OurWeek in Politics (10/1-10/8/18)

Here are the main events that occurred in Politics this week:
1. Brett Kavanaugh Confirmed to the Supreme Court By a Close Senate Vote

Brett Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed to the Supreme Court by the Senate this week.

The Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on October 6, ushering in a generational conservative majority and delivering a huge victory to President Donald Trump after a vicious confirmation battle inflamed by allegations of sexual assault against the nominee. As shrieks of “shame, shame, shame” echoed from the public galleries, divided and angry senators voted 50-48 to endorse a lifetime seat on the court for Kavanaugh. The protests underscored the vital importance of an appointment that will have sweeping consequences for some of the nation’s most contested disputes over abortion, LGBT rights, the scope of presidential power and the role of religion in society. The bitter fight over Kavanaugh now moves into the epicenter of the campaign for the midterm elections in November. Republicans are convinced it will motivate their sleepy base and help them have a net gain of three or four Senate seats. Democrats believe a backlash against the GOP from females voters could help deliver the House of Representatives. And the nature of the fight over Kavanaugh will trigger recriminations inside the Senate and political reverberations outside for years to come. In the end, Republicans were able to use their stranglehold on Capitol Hill and the White House to muscle through the confirmation in a power play that reflected the momentous importance of Trump’s 2016 election victory over Hillary Clinton.

President Donald Trump took a victory lap before an enthusiastic crowd at a rally in Topeka, Kansas, on what he hailed as a “historic night.”

 

I stand before you today on the heels of a tremendous victory for our nation, our people and our beloved Constitution,

President Trump

He dismissed the allegations against Kavanaugh by accusing Democrats of waging a “shameless campaign of political and personal destruction.” Democrats furiously accused the GOP of short-circuiting efforts to examine Ford’s allegations and of rushing the nomination through while ignoring the changed political dynamics surrounding complaints of misconduct against powerful men ushered in by the #MeToo movement. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the nomination “one of the saddest moments in the history of the Senate,” and said, “this chapter will be a flashing red warning light of what to avoid.” Republicans “conducted one of the least transparent, least fair, most biased processes in Senate history, slanting the table from the very beginning to produce their desired result,” he added. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) described Kavanaugh as a “superstar.” McConnell, who stalled Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the court in his final year in office and for whom the new conservative majority represents a defining achievement, predicted that Democratic tactics during confirmation battle would electrify Republican voters in November. “They managed to deliver the only thing we had not been able to figure out how to do, which is to get our folks fired up,” McConnell said. “The other side is obviously fired up, they have been all year.”

The path to Kavanaugh’s confirmation cleared on Friday when two wavering Republicans, Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), said they would vote for Kavanaugh after concluding that Ford’s allegations, voiced by her in an emotional hearing last week, could not be corroborated. Their move meant that McConnell could forge the narrowest of majorities to clear Kavanaugh, despite the fact that another Republican, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), opposed him. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), a Democrat facing a tough re-election fight in West Virginia, a state where the President rolled to victory in 2016, also supported Kavanaugh. Murkowski ultimately withdrew herself from the final tally as a gesture of goodwill toward her Republican colleague, Steve Daines (R-MT), who supports Kavanaugh but was in Montana to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. But the move did not affect the ultimate result of the vote.

Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation leaves the Senate traumatized with Republicans and Democrats as estranged as at any time in recent memory, reflecting the cavernous divides in the country itself during a presidency that has ignited rare political passions. It represents the culmination of a decades-long project by the conservative movement to construct a like-minded majority on the Supreme Court which has been a defining and unifying cause in successive congressional and presidential campaigns. The new profile of the court immediately makes Trump a consequential president, for all of the chaos and discord that rages around his White House, and means his legacy will include an achievement that eluded previous Republican presidents — all of whom had more authentic conservative credentials. The ferocious nature of the confirmation battle could also have an impact on the Court itself, as Kavanaugh’s vehement and politicized defense of his own behavior raised questions about his temperament and whether he could genuinely be an honest broker and implementer of the law in the most sensitive cases.

2. New York State Begins Investigation Into President Donald Trump’s Alleged Tax Evasion

New York state began investigations into the alleged financial crimes committed by President Trump prior to his assuming office.

New York City officials said on October 4 that they had joined state regulators in examining whether President Donald Trump and his family underpaid taxes on his father’s real estate empire over several decades. The announcement came in response to an investigation published this week in The New York Times that showed how President Trump had participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud, that significantly increased the fortune he received from his parents. “We are now just starting to pore through the information,” said Dean Fuleihan, the city’s first deputy mayor. Some of Trumps’ tax evasion maneuvers uncovered by the New York Times warranted investigation as potential crimes, former prosecutors said, but the statute of limitations on any such charges has long since expired. The inquiries will also explore whether civil penalties and bills for back taxes are warranted. City officials said interest and penalties of up to 25 percent could be added to any unpaid taxes.

