Power Grid: Rex Tillerson, NRA, Betsy DeVos, Martin Shkreli, Kim Jong-un, Scientology and More

Who's up and who's down in politics, money, global affairs and culture this week.
By Allen McDuffee
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Just a few stories dominated this week’s Power Grid: President Donald Trump’s decision to talk with Kim Jong-un, the NRA’s White House revival, Trump administration personnel issues and the teevee.

Here’s who won and lost the week…

Politics

Up: The NRA
Less than two weeks ago, President Donald Trump was mocking Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania for being “afraid of the NRA” because his bipartisan gun control proposal didn’t include a provision to raise the the age to certain types of guns from 18 to 21. However, on Sunday night, Trump abandoned his live-on-television promise to work for gun control measures that are opposed by the NRA, instead bowing to the gun group and embracing its agenda of arming teachers and minor improvements to the existing background check system. Although the NRA was down in last week’s Power Grid for losing key relationships with dozens of corporations, this week Trump makes certain the group is on firm political grounds.

Down: Betsy DeVos
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may have a passion for school choice. Yet, she once again struggled with questions about it and how shifting taxpayer dollars to private and charter schools is working as a matter of practice. In an interview with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, Stahl put the question right at DeVos’ feet—her home state of Michigan.

DeVos said “there are certainly lots of pockets where … the students are doing well” in Michigan, and Stahl pushed back: “No, but your argument that if you take funds away, that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan, where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here. … The public schools here are doing worse than they did.” She asked if DeVos has “seen the really bad schools” to “figure out what they’re doing,” and DeVos said, “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.” “Maybe you should,” said Stahl. DeVos agreed.

Money

Up: Christopher Liddell
Christopher Liddell is expected to become President Trump’s next economic adviser, replacing Gary Cohn, who announced his resignation last week following a fallout with Trump over the president’s decision to implement a tariff on aluminum and steel imports. From the start, Trump has wanted a high-level executive for the position. And with Liddell, who led Microsoft and General Motors at critical moments, he gets it. Liddell, who is currently director of strategic initiatives at the White House, is close with Jared Kushner—a sign that if Liddell is chosen, perhaps his relationship with the president isn’t as badly damaged as some reporting suggests.

Down: Martin Shkreli
“Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli was handed news on Friday that finally wiped the seemingly eternal smirk off his face: seven years in prison for securities fraud. In all, it was only half the sentence he could have received—not a bad deal for so much ill will earned over the years after jacking up the price of a lifesaving drug, harassing women on social media and other general bad behavior that even left his own attorney wanting to sometimes punch him in the face.

Global Affairs

Up: Kim Jong-un
For his ability to create a multi-level power scenario, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has earned the top slot this week in global affairs. First, he forced South Korea to the table out of fear from Seoul that they had no other defense because of the erratic Trump administration, while simultaneously leaving the administration out of the talks, initially. By taking that first step, he created Trump’s desire to be included so that when an invitation was issued, Trump could not help himself but take it. In agreeing to meet with Kim Jong-un, Trump has given the North Korea leader everything he wants—something that will be exploited. Whether Trump will see it at the moment is another issue entirely. But here’s another question: Exactly where does China stand in all of this beyond their “blessing?”

Down: Rex Tillerson
As if we needed more evidence President Donald Trump does not hold the State Department or Secretary Rex Tillerson in high esteem, he made the decision to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un while Tillerson was in Africa and without his consensus. Tillerson said from Djibouti that it it was “a decision the president took himself. I spoke to him very early this morning about that decision and we had a very good conversation.” He added: “President Trump has said for some time that he was open to talks and he would willingly meet with Kim when conditions were right. And I think in the president’s judgment that time has arrived now.” That’s code for: I expressed my dissent to the president, but he went ahead and did it anyway.

Culture

Up: Church of Scientology
If the Church of Scientology can’t get the media they want, they’ll just become the media themselves. On Sunday, the organization announced its television network will debut in a matter of 24 hours, with programing coming from Scientology Media Productions in Hollywood to include Meet A Scientologist, Voices for Humanity, and L. Ron Hubbard: In His Own Voice. The Church of Scientology has been under increased scrutiny recently following former member Leah Remini interviewing fellow defectors on her A&E show, Scientology and the Aftermath. The organization has denied many claims made in Remini’s series, including that there is rampant abuse of both children and adults.

Down: Sinclair Broadcast Group
Sinclair Broadcast Group—a group owned by a family of conservative multimillionaires—is on the cusp of owning enough local television stations to reach 70 percent of American households. And they’re using that reach to require every one of their stations syndicate commentary reflecting the owners ideological views, according to memos and scripts obtained by CNN. By the end of this month, Sinclair will require all of its local news anchors to condemn “national media outlets” for publishing “fake stories” and “using their platforms to push their own personal bias,” according to the internal documents. As one anchor put it, “I felt like a POW recording a message.”

The Rundown

1. Millions in Tax Dollars Went Into Low Cost Ventilators

But acquisitions and mergers left the “drop in the bucket” project on the cutting room floor, according to The New York Times.

2. Trump Is Creating His Own Deep State Inside the White House

The president has reportedly created a “Team of Rivals” atmosphere as a response to the coronavirus crisis. It’s creating chaos.

3. Social Distancing Has Become the Newest Front on the Culture War Front

Bipartisan consensus on how to personally respond to the coronavirus pandemic didn’t last long, McKay Coppins writes at The Atlantic.

4. NYT Gets the Inside Story on GM’s Race to Manufacture Ventilators

The first ventilators were set to ship in less than a month, but Trump said they were “wasting time.”

5. A Rough Conversation With One Coronavirus Contrarian Informing Trump

The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner goes after NYU law professor Richard Epstein in a Q&A. And it gets ugly. 

6. Democrats Are Fighting To Take Back Their Digital Edge

After two terms of dominating digital politics under Obama, they’re fighting to win back the terrain from Trump.

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