Opinion | The Real Governments of Blue America

Officially, a big part of the federal government shut down late last month. In important ways, however, America’s government went AWOL almost two years earlier, when Donald Trump was inaugurated.

After all, politicians supposedly seek office in order to get stuff done — to tackle real problems and implement solutions. But neither Trump, who spends his energy inventing crises at the border, nor the Republicans who controlled Congress for two years have done any of that. Their only major legislative achievement was a tax cut that blew up the deficit without, as far as anyone can tell, doing anything to enhance the economy’s long-run growth prospects.

Meanwhile, there has been no hint of the infrastructure plan Trump promised to deliver. And after many years of denouncing Obamacare and promising to provide a far better replacement, Republicans turned out to have no idea how to do that, and in particular no plan to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions.

Why can’t Republicans govern? It’s not just that their party is committed to an ideology that says that government is always the problem, never the solution. Beyond that, they have systematically deprived themselves of the ability to analyze policies and learn from evidence, because hard thinking might lead someone to question received doctrine.

And Republicans still control the Senate and the White House. So even when (if?) the shutdown ends, it will be at least two years before we have a government in Washington that’s actually capable of, or even interested in, governing.

But not everything is on hold. For America has a federal system, and the 2018 elections set the stage for a wave of actual governance — of real efforts to solve real problems — at the state and local levels.

Until recently Republicans had a virtual lock on state government. Almost half the population lived in states with Republican “trifectas,” that is, G.O.P. control of both houses plus the governorship. Democrats had comparable control in California, and pretty much nowhere else.

But elections since then have transformed the picture. New Jersey and Washington went full Democratic in 2017, and six more states, including Illinois and New York, flipped in November. At this point more than a third of Americans live under full Democratic control, not far short of the Republican total.

These newly empowered majorities are moving quickly to start governing again. And the experience of states that already had Democratic trifectas suggests that they may achieve a lot.

Consider the experience of California, where Democrats took full control in 2011. Conservatives lambasted Jerry Brown’s increases in taxes, spending and the minimum wage, declaring that the state was committing “economic suicide.” In reality, the economy boomed, while California’s enthusiastic implementation of health reform brought the uninsured share of the population down from 18 percent in 2011 to just 7 percent in 2017 — almost twice the reduction in the U.S. as a whole.

Or consider New Jersey, where Democrats took control last year and used that control to implement a series of measures — including reimposing the requirement that individuals buy health insurance — that reversed many of the Trump administration’s efforts at health care sabotage. The result was a sharp drop in insurance premiums, which are now among the lowest in the nation.

Now that Democratic control has expanded, we can expect to see more of this kind of activism.

Gavin Newsom, California’s new governor, has proposed further action on health care, including a New Jersey-style state-level mandate and expanded subsidies for the middle class. Washington’s governor is proposing creation of a public option, a state insurance plan residents can buy into. And New York City’s mayor is proposing measures that would, he says, guarantee coverage for all New Yorkers, including undocumented immigrants.

And health care isn’t the only front for new action. For example, Newsom is also proposing major new spending on education and housing affordability. The latter is very important: Soaring housing costs are the biggest flaw in California’s otherwise impressive success story.

Now, let’s be clear: Not all of the new Democratic policy proposals will actually be implemented, and not all of those that do go into effect will live up to expectations. There’s no such thing as perfection, in policy or in life, and leaders who never experience failures or setbacks aren’t taking enough risks.

The point, however, is that newly empowered state and local politicians do seem willing to take risks and try new things in an effort to make progress against the nation’s problems.

And that’s a very hopeful sign for America, because their example may prove contagious.

Justice Louis Brandeis famously described the states as the laboratories of democracy; right now they’re the places where we’re seeing what it looks like when elected officials try to do what they were elected to do, and actually govern. If we’re lucky, two years from now that attitude may re-establish itself in the nation’s capital.

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Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman

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Nancy Pelosi’s Political Flex

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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We’re less than a month into the new Congress, but one thing has already become clear: Don’t mess with Nancy.

Over the past week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been flexing her muscle all over Washington. The latest, and perhaps most glaring, example came on Wednesday, when Ms. Pelosi requested that President Trump delay — or skip altogether — his State of the Union address.

“The date of the State of the Union is not a sacred date. It’s not constitutionally required; it’s not any president’s birthday; it’s not anything,” she told reporters this morning. “It is a date that we agreed to — it could have been the week later.”

Her comments clearly got under the president’s skin. Late Thursday afternoon, he revoked her military transport for a secret trip to Afghanistan — a visit to a war zone that Mr. Trump derided as a “public relations event.” He suggested Ms. Pelosi, third in line for the presidency, fly commercial. To Afghanistan.

Ms. Pelosi’s aides and supporters quickly pointed out that her plans included thanking the troops and meeting with the commanders of the war that Mr. Trump is trying to end. Mr. Trump, in fact, made his first visit to a warzone during this same shutdown.

Now, none of the fighting over flights gets the country any closer to ending a government shutdown that’s crippling the finances of 800,000 federal workers and starting to have economic impacts far bigger than even the White House anticipated.

But it is some awfully crafty politics by Ms. Pelosi.

A 78-year-old, wealthy San Francisco liberal, Ms. Pelosi is nobody’s idea of an everyman politician. Forget fast food — Ms. Pelosi eats dark chocolate ice cream for breakfast. Her campaign superpower involves twisting the arms of rich donors. She doesn’t really use Twitter, never mind Instagram.

And yet, right now, she might just be the most powerful politician in the country.

Dozens of Democrats spent months campaigning against supporting Ms. Pelosi as speaker. (Worth noting: G.O.P. attacks on her far outpaced mentions of any other congressional leader in campaign ads for the last three cycles.) In the end, after a weekslong campaign by Ms. Pelosi put down any hint of rebellion, only 15 members cast ballots against her.

Now, she’s getting her revenge, wielding one of the most powerful tools in her disposal: committee assignments.

Ms. Pelosi kept Representative Kathleen Rice’s name off the list of suggested members for the Judiciary Committee, a powerful spot that will be at the center of investigations into Mr. Trump — and any possible impeachment. Ms. Rice was one of Ms. Pelosi’s most outspoken critics.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, who pushed against Ms. Pelosi but ultimately voted for her for speaker, got a perch on the influential Financial Services Committee, a particularly plum assignment for a freshman member.

It’s yet another savvy move by Ms. Pelosi to help keep a restive progressive caucus on her side — a unity that’ll be crucially important for the battles with Mr. Trump that are sure to come.

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Wait, can they do that?

Divided government, a special counsel investigation, the longest government shutdown in history, the biggest Democratic primary field in decades, secretive meetings with Russia — at this point in the Trump administration, we’ve written “unprecedented” so much that it’s become a cliché. To help explain the constant craziness, we’re inaugurating a new feature today. This is, “Wait, can they do that?”

Our first topic: Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking President Trump to scrap or delay his State of the Union address.

Can she do that? Well, yes, actually.

The Constitution mandates some kind of update from our chief executive, saying the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

But notice what it doesn’t mention: Cable commentary, invited guests and a walk down the red carpet— er, the aisle of the House floor.

After George Washington gave the first address on Jan. 8, 1790, in New York, the practiced continued for about a decade. In 1801, eager to simplify what he thought was a monarchal tradition, Thomas Jefferson mailed in copies to both houses of Congress that were read by the chamber’s clerks.

It went that way for more than a century, until Woodrow Wilson revived the in-person address in 1913 (though presidents continued to occasionally submit their speeches in writing; Jimmy Carter was the last to do it, in 1981). The fact that it has become a prime-time spectacle over the last 50 years is mostly a product of modern media — and political ego.


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Fleg’s Book Club

In the latest — and perhaps most unusual — dose of the 2020 tea leaves, Beto O’Rourke published a nearly 2,000-word blog post on Medium chronicling his travels along U.S. Route 54.

While all of Washington is consumed with the crippling government shutdown, Mr. O’Rourke is spending his days jogging, meeting with students, eating a blackberry cobbler and ruminating on the “funk” he’s been “in and out of” lately. (Perhaps he should talk to some unpaid T.S.A. agents about their “funks.” But I digress.)

I reached out to our in-house Beto expert, political reporter Matt Flegenheimer, to try and figure out what is up with that guy. Like good New York Times employees, we Slacked about it.


What to read tonight

An internal investigation has found that the Trump administration likely separated thousands more children from their parents at the Southern border than was previously believed.

It’s clear that climate change poses environmental risks beyond anything seen in the modern age. But we’re only starting to come to grips with the potential economic effects. Here are four big questions experts are thinking about.

In 2014, Tommy Tomlinson weighed 460 pounds. His brutally honest tale of trying to regain control of his weight — and his life — makes for moving reading.


… Seriously

A new story from The Wall Street Journal on President Trump’s former lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen is loaded with juicy nuggets: Mr. Cohen trying (and failing) to rig early polls in Mr. Trump’s favor, paying the tech firm he hired with a Walmart bag full of cash and trying to cover some of the costs with a boxing glove.

But the craziest piece of it all? Mr. Cohen asked the same firm to create a Twitter account called @WomenForCohen, purportedly written by female fans, which described him as a “sex symbol,” lavished him with praise, and promoted the job he was doing helping the Trump campaign.


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Opinion | Drip, Drip, Drip

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

“The President has lost about .5% off his job approval number each week of the shutdown,” the Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson tweeted yesterday. “That could accelerate as more people feel personally affected by shutdown.”

She was referring to the polling average collected by RealClearPolitics, which shows Trump’s approval at 41 percent. The FiveThirtyEight average is now at 40 percent.

And the number of people who strongly disapprove of Trump is rising, notes G. Elliott Morris of The Economist. It now exceeds 40 percent, with about another 10 percent who somewhat disapprove.

Trump has not broken out of the range where he has been for almost his entire presidency — between roughly 38 percent and 44 percent approval. But the shutdown is not going well for him. He has no evident plan to end it, either.

Over time, the tangible effects will keep growing, which will probably hurt him more than they will the Democrats — given that most Americans correctly blame him for the shutdown.

All of this is further evidence of his vulnerability. He is a weak president who appears more likely to get weaker than stronger in the coming weeks and months. Don’t assume that his approval rating has some kind of guaranteed floor. It doesn’t.

On this week’s episode of “The Argument,” I try to persuade Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg that Trump is more vulnerable than many people think. The three of us also talk about whether the political left has an anti-Semitism problem, given the turmoil surrounding this weekend’s Women’s March.

Reader callout: Have you read or heard any good descriptions of the government shutdown’s real-world effects, in local or national media? Send them my way, at [email protected]

Trump corruption watch

President Trump’s Washington hotel, located blocks from the White House, has become an invitation to corruption. Lobbyists, foreign officials and Republican politicians have all made a point of staying there, effectively trying to buy favor with the president. Trump doesn’t even own the building. The federal government does and leases it Trump.

Two new developments yesterday showed how problematic the situation is.

First, The Washington Post reported that executives from T-Mobile, including the C.E.O., have become regulars at the hotel — and that their timing is quite suspicious. One day after T-Mobile announced a merger with Sprint, T-Mobile executives began staying at the Trump hotel. They have now spent at least 38 nights there.

What might explain their newfound loyalty to brand Trump? The obvious possibility is the Sprint merger requires approval from the Trump administration.

The second development was a report from the inspector general of the General Services Administration, the federal agency that holds the hotel’s lease. The inspector general criticized the agency for the arrangement with Trump. The agency “improperly ignored” concerns that the lease violates the constitutional provision that bars presidents from receiving money from foreign governments without Congress’s approval, the report concluded.

For a broader look at Trumpian corruption, see Annie Lowrey’s recent Atlantic piece or the list we compiled late last year.

If you are not a subscriber to this newsletter, you can subscribe here. You can also join me on Twitter (@DLeonhardt) and Facebook.

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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White House Redefines Who Is Essential to Get Parts of Government Moving Again

WASHINGTON — As the government shutdown stretches into its fourth week, the Trump administration is reinterpreting longstanding rules to open the federal government piece by piece, forcing thousands of workers to report to work without pay, many of them in sectors that could minimize damage to the president’s base.

Federal farm service offices will open to help farmers and ranchers. With tax season underway, the Internal Revenue Service is calling more than half of its 80,000 employees back to work. Thousands of furloughed safety inspectors have been told to report to airports and runways. And dozens of Interior Department employees will head to the country’s coastline to sell oil and gas leases.

“It’s time for the Democrats to negotiate,” Russell T. Vought, the acting director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget who helped lead the effort to recall I.R.S. employees, recently said. “In the meantime, we will make this shutdown as painless as possible, consistent with the law.”

That last phrase — consistent with the law — has proved crucial for a team of 12 lawyers working under Mr. Vought. In past shutdowns, only workers deemed “essential” to protecting life and property — a category that would include people like Secret Service agents — were allowed to work.

But the budget office is now focused on Justice Department guidance, issued by previous administrations, that would broaden who is considered essential, using lesser known exceptions to call back thousands of employees to perform duties like preparing taxes or opening mail.

A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said lawyers were relying on guidance issued during past shutdowns, including a Clinton-era contingency plan that allows exceptions for workers whose duties do not rely on yearly appropriations.

After using this rationale to bring back tax workers, lawyers at the budget office are now reviewing requests to reopen parts of the government agency by agency, according to Trump administration officials. That would essentially reverse how previous administrations interpreted the rules as lawyers look to minimize the effect of a protracted shutdown that the president has no plans to end, the officials said.

Critics said the Trump administration was building a specious legal case that interprets an exception to the law in the broadest possible terms. Its actions have already drawn at least five lawsuits from labor groups representing thousands of federal employees, including the I.R.S. and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Gregory O’Duden, the general counsel of the National Treasury Employees Union, which has sued the administration on behalf of 70,000 of the I.R.S.’s work force of 80,000, accused administration officials of manipulating laws to keep Americans happy and score political points.

“A law that was intended to be a narrow exception they’re treating as a wide open path for them to run through,” Mr. O’Duden said. The White House, he said, “has concocted what we think is an untenable rationale that will require tens of thousands of employees to come back and not be paid.”

Former administration officials who have examined the same sets of rules in previous shutdowns — and landed on different interpretations — are puzzled by the White House’s actions.

John A. Koskinen, who retired as I.R.S. commissioner in 2017, questioned whether the efforts violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the government from spending money for any reason that Congress has not appropriated. He suggested that the Office of Management and Budget was using a loose interpretation of government regulations that say unfunded government operations could only continue during a shutdown if needed to “protect life and property.”

“What they’re doing is trying to eliminate as much of the backlash against the shutdown as they can,” said Mr. Koskinen, who was the point person at the budget office during the 1995 shutdown. “There’s nothing wrong with that, theoretically, as long as you’re doing it according to what is legal.”

Mr. Koskinen said that it was possible the administration would argue that tax refunds were a “continuing appropriation,” but that it would be hard to make the case that taxpayers face real hardship if their refunds are delayed, as they are with Social Security payments.

That is exactly the comparison Trump administration officials say they are trying to make in enforcing their own contingency plan.

In some cases, the administration has said that essential duties can now include opening mail: On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department said that it would reopen Farm Service Agency offices for three days to provide “limited services” to farmers and ranchers who needed assistance processing farm loans. The 2,500 workers will also help open mail to identify important items. (They will not have to work on Martin Luther King’s Birthday, according to the agency.)

The I.R.S. remains the most prominent example, as the Treasury Department updated its shutdown contingency plans this week and recalled more than 40,000 employees to process refunds at the tax collection agency. The I.R.S., which is already understaffed, is three months away from Tax Day, when millions of American will be grappling with how to file under the new tax law.

This maneuver directly reverses actions taken during previous administrations. A letter sent by the Treasury Department to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and reviewed by The New York Times pointed out that the Obama administration had been told by budget office lawyers that such a step could not be taken.

“Although in 2011 the Office of Management and Budget directed the I.R.S. not to pay funds during a lapse,” the letter read, “O.M.B. has reviewed the relevant law at Treasury’s request and concluded that the I.R.S. may pay tax refunds during a lapse.”

The Trump administration has also faced criticism for recalling clerks to the I.R.S. to process tax transcripts that home buyers need to verify their income. The decision came after an intense lobbying campaign by the mortgage lending industry.

Former government officials said the actions seemed politically motivated, as the administration tries to prevent Americans who rely on the federal government from feeling the shutdown’s pain.

“This is going on so long that the political pressure and the hardships are really starting to mount and rather than sticking to the rules, they are clearly relaxing them for political purposes,” said G. William Hoagland, a former Republican staff director on the Senate Budget Committee.

And efforts to mitigate the effect of the shutdown could actually serve to extend it by reducing the political costs of inaction.

Alice Rivlin, who served as the budget director under President Bill Clinton, noted that President Trump was taking the opposite tack than the one that her administration had during the shutdown of 1995 and 1996 that was incited by a fight over which economic forecasts would be used for budgeting.

“We wanted people to notice that they weren’t getting government services to put pressure on Congress to get something done,” Ms. Rivlin said. “This seems to be a different approach — letting it be as easy as possible so there won’t be much protest.”

A federal judge on Tuesday denied a request to issue an injunction or temporary restraining order to stop the Trump administration from calling back workers whose jobs are not related to the health and safety of Americans, but said that he would hear arguments at the end of the month.

In the meantime, the president signed legislation on Wednesday promising that workers would be repaid.

Shortly after, in a list of talking points the White House circulated to supporters, officials wrote that the administration was “expanding the use of funds not appropriated through annual appropriations” to provide services to farmers, and framed the I.R.S. recall as a success compared with the Obama administration.

“Unlike the 2013 shutdown,” according to the email, which was reviewed by The Times, “the Trump administration will still process tax refunds.”

In that email, the White House made no mention of the people who will be doing the work.

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Opinion | The Chart That Shows the Financial Peril Facing Many Federal Workers

Last Friday, the United States government failed to pay more than 800,000 of its workers. How will they cope with a payless payday?

For many Americans, the loss of a single paycheck can result in lasting damage and real hardship, and the same is true for government workers. We studied thousands of federal employees after the government shutdown of 2013. It was a relatively short shutdown, and because it didn’t cover a complete pay cycle, it reduced only one paycheck by 40 percent. The workers spent less and briefly delayed making payments on mortgages, rent and credit cards. Most emerged without lasting damage to their finances. Furthermore, they eventually got their missing pay.

But this shutdown is altogether different. It covers an entire two-week pay period, so Friday’s paycheck was not just smaller, it was missing entirely.

That’s where the trouble starts. Our study showed that a large majority of government workers didn’t have enough money in the bank to cover expenses for two weeks.

No Paycheck and No Financial Cushion

Almost two-thirds of federal workers likely have less than two weeks of expenses set aside to live, based on research of the 2013 government shutdown. Percentage of federal workers by the number of days’ expenses they can cover with cash reserves.

Less than 1 day

1–7 days





Two weeks or more

One to two weeks

Less than 1 day

1–7 days




One to two weeks


Two weeks or more

By The New York Times | Sources: Michael Gelman, Shachar Kariv, Matthew D. Shapiro, Dan Silverman and Steven Tadelis

About 20 percent just made it paycheck to paycheck; they had less than a typical day’s worth of spending in their accounts on the day before payday. This is not unusual even for people like federal employees who hold steady jobs at steady pay.

In this shutdown, however, it means that most affected workers will need to take multiple measures, sharply cutting discretionary spending and being late paying mortgages, rent and other bills.

It gets worse. There are few signs that this shutdown will soon be resolved and uncertainty about whether the workers will get paid retroactively.

Even if President Trump and Congress can’t reach an agreement to end the shutdown, they should, in the meantime, reduce the needless hardship to these workers and guarantee they will be paid when the shutdown is complete. On Monday, some progress was made on this front: Congress passed a bill under which all affected government workers would receive their lost pay as soon as the shutdown ends. Mr. Trump, whose executive order to freeze federal pay for 2019 signals little sympathy with the government’s work force, should sign the bill.

Otherwise the late payments that bankers and landlords tolerated in 2013 expecting prompt payment after the shutdown could turn into deep debt and evictions.

If the shutdown continues much longer, workers may face lasting financial damage even if they ultimately receive retroactive pay. If they miss a second paycheck, they will be short an entire month’s worth of spending power. Sure, some landlords and bill collectors may heed Mr. Trump’s call to “be nice and easy” on federal employees — but some won’t. Hits to credit scores from late payments do lasting harm.

The thousands of government employees should not find themselves fighting off creditors because our elected officials can’t stop fighting among themselves.

Matthew D. Shapiro is an economics professor at the University of Michigan. Shachar Kariv and Steven Tadelis are economics professors at the University of California, Berkeley. Michael Gelman is an economics professor at Claremont McKenna College. Dan Silverman is an economics professor at Arizona State University.

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Opinion | White Nationalism Loses in Court

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

White nationalism lost in federal court yesterday.

Judge Jesse Furman blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to add a question to the 2020 census asking about citizenship status. Furman “found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated federal law by misleading the public — and his own department — about the reasons for adding the question,” Dara Lind of Vox writes.

Ross claimed, laughably, that the citizenship question would help the Trump administration enforce voting rights. In truth, it was designed to intimidate Latinos — both legal and illegal — into not responding to the census. The resulting undercount would then reduce the political representation of immigrant-heavy regions and cause them to receive less federal funding.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

The citizenship question, Paul Waldman writes in The Washington Post, is part of “a broader effort on the part of Republicans to put a thumb on the electoral scale in every way they possibly can, whether it’s extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts targeted at minorities, or the use of the census to make Republican victories just that much more likely.”

Yesterday’s ruling isn’t the final word. The Trump administration will likely appeal, and the appeal will likely reach the Supreme Court, where Republican-appointed justices hold a five-to-four majority.

But there is some reason to hope the justices will avoid an obviously partisan decision. Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, the two newest conservative justices, have previously taken a dim view of federal officials who exceed limits on their power, The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson explains. “While it’s always possible that the Court’s conservatives will vote ideology over principle … their particular judicial philosophies do not bode well for the Trump administration’s brazen defiance of administrative law,” Michaelson writes.

A side note: Given the combination of his census exploits, his lies about those exploits and his shady stock trades, Ross may now deserve consideration if my colleague Gail Collins revisits her analysis of the worst Trump Cabinet member. His case is helped by the fact that some of his even more corrupt colleagues have recently departed the administration.

Barr’s bar

William Barr’s answers about the Russia investigation weren’t great. Barr — the nominee for U.S. attorney general — told senators yesterday that he would not necessarily recuse himself from a case even if ethics officials found him to have a conflict of interest. And Barr refused to commit to a public release of Robert Mueller’s findings.

Yet I was still more encouraged than alarmed by yesterday’s confirmation hearing. At this point, I have extremely low expectations for Cabinet officials selected by President Trump. Barr beat these expectations by saying he would allow Mueller to finish his investigation of Trump. He also came off as substantially more competent and professional than much of the Trump team.

And once Mueller does finish his investigation, I think it’s unlikely that his findings will remain secret, regardless of what Barr tries to do. Mueller is a savvy political operator who understands how to use court filings and other means to inform the public of his work. Now that Democrats hold the House, they will also be able to help prevent the findings from remaining secret.

“The idea an unclassified Mueller report won’t end up at least de facto public strikes me as totally ridiculous,” tweeted the Georgetown political scientist Matt Glassman yesterday. “To sit on this thing would be almost instantly unsustainable politically.”

The crucial thing at this point is that Mueller be able to continue his work unimpeded. Given Barr’s past criticism of the investigation — which Andrew Cohen of the Brennan Center for Justice explains in Slate — he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. But his remarks yesterday were somewhat better than I had feared.

The Brexit mess

A quick word on the big parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan: Both the cancel-Brexit crowd and the Brexit-without-conditions crowd are feeling hopeful that they can prevail. This confidence has meant neither side has been willing to support May’s more moderate — but still radical — version of Brexit.

Britain’s political leaders are now sharply divided among these three broad camps, and none of them has a majority in Parliament. The next steps are uncertain. Any of the three sides could still prevail. If the Brexit-without-conditions side does, Britain could be in for a lot of pain.

(And, yes, today’s newsletter is unusually long, because yesterday was unusually newsy.)

If you are not a subscriber to this newsletter, you can subscribe here. You can also join me on Twitter (@DLeonhardt) and Facebook.

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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Opinion | The Integrity of William Barr

After the stormy tenure of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the likely return of William Barr to the job — which he held with distinction under President George H.W. Bush — has been greeted with sighs of reliefs at the Justice Department. The reason is not hard to divine: Bill Barr is an accomplished lawyer with a deep respect for the law and for the integrity and independence of the department — something I know from having served under him. After his solid performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, he seems almost certain to be approved by the full Senate.

His critics have focused on a 19-page legal memorandum he sent over the summer to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein questioning whether the special counsel, Robert Mueller, could investigate the president for violating criminal obstruction-of-justice laws. Democrats have demanded that if confirmed, Mr. Barr should recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe. But that response to Mr. Barr’s meticulous legal analysis is wildly overwrought.

A more dispassionate review of Mr. Barr’s memo shows that he was trying to prevent an unprecedented expansion of a federal criminal statute intended to prevent crimes such as destroying evidence, bribing prospective jurors, intimidating witnesses and the like. The memorandum expressly acknowledges that presidents, like other citizens, can run afoul of the criminal laws. But he questions whether a president can be investigated for actions that are expressly within his constitutional powers — such as firing an F.B.I. director. He is sounding a clear warning against prosecutorial overreach.

Indeed, one of Mr. Mueller’s senior prosecutors was a primary architect of a legal theory of obstruction that was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court, a rebuff delivered only after the prosecution caused the collapse of a major accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. That example does not stand alone. In case after case, a wary — and frequently unanimous — Supreme Court has knocked down legal theories drummed up by well-meaning but overly zealous federal prosecutors.

The inherent danger of prosecutorial overreach, the Barr memorandum emphasized, is all the more acute when applied in the sensitive context of presidential power. Firing James Comey, the F.B.I. director, may have been wise or unwise, but it should not in conscience be stretched to accuse a sitting president of criminal conduct. Nor should the mere expression of hope that Mr. Comey would go easy on Mr. Trump’s embattled national security adviser, Michael Flynn, somehow be transmogrified into a violation of federal law. To do so would flout first principles in our constitutional order of separated powers. Holding the president accountable for the exercise of his powers under Article II of the Constitution is a task entrusted to Congress, not to a largely unaccountable special counsel.

Fairly reviewed, the Barr memorandum is a dispassionate analysis that provides an important perspective to the senior leadership of the Justice Department. Indeed, it bears emphasis that the memorandum also went to Steve Engel, the head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides the president legal advice. This is the same office that has issued formal opinions in both Republican and Democratic administrations saying that a president cannot be indicted while in office.

Mr. Barr makes clear throughout the memorandum that he does not know all the underlying facts and appropriately qualifies his analysis with repeated “it appears” and “apparently.” Those caveats are highly relevant as the Senate deliberates his nomination. They demonstrate the vital quality of a careful lawyer’s open-mindedness, which has been vividly on display in recent days, when Mr. Barr has pledged to protect the independence of the Mueller probe.

“It is in the best interest of everyone — the president, Congress and, most importantly, the American people — that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work,” Mr. Barr told the Judiciary Committee. “I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish.”

Once Mr. Barr is confirmed, the Justice Department’s ethics officers will carefully review whether he should be allowed to oversee the Mueller probe. In light of what we know, I see no reason he should step aside. Expressing his legal perspective on a legal theory of obstruction of justice should not come close to justifying the extraordinary action of requiring him to recuse himself from what will be one of the new attorney general’s most pressing responsibilities.

The constitutionally ordained process of advise and consent should now be allowed to unfold. I am confident that Bill Barr will respond to all questions and concerns in a fair and honest way. I am also confident that he will be deeply respectful — as a matter of honor and integrity — of whatever advice he receives from the Justice Department’s ethics officers. Based on his long record of distinguished service, the American people can count on him to do the right thing.

Kenneth W. Starr is a former president and chancellor of Baylor University and a former solicitor general in the George H.W. Bush administration.

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White House considering former PepsiCo CEO, Treasury official to lead World Bank

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The White House is considering former PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi, Treasury Department official David Malpass and Overseas Private Investment Corp CEO Ray Washburne among candidates to head the World Bank, an administration official said on Tuesday (Jan 15).

The trio of names surfaced a day after officials said President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump was helping to lead the search for a new World Bank president to succeed Mr Jim Yong Kim, who is stepping down on Feb 1.

