3 Ways To Think About What Mattered In The Deluge Of Political News This Week
Updated at 2:16 p.m. ET
The week started with "legal shock and awe," as Carrie Johnson, NPR's Justice correspondent described it on the PBS NewsHour.
It's hard to believe it was only Monday that indictments were handed down stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia.
There was lots of fallout from that. But it was hardly all that happened this week — there was a terrorist attack that killed eight people in New York, a major tax bill unveiled that could affect millions of Americans and party division was again highlighted on the Democratic side.
That's life in the deluge of news during the Trump presidency.
Here are three ways to think about everything that went down (and a day-by-day recap below that):
1. The Russia connection got closer
Mueller and his team of investigators rocked the political world and the White House. Mueller and the court documents — especially the guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser — wound up revealing a few things:
- Russia was trying to infiltrate the Trump campaign, and it succeeded, at least to an extent;
- Papadopoulous was "proactive" in cooperating with the the feds. And given that he was arrested in July at Dulles Airport (without any leaks) and a plea wasn't officially released until October, he may have been helping agents take measures to find out more information, like, for example, by possibly wearing a wire.
- Mounting evidence suggests other Trump campaign officials knew about Papadopoulos' contacts with Russia, including then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (now Trump's attorney general); Sam Clovis, then co-chairman of the campaign; and perhaps even Donald Trump himself. At least in part as a result of this new information revealed this week by Mueller's investigation, Clovis withdrew his nomination for a job in the Trump administration;
- Mueller knows more than the public or reporters do. This is likely just the beginning, as the circle gets tighter, and it is becoming apparent that Mueller has cooperating witnesses.
This Russia connection is a big problem for Trump. He had taken to calling it a "witch hunt," but methodically gathered evidence is going to be difficult to overcome with spin and deflection — despite Trump's, and conservative media's, best efforts this week in pointing again to Hillary Clinton.
And despite an economy that seems to be chugging along and a jobs report that showed the lowest unemployment rate in 17 years, Trump hit record low approval ratings this week in Gallup and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls.
2. Trump's terror attack comments again undermine a critical democratic institution
The terrorist attack that appears to be ISIS-inspired, led to Trump again showing his hard-line nationalist side when it comes to immigration. The suspect came to the United States in 2010 under the diversity visa lottery program. Trump called for its elimination, blamed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for its implementation and lashed out again at the American judicial system.
Many questioned Trump's response about U.S. courts, because, as the ostensible chief law enforcement officer in America, his talk could make prosecutors' jobs more difficult. The American judicial system is something past presidents held up as a shining example of how free nation-states operate — that it shows the world how fair and just America is, unlike places that have fewer freedoms.
Trump also flirted with the idea of sending the suspect to the U.S. military prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But a couple of fact checks: First, Trump's attack on Schumer was overwrought. Yes, Schumer co-sponsored the legislation that introduced the diversity visa program in 1990, but it was a bipartisan effort and signed by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, into law. And during the Senate effort to overhaul the immigration system in 2013, Schumer proposed getting rid of the program. (See NPR's Brian Naylor's fact check on this from earlier this week.)
Second, on Guantanamo, as NPR's Ryan Lucas noted in the NPR Politics Podcast this week, no one arrested in the United States has ever been sent to Gitmo. Sure, that kind of talk makes Trump look tough with his base, but it doesn't align with the facts. The U.S. court system has done a much more efficient job of prosecuting terrorism suspects than the trial process at Guantanamo.
But, in the end, it doesn't appear that sending the suspect to Guantanamo was something under real consideration, anyway, since the Justice Department has filed charges against him. It was a question from a reporter that Trump simply reacted to. This is what Trump does, and he proves it over and over again — he shoots from the lip, says things that could have major consequences, but might not really mean them.
