Robert Mueller

Brexit, Border Wall Throttle Leading Democracies, Delighting Putin

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Maybe it is coincidence or a case of bad karma extending across the pond as the United States and United Kingdom find themselves in shutdown mode – with seemingly no clue how to escape, despite enormous economic consequences.

The partial federal government shutdown is simple to understand. President Trump wants $5.7 billion for a border barrier and Democrats refuse, calling it wasteful spending on an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.

Trump has said the budget stalemate could be resolved in 15 minutes, which is true. The Democrat-led House has passed a nearly identical spending bill to what the Senate approved unanimously last year after Trump signaled his support. Then Trump changed his mind and demanded border wall money. He has refused to budge, other than to acquiesce to a steel instead of concrete barrier.

Federal employees and contractors caught in the cross-hairs of the border wall fight have been furloughed, forced to work without pay, not paid or encouraged to find new jobs. National parks have closed, airport security lines have lengthened and farmers haven’t gotten their subsidies to compensate for losses they incurred from the Trump trade war. Pre-season forest thinning and hurricane forecasting has been disrupted. A workplace training session for Oregon lawmakers was postponed. Federal income tax refunds could be delayed. 

As bad as all that is, it may pale in comparison to Britain’s predicament. The British Parliament on Tuesday rejected the Brexit deal that took Prime Minister Theresa May two years to negotiate with her reticent European Union counterparts. The 432-202 parliamentary defeat of the May Brexit plan is the most lopsided loss for a sitting government in British history.

Britain faces a March 29 deadline to withdraw from the EU. May, who survived a no-confidence vote by her own Conservative Party last year and faces another one by an opposition party, was given until next Monday to come up with a plan.

Unlike the US government shutdown that is stuck on a single issue, the UK is trying to disengage from an alliance. It is similar to a state like California trying to secede from the United States.

May faces a Rubix Cube of options, none of which is very promising. EU leaders have shown little inclination to grant further concessions to Britain. Asking the British people to vote a second time on Brexit risks having a second vote in favor of the pullout, with no more clarity on how to achieve it. Extending the deadline for the EU exit without a consensus game plan would be like a prisoner asking for more torture.  

That leaves Britain with the somber prospect of slipping out of the EU without a deal and without substitute bilateral trade deals with key trading partners such as the United States. The plan-less exit also would pose serious internal problems, such as how to manage the border between Ireland, which would still be in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which wouldn’t. This is a border that has a troubled history as a true humanitarian crisis. Many worry it could return to that troubled history.

From a wider angle, this is an awkward time for the world’s two leading democracies to indulge in self-inflicted combat. As one veteran traveler told a news reporter, this is bad time to visit either the United States or Britain because both appear to be in the middle of civil wars. Add to that the yellow vest protests that have rocked France and what you see is not a pretty picture of economic, social or political stability.

British unrest stems from a nationalist drive to maintain Britain’s sovereignty. French discontent pivots on restive attitudes about persistent income inequality. The US stand-off centers on an unmet campaign promise.

The US political stalemate would seem the easiest to resolve, but has been elevated to a larger political battlefield. Supporters have warned Trump, who brags about his deal-making prowess, that his presidency could effectively end if he fails to get money for the border wall. The newly elected Democratic majority in the House is disinclined to toll over to Trump demands. Trump’s threat of a presidential declaration of emergency that would go around Congress to find the money to build the border wall could trigger a constitutional crisis.

What seems missing in the United States and Britain is a sense of the bigger picture – a more aggressive Russia, China’s ascendancy as a world power and the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments. Any one of these could be the tinder box that sparks a major conflict engulfing the bickering and compromised democratic powers. It has happened before when there have been voids in international leadership.

Commentators are beginning to point to Russia as a culprit in both seasons of discontent. Sowing division among the major world democracies is a much cheaper foreign policy than a military build-up, and perhaps a defter strategy to undermine NATO, a major objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shadow of Russia will grow longer as Special Counsel Robert Mueller moves to wrap up his investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016.

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt Brexit and the border wall stalemates are causing economic pain, with little relief in sight.

 

Bombshell Book, Op-Ed Turn DC into a Political Whodunit

More chaos wracked the Trump White House with a bombshell book by Bob Woodward, followed by an aftershock in the form of an anonymous op-ed published in the New York Times by someone only identified as a “senior official” in the administration. Trump’s reaction was reportedly volcanic and set off a desperate search for whodunit.

