Plus, Hong Kong legislation heads to Trump’s desk. Will he sign it?
Happy Monday! Only one NFC North team won yesterday, and it wasn’t the Lions, Vikings, or Packers.
Quick Hits: What You Need To Know
Navy Chief Thrown Overboard
Over the past two weeks, President Trump and Richard Spencer, his secretary of the Navy, have been feuding over the fate of a disgraced Navy SEAL, Eddie Gallagher. Gallagher faced several war crimes charges this year and was ultimately found guilty of taking a photograph with the corpse of an ISIS prisoner. The Navy wanted Gallagher to undergo an official review to determine if he should be expelled from the SEALs. But Trump, who has repeatedly shown a soft spot for American troops accused of (and sometimes convicted of) war crimes, disagreed and ordered him fully reinstated.
Late last week, several top Pentagon officials, including Spencer, reportedly threatened to resign rather than follow Trump’s order. (Spencer, who we should note is not the prominent white nationalist of the same name, denied that he had threatened to resign.) Then, on Sunday morning, a note of peace: the Associated Press reported that the White House had quietly given the Navy the go-ahead for Gallagher to undergo an official review.
But by Sunday afternoon, everything had melted down. The Pentagon suddenly announced that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had asked for Spencer’s resignation, with Esper and Trump providing divergent explanations as to why. Esper insisted it was not because Spencer had opposed Gallagher’s reinstatement, but because he had gone over Esper’s head to try to strike a secret deal with the White House. Meanwhile, Trump again insisted that Gallagher would be permitted to retire as a SEAL, and tweeted that he had asked Esper to fire Spencer for several different reasons, including his displeasure over how Gallagher’s trial was held and Spencer’s apparent failure to address “large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures.”
It’s all a mess. Let’s unpack it a bit.
The Man in the Middle: Eddie Gallagher
Prior to the events that made him nationally notorious, Gallagher was one of the Navy’s most elite commandos—a special operations chief with five combat deployments with the SEALs and the recipient of several Bronze Stars. Late last year, however, he was arrested on charges of multiple war crimes. Members of his platoon testified that he had stabbed a wounded ISIS prisoner to death and that he had on multiple occasions deliberately fired on civilians, including a young girl.
It was a bumpy, awkward trial. Seven SEALs testified that Gallagher had stabbed the incapacitated prisoner; text messages showed Gallagher apparently bragging about the act to friends back home. “Good story behind this,” read one. “Got him with my hunting knife.”
But proceedings were muddied by several unusual moments. At one point, the military judge reprimanded the prosecution for interfering with the trial. At another, a prosecution eyewitness suddenly declared that, while Gallagher had stabbed the prisoner, it was he himself who had actually killed him—and that Gallagher should be allowed to go free. All the while, the defense maintained that the jury should discount the testimony of the other SEALs as the grumbling of disgruntled subordinates.
Ultimately, Gallagher was acquitted of murder and attempted murder, and found guilty only on the lesser charge involving the photograph. He was sentenced to time served and demoted. It’s the demotion that’s caused the spat between Trump and Spencer.
Trump Gets Involved
Here are two of the instincts that make up Trump’s view of the world: A fascination with America’s most fearless warriors, and a general disdain for what he sees as fussy rules, bureaucracy, and overall political correctness.
So it’s not surprising that the president has intervened in the cases of several U.S. troops accused or convicted of war crimes. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he tweeted last month. Trump has pardoned three soldiers this year who stood accused or convicted of murder, two of whom were subsequently released from prison. He also followed the Gallagher case, tweeting his congratulations when the SEAL was acquitted of murder earlier this year. And then, this month, he directed the Navy to restore him to his previous rank.
How Does Spencer Figure In?
This was unwelcome news both to Spencer and to the commander of the SEALs, Naval Special Warfare Commander Rear Adm. Collin Green. Over the weekend, conflicting news reports emerged suggesting either that both or that only Spencer had threatened to resign if Trump did not allow the military process to go forward.
If Spencer was fired for that reason, the story here is straightforward. As Spencer wrote in his “acknowledgment of termination” letter: He could not in good conscience carry out Trump’s order, and Trump deserves military officials who will follow his commands.
Esper is telling a different story entirely: That far from taking an above-board stand, Spencer was actually trying behind closed doors to bring the Gallagher matter to a close in a way that would satisfy Trump. But why Trump would fire Spencer for trying to give him what he wanted, and why Trump would then announce he’d fired Spencer for different reasons altogether, are questions without easy answers for the administration.
The conflicting accounts, and the presidential involvement, ensure that we’ll learn more in the coming days.
