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D.C. Memo: The memo with options that most people don’t understand

The budget deal; Omar’s big week; Klobuchar 2020; and more.

The White House announced plans to use emergency powers to build the wall along the border.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Welcome back to the D.C. Memo, and happy belated Valentine’s Day, which — contrary to popular belief — is not a conspiracy cooked up by Hallmark but an actual thing that over time has transformed from a religious remembrance to a celebration of romantic love, mostly thanks to Big Chocolate and Geoffrey Chaucer (true story). This week in Washington: a deal gets done; Omar owns the spotlight; and Amy goes on the road. So let’s get to it.

Three big things

1. Law & Border: Just before Midnight Wednesday, lawmakers in Washington finalized a monster spending bill — it’s 1,159 pages long — that includes $1.375 billion for 55 miles of fencing along the border in Texas. And yet, if you recall, $1.375 billion is quite a bit less than the amount President Donald Trump rejected last year in a move that led to a 35-day government shutdown. Even so, Trump signaled he would sign the bill, saying that another shutdown “would be a terrible thing,” and hinting that he would find other ways to pay for a border wall. “We have options that most people don’t really understand,” he told reporters.

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By Thursday, the job of taking credit and assigning blame was already well underway. As The New York Times reports, even as the bill was going to a vote, the White House had gone into overdrive to calm the waters among Trump’s base over the border security provisions:

As he inched closer to reluctantly accepting a bipartisan spending compromise without the money he demanded for his border wall, Mr. Trump offered no acknowledgment on Wednesday that his pressure tactics had failed even as aides sought to minimize the damage by tamping down criticism on the right.

One call was made to Lou Dobbs, a favorite of Mr. Trump’s whose Fox Business Network show he often tries to catch live. Another was placed to Sean Hannity, the Fox host who regularly talks with the president. The message: Mr. Trump deserved support because he still forced concessions that he would never have gotten without a five-week partial government shutdown.

Then, on Friday, after the House and Senate approved the bill, Trump announced that he would sign it — and also that he was formally declaring a national emergency at the border, a move that would allow him to access billions of dollars Congress had refused to give him to build a wall.

That should go over well. Indeed, according to the Times:“The president’s decision, previewed on Thursday, triggered instant condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans, who called it an abuse of power. House Democrats plan to introduce legislation to block the president’s move, which could pass both houses if it wins the votes of the half-dozen Republican senators who have criticized the declaration. That would put the president in the position of issuing the first veto of his presidency.”

Lost amid the furor is the fact that we may be doing this all over again next fall. As the Washington Post notes, “The legislation wraps up Homeland Security spending with six other uncompleted appropriations bills for 2019, funding nine Cabinet departments and dozens of other agencies for a total price tag of around $324 billion. The other agencies covered include Commerce, Agriculture, Housing, State and the IRS, all of which would be funded through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, presuming Trump signs the legislation. At that point, another fight over government funding — and, perhaps, the wall — will await.” So something to look forward to, then.

2. Omar in the spotlight: You may have heard, but it was not particularly great week for 5th Congressional District Rep. Ilhan Omar. It all started Sunday night, when Omar tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” in reference to a comment by Intercept writer Glenn Greenwald about Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy saying he wanted to take “action” against Omar and fellow freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib for their comments about Israel. When asked whose money she was referring to, Omar responded: “AIPAC,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential — and not exactly totally uncontroversial — pro-Israel group.

The remark was quickly rebuked, and not just by political opponents. Per the WaPo: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the entire Democratic leadership on Monday condemned Rep. Ilhan Omar for suggesting that Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle, an extraordinary rebuke of a House freshman in the vanguard of the party’s left flank. … Within hours, Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the leadership issued a joint statement calling Omar’s ‘use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters’ deeply offensive and insisted on an apology.”

In response, Omar sat down with several Jewish colleagues, apologized “unequivocally,” and said her intention was never to offend “my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.”

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For most people, that would have been a full week, but things were just getting started. After Trump called on her to resign (he also called her apology “lame”), Omar responded via Twitter: “You have trafficked in hate your whole life – against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, Then immigrants, black people and more. I learned from people impacted by my words. When will you?”

Then, on Wednesday, Omar made waves for another reason. During a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which she is a new member, Omar confronted the United States’ new special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, who was once convicted (later pardoned) for withholding information from Congress. As Slate’s Molly Olmsted reported, Omar “did not waste her opportunity to press Abrams on his tenure in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. ‘I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful,’ she said, to protests from Abrams.”

