What to Know in Washington: McConnell Frames Legacy With Judges

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are reshaping federal courts at a blazing pace, with the Senate’s confirmation of 59 judges so far this year offering a bright spot for the GOP leader who has been criticized for holding up action on just about everything else.

The Senate confirmed 13 district court judges two weeks ago before leaving for Congress’s annual August recess. That brought the number appointed so far in Trump’s presidency to 99, in addition to a record 43 appellate court judges and the confirmation of conservative Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

“I saved the Supreme Court for a generation by blocking President Obama’s nominees and led the way for Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh,” McConnell bragged on Aug. 3 to a crowd in his home state of Kentucky.

The fast pace of judicial confirmations has framed a lasting legacy for the 77-year-old McConnell and won him plaudits from conservative groups, even as legislative gridlock and his hard-line tactics have helped tank his national approval rating in advance of a 2020 re-election bid. The majority leader proudly calls himself the “grim reaper” for Democratic proposals.

Liberal groups say the shift brings judges to the courts who are more likely to roll back women’s rights, including abortion, as well as civil rights, voting rights and consumer protections. “They’re stacking the courts with individuals who will rule with them in lockstep on their agenda,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a progressive group that advocates on justice issues.

McConnell has little common ground on legislation with the Democratic-controlled House, which is pushing action on background checks for gun buyers, election security, climate change and expanded health care coverage.

Instead, he has largely turned the Senate into a machine that cranks out conservative judges. More than two-thirds are white men and their median age is 47.5 years. Many agree with the conservative Federalist Society’s effort to limit the federal government’s ability to assert powers that aren’t spelled out in the Constitution. The group helped Trump vet Supreme Court candidates. Read more from Laura Litvan.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Pelosi’s Impeachment Strategy Has Risks

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) strategy of slow-walking moves to impeach Trump depends on fighting first in the courts to see how much more evidence Democrats can get. The reality, though, is that litigation may take months or even years to play out, and pressure to act is building as time goes on. The courts may not resolve some issues by late autumn, the deadline House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has floated to make a decision on filing articles of impeachment before election year arrives.

“I don’t believe we should depend on a third branch of government to decide whether we need to see documents and hear from witnesses,” Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in an interview. On Thursday, Connolly, chairman of the Oversight subcommittee on government operations, joined the growing ranks of House Democrats—by some counts now more than half of the 235-member caucus—who have called for impeaching the president or at least opening a formal impeachment inquiry. Other lawmakers say they’re hearing demands for impeachment at town halls in their districts during the August congressional break.

Pelosi has long made clear her concern that impeaching the president would only backfire politically because the Republican-led Senate wouldn’t take the next step to remove him from office. But she has pushed back on suggestions that she’s trying to stall by waiting to see what the courts decide on congressional demands for evidence. Read more from Billy House.

Craig Goes to Trial: Gregory Craig has been a top White House lawyer, a partner in two prestigious Washington law firms, and a graduate of both Harvard University and Yale Law School. Just six years ago he was called one of America’s most influential lawyers. One title he’d like to avoid: convicted felon.

Craig, who served as White House counsel during President Barack Obama’s first term, is set to face a jury today over criminal charges that could send him to prison for five years. He’s a rare Democrat caught up in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling. The former partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom is accused of scheming to dupe the U.S. government about the extent of his work for a pro-Russian Ukrainian regime. Read more from Jacob Rund and Andrew Harris.

More Politics & Elections

Low-Polling Democrats Seek Breakout: Andrew Yang waved around a half-eaten turkey leg as he calculated how many such treats one could buy with the $1,000 a month he’s proposed giving to Americans. Tim Ryan jokingly joined the hordes asking Kamala Harris for a photo before handing his small son over for a photo with her. Kirsten Gillibrand brought her son, Henry, and his new stuffed sloth, Blueberry, onto the soapbox stage.

The Iowa State Fair is a rite of passage for presidential contenders, but for the lowest polling candidates in the record-size field, the event took on an extra level of urgency. Tyler Pager has more.

Meanwhile, following the two deadly mass shootings last weekend, Democratic presidential candidates promised to take on the National Rifle Association and address gun safety through legislation and executive actions. The Democrats were called to answer how they would prioritize gun safety if elected during the Everytown For Gun Safety Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday. Read more on the weekend event from Emma Kinery and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou.

But Democratic candidates aren’t necessarily all on board with the tactics being used to oppose Trump and other Republicans, amid criticism they’re guilty of turning up the heat—rather than helping to cool it—following the shootings. Democrats shouldn’t “play into” Trump’s strategy “to divide the country so he can win,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who’s seeking the 2020 presidential nomination, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We have to unify this country.”

