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 government shutdown continued, hurting federal workers and their families, air travel safety, food safety, federal and state services and the general U.S. economy. The D.C. fast food sector got an unexpected boost, however, due to a large order from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In other news, Amy Klobuchar got closer to running for president, but don’t ask about her campaign logo.
This week in Washington
Greetings from Washington, where the partial government shutdown is in its 28th day. It is now easily the longest closure of the federal government in history.
President Donald Trump, who is insisting on $5.7 billion for his border wall as a non-negotiable condition for reopening the government, is no closer to a deal with Democrats than he was a week ago. With most Americans continuing to blame Trump for the shutdown — and some evidence that even the #MAGA base is souring on it — Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats have little incentive to give in.
Press reports this week have confirmed the prevailing Beltway wisdom: Pelosi has gotten the better of the dealmaker-in-chief so far. The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that Trump has privately complained the White House is getting “crushed” in the shutdown fight.
The chatter last week that the administration would declare a state of emergency as an off-ramp from the shutdown has mostly quieted, for now. With the broader public beginning to feel the effects of the shutdown — from airport security meltdowns to the possibility for delayed tax refunds — the emerging strategy appears to be trying to mitigate those effects as much as possible. To wit: The administration is calling back some 50,000 federal workers to do their jobs without pay.
The White House has also tried to drive a wedge between Democrats, who uniformly oppose the president’s wall money ask. Trump invited some Democrats to meet to discuss the shutdown, and on Wednesday, a dozen Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the centrist “Problem Solvers Caucus,” including Rep. Dean Phillips, took the invite and went to talk with Trump.
Phillips told me it was a “constructive and productive” meeting, but he wasn’t able to offer much beyond hope that the meeting ends up being constructive and productive. His official line, which backs up Democratic talking points, is to push Trump to reopen the government before launching into a serious effort to address border security and immigration policy.
As the shutdown drags on, its effects are spreading and growing more severe: Wall Street types are beginning to seriously worry that the shutdown will hasten a recession, Politico reports. Meanwhile, the debacle is discouraging people from pursuing careers in the federal government, whose core selling point to workers has always been a stable path to the middle class.
There was an unexpected shutdown effect on Monday: with some White House workers apparently furloughed, Trump — set to host the college football champion Clemson Tigers for a celebratory dinner — moved to pay out of pocket for the players’ food. That night, a grinning POTUS appeared before Big Macs, Whoppers, and Domino’s Pizza arrayed in the White House on silver platters.
As the internet had a field day with this hamfisted metaphor, WaPo’s Philip Bump did the deep dive on Trump’s fast food feast to determine how much POTUS paid. The Daily 202’s James Hohmann, meanwhile, had a good column riffing on the moment and its significance for Trump’s populist persona and his seeming inability to relate to normal people.
Back in Minnesota — where about a third of the state budget comes from the federal government — top state officials from both parties are talking about working together to deal with the protracted shutdown, which has cost the state some $100 million in federal funds for programs so far.
Gov. Tim Walz, who saw several shutdowns as a Democratic congressman for 12 years, vowed to not let D.C. dysfunction impact the ability of the state government to provide services and run programs. Walz appeared at a state capitol press conference, pleading for Congress to “end this damn thing,” flanked by the new AG, Keith Ellison, himself an old Capitol Hill hand. It was, really, just like old times for this D.C. reporter.
I reported last week on the “catastrophic” impact the shutdown is having on Minnesota’s tribal communities, which are some of the most disadvantaged corners of the state. (Recall that the federal government has a treaty obligation to provide funding for a range of services, from road maintenance to hospital care, for tribal nations.)
Some shutdown responses from the Minnesota delegation: Sen. Tina Smith introduced legislation on Wednesday to require the federal government to provide back pay to low-wage federal contractors — like security guards and cleaners at Smithsonian museums and government agencies — who are furloughed during the shutdown. Unlike most federal workers, contract workers aren’t entitled to back pay when a shutdown ends.
On the House side, Rep. Betty McCollum has some questions about the feds’ priorities during the shutdown: she wrote a letter to the administration asking why the Department of the Interior moved to get employees back to work, without pay, to expedite government approval of private offshore drilling operations. It’s clear, McCollum wrote, that “the administration only cares about the impacts [of the shutdown] on its favorite industry and not about workers, their families, or ordinary Americans.”
