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Jeff Sessions rebukes Trump by vowing to act with “integrity and honor.”

That’s according to a rare statement issued by the attorney general on Wednesday afternoon. Normally, it wouldn’t be news when the head of the Justice Department says he or she will faithfully enforce the law. But Sessions is responding to public criticism from a highly unusual source: the president of the United States.

The latest contretemps began on Wednesday morning, when President Donald Trump once again tried to openly pressure Sessions to steer the Justice Department’s investigative functions for the president’s political benefit.

The “potentially massive FISA abuse” to which Trump refers is likely a reference to GOP allegations that the Justice Department and the FBI abused the FISA process to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide, as part of the Russia investigation. Those claims surfaced publicly last month in a mostly discredited memo issued by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee; Democrats released a counter-memo to rebut the allegations last weekend.

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, is currently investigating the department’s actions during the 2016 election. The former federal prosecutor is not an “Obama guy,” despite the president’s claims. Barack Obama nominated him to his current post in 2012, but Horowitz has worked in the Justice Department under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. In 2003, George W. Bush nominated him to a six-year term on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Trump correctly noted that Horowitz isn’t currently a prosecutor, but inspectors general can refer cases for potential charges if they uncover evidence of wrongdoing.

Perhaps because Trump’s latest attack targeted other DOJ employees instead of the attorney general, Sessions issued a rare response. “We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary,” he said in a statement. “As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”

At first glance, the statement is a mundane recitation of Sessions’s professional obligations as both a lawyer and a civil servant. But the deeper implication—that the president is pressuring the attorney general to act unethically—is inescapable.

May 21, 2018

Courtesy of Muscogee (Creek) Nation

The Supreme Court takes up a case that could turn half of Oklahoma back into tribal lands.

The justices announced on Monday that they will review Royal v. Murphy, an unusual death-penalty case out of Oklahoma. At issue is whether the state had the jurisdiction to prosecute Patrick Murphy, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, for the murder of another Creek man on what was once tribal land. (The federal government normally prosecutes serious crimes between Native Americans on tribal lands.)

Oklahoma argued in the lower courts that Congress extinguished the Creek lands when it dismantled tribal governments in the early twentieth century. But the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Murphy’s favor last summer, concluding that those lands remained legally intact because Congress had not explicitly abolished them. As I noted in March, Oklahoma warned the justices that the decision would have dramatic implications:

If the Tenth Circuit’s ruling stands, the state’s criminal jurisdiction in that territory would be reduced to minor offenses like traffic violations and crimes against non-Indians. Federal and tribal courts would take over all other cases, with serious crimes left to the federal government to investigate and prosecute. State officials cast the loss of jurisdiction in dire terms, especially if the Murphy ruling is applied to other tribes. “Stripping Oklahoma of criminal jurisdiction over all Indians in this densely populated area, or even worse, in the entire eastern half of the state, would render Oklahoma a fractured, second-class state,” Oklahoma officials told the Supreme Court.

Legal experts I spoke with downplayed the state’s grim portrayal, and Murphy’s lawyers told the justices earlier this year that the state’s “claims of mass disruption are overstated and misdirected.” States routinely hammer out agreements with tribal governments to handle criminal-jurisdiction matters, they argued, and the regulatory impact would be minimal under existing legal precedents. Oral arguments will be heard in the case after the Supreme Court reconvenes for its upcoming term this fall, and a ruling could come as soon as this winter.

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Venezuela is on the brink, and the U.S. might push it over.

President Nicolás Maduro has won a second term. The opposition boycotted the election, and turnout even in Maduro-friendly areas was quite low, according to The New York Times. Hunger, hyperinflation, and skyrocketing malaria rates can have that effect. During the campaign, turnout to rallies was reportedly boosted by food being handed out on the buses.

But neither Venezuela’s general slide into the “failed state” category nor the opposition’s accusations of vote-buying stopped Maduro from celebrating his victory Sunday night. “The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” he declared.

The big question is whether the United States—which along with the European Union, Canada, Chile, and Panama has not recognized the legitimacy of these elections—will slap new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports. In February, then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson floated the idea. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his thoughts on the election yesterday, omitting threats of sanctions but calling for Venezuela to free Josh Holt, a 26-year-old American held in Venezuela for two years without trial.

