By Chris York
Believe it or not, there is more to life than Brexit.
As Westminster seemingly tears itself apart and the rest of the nation collectively succumbs to political apathy, a smidgen of consolation can perhaps be snatched from the fact that things in the US of A are still completely bonkers.
Here are five stories you may have missed this wee…
First things first – the US government is currently in the middle of the longest shutdown in the country’s history.
It’s testament to just how all-consuming Brexit is over here that this hasn’t been headline news all week.
That ultimatum, which congressional Democrats have rejected, has prevented Congress from approving legislation to restore funding to about a quarter of the federal government.
That means around 800,000 federal workers are currently not being paid.
Trump’s wall has become far more than just a physical entity – as one of his central campaign promises it has come to define his presidency and he may well have painted himself into a corner.
The president can’t afford to backdown for fear of alienating his support base but at a wider level, a majority of Americans don’t want the wall.
Nancy and Cryin’ Chuck can end the Shutdown in 15 minutes. At this point it has become their, and the Democrats, fault!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2019
As the shutdown grinds on the effects multiply – imagine being employed by the government and being told that you either can’t work or have to work but not get paid. This is the current reality for 800,000 Americans.
At a wider level, the shutdown poses a very real threat to the US economy. Analysis from Trump’s own advisors has said growth is being affected twice as badly as previously thought and could lead to economic contraction very soon and, ultimately, the possibility of a recession.
One thing is certain – Trump is stubborn and nothing in his behaviour as president so far suggests he is likely to back down.
The danger for Trump is that being blamed for a shutdown is one thing but being blamed for a recession is quite another.
The State of the Union address
There are of course two sides to every story and Trump isn’t the only one playing politics with the shutdown.
On 29 January, the president is due to give the annual State of the Union address to Congress.
The event is a highlight of the US political calendar and is a chance for the president to highlight achievements so far and make the case for policy in the year ahead.
Traditionally the Speaker of the House, currently Democrat Nancy Pelosi, invites the president to make the speech but on Wednesday she wrote to Trump saying “as long as government is shut down we are not going to be doing business as usual”.
Pelosi cited security concerns – the very people who provide protection for the US’s top politicians during the event, the Secret Service and the Homeland Security Department, are the same ones affected by the shutdown.
She suggested Trump should either postpone the speech or submit it in writing instead.
Today, I wrote to @realDonaldTrump recommending that we delay the State of the Union until after government re-opens, as the @SecretService, the lead federal agency for #SOTU security, faces its 26th day without funding. https://t.co/K2oL8WGvqopic.twitter.com/g3fIlxDbbK
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) January 16, 2019
While on the face of it this may appear to be about the security of the nation’s lawmakers, any downgrade of the biggest presidential speech of the year would be a humiliation for Trump.
Predictably, he has not backed down and instead gave what appeared to be a rather petty response – grounding Pelosi’s government aircraft so she couldn’t embark on a planned trip to Egypt, Brussels and Afghanistan.
He wrote: “In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I’m sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate.”
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) January 17, 2019
Just how underhand this response was quickly became apparent – the trip to Afghanistan was being kept top-secret for security reasons and Trump’s letter blew any chance of it going ahead, even if she “flew commercial” as he suggested.
Two other things also need to be noted – Trump is yet to visit troops in Afghanistan despite approaching the halfway mark in his presidency.
And on the same day he denied Pelosi the use of a government plane his wife, Melania, flew to their Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida – aboard a government plane.
The Russia investigation
Since 2016, barely a week has gone by without the reporting of a revelation that would have at the very least hugely embarrassed if not potentially toppled previous presidents.
But even in the teflon-coated White House that Trump currently occupies, two bombshell news items last weekend prompted a noticeable shift in how it responds to allegations of collusions with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.
- Trump was accused of going to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his meetings with his Russian President Vladimir Putin, including on at least one occasion seizing the notes of his own interpreter, the only other person resent at the meeting
- and it was revealed the FBI had investigated whether Trump has been working on behalf of Russia, against US interests. The New York Times reported the probe began in the days after Trump fired James Comey as director of the FBI in May 2017 and said the agency’s counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether his actions constituted a possible threat to national security.
The president initially responded as he usually does in such situations – loudly and on Twitter, attacking the “failing New York Times”, “Lyin’ James Comey” and insisting, without any proof, that he has been “FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. Maybe tougher than any other President” (this is a questionable claim).
Wow, just learned in the Failing New York Times that the corrupt former leaders of the FBI, almost all fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons, opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof, after I fired Lyin’ James Comey, a total sleaze!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2019
I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. Maybe tougher than any other President. At the same time, & as I have often said, getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. I fully expect that someday we will have good relations with Russia again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2019
Not content with leaving his tweets to speak for themselves he then turned to the ever-friendly Fox News.
