POLITICO - TOP Stories




    Inside Trump's war on regulations


    The push to block, rewrite and delays scores of Obama-era rules may be the administration's biggest untold...

    The push to block, rewrite and delays scores of Obama-era rules may be the administration's biggest untold success.

    What Angela Merkel meant at the Munich beer hall


    Spoiler alert: The German chancellor didn't just throw in the towel on the alliance with...

    Spoiler alert: The German chancellor didn't just throw in the towel on the alliance with America.

    Trump's obsession over Russia probe deepens


    President Donald Trump has been aggressively working the phones since returning this weekend from his foreign trip, talking to friends and outside lawyers as he obsesses over the deepening investigations into his aides and Russia.Two White House...

    President Donald Trump has been aggressively working the phones since returning this weekend from his foreign trip, talking to friends and outside lawyers as he obsesses over the deepening investigations into his aides and Russia.

    Two White House officials said Trump and some aides including Steve Bannon are becoming increasingly convinced that they are victims of a conspiracy against Trump's presidency, as evidenced by the number of leaks flowing out of government — that the crusade by the so-called “deep state” is a legitimate threat, not just fodder for right wing defenders.

    Still, Trump and his aides are starting to take the probes more seriously, seeking to establish a communications team dedicated to dealing with questions around the probe and beefing up his legal representation. And they've become more rattled by the idea that they don't know where the scandals are headed and who may be ensnared next.

    “The more people talk to him about it, the more he obsesses about it,” said one outside adviser who is close to the president. The White House did not respond to requests for comment as to how Trump was spending his day after returning from the nine-day foreign trip the night before.


    On his "big foreign trip," as he called it, Trump repeatedly talked about Russia and the ongoing investigation, according to an ally close to the White House. Shortly after he returned, he seemed agitated about negative press about him.

    “It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Whenever you see the words 'sources say' in the fake news media, and they don't mention names...it is very possible that those sources don't exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!”

    Aside from bringing in additional aides to handle the Russia probe, the president's senior aides say that his strategy for confronting the crises — or for pushing a stalled legislative agenda — remains unclear.

    Senior aides and long-time confidants admitted not knowing who Trump would hire, how safe the jobs of top staff are, what the White House's agenda is for the coming days, or what — if anything — they can accomplish.


    “We are letting others dictate entirely how we are perceived," one White House official said. “The calendar changes every day. There is no rhyme or reason to a lot of it.”

    Chief of staff Reince Priebus’s future remains uncertain, as it has been for several months. Shake-ups in Trump’s world can be slow to materialize or never happen, but White House senior aides regularly criticize Priebus in conversations with reporters.

    Some allies and aides say Jared Kushner, a top adviser who is under scrutiny for his business ties and communications with Russian officials, is also on shaky ground, even though Trump is unlikely to let his own son-in-law go.

    Kushner has been the subject of a flurry of recent news reports, including claims he attempted during the transition to establish a backchannel with Russian officials and that he had previously unknown contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year.

    Late Sunday, the New York Times printed a statement of strong support for Kushner from Trump: "Jared is doing a great job for the country. I have total confidence in him."

    The Trump administration also downplayed the reports. “I don’t see a big deal,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think any channel of communication back or otherwise with a country like Russia is a good thing.”

    Trump and his senior aides have turned in recent days to old campaign hands and friends — including Corey Lewandowski, David Bossie and Chris Ruddy — to potentially help fight back. The bad press has rapidly spread since the firing of FBI director James Comey, which in short order led to the appointment of a special counsel to spearhead the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and allegations of collusion with the Trump campaign.


    It remains unclear whether Lewandowski would work inside the White House or outside; during the campaign, he clashed with several top Trump advisers, including Priebus and Kushner. But Trump is known to turn to people with whom he is already comfortable. His longtime attorney Marc Kasowitz will represent him in the ongoing Russia probe. Trump worked the phones with various lawyers and advisers on Sunday, one of the White House officials said.

