, which ranged from mild discomfort to all-out WTF. (A juicy quote from a “House GOP member who lost reelection:” “I literally couldn’t believe a president of the United States was acting that crazy.”) WaPo finds that even Republicans who are supportive of the wall think Trump’s strategy is misguided, and they’re saying he shouldn’t be embracing a year-end shutdown in order to secure wall money.

What happens next? If there’s no agreement, the government would shut down — affecting tens of thousands of federal workers during the holidays — possibly until House Democrats take power on January 3, at which point they could pass a resolution to keep the government open, and dare Trump to veto it. Or, Trump could back down on his demand, take the money for “border security” and try to spin a victory out of it. Another option: the GOP puts standalone legislation to fund the wall to a vote — but it’s unclear if there’s enough support. CNN has more on what a shutdown would look like.

Elsewhere: this week expanded the scope of the already-considerable legal morass the president finds himself in, and raised expectations for the already insanely anticipated report from special counsel Robert Mueller into the president’s ties with Russia.

On Wednesday, the president’s personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison for a variety of crimes, which included lying to investigators about the extent of Trump’s Russia connections and violating campaign finance law by arranging hush-money payments to two women who were prepared to go public in 2016 about their affairs with Trump. “Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass,” Cohen told the court at his sentencing.

Cohen cooperated extensively with Mueller’s investigation, and the special counsel’s team made a note of that as Cohen was sentenced. (Recall that the recent memo detailing Cohen’s crimes implicates Trump in criminal activity, too.)

Also not good for Trump: a legal filing was made public this week revealing that the owners of the National Enquirer tabloid — longtime allies of Trumpadmitted to paying $150,000 to Karen McDougal, who alleged an affair with Trump, to keep her quiet in order to protect Trump’s 2016 campaign. There seems to be a growing sense that the hush-money thread of the Trump investigations could be as dangerous to his presidency as the Russia angle, or even more so. A preview of where the illegal-payments story might go next.

Oh: How’s POTUS responding to all this? He said he never directed Cohen to break the law. (“WITCH HUNT!” he added.)

It was a busy week on Capitol Hill, where there were some big votes and some surprising maneuvers as lawmakers wrap up the year’s business. First off, Congress finally passed its Farm Bill, the sweeping, twice-a-decade legislation that sets funding and policy standards for federal programs for nutrition, agriculture, and rural America. After being held up for months due to disagreements over a GOP proposal to add new work requirements for food stamps, lawmakers from both sides crafted a compromise bill that got rid of the food stamp language.

The new Farm Bill passed easily in the House and Senate, and it’s now headed to the White House for Trump’s signature. The legislation, which has a $867 billion price tag, is a big deal: The Washington Post has a breakdown of what’s actually in it, from sugar subsidies to industrial hemp legalization.

Its passage is a win for Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, who took heat from his 2018 election opponent David Hughes for refusing to entertain the GOP’s food stamp push. (A note: Rep. Jason Lewis, outgoing representative of the 2nd District, was one of 47 no votes on the bill, and the only Minnesotan to vote no on the legislation.)

That Farm Bill triumph, however, came at the cost of an effort that’s picked up steam on Capitol Hill this year: ending U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has resulted in widespread famine in the Middle Eastern nation and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. Wrapped into a procedural vote to move the Farm Bill forward in the House on Wednesday was language, pushed by Speaker Paul Ryan, to block the House from voting on or debating any resolution related to the war in Yemen.

Why? GOP leadership, along with Trump, has been eager to put the Yemen rebellion on the Hill to heel, as the administration seeks to maintain its alliance with Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday night, the Senate bucked Mitch McConnell and moved to open debate on a resolution to formally end U.S. support for the Yemen war — the biggest statement that critics of the war have made to date.