Hong Kong Legislation in Limbo
In Friday’s newsletter, we took a look at the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act—a piece of legislation and statement of American principles on its way to becoming law after breaking through all the partisan gridlock of our time. It passed the House 417-1 and the Senate unanimously. About an hour and a half later, President Trump called into Fox & Friends to catch up with his buddies, and—after spouting a Ukraine conspiracy theory so kooky even Steve Doocy had to ask “are you sure they did that?”—this happened:
Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien was similarly vague when asked over the weekend whether the president would veto the bill. “What’s happening in Hong Kong is terrible, and our hearts go out to the people of Hong Kong,” he said. “At the same time, we have a broad range of issues to deal with the Chinese on.”
How, exactly, is the president going to “stand with Hong Kong” and also stand with Xi? He’s not.
The Trump administration argues that signing the legislation would antagonize the Chinese amid trade negotiations he has prioritized for years. And Trump reportedly promised Xi he would stay quiet on Hong Kong. But China is brutally suppressing dissent and infringing on Hong Kong’s autonomy, shifting further and further away from the “one country, two systems” policy.
Marco Rubio, who introduced the bill back in June, tried to square these two lines of thinking in an interview with CNBC on Thursday, arguing that this isn’t the only opportunity the United States will have to address trade concerns. “We have to stop thinking about our conflict with China, economically, as one issue. This is going to be a 10 to 15 year balancing act between us and them, it’s not going to happen overnight. There isn’t one deal that’s going to deal with all these things.”
And if Trump does veto the bill to save face with Xi? Congress sounds prepared to overrule him for the first time in his presidency. The legislation “will become law,” Ted Cruz told The Dispatch in a statement after Trump’s faltering on Fox & Friends. “President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party cannot silence the United States Congress. In case they aren’t familiar with how our Constitution works, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed the House and Senate by overwhelming veto-proof majorities.”
Under Article I Section 7 of the Constitution, Trump has 10 days (excluding Sundays) to veto the bill before its provisions go into effect.
Democracy Was on the Ballot, and It Won
As if there wasn’t enough going on in Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region™ held local district council elections over the weekend, and pro-democracy candidates crushed their more Beijing-aligned opponents. An energized voter base showed up (turnout was the highest it’s been since district council elections were instituted in 1999) and swept allies of the Communist Party of China (CCP) out of power (pro-CCP officials held 300 seats prior to this weekend’s elections; now they occupy just 57). The state-run CCP newspaper only highlighted the turnout numbers. Curious.
Local district council elections may not be the pinnacle of Hong Kong politics, but they had taken on a new level of importance given the months of unrest in the region. Sunday’s results will undoubtedly provide a jolt to the protesters and their supporters worldwide
One of those supporters? Republican Senator Ben Sasse: “The results are clear: Hong Kongers reject the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression and intimidation. Chairman Xi and his corrupt elites in Beijing know this and are terrified of the courage that Hong Kong has shown. The American people are on the side of these freedom seekers.”
The election results may intensify pressure on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to yield to some of the protesters’ demands for reform.
Worth Your Time
Presented Without Comment
After 18 long and frigid years, Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan Chris Matthew will finally be able to feel his legs again.
He pledged back in 2001 he wouldn’t wear pants until his favorite Canadian football team won the Grey Cup again. After nearly two decades of wearing exclusively shorts—to weddings, to funerals, in sub-zero temperatures—Matthew was finally able to don a special pair of camouflage pants after Winnipeg beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12.
Toeing The Company Line
Let Us Know
Twitter was aflame over the weekend because some guy named Jon asked everyone for their “most controversial food opinion.” What’s yours?
Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Steve Hayes.
Sunday, December 1, 2019
Saturday, November 30, 2019
Is USMCA happening? How about prescription drug legislation?
Happy Friday! Whether you were watching Mitch Trubisky and the Bears squeak past the hapless Lions, Thor the bulldog bring home the National Dog Show gold, or Astronaut Snoopy floating low over Manhattan, we hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving surrounded by family, friends, and food.
Quick Hits: What You Need To Know
On the Agenda: The House and USMCA
In Wednesday’s TMD, we gave you a brief overview of what to expect next in the House’s impeachment inquiry. This morning, we wanted to take advantage of the holiday lull in those proceedings to talk about another important matter currently before the House: approval of the Trump administration’s trilateral trade deal, USMCA.