At the White House this week: the president is fending off questions that he, uh, is a Russian intelligence asset: a bombshell report from the New York Times last week revealed that, when Trump fired James Comey as FBI director, U.S. intelligence officials opened a probe into whether the president was working on behalf of Russia. The Post followed that up with reporting that Trump went to extraordinary lengths to obscure details of his meetings with Vladimir Putin as president. And even more from the NYT: Trump, behind the scenes, has seriously entertained the idea of pulling out of NATO — a paradigm-shattering move that is beyond the Kremlin’s wildest dreams.
Trump himself has dismissed these reports as ridiculous and “insulting,” and his press shop has asserted that no president has been tougher on Russia than Trump. (The Trump administration mobilized this week to defeat a Senate bill that would have kept sanctions in place on the business holdings of Oleg Deripaska, a key ally of Putin.)
A roundup from the (mostly furloughed) administration: the Department of Justice is reportedly moving toward implementing restrictions on online gambling. The Vegas casino industry desperately wants to see that move forward — including Sheldon Adelson, the gambling magnate, GOP mega-donor and key Trump ally. Elsewhere, a federal judge blocked the administration’s move to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, bogging down another element of Trump’s policy on immigration. The #2 official at the federal housing agency left, reports WaPo, because Trump didn’t want to direct any money to Puerto Rico’s recovery, and the Health and Human Services department still doesn’t know how many children were separated from their families at the border.
Hmm: WaPo’s ace reporter on the Trump businesses‒conflict of interest beat reports that top execs for T-Mobile booked a block of rooms at Trump’s D.C. hotel — just as it announced a $26 billion merger with Sprint that was awaiting the administration’s approval. (Can you hear me now?)
It was a busy week on Capitol Hill, beyond shutdown stuff: the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from William Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general. Barr, who held the AG post in the first Bush administration, asserted his independence and promised to let Robert Mueller, who he calls a personal friend, complete his investigation.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who sits on the Judiciary panel, questioned Barr on Tuesday, aiming to get at the root of his commitment to the Mueller probe — which Barr has previously criticized as a waste of money and time. Klobuchar asked Barr about his prior criticism of the investigation, which the nominee largely stayed away from. (The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has a good look at the Barr hearing and what it means for Mueller.)
Appearing on Rachel Maddow’s show afterward, Klobuchar said that she wasn’t satisfied with Barr’s answers and only heard “equivocation” on the Mueller matter. (Klobuchar also made the rounds on NPR’s Morning Edition and PBS News Hour to discuss Barr. She’s one of a few Judiciary panel members mulling a 2020 run — more on that later.)
The hearing brought another example of Al Franken slowly re-emerging into the public sphere: Slate interviewed the former senator and Judiciary Committee member — whose questioning of Jeff Sessions sparked the AG’s fateful recusal from the Russia probe — about how he would have questioned Barr.
Another big hearing on the Hill: Andrew Wheeler, who has run the EPA in an acting basis since Scott Pruitt left in disgrace last summer, appeared for a confirmation hearing to formally take the job. Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the coal industry who is poised to continue Pruitt’s spree of cutting environmental regulations. Republicans welcomed Wheeler and hit back on critics’ concern of his ties to the coal industry: “Should we bar farmers from being the head of the Department of Agriculture?” asked Sen. Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota.
Democrats grilled Wheeler about his views, particularly on climate change: he has expressed doubt in the idea of human-caused climate change, and called warming “a global issue that must be addressed globally… I would not call it the greatest crisis, no sir.”
Over in the House, it’s a special week: Committee assignments! Dean Phillips, who angled for the prestigious Ways and Means Committee, landed on Foreign Affairs and Financial Services, the latter of which is poised to be a thorn in Wall Street’s side. Rep. Ilhan Omar will be on Foreign Affairs, where she (a former refugee from Somalia) will be a vocal critic of the administration’s deep support for Saudi Arabia and Israel, two governments she has proposed targeting with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS, strategy.