Several Democratic 2020 hopefuls have tied Trump’s rhetoric to violent behavior, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) saying the president bears responsibility for the El Paso massacre by encouraging “open racism” and former Vice President Joe Biden saying Trump “has fanned the flames of white supremacy.” Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Mark Niquette.

Harris Takes Pragmatic Stance to Standout: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) portrayed herself as a pragmatist rather than an ideological politician as she seeks to differentiate herself among the top tier of candidates in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary. “My motivation is truly about how can I fix the problems that wake people up in the middle of the night,” she told Bloomberg News yesterday aboard her bus on a five-day trip across Iowa. “Wherever that fits on someone’s ideological spectrum, have at it.” In explaining her approach, Harris said issues that matter most to voters don’t fall along ideological lines. Read more from Tyler Pager.

Bannon Floats Michelle Obama Run: Democrats eager to oust Trump could pin their hopes on an eleventh-hour bid by former first lady Michelle Obama rather than the roughly two dozen candidates now in the mix, former White House strategist Steve Bannon suggested. “I don’t see anybody that’s on this stage right now that can take President Trump one-on-one,” Bannon, a key player in Trump’s 2016 victory, said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” Democrats whose No. 1 priority is beating Trump could find their best option with candidates who aren’t yet in the race, Bannon said. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.

Musk Backs Yang: Elon Musk supports Andrew Yang, the Tesla CEO said in a tweet that could give the tech entrepreneur’s 2020 White House bid a boost. Musk, who often interacts with some of his almost 28 million followers on Twitter, made the declaration while responding to political commentator Dan Carlin, who uses the handle @HardcoreHistory. Carlin’s tweet had cited Yang’s earlier tweet on leadership. Read more from Maria Jose Valero.

Policy Outlook

Homeland Chief Says Raid Timing Unfortunate: The timing of immigration raids at Mississippi food processing plants after a mass shooting apparently targeting Hispanic people in Texas was “unfortunate,” Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said. Still, the actions, part of broader enforcement efforts that include employers as well as workers, had been planned for more than a year, he said. Read more from Ros Krasny and Miles Weiss.

Meanwhile, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said on Friday Immigration and Customs Enforcement “seems to have ignored its own guidelines” to minimize the impact on children and the community with its raids in Mississippi. More than 24 hours after operation was concluded ICE had still not contacted Mississippi’s Department of Child Protection Services, leaving “state agencies, schools, and local communities scrambling to help children affected by these raids and ensure they did not go home to an empty house on their first day of school,” he said in a letter to acting Director Matthew Albence. Read more from Giovanna Bellotti Azevedo.

The Homeland Security Department is also floating another controversial idea: Limiting the number of immigrants receiving government benefits to help lower the amount of recipients of Medicaid and childrens’ health benefits as a cost-saving measure. But it could spark more uninsured visits to the emergency room, another expensive measure for taxpayers. The final rule is expected to be released imminently, and it could make it harder to get a green card. Read more from Sam McQuillan.

Slavery Reparations Draw Interest From Democrats: Democrats in Congress and running for the White House are taking a fresh look at reparations for the descendants of slaves, as the party wrestles with addressing inequality and confronting racial tension and violence they say are being stoked by Trump.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) has given new life to an idea first raised in the aftermath of the Civil War and periodically revived since then. It’s pushed into the Democratic presidential contest as a marker for candidates seeking to show their commitment to addressing issues of race and the economic disparity between whites and blacks. Read more from Jarrell Dillard.

Trump Antitrust Czar Outpaces Obama’s In Filings: The Justice Department, under antitrust chief Makan Delrahim, has already filed more briefs in antitrust cases between private parties than during the entire Obama presidency. DOJ and other U.S. agencies routinely insert their views in antitrust cases in which the government isn’t a party as a means to get its policy positions across and potentially influence the outcome, but rarely with the fervor seen under Assistant Attorney General Delrahim.

The interventions—which have come earlier than was typical in previous administrations—have pitted the Justice Department against the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general. The DOJ’s approach, which could allow the Trump administration to reshape competition law, has been criticized as unduly activist by a top House Democrat. “We have most certainly seen a more activist antitrust division than in the past,” Shari Ross Lahlou, an antitrust partner at Dechert LLP in Washington, said . Read more from Victoria Graham.

Overtime Rule to Get Final White House Review: A high-priority Trump Labor Department overtime rule, which takes a more business-friendly approach than attempted in the Obama administration, will be sent to the White House for final review today, according to a senior DOL official. The regulation is expected to make about 1 million workers newly eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay when working more than 40 hours in a week. It would replace a 2016 rule that never took effect but would’ve given four times more workers new access to overt ime wages. The new rule would lift the salary threshold below which workers automatically receive overtime wages to about $35,000, compared with the current level of $23,600 per year. The Obama regulation would’ve doubled the threshold to $47,500. Read more from Ben Penn.