More chaos wracked the Trump White House with a bombshell book by Bob Woodward, followed by an aftershock in the form of an anonymous op-ed published in the New York Times by someone only identified as a “senior official” in the administration. Trump’s reaction was reportedly volcanic and set off a desperate search for whodunit.

Washington, DC has been a lot of things. Now it is the scene of a political whodunit.

Bob Woodward got the game going with his new book “Fear: Trump in the White House,” which chronicles audacious and embarrassing incidents during the Trump presidency, based on anonymous sources with good memories and a few purloined documents.

As shockwaves from Woodward’s book began to reverberate, The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed from a reputed “senior official” in the Trump administration who described the “resistance from within.”

News media sources, quoting anonymous administration sources, reported that President Trump’s reaction to the book and op-ed was “volcanic.” Trump called Woodward’s book “fiction” and a “joke.” He called the op-ed author a coward.

In was the perfect first act of a whodunit. The rest of the play presumably will center on finding some or all of Woodward’s sources and identifying who wrote the damning op-ed.

Trump demanded the Department of Justice, which seems to be his new “fixer” since his old fixer pleaded guilty to fraud, to conduct an investigation in the name of “national Security.” Presidential Press Secretary Sarah Sanders dismissed the op-ed as “gutless” and the Woodward book as bad journalism. According to Donald Trump Jr., the White House circle of trust just got a lot smaller.

Talk show hosts grilled talking heads for names or clues. Woodward was asked if he knew who wrote the NYT op-ed. “I don’t have any suspects,” he said. Stephen Colbert did an entire opening monologue speculating on the person Trump is “obsessed” with discovering.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author Bob Woodward’s latest book – a tell-all about the Trump White House based on 100 “deep background” interviews – hit bookshelves today, even though its shrapnel already has been felt in pre-publication excerpts.  https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/9/11/17828300/bob-woodward-fear-trump-sources

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author Bob Woodward’s latest book – a tell-all about the Trump White House based on 100 “deep background” interviews – hit bookshelves today, even though its shrapnel already has been felt in pre-publication excerpts. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/9/11/17828300/bob-woodward-fear-trump-sources

A parade of Trump senior officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, released statements saying it wasn’t them. Pence even volunteered to take a lie detector test.

Trump supporters floated the idea the Times “concocted” the anonymous op-ed. Steve Bannon said the op-ed had multiple authors and represented a “soft coup.”

Chaos is no stranger to the Trump White House, and Woodward is not a stranger to harsh criticism of his coverage of previous presidents. Woodward isn’t the first – and probably not the last – to paint a picture of dysfunction and indulgence. Though, he might be the first to describe specific incidents in which aides spirited away documents from their boss before he could sign them to avoid even more chaos.

Efforts by the Trump team to downplay or deflect from the back-to-back bombshells may not be successful. As Anderson Cooper noted, “It’s not every day or every month or every year, or certainly every administration for that matter, that someone in the administration publishes a scathing criticism of the president of the United States. It’s not every day that someone in the administration claims that many officials in that administration are working to frustrate parts of the president’s agenda and his worse inclinations.”

It didn’t help that US intelligence sources revealed North Korea is expanding its nuclear weapons capability and that reports surfaced about US officials flirting with involvement in a potential coup to unseat Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Or former Clinton-era special prosecutor Ken Starr’s suggestion in an interview on NPR that Congress has another, cleaner weapon to express displeasure with a President – censure.

And all this on the heels of news that White House counsel Don McGahn gave 30 hours of sworn testimony to Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, “sharing detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the inquiry into whether President Trump obstructed justice,” according to The New York Times.

Even memorials for 9/11 are unlikely to stop the inevitable blame game or interrupt the DC chase for whodunit. The hunt is already afoot.

Congress on Sidelines as Politics, Events Pass It By

Congress returns from its summer recess, but still will be mostly on the sidelines as Trump tweets, court rulings and midterm elections dominate the daily news cycle. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

Congress returns from its summer recess, but still will be mostly on the sidelines as Trump tweets, court rulings and midterm elections dominate the daily news cycle. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

What goes on in Congress matters less these days than what goes on about Congress.

The five-day memorial for the late Senator John McCain drew attention to his lifelong dedication to duty, honor and principle, as well as a willingness to reach across the political aisle to compromise.

The mid-term elections have taken on amplified importance as a virtual referendum on President Donald Trump and as a contest for the heart of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Republican primaries are judged as battles between GOP moderates and Trump backers. Democratic primaries are viewed as tests of how far left the party may swing.

