Senate confirms Branstad as U.S. ambassador to China

Minutes ago the U.S. Senate confirmed Governor Terry Branstad as ambassador to China, clearing the way for Branstad to resign on Wednesday, allowing Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to be sworn in as governor. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had unanimously approved Branstad’s nomination earlier this month, but twelve senators voted against advancing his nomination last week, and thirteen senators voted against him on the floor today. The opponents included Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont–all considered potential presidential candidates in 2020. In a list-building e-mail earlier this afternoon, Brown wrote,

Branstad is notorious for busting collective bargaining rights in his state. Legislation he signed into law will force Planned Parenthood clinics to close this summer.

How can we make an anti-labor, anti-women’s rights politician in charge of U.S. relations with a country that has large human rights problems, especially in the areas of women’s and workers’ rights.

Given how unpopular Branstad is with highly-engaged Democratic activists, a vote against confirming the governor certainly wouldn’t hurt any of these senators in the next Iowa caucus campaign.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, also a possible Democratic presidential contender, supported Branstad’s confirmation. I’ll update this post later with full details on the Senate vote once the roll call has closed and some political reaction.

UPDATE: The thirteen senators who voted against Branstad were Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Booker, Brown, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Gary Peters of Michigan, Sanders, Chuck Schumer of New York, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Warren. All are Democrats except Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats. All represent states where organized labor is relatively strong.

SECOND UPDATE: Added below Branstad’s statement and other comments on his confirmation, as well as Senator Chuck Grassley’s speech on the Senate floor before today’s vote.

I had to laugh hearing Grassley “express my disappointment and frustration with the seemingly endless obstruction on the part of the minority.” He is bent out of shape because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to file cloture on Branstad’s nomination:

We could have approved this nomination with just a few minutes of debate time, yet, the minority required that we use 30 hours – not because they wanted to debate the merits of the nominee, but simply to delay the business of this body.

It’s unfortunate that their delay has kept an eminently qualified individual from getting into the job to promote American interests in China sooner.

Grassley and his fellow Republicans didn’t give the eminently qualified Judge Merrick Garland even a hearing, let alone a floor vote for his nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Ready to Run campaign training for women reflection

Jaime Allen kicks off the series of guest posts by Iowa women who have become more politically engaged since the 2016 election. -promoted by desmoinesdem

As a stay-at-home mother of four children under the age of five, I spend most days wiping fingerprints off of my windows and mirrors. If there is one thing I despise most about the trivial aspects of being a mother, it is the smudges on glass. Since I became a mother I have spent my time in my home with my children. My husband and I shared a vehicle for years, so while he was at work I was home bound. This was never really an issue–really, who wants to take four children to do errands?

My only real escape to the outside world was watching reality TV shows. Even though I knew they were fake and staged it was my secret indulgence when the children went to bed. I dreamt of what it would be like to live their lives, so polished and dressed flawlessly with picture-perfect makeup all the time. This was an unattainable life goal as most days my bank account said “try again later” and my personal appearance would be better suited on the “People of Walmart” Facebook page.

It wasn’t until my newsfeed started to show things about the 2016 election that I started to realize that how I was viewing the world from my couch was both different and similar to how others viewed it as well. It was a shock to the system to see how very different people felt about “others.” I never really had taken the time to view how divided the country was on so many aspects of what I assumed were just accepted by most. The similarities I saw were the unspoken ones, the ones where we viewed politicians as untouchables. They lived a life most could never dream of. I began to question why they weren’t doing more wherever they could, with all that power in their hands.

As everyone did I watched the 2016 election play out like a reality TV show. Every day the news evoked shock and awe, villains from all angles, and a plot twist at every episode. Was this how I wanted to live life? A spectator watching helplessly from the sidelines, waiting to see what would happen to my own life and the lives of those I cared about? This election hit hard because I am an immigrant from Canada, a woman, a poor, working-class person. Everything that helps to define me was undermined.

November 9, 2016 was a turning point for me. It was the day I received my citizenship. I stood with 36 other individuals from 24 countries to take an oath to the country I have called home since 2001, at the age of 14.

In that moment I was given two privileges I had not had prior as a green card holder. With citizenship you are allowed to vote and to hold elected office.

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Grassley's excuse-making for Trump is beyond embarrassing

Yesterday’s revelation that President Donald Trump disclosed “highly classified information” to senior Russian officials in the Oval Office last week, jeopardizing “a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State,” sent the White House into crisis mode. Reporters “could hear yelling emanating from the presidential residence” as senior officials tried to contain the fallout. Amy Zegart estimated the possible damage to U.S. intelligence-gathering at “about a billion” on a scale of 1 to 10.