3. Houses divided cannot stand — and as Republicans are hoping the new tax bill can keep them together, Democrats' rift was exposed as pretty raw
Trump and the GOP are hoping to paper over their internal divisions with something they hope they can all get behind — tax cuts. After failing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the consequences couldn't be greater for Republicans. If this week's tax plan becomes law, they will finally find a pathway to unify and pass big, important legislation — something that has been elusive thus far in the Trump presidency.
Make no mistake: The divisions are there, and this bill's fate could well be an inflection point for the party's leaders and their relationship with this president. If it doesn't pass, what then?
Meanwhile, Democrats' divisions were laid bare with the publishing of a book excerpt from former acting Democratic National Chairwoman Donna Brazile. She alleges the party was in cahoots with the Clinton campaign, not just because it favored her, but because it owed them financially.
The party was literally financially reliant on the Clinton campaign, was being put on a budget by the campaign and Clinton effectively had operational control over the party. A few takeaways:
- Some of the details that emerged were already known. Candidates all have the option to sign onto joint fundraising agreements; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wasn't and isn't a Democrat.
- More importantly — whether a more neutral DNC would have really changed the outcome is hardly a certainty. How much does a party really affect a primary? It can agree to hold more debates and it can help shape a media narrative, but people still need to vote — and many more voted for Clinton than Sanders.
- All that's true, but a candidate who is not yet the nominee is not supposed to have operational control over a party. The party was giving the impression that it was neutral, when evidently it was not. The charge from challengers was that Clinton was being treated as the nominee and being coronated. That appears to be the case from party insiders, who decide the nomination. That kind of appearance can only serve to further divide the party.
What was revealed only reinforces for the left that there was collusion — against them. It's only going to harden and deepen the fissures in the party that is trying to oust Republicans in Congress next year and President Trump two years after that.
If the Democratic Party doesn't shape up, create a message and figure out — most importantly — how to unify its divergent factions, it's going to be hard to mount a campaign to defeat a sitting president with a locked-in base.
Here's a recap of the week. Yes, all this happened:
—Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, are indicted for conspiring against the the United States, money laundering and more. These charges stem from Manafort's work overseas and before he joined the Trump campaign.
—But then, two hours later, another set of court documents dropped. And this very much had to do with Russia. A former foreign policy adviser to Trump's campaign, George Papadopoulos, who Trump once called "excellent," pleads guilty to lying about contacts he had with Russians.
—Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the military is blocked in court.
—White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defends President Trump, claiming "no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment today changes that at all."
--Sanders also begins with a multiple-minute Internet meme that was supposed to be an allegory about taxes involving journalists drinking in a bar and attempting to split a bar tab based on income.
--White House chief of staff John Kelly says in an interview with Fox Monday night that he would not apologize for false information he recounted about a Democratic congresswoman — and then made news defending Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and saying that the Civil War, which was fought over slavery, could have been prevented by a compromise.
--Trump hits all-time low in approval in Gallup and NBC/WSJ polls.
— Sam Clovis identified as the "supervisor" mentioned in the Papadopolous documents.
—After not tweeting since before the Papadopoulos documents were released Monday morning, Trump tweets that he was merely a "low level volunteer" and that people should "check the DEMS!" Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier this year dismissed Manafort's relevance during the campaign, saying he played a "minor role."
In reality, while Manafort was only on the campaign for a relatively short time, he played a critical role getting Trump nominated. He was in charge of the delegate process and fully in charge of the convention, for example, working to depress potential floor rebellions over Trump's nomination.
— Trump Organization attorney Michael Caputo on CNN claims Papadopoulos was just a "coffee boy." "If he was going to wear a wire, all we'd know now is whether he prefers a caramel macchiato over a regular American coffee in conversations with his barista," Caputo said. "He had nothing to do with the campaign."
--There was growing speculation that Papadopoulos may have worn a wire because it was revealed that he had been taking a "proactive" role in helping the feds after being arrested — quietly and without leaks — in July until his guilty plea in early October.
--This came a day after Trump tweeted "Great job by Michael Caputo on @foxandfriends."
