While you weren't sleeping: In face of impeachment, Trump pursues agenda on courts, environment, Israel and more

WASHINGTON — On Nov. 14, the U.S. Senate confirmed Steven Menashi to the Second Circuit, the high-profile federal appellate court in New York City that has produced three Supreme Court justices. Menashi was one of President Trump’s most conservative nominees, one whose confirmation seemed threatened by his controversial positions on a number of issues and his role in crafting administration immigration policy. But he was ultimately endorsed by the Senate, giving Republican-appointed judges a majority on the Second Circuit — and giving Trump 162 judges on the federal bench.

The confirmation certainly drew notice, but hardly earned top billing in a nation consumed by impeachment news. The day before Menashi was confirmed, the impeachment inquiry against President Trump began holding public hearings. There was powerful testimony from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, the nation whose leader Trump is accused of extorting. There was State Department official George Kent, testifying in his memorable yellow bow tie, which by later that day had become a sensation of its own.

President Donald Trump looks at the media members on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S. on November 9, 2019. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
President Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 9. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

And there was House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., reading that Wednesday from a partial transcript of an April phone call between Trump and incoming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, keeping an impressive straight face as he played the role of Trump congratulating Zelensky on the “great people” Ukraine had brought to the Miss Universe beauty pageant, which Trump once owned.

On Thursday morning, right around the time that Menashi was about to receive his Senate confirmation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in a widely covered press conference that in her view Trump had committed bribery, an impeachable offense according to the U.S. Constitution. This was a considerable sharpening of the argument against Trump, at least rhetorically.

It was all riveting stuff, exactly the kind of drama you might well expect from a president who is a creature of television and a master of the theatrical flourish. “How The Impeachment Hearings Became Must-See TV,” read a recent Forbes headline.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks to reporters on the morning after the first public hearing in the impeachment probe of President Donald Trump on his effort to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Pelosi says the president's actions in the impeachment inquiry amount to "bribery." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters the morning after the first public impeachment hearing. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Back in January, when the progressive new members of the 116th Congress arrived in Washington and promptly called for Trump to be expelled from the very same city, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called impeachment a potential “distraction.” Today, impeachment is not a distraction but, rather, the main event, with millions watching the proceedings live on television and debating them furiously on social media.

But the nation’s business does not stop for riveting television. The work of the Trump administration continues on a variety of fronts, from Mideast policy to environmental regulations, largely overshadowed by the high drama of a president accused of high crimes and misdemeanors. The outsized spectacle has obscured the pursuit of other parts of Trump’s platform, having nothing to do with Ukraine or the hacking of emails in the 2016 election.

On Monday, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the administration would no longer abide by a decades-old guidance that declared Israeli settlements “inconsistent with international law.” The historic move did not go unreported, but the announcement was at least partly overshadowed by Pompeo’s refusal — in response to a question from a member of the media — to publicly back Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified before the impeachment panel publicly last Friday and was attacked during her testimony in a tweet by Trump.

“Pompeo declines to defend diplomats attacked by Trump,” said a CNN headline. The article that followed didn’t mention Israel at all, although CNN devoted separate coverage to the settlements announcement.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes questions during a press conference at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, on November 18, 2019. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes questions during a press conference in Washington on Monday. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

In other areas of foreign policy, Trump is moving apace. Impeachment may be consuming the West Wing, but it has not paralyzed the executive branch. This week, Trump will issue a new rule that will send asylum seekers attempting to enter the United States by way of Mexico back to Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras. He is sending 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia, and he has granted a temporary reprieve to Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company that has been the subject of espionage concerns.

Polling suggests that most Americans have already made up their minds about impeachment. At the same time, media outlets have devoted massive coverage to the proceedings. That has arguably allowed Trump to escape scrutiny on other fronts. There is, after all, only so much emotion to go around, whether it’s indignation at the Democrats or outrage over Trump’s behavior.

“Impeachment has invaded every cell in my body. Physically it has caused rashes and fatigue. Mentally it has left me saddened and anxious, dizzy at times, and desperate for relief,” went one reader’s letter to the New York Times. Its author, Howard Quinn of the Bronx, added that his solution was to turn off the news altogether: “Hello to ESPN, western movies, ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’” he wrote.

Controversial decisions thus seem a little less controversial when the fate of the republic seems to be at hand. Last Friday, for example, Trump pardoned three U.S. service members accused of war crimes. Earlier in the week, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would effectively minimize scientific input when making decisions. Some days before that, Trump moved to curtail a food assistance program, a change that would prevent about a million indigent children from receiving free school lunches.

Vape consumer advocate groups and vape storeowners around the country hold a rally outside of the White House to protest the proposed vaping flavor ban in Washington DC on November 9, 2019. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images)
Vape consumer advocate groups and storeowners protest a proposed vaping flavor ban in Washington on Nov. 9. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images)

The vaping ban that would have restricted the purchase of flavored e-cigarettes has been apparently postponed. But not the border wall, which remains a goal Trump believes he can achieve. His administration, in fact, is about to start seizing land in Texas in preparation for construction of a border barrier.

Meanwhile, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued a final environmental analysis of Jordan Cove, a 230-mile gas pipeline through the Pacific Northwest that will terminate in massive gas storage projects. Similar energy projects have previously generated major protests, in particular regarding the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This time around, however, the project attracted little notice outside local and energy-sector outlets. With impeachment in full swing, nobody seemed to notice.


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