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This Week In Garbageville

Welcome to the latest last week of the Trump presidency. Here’s what actually matters.

Welcome to the latest last week of Trump's presidency. Here's what actually matters.

Ask Me No Questions …

This week, West Virginia Capitol police arrested a reporter for the Public News Service after Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s security detail decided that the reporter wasn’t just asking questions, but rather “aggressively breaching [Price’s] Secret Service agents.” Price praised the arrest and claimed “that gentleman was not in a press conference.” The gentleman is out on $5,000 bail now.

This is … not normal. What’s normal: Reporters covering the Capitol in Washington and in state capitals around the country are constantly performing Sorkinesque walk-'n'-talks with whoever happens to stroll down a hallway. Just last week, examples of the congressional camera scurry went viral, as journalists hounded U.S. representatives about whether they had actually read the health care bill they were about to vote on. Tom Price, as a former House member, surely knows this is SOP. His support for the reporter’s arrest is both disingenuous and disturbing.

Should I be paying attention to this?

Last week, we told you about the arrest and conviction of Desiree Fairooz, whose precipitating crime was laughing at Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That arrest seemed more like a grim metaphor for our current historical period than a real cause for concern. But while one instance of free-speech suppression can be an anomaly, two feels more like foreshadowing — and in journalism, three is officially a trend. Stay vigilant and support your local journalism outlets.

… And I’ll Tell You No Lies

On Tuesday, Donald Trump fired the director of the FBI, James Comey. (There are a lot of anonymously sourced reports and rumors flying around this case, but in Garbageville fashion, we’re going to stick to stuff people have said in public.) You would think it would be something of a simple matter for the Trump administration to explain why they’d fired Comey, given how rare it is for a president to fire the FBI director. Alas. Originally, President Trump’s statement said that he had fired Comey on the advice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions’s statement directed readers to a statement written by the deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein’s statement cites as its primary rationale that Comey had lost the trust of the country due to his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton investigation.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the impetus for the firing had come from the Department of Justice. “It was all him,” Spicer said, referring to Rosenstein’s review of Comey’s tenure. “No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision.” The official statement from the press secretary said the same thing: “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” On Wednesday, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that President Trump felt he had “no choice” but to fire Comey after receiving Rosenstein’s memo.

In an NBC News interview on Thursday, President Trump contradicted everything that his administration had said about the impetus and rationale for firing Comey. Instead of coming at the recommendation of the AG and the deputy AG, President Trump said that he had already decided to fire Comey before he even received the memo, and that he would have fired Comey no matter what the recommendation had said. And rather than the impetus being Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation, Trump said he had been primarily thinking about the FBI’s investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian meddling in the election. This was not simply Trump speaking in a garbled and imprecise manner, either. Sanders gave a similar rationale earlier that day.

Should I be paying attention to this?

Yes. The White House cannot keep its stories straight about why it fired Comey. Suffice it to say that the president is not allowed to fire the FBI director because the FBI director is conducting an investigation into the president that the president doesn’t like. It’s, ya know … illegal and everything.

The Trump administration can make whatever noises it likes about how the investigation will remain independent, but no credible assurances can be provided. Aside from the fact that the president has already demonstrated a willingness to interfere with the inquiry, AG Sessions, who is supposed to have recused himself from the Russia investigation, is helping to choose the next FBI director. There must be an independent investigation into the Russia/Trump connection, or Trump must be impeached for obstruction of justice. There really aren’t any other options.

Dispense Us a Census

The same day Trump fired Comey, the director of the Census Bureau suddenly announced his resignation.

Should I be paying attention to this?

Yes, this is quite possibly the most important news of the week. The Bureau is already over budget and behind on its preparations for the 2020 census. Beyond the election, the census is the primary way that we know about the characteristics and demographics of our country. Which places need new roads or schools? Which groups of people are shrinking or expanding? Even private industry uses the census to get an idea of what the population is like. And the bad effects won’t fall evenly, either. When the census is run poorly, it is underserved groups — like the poor and immigrants — who will be undercounted. But it goes beyond that. The census is hugely important because the apportioning of congressional seats is based on census head counts. If the head count is wrong, communities may not have the right number of representatives in government. That results in effects on elections at every level. Speaking of elections…

Election Inspection

On Thursday, Donald Trump signed an executive order creating a commission to combat voter fraud. The commission will be headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Should I be paying attention to this?

Yes. There has never been evidence that there is widespread voter fraud in U.S. elections, nor is there any evidence that voter fraud has changed the outcome of an election. This has not prevented Republicans in the past from repeatedly using the specter of election fraud as a pretext for making it harder for people to vote. Trump went even further than his party members, alleging that Hillary Clinton stole the popular vote.

That Trump has chosen Kobach to help lead the commission is terrifying. Kobach has used all kinds of methods to prevent voters from voting — aggressively prosecuting them for minor mistakes, refusing to process voter registrations, and just straight-up throwing out provisional ballots. If Trump intends to conduct a massive program of voter suppression under the guise of “electoral integrity,” Kobach would be the one for the job.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Trump’s disdain for the press stops at the Oval Office’s edge. For whatever reason, he seems unable to resist the pull of a sit-down interview in which he gets to play host, emcee, protagonist, and play-by-play commentator. Prior to the Comey imbroglio, he granted an audience to two print news outlets (The Economist and Time). The interviews dropped as Comey-a-lago unfolded and are, as per usual, fascinating and frightening reads, full of unintentionally revealing details and mind-boggling falsehoods. (Revealing detail: Trump gets two scoops of ice cream with his cake, White House guests get one. Mind-boggling falsehood: He “came up with” the economic term “prime the pump.” Merriam-Webster disagrees.) We cannot possibly get into the level of detail and rebuttal they deserve in this small space; others have made good starts. Check out Vox, the Twitter feed of the invaluable Trump chronicler Daniel Dale, and the Economist’s own bone-dry trolling if you like.

Should I be paying attention to this?

Reading Trump transcripts is an emotional sugar-high for resistance-minded folks. It’s weirdly gratifying, on the one hand, because you get to say to yourself, Ohmigod, what a fucking stooge a lot and feel superior and vindicated in a sick way. On the other hand, if we have learned nothing else about Trump, it is that he does not mean what he says, he can’t be taken literally or seriously, and prosecuting him for hypocrisy or fabrication is a fool’s errand. As we have argued before: Watch what he does, not what he says. Look at the administration’s policy implementation, not what they threaten to do. Enjoy the transcripts in small doses; they do not count as a meal.