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D.C. Memo: That’s wall, folks

Government shutdown continues; Cohen testimony postponed; Supreme Court to take up Second Amendment case; and more.

photo of border fence seen from a distance
The question for Democrats: What concessions from Trump would make them OK with the wall?
REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

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 may have inched closer to a compromise to end the shutdown, but we won’t really know until lawmakers take some meaningless show votes. Federal workers and the broader public continued to feel the pain over the shutdown, to which Trump administration officials said: Get a job, already!

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, everyone, where I’ll be taking you through the week in D.C. news one last time, which means you have to find this newsletter extra fun and informative. Let’s get cracking!

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After weeks of a seemingly intractable stalemate over the border wall, President Donald Trump and Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared to almost, just maybe, get a little closer to the contours of a deal that might end the government shutdown, now in its 35th day.

Over the weekend, Trump put something on the table to persuade Democrats to give him his wall besides, well, nothing: an offer to temporarily revive the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and temporary legal status for certain immigrant groups. (Recall all these things were terminated by Trump.) Dems called it a nonstarter, but they’re countering with offers of their own: more money than the $5.7 billion POTUS is asking for the wall — just for other border security measures, not the wall.

In the dismal slog that has been this Great Shutdown of 2K18-19, these modest steps from both sides are pretty significant: Dems seem to be backing down from their hard line that they would not negotiate with Trump on immigration unless the government reopened; Trump and the GOP are at least entertaining immigration reforms that Dems favor — which could play poorly among Trump’s all-important base.

The question for Democrats: What concessions from Trump would make them OK with the wall? Axios reported that some White House aides are talking about putting green cards for 700,000 “Dreamers” on the table to entice Dems to pay for the wall — something that could put Pelosi under pressure to take a deal. (Recall it wasn’t long ago that many Dems were fine with “build the wall” if it protected the Dreamers.)

To wit: Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota’s 7th District, perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the House, made headlines this week with a Tuesday radio interview in which he said Dems should just “give Trump the money” for the wall. He clarified to me later that he would only support a wall if certain strings were attached — like protecting the property rights of landowners on the border — and generally lambasted both sides for not really entertaining a compromise.

There are few in Congress like Peterson — give my story on his position a read — but he’s not the only Democrat who is straying from the “no wall, reopen government and negotiate later” official line that Democrats are putting forward. Politico’s Playbook reports Dems, including many freshmen, are getting antsy about making a deal.

The big question on the GOP side: could Trump come down from his $5.7 billion ask — or accept more money for border measures, ditch the wall, and frame what he got as a win? Politico reports that even some conservative hardliners on immigration are frustrated with Trump’s single-minded pursuit of the wall and have other ways they’d prefer to approach the border situation. POTUS has “evolved” on his concept of what the wall means over the shutdown, anyway.

In the meantime, Congress is getting bold with solutions to end the shutdown: senators finally voted Thursday on a series of bills to end the shutdown! Huge!

As expected, both bills failed. Quick recap here: the Democratic-controlled U.S. House has passed a series of bills that would reopen the government, but none of them contain wall money, so Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t taken them up because he says Trump won’t sign them. House Dems, like Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have led a visible pressure campaign to get McConnell to put spending bills on the floor.

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The GOP leader agreed this week to put legislation on the floor, and the Senate voted Thursday on two bills: a Democratic proposal to reopen the government until February 8, with $14 billion for disaster relief but $0 for the wall, meant to pave the way for post-shutdown negotiations. The Senate also voted on a Republican bill that reopens the government, and includes money for the wall, a three-year reprieve for Dreamers, and some changes to the asylum process, like barring some children from claiming asylum, that are favored by hard-liners. (The Washington Post has a breakdown of these bills and how they stack up with immigration bills the Senate has recently considered.)

Even if either bill had gotten 60 votes in the Senate, the Dem plan would probably be vetoed by Trump and the GOP plan would almost surely die in the House. So all this was mostly political theater, but it will at least put lawmakers on the record about where they stand on how to end the shutdown.