She wasn’t done, though. As NBC news reported, Omar then referenced the “1982 hearing in which Abrams, then Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, testified about the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador during that country’s civil war. … ‘You later said that the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a ‘fabulous achievement,’ Omar added. ‘Yes or no, do you still think so?’”

For what it’s worth, we’ll just point to a couple of pieces that readers might want to keep in mind when Omar’s name comes up, especially in the context of national news. The first is by D.C. Memo favorite Paul Waldman, of the Washington Post, who managed to offer some context for the whole AIPAC episode: “I think what made members of Congress come down on Omar so hard wasn’t just that she was criticizing the relationship between the United States and Israel, or even the unfortunate way she did it,” Waldman wrote. “It’s also that she was criticizing Congress itself, and how it treats Israel. And the reaction proved the point. In Congress, there has been more discussion about Omar’s tweets over the last 48 hours than there has been genuine debate about the United States’ policy vis-a-vis Israel over the last 10 years.”

The second is a story that appeared in Politico earlier this week: “The Republican Party has a new trio of Democratic villains: Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The House GOP midterm strategy largely centered on trying to tie every Democrat to now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and it failed spectacularly. So now GOP leaders and the National Republican Congressional Committee are turning to the superstars of the House Democrats’ freshman class as their newest targets. … The NRCC has sent out thousands of emails trying to tie vulnerable Democrats to Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Omar.”

3. Chasing Amy: Well, it finally happened. On Sunday, amid the snow and the cold and the placards, Amy Klobuchar did something few modern Minnesota politicians have dared to do: She gave a speech that only made a single reference to Prince. Also, as MinnPost’s Peter Callaghan explained in the only story you will ever need to read about the event, she announced she was running for president. So there’s that.

In the days leading up to the announcement, Klobuchar had been dogged by reports of staff mistreatment, a topic she also addressed on Sunday. Per Callaghan: “In a media scrum after the speech, she did however repeat the response she has given previously when asked about turnover in her office: that she is tough and demanding and will have the same standards for herself. ‘Yes, I can be tough. And yes I can push people,’ she said. ‘I know that. … I have high expectations for the people who work for me but I have high expectations for this country.’”

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That taken care of, she hit the road, appearing on both “Good Morning America” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Monday to talk about her campaign. Expect a lot more of that in the coming weeks and months. The Klobuchar 2020 tour will be hitting Wisconsin this weekend, and CNN will be broadcasting a town hall with her on Presidents Day. She is also scheduled to be in her soon-to-be-second home, Iowa, next week.

This is probably as good a time as any to remind Kloby-watchers that William Goldman’s oft-cited quote about Hollywood applies doubly to presidential politics. And if you ever needed an actual evidence of that, please take a gander at the piping hot takes on Klobuchar’s candidacy and campaign rollout. After all, we were told her presidential bid is doomed. Either that or it represents Trump’s “worst nightmare.” We also learned that her treatment of staff shouldn’t really matter that much, unless, of course, it should matter very much.

Your weekend longread

In this piece from Foreign Affairs, “A New Americanism,” Harvard professor Jill Lepore laments that the study of America as a nation-state, of, yes, nationalism, has largely been given up by historians, and that doing so has left both scholarship — and the country itself — poorer for it:

Nation-states, when they form, imagine a past. That, at least in part, accounts for why modern historical writing arose with the nation-state. For more than a century, the nation-state was the central object of historical inquiry. From George Bancroft in the 1830s through, say, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or Richard Hofstadter, studying American history meant studying the American nation. As the historian John Higham put it, “From the middle of the nineteenth century until the 1960s, the nation was the grand subject of American history.” Over that same stretch of time, the United States experienced a civil war, emancipation, reconstruction, segregation, two world wars, and unprecedented immigration—making the task even more essential. “A history in common is fundamental to sustaining the affiliation that constitutes national subjects,” the historian Thomas Bender once observed. “Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future.”

But in the 1970s, studying the nation fell out of favor in the American historical profession. Most historians started looking at either smaller or bigger things, investigating the experiences and cultures of social groups or taking the broad vantage promised by global history. This turn produced excellent scholarship. But meanwhile, who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants …

Maybe it’s too late to restore a common history, too late for historians to make a difference. But is there any option other than to try to craft a new American history—one that could foster a new Americanism?

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