National News Roundup: Week 25 (July 9–15)
Well it’s not quite porcine pilots, but we appear to have a net-positive news week when I’m writing this on Sunday evening, which by this point is strange in its own way. At any rate, enjoy for now, and I’ll try not to jinx it! I can’t imagine positive news is long for this world.
Standard standing reminders apply: I am no journalist, though I play one in your inbox or browser, so I’m only summarizing the news within my area of expertise. This news continues to contain multiple headlines each week outside my area as a legal generalist — still a lawyer, not a spy! — but all offroad adventures are marked with an asterisk. Okay, I think that’s about it for the disclaimers. Onward to the news!
Constitutional Crisis Corners:
As news on Donald Trump Jr’s now-infamous Russia meeting continued to unspool, we gained new insight into The Russia Collusion Investigation, though it’s still hard to make heads or tails of much of it.
- Donald Trump Jr.’s Admission Gets Worse. Remember last week, when I thought simply saying that “[The attorney] had no meaningful information” was a major admission? Oh, to have the simple naivety of one week ago. In the time since that happened, Donald Trump Jr. has tweeted the entire contents of his email correspondence on the matter, which clarified that Trump Jr understood this material to be part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy — in other words, a textbook example of collusion. We also learned there were at least eight people present for the meeting, including a Russian-American lobbyist, Jared Kushner, publicist Rob Goldstone, and Paul Manafort. Some media outlets were claiming the story was a smoking gun immediately afterwards, and Trump Jr. has been asked to testify before the Congressional committee next week. That said, though, it’s a bit early to break out the impeachment china, and Republicans certainly don’t have a lot to say on the topic. We’ll have to keep watching and see where things go from here.
- The Wray Hearing. Against the bizarre backdrop of Trump Jr’s never-ending bombshells, the Senate conducted an FBI Director confirmation hearing of Christopher Wray on Wednesday. Unsurprisingly, several senators wanted confirmation that he wouldn’t bow to pressure to drop an investigation, and Senator Graham also wanted his opinion on the Trump Jr mess as well. (Wray was reluctant to give a direct answer on that.) In general, the Democrats seem supportive of the appointment, which may be a reflection of their eagerness to have a fully-functioning FBI again.
- DOJ Fails to Meet Court’s Deadline for Russia Meetings Info. The Department of Justice missed a deadline this week to provide a court with more information about Sessions’s contact with Russian entities — information which had been ordered by the court after a Freedom of Information Act request was filed on the topic. They eventually did release the information, a day late, but Sessions’ failure to comply on the topic of Russian contact in a timely fashion was not a good look. (Not coincidentally, all this was happening at the same time that Donald Trump Jr’s own contact with Russian officials was being slowly revealed.)
And just like last week, we have some miscellany I’m calling a Constitutional Crisis Grab Bag. They’re all symptoms of a larger, more serious threat, which I’ll talk more about below.
- State Department Spending. This past week, we learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that the State Department paid $15,000 for board at a Trump hotel in Vancouver in February. The costs apparently were to cover secret service people’s stay in the hotel, which was necessary as a form of protection detail because several family members were visiting to attend its grand opening. Given that the travel appeared to have had absolutely nothing to do with political obligations, and the family still billed the State Department for staying at the hotel to provide security relating to business obligations, this may be the single biggest instance of personal enrichment to be officially reported since Trump took office.
- Sessions Speech Revealed. This week, Sessions gave a speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — a conservative Christian law firm that was designated a “hate group” in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center — and refused to release the text of his speech. Weirdly, The Federalist is here for us, and released a transcript of the entire thing. (Note: While the text of that speech certainly could be worse, it’s still full of dog whistles like “Western heritage,” “religious freedom,” and “enshrined in the Constitution,” and I recommend exercising caution if that sort of thing is triggering for you.) As several advocates have noted, the speech itself suggests an aggressive agenda of discrimination, which is certainly in keeping with the rest of what we’re seeing from him.
Your “Normal” Weird:
- The Rocks Run for Office. Both Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kid Rock have apparently filled out paperwork to run in 2020 elections (though there’s some evidence to suggest the latter is a publicity stunt). The Rock’s paperwork was filled out and filed by someone in West Virginia, so it’s unclear if the Rock wants to run or someone else simply really, really wants him to. At any rate, apparently people would rather vote for Rocks than the current President.