Trump’s hardline, nationalist approach to trade continues to ruffle feathers abroad and at home as farmers, manufacturers, workers and consumers fret over the end game. Congress ultimately will have to decide on any new trade deals, but for now is sitting on the sidelines. Congress is beginning to tackle the one-time subsidies Trump proposed to help farm producers cope with the impact of his tariffs.

The courts have played an outsized role in curbing Trump policies, including a ruling that forced reunification of families separated at the border, blocked blanket detention of asylum-seekers and elimination of DACA and delayed a rollback of fuel efficient standards.

The Robert Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling and potential Trump campaign collusion plugs along, with recent convictions, new grants of immunity and the pall of more indictments. Trump tells campaign rally audiences that a Democratic takeover of the House will lead to his impeachment. There are other investigations and lawsuits about Trump Organization business practices that also result in indictments, including of Trump family members.

Capitol Hill hasn’t gone completely quiet, however. This week will see the start of confirmation hearings on Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, amid Democratic complaints that documents have been suppressed that might shed light on Kavanaugh’s views about executive privilege and prosecution. While the hearings could be confrontational, it appears likely Kavanaugh will win confirmation.

As the end of the federal fiscal year approaches, which in recent times has been tense with the threat of a partial government shutdown, Congress has dutifully moved 12 appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2019. No shutdown will occur, even though Trump said it might be a good thing. Congress has even been upstaged by Trump on spending as the President unilaterally blocked scheduled federal worker pay increases.

Facebook and Twitter remain in the congressional line of sight. After being blamed for turning a blind eye to false-flag accounts, the social media platforms are being accused of putting the squeeze on conservative political voices. Trump has gone further and alleged Google has manipulated search results to play up critical news stories about him and downplay positive stories.

There is an eerie silence in the halls of Congress on efforts to denuclearize North Korea, advance a major infrastructure package, act on immigration reform or respond to the looming denouement of the Syrian conflict, which many observers believe will be a massive humanitarian crisis.

Trump tweets remain the dominant story in most daily news cycles, whether he chastises the FBI and his Attorney General, whines about his treatment by the press or insults US allies or his critics. Apart from the content of the tweets, what troubles Republicans on the Hill are their unpredictability and inconsistency, which makes pursuing a congressional agenda more difficult.

The long, smothering shadow of Trump’s tweets does give congressional Republicans more time to start their own digital firestorms. Ryan Gosling’s biopic of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon has drawn criticism from GOP Senators Ted  Cruz and Marco Rubio for failing to feature the astronaut planting the US flag.

Cruz, who is running for re-election this fall, and Rubio said Armstrong’s achievement was a distinctively American moment, paid for by US taxpayers. Gosling defended the omission by saying Armstrong’s achievement “transcended borders and countries.”

Of course, the back-and-forth sniping has nothing to do with Congress.

The Difference a Day Can Make - Or Not.

Anyone can have a bad hair day. President Trump had a hair-on-fire day this week with two former associates headed to prison, an early congressional supporter indicted, the White House counsel talking to the special prosecutor and Facebook removing another trove of Russian fake accounts. [Photo Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg]

Anyone can have a bad hair day. President Trump had a hair-on-fire day this week with two former associates headed to prison, an early congressional supporter indicted, the White House counsel talking to the special prosecutor and Facebook removing another trove of Russian fake accounts. [Photo Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg]

Anyone can have a bad hair day. President Trump had a hair-on-fire day yesterday. His former campaign manager was convicted on bank and tax fraud charges, his personal attorney-fixer plead guilty to fraud and one of his first GOP congressional supporters was indicted for misuse of campaign funds.

Facebook announced it removed 652 fake accounts peddling misinformation that it said originated with Russian and Iranian sources. The New York Times reported White House counsel Donald McGahn has met in three interviews lasting 30 hours with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigative team.

Most people would chalk that up as a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” However, Trump spent last evening performing at another of his free-wheeling campaign rallies, inciting his West Virginia audience to chant “Lock her up!” – an ironic anthem on the day two of his associates started on the road to prison.

Trump’s spokesperson downplayed the Manafort conviction – “nothing to do with the President” – and Cohen’s plea – “he said what he did as part of a plea deal.” Democrats unleashed attacks about corruption in the Trump camp and began referring to the President as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”

Despite all the buzz, it remains doubtful anything will change. Mueller’s special investigation into Russian meddling will continue. Chances of Congress starting an impeachment process are close to nil. And Trump supporters seem unfazed.