If the U.S. does target Venezuelan crude, the effect would likely mimic that of a sledgehammer on an already teetering three-legged chair, although whether it would actually dislodge Maduro, rather than merely crippling his people, is up for speculation.

May 18, 2018

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Trump is sending abortion rights back to the Reagan era.

The president on Friday is set to propose a new “gag rule” for health care organizations like Planned Parenthood. The return to Reagan-era abortion regulations will cut federal funding to any organization that “promotes abortion or refers patients to a caregiver that will provide one,” The New York Times reports.

Currently, federal funding for abortions is banned in most cases. But anti-abortion advocates have long made it their priority to cut funding from any health care facility that performs or even refers patients for abortions. Under the new proposal they would get their wish, with strict regulations imposed on Title X, the only federal program funding family planning services in America, providing approximately $286 million a year to low-income people.

Planned Parenthood, which receives $50 million to $60 million annually from Title X, risks losing its funding if its employees discuss, perform, or advise on abortions.

Cecile Richards, who recently stepped down as head of Planned Parenthood, told NPR, “This is absolutely extraordinary that we would now be gagging doctors and health care providers from giving women their legal information and even referring them for potentially live-saving health care.”

The policy is based on Ronald Reagan’s 1988 regulation that made it compulsory for abortion services to employ separate staff and have physical separation from their family planning services. Both Trump and Reagan switched between pro-choice and pro-life stances, but found their feet firmly in favor of their evangelical and socially conservative supporters. In January, Trump even became the first president to join anti-abortion activists at the March for Life, which he claimed was a “movement born out of love.”

Santa Fe High School was already on edge before today’s mass shooting.

A gunman reportedly opened fire in the southeastern Texas school on Friday morning, killing at least eight people. A suspect has been taken into custody. In a scene now familiar to all Americans, the students were corralled by armed officers outside the building as local TV news helicopters hovered overhead.

But this scene is especially familiar to Santa Fe, because it also happened less than three months ago. On February 28, the school went on lockdown for more than an hour after students and teachers reported hearing “popping sounds” outside.

A sweep of the area found no threat, but it unnerved the school.

“We got behind the teachers desk,” student Jessie Auzton told NBC affiliate KPRC. “I wasn’t scared. Everyone was crying, then I started getting upset.”

Daniel Williams described texting with his daughter Madilyn during the lockdown. “It was nerve-wracking trying to talk to her via text,” he said. “Florida was on my mind. On social media, people were talking about popping sounds, active shooter, you hope your child is OK.”

Williams was referring to the shooting two weeks earlier at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after which the superintendent of Santa Fe schools had written a letter to reassure parents and staff.

“Safety and security has long been and continues to be a priority in our district,” Leigh Wall wrote, noting that the district had seven full-time police officers and five part-timers, “all trained in current nationally standardized protocols to respond to emergency and active shooter situations. All district employees receive annual training and participate in drills routinely throughout the year. The district also actively participates in regular safety, security and intruder assessment audits to ensure safety and preparedness in crisis situations.”

Today showed the limits of such preparedness.

May 17, 2018

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A defamation lawsuit against Trump moves one step closer to the dreaded discovery phase.

The New York Supreme Court, the state’s second-highest appeals court, rejected President Donald Trump’s bid to block a lawsuit by Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant who claims he sexually assaulted her and then defamed her.

Trump can still appeal to the New York Court of Appeals. But failing another court’s intervention, the ruling opens the door for Zervos to begin gathering evidence as part of her lawsuit. Those efforts would likely include subpoenas for Trump Organization documents about Trump’s alleged misconduct with women as well as a potential sworn deposition in the matter. Both circumstances could expose Trump to new angles of legal scrutiny beyond what he’s already facing in the Russia investigation.

Zervos is one of 19 women who have accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct, telling reporters in October 2016 that Trump aggressively kissed and groped her during a 2007 encounter. Trump dismissed Zervos and the other women as liars during his presidential campaign. Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, Zervos sued him for defamation of character, claiming that his repeated denunciations had damaged her reputation and professional prospects.