In the House, the procedural vote with the Yemen language passed by just three votes, and it effectively kills the prospects of Congress passing a bill on the topic. Peterson was one of five Democrats who sided with Republicans to secure the bill’s passage; he told a WaPo reporter that he doesn’t know a “damned thing” about the Yemen war. But Peterson said he’d worked on the Farm Bill for two years, and “I’ll be damned if I let anyone screw it up.” (Reps. Tim Walz and Keith Ellison did not vote on Yemen or the Farm Bill, and have missed recent House votes as they transition into statewide office roles.)

The Senate had another significant vote on Wednesday: all of the chamber’s Democrats, joined by Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, voted to overturn a Trump administration policy that allowed political nonprofits — think so-called “dark money” groups — to avoid listing some donor information.

News on the Democrats’ battle for the Speakership: Nancy Pelosi is locking up support from her critics in the Democratic conference, making it close to certain that she’ll win the Speaker’s gavel when the House votes on January 3. (The photo accompanying the NYT’s big write-up of Pelosi’s triumph shows her hanging alongside none other than Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, an early member of the new progressive vanguard to back Pelosi.)

A group of the most dedicated Pelosi holdouts signed a letter of support for the longtime leader after she agreed to limit herself to four years on the job — a rule that would also apply to her two lieutenants, would-be Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and would-be Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. (Hoyer is, notably, not in favor of term limits of “any kind,” along with most old guard Democrats.)

This gambit from Pelosi gives more room for people like Dean Phillips — who ran on calling for “new leadership” in the party but said he voted to nominate Pelosi because no one else was running against her — to embrace her as the “transitional leader” she’s marketed herself to be.

Also on the Hill: lawmakers have finally reached a deal to reform the (very broken, messed-up) system for addressing sexual harassment claims in congressional offices.

It’s time for some 2020 news! A straw poll of members of liberal advocacy group MoveOn offered a very, very early look at where would-be Democratic contenders stand among the progressive grassroots.

The survey confirmed the Beto O’Rourke hype is real: the failed U.S. Senate candidate from Texas took the highest share of votes out of the 30-plus Democrats on the ballot, earning about 16 percent. Following him were Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. No doubt that Sen. Amy Klobuchar is somewhere in the 2020 mix: she finished seventh in the poll, with 2.75 percent support. That put her behind progressive favorites like Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but ahead of some other big names, like Sen. Cory Booker and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Your (very big) grain of salt: the real winner of the poll was “none of the above/don’t know,” which got 29 percent of the vote.

A smart, forward-looking story from the NYT on a looming 2020 fight to keep an eye on: will Democratic candidates embrace the strategy of eschewing campaign contributions from super PACs? It worked out for a few congressional candidates this cycle, including Phillips of Minnesota’s 3rd, but scaling that up to a presidential run is another story.

On the 2020 front for Congress: the new chairs of each party’s House campaign arms — Rep. Tom Emmer on the GOP side and Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois on the Democratic side — want some of their candidates who lost in 2018 to run again, according to interviews with both this week. Bustos called out Dan Feehan, who narrowly lost in the 1st District to Jim Hagedorn, as someone who should run again.

It’s way, way too early, but why not: Cook Political Report has the first House race ratings for 2020. They list 20 true toss-up races — but none in Minnesota, where the two most competitive districts, the 2nd and 7th, are “lean Democratic.”

The week’s essential reads

Two of Trump’s main goals in office so far: draining the Washington “swamp,” and punishing foreign governments and companies that cheat the U.S. The NYT’s Ken Vogel spotlights one story that shows how he’s undermined both of those goals: this administration’s different way of doing business has opened the door for foreign entities to skirt sanctions and gain influence by employing armies of lobbyists. The story:

As President Trump’s administration has increasingly turned to sanctions, travel restrictions and tariffs to punish foreign governments as well as people and companies from abroad, targets of those measures have turned for assistance to Washington’s K Street corridor of law, lobbying and public relations firms. …

This has been encouraged, they say, by the willingness projected by Mr. Trump and his team to make deals around sanctions and tariffs exemptions. Previous administrations had worked to wall off politics from those processes, which are supposed to be overseen primarily by career officials and governed by strict legal analyses.