    The new operation could look like that in former President Bill Clinton's White House, in which a team that spanned communications, legal counsel and legislative affairs handled questions about investigations into alleged wrongdoing.

    The idea was to establish a single source of information for investigation-related material so the rest of Clinton’s White House could focus on governing, said Chris Lehane, who helped lead the Clinton team.

    Having offered little in the way of policy specifics — and with Congress on recess next week — Trump’s White House could struggle to distract attention from the Russia probes. The White House’s plans for the week remain largely unclear; Trump scrapped a planned trip to Iowa for a rally.

    Alex Isenstadt contributed to this story.


    Trump, Republicans push back on Kushner reports


    President Donald Trump went on the offensive Sunday after returning from his nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe to growing scandals at home over his administration’s communications with Russian officials, including an explosive report about...

    President Donald Trump went on the offensive Sunday after returning from his nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe to growing scandals at home over his administration’s communications with Russian officials, including an explosive report about Trump son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner.

    Trump attacked the news media on Twitter, and the administration dispatched a retired four-star Marine general — Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — to defend Kushner on the Sunday news talk shows.

    “It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” Trump said on Twitter — a likely reference to The Washington Post’s story about Kushner on Friday, which was sourced to anonymous U.S. officials. The article said Kushner sought to set up a secret line of communication with Russia during the presidential transition.

    Trump also leaned on two administration officials with military experience to defend Kushner, who has become a significant person of interest in the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow in its efforts to sway the presidential election toward Trump.

    “I don’t see a big deal,” Kelly, the former head of U.S. Southern Command, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing.”

    Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general, also defended Kushner, telling reporters that back-channel communications are normal, according to Reuters.

    "We have back-channel communications with any number of individual” countries, McMaster said. “So generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner."

    Republicans, meanwhile, downplayed the reports about Kushner — with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joining Trump in casting doubt on the news media.


    Graham, who has been one of Trump’s fiercest GOP critics on other issues, said Sunday he doesn't "trust this story as far as I can throw it."

    “I think it makes no sense that the Russian ambassador would report back to Moscow on a channel that he most likely knows we’re monitoring,” Graham explained to Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The whole story line is suspicious.”

    Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) noted on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Kushner has agreed to speak with Senate investigators about his contacts with Russian officials.

    “Sounds like he’s more than glad to talk about all of these things and instead of getting wrapped up into a lot of hyperbole, as these things can sometimes do, I think talking with him directly and getting him to answer any and all questions as he said he would do would probably be the prudent course of action,” Corker said to Chuck Todd.

    For their part, congressional Democrats were muted in their responses to the Kushner developments on the Sunday news talk shows.

    The most aggressive take came from Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s meddling in November’s presidential election, including the possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign.

    Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Schiff called for a review of Kushner’s security clearance.

    “If these reports are accurate, right after that campaign, after that intervention, to have the president's son-in-law, a key player within the Trump Organization, trying to establish a back channel with the Russians through a Russian diplomatic facility, you have to ask, well, who are they hiding the conversations from?” Schiff said.


    Schiff added that he was disappointed that McMaster defended Kushner and said “this is an administration that takes in people with good credibility and chews them out and spits out their credibility at the same time.”

    Other Democrats, including Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, did not go so far as to call for a security clearance review, instead saying the FBI investigation now being led by special counsel Robert Mueller is best equipped to get to the bottom of the issue.

    Durbin said on “Fox News Sunday” that allegations that Kushner sought to set up a back channel with Russia was “a rumor at this point,” adding: “I’ll trust Bob Mueller’s judgment.”

    On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Booker said he had “very serious concerns” but was not ready to call for Kushner’s security clearance to be revoked.

    “That could be a potential outcome that I seek, but I want to understand, at least hear from, Jared Kushner as well as the administration about what was exactly going on there,” Booker said.