Trump is known to evaluate his associates' prowess on cable news, then bring them closer into his circle or put them out there more (or pull them back). (See Anthony Scaramucci, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, etc.)
--Later, Sanders takes to the podium in the briefing room to again defend the president and campaign but also Kelly. She said it had been historically proven that compromises could have ended the Civil War. It was unclear if that involved slavery.
—Clovis' attorneys put out a statement acknowledging he is the "supervisor." Sanders says the president sees no reason at this time to pull Clovis' nomination as the chief scientist for the USDA. Clovis is not a scientist.
—NBC reports that the FBI "grilled" Clovis last week. In an email to Papadopolous, Clovis seemed to encourage his meeting with Russians and told him it was "great work."
--Apparent ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in New York, where eight cyclists are killed.
—White House Communications Director Hope Hicks to meet with Mueller's team in mid-November after Trump's Asia trip, Politico reported. (Other current White House officials were also expected to be interviewed by week's end, Politico also reported.)
--Officials from Facebook, Twitter and Google tell a congressional panel that the Russian interference campaign was broader than first known.
—House GOP pushes back the debut of its tax overhaul package to Thursday; the bill was supposed to be unveiled Wednesday. Sticking points center on which deductions can be cut, so Republicans can pay for it. They're still promising a markup Monday.
--More court documents released on Manafort. They show he had at least three passports and used fake names to travel to several countries. Manafort worked for free for the Trump campaign. He came on the recommendation of Tom Barrack, a longtime Trump friend who employed Gates. This raises questions about the Trump campaign's vetting.
--Lost in the shuffle, but an amazing read: former House Speaker John Boehner's interview with Politico, in which he very candidly shares his thoughts on a host of things and people.
—Trump points blame at Schumer for the New York attack.
Schumer responds that he guesses it's not too soon to politicize a tragedy. The White House had said after the Las Vegas shooting that it was "premature" to talk about guns.
--Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., comes to Schumer's defense on Twitter.
—Federal officials confirm that the alleged driver in the attack came to the country via the diversity visa lottery program.
—Trump calls for an end to the program and then calls the U.S. justice system a "laughingstock." Instead, he says he wants "quick" and "strong justice." "What we have right now is a joke, and it is a laughingstock, and no wonder so much of this stuff takes place," Trump told reporters during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. He adds in response to a question from a reporter, "Send him to Gitmo? I would certainly consider that, yes."
—The White House later says it considers the suspect an "enemy combatant." The Guantanamo and enemy combatant discussion raises the question of whether that would be allowed. First, the driver had a green card. Georgetown Law writes that "permanent legal residents are protected under the laws of the United States and all local jurisdictions." Further, "due process" is guaranteed to all persons, it writes because of the 14th Amendment, "which provides guarantees for 'any person.'"
—Some Trump allies are growing very concerned about the Mueller investigation. Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg told Vanity Fair, for example:
"Here's what Manafort's indictment tells me: Mueller is going to go over every financial dealing of Jared Kushner and the Trump Organization. Trump is at 33 percent in Gallup. You can't go any lower. He's f-----."
—Congress releases social media posts that were bought and paid for by Russian accounts.
—Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only black Republican senator in Congress, responds to Kelly's comments about a Civil War "compromise." "There was no compromise to make — only a choice between continuing slavery and ending it," Scott said.
--After hours earlier questioning the efficacy of the U.S. judicial system, Trump went to bed tweeting that he wanted the "DEATH PENALTY" for the New York truck attacker. He also seemed to give away a previously unknown detail, that the suspect asked to hang the ISIS flag from his hospital bed.
--Trump tweets again about "DEATH PENALTY."
—Republicans in the House unveil their tax overhaul.
—Trump announces his pick to be the new Federal Reserve chairman, a Fed governor, Jerome Williams. Williams, a lawyer by training and a former Wall Street investment banker, would be the first Fed chair in 40 years not to have his doctorate in economics.
