Congress is out on its summer vacation, and while the Trump administration insists the president’s August sojourn to his luxury golf resort in New Jersey isn’t a vacation, it certainly has a vacation-y vibe to it.
At any rate, with key political decision-makers out of town, it’s traditional for the mid-August Washington news cycle to slow down and veer toward the silly. This week was different. A president who loves spur-of-the-moment communications and disdains formal process can make a lot of waves without being in the West Wing, and the steady march of news from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation knows no vacation timetable.
Here’s what you need to know.
We had a lot of loose talk about nuclear war
Over the weekend, the United Nations imposed harsh new sanctions on North Korea in a substantial victory for American diplomacy. North Korea responded to that with a dire warning that an American invasion of the DPRK would be met with a nuclear missile attack on the United States, prompting Donald Trump to tell reporters that “North Korea had best not make any threats against the United States” because if they continued, “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
- Why you can calm down a bit: Despite the heated rhetoric, there is not actually an imminent war, and Trump administration officials were quick to clarify that the president did not actually mean to say that the United States was going to respond to verbal threats with a massive preemptive nuclear attack.
- On the other hand: North Korea’s plans to do a small missile strike in the ocean near the US territory of Guam does constitute a real escalation — especially since the flight plan calls for missiles to cruise above Japan, which the DPRK normally doesn’t do.
- What’s next: Two big questions remain — will North Korea really go through with the threatened missile strike, and if it does, will the United States attempt to deploy its THAAD missile shield to intercept it? The system has been used in staged tests before, but never deployed in combat.
Trump feuded with Mitch McConnell
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking to an audience back home in Kentucky, offered the mild criticism that “[o]ur new president has of course not been in this line of work before, and I think had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.” This spurred a week-long series of critical Trump tweets, enjoining McConnell to “get back to work” and criticizing him as someone who “couldn’t get it done” on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
- Why it matters: Feuding with legislative leaders is a dangerous game for any president, and Trump — who is counting on congressional Republicans to shield him from a range of investigations — is in some ways particularly vulnerable to subtle pushback from annoyed GOP professionals.
- Practical cooperation continues: On the other hand, things often proceed on parallel tracks in Trumpland. This same week, the White House finalized the appointment of a former McConnell aide to a plum job at the Federal Electrical Regulatory Commission and endorsed McConnell’s favorite candidate, Luther Strange, in the Alabama Senate primary.
- A volatile partnership: The era of intense partisanship was integral to Trump’s electoral win, and his entire governance strategy consists of nothing but party-line GOP work. Yet Trump himself is a throwback figure with few personal ties to the institutional Republican Party and he’s increasingly surrounding himself with aides whose party ties are also weak. It’s an inherently unstable dynamic, even if it hasn’t yet manifested itself outside of Twitter.
The opioid crisis gets an official “state of emergency”
- What this means: A declaratory statement from the president can only change so much, but it should have some concrete effects, including, most notably, clearing the path for the Department of Health and Human Services to issue waivers that will allow Medicaid to pay for addiction treatment services at a much wider range of facilities.
- Trump still wants Medicaid cuts: Opening up the spigots of Medicaid funding could make a big difference to the availability of drug treatment services. But at the same time, Trump’s budget proposal calls for overall Medicaid funding to be cut nearly in half.
- Treating pain is hard: The opioid crisis is itself in part a consequence of an earlier crisis — the growing number of Americans suffering from chronic pain. Evidence suggests that prescription opioids are not, in fact, effective at treating most forms of chronic pain. But therapies that actually work for common ailments like low back pain tend to be relatively labor-intensive and difficult to pay for.
Paul Manafort seems to be in legal trouble
News broke this week that early in the morning on July 26, FBI agents raided the home of Paul Manafort, the former chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign who before working for Trump was a well-compensated consultant to a Kremlin proxy party in Ukraine. Many documents were seized, and the nature of the search indicates that the FBI was able to convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe Manafort is guilty of something.
- Trump is distancing himself: Trump claimed in remarks to the press on Thursday that he hasn’t spoken to Manafort “in a long time,” and the reliably pro-Trump National Enquirer ran a hit piece on Manafort — a possible sign that Trumpworld believes Manafort is going down and wants to put distance between him and the president.
- Manafort’s many legal woes: Beyond whatever Manafort may or may not have done as a leader of the Trump campaign, scrutiny of his Ukrainian work seems to be causing some significant legal headaches. He did not initially register as a foreign agent, and two aspects of his personal finances — bank accounts in Cyprus and all-cash real estate purchases in the United States — are investigative red flags for money laundering.
- He’s getting new lawyers: Separately — but perhaps relatedly — Manafort’s spokesperson announced Thursday evening that the law firm WilmerHale is no longer representing Manafort in the Russia investigation, and reporters say the firm dropped their client rather than vice versa. It’s not at all clear why this happened, but it seems indicative of bad news for the former campaign chair.