clock menu more-arrow no yes

The 4 biggest political stories of the week, explained

Honor guard carry the coffin of a police officer, who was killed when Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. A Harvard University study estimates that more than 4,600 people were killed as a result of the storm.
Ramon Espinosa/AP

Celebrity and culture war antics were at the forefront of American politics this week, as they often are in the Trump era, and the fights were not entirely inconsequential: The White House seems to have decided it should be in a position to determine which shows air on American television.

But real policymaking happened too, as President Trump's hot-and-cold trade politics ran hot again this week in a way that put America at odds with its key allies. And Trump once again reached into his bag of presidential powers to offer an unusual pardon.

Perhaps most significant of all was new news about an old story, as the most comprehensive study undertaken to date suggests that the true death toll from Hurricane Maria was about 70 times higher than the official government figures.

Here’s what you need to know.

Puerto Rico got a credible estimate of Maria’s death toll

Official government statistics have maintained that only 64 people died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria last year, a figure that reporters at Vox and elsewhere have long questioned. On Tuesday, a large team working out of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine released a new study that concluded that around 4,600 excess deaths were associated with the disaster and the attendant disruptions to electricity and water supply.

A hurricane survivor displays a placard on top of his house that reads, “Voy a ti Puerto Rico” (“I come to you, Puerto Rico”) in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.
Hector Retamal/Getty Images
  • The estimate: The “excess deaths” methodology attempts a statistical estimate rather than a raw count, so there is some uncertainty; the estimate ranges from as few as 793 to as many as 8,498 deaths.
  • The stats: Beyond mortality, the study reveals that on average, Puerto Rican households went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cellphone coverage after the Category 4 storm hit.
  • Trump’s legacy: Hurricanes — unlike earthquakes and some other forms of natural disaster — are essentially predictable with normal weather forecasting methods, and certainly Maria’s impact with Puerto Rico was not a surprise. The disaster turned so deadly because the government fundamentally didn’t care enough to prepare.

Trump imposed tariffs on American allies

Back in March, the Commerce Department announced sweeping new taxes on imported steel and aluminum and then swiftly exempted the European Union, Canada, and Mexico from the tariffs. Then Thursday morning, they turned around and ended the exemptions, setting off what could be the opening skirmish in a larger trade war.

President Donald J. Trump speaking at the Eisenhower Executive Building on May 30, 2018.
Jabin Botsford/Getty Images
  • The tariffs: Imported steel will be taxed at a 25 percent rate and imported aluminum at a 10 percent rate; the official rationale is national security, though of course nobody believes the United States fears losing wartime access to imported Canadian metal.
  • The response: Canada announced retaliatory tariffs on American metal as well as a very wide range of foodstuffs (everything from canned soup to strawberry jam), while Europe looks at a somewhat more narrowly targeted list featuring orange juice, bourbon, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
  • Everyone’s a little confused: The larger context for this trade spat with American allies is an on-again, off-again threatened trade war with China over intellectual property issues and the seemingly never-ending NAFTA renegotiation process with Canada and Mexico. Trump’s own team appears to be seriously divided over these questions, but the president also by all accounts regards unpredictability as tactically advantageous. Consequently, everyone is a bit confused as to what Trump is really trying to do here — perhaps by design.

Roseanne got canceled

Roseanne Barr’s rebooted eponymous sitcom was intended as, among other things, a humanizing rebuke to liberal caricatures of Trump supporters as knuckle-dragging racists. It got canceled when its star tweeted Tuesday morning that Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett looks like “the muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.”

Roseanne Barr attending an ABC press tour on January 8, 2018.
Valerie Macon/Getty Images
  • The context: The problem is that whatever the intent of the show, its star has a Twitter presence that has long been characterized by racism and conspiracy theories. It’s essentially unprecedented for a show this popular to be canceled, but Barr has at this point a very long track record and seemingly no ability to control her behavior in this regard.
  • The meta-backlash: While liberal expectations that conservatives would rally around Barr proved largely mistaken, what arose instead was a meta-backlash that started with Trump complaining that ABC had never apologized to him for critical news coverage and went supernova when Full Frontal host Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c*nt” Wednesday night.
  • What’s next? Bee apologized, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called on TBS to cancel her show, so now it appears we’re in for extending wrangling about alleged double standards and the difference between racism and personal crudeness.

Dinesh D’Souza got a pardon

Veteran conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza — who was convicted several years ago of perpetrating an illegal straw donor scheme and whose trolling-oriented take on right-wing ideology arguably prefigured much of the modern-day pro-Trump media ecosystem — got a pardon Thursday morning from Trump himself, who proclaimed that D’Souza had been “treated very unfairly by our government!”

Author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza onstage at a debate reception at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on March 5, 2012.
Ben Hider/Getty Images
  • Trump’s pattern: Along with earlier pardons of Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby, the D’Souza pardon makes a trilogy — they’re all cases in which Trump has gone outside the normal process for using the pardon power to help out conservative celebrities who don’t meet the normal criteria for leniency.
  • Hints of more: Trump also suggested in comments to reporters that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Martha Stewart might be next on the list. Critics see Trump signaling to Robert Mueller’s targets that he’ll pardon them if they refuse to cooperate with the special counsel.
  • What’s next? The New York attorney general’s office has repeatedly asked the state legislature to revise the New York criminal code’s double jeopardy provisions to ensure that the recipient of a federal pardon can still be prosecuted for violations of state law. If the legislature makes the change, that could potentially stop Trump from pardoning his way out of trouble.