May 16, 2018

The Senate gave Scott Pruitt third-degree burns.

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator has shown a knack for verbal gymnastics, particularly in his handling of myriad ethics scandals. But he flopped on Wednesday while being grilled by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Democratic Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico asked Pruitt about reports that he ordered his motorcade to deploy lights and sirens to cut through D.C. traffic. “There are policies in place that govern the use of lights” that were followed to the best of my knowledge,” Pruitt replied. Asked again whether he ordered sirens, Pruitt said he did “not recall that happening.” Udall then revealed an internal EPA email in which Pruitt’s former head of security said Pruitt “personally encouraged” the use of sirens.

At the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing, Pruitt admitted that some of the many reports of his excessive spending were true and regrettable. “There have been decisions over the last 16 months or so that, as I look back on those decisions, I would not make the same decisions again,” he said. Pruitt cited the $43,000 soundproof phone booth he had installed in his office as an example.

He made other damaging admissions. When Udall asked Pruitt if one of his aides, Milan Hupp, worked without pay to find housing for the administrator, Pruitt said she did. “[That’s] a violation of federal law,” Udall replied.

In response to questioning from Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, Pruitt confirmed a New York Times report that he’s been setting up a legal defense fund, where outside sources can donate money to defend the EPA chief from investigations into his conduct. As Mother Jones reported last week, that could create yet “another ethical mess.”

In lashing Pruitt, Democratic senators used words like “embarrassment” and “shame.” Some called on him to resign. But by far the most scorching burn came from Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, who questioned Pruitt’s claim that security threats require him to fly in first class at taxpayers’ expense. “What a silly reason to fly first class,” Leahy said. “Nobody even knows who you are.”

A mural by graffiti artists @welinoo, @balstroem and @sorenarildsen (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Kim Jong Un’s canny strategy to confound Trump.

Three and a half weeks ago, after North Korea announced it would be shutting down its nuclear tests, New Republic contributor Jon Wolfsthal cautioned not to celebrate President Donald Trump’s diplomatic victory just yet. Now, that analysis is looking remarkably prescient.

After multiple goodwill signals, including North Korea’s release of three American hostages last week, Kim on Wednesday reportedly startled Trump administration officials by threatening to call off the planned talks if the U.S. insisted that North Korea unilaterally abandon its nuclear program.

Last month, Wolfsthal considered the potential logic to Kim’s actions: While it’s possible the North Korean dictator suddenly decided to pursue peace, more likely he was taking advantage of South Korea’s alarm at President Trump’s bellicose language throughout the winter.

South Korean officials and public began to worry more about the United States launching an attack than about Pyongyang, a remarkable sea change in opinion. Thus began Kim’s seduction of the South. Kim agreed to a joint Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-Republic of Korea team for the Pyeongchang Olympics, and then sent his sister and the DPRK Cheer Team to attend the opening ceremonies. Since then, Kim has played the more reasonable negotiating partner ...

The reality, Wolfsthal wrote, was that any kind of lasting agreement with North Korea would take months to negotiate and years to implement. If America, led by an impatient president, walks away in frustration, then North Korea can “paint the United States as the unreasonable party.” By raising American expectations and then engaging in periodic obstructionism, Kim could be setting the talks up to fail. If the administration takes the bait, Wolfsthal argued, that would suit Kim just fine.

May 15, 2018

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Tom Wolfe reunited journalism with literature.

Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88, was known as a dandified doyen of the New Journalism, a reporter who embedded with hippies and race car drivers and astronauts, and later as a grandiose novelist. But Wolfe began his career as a scholar. In 1956, he completed a doctorate in American studies at Yale, writing a thesis titled The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929–1942. The most obscure of Wolfe’s many works, it is also the key to his entire oeuvre.

Although he was politically conservative, Wolfe wrote in his these with great sympathy about proletarian novelists of the 1930s such as James T. Farrell and John Steinbeck, whose work brought the grit of reality to fiction writing. Wolfe came to see these writers as part of a larger tradition of journalistic literature stretching from Daniel Defoe to Charles Dickens to Emile Zola. But something had gone wrong, Wolfe felt, in the twentieth century, when literature and journalism diverged. Literary fiction, under the sign of modernism, became too obsessed with experimentation and wordplay, while journalism, under the imperative of objectivity, adopted an arid view from nowhere.

