‘we’re getting nothing done’
This week in Russia
Last Friday, the Washington Post reported that Sergey Kislyak, who until last week was Russia’s ambassador to Washington, “told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters…with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race,” contradicting Sessions’ public testimony in June, in which he asserted that he “never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States.” Kislyak’s statements were intercepted by US intelligence agencies, but some officials are wary of placing too much weight on them because, as the Post cautions, Russian diplomats have in the past “report[ed] false or misleading information to bolster their standing with their superiors or to confuse U.S. intelligence agencies.”
On Monday and Tuesday, President Trump took to Twitter to repeatedly criticize Sessions, calling him “beleaguered,” and asserting that he’d “taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” The Associated Press reports that “privately, Trump has speculated aloud to allies in recent days about the potential consequences of firing Sessions” – a report which Axios confirmed on Monday, when it reported that Trump has internally floated the idea of replacing Sessions with Rudy Giuliani, although “Trump often muses about possible personnel moves that he never makes.” Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, also seemed to confirm reports of Sessions’ impending resignation/removal when radio host Hugh Hewitt claimed it was clear that Trump wanted Sessions gone – Scaramucci replied “you’re probably right.”
On Thursday, Sessions told the Associated Press he would stay put unless forced out.
At The Atlantic, David A. Graham wonders why Trump hasn’t simply fired Sessions.
Trump son-in-law and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner testified privately in the Senate on Monday and the House on Tuesday, but released an 11-page public statement “detail[ing] four meetings he had with Russian officials or nationals during the 2016 campaign and transition period…describ[ing] them as brief and unremarkable contacts.”
Read Kushner’s full statement here.
Donald Trump Jr. did not testify publicly this week, as had been originally reported. Instead, he “cut a deal” to “provide records to the [Senate Judiciary Committee] and to be privately interviewed ahead of any public session.” Paul Manafort, however, was subpoenaed late Monday after he did not agree to be interviewed or provide records to the Committee. The subpoena was issued despite the fact that Manafort spoke with the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday morning, and “answered their questions fully,” according to his spokesman.
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing, anyway, focusing instead on an “inquiry into the little-known and – critics say – little-enforced Foreign Agents Registration Act. Three officials from the Justice Department and FBI testified alongside Bill Browder, a businessman responsible for the Magnitsky Act, which “[had] been the focus of two of the Russian advocates who took part in the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016.”
Meanwhile, Special Counsel Robert Mueller – whose investigation is increasingly tenuous, according to multiple reports – asked the White House on Friday “to preserve all of its communications about” the June 2016 meeting in which Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner sought damaging information on Hillary Clinton from Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Last Friday Reuters reported that Veselnitskaya “counted Russia’s FSB security service among her clients” for nearly a decade. The FSB is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and was led by Vladimir Putin before he became Russia’s president in 2000.
Three senators – Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) – are currently working on legislation designed to prevent Trump from firing Mueller without judicial review.
At Lawfare, Andrew Crespo examines Robert Mueller’s investigative independence and wonders whether a sitting president can be indicted on criminal charges.
Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise on a bill to put in place tougher sanctions on Russia. The bill, which had been languishing in the House for weeks, sets up a difficult choice for Trump, who has been warned against signing it by Russia – which is threatening retaliation – and the EU, which believes the sanctions could affect “the financing of a controversial new pipeline, Nord Stream 2, that would carry natural gas from Russia to Germany.” The bill, which also includes sanctions against North Korea and Iran, passed nearly unanimously in both the House and the Senate.
Anthony Scaramucci seemed to be telegraphing the White House’s thinking when he said on CNN Wednesday that Trump “may sign the sanctions exactly the way they are, or he may veto the sanctions and negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians.” Most believe there’s enough support in both houses of Congress to override a Trump veto.
The healthcare debacle
On Tuesday, the Senate voted to open debate on Obamacare repeal, with John McCain (R-AZ) casting the decisive vote just moments before delivering an emotional speech against hyper-partisanship, in which he claimed he would not vote for the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), the Senate’s proposed healthcare bill. Hours later, McCain voted yes on the bill anyway, attracting lots of media criticism in the process. Despite McCain’s vote, the healthcare proposal failed, with nine GOP senators joining all 48 Democrats to vote no, 57-43.