For the past 25 years, the United States has enjoyed essentially free trade with both Mexico and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. President Trump spent much of his 2016 campaign railing against NAFTA, and the first half of his term threatening to pull the U.S. out of it and slap heavy tariffs on Mexican and Canadian imports. Fortunately, that never came to pass: Instead, last September, the White House managed to strike a new trade deal with our neighbors, dubbed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. USMCA is essentially a face-lifted, modernized NAFTA: Among other tweaks, it gives the U.S. access to Canada’s dairy market and includes new provisions governing intellectual property and digital trade, sectors of the economy that the 20th-century agreement didn’t cover. By and large, however, the new agreement serves the same purposes as did the old.
Which works just fine: The three nations get to keep their mutually beneficial trading relationship, and Trump gets to claim he won a fantastic new victory for American workers. Everybody wins!
The pact’s path to law was complicated, however, when Democrats reclaimed the House a year ago. Instead of enjoying a cakewalk through a GOP-controlled Congress, Trump needed to secure Nancy Pelosi’s go-ahead for the deal. Since June, a working group of Democrats has been negotiating with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for a number of tweaks related to issues including agreement enforcement and protections for labor. Pelosi originally hoped to hammer negotiations out by Thanksgiving; now, with talks seemingly dragging along just at the final stage, it’s an open question whether they’ll strike a deal by Christmas—and vanishingly unlikely it will come before the House for a vote before the new year.
The USMCA is an odd bill—a new trade agreement whose primary purpose is to maintain the status quo—and it’s currently at an odd stage. Everybody involved wants to pass the thing; free trade between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada is an incredible economic boon to all three countries. (The pressure to hustle is not too strong, given that NAFTA remains in force pending USMCA’s ratification.)
But Democrats are determined that USMCA’s eventual passage not be seen as a victory for the White House alone: Pelosi wants swing-district members of her caucus to have the opportunity to run on the bill in 2020 as well. By using her control of the House as a lever to twist the White House’s arm, she’s given some of those members the opportunity to put their fingerprints on it.
The result has been a slightly comical public standoff between Pelosi and Trump. Although the bill they’re hashing out is, for all intents and purposes, NAFTA 2.0, both leaders have a political incentive to denounce the old agreement as broken and unworkable. And although they’re on the verge of an amicable resolution that they both want to see, they are still publicly accusing each other of dragging their heels—Pelosi, characteristically dry, pointing out that Democrats are waiting for Lighthizer to make the last move; Trump, characteristically bombastic, telling reporters Pelosi is “incapable of moving it” and tweeting that USMCA is “dead in the water.”
Even besides USMCA and impeachment, there’s plenty else that the House has to attend to as well before Christmas. Pelosi’s own marquee piece of drug pricing legislation (which is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate) is out of committee and needs a vote on the House floor. And there’s a little matter of keeping the lights on: Congress and the White House have until December 20 to negotiate a new spending bill, or failing that, pass another continuing resolution to fund the government temporarily. When the House reconvenes Monday, they’ll have two weeks to work with before everyone heads back to their districts Dec. 11. Better get cracking.
On the Agenda: Everywhere Else
Outside the House, things are less frenetic—for the moment.
In the Senate, business proceeds pretty much as it has since the midterms: Mitch McConnell ignores the bills the House sends his way and spends his session days busily confirming one Trump-appointed judge after another. Meanwhile, his caucus fidgets and keeps an eye on impeachment proceedings, bracing for a trial in the new year.
The Supreme Court is working through its case docket, preparing for, in particular, a pair of potential landmark cases to be argued early next year: One involving the constitutionality of the Obama-established Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the other considering Louisiana’s recent very restrictive abortion law. In the shorter term, however, they may find themselves forced to weigh in on impeachment-related matters: The Trump administration seems determined to fight some congressional subpoenas all the way to their door, and Chief Justice John Roberts will preside in the event of a Senate trial.
Worth Your Time
Too much hard news isn’t a good beginning to a morning spent working off a half-pound of stuffing, so we’ll leave it there for now. Instead, we recommend you use that time to sit back, loosen your belt, and enjoy a few of these great longreads:
Presented Without Comment
Amazing what a little moral leadership can do. This clip may bring a tear to your eye:
Toeing The Company Line
Let Us Know
Whether you (correctly) believe that the Christmas season begins November 1 or you’re the type to stay Scroogey until after the Thanksgiving wishbone’s been cracked, there’s no denying it now: It is now officially the most wonderful time of the year. Alas, peace on earth and goodwill among men hasn’t yet entirely swept through the office at The Dispatch, as evidenced by some in-house holiday beverage bickering.
Dear reader, help us settle the question: Is eggnog indispensable festivity fuel, or a lardy emblem of the dreaded holiday hangover?
Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Steve Hayes.
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