The 47-page indictment of GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife for improperly using campaign funds could put his bid for re-election in his San Diego congressional district in jeopardy. In the wake of the indictment, House Speaker Paul Ryan stripped Hunter of his committee assignments, but Hunter still may win re-election in what a local San Diego newspaper calls a “very red district.”

Some Senate Democrats canceled meetings with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanugh, saying it is inappropriate to move forward on a confirmation process for someone nominated by Trump after he was implicated by Cohen in a federal elections law conspiracy. However, the confirmation hearings are slated to begin in early September and it appears Senate Republicans are congealing to support Kavanaugh, along with two or three Senate Democrats up for re-election in red states.

The Manafort conviction, Cohen plea and Facebook action on fake Russian accounts are unlikely to sway Trump supporters, though they may steel the resolve of Democrats to get out their vote to retake control of the House. Even that prospect is in doubt. Polling indicates as many as 74 House seats held by Republicans could be in play in the midterm election in November, but that number is likely to drop substantially as campaigns pick up steam in the fall.

Trump’s legal team, which appears to have convinced the President to avoid an interview with Mueller’s investigators, keeps egging the special prosecutor to wrap up his investigation before the November election. Trump’s lawyers believe – or hope – nothing will stick to the President in the final report. But even if the report points to obstruction of justice and some level of conspiracy with Russians on election meddling, there is no guarantee Trump’s supporters or even Republicans in general will be swayed. The same partisan divide will remain, with even deeper trenches.

At the end of the day, the hair-on-fire day for Trump may be just another comet news cycle that glows, then fades, replaced by new political brush fires.

 

Senators Seething in DC Humidity and Heat

GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has annoyed Democrats, especially those facing tough re-election bids in states carried by Donald Trump in 2016, by shrinking the traditional August recess to one week, tying his colleagues to their desks in the DC heat and humidity.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has annoyed Democrats, especially those facing tough re-election bids in states carried by Donald Trump in 2016, by shrinking the traditional August recess to one week, tying his colleagues to their desks in the DC heat and humidity.

While members of the House of Representatives are enjoying their normal full month of August recess, the Senate is being forced to work in the festering hot swamp that is Washington DC.

GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell eliminated the time-honored August recess for all but one week despite 90-degree-plus temperatures and drenching humidity and the annoyance of Democrats who would prefer to be home to campaign. 

McConnell wants to use the extra floor time in August to press senators to confirm pending judicial nominees, make progress on appropriations bills and set the stage for Brett Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court.

There is a political reason, too. McConnell is forcing Senate Democrats to stay in DC so they can’t campaign in their home states for the November election. It’s another savvy move by the seasoned Senate leader in this lopsided year where the Senate map strongly favors Republicans. Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats this November, while Republicans only need to defend nine seats. 

All 26 of those Democrats would much rather be back in their states solidifying their electoral support and raising money to build momentum for the general election. In particular, Democratic incumbents in Montana, Missouri, West Virginia and North Dakota are feeling especially constrained running for re-election in states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.

McConnell’s tactic will build momentum for a busy fall congressional schedule. Republican Leaders in the House and the Senate are looking to avoid a government shutdown and both chambers are ahead of schedule in passing FY19 appropriations bills. The Senate has passed seven of 12 appropriations bills, while the House has passed six. This is the best progress made on the appropriations front since 2000.

With the Senate in town, Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh can meet with senators in August and lay the groundwork for a relatively quick nomination process in September.

Democrats are trying to slow confirmation by insisting on seeing the millions of pages of documents Kavanaugh wrote during his time in the George W. Bush White House, but the delay tactic could come at their own peril. Many pundits believe the closer the Kavanaugh confirmation vote is to the November election, the better it is for Republicans to motivate their political base. Democrats will have to decide between an all-out political fight with a slim chance of blocking Kavanaugh versus getting the vote over with in September. 

One more major item on the fall legislative schedule will likely be on a provision dubbed “TaxCut 2.0.” Republicans are trying to set a trap for Democrats by bringing up legislation that will permanently extend the individual tax cuts passed last December, which will expire in five years. Corporate tax cuts were all made permanent. Republicans want to get vulnerable Democrats on record on taxes close to the election. There also is a potential trap for Republicans who would be voting to deepen the federal deficit and remind voters about the tax cut, which hasn’t been as widely popular as GOP advocates predicted – or hoped.