As D.C. players maneuver and the shutdown drags on, it just keeps getting worse for federal employees, and increasingly, the rest of us. Some 800,000 furloughed federal workers — nearly half of whom are working through all this — are missing a second paycheck, and many are desperate, turning to odd jobs if they can to make ends meet. Employees are relying on the charity of food banks to feed their families, which really was a head-scratcher for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a billionaire industrialist who has already proven how comically out-of-touch he is with 99 percent of people in this country. Ross said on CNBC that there isn’t a good “excuse” for why federal employees are struggling to survive and encouraged them to just take out loans and show up to work. (Let them eat Campbell’s Chunky!)

Each new day of the shutdown leads to more ways it’s hurting the country: unions for pilots, air traffic controllers, and flight attendants issued a sobering statement that claimed air travel is being pushed to the brink during the shutdown, putting lives at risk. WaPo reports that IRS employees are being allowed to stay home while they aren’t getting paid (how generous!) which is likely to delay people’s tax refunds. Regional transit authorities are under immense strain. The FBI, which has furloughed 50,000 agents and workers, is losing a lot of its capability, reports the Atlantic.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which runs programs intended to help the most disadvantaged Americans, basically didn’t plan for the shutdown and is currently a complete mess, WaPo reports. The NYT has more on how nonprofits that help low-income people afford housing are losing federal support — putting thousands of people at risk of losing their homes.

You can’t make it up, folks: the shutdown has caused the State Department to postpone a conference on — you guessed it — border security.

Closer to home: the University of Minnesota says it is losing $500,000 per day in federal funds meant to boost research thanks to the shutdown. Sen. Tina Smith met with U officials on Tuesday to talk about shutdown impacts. Lawmakers like Rep. Betty McCollum, meanwhile, are looking ahead and are planning to investigate “potential abuses” carried out by the administration during the government shutdown.

As the shutdown’s negative effects creep further into everyday life for millions of people, new polls and reporting are providing some hard evidence that the debacle is causing political problems for Trump and Republicans. A Politico/Morning Consult poll from Wednesday found that 54 percent of Americans blame the president and the GOP for the shutdown, and only 7 percent of Americans support funding the border wall if it were the only way out of the shutdown, which is more or less the White House’s position.

A new AP poll from Wednesday found Trump’s approval rating at a yearlong low: 34 percent, down from 42 percent in December. (Many modern presidents, including both Bushes and Jimmy Carter, dipped into the 20s during their presidencies. We may find out yet if Trump’s floor goes any lower.)

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Meanwhile, WaPo went out into Real America and spoke to some folks at a diner — in suburban Michigan! — and found a few Trump supporters who are souring on POTUS because of the shutdown.

Food for thought on the politics of all this: the NYT’s Peter Baker steps back and writes about how the shutdown is blocking Trump from progress on the rest of his agenda — cementing him as a “one-issue” president.

On Capitol Hill this week: Trump’s former lawyer and future federal prisoner Michael Cohen postponed indefinitely his scheduled testimony in front of the House Oversight Committee, citing threats from Trump and fears for his safety. Oversight Democrats are not happy at all and may resort to other means, like, sorcery or something, to get Cohen in front of the panel before he begins a three-year sentence in March.

(Note that a Cohen testimony was expected to be even more bonkers in the wake of a story from BuzzFeed that reported Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about his business dealings in Russia, which special counsel Robert Mueller publicly disputed, but for reasons unknown to us.)

But do not fear, fans of hearing room fireworks: plenty of oversight action lies ahead. This week, we learned that Democrats plan to investigate how administration officials such as Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner got security clearances to access classified information. Also on the agenda: looking into Trump’s ties to Deutsche Bank, the German financial giant that has a long history with the president.

Action at the Supreme Court this week: the five conservative justices voted to allow Trump’s ban on transgender soldiers serving in the military, which had been stymied by lower courts, to go back into effect while existing lawsuits challenging the decision continue. (Rolling Stone magazine had a good Q&A with a transgender vet on the latest development.)

We also learned this week that in the upcoming term, justices are slated to take on their first big gun rights case in nearly 10 years, focusing on a New York City statute that restricts movement of firearms beyond city boundaries. (National Review’s David French calls this a “strange case” on an “insane” gun law, and details where the court’s conservative majority might be going by taking it up.)