- State of the BCRA. We’re in a weird, schadenfreude-filled position with the Better Care Reconciliation Act right now. Mitch McConnell released text of a new version of the Senate bill on Thursday, indicating that the August Congressional recess will be postponed to permit more time for a vote — an expected move, since conventional wisdom says that Congress needs to act soon if they are going to act at all. The bill itself was still pretty terrible, and it’s not surprising that both Susan Collins and Rand Paul said they would not vote for it. What is surprising, at least if you’re McConnell, is that McCain then went into the hospital for emergency surgery, ensuring that the Senate GOP definitely cannot get the votes they need this week unless they force one of the other two Senators to change their position. McConnell has announced that he’ll need to postpone the vote as a result, opting to wait until McCain gets back; doctors have suggested that might not be for a week or more. In the meantime, two more Senators have announced they won’t vote for the bill, so McConnell will have his work cut out for him when McCain returns.
- “Healthcare Fraud” DOJ Sweeps. You can probably tell what I think of this from the title, but I feel I owe readers some context: The opioid crisis is an issue extremely near to my heart, because I worked to connect people addicted to substances to treatment every day for several years. I absolutely do not dispute that we have a terrible epidemic in this country, and that people are exploited every day in service of selling a dangerous and highly addictive substance. I also cannot tell you how many times I verified that people with drug-related criminal charges had been originally prescribed medications for pain, and traced their addiction back to a reliance on those medications. But this administration’s official statements blend together real descriptions of an actual epidemic and bizarre rhetoric about “fraudsters” and “hard-earned tax dollars,” and more to the point, these charges are a way to keep down costs. For that reason alone, I would be suspicious of anything being billed as “the most sweeping enforcement to date” and “the biggest takedown of health-care fraud in U.S. history” with an allegation of $1.3 billion in damages. Though the administration insists that the 400 people charged are defrauding health care, some of the charges, such as “prescribing unnecessary opioids,” sound less like healthcare fraud and more like… doctors prescribing things that the administration says aren’t needed. If this administration really wanted to address the opioid epidemic in this country — and I wish they would — we wouldn’t be cutting the funding for opioid treatment built into the Affordable Care Act, and we wouldn’t be returning to mandatory minimums for possession of substances, a policy that has been shown over and over again to be ineffective, costly, and exacerbate substance use.
- Net Neutrality Day of Action. This past Wednesday was a Net Neutrality Day of Action, organized by many, many efforts across the tech sector. Although some critics point out that major companies could have done more, both companies and consumers participated at incredibly high rates, leaving literally millions of comments with the FCC and Congress. Fortune Magazine wrote up a good summary of tech companies’ participation, as well as a good summary of our overall situation.
- ACLU Sues the Election Integrity Commission. Adding to the list of names from last week, the ACLU has brought a suit against the Election Integrity Commission alleging that the committee violates federal public access requirements because they don’t make their meetings accessible to the public. The suit is the latest of several, and the collective suits prompted Vice President Pence to send a letter to the commission asking them to hold off on gathering data.
- Media Backlash Backlash. Though this isn’t national news per se, I do think the representation reflected is relevant (and try saying that five times fast!). Two very awesome announcements were made this week on the fiction side of things: Disney released an official trailer this week for their new adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, which features several awesome and interesting casting decisions, including a multiracial Meg and Charles Wallace, a male Happy Medium, and famous actors of color for Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. This representation is perhaps not surprising, as Ava DuVernay was announced as the director in February 2016, but it’s still awesome! Also, within hours of the trailer’s release, BBC also announced its plans for the thirteenth Doctor on the popular television show Doctor Who — which, unlike A Wrinkle in Time, definitely was decided post-Trump (because Peter Capaldi didn’t announce he was leaving the show until January). The next Doctor will be played by Jodie Whittaker, a decision new director/head writer Chris Chibnall says he had planned since he rejoined the series. There has never been a female Doctor in the show’s fifty-something year tenure, and it’s a topic that has been weirdly controversial for years. Mr. Chibnall is definitely making an intentional statement about representation with this casting.
- Articles of Impeachment. Rep Brad Sherman officially introduced an article of impeachment this past week, charging Trump with obstruction of justice because of the way the Comey investigation was handled. It’s not clear how much traction this will gain, if any, but he had at least one co-sponsor: Fellow Dem rep and impeachment enthusiast Al Green. Right now, there’s not a lot to indicate the House will adopt the articles, or that the Senate will conduct a trial, but with the Donald Trump Jr. bombshell out there, anything is probably possible. We’ll have to watch and see where we go from here.
And that’s all the news this week, like a slightly tarnished oasis in a desert of suck. Drink it in, folks! The news so rarely grants us any respite, we all need to enjoy it while we can.