A wild card McConnell cannot control is what Special Counsel Robert Mueller will do before the November election. His team is engaged now in a high-profile trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and conducting ongoing negotiations to schedule an interview with the sitting President.

One possibility is Trump’s team declines Mueller’s terms for a face-to-face interview and Mueller follows through on his threat to subpoena Trump. The subpoena could trigger a court case by Team Trump challenging whether a sitting President can be compelled to testify. Depending on timing, questions surrounding a presidential subpoena could engulf the Kavanaugh nomination in the Senate because of his previous defense of expansive presidential powers, his reflections on the role of special prosecutors and the reality he could be sitting on the Supreme Court when and if the case gets that far.

Mueller is not politically tone deaf, so he may cut off any public actions on the Russian meddling investigation after Labor Day. However, it is unlikely he will wrap up the investigation before the November election.

If you can believe Trump tweets, indictments are possible for members of his family in connection with the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which Trump has now acknowledged was scheduled to get dirt on his opponent from Russian sources. That could scramble McConnell’s well-laid legislative schedule, adding to the irritation of his Senate colleagues who spent their summer recess tied to their desks in DC.

Joel prof photo.jpeg

Joel Rubin is a partner and leader of CFM’s federal affairs team based in Washington, DC. He has worked on Capitol Hill and now represents Pacific Northwest interests in Congress and with federal agencies.

Yet Another Unbelievable, Wacky Week in Washington, DC

As weeks go in Washington, DC, this has to be one of the wackiest as President Trump plots an attack on Syria, Facebook is accused of being a monopoly and former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir says the White House is run like a forest fire. And that doesn’t include the retirement announcement of House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner’s decision to advocate for legal medical marijuana.

As weeks go in Washington, DC, this has to be one of the wackiest as President Trump plots an attack on Syria, Facebook is accused of being a monopoly and former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir says the White House is run like a forest fire. And that doesn’t include the retirement announcement of House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner’s decision to advocate for legal medical marijuana.

You can’t say nothing is happening in the nation’s capital. You just can’t believe what’s happening.

President Trump is preparing to respond to a poison gas attack of civilians in Syria, signaled a reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and had a tweet tirade over a raid of the home and office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Trump said the raid was “disgraceful.” Cohen’s attorneys said it was “unnecessary and inappropriate.” Cohen said the agents who carried out the raid were “polite and respectful.” Media reports suggested the purpose of the raid may have been to seize recordings Cohen made of his conversations, including with Trump.

GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he is retiring at the end of his term, fueling speculation of an impending GOP shellacking in the mid-term elections this fall. Meanwhile, Ryan’s Republican predecessor, John Boehner, announced his views on cannabis have “evolved” and he will advocate for legalization of medical marijuana.

Former FBI Director James Comey’s tell-all memoir is leaked that delivers scathing criticism of Trump as “unethical and untethered to the truth” and more like a mob boss than the leader of the free world. Trump responded on Twitter by calling Comey an “untruthful slime ball” and a “leaker” of classified information. Somewhere in the West Wing, former strategic advisor Steve Bannon was trying to convince Trump aides to go gonzo.

Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo underwent confirmation hearings where some of the most heated questions centered on what he says to Trump in their private conversations. Meanwhile, the Senate moved forward the nomination of a former coal industry lobbyist as the top deputy at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Senate and House committees, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, grilled Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg about failures to protect user privacy. Questioning zeroed in on whether Facebook is a monopoly and should be regulated.

The Congressional Budget Office issued an updated analysis of the GOP tax cut indicating it will result in a $1.9 trillion deficit and 80 percent of the benefit will accrue to foreigners, which complicates Republican campaign plans to tout the tax cut as a major achievement. Retiring Tennessee Senator Bob Corker told reporters voting for the GOP-backed tax cut may have been his biggest blunder in office. Trump dismissed the CBO findings.

Despite promising a swift response with “new, smart missiles,” Trump and his national security team were still debating how and when to respond to Syria’s renewed used of chemical weapons in light of Russia’s threat to defend Syrian military installations if attacked by US missiles or armed forces.

Trump’s tariff talk, which rattled stock markets, angered farmers and drew reciprocal tariffs, cooled off after Chinese President Xi Jinping gave what observers viewed as a conciliatory speech on trade relationships and included a reference to protection of intellectual property of foreign companies. Despite tough talk on the campaign trail and quick action when in office to dump US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump suddenly recognized the continued efforts of the other 11 Pacific Rim partners to write fair trade rules as a possible source of leverage on China.