Wolfe’s great mission in life was to remarry literature with journalism. He first did so as a pioneering journalist, writing about the cultural chaos of the 1960s with immersive, bracing prose. In 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he described a busload of hippies reacting to a forest fire: “By this time, everybody is off the bus rolling in the brown grass by the shoulder, laughing, giggling, yahooing, zonked to the skies on acid, because, mon, the woods are burning, the whole world is on fire.” Wolfe was no hippy but lived among them, absorbed their language, and told their story in their voice. He did that with all his subjects, whether it was Marshall McLuhan or jet pilots.

Later, with less success, Wolfe tried to flip the equation by writing novels based on extensive research. The first of those books, 1987’s Bonfire of the Vanities, a memorable portrait of Manhattan decadence, was a great success. But subsequent novels tended to be bloated and revealed the limitations of his empathy. His best work remains the journalism he did in the 1960s and 1970s, such The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Pump House Gang, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Right Stuff. They are not just classics of journalism, but included in the canon of American literature.

May 14, 2018

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Michael Avenatti isn’t a liberal hero. He’s a lawyer.

Peter J. Hasson, a reporter for the Daily Caller News Foundation, tweeted a screenshot of an email he received on Monday from Avenatti, Stephanie Clifford’s media-friendly lawyer, threatening to sue the reporter and his publication for defamation for publishing “hit pieces that are full of lies and defamatory statements.”

The email came shortly after Hasson and a colleague published an article stating that “Avenatti’s past is littered with lawsuits, jilted business partners and bankruptcy filings. People who have worked with the lawyer described him to TheDCNF as ruthless, greedy and unbothered by ethical questions.”

Avenatti’s legal threat is in sharp contrast to his interactions with other media outlets: He is a regular guest on both CNN and MSNBC, where he’s become a minor celebrity of sorts among liberals who are eager to see someone, anyone gain the upper hand over President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

Though Avenatti may consider what Hasson wrote to be unfair, that’s still a far cry from “actual malice,” the legal threshold for defamation under U.S. law. Other lawyers, including legal blogger Ken White, saw all smoke and no fire behind Avenatti’s threats.

As a matter of course, I don’t usually report on legal threats. Anybody can threaten to sue someone; it doesn’t actually mean anything until the paperwork is filed. But this is a good opportunity to note that Avenatti, who has built quite a following on the left, is a lawyer whose professional obligations to a client happen to intersect with liberals’ political goals. That happenstance shouldn’t blind Trump’s opponents to Avenatti’s more troubling antics, especially when they mirror those of his chief adversary.

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The Supreme Court’s sports-betting ruling has major implications for states’ rights.

In a 7-2 decision on Monday, the justices struck down a federal law that forbade most states from allowing gambling on sports. The court held that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) went too far by intruding on state legislative powers.

New Jersey, which challenged PASPA by passing a sports-betting law in 2012, argued that Congress violated the Tenth Amendment’s “anti-commandeering” principle by telling state legislatures which laws they could or could not pass. The Supreme Court agreed. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. “Our job is to interpret the law Congress has enacted and decide whether it is consistent with the Constitution. PASPA is not.”

Without PASPA, all 50 states can choose to legalize or ban sports betting in their jurisdictions. (Before Monday’s ruling, fans could only place lawful bets in Nevada, which was grandfathered in by the 1992 law.) But the ruling’s greatest impact could be in other areas of the law where Congress has tried to bind the states’ hands, ranging from gun control to immigration.

The Trump administration, for example, has spent the last year waging legal battles against state and local “sanctuary jurisdictions” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration policy. Most of those battles involve Section 1373, a provision in federal law that forbids state and local governments from barring their employees from providing immigration status information to the feds. There’s an ongoing debate over whether that provision runs afoul of the anti-commandeering principle. Monday’s ruling makes it more likely that state and local governments will challenge Section 1373’s constitutionality, setting up another potential Supreme Court clash.