On Wednesday, the Senate rejected a straightforward appeal 55-45, with seven Republican Senators joining Democrats in opposition.
According to reports in the Alaska Dispatch News, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke called the offices of Alaska senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski to “say their state could run into trouble with the Trump administration,” a day after Trump criticized Murkowski on Twitter for voting against the Republican healthcare proposal.
In a dramatic twist early Friday morning, John McCain joined Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski as the only Republican senators to vote no on a ‘skinny’ repeal of Obamacare, surprising Mitch McConnell and disappointing Donald Trump, who tweeted shortly after: “3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!” In an official statement, McCain wrote that “while the [‘skinny’ repeal] would have repealed some of Obamacare’s most burdensome regulations, it offered no replacement to actually reform our health care system and deliver affordable, quality health care to our citizens.”
At The American Conservative, Chase Madar makes the case that “within five years, the American Right will happily embrace socialized medicine.”
The Mooch replaces ‘Spicey’
Last Friday, President Trump named Anthony Scaramucci, a rich New York entrepreneur and former hedge fund manager, as his new communications director. Following Scaramucci’s hiring, Sean Spicer, the much-maligned press secretary whose termination had been predicted for months, resigned, and Sarah Sanders was tapped to replace him.
On Saturday and Sunday, Scaramucci appeared on a number of shows, defending Trump’s Twitter use and condemning White House leaks, vowing to “take drastic action.” Scaramucci also received some heat for deleting old tweets that were critical of Trump or expressed liberal views, even tweeting at one point that “past views…shouldn’t be a distraction.”
BONUS: take a look at this story in the New York Times, about Scaramucci’s use of cable news – and personality – to “woo” Trump in his first weekend on the job.
As Reuters reports, Scaramucci is still waiting fort the Committee on Foreign Investment to greenlight the sale of his hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital LLC, to a Chinese conglomerate.
On Tuesday, assistant press secretary Michael Short resigned after a report published by POLITICO said that he would be fired “in Scaramucci’s quest to uproot leakers.” Also on Tuesday: Scaramucci threatened to fire his entire staff, asserting during a press briefing that “I’m going to fire everybody, that’s how I’m going to [stop the leaks].”
On Thursday morning, Scaramucci “called into CNN and all but accused White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus” of leaking Scaramucci’s financial information to POLITICO, following a report “that indicates he has assets worth as much as $85 million, and took a $5 million salary from SkyBridge Capital” in the first half of 2017.
On the climate crisis
Two Democratic senators, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii “pitched their American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act as a proposal Republicans should be able to get behind” on Wednesday, telling a conservative think tank that the money raised by the proposed carbon tax, “more than $2 trillion over 10 years – would go to a reduction in the corporate tax rate, tax credits to workers and recipients of federal assistance and state block grants.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began the process of repealing the Obama-era Clean Water Rule on Thursday.
On Wednesday the White House sanctioned 13 Venezuelan officials “tied to President Nicolás Maduro’s government…four days before the South American nation plans to hold a vote that the U.S. says will turn Maduro’s rule into a dictatorship.” The White House also said Venezuela should expect more sanctions if it votes to create the national constituent assembly that many believe would rewrite the Venezuelan constitution to concentrate more power in Maduro’s hands. On Thursday, the US ordered family members of its embassy employees to evacuate.
Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI) forgot to switch off their microphones after a subcommittee meeting, and engaged in a gossipy conversation about President Trump, in which Reed referred to him as “crazy,” and Collins replied, “I’m worried,” and suggested Trump didn’t understand the federal budgeting process. She also referred to a fellow lawmaker – who’d earlier challenged her to a duel during a radio interview – as “unattractive.”
Trump announced a ban on transgendered individuals serving in the military via a series of tweets, writing that “after consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” On Thursday the United States’ top general, Marine General Joseph Dunford, who is chair of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “there had been no change yet to Pentagon policy on transgender personnel,” and that there wouldn’t be until Trump directed Secretary of Defense James Mattis to implement the policy.
On Wednesday the Justice Department wrote in a friend of the court brief that “federal law does not ban discrimination against gay employees,” which, as Reuters observes, is “a sharp reversal of the position former President Barack Obama took on a key civil rights issue.”
The House voted on Thursday to approve a $658 billion defense spending budget that includes $1.6 billion as a down payment for construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico.