What to Know in Washington: 2020 Democrats Eye Electoral College

The Democratic nomination race is moving beyond stump speeches and fundraising pleas into a competition among progressives to push fundamental changes to the Constitution and Washington institutions.

Several top Democratic presidential candidates have lined up behind jettisoning the Electoral College, expanding the Supreme Court, killing the Senate filibuster and granting statehood to Washington D.C. — all of which would likely smooth the way for the policy proposals at the heart of their agendas.

Those ideas are likely to resonate with the core of Democratic voters still bubbling with anger over the election of President Donald Trump despite his loss in the national vote count, the ease with which he’s transformed the Supreme Court and federal judiciary, and the power held in the Senate by a cluster of sparsely populated GOP-dominated states.

Most are plans that have circulated among Democrats for decades without gaining much traction with party leaders, and they have little chance of success in the foreseeable future. But their re-emergence in the 2020 race is more evidence of the ideological and generational divide within the party’s base as candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris(D-Calif.) try to energize younger liberals while others like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) look to carve a more centrist path to the nomination.

“You’ve got younger people and newer faces who have constituents empowering them to buck the normal trends. They’re saying, ‘Who cares if that’s how it was always done?” said Adrienne Elrod, a former spokeswoman for the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote in 2016 but lost in the Electoral College to Trump.

“But there’s still a good chunk of Democratic primary voters who don’t want major changes,” Elrod said. “They’re happy with the status quo as long as Donald Trump is not in office.”

It’s a tension that Democratic voters will have to reconcile in next year’s caucuses and primaries. Read more from Sahil Kapur.

Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg
The State of Michigan’s electoral college ballot.

Movers & Shakeups

Shanahan Allegations Probed: The Pentagon’s inspector general said yesterday he opened an investigation into allegations that acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan boosted his former employer Boeing and disparaged the company’s competitors. Shanahan said he welcomed the investigation and has abided by his Pentagon ethics agreement that removes him from dealing with Boeing, a major defense contractor, according to a statement by his spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino.

The investigation follows a complaint by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which alleged earlier this month that Shanahan violated the ethics agreement, citing media reports. The inquiry comes as Trump is considering whether to nominate Shanahan as defense secretary.

“Nominating someone in the midst of an IG investigation would be inappropriate and a disservice to the nominee,” said Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The committee couldn’t move forward in a bipartisan manner until the investigation is complete.” Read more from Travis J. Tritten.

SEC Dem Pick Nears: Trump is preparing to name Allison Lee in the coming weeks to fill the open Democratic seat on the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to people familiar with the matter. The selection of Lee to replace Kara Stein, who left the SEC in January after her term ended, would bring the five-member commission back to full strength if she is confirmed by the Senate. She is a former aide to Stein who also worked as an enforcement division lawyer during her time at the agency.

Lee’s nomination has been pending at the White House for months, according to people familiar with the matter. Delays in nominating her and others for Democratic seats on bipartisan commissions have angered some lawmakers and liberal activists. Read more from Ben Bain, Robert Schmidt and Jennifer Jacobs.

Around the Agencies

Interior Sued Over Endangered Species Docs: Environmental groups are suing the Interior Department for allegedly dragging its feet in responding to the groups’ requests for public records about how the agency is managing its list of protected endangered species in the southeastern U.S.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Defenders of Wildlife filed the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit this week in a district court against the southeastern region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department. The groups said the agencies didn’t respond to an August 2018 request to release their listing criteria and any targets for reducing the number of listed species. Read more from Rebecca Kern.

Soothing Facial Recognition Privacy Fears: The government still has a ways to go to ease the public’s and lawmakers’ concerns about privacy as it increasingly turns to facial recognition technology to help guard travelers, the head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said. The agency has faced increased bipartisan scrutiny by lawmakers and privacy advocates in recent months as it ramps up its use of the technology at a handful of ports of entry and airports. Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the agency needs to increase its efforts explaining how it’s protecting citizens’ data and how private companies interact with that data. Read more from Michaela Ross.

Oil, Gas Drilling Halted: The Trump administration’s pro-drilling policy took a blow when a federal judge ordered a halt to oil and gas exploration on more than 300,000 acres in Wyoming, saying the government must account for its cumulative effect on global climate change. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a pair of environmental conservation groups against the Obama administration in 2016, challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to lease federal lands for energy development in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. It stressed the difference between assessing environmental impacts in isolation and measuring their collective impact. Read more from Andrew Harris.

