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D.C. Memo: Grin and Barr it

REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Attorney General William Barr testifying on the Justice Department’s budget proposal before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday.

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.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the D.C. Memo, which — like the first few seasons of “Game of Thrones” — could be improved by the appearance of more dragons. This week in Washington: Trump blows up the Department of Homeland Security, Attorney General William Barr dares to mention the S-word, and the Minnesota delegation crowns a hotdish champion. So let’s get to it.

Three things

Purge overkill: The week started off with a bang when news broke Sunday that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen resigned/was fired. As has become SOP under President Donald Trump, the resignation/dismissal was announced via Twitter, where Trump thanked Nielsen for her service and announced that Kevin McAleenan would become acting secretary for the department.


There were signs this was coming. Just a few days earlier, the White House had abruptly pulled the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement so that the administration could go in a “tougher” direction, said Trump, a move that not only previewed Nielsen’s departure but signaled the bloodletting that was to come.

Over the next few days, in fact, the leader of the Secret Service, plus “at least two to four more high-ranking figures affiliated with Ms. Nielsen” were expected to be pushed out, “hollowing out the top echelon of the department managing border security, presidential safety, counterterrorism, natural disasters, customs and other matters,” reported The New York Times.  “The wave of departures of officials originally appointed by Mr. Trump underscored his growing frustration with his own administration’s handling of immigration and other security issues. In recent days, Mr. Trump has threatened to close the southwestern border altogether only to back off and give Mexico a one-year notice in the face of warnings about deep economic damage from such a move.”

Those moves didn’t go over well with one set of Trump frenemies: Senate Republicans. Several, including Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, urged Trump not to fire any more DHS officials for fear of debilitating the department, wrote the Washington Post. “Republican senators remain concerned that Trump’s anger will lead to a continuing purge of DHS officials with no clear replacements,” the paper reported.

Meanwhile — despite her departure/escape from the Trump administration — things weren’t going so hot for Nielsen, either. Though she had reportedly tried to slow-walk the administration’s family-separation policy when it was first proposed, she eventually became the face of it (despite claiming such a thing didn’t exist, then standing beside Trump when he signed an executive order rescinding the policy, even though it didn’t exist).

Anyway, seems some people can’t let bygones be bygones when you go to bat for breaking up families and putting kids in cages, or sorry, “pens.”

As the Post explained:

Now, as the former homeland security secretary exits the Trump administration, a coalition of liberal groups is seeking to prevent her from going on to the type of lucrative private-sector job or speaking gig that many former Cabinet officials take upon leaving public service. …

Even before her forced resignation, liberal groups, immigrant rights advocates and others had launched an effort to pressure companies not to hire Nielsen and more than two-dozen other Trump administration officials who were involved in implementing and defending the family separation policy.

The campaign, led by Restore Public Trust, included a letter last week to Fortune 500 company CEOs as well as an ad in the New York Times with the message, “Attention corporate America: Don’t let hate into your boardroom.”

Barr examined: In the wake of issuing his controversial reading of the Mueller report, Attorney General William Barr appeared before Congress for two days, during which he dropped a couple of substantial nuggets.


The first was that he planned to release the Mueller report “within a week,” though that announcement came with the caveat that it would be a redacted version of the document, something that didn’t sit well with Democrats, naturally (though Barr also said he would work with congressional leaders so that members could read some parts of the redacted report.)

Democrats also railed against Barr’s four-page summary of Robert Mueller’s report, arguing that it didn’t fully capture the nature or seriousness of the evidence gathered by Mueller’s team, which Barr disputed. “Barr insisted that he had accurately delivered the ‘bottom line’ conclusions from Mr. Mueller’s inquiry into Russia’s election interference and whether any Trump associates conspired, as well as whether President Trump tried to impede the inquiry,” wrote the Times. “He said that Mr. Mueller declined an opportunity to read his March 24 letter before Mr. Barr sent it to lawmakers. And Mr. Barr warned that trying to quickly summarize the report more fully would have exposed him to a minefield of potential criticism.”

