Rex Tillerson

Momentous Week in Washington Touches on Core National Values

The Supreme Court ruled on gerrymandering and the Census citizenship question, Congress debated emergency border funding and set a date for testimony by former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, Trump flew to Japan for a G20 summit and Democratic presidential candidates debated in Miami. It was a pretty momentous week.

The Supreme Court ruled on gerrymandering and the Census citizenship question, Congress debated emergency border funding and set a date for testimony by former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, Trump flew to Japan for a G20 summit and Democratic presidential candidates debated in Miami. It was a pretty momentous week.

This has proven to be a momentous week in Washington, DC that touched on the nation’s core institutions and values and how they interrelate.

The Supreme Court, in separate 5-4 rulings, left untouched partisan-tinged congressional district gerrymandering and blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to place on a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census.

The high court’s majority said the US Constitution doesn’t bar politically influenced gerrymandering or allocate authority to the court to police it. In an impassioned dissent, the minority said the ruling is setback for democratic values.

Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Trump administration failed to make a persuasive argument that the citizenship question is needed to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. "If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case," Roberts wrote. The Census Bureau has said it wants to start printing questionnaires next Monday. Calling the ruling “ridiculous,” Trump indicated he would try to delay the Census “for as long as it takes.”

Meanwhile, Congress struggled to reach bipartisan agreement on an emergency funding measure to address border migration issues before the July 4 recess. The Democratically controlled House and the Republican controlled Senate passed separate versions this week. Among the differences between the two bills is whether there will be specific directions on how the $4.5 billion can be spent. President Trump has threatened to veto the House version. 

The picture of the drowned bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande shocked the nation and accentuated calls for actions to address the humanitarian crisis on the border. (Photo Credit: Julia Le Duc/AP)

The picture of the drowned bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande shocked the nation and accentuated calls for actions to address the humanitarian crisis on the border. (Photo Credit: Julia Le Duc/AP)

Republicans and Democrats acknowledge there is a humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, punctuated by the widely circulated photograph of a Salvadoran father and his young daughter clutching his neck who drowned in the Rio Grande trying to enter the United States without going through a port of entry.

The uproar caused by the photo and continuing coverage of child migrant holding facilities prompted John Sanders, acting head of US Customs and Border Patrol, to resign. Tellingly, he submitted his resignation to the acting head of Homeland Security.

As Trump flew to Japan for a G20 meeting on Wednesday, Democratic candidates sparred in Miami in the first of two debates in the 2020 presidential election. They talked about health care reform, immigration policy, climate change and economic policy. Trump, who watched the first night’s debate on Air Force One, called it boring as the first 10 candidates staked out largely progressive agendas that included moving away from private health insurance and increasing taxes on wealthy Americans.

The second set of hopefuls, which includes frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, will debate Thursday night.

In Japan, Trump is expected to meet on the sidelines with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. His conversation with Xi will likely center on an escalating trade war that is taking its toll on both countries’ bottom lines. Trump snarled at reporters who asked what he will discuss with Putin, telling them it was “none of your business.” Heightened tensions in Iran and Russian military involvement in Venezuela are two probable topics.

Ahead of the summit, Trump lashed out at India, Japan and Germany over trade policy and “security freeloaders.” Trump is expected once again to object to any joint statement at the summit that references the Paris Climate Accord, which will further strain US-French relations. 

Congressional Democrats announced former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller will testify publicly July 17 before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. That suggests the two hearings will sequentially deal with Trump’s potential obstruction of justice and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election..

Questioning of Mueller is virtually certain to zero in on testimony provided to his investigation under oath by White House officials who have been barred from testifying in Congress by Trump’s attorneys. The interrogation could prove pivotal to a decision by House Democratic leaders to draw up articles of impeachment.

Another fight is brewing over foreign policy. Democrats insist Trump needs a congressional declaration of war before launching any military action in Iran. Trump, supported by Senate GOP leaders, says he doesn’t.

A bipartisan resolution calling on the Trump administration to suspend an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia won’t stop the deal, according to Trump officials.

Under the radar, former Trump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been testifying in private to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A transcript of his testimony released this week included Tillerson’s claim that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was in contact with world leaders without coordination with the State Department, often leaving him out of the loop on emerging policies. 

“Tillerson also described the challenge of briefing a president who does not read briefing papers and often got distracted by peripheral topics, noting he had to keep his message short and focus on a single topic,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

 

 

Nation’s Capital Waiting, Watching for Deadlines, Shoes to Drop

Turbulent clouds hovering over the US Capitol are apropos for the bevy of big issues and decisions that are pending, and for the prospects of more unexpected shoes to drop.   Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Turbulent clouds hovering over the US Capitol are apropos for the bevy of big issues and decisions that are pending, and for the prospects of more unexpected shoes to drop. 

Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Washington, DC is full of apprehension as big events loom. More West Wing staff changes. An omnibus spending bill. President Trump’s message to Congress explaining his steel and aluminum tariffs. A pending deadline on the Iran nuclear deal. Anticipated face-to-face talks with North Korea. Possible gun violence legislation. And new developments in the Russian meddling investigation.

Last week saw a continuation of the revolving door for the Trump team and rumors persist that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may be the next to get the boot. Ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and McMaster have urged a more cautious approach toward Iran, which runs counter to what Trump wants. The President’s personal staff remains in flux, too.

Intensive bipartisan negotiations continue on a massive spending package, which Congress tasked itself with approving by this Friday as part of brokered deal last month to prevent another federal government shutdown. There was hope pieces of the $1.3 trillion spending measure would fall into place so it could be passed in something resembling normal order. That hope appears dashed, as disagreements persist on everything from women’s health to Trump’s border wall and from campaign finance to a major transportation project in New York and New Jersey. Negotiations are tricky because many House and Senate Republicans are expected to oppose the measure as fiscally reckless, which means it will fall to Democrats to approve it, so they have bargaining power to set the terms.

Trump’s abrupt decision to impose stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Within 30 days of when the tariffs go into effect, Trump must tell Congress formally why he imposed them – and whether and how he may exempt some nations from the tariffs. Many congressional Republicans aren’t keen on the tariffs because of their unintended effects on other parts of the economy and their potential to start a global trade war. Trump’s top economic adviser quit after Trump announced the tariffs. The European Union and some steel-producing countries have threatened trade retaliation, either through tariffs or shifting large purchases, such as commercial aircraft, from US to other suppliers. The tit-for-tat could result in one or more countries, including the United States, filing unfair trade complaints with the World Trade Organization.

The Tillerson firing (the former head of Exxon-Mobile learned he was canned while on the toilet, according to press reports) and the shaky status of McMaster are likely linked to the May 12 deadline Trump faces on whether to extend the waiver on Iranian sanctions lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear arms deal. Trump said he reluctantly waived sanctions in January, but has sounded more bellicose since then toward Iran. He has sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who views the deal as weak. Trump also has aligned with Saudi Arabia in a conflict in Yemen that is effectively a proxy war between the Saudis and Iranians, which both seek greater influence in Middle East.

Trump said he wanted a secretary of state closer to his mindset as he approaches personal negotiations with North Korea.

Leader Kim Jong-un sometime this spring. Trump chose CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, but that nomination could face trouble in the Senate as two GOP senators have already said they would oppose his confirmation. There is uneasiness that Trump and his administration may not be prepared to deal with Kim, but the talks appear on the road to happening as North Korea and Sweden, which is the American shadow voice, explore ways to find a peaceful resolution.

The Parkland, Florida school shootings sparked a vigorous, student-led national push for gun violence legislation. Florida lawmakers and GOP Governor Rick Scott approved a measure over objections from the National Rifle Association. The NRA subsequently challenged the constitutionality of one provision in the bill raising the legal age to buy long weapons from 18 to 21 years old. Trump has bounced around on what he would support, including support for arming some school teachers, but there are hints of a building bipartisan consensus in Congress to strengthen background checks before gun purchases – and possibly take further steps. For his part, Trump has asked his administration to find a way to ban bump stocks, a device used in the Las Vegas massacre to turn a semi-automatic weapon into a virtual machine gun.

Despite boastful predictions by Trump and his team that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would wrap up soon, the opposite appears true. Last week’s news included subpoenas issued to the Trump Organization for documents relating to its dealings with Russian financial interests. The firing of Andrew McCabe from the FBI just before he was set to retire, which was celebrated in Trump tweets, may have added more propellant to charges of obstruction of justice. While the firing of McCabe may have been inspired as a way to discredit him as a witness against Trump, but it also removed any shackles McCabe may have felt to tell what he knows about Trump attempts to blunt the Russia meddling issue.

If that wasn’t bewildering enough, there also is the Stormy Daniels spectacle. The former porn star and her new attorney are keeping the story about a sexual encounter and hush money front and center. Trump has denied having a fling with Daniels, despite pictures of the two of them together and negotiations on Trump Organization email between his fix-it attorney and Daniels that resulted in a $130,000 hush money payment just before the 2016 election. Last week, Trump’s team baffled observers by declaring Daniels owed $20 million for violating terms of the non-disclosure agreement.

There is never a dull moment in the nation’s capital, and probably never an empty bar seat.