What Else to Know Today

Awaiting the Mueller Report: Special Counsel Robert Mueller has left little doubt in detailed court filings that Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election and tried to help Trump defeat Clinton. His soon-to-be-released report may answer the most pressing remaining question: Did Americans in Trump’s orbit conspire with any of those Russian efforts?

During Mueller’s two-year investigation, Americans have learned that Trump’s associates repeatedly interacted with Russians and their conduits. Now, the special counsel could connect any dots — if they exist — and determine if the campaign worked with Russia to get Trump elected. As for Trump’s culpability, Mueller may find it difficult to render a judgment, a task complicated by the president’s leadership style — his avoidance of emails and texts, his aversion to direct orders, his deviations from the truth. Mueller is also examining whether the president’s actions and words constitute efforts to obstruct justice. Read more from David Voreacos and Andrew Martin.

Climate Legislation Guideposts: Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, unveiled a set of climate policy principles yesterday, sketching out in broad terms what he believes any climate legislation should incorporate. Tonko’s principles include an emphasis on setting a science-based greenhouse gas target toward achieving carbon-neutral emissions by 2050. Tonko’s panel will be the starting point for considering most climate legislation on the House side. The set of nine principles, which Tonko released during the Climate Leadership Conference in Baltimore, reflect more than a year of work by the New York lawmaker. Read more from Abby Smith.

Trump on China Tariffs: Trump said he’ll keep tariffs on China until he’s sure Beijing is complying with any trade deal, refuting expectations that the two nations will agree to roll back duties as part of a lasting truce to their trade war. “We’re not talking about removing them, we’re talking about leaving them for a substantial period of time, because we have to make sure that if we do the deal with China that China lives by the deal,” Trump said. “They’ve had a lot of problems living by certain deals.”

The president’s comments dim hopes that round-the-clock trade negotiations between the world’s two biggest economies could lead to them removing the roughly $360 billion in tariffs they’ve imposed on each other’s imports. Beijing has pushed the Trump administration to remove tariffs as part of any deal. Read more.

Trump Praises Plant: Trump yesterday visited a thriving military factory in politically vital Ohio, a symbol of his success at enlarging the U.S. defense budget, as he sought to turn attention from his inability to return jobs to a failing car plant elsewhere in the state. “You’d better love me, I kept this place open,” Trump told an audience of workers at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, which is owned by the government and operated by a unit of General Dynamics. “They said we’re closing it, and I said ‘no, we’re not.”’

The Lima factory, which is set to grow from 400 employees before Trump’s presidency to 1,000 by year’s end, builds Abrams tanks and Stryker combat vehicles. It stands in stark contrast to another nearby symbol of American manufacturing: General Motors’s Lordstown plant, which has been idled due to slow sales of the car that’s built there. Read more from Margaret Talev.

New Zealand Bans Assault Rifles: New Zealand has banned military style semi-automatics and assault rifles and will establish a nationwide buyback of the weapons in the wake of a terrorist attack on two mosques that left 50 people dead. The ban takes immediate effect to prevent stockpiling of firearms while the legislation is being drafted, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters today. Further changes in gun laws to tighten licensing and increase controls over ammunition will be made in coming months. Read more from Tracy Withers and Matthew Brockett.

Saudis Spiral Into Isolation: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s U.S. trip a year ago was packed with the sort of events most world leaders struggle to secure: a meeting at Bill Gates’s home, a tour of Amazon’s headquarters and a private visit to Virgin Galactic’s hanger in the Mojave Desert.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi destroyed all that, leaving the 33-year-old heir to the Saudi throne shunned, his government unable to repair ties with its most important foreign partner and the crown prince’s grand vision for economic development increasingly out of reach. Rather than melt away, congressional anger at Saudi Arabia’s role in killing Khashoggi has solidified, helping fuel this month’s vote by the Republican-controlled Senate rejecting U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The measure awaits House action. The kingdom still has the crucial support of Trump and his top aides But the Saudi rulers find themselves more isolated in the U.S. than at any point since the Sept. 11 attacks. Read more from Glen Carey.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Brandon Lee at blee@bgov.com