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Washington Report May 19, 2017
19 May 2017

Washington Report May 19, 2017

Russia, As A News Subject, Overtakes Washington … Trump’s Worst Nightmare … Where’s Pence? … Usain Bolt and WWE’s John Cena …Trump Derangement Syndrome … Ryan et al. Not-So-Grand Bargain … The Budget … Net Neutrality … Supremes … and other news of the week.


Joyce Rubenstein
Capstone National Partners




On the new cover of Time magazine, the White House is depicted in the midst of a makeover — the iconic spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow replicated on the roof of President Trump’s home, as it turns red. The arresting image conveys a sense that Russia, as a news subject, is overtaking Washington.

Which, of course, it is.





ON MONDAYWaPost reports that Trump, during an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, revealed highly classified information. WHIPLASH BuzzFeed quotes one U.S. official who says “It’s far worse than what has already been reported.” If anyone else — besides the president — did this, they’d probably be out of a job, and possibly prosecuted. THE STORY WaPo “… according to current and former U.S. officials, Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State. The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said. The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. ‘This is code-word information,’ said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump ‘revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.” MY EVERY WEEK HEADLINE ‘CHAOS‘ ‘It never stops,’ one White House official said via text message Monday night. ‘Basically chaos at all times.’ … ‘He doesn’t sometimes realize the implications of what he’s saying. I don’t think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information. He wouldn’t want to do that.’ … A former senior Defense Department official in the George W. Bush administration emailed, simply, ‘WTF!!!!!!!'”

ON TUESDAY …. NYTs reported that James B. Comey, whom Trump fired as FBI director last week, had written accounts of his conversations with the president — and that, in one of those encounters, Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who advised Trump during the campaign and whose Russia ties are being probed. DEPT. OF PROFESSIONAL MALPRACTICE Politico “The Trump White House has done essentially no damage control in the aftermath of reports that Comey wrote [the] memo alleging that Trump tried to kill a probe into Michael Flynn. No talking points have been distributed, and few reassurances have been given to Republicans, leaving frazzled and exhausted lawmakers to freelance their own response.

THEN CAME WEDNESDAY … BRUTAL NIGHT IN 6 HEADLINES The Fix “For any president, one of these headlines would be very bad news. For President Trump, they all came in a span of 12 hours:

  • “Justice Department to appoint special counsel [Bob Mueller] to oversee probe of Russian meddling in 2016 election” (WaPo)
  • “House majority leader [Kevin McCarthy] told colleagues last year: ‘I think Putin pays’ Trump” (WaPo)
  • “Flynn stopped military plan Turkey opposed — after being paid as its agent” (McClatchy)
  • “Trump Team Knew Flynn Was Under Investigation Before He Came to White House” (NYTs)
  • “Israeli Source Seen as Key to Countering Islamic State Threat” – U.S. Officials diverge over extent of damage from Trump’s conversation with Russia (WSJ)
  • “Trump campaign had at least 18 undisclosed contacts with Russians — sources” (Reuters)

It was a dizzying Wednesday night for political reporters and followers alike, with a bevy of new information being thrown at them on multiple fronts. And it continued into early Thursday morning with that last headline, from Reuters.

TRUMP’S WORST NIGHTMARE COMES TRUE “President Trump fired James Comey. He got his mentor, Robert Mueller instead — and years of trouble.” WHO IS MUELLER “Meet the legendary G-man investigating Russia’s meddling”: “Mueller was born in New York City in 1944 and grew up outside of Philadelphia. After getting degrees at Princeton and NYU, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968, led a rifle platoon in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and other medals for valor. After receiving a law degree from the UVA, Mueller worked as a federal prosecutor in San Francisco, rising to become head of the criminal division before moving to Boston to serve as the Justice Department’s top prosecutor there before ultimately returning to headquarters in Washington. There he rose to become head of the criminal division, and oversaw the investigation into the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and the investigation and the prosecutions of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and New York mobster John Gotti.” FLASHBACK, The New Yorker, March 15, 2004 “As a senior at St. Paul’s, in the winter of 1961-62, former Senator [John] Kerry played on the varsity [hockey] team. The captain and best player was a guy named Bobby Mueller, who is now better known as Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the F.B.I.”