One more check-in at K Street, land o’ lobbyists: the influence sector had another banner year under Trump, The Hill reports. Nearly all of the major D.C. lobby shops, particularly those connected to Trump’s orbit, posted huge profits in 2018 and expect bigger numbers in 2019. Drain the Swamp!

CHASING AMY 2020: National Journal reports that Sen. Amy Klobuchar is in the very important “putting out feelers” stage of planning a visit to New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state that leads the nation in “feelers” received. Unless I’m missing something, this would be Klobuchar’s first visit to an early primary state that’s not Iowa — at least as a buzzed-about possible candidate — making it an important sign that she’s moving closer to a White House run.

Elsewhere at the 2020 Desk: California Sen. Kamala Harris announced her presidential bid this week, and orchestrated a campaign kick-off that raised millions in its first day and is impressing the D.C. pundit class enough to draw some comparisons to Barack Obama in 2008. (Another reminder of Obama: the conservative fever swamp took all of a few hours to advance a “birther”-style citizenship conspiracy about Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent.)

Harris will head to the early primary state of South Carolina on Friday, following Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who went there this week. There’s an uptick in chatter that South Carolina, whose Democratic primary is an important litmus test of candidate support among black voters, could usurp the mostly-white states of Iowa and New Hampshire in primary primacy. The NYT has more on this, which could make things interesting for possible Midwest and New England-based candidates like Klobuchar and Sanders.

The week’s essential reads

The Federalist Society, a group of conservative lawyers, has wielded a ton of influence in the Trump administration, basically selecting the president’s nominees for federal judgeships — who also happen to be Society members — for him. The left, however, doesn’t have a powerful legal apparatus like this, which will put liberals even further behind whenever they do get a chance to put their own on the bench. Professor Evan Mandery, in Politico Magazine, explores why:

As liberals anxiously watch Trump populate the federal bench with one dyed-in-the-wool conservative after another, it’s only natural for them to ask why there’s no heavyweight progressive organization to counter its influence. …

There actually is one liberal analog to the Federalist Society, but chances are you haven’t heard of it: the American Constitution Society, founded in 2001, after the Supreme Court decision that effectively handed the presidency to George W. Bush. In the wake of what ACS President Caroline Fredrickson calls the “Aha! moment,” ACS was launched as a conscious response to the Federalist Society. Their operations are mirror images: conferences, chapters of law students and practicing attorneys, and education projects.

But the playing field is decidedly not level. The Federalist Society has more student chapters, more than twice as many lawyer chapters and a huge fundraising edge. In 2016, ACS had total revenues of approximately $6.5 million, while the Federalist Society took in $26.7 million. And the relative impact of the organizations can hardly be compared.

As more and more 2020 candidates splash into the presidential race, arguably the biggest fish is on the sidelines: Bernie Sanders. The Vermont socialist’s entry, which is seen as likely, would make him an instant front-runner and establish the dynamics of the race. But what does Bernie even want? GQ’s Jason Zengerle tries to find out:

I asked whether he was ready for the vicious attacks he’d face in another presidential campaign? “I know you’re well-intentioned, but it’s political gossip!” he replied. Did it give him any pause that a number of Democratic presidential candidates looked like they were trying to steal his platform? “You’re into gossip!” he said. …

If Sanders does run, he will enter the race not as a long shot but as a top-tier candidate—anointed by some as the front-runner. The world for Sanders has indeed changed, and all the attention and all the expectations seem to be getting to him. His advisers had initially expected him to decide about a presidential run last November, shortly after the midterms, and then make an announcement, that he was getting in or sitting out, in December or January. They fully expected him to jump in the race.

“Most of the people in politics have wanted to be president since they were 16. They’ve built their lives around their ascension to higher office,” one Sanders adviser says. “That was never Bernie. He was himself for seven decades. And now he’s in a position that at no point in his life did he ever think he’d be in.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

This is one of my favorite really D.C.-centric longreads in a while: a big, detail-rich profile of Mitch McConnell, by Charles Homans for the New York Times Magazine. It’s been a good couple of years for the GOP Senate leader: he’s scored a huge victory in stocking the U.S. judiciary, including the Supreme Court, with scores of conservative judges; he also got a major tax cut through his chamber and held onto the Senate majority in a good 2018 for Democrats.