After sending his national security adviser out yesterday to make a “non-denial denial,” Trump asserted this morning he had “the absolute right” to share pertinent information in an “openly scheduled” meeting with Russia, claiming he did so for “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.” By the way, that meeting was closed to American journalists, as Trump gave exclusive access to a photographer for the Russian state-run news agency ITAR-TASS.

All of the above would be disturbing, even if Trump hadn’t just fired FBI Director James Comey and improperly asked Comey whether he was under investigation.

The reaction from self-styled watchdog Senator Chuck Grassley was a classic example of normalizing some of the most abnormal behavior we’ve seen yet from Trump–which is saying something.

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Grassley facing one of the most important decisions of his career

When President Donald Trump fired James Comey yesterday, not even halfway through the FBI director’s ten-year term, the Nixonian parallels were immediately obvious to almost everyone, except for Iowa’s senior Senator Chuck Grassley.

While others saw the White House citing “pretexts” in a “blatant effort to derail” the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia, Grassley issued a statement accepting every lame excuse from the administration.

“Over the course of the last several months, Director Comey’s decisions on controversial matters have prompted concern from across the political spectrum and from career law enforcement experts.

“The handling of the Clinton email investigation is a clear example of how Comey’s decisions have called into question the trust and political independence of the FBI. In my efforts to get answers, the FBI, under Comey’s leadership, has been slow or failed to provide information that Comey himself pledged to provide.

“The effectiveness of the FBI depends upon the public trust and confidence. Unfortunately, this has clearly been lost.

“The FBI Director serves at the pleasure of the president. Under these circumstances, President Trump accepted the recommendation of the Justice Department that the Director lacked the confidence needed to carry out his important duties.”

Within hours of Comey’s dismissal, multiple journalists confirmed that the president “had talked about the firing for over a week.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote up their recommendations “to give him rationale.” Sessions formally recused himself from the Russian investigation after failing to disclose his contacts with that country’s ambassador last year.

Grassley is among very few people to take Trump’s goodbye letter to Comey at face value, rather than as a smokescreen for a president who just “decisively crippled the F.B.I.’s ability to carry out an investigation of him and his associates.” CNN reported last night, “Federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records […].” This morning, the New York Times revealed that last week Comey “asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.”

Some other Republicans were not so gullible. More than 100 members of Congress, joined by some conservative commentators, are now calling for an independent commission on Russia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants no part of that, telling reporters this morning that a new investigation would “impede” current work on Russia’s involvement.

Grassley is uniquely positioned to demand an independent inquiry. As Senate Judiciary Committee chair, he controls the process for confirming Comey’s successor. He could use that power to delay any confirmation hearings on a new FBI director until a special prosecutor has been named to investigate ties between Trumpworld and Russia, just as he exercised his prerogative to deny President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee any consideration during 2016.

Regrettably, Iowa’s longest-serving senator has signaled he will run interference for the White House. Asked this morning what he would say to those who have called the president’s action “Nixonian,” Grassley told the hosts of “Fox and Friends,” “My message is suck it up and move on.”

Grassley’s instinct to protect the president from came through during a May 8 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing as well. While questioning former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., he revealed remarkably little interest in the bombshell revelation that Trump kept Flynn on his staff for eighteen days after Yates warned White House officials the president’s national security advisor had been compromised by Russia. Instead, the self-styled champion of whistle-blowers pushed Yates and Clapper hard about government leaks and “unmasking” of Trump administration officials. (The Washington Post published a full transcript of that hearing). Longtime GOP strategist Rick Wilson commented, “Grassley is running the WH talking points. It’s painful to see him so diminished.”

Historians will record who stood up for the rule of law, and who gave cover to a president’s cover-up. It’s not too late for Grassley to do the right thing.

P.S.- At this writing, Iowa’s junior Senator Joni Ernst has released no statement on the biggest political news of the last 24 hours. Her Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of photos and mundane comments about her visits to businesses yesterday and this morning. Three months ago, Ernst made a big show of urging Trump to “pursue a principled and tough-minded Russia policy.”

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble received this statement from Ernst’s office by e-mail: “We didn’t send out a release. However, Senator Ernst has said the Director of the FBI serves at the pleasure of the President; therefore, this decision was up to President Trump to make.”