“There’s no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself, and the Russians, zero.”
-President Trump told ABC News’ Chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl on Thursday
‘COLLUSION’ (“secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose”) snuck to the forefront of our lookups on May 18th, 2017, after it was used repeatedly by Donald Trump in response to questions at a press conference. (Merriam-Webster)

THIS ISN’T GOING AWAY ANYTIME SOON Politico “Mueller will have all the authority of a typical U.S. attorney to convene grand juries, issue subpoenas, file criminal charges and pursue those charges to trial, if he deems it appropriate. In practice, he’ll probably have more control over the FBI agents involved in his probe than most prosecutors do. … There’s no fixed duration for the investigation. … Mueller is likely to be given effective control over what information the Justice Department shares with Congress about the probe and what requests it makes to Congressional committees to defer questioning sensitive witnesses or avoid publicizing potential leads in the investigation. … Ultimately, Congress can do what it wants to demand witnesses and evidence, but lawmakers are typically leery of taking steps that could jeopardize the criminal probe.”

[AS I SAID] NEVER STOPS “Trump Team Knew Flynn Was Under Investigation Before He Came to White House, ” NYTs “Michael T. Flynn told President Trump’s transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, according to two people familiar with the case. Despite this warning, which came about a month after the Justice Department notified Mr. Flynn of the inquiry, Mr. Trump made Mr. Flynn his national security adviser. The job gave Mr. Flynn access to the president and nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies. Mr. Flynn’s disclosure, on Jan. 4, was first made to the transition team’s chief lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, who is now the White House counsel. That conversation, and another one two days later between Mr. Flynn’s lawyer and transition lawyers, shows that the Trump team knew about the investigation of Mr. Flynn far earlier than has been previously reported.”

THE FBI AT WAR Politico Magazine “What Donald Trump Needs to Know About Bob Mueller and Jim Comey” The two men who could bring down the president have been preparing their entire lives for this moment”: “What unfolds ahead will be territory all too familiar to both Comey and Mueller-the field of play where they have made their careers and risen to the highest levels of government-yet the way that a Washington scandal takes on a life of its own amid independent investigations and looming prosecutions is deeply unfamiliar to Trump and many associates around him. … It is as if, after having an unrelated disagreement over movie trivia in a bar, Trump has challenged Usain Bolt to a 100-yard dash or John Cena to a cage match to the death.” (John Cena wrestles on World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) – he fought inside a steel cage. Now you know.)


REMEMBER MIKE PENCE? The vice president is nowhere to be found these days. CNN “After a fast and furious news cycle at the White House this week, the last few days may have worn on Vice President Mike Pence. Though Pence will continue to be a ‘loyal soldier’ because he is a ‘relentlessly positive guy,’ he ‘looks tired,’ a senior administration adviser observed on Thursday, outlining the vice president’s schedule and trying to explain his relative absence from the public eye. The Pence team knew what they were getting themselves into when they joined the Trump ticket and team almost a year ago. ‘We certainly knew we needed to be prepared for the unconventional,’ but, the source adds, ‘not to this extent.’
Pences’ growing credibility problem Click here.


THE ‘TRUMP DERANGEMENT SYNDROME’ DODGE The Atlantic “Donald Trump is different. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all had allies who defended their approaches to the presidency against critics.

But defending what Trump says or does is often impossible. Americans can’t help but know that he didn’t win the popular vote; draw more people to his inauguration than Barack Obama; act wisely in appointing Michael Flynn; execute well in that first executive order on travel; or accomplish more in his first 100 days than any other president. Americans can’t help but see that he is erratic, and that his domestic agenda has stalled bigly. He can claim that no politician has ever been treated more unfairly. But we can’t help but know that Ronald Reagan was shot and that John F. Kennedy was killed.

That’s why pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump commentators have adapted. As the weeks pass, they spend less time making positive arguments for the president and more time hiding behind the talking point that his critics are overwrought. Unhinged. Hysterical. Suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome. DON’T LOOK HERE, at the president who shared too much information with Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting. LOOK HERE at an excessive reaction to it. The approach is inseparable from the web era. No matter how bad a Trump blunder, someone can be found overreacting to it or otherwise losing their cool on social media. In fact, social-media feeds disproportionately expose us to the most over-the-top takes, making it seem as if they reflect the median reaction even when that is far from true.