Then, the next day, Barr dropped a bigger bombshell. From Politico:

The nation’s top law enforcement official on Wednesday appeared to back up President Donald Trump’s assertion that the Justice Department “spied” on his presidential campaign — an explosive comment that heightened partisan tensions ahead of the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

During his second day of Capitol Hill testimony this week, Attorney General William Barr also suggested that the Justice Department was gearing up to investigate the genesis of the counterintelligence probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — a key rallying cry for Trump and his congressional allies that comes amid the president’s consistent claims that the Mueller report exonerates him.

“Spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee during a hearing about the Justice Department’s budget. “I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t adequately predicated. But I need to explore that.

The charge of spying is indeed an incendiary one, and it predictably sent Democrats into a tizzy, mostly because Barr offered no proof to back up the allegation. Even he seemed to backtrack later in his testimony, but by then many saw it as a deliberate attempt to validate a Trump-approved conspiracy theory, one likely to complicate Barr’s already dicey relationship with Congress.

Chasing Amy: Truancy with a side of hotdish. On the heels of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that drew wide media coverage, Sen. Amy Klobuchar last week pledged to create a clemency advisory board and a new White House position for criminal justice reform if elected president, both aimed at fighting “racism in our criminal justice system,” she said in a CNN Op-Ed.  

If the proposal was meant to cut against the rash of stories questioning her tactics as Hennepin County prosecutor and her commitment to fighting racial inequities in jails and prisons, it was quickly met with another report about practices a Democratic electorate may find questionable.


Ex-MinnPoster Sam Brodey, now at The Daily Beast, detailed how Klobuchar tried to nudge children to stay in school by “vaguely threatening” prosecution through a fridge magnet handed out to parents. “Whether or not it actually happens, it changes a culture, and that’s part of what we’re trying to do here,” Klobuchar said of the magnet in a 2010 interview.

Brodey wrote “the tchotchke represented something darker to local activists who saw a policy that burdened the poor and people of color, and had the potential to create more chaos in the lives of the children the state was purporting to protect.” Klobuchar’s office maintains her anti-truancy strategy was focused on early intervention and expanded support services, not legal punishment.

Klobuchar this week also tangled with the NRA over an updated extension of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which passed the House with legislation to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” aimed at stopping people convicted of stalking misdemeanors from owning guns. Klobuchar has championed her own “boyfriend loophole” legislation before it was included in VAMA.

On the campaign trail, Klobuchar made her first visit to Nevada, headlining a pro-union conference with Bernie Sanders and touting her infrastructure plan at a local middle school. The plan also includes money for updating schools.

In one measure of the strength of campaigns — fundraising — Klobuchar appears to be squarely in the second tier of candidates. She has raised $5.2 million in her first seven weeks of running for president. That puts her behind Sanders, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and even Pete Buttigieg.

The most stinging news of the week for Klobuchar, however, may have been her failure to win the Minnesota delegation’s annual hotdish contest. That honor went to St. Paul Rep. Betty McCollum, for her Hmong-themed “Hotdish A-Hmong Friends,” that includes five thai chilis and two egg roll wraps.

Elsewhere in the presidential race, Joe Biden’s supporters seem to be sticking with him after allegations of unwanted touching, and The New York Times reminds us that the Democratic electorate on Twitter does not reflect the actual electorate voting on the next nominee.

Also, it turns out Bernie Sanders is a millionaire, thanks to writing a best-selling book. He also pledged to release 10 years of tax returns. He won’t pledge, however, to nix the Senate filibuster to pass his Medicare-for-all plan. Jay Inslee, the Washington governor and noted watercolor painter/children’s book author, once again promised to get rid of the filibuster if elected president in a CNN Town Hall on Thursday.

What we’re reading

“They Had It Coming,” The Atlantic
On the college admissions scandal.

“All About Pete,” Current Affairs
A takedown of the Democrats’ new favorite mayor.

“Beto and the Ghost of RFK,” The Bulwark
Beto isn’t the first to make his campaign a quest.

Memo to the Press: How Not to Screw Up on the Mueller Report
Since reporters will get a do-over.

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. And don’t forget to become a MinnPost member.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Evans on 04/12/2019 - 05:26 pm.

    By “spying,” does Barr mean that the FBI was conducting a criminal investigation into the Trump campaign? That’s an unusual and an odd characterization.

    Subsequent convictions and guilty pleas have shown that the campaign organization was being run largely by criminals.

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