—Clovis withdraws from the Trump administration post he had been nominated for.
—Trump says he met with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, earlier in the day and wants what he calls "immigration reform" after the New York attack. Trump called on Congress to immediately terminate the diversity visa lottery program. "It's a disaster for our country," Trump said, adding, "The people put in that lottery are not that country's finest." He also again called for an end to "chain migration."
—It's revealed that Jeff Sessions may have known more about campaign aides' ties to Russia. Both Papadopoulos and Carter Page, another Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, both told Sessions about Russian contacts. Page testified behind closed doors on Capitol Hill that he told Sessions he was traveling to Russia to give a speech at a university. Page says he told Sessions this in passing at a dinner. Papadopoulos, NBC reports, asked Sessions if he should try to use his Russian contacts to try to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sessions reportedly told him not to do so. But there will be questions for Sessions, because he told Congress earlier this year that he had no recollection of any contacts between Russia and the campaign.
—Democrats' party divisions are ripped open. Brazile's book excerpt is released. Trump tweets about it:
The liberal group Democracy for America says it's pulling support from Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, just days before Tuesday's election. They accuse him of running a "racist" campaign after he declares he would not support "sanctuary cities."
Howard Dean, a founding member of the organization and whose brother runs it, blasts the decision as "incredibly stupid."
Hillary Clinton appears on The Daily Show and declared again, "I'm not going anywhere."
Elizabeth Warren adds fuel to the fire, saying, "Yes," she believes the Democratic primary was "rigged" in favor of Clinton.
—Trump expresses disappointment that he can't direct the Justice Department or FBI in an interview on conservative talk radio:
"The saddest thing is that because I'm the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department," Trump said on the Larry O'Connor show, a conservative talk-radio show. "I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. ... "I look at what's happening with the Justice Department. Well, why aren't they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her, the dossier? I'm very unhappy with it that the Justice Department isn't going. I am not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated by it."
—Trump later goes on Fox and is interviewed by Laura Ingraham and seems to downplay the fact that some in his campaign, including his son, had been willing to work with a foreign government to try to get "dirt" on his opponent:
"Well, she [Clinton] talked about oppo research is wonderful. Oppo research. But not when it comes to us. OK? Oppo research for us, of course, is no good. No."
--The White House approves a climate report that states unequivocally that climate change is happening — and that humans are the cause. Ironically, the president has previously said climate change is a "hoax" and many in his administration deny humans are to blame.
—Trump's Twitter account goes down briefly. Twitter blames the brief deactivation on a contractor and says it's taking "safeguards" so that the same thing doesn't happen in the future.
—It's revealed that Papadopolous had multiple contacts with Russians and that he bragged about them in front of Trump and Sessions. Trump and Sessions have both denied knowing anything about anyone in the campaign having contact with Russia. Trump said so before reporters in February. Sessions did so multiple times in congressional testimony. Trump tells reporters he doesn't "remember much" about his conversation with Papadopolous and calls the meeting "unimportant":
"Took place along time ago. I don't remember much about it. All I can tell you is this. There was no collusion. There was no nothing. It's a disgrace, frankly, that they continue. You ought to look at Hillary Clinton."
—Trump tweets encouragement of the FBI/DOJ to look into Democrats "rigging" the primary.
—Trump leaves for Asia for APEC meeting, as North Korea threat looms, and he tore up the Trans-Pacific Trade partnership and has questioned the trade deal with South Korea.
--Jobs report comes out, and it shows job gains of 261,000 and unemployment ticking down to 4.1 percent, the lowest level since 2000. A day earlier, in a statement about the tax bill, the president took credit for strong economic numbers:
"The policies of my Administration have already helped to drive the stock market to all-time highs and the unemployment rate to a 16-year low."
Trump adds that tax cuts would be "the rocket fuel our economy needs to soar higher than ever before."
--NPR's Scott Detrow discovers a second financial agreement in 2015 between the DNC and the Clinton campaign.