What Did I Miss? 9/1

We’ve made it through another week of the Trump presidency.  And while quite a few eye-popping stories relating to the Russia investigation broke this week, this is the actually third or fourth week in a row where the Russia story did not dominate the headlines. Randall Enos / Cagle Cartoons Unfortunately this week it was for the worst of reasons: Hurricane Harvey overwhelmed all other news.

There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said about Harvey, but I hope the people in & around Houston get a break soon.  The only bright spot is that as awful and heartbreaking as it is the watch the suffering, it’s equally hopeful & uplifting to watch the acts of bravery and kindness as thousands of people pitch in to help with rescues and donations and anything else they can think to do.  Along with the devastating damage, those will be the enduring images of this week.  But there was also other news this week, so what else happened this week that you might have missed?

1.  Let’s start with a Harvey related item.  It’s already been remarked on quite a bit that many of the GOP Congress members from Texas who are now asking for funding from the federal government to help with post-Harvey recovery efforts are the same people who voted against funding to help aid the Northeast after Sandy.  I’d add that it wasn’t just these Texas members who voted against Sandy aid, but the vast majority of Republicans in the House and the Senate at the time voted against it.

The excuse the Texas Republicans are giving now, in response to charges of hypocrisy, is that the Sandy aid package was larded up with pork (i.e. lots of extra spending, unrelated to Sandy).  Specifically, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has claimed that two-thirds of the Sandy aid bill “had nothing to do with Sandy.”

So the Washington Post decided to fact check that claim.  And guess what?  It’s  hogwash.

The Congressional Research Service issued a comprehensive report on the provisions, and it’s clear that virtually all of it was related to the damage caused by Sandy . . .

[The Congressional Budget Office] did indicate that the money would be spent relatively slowly — 30 percent by September 2014 and 80 percent by September 2017. But this is not unique to Sandy.

The CBO has explained that it based its analysis of the Sandy legislation on how quickly the government has spent such relief funds in the past.

2.  Closely related to the above, House Republicans have been planning to cut nearly $1 billion from FEMA’s disaster relief account in order to . . . wait for it . . . pay for Trump’s Mexico border wall. The spending bill that would make this cut is set to come up for discussion next week.  This plan was in the works before Hurricane Harvey arose, so it’s possible their plans will now change as the optics would be terrible.

But stop and think about this for a minute.  Just imagine that Harvey had arrived a bit later in hurricane season instead.  There would have been nothing to stop Republicans from going ahead with their plan for this massive cut to disaster relief.  Then let’s say a month from now Harvey decided to show up with the cut already having been agreed to.  This is a perfect demonstration of Republican lust for cutting government at the expense of common sense.  There seems to be an unwillingness to acknowledge that there are genuine needs the federal government must fill.  That is, until they’re the ones who have the need, and then they expect the government to somehow be ready, willing & able to jump in (a la item #1).

3.  Moving away from Harvey-related news, here’s an item that I thought would make a much bigger bang than it did. Perhaps there was just too much other news going on.  Benjamin Wittes, of Lawfare blog, wrote a piece with his colleague Jane Chong calling on Congress to open a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump.

And keep in mind that Wittes is no liberal hippy.  He’s been very critical of Trump throughout the Trump presidency, but Wittes’ background is in national security,* and prior to Trump’s presidency, most liberals were likely to disagree with Wittes as often as (or even more than) they agreed with him.  Which is to say, this isn’t just a cheap shot by an obvious Trump opponent.  Wittes is a serious, cautious thinker, and he and Chong lay out a thoughtful argument here. And to be clear, their argument is for opening the inquiry.  They don’t come to a conclusion about how that inquiry should end.

In our view, Congress should be evaluating at least three baskets of possible impeachable offenses. There is a good deal of overlap between these classes of misconduct, but they are sufficiently distinct to warrant individual attention:

  • his abuses of power, most obviously exemplified by his conduct with respect to the investigations into his campaign’s collusion with Russia;
  • his failures of moral leadership; and
  • his abandonment of the basic duties of his office.

At the extreme, each type of misconduct not only denigrates the presidency but also fundamentally undermines the security of the United States.

If you have a few minutes, give the whole piece a read.  And if you have an extra few minutes, here’s video of Wittes talking about the piece on All in With Chris Hayes earlier this week.

4.  One of the main areas where people view this President as crossing boundaries, and at times possibly abusing his power, is in the area of immigration enforcement – e.g. the Muslim ban, the Arpaio pardon, the defunding of sanctuary cities.  Following in his footsteps, Some Trump-friendly states like Texas have made laws of their own to try to ban “sanctuary cities.” But now those laws are being challenged.  And a Texas judge just granted a preliminary injunction against key parts of the state’s sanctuary cities law that was set to go into effect on Friday.  The law . . .

allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and seeks to punish local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation.