We also saw a rare formal rebuke of a member of Congress: the chamber passed a resolution condemning white supremacy after Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, wondered to a Times reporter last week how it became a bad thing to be a white supremacist. Days later, House GOP leadership took the extraordinary step of stripping King of his committee assignments, which is as severe a punishment as they come on Capitol Hill. (The Des Moines Register with more on what changed to finally provoke a real rebuke of King.)
In response, King denounced the attack on his “freedom of speech” while explaining that his words were taken out of context. (This is known as the If I Did It defense.) He is being pressured to resign, and faces several GOP primary challengers at home a few months after he scraped out a victory against a relatively unknown Democratic challenger in a deep-red district that borders Minnesota and South Dakota.
The NYT interview was pretty galling, but it’s no secret that King has been spouting racist, white supremacist views for years. To many of King’s critics, the GOP’s move was welcome, but they questioned the party’s moral posturing given that Republicans supported King when his fringe views were well-known. (WaPo has a deep dive on the GOP’s seeming inability to avoid race-related controversy.)
Nevertheless, GOP officials have tried to turn around the King episode on Democrats, arguing they have the courage to reprimand those in their own ranks who say and do bad things, unlike Democrats. On Thursday, House GOP leadership issued a call for their Dem counterparts to reprimand Rep. Omar over her past comments about Israel. (Counterpoint: Ask Kirsten Gillibrand how things are going for her after calling on Al Franken to resign in 2017!)
To the 2020 Desk: Amy Klobuchar is inching, slowly but surely, toward a presidential bid. This week, she said that her family is on board with her running. On the day of the Barr hearing, a long profile of Klobuchar dropped in Vogue magazine, which asked whether Klobuchar was Democrats’ “secret weapon.” And, as my press colleagues have noted, Klobuchar is doing a lot more on social media lately (like conversational videos) possibly in preparation to hold her own in a primary that could feature viral stars like Beto O’Rourke, who has spent his recent free time driving around and writing emo-as-hell blog posts.
At least someone out in the world is closer to a Klobuchar presidential bid than Klobuchar is: an eagle-eyed observer tweeted on Tuesday a photo of a flyer, supposedly left behind at a D.C. coffee shop, of designs for a “Klobuchar for President” campaign logo and possible slogans. “Courage for our country” was the legit-sounding slogan, but the logo — which prominently featured mountains — was panned by people who know that Minnesota does not have mountains.
The tweet sparked a good 10 minutes of harried speculation around Klobuchar’s presidential plans, which the senator quickly quashed. “Must be a very enthusiastic supporter,” she tweeted. “I love mountains but we mostly have lakes and a few hills in Minnesota.” No matter who was behind the flyer, it did gin up a lot more than a discussion of Minnesota topographical features.
There were a few big splashes into the 2020 race this week, and more are expected soon: On Tuesday, Gillibrand announced her White House campaign on Stephen Colbert’s show. California Sen. Kamala Harris is expected to launch her bid imminently. With a finite number of Democratic operatives to staff all these candidates, a late entry into the field could hamstring a campaign — and prompt a decision from Klobuchar sooner rather than later. (Iowa Starting Line, a Hawkeye State political publication, has a useful tracker of who’s officially in, who’s close to getting in, who’s out, etc.)
This week’s essential reads
Lots has been written about the new progressive upstarts in the House, like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the policies they’re calling for. In a smart piece, Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur reports that the progressives aren’t dead-set on passing those policies, but are focused on changing the conversation around them in hopes of making something like the Green New Deal more acceptable. The “Overton window” cracks just a bit:
These women reflect the changing face of a party that’s becoming younger, increasingly diverse, and more progressive. All four are are under 45. Pressley is black, Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican descent, and Tlaib and Omar are Muslim. They’re active on social media, where they promote causes like Medicare for all and free public college, all aimed at stretching the perception of what’s possible and transforming the national debate.
Their more radical proposals are a long way from taking root, and many Democratic colleagues are concerned that they are defining the party for the broad swath of voters who generally are more conservative. Still, some of the ideas they are championing — proposals like a “Green New Deal” and expanding Medicare eligibility — are finding favor in the field of Democrats considering a 2020 presidential run who will have to win the party’s liberal-leaning base that turns out for primaries and caucuses.
Omar said moving the national debate is “the core of the reason I ran” for Congress.