Trump chose to stay in Washington, DC instead of attending a Latin American summit focusing on trade, including apparently stalled talks on revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Vice President Mike Pence, who is filling in for Trump, is expected to hear pushback from Latin American leaders about Trump’s comments and actions toward Latino immigrants. Aides to Pence said his individual meetings with leaders are intended to “soften the edges” of US foreign policy and immigration views.

The week provided a lot for Trump to fume about, prompting stories about the President’s renewed consideration of firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Previous musings about such firings have been dismissed by the White House, Trump’s lawyers and Republican leaders on the Hill. However, this week Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley sought expedited consideration of bipartisan legislation to insulate the Mueller investigation from any adverse action by Trump.

Toward the end of the week, Trump pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, who was convicted in 2007 of perjury and obstruction of justice involving the leak of a CIA officer’s identity. Libby’s sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush, but not pardoned. The timing of Trump’s pardon seemed like a signal that he would protect those who protect him.

The beehive in Washington, DC this week didn’t include any mention of or tweets about North Korea. The leaders of North and South Korea are scheduled to meet April 27 and a face-to-face meeting between Kim Jong-un and Trump is anticipated in either May or June.

 

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.

 

GOP Gets Breathing Room to Pursue Priorities

The appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the Russian meddling  investigation has given GOP congressional leaders breathing room to work on their stalled legislative priorities that reflect campaign promises.

The appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the Russian meddling  investigation has given GOP congressional leaders breathing room to work on their stalled legislative priorities that reflect campaign promises.

The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel in the ongoing Russian meddling probe may be bad news for President Trump and his associates, but good news for congressional Republicans. It could give them the political space to tackle their major legislative priorities before congressmen head home for an August recess.

And the agenda is daunting – replacing Obamacare, a major tax cut, progress on the Fiscal Year 2018 federal budget, an infrastructure package and passage of a debt ceiling increase.

The drip, drip of news revelations about the Trump’s team entanglements with Russians has distracted the White House and seemingly delayed any substantive tax proposal. The House narrowly passed an Obamacare replacement bill, with Trump’s support, but that legislation has bogged down in the Senate. The Trump FY 2018 budget proposal was pronounced dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, at least in part for what critics call a $2 trillion math error on how to pay for a major tax cut.

GOP congressional leaders felt under the gun to intensify committee probes into Trump’s Russian connections, until the Department of Justice appointed Mueller to lead the criminal investigation. Many Hill Republicans are hopeful that, with the investigative burden shifting from Congress to Mueller, they can focus less on the scandal and more on addressing their list of looming deadlines and campaign promises – a long list that Congress has made little headway on achieving.

However, the breathing space they now have still may not be enough time to pass their legislative agenda.

Senate leadership staff huddles this week to begin drafting from scratch a new alternative to the House-passed American Health Care Act (AHCA). The Senate has the benefit of the Congressional Budget Office score, which estimates 23 million people would lose health insurance over the next decade. New public opinion polls indicate Obamacare is more popular than the AHCA. Even if they are successful, it make take time to ensure all the details fit together.
 
On the other side of Capitol Hill, House appropriators are trying to figure out how to keep the government’s doors open when the new fiscal year begins October 1. Delayed action on fiscal 2017 spending, combined with the GOP’s decision to start with a health care overhaul, has put Congress months behind schedule on appropriations for FY 2018.

House appropriators are weighing an ambitious plan to pass a 12-bill omnibus appropriations package ahead of the August recess.  Given the very late start, appropriators would need to mark up their respective bills at a record pace to bring a full package to the floor before July 31. Even if they can pull off this monumental task, they will face an even bigger political hurdle garnering the necessary Democratic votes in the Senate.

Democrats retain some leverage in both the House and Senate in regard to passing a debt ceiling increase, which GOP conservatives won’t support, even though failure to raise the debt ceiling could result in US default on loans. How much leverage Democrats have and what they will use it for remains unknown.

Hope of passing tax and infrastructure legislation before August is dim, but getting a health care bill and an FY 2018 budget approved but the August recess would improve odds for addressing those issues by the end of the year.

While Mueller’s appointment gives breathing room to GOP lawmakers to work on their priorities, success is still tied to Trump and his ability to focus on advancing legislation without more self-inflicted controversy, such as his unsolicited comment about spending more on health care even though the AHCA, which he supported, would spend less.

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

 

 

Garrett, who will be CFM’s Manager, Federal Affairs, can be reached at his CFM email address: kirbyg@cfmdc.com.