The international domain kept things interesting on an otherwise quiet week on the domestic policy front, between a North Korean missile test and a major summit of world leaders in Germany. Meanwhile, long-simmering tensions between the Trump White House and CNN continued, and a top official resigned from the Office of Government Ethics. And while Senate Republicans continue to not hold any public hearings or debate about their health care bill, behind the scenes they are contemplating a new idea that might revive efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Here’s what you need to know.
Trump went to the G20
Donald Trump traveled to Hamburg, Germany, for a meeting of the Group of 20 largest economies in the world — a group that also includes Russia, whose president Trump sat down with for a small-group meeting on the sidelines of the larger conclave.
- An unusually interesting meeting: G-20 meetings are not enormously consequential affairs, but this one attracted an uncommon level of interest due to the unusually tense relationship between Trump and the leaders of key American allies such as France and Germany.
- Trump was on his best behavior — mostly: But despite the media’s keen anticipation of the summit, nothing particularly untoward went down between Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel or President Emmanuel Macron. The president lashed out with a bizarre and uninformed tweet about former Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, but otherwise stuck to pleasantries.
- The Trump paradox: Trump’s favorite foreign leaders are the ones who, like the Saudi monarchs, lavish him with praise. But Trump himself is very unpopular internationally, meaning leaders of democracies have strong incentives to keep their distance. The result is that under Trump, the United States in some ways shares warmer ties with authoritarian allies than with democratic ones.
North Korea tested a missile that could theoretically reach Alaska
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea fired a Hwasong-14 missile 578 miles, and it landed in the ocean between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. But based on the extremely high trajectory, analysts believe that the missile — if aimed appropriately — could go as far as 4,200 miles.
- Why it matters: This is long enough range to hit Alaska, meaning North Korea now has the ability to target the United States directly. More importantly, the country is clearly making progress on its missiles and it now seems likely that soon enough they will develop the capacity to strike Hawaii, California, and other parts of the country.
- The US reaction: President Trump responded to the test with a series of tough-talking tweets and even some financial sanctions on Chinese banks that deal with North Korea, but nobody expects that alone to change the course of the situation.
- No good options: Trump is learning what earlier presidents have learned, namely that given the DPRK’s willingness to endure international isolation there are no particularly appealing further options for controlling its behavior. North Korea keeps breaking deals, making diplomacy unattractive. But a regional war could kill tens of thousands of people in Korea and Japan, while the DPRK is already so heavily sanctioned that it is hard to sanction them more.
CNN and Trump continued their feud
Trump tweeted a GIF that took an old clip of himself appearing in a pro wrestling competition, Photoshopped to depict him pummeling a person with a CNN logo for a head. The GIF itself was the creation of a Reddit user who goes by the name HanAssholeSolo who had previous posted various pieces of racist and anti-Semitic content. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski profiled the Redditor in question, but wrote that he would not reveal his real name due to his expressions of remorse and determination to cease that kind of behavior, while also saying “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
- Critics saw a threat: On its face, the story as written appeared to be structured as a kind of threat. CNN was saying that they didn’t want to identify a public citizen who wished to remain anonymous, but might identify him in the future depending on his behavior. Kaczynski subsequently wrote that the line in question was being misinterpreted, and he merely meant that there was no formal agreement between CNN and the author of the posts.
- Conservatives piled on to CNN: Conservatives pounced on CNN’s misstep, with Ted Cruz (R-TX) suggesting they might have committed a crime and social media users coining the #CNNBlackmail hashtag to denounce the network that is a frequent punching bag for Trump.
- The “feud” is mutually beneficial: Beating up on CNN is smart politics for the president, who would rather talk about the media than talk details of the Republican Party’s unpopular health care bill. But being in the presidential crosshairs is also in many ways objectively good for CNN, driving publicity and ratings. As the network’s president noted in a New York Times story, CNN’s total viewership in the prime 25-54 year-old demographic is now the highest in network history and it’s on track to clear $1 billion in profit in 2017.
Ted Cruz floated an idea to resurrect Obamacare repeal
Senate Republicans left town without 50 votes for Mitch McConnell’s Affordable Care Act repeal bill and without a clear path for getting to 50. But Ted Cruz floated a notion that might make the Senate math work — if he can make the budget math work.
- The basic idea: Cruz’s core idea is that if an insurance company offers a plan on the ACA’s heavily regulated insurance exchanges, it should also be allowed to sell a skimpier less-regulated plan outside the exchange framework.
- Why it’s appealing: As described, this idea would revive the lightly regulated pre-Obamacare insurance market (a key conservative goal) while allowing more skittish Republicans to say that key regulatory protections for patients with preexisting conditions are still in place.
- Why it could be too good to be true: That works fine on the level of talking points. On the level of reality, however, it looks like allowing lightly regulated plans could cause healthier patients to flee exchanges, sending premiums — and therefore federal subsidy costs — skyrocketing on the exchanges. Making this work as actual policy seems challenging, and the risk is that seeking the best of both worlds will actually create the worst of both worlds.
The top federal ethics official resigned
Walter Shaub, the career official who heads the Office of Government Ethics and had frequently been critical of the Trump administration’s lax attitude toward conflicts of interest, announced his resignation on Thursday, saying the lesson of his clashes with the White House is that “we need improvements to the existing ethics program.”
- A watchdog with no teeth: The basic presumption behind the OGE’s current setup is that it serves to help protect a president who wants to avoid staff-level conflicts of interest and is committed to making sure that his team is avoiding them. It has essentially no enforcement capacity, and, when faced with a president who is quite open about mixing business, family, and politics, turned out to be toothless.
- Shaub plans to advocate for tougher rules: Shaub’s next step for his career is a job with the Campaign Legal Center, a perch he intends to use to advocate for tougher government ethics rules as a matter of law.
- What’s next: Congressional Republicans have seen little interest in clashing with the Trump administration over ethics and conflicts of interest, and perhaps surprisingly none of the Democratic candidates in various House special election races have sought to make a big deal out of this issue either. Democrats might try to focus on the issue as part of their strategy for the 2018 midterms, but if they don’t, Shaub’s departure is likely to cause the whole subject to fade further from public view.