Energy Regulator Invites Execs to Coal Country: Trump’s chief energy regulator has invited a group of environmentalists, energy executives and other industry leaders to the heart of Coal Country for a summit on “the future of American energy.” Neil Chatterjee, the Republican chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a longstanding champion of the coal industry, recently sent invitations for the Oct. 21 summit. The event comes as the independent agency faces mounting criticism that it’s become more political under his charge, an d as high ranking officials in the Trump administration continue to push for action to aid the coal industry. Read more from Stephen Cunningham and Lynn Doan.

Delay Casts Doubt on First Major Offshore Wind Farm: The Trump administration cast the fate of the nation’s first major offshore wind farm into doubt by extending an environmental review for the $2.8 billion Vineyard Wind project off Massachusetts. The Interior Department has ordered an additional study of the farm, proposed by Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in an interview with Bloomberg News Friday. The project, which has drawn opposition from fishermen and coastal communities, had been scheduled to be operational by early 2022. The developers have warned that regulatory delays could put it in jeopardy. Read more from Christopher Martin and Jennifer A. Dlouhy.

NRA Loses Round Over Documents: The National Rifle Association was denied a discovery request in its ongoing dispute with New York accusing the state of interfering with its business relationships and violating its free speech rights. The NRA claims the state illegally discouraged banks and insurers from doing business with it. The state says it’s merely standing up the gun lobby. Although the NRA has won other discovery disputes in the case, Judge Christian Hummel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New Yo rk refused to order the state to comply with the NRA’s most recent request. Read more from Bernie Pazanowski.

What Else to Know Today

Trump Says Kim Is Open to Talks: Trump said North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was open to more talks with the U.S. once U.S.-South Korean military exercises end, hours after Seoul reported the fifth ballistic missile test from its northern neighbor in about two weeks. “He stated, very nicely, that he would like to meet and start negotiations as soon as the joint U.S./South Korea joint exercise are over,” Trump tweeted Saturday about the letter, which was delivered two days ago. No specific timeline was offered. Trump said Kim had sent “a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive exercises.” It was unclear if that characterization of the exercises was Kim’s or Trump’s view. Read more from Steve Geimann.

Bolton, Boris Johnson to Discuss Iran: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton will meet today to discuss Iran and other security issues, the premier’s spokesman told reporters in London. “We can expect them to discuss a range of security issues, including Iran,” according to spokesman James Slack. Johnson still supports the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran. “We believe that this still provides the right way forward, but we are also clear that Iran has to stop its destabilizing activity in the re gion” Slack said. He added Britain is still assessing the impact of the U.S.’s sanctions against Huawei as it decides whether to allow the Chinese company to have a role in British 5G networks, Alex Morales reports.

Pence to Visit Japan: Vice President Mike Pence and China’s Vice President Wang Qishan are expected to visit Japan in October to attend the enthronement ceremony of the new Emperor Naruhito, Nikkei reported. China is making arrangements to send Wang to Japan, and he is expected to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of a scheduled visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the spring, the newspaper reported. Pence, who last visited Japan in Nov. 2018, is also expected to meet with Abe, Nikkei said.

Thiel Supports Encryption Amid U.S. Push: Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and board member of Facebook, pushed back against the U.S. government’s efforts to get technology companies to provide law enforcement access to encrypted communications. The comments by Thiel, who is among the tech industry’s most vocal supporters of Trump, emerged yesterday amid revelations of an apparently separate FBI initiative to bolster monitoring of threats via social media. “We should be supportive of encryption,” Thiel said in an interview o n Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” when asked about the FBI bid. Read more from Ben Brody.

Epstein’s Death Prompts Scrutiny: The federal jail in lower Manhattan will face bracing questions and sharp criticism over the death of highest-profile inmate, Jeffrey Epstein, who managed to apparently kill himself early Saturday despite recently having been seen as a suicide risk. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons said the FBI was investigating the incident. Martin Feely, an FBI spokesman, declined to comment. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that Epstein’s death “raises serious questions” and that the Department of Justice’s Inspector General is opening an investigation into the circumstances. The Manhattan U.S. attorney termed the days events “disturbing” and a hurdle for victims. Read more from Christian Berthelsen, Bob Van Voris and David Voreacos.

Woodstock Anniversary Stamp Unveiled: A U.S. stamp for Woodstock’s 50th anniversary was unveiled at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with a piercing rendition of the “The Star Spangled Banner” that rivaled Jimi Hendrix’s at the iconic festival. The Postal Service revealed the stamp, evoking the poster that beckoned a half-million music fans to upstate New York, as 1969 festival organizer Michael Lang said the themes of Woodstock—activism, diversity and social change—remained relevant for 2020 amid talk of gun control, climate change and immigration reform. Read more from Steve Geimann.

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

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