One type of tax that the city will examine is the real estate transfer tax. Officials said the extremely low valuations the Trump family placed on buildings that passed from Fred C. Trump to his children through trusts could have resulted in underpaid transfer taxes. The Times reported that through several aggressive and potentially illegal maneuvers, the Trumps claimed that 25 apartment complexes transferred to Donald Trump and his siblings from their father were worth just $41 million. Donald Trump sold those buildings within a decade for more than 16 times that amount. Fuleihan said the city would also explore whether another tax avoidance maneuver by  Trump and his siblings resulted in Fred Trump’s empire underpaying property taxes. That maneuver involved a company, created by the Trump family in 1992, called All County Building Supply & Maintenance. All County existed largely on paper, The Times found. Its work, such as it was, consisted of adding 20 percent or more to the cost of goods and services bought by Fred Trump. The padded amount was split between Donald Trump and his siblings, essentially a gift from their father that avoided the 55 percent gift tax at the time.

Fuleihan further stated that the scheme as described by the New York Times would have artificially driven down the profitability of Fred Trump’s buildings. And because city property taxes on rental buildings are based in part on profits reported by owners, All-County would have had the effect of lowering the property tax burden. Fuleihan said the city and state agencies are cooperating on the effort. The State Department of Taxation and Finance announced on Wednesday that it was “pursuing all appropriate avenues of investigation.” In addition to the tax scheme investigations into President Donald Trump, another state agency is looking into whether tenants in Fred Trump’s rent-regulated apartments saw their rents unduly increased because the Trumps used the padded All County invoices to apply for rent increases, as the New York Times found. State regulations allow owners of rent-regulated buildings to ask for increases to recover the “actual and verified cost” of some improvements to buildings, said Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal.

President Donald Trump criticized the investigation into his and his family’s use of dubious tax schemes over the years and the origins of his wealth, calling the article an “old, boring and often told hit piece.” in a Twitter post. Referring to the New York Times as the “Failing New York Times,” President Trump did not offer an outright denial of the facts in the report, such as the fact that the money he made during his decades in real estate came from tax schemes of dubious legality, the existence of records of deception in documenting the family’s financial assets, and that the beginning of the president’s so-called self-made fortune dates back to his toddler years when, by the time he was 3 years old, Mr. Trump earned $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father. A growing number of Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, cited the article in renewing their longstanding demands for President Trump to release his income tax returns, something he has steadfastly declined to do, breaking with four decades of practice by previous presidents. Ron Wyden (D-OR), asked the IRS on Wednesday to open an investigation into The Times’s findings. “It is imperative that I.R.S. fully investigate these allegations and prosecute any violations to the fullest extent of the law,” Wyden said in a statement. A spokesman for the IRS said the agency would not comment on whether it was taking any action in response to the New York Times’s investigation.

3. US Congress Passes Landmark Bill to Combat the Growing Opioid Crisis

In a rare bipartisan gesture, the US Senate passed a comprehensive opioid treatment bill this week

In a rare gesture of bipartisanship, the Senate passed the final version of a sweeping opioids package on October 3 and will send it to President Donald Trump for signature just in time for lawmakers to campaign on the issue before the November midterm elections. The vote was 98 to 1, with only Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) opposing it. The bill unites dozens of smaller proposals sponsored by hundreds of lawmakers, many of whom face tough reelection fights. It creates, expands and reauthorizes programs and policies across almost every federal agency, aiming to address different aspects of the opioid epidemic, including prevention, treatment, and recovery. The opioid abuse treatment bill marks a moment of bipartisan accomplishment at an especially rancorous time on Capitol Hill as senators debate Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. “We are in the midst of contentious disagreement about the Supreme Court. But at the same time, we have an urgent, bipartisan consensus, a virtually unanimous agreement, to deal with the most urgent public health epidemic facing our country today in virtually every community,” said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate health committee and lead sponsor of the bill.

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), who sounded the alarm on opioid addiction four years ago, is credited with the portion of the law that could have the greatest effect. It will require the US Postal Service to screen packages for fentanyl shipped from overseas, mainly China. Synthetic opioids that are difficult to detect are increasingly being found in pills and heroin and are responsible for an increase in overdose deaths. “I will say getting that passed, to me, is just common sense. I think it’s overdue. I’m disappointed it took us this long,” Portman said in a floor speech Tuesday. “How many people had to die before Congress stood up and did the right thing concerning telling our own post office you have to provide better screening?” The bill’s passage comes a year after President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency. The Senate vote is the last step before he signs the measure into law. The House passed it 393 to 8 last week.