In an interview with Jeanine Pirro, he was asked outright if he “had ever worked for Russia”.
Trump responded: ”I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked…the most insulting article I’ve ever had written and if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing.”
“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked…the most insulting article I’ve ever had written & if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing.”- @realDonaldTrump on NYT FBI report pic.twitter.com/cIB4Sk9ZA1
— Jeanine Pirro (@JudgeJeanine) January 13, 2019
The thing is, he didn’t actually deny it, something that was noticed by reporters who asked him the same question the next day.
Speaking from the South Lawn before departing the White House for New Orleans, Trump called former FBI and Justice Department officials “known scoundrels” and “dirty cops”.
He added: “I never worked for Russia.”
Shifting the goalposts?
Later on in the week, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, gave a combative interview to CNN which all of a sudden led some to suggest the White House was shifting the goalposts once again against charges of collusion.
Backing up Trump’s claim that the president had never worked for Russia, Giuliani insisted he had “never said there was no collusion” between the president’s 2016 election campaign and the Kremlin – only that he’s said Trump himself was never involved.
Aside from the fact Giuliani has made numerous claims that seemed to suggest both Trump and his associates have never colluded, the statement effectively laid out a defence against further revelations against members of the campaign team.
“I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign… I have not. I said the President of the United States,” Pres. Trump’s attorney @RudyGiuliani tells @ChrisCuomohttps://t.co/Jy0gttT6Acpic.twitter.com/JGISmtgrdy
— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) January 17, 2019
Speaking after the interview aired, CNN’s Don Lemon suggested there was a deliberate tactic being employed by Giuliani which was to pre-emptively deflect from anymore damaging revelations that come to light.
He said: “Quite a performance, right? But make no mistake, there is a method to this madness.
“The president’s attorney, as he always does, laying out the groundwork there for what is to come. So stay tuned to that.”
The tower in Moscow and a rare statement from Mueller
On Friday, Senior Democrats pledged to investigate a report that Trump directed his personal lawyer to lie to Congress about negotiations over a real estate project in Moscow during the 2016 election.
The report by BuzzFeed News, citing two unnamed law enforcement officials, said that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress and that Cohen regularly briefed Trump and his family on the Moscow project — even as Trump said he had no business dealings with Russia.
This particular revelation is another twist in the ongoing saga over Michael Cohen, the president’s former “fixer” who has already been jailed for his part in hush money payments paid to woman who allege they had affairs with Trump.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff said “we will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true”, adding that “in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date”.
If the President directed Cohen to lie to Congress, that is obstruction of justice. Period. Full stop.
— David Cicilline (@davidcicilline) January 18, 2019
If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.
— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) January 18, 2019
But then something remarkable happened – the normally silent Special Counsel’s office issued a statement calling the report “not accurate”.
BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterisation of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.Robert Mueller’s spokesman
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, later said the publication stands by its reporting and the sources who informed it.
“We urge the special counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,” Smith said.
In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel’s spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 19, 2019
Trump and Kim’s bromance
Trump will hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month, the White House confirmed on Friday.
The announcement followed a meeting between Pyongyang’s top nuclear negotiator Kim Yong Chol, a hardline former spy chief.
The meeting marks a sign of movement in denuclearisation efforts that have stalled since a landmark meeting between Trump and the North Korean leader in Singapore last year.
Sarah Sanders, White House spokeswoman, said: “President Donald J. Trump met with Kim Yong Chol for an hour and half, to discuss denuclearisation and a second summit, which will take place near the end of February.
President @realDonaldTrump looks forward to a second summit with Chairman Kim, which will take place near the end of February. Location will be announced at a later date.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) January 18, 2019
On a lighter note, here’s a bonus item for you.
It was revealed on Thursday that Steve Carell will star in a new workplace comedy inspired by Space Force, the new branch of the US armed services announced by President Trump.
And it’s going to be made by the same people who made The office.
A video announcing the series posted on Twitter, said: “On June 18, 2018 the federal government announced the creation of a 6th major division of the United States Armed Forces.
“The goal of the new branch is ‘to defend satellites from attack’ and ‘perform other space-related tasks’ or something.
“This is the story of the men and women who have to figure it out.”
.@SteveCarell will star in a new workplace comedy series he co-created with #TheOffice‘s Greg Daniels about the people tasked with creating a sixth branch of the armed services: the Space Force! pic.twitter.com/6GEFNgP18w
— See What’s Next (@seewhatsnext) January 16, 2019
We can all agree that this is going to be epic.