On the climate crisis
Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the most powerful storm the island had seen in a century, knocking electricity out, destroying the power grid in such a complete way that, as San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told MSNBC, the island is “looking at 4 to 6 months without electricity.” The death toll stands at 18 total, in both Dominica and Puerto Rico, but that count is expected to rise in the coming days.
On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration would not be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, a big (non)move which, as Dino Grandoni at The Washington Post observes, “would have been a step toward mending relations with allies abroad and toward further repudiating the Stephen K. Bannon wing of the White House.” However: the White House immediately pushed back against the story – Sarah Sanders, the administration’s press secretary, tweeted that Trump’s position on the Paris agreement hadn’t changed, and both Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, the Secretary of State and national security advisor, made appearances on Sunday morning news programs to deliver the same message which, according to Grandoni in that same Post story, is what Trump has been saying all along: he’d be willing to reenter the agreement if it’s made “fair to the United State, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.”
The Interior Department is proposing, via an internal memo (since obtained and made public by The New York Times), “lifting restrictions on exploratory seismic studies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” – in order to see how much oil is beneath it, and whether it’s worth it to drill there or not. This is a big deal because, as the Times reports, “the Arctic refuge, which covers more than 30,000 square miles, has been closed off to commercial drilling for decades because of concerns about the impact on polar bears, caribou and other animals in the region.”
The Associated Press reports that Michael L. Dourson, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety office, “has for years accepted payments for criticizing studies that raised concerns about the safety of his clients’ products.” Dourson’s past clients include Dow Chemical Co., Koch Industries, and Chevron Corp.; he’s also published three books “seeking to reconcile his work as a scientist and a devoted Christian.”
North Korea – the world’s most dangerous game of chicken (plus Iran!)
FUN FACT: Trump used the word “sovereign” (or some form of it) 21 times during his UN speech. For a great text analysis of the speech, take a look at this article at Quartz.
On Sunday US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley appeared on Face the Nation and claimed that the UN Security Council “has pretty much exhausted” all options and that she was “perfectly happy kicking this over to General Mattis because he has plenty of military options” – a not-so-veiled warning to North Korea that President Trump, in his very first speech to the UN General Assembly, made explicit. Referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong un as “Rocket Man,” Trump claimed that the US “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” if it was forced to defend itself or its allies. Trump also singled out Iran and Syria, referring to the Iran nuclear deal as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States” had ever agreed to – leading some analysts to conclude that the deal’s days are numbered – and indeed, the day after the speech, Reuters reported that the administration is deciding whether to abandon the agreement.
Also: in response to Trump’s rhetoric, North Korea’s foreign minister called his speech the “sound of a dog barking.” Kim Jong un responded days later, calling Trump “deranged” and “a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire,” and warned that the US “would pay dearly” for Trump’s remarks.
At the National Review, Rich Lowry makes the observation that “we’ve never heard such direct, undiplomatic language from a U.S. president,” calling it “a fine speech.”
To read the full transcript of Trump’s speech, click here.
In a Reuters exclusive on Wednesday (the day after Trump’s remarks), Polina Nikolskaya reported that “at least eight North Korean ships that left Russia with a cargo of fuel this year headed for their homeland despite declaring other destinations.” US officials are calling this a ploy by the North Koreans to undermine the many sanctions the international community has placed on them.
On Thursday, Trump signed an executive order instructing the US Treasury “to target firms and financial institutions conducting business” with North Korea. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin summed up the new sanctions this way: “Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that going forward they can choose to do business with the United States or with North Korea, but not both.”
This week in Russia
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Sunday, discussing, according to Lavrov’s spokesperson, “cooperation on the Syrian crisis, Middle East issues, and the agreement to bring peace to Ukraine.”
Three bombshell stories about the investigation into Russian meddling were published this week, both about former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort: the first, posted to CNN on Monday, reports that federal investigators wiretapped Manafort “under secret court orders” before and after the election, “including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump.” The order was first authorized due to “work done by a group of Washington consulting firms for Ukraine’s former ruling party,” but was discontinued briefly in 2016 for lack of evidence. It was later renewed as “part of the FBI’s efforts to investigate ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives.”
The second story, published in The New York Times later the same day, reports that members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team told Manafort they were planning to indict him, following a raid on his house in July. Also in the story: Mueller’s team has subpoenaed a few other people in Manafort’s orbit, in particular Jason Maloni, his former spokesman, and one of his former attorneys.
The third, published in The Washington Post, reports that Manafort “offered to provide briefings on the [presidential] race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin,” although there is no evidence the offer was accepted. That billionaire, investigators believe, is Oleg Deripaska, who, the Post reports, “is widely seen as an important ally of President Vladimir Putin” and among, according to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, “the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis.”
At Lawfare, Susan Hennessey, Shannon Togawa Mercer, and Benjamin Wittes assert that Mueller’s probe “has reached a critical stage,” and explain what some of his recent moves may mean.
Reuters reports that Trump “is using money donated to his re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee to pay for his lawyers” in the Russia probe. CNN confirmed the story, reporting that the RNC had shelled out more than $230,000 to help cover some of Trump’s legal expenses. As that same Reuters report observes, while it’s not unusual for presidents to use campaign funds for legal expenses, “Trump would be the first U.S. president in the modern campaign finance era to use such funds to cover the cost of responding to a criminal probe.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was interviewed in the summer about former FBI director James Comey’s firing by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal – an awkward development, considering Rosenstein is technically Mueller’s boss. Despite this and calls for him to recuse himself, Rosenstein has remained in charge of the probe.
RECOMMENDED: This guide from Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare on how to read a news story about an investigation.
A new healthcare bill co-sponsored by senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy – of South Carolina and Louisiana, respectively – is gaining some serious momentum among Republicans in the Senate. The Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill – what lots of folks on the internet and on TV are calling the GOP’s “last-ditch effort” to repeal the Affordable Care Act – would “put the ACA’s financing for subsidized private health insurance and Medicaid expansion into a giant pot and redistribute it among states according to new formulas.” Essentially: the federal government would take the money currently used to finance the ACA and give it to states to use as they like (as long as it’s on healthcare). The bill would also cut sharply back on Medicaid funding, which likely means lots of Americans would lose their health insurance in the coming years.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is planning on holding a vote on the bill next week, despite the fact that the Congressional Budget Office has said it doesn’t have time to complete an analysis on it before then. The reason for the quick vote? “Senators only have until the end of the month to pass a bill with just 51 votes under the procedure known as reconciliation,” according to CNN. Starting in October, any bill would need 60 votes to pass.
Despite the steam it’s seemed to gain, it’s still not clear whether the bill has enough votes to pass. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has said he’ll vote no, and three key Republicans from July’s healthcare drama are still undecided: John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins.
RECOMMENDED: Thursday’s episode of “The Daily” from the New York Times, on Graham-Cassidy, and whether John McCain, one of Lindsey Graham’s best friends, will vote against it.
Protesters took to the streets of St. Louis Friday night after Jason Stockley, a white police officer, was acquitted of murder in the shooting death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith. The protests continued on Saturday but “erupted in violence after nightfall” on Sunday, when some protesters “attacked police, broke windows and flipped over trash cans.” In the ensuing chaos, more than 80 people were arrested.
On Saturday, California state legislators voted to make California a “sanctuary state.” The California Values Act bill “limits police cooperation with federal immigration authorities and is intended to bolster protections for illegal immigrants in the state,” according to Fox News. The bill passed along party lines and now waits for Governor Jerry Brown, who’s expected to sign it. Its easy passage took place, as The Washington Post observes, “just a day after…a federal judge blocked the Justice Department from withholding grant funds” from so-called sanctuary cities. The state is also, as of Wednesday, suing the Trump administration over its plan to build a border wall, citing environmental standards violations, “as well as constitutional provisions regarding the separation of powers and states’ rights.”
The Senate passed “a sweeping $692 billion defense policy bill for the new fiscal year,” on Monday, setting up, as POLITICO observes, “what could be contentious negotiations with the House,” which passed its own defense spending bill back in July.
According to an exclusive report in Reuters, “the Trump administration is preparing to make it easier for American gun makers to sell small arms…to foreign buyers.” Domestic gun sales have slumped significantly since Trump’s election in November.
POLITICO reports, after reviewing “dozens of resumes from political appointees” to the USDA, that “the agency has been stocked with Trump campaign staff and volunteers who in many cases demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture.” Some of Trump’s appointees include “a long-haul truck driver, a country club cabana attendant and the owner of a scented-candle company.”
POLITICO (doing good work this week) reports that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has spent more than $300,000 of taxpayer money on private air travel since May, chartering at least 24 flights – a sharp departure from the previous two HHS secretaries, who flew commercially.
The State Department is planning to provide $700 million in humanitarian aid to Syria, according to The Hill.
header image: "room of the UN general assembly," chris erbach / wikimedia commons