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D.C. Memo: Passive-aggressively naive

photo of donald trump seated at desk
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Trump lashed out against the US intelligence community on Twitter, calling them “passive” and “naive” regarding Iran.

Good afternoon from not-Washington, where this memo will be coming to you on temporary basis due to the departure of Sam Brodey. No, he’s not dead; he’s just dead to us. (We kid because we are broken and bitter.)

Not really, and if you’re a faithful reader of the memo you know that Sam has decamped to The Daily Beast, where he’ll cover Congress and troll his coastal colleagues by insisting that there are subtle but important differences between hotdish and casserole. As for the memo, it will live on, for the next few weeks authored by a motley crew of editors working out of MinnPost’s palatial HQ, and then helmed by our next Washington correspondent, who we are right now in the process of hiring. (Which reminds us: if you know anybody good …. )

We fully expect for the D.C. Memo to eventually be bigger, better, and even more memo-ier, but for now it’s going to be a bit more streamlined (read: shorter), with updates on the big stories of the moment and a generous helping of links to the most essential reads of the moment. As the kids say, we appreciate your patience at this (only slightly) difficult time, and we welcome your feedback. Specifically, any complaints about the new format can be sent to our new manager of memo satisfaction, who can be reached at sam.brodey@thedailybeast.com.

Three big things


1. The shutdown is over; the shutdown is coming.

After the longest shutdown in the history of the U.S. government, the federal bureaucracy is back at work, baby, and it sounds like things are … pretty weird. The Washington Post Style section has a story nicely encapsulating the feeling in permanent DC, which it described as being in a “tizzy”: “The mood Monday was joyous, like a big family reunion — if your family had to suddenly drop everything and scatter for five weeks.”

Tizzy or no, there is a lot of work for those employees to do, as the WaPo explains in another piece. To wit, “The National Park Service will need to restore basic amenities at hundreds of parks and monuments, removing accumulated trash and plowing multiple feet of snow. … Inspectors returning from furlough to the National Transportation Safety Board will have to decide which of the almost 100 rail, plane and highway crashes to investigate first. And the Internal Revenue Service will race to train employees to implement changes to the tax code and hire thousands of temporary workers for tax season.”

Seems great! And those are the folks getting paid, which is not necessarily the case for many contractors who work for the federal government.

Also back at work, for good or ill, is Congress, which is looking to “hit reset” after the shutdown. What does that actually mean? Per the New York Times, look for Democrats who control the House to introduce a bill to raise the pay of federal employees, as well as one to close the pay gap between men and women. In the Senate, Republicans will be focusing their efforts on passing a bill on Middle East policy, one that includes a provision specifically designed to undercut the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against Israel.

Meanwhile, another shutdown seems like a real possibility, even if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is signaling he’ll do pretty much anything to avoid one, up to and including “considering bills to end shutdowns forever and giving his four GOP conference committee negotiators wide berth to strike a deal with Democrats.”

And though a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been meeting this week to discuss ways to avoid another shutdown, there was the small problem of not knowing what Trump would accept as part of any deal. Another hurdle: prominent Democrats have said they won’t consider any of the proposals floated so far to block future shutdowns because they “would cripple their power and actually serve as a back-door mechanisms for Republicans to reduce government spending,” writes some guy in The Daily Beast.

And just for good measure, Trump offered his own rosy view of things Thursday morning, tweeting that Republicans are “wasting their time” negotiating with Democrats over a shutdown and border security measures.

But, hey, at least we have a date for the State of the Union. Trump has accepted an invitation from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to deliver his address on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

2. Naifs in toyland

This week was also when American intelligence went in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment. It’s usually relatively humdrum affair, something the Times describes as “a dispassionate survey of the threats facing the United States — some longstanding, some new — that the White House accepts without much comment.”

Yeah, not so much. After intelligence officials, including CIA chief Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, contradicted some of Trump’s recent statements, the president struck back on Twitter (natch), calling people he hired “extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” while defended his own takes on North Korea and ISIS. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school,” he wrote.

The blowback was swift and loud, even on the Trump-adjusted scale. As the Times noted: “Lawmakers and former intelligence officials condemned Mr. Trump’s attack because they said that it corrupted the intelligence process and suggested that he would disregard the warnings in the threat assessment.”

3. Everybody wants to rule the world

This week was also a big week for 2020 campaign news, or, rather, the maybe-sorta-wanna-still-thinking-about-running-for-president news. Among other things, Joe Biden said he’ll make “the decision soon” while LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said he already has — and isn’t running.

Also, on Friday Sen. Corey Booker, of New Jersey, made it official: He’s in.

Among those who had previously announced, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign is reportedly already imploding, while Elizabeth Warren got her groove back, proposing a “wealth tax” that seems very on-brand. “Under Warren’s plan, the tax rate on wealth would be two per cent, but it would only apply to American households worth at least fifty million dollars, of which there are fewer than eighty thousand,” wrote The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, approvingly. “Fortunes of a billion dollars or more would be taxed at three per cent.”

Then there’s Kamala Harris, who had perhaps the best week of any oval office aspirant, so much so that Politico decided to deconstruct how she “won” the presidential rollout, as if that’s a thing. “On Sunday, Harris assembled the biggest crowd of the January rollout season, an estimated 20,000 in her hometown of Oakland, California, for her first major address of the campaign,” Bill Scher writes. “One day later, she gave a polished performance at a CNN televised town hall, goosing the network’s ratings in that time slot by 75 percent. She even picked up some of the first congressional endorsements of the campaign, earning the backing of California Reps. Nanette Barragán, Ted Lieu and Katie Hill.”

Even amid all that, though, the biggest news among putative presidential candidates involved former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who announced on Sunday that he was actively exploring a run as an Independent (in what is obviously just a coincidence, Schultz is also peddling a new book). Almost immediately, Schultz was denounced for: his arrogance; his dilettantism, his lack of anything resembling a platform; his potentially mucking up a chance for a Democratic candidate to defeat Trump; his terrible coffee; and his former ownership of the NBA’s then-Seattle Supersonics. For our money, though, the most interesting case against Schultz was put forth by The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman, who essentially argued that Schultz’s brand of economic conservatism/social liberalism doesn’t actually have, you know, a constituency.

“You can criticize Schultz on any number of grounds. There’s the narcissism shared by so many billionaires … the fact that he seems to have barely thought about how he might put his exceedingly vague ideas into action, and the incorrect belief that dissatisfaction with the parties translates into eagerness to support an independent candidate,” writes Waldman. “But the most important criticism of Schultz to be lodged may be that the number of voters who want what he’s selling is tiny.” Devastating. And there’s even a chart.

Chasing Amy

For Minnesotans, of course, the real questions is if and when Sen. Amy Klobuchar will jump in the race, and we can tell you here exclusively that the answer is: we don’t know and not yet. Not that her hesitance has cost her any ability to command attention. Earlier this week, the Star Tribune’s Patrick Condon examined Klobuchar’s priorities in congress, and how — wouldn’cha know it — those priorities dovetail nicely with a bid for higher office. As Condon writes: “Klobuchar has said in recent weeks that she’s considering a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She has not yet announced her decision, but her goals in the new congressional term offer a preview of issues that could help comprise a presidential platform.”

But that was coy compared to the full on mash note written by, of all people, George Will, who — after laying out all the sober, technical reasons why Klobuchar would be a formidable candidate — gushes (insofar as George Will gushes):

“Her special strength, however, is her temperament. Baseball, it has been said, is not a game you can play with your teeth clenched. That is also true of politics, another day-by-day game with a long season. It requires an emotional equipoise, a blend of relaxation and concentration, stamina leavened by cheerfulness. Klobuchar laughs easily and often. If the nation wants an angry president, it can pick from the many seething Democratic aspirants, or it can keep the president it has. If, however, it would like someone to lead a fatigued nation in a long exhale, it can pick a Minnesotan, at last.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

The joke about Robert Caro, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s most dogged biographer, has always been that he’s going to take longer to write about LBJ’s life than it took LBJ to actually live it. Caro’s latest piece in The New Yorker, “The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives,” offers a glimpse of why that might be the case, with a fascinating and detailed look at his reporting process.

In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carré’s George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking and to let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for me, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.

Two other great reads:

“Why Marlon James Decided to Write an African ‘Game of Thrones,’” The New Yorker

The Unbelievable Story Of The Plot Against George Soros,” Buzzfeed News

That’s all for this week. Thanks for sticking around. Until next week, feel free to send tips, suggestions, and sound advice to: feedback@minnpost.com.

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