In June, after a personal intervention by Mr. Trump, the Commerce Department rescinded sanctions that could have crippled the Chinese technology giant ZTE, which had fought the sanctions through an intense three-month lobbying push that cost $1.4 million.

Slowly but surely over the last eight years, the budget of the Internal Revenue Service has shrunk. ProPublica has an eye-opening investigation into what a “gutted” IRS means for the country: fewer consequences for wealthy tax cheaters, and disproportionate scrutiny on the poor. The story is worth your time:

The cuts are depleting the staff members who help ensure that taxpayers pay what they owe. As of last year, the IRS had 9,510 auditors. That’s down a third from 2010. The last time the IRS had fewer than 10,000 revenue agents was 1953, when the economy was a seventh of its current size. And the IRS is still shrinking. Almost a third of its remaining employees will be eligible to retire in the next year, and with morale plummeting, many of them will.

The IRS conducted 675,000 fewer audits in 2017 than it did in 2010, a drop in the audit rate of 42 percent. But even those stark numbers don’t tell the whole story, say current and former IRS employees: Auditors are stretched thin, and they’re often forced to limit their investigations and move on to the next audit as quickly as they can.

Without enough staff, the IRS has slashed even basic functions. It has drastically pulled back from pursuing people who don’t bother filing their tax returns. …

For the country’s largest corporations, the danger of being hit with a billion-dollar tax bill has greatly diminished. For the rich, who research shows evade taxes the most, the IRS has become less and less of a force to be feared.

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

2018 was a historic year for women in politics: a record 123 female members of Congress will take their seats on Capitol Hill next year. But there’s an irony hiding behind the history: even as more women ran, and won, in 2018 than ever before, a different group of women in politics — campaign strategists and operatives — are still struggling to get ahead in a field that’s long been an old boys’ club.

In a sharp and powerful piece for Politico, Abby Livingston talked to dozens of women behind successful campaigns around the country, who shared their accounts of the hard glass ceiling that remains in place in the world of campaigns — and why that’s a huge problem for everyone.

They frequently describe themselves as left out of the most important big picture decisions on campaigns—“they won’t let us in on the sexy part of politics” is how the former Democratic fundraiser put it. They fret about the opportunities they’ve been denied on major statewide campaigns, if not presidential races. They shudder at the thought that sexism has cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) over the course of their careers. They stew about the solid advice and creative ideas they’ve offered that have been ignored in favor of those from men.

But mostly, they are mad as hell.

Mad at losing out on business. Mad at watching younger men surpass them in stature without merit. Mad at having male colleagues talk down to them at every turn. Mad at being relegated to the world of fundraising, the only female-dominated sector of campaign consulting. Mad at the men around them taking credit for their work. Mad at the consulting firms that feign diversity by hiring the wife of one of the company’s male partners rather than filling the spot with a qualified, independently successful woman. Mad at the men on their campaign staffs not taking what they say seriously. Mad at colleagues, consultants, party staffers and candidates of both genders who they believe have reinforced a structural sexism that undermines the collective goal of any campaign: to win and to govern.

“It’s amazing how many times I sit in a room of all men, and the tone-deafness and the stupid shit they say—it makes me want to pull my hair out,” said a Republican consultant from Iowa.

What to look for next week

The House is out on Monday and Tuesday, giving lawmakers about three days to address the shutdown when they return. Everything is fine! Nothing to see here!

Meanwhile, in an unexpected turn of events, the Senate might actually move on criminal justice reform by the end of the year. McConnell — who’s long been averse to a big fight on the widely-backed, bipartisan bill to reform parts of the criminal justice system — indicated the chamber could take it up, reversing his recent position that there wasn’t enough time to go after it. (I wrote about the bill last month.) He did say, however, that the Senate might have to be in session through New Year’s to get the bill done, which is kind of a smart play when you consider that exactly zero senators want to be in D.C. then. (WaPo asks: is this a sign of McConnell’s diminished clout?)

That’s all for me for this week. Thanks for sticking around. Until next week, send me an email: sbrodey@minnpost.com.

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