The judge blocked the part of the law that required officials to comply with federal detainer requests, saying it violated the 4th amendment.  He also blocked a provision that says officials may not “adopt, enforce or endorse” any policy limiting the enforcement of immigration laws, because the provision was unconstitutionally  vague.  However, he let stand a portion of the law that allows law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain for other reasons, such as routine traffic stops.

This injunction is temporary – it holds until the case can be fully litigated or until it’s appealed.  Texas Governor Greg Abbott has already announced that the State will appeal immediately.

5.  Two different federal watchdog agencies are looking into Trump’s lease on his D.C. hotel.  The issue here is that the government owns this hotel, which means the government is the landlord.  Trump is leasing the hotel, but when Trump became President he also became the government.  In other words, Trump is now his own landlord at the hotel.  And the lease for the hotel specifically says that:

“No … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom…”

People who care about such things (i.e. people who care about ethics) have been concerned about this issue since Trump won the election.  But the GSA, the federal agency that oversees the hotel, ruled that Trump wasn’t in violation of this clause, because he essentially agreed that distributions that would have gone to him will be invested back into the hotel business instead as long as he is President.  But this is nonsensical, since (a) Trump will benefit from this money that’s being reinvested into the business once his presidency is over, assuming it’s used to help maintain & build the business; and (b) even if Trump isn’t directly benefiting from the lease right now, his children are.

So now the Inspector General of the GSA is taking a look at the issue.  The GAO (Government Accountability Office) is looking into it as well.

And remember, profits at the Trump D.C. hotel have skyrocketed since Trump took office.

6.  And Trump is so determined to end the Iran nuclear deal, which he hates, that he’s apparently pressuring the intelligence community to find Iran in violation (even if it’s not).

US intelligence officials are under pressure from the White House to produce a justification to declare Iran in violation of a 2015 nuclear agreement, in an echo of the politicisation of intelligence that led up to the Iraq invasion, according to former officials and analysts.

Thankfully, so far, the intelligence community appears to be resisting the pressure.  But there’s no guarantee that will hold, or – even if it does – that Trump won’t just go ahead and declare Iran in violation anyway.

7.  Education Secretary Betsy Devos has hired a former official at DeVry University, Julian Schmoke, to head the Education Department’s enforcement unit. This is the unit responsible for investigating fraud at for-profit colleges. And yes, that’s the same DeVry University that recently agreed to a record-breaking $100 million settlement with the FTC for defrauding students.  Schmoke was an academic official, not a corporate executive at DeVry, but still, many are concerned about how his connections to the school will affect his ability to do the job:

Schmoke will oversee a unit that is actively looking into DeVry’s operations, according to two people with knowledge of the enforcement unit’s work. And he will help determine the fate of more than 1,875 former DeVry students who filed claims saying they were defrauded by the university. Those students filed so-called “borrower defense” claims, saying that they were defrauded by DeVry and are entitled to have their student loans forgiven.

8.  And here’s one I just thought was interesting: Pew Research Center asked people of different generations what they thought were the most historic events in their lifetimes.  It seems pretty clear that the results were influenced somewhat by timeliness, but they’re still pretty fascinating.  (And note that the survey was conducted last summer, but they just tweeted it out again this week for some reason.  So obviously events from the past year won’t be reflected here):

9.  And finally, this isn’t a particularly important story, but it’s pretty entertaining. And it’s just an additional window into the soul(lessness) of our President. Politico writes about the one part of the job that Trump really seems to relish: posing for Oval Office photos with guests. In fact, he loves it so much, that even visitors who don’t want to take a picture with Trump get roped into it by him.

The photos illustrate how master marketer Trump sees the job, White House officials say — and are one part of the presidency that doesn’t seem to grate on him, even though other presidents have barely tolerated the click-and-grin sessions.

While Trump scowls in his official presidential portrait and lashes out at his critics on Twitter and at rallies, the private Oval Office photo sessions are largely all teeth and charm, revealing a softer side that Republican leaders wish he’d show more often in public.

Several advisers and aides say Trump appears happiest when showing off the Oval Office, almost seeing it as the ultimate prize, just as he once showed off his celebrity photos, trophies and other memorabilia, such as Shaquille O’Neal’s shoes, at Trump Tower . . .

But Trump also uses the photo sessions to assert his dominance over visitors. He doesn’t accept no for an answer, repeatedly encouraging people reluctant to pose, including reporters and others who may feel uncomfortable taking photos with the president. One business executive said everyone knew the picture was a demand in a recent meeting, even though some other executives said they felt squeamish afterward because the photos can become fodder for criticism in a polarized political era.

“Let’s take a couple more,” Trump told two POLITICO reporters after an interview earlier this year, ignoring their repeated objections.

 

*****

NOTE:

*You may remember Wittes from this New York Times piece about James Comey.

 

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