A time-honored Beltway tradition is playing out this week: ex-lawmakers are spinning through the revolving door to find themselves work “monetizing their service” in the lucrative lobbying sector. So many Republicans retired (or lost) in 2018, though, that former congressmen are encountering an unprecedented scenario: tough competition for a handful of cushy lobbying gigs. Politico’s Theodoric Meyer:
While there aren’t many out-of-work Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp right now, more than 60 Republicans exited the House this month, and so many of them are considering heading to K Street that not all of them are likely to find work, according to interviews with lobbyists and headhunters.
“Former Republican congressmen are a dime a dozen right now,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who left Congress a decade ago and is now a lobbyist for Holland & Knight.
“I think there are still a lot of people who are scrambling and looking” for new jobs, he added.
“There’s not enough seats for everybody who wants in,” one Republican lobbyist said, comparing the process to musical chairs.
The week in takes
- Rep. Ilhan Omar: Trump critic-turned-ally Sen. Lindsey Graham is “compromised”
- HuffPost’s Roque Planas: Trump isn’t even good at carrying out his hardline immigration agenda
- WaPo’s Dave Weigel: It doesn’t matter that the House condemned him — Steve King already won
- Slate’s Yascha Mounk: Making fun of Trump’s fast food extravaganza only plays into his hands
- Fox’s Tucker Carlson: The “Green New Deal” is a plot to help Putin
Your weekend longread
We’ve got an unconventional longread this week! The Atlantic published a huge project this week that’s really worth checking out: the 50 most “unthinkable” moments of the Trump presidency, chosen and summarized by the magazine’s writers.
As we hit the second anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, do yourself a favor and look back on some of these moments, some of which you definitely remember — like the firing of James Comey — and some others that you probably don’t. (The rambling Boy Scouts Jamboree speech! The magic orb! Covfefe!) But I liked Adrienne Lafrance’s write-up of the “covfefe” episode, part of which is below:
Trump has tweeted 6,152 times since he was inaugurated, each message a fragment of presidential id. His timeline, which swerves predictably from seething to gloating, is not just an end run around the press but a splintered stream of consciousness unmatched in presidential history, an unfiltered look at the forces that animate a president obsessed with how he is viewed by others.
His tweets are messy, reactive, often petty, and occasionally cruel. The world has grown accustomed to this aspect of the Trump presidency, and the regularity with which he self-publishes flapdoodle conspiracies, casual sexism, schoolyard insults, tin-can patriotism, and outright lies. When a steady stream of exclamation points is not enough, the president opts for all caps instead, as when he tweeted at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last summer: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” …
There have been more consequential presidential tweets, and someday there may even be a weirder one. But Covfefe remains the tweet that best illustrates Trump’s most preternatural gift: He knows how to captivate people, how to command and divert the attention of the masses. And long after the president’s tweets are stripped of meaning by the passage of time and the rotting of the internet, his severest critics will still have to grapple with the short distance between politics and entertainment in America, and the man who for years toyed so masterfully with a nation’s attention.
What to look for next week
The shutdown drags on with no end in sight. Congress was supposed to be out of town next week for a scheduled recess around the MLK holiday, but the shutdown is changing that plan. Lawmakers are now poised to come back to D.C. and spin their wheels instead of doing the same thing back home. Optics!
Meanwhile, the state of the State of the Union — scheduled for January 29 — is in doubt after Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote to the White House this week to suggest delaying the event over security concerns springing from an underfunded federal government. (Reading between the lines: Pelosi is telling Trump that the shutdown he’s embracing could make him unsafe. Cold.)
The president does not set the date for his address — he’s invited by Congress, so Pelosi has some power here. But the White House is saying that Trump is planning to give his address on January 29 anyway so, uh, we’ll see what happens? (Notes: No state of the union has ever taken place during a government shutdown. Also, the spectacle of the SOTU is a relatively recent phenomenon and an in-person address is not constitutionally mandated.)
Meanwhile, something I’m thinking about: will the president name nominees to head up the Departments of Defense and the Interior after those secretaries left at the end of last year? He promised announcements a long time ago.
On another note: Next week will be my last one at MinnPost, as I’ll be heading to The Daily Beast to cover Congress. Next Thursday’s D.C. Memo will be the last one from yours truly — I’ll have more to say then, but there’s your fair warning. We’re going out with a bang!