×
FOLLOW THE WEEK ON FACEBOOK
March 20, 2017
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Most members of President Trump's Cabinet do not have senior leadership teams or top deputies in place amid historically slow nominating and hiring of White House appointees, "but they do have an influential coterie of senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries' loyalty," The Washington Post reported Sunday, citing "eight officials in and outside the administration." The Post called the arrangement "unusual," and some of those political liaisons, called White House senior advisers, have apparently overstayed their welcome.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, Don Benton — a former Washington state senator who ran Trump's campaign in the state — offered his unsolicited opinion on policy matters so frequently that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has reportedly disinvited him from meetings, in a situation one official described to The Post as out of an episode of Veep. Pentagon officials privately call Brett Byers, charged with keeping an eye on Defense Secretary James Mattis, "the commissar," The Post reports, helpfully explaining that the nickname is "a reference to Soviet-era Communist Party officials who were assigned to military units to ensure their commanders remained loyal."

Most of these political overseers, placed near the Cabinet secretary's office in every department, have little expertise in the subject matter handled at their assigned agencies — Frank Wuco at Homeland Security, for example, plays a fictional jihadist on YouTube to illustrate his blogged contention that Islam is the root of the terrorist threat — and some observers expect their influence to wane once the departments get staffed up. Also, some Cabinet secretaries have been more welcoming of their White House liaisons.

Trump allies argue that the arrangement is necessary for a new president from a different party — though none of Trump's three predecessors employed a similar system. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who still advises Trump, describes the political monitors as part of Trump's pledge to root out corruption in Washington — in this case, the "swamp" would be career bureaucrats and not, say, lobbyists. "If you drain the swamp, you better have someone who watches over the alligators," he said. "These people are actively trying to undermine the new government." You can read more, including what some experts see as the likely outcome of this system, at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

12:50 p.m. ET

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Sunday roundly rejected President Trump's proposal that the Senate GOP go "nuclear" to end the government shutdown without Democrat's help. "I can tell you that would be the end of the Senate as it was originally devised and created going back to our founding fathers," Durbin said in an interview on ABC. "We have to acknowledge our respect for the minority, and that is what the Senate tries to do in its composition and in its procedure."

When Democrats controlled the Senate in years past, Durbin did not seem to hold this view. In 2014, for example, he defended Democrats' 2013 decision to invoke the nuclear option with judicial nominees by arguing Democrats had "no choice" because of Republican obstructionism.

But this time, Durbin has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on his side; McConnell said through a representative Sunday he "opposes changing the rules on legislation." Watch an excerpt of Durbin's comments on ABC below. Bonnie Kristian

12:32 p.m. ET

The White House public comment line is not accepting calls during the government shutdown, and the voicemail message has been updated to blame this change on Democrats.

"Thank you for calling the White House," the message says. "Unfortunately, we cannot answer your call today because congressional Democrats are holding government funding, including funding for our troops and other national security priorities, hostage to an unrelated immigration debate."

Callers are encouraged to contact the White House online instead, because apparently the internet is better suited to weathering the shutdown storm. Bonnie Kristian

12:19 p.m. ET

In an appearance on CNN's State of the Union Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went after both parties for their conduct during the government shutdown and throughout the bitterly partisan negotiations that produced it. "I think the blame game is ridiculous on both sides," he said. "I think the American people see through it."

Paul voted against his own party's proposal for a short-term funding bill on Friday, and he argues the GOP could secure a spending deal immediately if Republican leadership would guarantee — and Democrats would accept — an "open process" of votes on immigration policy, centrally including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

"The DACA issue has been held hostage to people on the left who want their perfect immigration bill or nothing, and people on the right who want nothing," Paul said on CNN. "And so, really, I'd say, let's vote on it. Let's just put it forward and vote on it. And I think the impasse could end today if Republicans would promise just to have a week of immigration votes, have a conclusion, let us all put forward amendments. I think the American people would like to see us hash out our differences through amendments and votes."

Watch a clip of Paul's interview below. Bonnie Kristian

11:58 a.m. ET

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argued on CBS Sunday that blame for the government shutdown rests entirely with Senate Democrats. "We're waiting for the Senate Democrats to open the government back up," Ryan told host John Dickerson.

"This is solely done by the Senate Democrats. It's absolutely meaningless," he continued, accusing Democrats of posturing that undercuts their own political aims. "What's so baffling about this is we [Republicans] were negotiating in good faith on [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)]," Ryan said. "We actually want to solve this problem. So it's not as if we were saying, 'No way, no how, no discussions.'"

Ryan made similar remarks on the House floor Saturday, pledging the GOP is "willing to work together in good faith on immigration" policy. "You should not have to go through this uncertainty," he said to federal workers. "You deserve so much better than this needless shutdown. And we hope that it will end very soon."

Watch an excerpt of Ryan's CBS interview below. Bonnie Kristian

11:30 a.m. ET

President Trump tweeted Sunday that the GOP should change Senate rules to pass a funding bill to end the government shutdown without Democrats' help. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, has never shown enthusiasm for this "nuclear option," and he indicated through a representative Sunday he does not support Trump's idea.

"The Republican Conference opposes changing the rules on legislation," McConnell's statement said. That means it is unlikely a spending deal will be passed with a simple majority of 51 votes (rather than the present 60), as Trump hopes.

That intra-party opposition did not prevent the White House from continuing to advocate the change. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney argued on CNN's State of the Union Sunday that Trump's proposal "responds to this constant criticism we hear" that Republicans should be able to fund the government because they control both the executive and legislative branches.

"The answer is, as you've just laid out, it takes 60 votes in the Senate," Mulvaney said. "We cannot open the government without Senate Democrat support. We don't have that support, which is why we are where we are." Watch his comments in context below. Bonnie Kristian

10:31 a.m. ET

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, implausibly but effectively played by a giggly Kate McKinnon in shoulder pads and facial prosthetics, visited Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update in a jovial mood to discuss his Russia investigation with host Colin Jost.

McKinnon's Mueller coyly insisted he could not discuss his ongoing probe into Russian election meddling and alleged Trump campaign collusion, but he was more than willing to offer a few hints of how well it's going. "Colin, you gotta understand, the guy didn't leave me a trail of breadcrumbs," Mueller said of President Trump. "He left me full loaves — fresh, seven-grain loaves straight from Panera Bread. I'm having a blast, man."

Watch the full skit below. Bonnie Kristian

10:16 a.m. ET
Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) removed Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) from the House Ethics Committee on Saturday in response to a New York Times report that Meehan used tax dollars to settle a case with a former female aide who accused him of sexual misconduct. Ryan also directed Meehan to repay the unknown amount out of his own pocket, and to submit to an ethics investigation.

The Times reported that Meehan, who is married, expressed romantic interest in the aide with a handwritten letter and "grew hostile" when she rebuffed him. After she left her position because of the harassment, the report says, the aide "reached a confidential agreement" with Meehan, including a settlement paid out of his congressional account.

Meehan has denied any inappropriate behavior. His office said in a statement he "has always treated his colleagues, male and female, with the utmost respect and professionalism." Bonnie Kristian

See More Speed Reads