Ms Nooyi, who stepped down from her Pepsi position in October; Mr Malpass, who is undersecretary of Treasury for international affairs; and Mr Washburne, who has been the OPIC CEO since August 2017, are among several candidates being looked at to head the World Bank, the official said.

The United States, which has a controlling voting interest in the World Bank, has traditionally chosen the institution’s leader since it began operations in 1946.

Mr Kim announced his surprise Feb 1 departure earlier this month to join private equity fund Global Infrastructure Partners, more than three years before his term ends in 2022, amid differences with the Trump administration over climate change and the need for more development resources.

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Shutdown's economic impact may be double previous estimates: White House economists

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – The partial government shutdown is inflicting far greater damage on the US economy than previously estimated, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday (Jan 15), as President Donald Trump’s economists doubled projections of how much economic growth is being lost each week the standoff with Democrats continues.

The revised estimates from the Council of Economic Advisers show that the shutdown, now in its fourth week, is beginning to have real economic consequences.

The analysis, and other projections from outside the White House, suggests that the shutdown has already weighed significantly on growth and could ultimately push the US economy into a contraction.

While Vice-President Mike Pence previously played down the shutdown’s effects amid a “roaring” economy, White House officials are now cautioning Trump about the toll it could take on a sustained economic expansion.

To blunt the shutdown’s effects, the administration on Tuesday called tens of thousands of employees back to work, without pay, to process tax returns, ensure flight safety and inspect food and drugs.

For now, the White House shows no signs of being ready to relent, and Kevin Hassett, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, continued to blame Democrats for the economic damage.

“Congress needs to look at the harms that we’re talking about,” Hassett said, “and address them.”

Hassett said on Tuesday that the administration now calculates that the shutdown reduces quarterly economic growth by 0.13 percentage points for every week that it lasts – the cumulative effect of lost work from contractors and furloughed federal employees who are not getting paid and who are investing and spending less as a result. That means that the economy has already lost nearly half a percentage point of growth from the four-week shutdown. (Last year, economic growth for the first quarter totalled 2.2 per cent.)

The impasse has left 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay, along with throwing thousands of government contractors at least temporarily off the job. While federal workers are likely to receive back pay once the furlough ends, most government contractors will not.

The shutdown “is threatening to derail this economic expansion”, Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist for the Economic Outlook Group, said in a research note on Tuesday.

Its effect on federal workers’ spending plans is particularly worrisome for the automotive and housing markets, he said.

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Steve King’s Comments Prompt House Vote Condemning White Supremacy

The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a resolution condemning white supremacy by a vote of 424-1, reflecting the anger in both parties over comments by Representative Steve King of Iowa questioning why white supremacy is considered offensive.

The resolution begins by citing Mr. King’s remarks to The New York Times: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” It says that white supremacy and white nationalism are “contrary to the ideals of the United States of America,” and details the increase in racist hate crimes over recent years.

The resolution also cites recent deadly shootings by white supremacists in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, attacks that targeted black worshipers and Jewish congregants, respectively.

Mr. King, a Republican, took the House floor to say he would vote in support of the resolution.

The action was part of a still-evolving response that began to take form Monday when House Republican leaders voted to remove Mr. King, now serving his ninth term, from his committee assignments, including the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

[Read about how House Republicans removed Steve King from several powerful committees]

The resolution was brought by Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic House Majority Whip.

“I want to ask my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, let’s vote for this resolution,” Mr. King said on the House floor. “I’m putting up a yes on the board here because what you say here is right and is true and is just, and so is what I have stated here on the floor of the House.”

Mr. King maintains that his remarks to The Times were taken out of context. However, he has a long public history of demonizing immigrants and bemoaning the replacement of white culture — a bedrock principle of white nationalist and white supremacist ideology.

[Steve King has a history of making racist remarks. Read them and more here]

Other measures in the House related to Mr. King are still currently unresolved. Democrats have moved to formally censure the Iowa Representative, which would be only the 24th time that disciplinary action had ever been used in the House.

Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois cast the lone vote against the resolution, saying it was not strong enough and that “anything short of a censure” is shallow.

“We need to be clear to the American people that we use condemnation to express our disapproval of those not in the House,” Mr. Rush said in a statement. “We use censure for those in the House.”

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