Public-health advocates laud the bill’s increased attention to treatment, which they say is the key component to overcoming addiction. The legislation would create a grant program for comprehensive recovery centers that include housing and job training, as well as mental and physical health care. It would increase access to medication-assisted treatment that helps people with substance abuse disorders safely wean themselves. Another significant aspect of the bill is the change to a decades-old arcane rule that prohibited Medicaid from covering patients with substance abuse disorders who were receiving treatment in a mental health facility with more than 16 beds. The bill lifts that rule to allow for 30 days of residential treatment coverage. The opioid crisis has hit communities in all states. Some believe that lawmakers focused on it in part because they wanted to claim an election-year win. Although it contains provisions that help address the problem, it does not dedicate the level of funding and long-term commitment needed to fight a crisis of this magnitude, many experts say.

“This legislation edges us closer to treating addiction as the devastating disease it is, but it neglects to provide the long-term investment we’ve seen in responses to other major public health crises,” said Lindsey Vuolo, Associate Director of Health Law and Policy at Center on Addiction. “We won’t be able to make meaningful progress against the tide of addiction unless we make significant changes to incorporate addiction treatment into the existing health care system.” Congress has appropriated $8 billion this year for opioid-related programs, but there is no guarantee of funding for subsequent years. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) have proposed committing $100 billion over ten years to fighting the opioid crisis. Their proposal is modeled after Congress’s robust response to HIV/AIDS during the latter part of the Reagan Administration. “I hope Congress doesn’t think they can put this behind them because they passed these bills,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman of Rhode Island and a mental health advocate. “It takes an urgency as we had during HIV-AIDS. That will call to mind what it takes to address a crisis, and it takes political will.”

4. International Court of Justice Orders The US To Ease Iran Sanctions

In a widely expected move, the ICJ ruled that the new sanctions implemented on Iran by the US are illegal and amount to “economic warfare.”

In a significant victory for the Iranian government and a major setback for the Trump Administration, The International Court of Justice (ICJ) this week has ordered the US to ease sanctions it re-imposed on Iran after abandoning the Iranian Nuclear Agreement in May. In his arguments before the ICJ, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said the sanctions violated the 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights between Iran and the US, which grants the ICJ jurisdiction over disputes. On the other hand, US lawyers argued that the ICJ should not have the authority and that Iran’s assertions fell outside the bounds of the treaty. The ICJ Judges ruled that the US had to remove “any impediments” to the export of humanitarian goods, including food, medicine, and aviation safety equipment. It also said the reasons cited by President Donald Trump for re-imposing the sanctions were unfounded because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had repeatedly confirmed that Iran was complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord signed by Tehran and six world powers. The ICJ has ruled previously that the 1955 treaty is valid even though it was signed before the 1979 Revolution in Iran, which saw the US-backed shah overthrown and heralded four decades of hostility between the two countries.

In its final ruling, the 15-judge panel rejected Iran’s call for them to order the reinstated US sanctions to be terminated without delay, and for the US to compensate Iran for the revenue losses it has incurred. But the judges did order the US to “remove, by means of its choosing, any impediments arising from the measures on 8 May to the free exportation to the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran” of: medicines and medical devices, foodstuffs and agricultural commodities, spare parts, equipment and, services necessary for the safety of civil aviation. Overall, the ruling by the ICJ is notable for several reasons. The ruling is the first time international judges have ruled on what’s been described as a case of “economic warfare.” It is a provisional measure issued in response to Iran’s urgent request ahead of the second round of sanctions scheduled to be reinstated next month. The decision could encourage European companies, which ceased trading with Iran for fear of falling foul of President Trump, to reconsider their position, specifically those dealing in the humanitarian items outlined by the judges.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said the decision “vindicates the Islamic Republic of Iran and confirms the illegitimacy and oppressiveness” of US sanctions. On the other hand, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of abusing the ICJ for political ends and said the court had rejected all of its “baseless requests.” Secretary Pompeo announced that the US was terminating the Treaty of Amity, adding: “This is a decision that is, frankly, 39 years overdue.” He also said the US had “solid” evidence that Iran was to blame for recent attacks against the US consulate in the Iraqi city of Basra and the embassy in Baghdad. “These latest destabilizing acts in Iraq are attempts by the Iranian regime to push back on our efforts to constrain its malign behavior. Clearly, they see our comprehensive pressure campaign as serious and succeeding.”

the author

Matt is a student at Seton Hall Law School and graduated from Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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