At the core of the piece, though, is McConnell’s unconventional relationship with his governing partner, President Trump, who is the reserved Kentuckian’s literal opposite. Whereas Trump is unable to make things not about himself, McConnell — the consummate party player and political tactician — is like “a spy or a pinto bean,” a blank canvas who “has used this blankness to his advantage, made it a carrier for designs greater than himself.” Lots to chew and reflect on in this one.

McConnell, who has represented Kentucky in the Senate for 34 years and, as of last June, is the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history, is one of Washington’s most famously inexpressive creatures. “You’ve got to see the gears turning behind the eyes, because the mouth isn’t moving very much,” Ryan told me. Still, his statements about Trump during the 2016 campaign, as the future president gradually cowed into submission the party to which McConnell had dedicated his entire adult life, managed to simultaneously leave everything and nothing to the imagination. When McConnell endorsed Trump in May 2016, after the last of his plausible challengers collapsed, he did it with a terse written statement in which the gritting of teeth was practically audible: “I have committed to supporting the nominee chosen by Republican voters,” it read, “and Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee, is now on the verge of clinching that nomination.”

“It would be hard to find two people by personality, or any inclination, that are more diametrically opposed than the president and Senator McConnell,” says Roy Blunt, the Missouri senator who heads the Senate Republicans’ policy committee. “Senator McConnell, very careful and thoughtful about what he says, deeply studied in the history of the country and how the federal government works. The president would not be offended if he heard somebody say he did not spend his time becoming that well versed in those things.” When I asked Elaine Chao, who is Trump’s secretary of transportation and McConnell’s wife of 26 years, if Trump and McConnell liked each other, she was silent for a full four seconds before replying, “You’ll have to ask the president that, and you’ll have to ask the leader that.” When I did ask McConnell, all he said was, “Yeah, we get along fine.”

All of this made it more remarkable that, by the fall of last year, McConnell had emerged as one of the few unambiguous winners of the Trump presidency to date. When I first spoke with him, this past November, he talked of the preceding two years with a faint air of mystified amusement at his own fortune: as if a minor meteor had streaked through the window of the majority leader’s office, narrowly missing his head before exploding against the two-century-old marble fireplace, and then also turned out to be filled with candy and hundred-dollar bills. “I think even though we’re pretty different in every way you can think of,” he told me, clearing his throat, “we’ve had a good sort of team effort here to accomplish as much as we can.”

What to look for next week

Well, the State of the Union is officially off: after an acrimonious and embarrassing/entertaining back-and-forth between Trump and Pelosi in which the Speaker held firm on denying Trump the House floor for a scheduled Jan. 29 address if the government remained closed, POTUS backed off and decided he may give an address somewhere else. Any formal report to Congress will have to wait until after the shutdown, and any tests of whether a president can be barred from speaking on the House floor will remain in the realm of constitutional theory.

Will we see an end to the shutdown next week? Maybe, but 1600 Penn is preparing for other outcomes: WaPo reports this week that White House officials are considering what would happen to agencies and programs if the shutdown drags into April.

Sadly, I won’t be around to recap the upcoming week for you — as you may know, today is my last day at MinnPost. Don’t worry, though: the D.C. Memo will keep going strong after I leave. My eventual replacement will take charge of the Memo, and until that person starts, the MinnPost team will round up the best and worst of D.C. news and politics for you all on Thursdays. (Please be nice to them.)

To all of you: I want to express my gratitude for your support of this D.C. Memo experiment, which started as a half-formed idea in the early days of the Trump administration and, unexpectedly to me, turned into something really special over the last 20-some months. It’s been a pleasure writing this newsletter for such an engaged and smart audience, and it’s been gratifying to hear that you got something valuable out of these weekly dispatches — and tolerated my snark and occasional bad wordplay.

Working on this newsletter will be one of the things I miss most about MinnPost — thank you for making it so fun!

I’ll be staying in D.C. to report on Congress for The Daily Beast, so I hope you’ll follow my work there. And I hope you’ll continue to follow and support MinnPost’s coverage in D.C. — I definitely will be. Until next time!