The point isn’t that there is no Trump criticism that is overwrought, no worries about trajectories that are implausible, no rhetoric that would be better tamped down. But …Trump has alarmed people as temperamentally staid as George Will and Ross Douthat. The fact that grave fears about Trump’s fitness for office are commonplace––for example, the fears about giving an erratic, easily baited bully with no foreign policy experience control over nukes—is not evidence that the anxious are deranged.”


THE GOP’s NOT-SO-GRAND BARGAIN WITH TRUMP The Fix ” There is a kind of unspoken arrangement between President Trump and congressional Republicans. It goes a little something like this:


TRUMP TO REPUBLICANS: I will help you pass your agenda now that the GOP controls Washington!

REPUBLICANS TO TRUMP: We will do our very best to put up with your tweets, shenanigans and general tomfoolery in service of that goal.


It has been an uneasy accord since Day One. But never has it been under more duress than it is now. Analysts have been fond of suggesting that Trump won’t truly be in trouble as long as the GOP base remains intact, and that base hasn’t even come close to deserting him. In fact, Trump voters are much more likely to say he has exceeded their expectations than say he has disappointed them — by a lot. And from that standpoint, it’s not difficult to see why speaking out against your party’s president and alienating those many passionately pro-Trump conservatives isn’t all that appealing to Republicans in Congress. From a strictly self-preservation standpoint, you don’t need to be inviting any unnecessary primary challenges.

Given the trajectory of developments over the past eight days — from firing FBI Director James B. Comey, to admitting that the Russia investigation played a role in it, to sharing highly classified information with Russia, to having asked Comey to shut down the investigation of former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn — Republicans must be wondering whether any hope is left for legislation.

ONE-12th OF THE WAY THROUGH TRUMP’S 4-YEAR TERM … no legislative payoff is in sight. What is in sight are more investigations and a whole bunch of difficult questions from the media about why the president thinks it’s okay to: 1.Fire the guy who is investigating you; 2. Ask the FBI to stop investigating your former top aide; 3. Discuss highly classified information about the Islamic State with an adversarial foreign power; and, 4. Give completely contradictory information to the American public, over and over again

WOE IS PAUL RYAN The Fix “But TAX REFORM!” the House speaker says, to an empty room., On Thursday, at a weekly news briefing during a week that has been anything but normal, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) tried desperately to steer his small slice of Washington back into some normalcy. It was in vain. … After Ryan was done talking about what he wanted to talk about, reporters immediately started asking him about the half a dozen massive news stories from the past 12 hours alone.

“I just think it’s very important that people know that we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Ryan said. “And sure, drama is not — not helpful in getting things done, but we’re still getting things done.”

And that’s the important point.” Depends how you define “getting things done.” Is passing a health-care bill that’s now stuck in the Senate, which is consumed with investigating whether Trump tried to block an FBI investigation, “getting things done?” Is having a president who is tweeting about “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history” instead of talking about tax reform “getting things done”? With each news conference where their message gets drowned out by Trump, with each headline that drags the White House further into chaos (or drags House Republicans into the drama themselves), it’s getting harder and harder for Republicans to uphold their end of the bargain.”


THE BUDGET The president plans to send his fiscal 2018 budget to Congress on Tuesday, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says.

TRUMP’S DEFENSE BUDGET MorningD “Roughly half of President Donald Trump’s planned $17 billion defense increase [over the Obama administration’s last projection] will be dedicated to personnel and force structure requirements imposed by Congress, leaving less room in the administration’s $603 billion proposal to boost big-ticket items. But … roughly half of that increase would be used to fund higher troop levels, a bigger military pay raise and the denial of certain cost saving measures – all mandated by Congress late last year in the National Defense Authorization Act.”

DoD OPENS ITS LABS Some of the Defense Department’s innovators gathered in the Pentagon courtyard Thursday afternoon to show off about 80 exhibits demonstrating the latest technology to hit the field, including many areas where new technology is booming in medical care, cybersecurity and space. Several of the exhibits focused on augmented reality, including one from the Army’s Strategic Capability Office that will allow soldiers to navigate without a compass through a helmet-mounted augmented reality display. And the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command had a nanosatellite on display that could be fitted for a variety of tasks from communications to surveillance and reconnaissance.

PAID FAMILY LEAVE WaPo “President Trump’s budget proposal next week will include a new benefit for America’s working parents, one Democrats have long championed and Republicans have long opposed: paid family leave. The president’s first detailed budget request on Tuesday will seek funds for the creation of a program to grant mothers and fathers six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, two senior White House budget office officials said.”


