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The week’s 4 big political stories, explained

Scandal, scandal, scandal, and a good economy.

Rudy Giuliani in Tirana, Albania, on March 20, 2018.
Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Scandal and controversy took center stage in Washington this week, with Congress still out and the Trump administration’s flurry of Korea-related diplomatic activity in quiet mode for the moment.

Trump shook up his legal team, swapping out Ty Cobb for Emmet T. Flood but also bringing Rudy Giuliani on board, seemingly more to serve as a law-adjacent television pundit than to do any actual lawyering. But Giuliani’s maiden TV appearance in the role arguably created more problems than it solved, contradicting the White House’s earlier story on Stormy Daniels. Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt’s efforts to draw attention away from his many scandals became a scandal on their own.

All the while, the strong American economy kept up its trend of very solid economic growth.

Here’s what you need to know.

Donald Trump reimbursed Michael Cohen for the Stormy payoff

In a surprise Wednesday evening Fox News appearance, Trump lawyer (and former New York City Mayor) Rudy Giuliani broke the news that Donald Trump had reimbursed Michael Cohen for the $130,000 hush money payoff to Stormy Daniels. This contradicted months of insistence from the White House that Trump personally had nothing to do with it but appeared to be designed to allay concerns that Cohen had made an illegal contribution to Trump’s campaign.

Actress Stephanie Clifford, leaves the Detroit Police Department's Fourth Precinct flanked by her bodyguards after applying for a cabaret license, on April 18, 2018, in Detroit.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images
  • The new story: The latest version of the story, tweeted by Trump Thursday morning, is that Cohn made the deal on his own as part of his general work as Trump’s lawyer and then simply asked for (and received) reimbursement after the fact.
  • The legal issue: Formally speaking, whether Cohen was repaid may not be the key issue, as even a loan is a form of campaign contribution. Rather, legally speaking, the crux is whether the hush money payment was provably meant to help Trump win the election, as opposed to simply hiding an alleged affair from his wife.
  • The bigger issue: Beyond the narrow legalisms, the larger point is that a man making secret six-figure payments to people for their silence is extremely vulnerable to blackmail and other forms of compromise — charges that are at the heart of the Trump-Russia investigation, among other things.

Scott Pruitt scandals are metastasizing

The various ethics questions around Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt that began with him getting a sweetheart condo rental deal, have multiplied to the point where there are now half a dozen separate investigations into him. Then this week things got really weird with the news that one of Pruitt’s staffers hatched a plan to get his boss out of hot water by planting negative stories about another Cabinet secretary.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and fellow members of President Trump's Cabinet bow their heads in prayer during an event to mark the National Day of Prayer in the Rose Garden at the White House on May 3, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • An unorthodox strategy: According to the Atlantic’s Elaina Plott, the strategy was the brainchild of Pruitt press staffer Michael Abboud, who hatched a plan to shop a story about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke conspiring with former EPA Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Chmielewski to smear Pruitt.
  • Few takers: Abboud’s story didn’t really get anywhere with the mainstream press, but ex-Breitbarter Patrick Howley did run with it at Big League Politics, a newish Trump-friendly outlet advised by Roger Stone.
  • Blowback? The White House apparently got wind of Abboud’s scheme and, according to Plott, is mad at Pruitt. What’s less clear is how much this matters. Much of Trump’s staff has regarded Pruitt as a scandal-plagued embarrassment for weeks, but Trump likes him and has been inclined to circle the wagons.

Trump finally got a top-notch lawyer

The early departure of Ty Cobb from President Trump’s legal team initially seemed like more bad news for the president’s long-troubled efforts to build a first-rate operation to go toe to toe with Robert Mueller. But that swiftly turned around with the news that Cobb will be replaced by Emmet T. Flood, a political legal star with experience handling, among other things, Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

  • An impressive résumé: While Trump often seems to hire people based on how they perform on television, Flood has a low media profile and an impressive legal résumé. He graduated Yale Law School in 1991, clerked for Second Circuit Judge Ralph Winters and then Antonin Scalia, and later joined Clinton’s legal team. He worked in the White House counsel’s office under George W. Bush and later represented Vice President Dick Cheney in a civil suit related to the Valerie Plame matter, then Hillary Clinton in the email inquiry.
  • No more Mr. Nice Trump: Cobb was known as the voice in favor of conciliation and cooperation with Mueller, essentially playing good cop to the bad cop of Trump’s Twitter feed. Flood is a well-regarded professional who probably won’t say wild and crazy things, but he’s been a part of a lot of teams that have taken tough uncooperative stances.
  • What’s next? The larger context is that Flood is joining the team at a time when talks between Mueller and Trump for an interview have broken down. The Trump-Russia investigation has thus far proceeded with remarkably little procedural wrangling, but that may be about to change as Mueller starts pressing for evidence the White House doesn’t want to hand over.

The economy added 164,000 jobs in April

In contrast to the din of scandal news, America’s economy kept on trundling forward with 1640,000 new jobs added and an unemployment rate that fell to 3.9 percent.

  • The numbers: The job growth number was solid, though not spectacular, capping a years-long stretch dating back to 2011 or so during which nearly every month has delivered solid, though not spectacular, job growth. Early in the recovery, this sort of performance was disappointing. But so late in the cycle, it’s impressive and encouraging.
  • The war for credit: Trump and his fans will, obviously, claim credit for the good news. His opponents will, equally obviously, note that Trump-era growth has almost exactly continued trends that he characterized as dismal under Obama. Regardless, Trump’s opponents in 2016 warned that he would crash the economy, and he clearly hasn’t.
  • What’s next: It’s hard to find any genuinely bad news about the economy, but Trump skeptics keep wondering how long the good times can hold up in an international environment increasingly dominated by talk of a looming trade war with China and higher tensions with Iran.