SECOND UPDATE: Grassley expressed concerns this morning about Andy McCabe serving as acting FBI director, given his wife’s connections to Democrats.

THIRD UPDATE: Added below Grassley’s stated reasons for opposing a special prosecutor on Russia’s attempts to influence our elections and connections to Trump associates.

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Pat Grassley could be biggest winner if Bill Northey moves to USDA

A potential federal job for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey may provide a stepping stone for State Representative Pat Grassley.

Northey discussed ethanol policy at the White House on Tuesday during a round-table meeting with President Donald Trump and newly-confirmed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Reports of the event fueled speculation that Northey may soon move to a position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Speaking to Iowa reporters yesterday, Northey emphasized that no job offer is on the table but said of Perdue, “I certainly look forward to working with him. I don’t know what role that might be. […] I certainly would love to work with him as Iowa Secretary of Ag. If there’s another job offered, I’d be very willing to consider that as well.”

Trump put Iowa’s own Sam Clovis in charge of handling USDA appointments in January, after Clovis had served as his surrogate in some agricultural policy discussions during the campaign.

Northey has not clarified whether he plans to seek a fourth term as secretary of agriculture in 2018. He had been widely expected to run for governor next year but ruled that out immediately after Governor Terry Branstad agreed to serve as U.S. ambassador to China.

If Northey resigns before the end of his term, Iowa law calls for the governor to appoint a replacement to serve until the next election. The last time that process came into play, Branstad named Mary Mosiman as state auditor in 2013. She was unchallenged for the GOP nomination for that office the following year.

I would expect Grassley to lobby Branstad–or Kim Reynolds, if she is acting as governor by that time–for the secretary of agriculture position. The job would be a good way to increase his statewide profile with a view to running for his grandfather’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022. The elder Grassley wasn’t subtle about lobbying for Northey to get the top USDA job, presumably to clear a path for his grandson.

First elected to the Iowa House in 2006, the younger Grassley just completed his second year leading the House Appropriations Committee. He had previously chaired the House Agriculture Committee for three years and the Economic Growth/Rebuild Iowa Committee for two years before that.

I enclose below the official bios for Northey and Pat Grassley. Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson posted the audio of Northey’s comments about a possible USDA position.

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Weekend open thread: Stolen Supreme Court seat edition

Confession: I didn’t watch the confirmation hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch*. The outcome was foreordained, down to Republicans invoking the “nuclear option” of changing Senate rules to allow confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominees with a simple majority of votes. The late-breaking news of flagrant plagiarism by Gorsuch* was never going to change any Republican minds.

Democrats could make various political arguments for fighting this nomination through extraordinary means. Even though I knew the filibuster wouldn’t keep Gorsuch* off the high court, I supported the tactic for one reason alone: “business as usual” cannot go on after the theft of a Supreme Court seat.

No matter how qualified Gorsuch* is on paper, he should never have been able to receive this lifetime appointment. Denying the equally qualified Judge Merrick Garland a Judiciary Committee hearing was unprecedented and will be a permanent stain on Senator Chuck Grassley’s legacy. Republican excuses for refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee have no more merit now than they did a year ago. Gorsuch* will never be a legitimate Supreme Court justice in my eyes, and Bleeding Heartland will put an asterisk by his name in perpetuity.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Another tragic story caught my attention this past week: Rekha Basu’s feature for the Des Moines Register on former Mason City council member Alex Kuhn. Well-liked and seen by many as a rising star, Kuhn took his own life last summer. Basu told the story through the frame of the intensely negative feedback–by some accounts bullying–Kuhn received after opposing an incentives package for a huge Prestage pork processing plant. When John Skipper told the story of Kuhn’s final months in the Mason City Globe-Gazette last December, he focused on the young man’s battle with depression. According to Basu, Kuhn’s parents believe Skipper built “a narrative around depression, enabling those who had hurt Alex to turn his suffering back on him.”

The Globe-Gazette’s editor David Mayberry wasn’t a fan of the way Basu built her narrative, on grounds he laid out in this Twitter thread. He observed that “pinning a suicide to one cause is a well-documented no-no in journalism” and linked to this guide for reporters to support his case.

No one can precisely reconstruct why Kuhn’s suffering became too much to bear. Clearly the Prestage controversy profoundly affected him. I can’t imagine what a devastating blow his death was to his loved ones. It’s a huge loss for Iowa as well. Whatever you may think about local giveaways to profitable corporations, elected officials with Kuhn’s political courage are few and far between.

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