ROLLING BACK NET NEUTRALITY theSkimm “Yesterday, the FCC voted to roll back net neutrality rules. “Net neutrality” is the idea that all websites are created equal, and can’t pay Internet providers for faster connections. This became the norm in 2015 when new rules were passed under former President Obama. Now, under President Trump – who thinks net neutrality rules are an example of government overreach – the FCC’s changing its tune. This is good news for Internet providers (like Comcast and AT&T) who could potentially be able to charge sites to avoid the spinning wheel of death. It’s bad news for content providers (like Netflix or your friend’s travel blog) who argue that allowing pay-to-play gives companies with bigger wallets a leg up – and leaves startups in the dust. Now, the FCC’s starting the process of revising the Obama-era rules. For the next 90 days, the public can hotline bling them with comments and suggestions. The last time the FCC did this, there were almost four million calls…and most of them were in favor of net neutrality. Interwebs, tangled.”


9 DAYS ABROAD President Trump leaves today for his first trip overseas, starting in Saudi Arabia. “Tips for Leaders Meeting Trump NYTs “After four months of interactions between Mr. Trump and his counterparts, foreign officials and their Washington consultants say certain rules have emerged: Keep it short — no 30-minute monologue for a 30-second attention span. Do not assume he knows the history of the country or its major points of contention. Compliment him on his Electoral College victory. Contrast him favorably with President Barack Obama. Do not get hung up on whatever was said during the campaign. Stay in regular touch. Do not go in with a shopping list but bring some sort of deal he can call a victory.”

5 things to watch on Trump’s foreign trip,”Politico: “1. Will he say ‘radical Islamic terrorism’? … 2. Will he play Middle East peacemaker? … 3. Does he really support NATO? … 4. Can he stick to a script? … 5. Can he change the subject?”


@realDonaldTrump … “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!…”.

THE PRESIDENT’S ACTIVITY The Fix “The President’s daily schedule provided by the White House, a running and frequently-updated list of the meetings that Trump has planned on any given day. On the weekends, his schedule is generally pretty light, which isn’t unusual. What’s unusual is that, of late, Trump’s schedule has been awfully light during the week, too. Here’s what’s been on his calendar since March 12. … What’s particularly notable is how this week stands apart from other recent weeks. Trump’s declaring himself very active at a moment when there’s no public evidence that that’s the case. He’s got less going on now than he himself had two months ago. If he’s very active, what’s he doing? And if he’s not — well, same question.”


THE SUPREMES “DECLINED” to hear a case over North Carolina’s voter ID law. The law, passed in 2013, required voters to show certain types of photo ID at the polls. Supporters (cough, the GOP, cough) said this was needed to prevent voter fraud. Critics (cough, Dems, cough) said that this would make it harder for minorities to vote, since they’re less likely to have the required photo IDs. Last year, a federal appeals court said ‘agreed’ and struck down the law. And [this week], the Supreme Court kept that ruling in place by deciding not to give it time in court.” (theSkimm)


MONTANA SPECIAL ELECTION In a state that Trump won by 20 points, yet has a Democratic Senator and Governor … a Dem Super PAC is airing late TV ads in next week’s special election for a Montana congressional seat. The buy is a small one in a race where candidates and parties have so far spent over $8 million. But it underscores how Democrats are making a late play in the contest. “National Democrats, wary of wasting money on a conservative seat seen as a reach, have largely stayed out of the race, which pits Republican technology executive Greg Gianforte against Democratic musician Rob Quist. Until now, House Majority PAC hadn’t spent anything, while the DCCC spent only around $280,000 on commercials. Republican outside groups, meanwhile, have combined to air over $4 million of ads.”


FRANCIS BACON … PABLO PICASSO … JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT (A diversion) … NYT “Joining the rarefied $100 million-plus club in a salesroom punctuated by periodic gasps from the crowd, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s powerful 1982 painting of a skull brought $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, to become the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction. Only 10 other works have broken the $100 million mark. … Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa revealed himself to be the buyer. The Brooklyn-born Basquiat went from graffiti artist to an art collector darling in the span of a mere seven years. He died at 27 of a drug overdose in 1988. Last year, Basquiat became the highest-grossing American artist at auction, generating $171.5 million from 80 works, according to Artprice, and his auction high has increased at least tenfold in the last 15 years.




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