    How Congress Could Cripple Robert Mueller


    The special prosecutor was convinced that Congress was on the verge of sabotaging his politically charged investigation—one that led straight into the White House and threatened to end with a president’s impeachment. And so he went to lawmakers on...

    The special prosecutor was convinced that Congress was on the verge of sabotaging his politically charged investigation—one that led straight into the White House and threatened to end with a president’s impeachment. And so he went to lawmakers on Capitol Hill with a plea: Do not grant immunity to witnesses in exchange for their testimony if you ever want anyone brought to justice.

    But the plea failed. And the special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, a former federal judge appointed in 1986 to investigate the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration, watched two of his highest-profile targets go free: former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and Poindexter’s deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. Although both former Ronald Reagan aides were later convicted at trial of multiple felonies, the convictions were overturned, with appeals courts deeming the prosecutions tainted as a result of the testimony the men had given to Congress with grants of supposedly limited immunity.

    The “fiasco on Capitol Hill,” as Walsh put it in his memoirs, left him bitter years later. The experience convinced him that whenever Congress grants immunity to witnesses for their testimony in highly publicized investigations, it forever ends a prosecutor’s hope of bringing the witnesses to trial for their alleged crimes. “The Capitol Hill steamroller had flattened the criminal investigation,” he would write.

    Three decades later, this episode offers some important lessons. Congress and a special prosecutor may be heading for a similar showdown over allegations of collusion in the 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government, and several veteran prosecutors and legal scholars I’ve spoken with recently have warned that Congress could undermine any hopes of bringing senior Trump aides and advisers to justice if it starts granting immunity to witnesses.

    They say they expect that the newly appointed Trump-Russia special prosecutor, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, will—like Walsh 31 years ago—make an early request to Congress to hold off on immunity, even if that means curtailing the congressional inquiries dramatically by foregoing public hearings. The Republican leaders of House and Senate committees investigating the Trump-Russia issue have said they have no intention of offering immunity for now, but will they be tempted later if there is no other way to obtain information and the lawmakers are desperate to show progress?

    The impasse could come sooner than Mueller might have hoped. A Washington criminal defense lawyer who is representing a key figure in the Trump-Russia investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Politico Magazine last week that a number of witnesses connected to the Trump campaign who had previously offered to testify before Congress voluntarily, without precondition, are seriously considering whether to withdraw the offer and insist on immunity.

    “With the appointment of Mueller, this investigation got a lot more real for everyone,” the lawyer said. “Why would you send clients up to Congress now and let them get caught up in a perjury trap over what could be a minor issue?” The lawyer would not identify which witnesses might withdraw their pledge to testify voluntarily, but among the Trump advisers who have previously offered to cooperate fully with Congress are Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top White House adviser; former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort; and campaign advisers Roger Stone and Carter Page.

    Several news organizations reported last week that Kushner, in particular, has become a focus of the FBI investigation, which reports to Mueller, who is now in the second week of his investigation. After the revelation, Kushner’s lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, said in a statement that her client’s vow to cooperate with Congress had not changed. “Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows,” she said. “He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry.”

    The question of congressional immunity became a public matter in March, when Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who is also a focus of the FBI’s investigation, offered to testify before congressional committees but only if given immunity. Flynn’s lawyer made a tantalizing promise that his client “certainly has a story to tell—and he very much wants to tell it.”

    In a tweet the next day, Trump—who fired Flynn in February for lying about his contacts with the Russians but has continued to offer him public support—said his short-lived national security adviser was right to make the request: “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!”

    So far, the only other figure in the investigation known to have requested congressional immunity is Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate who did business with Manafort in the mid-2000s, when Manafort offered campaign advice to Ukrainian politicians seen as supportive Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Congressional investigators have said they are trying to determine if Manafort became a conduit between the Trump campaign and Russia, a suggestion that the veteran Washington lobbyist has denied. The New York Times reported Friday that congressional investigators had, for now, declined an offer by Deripaska to cooperate with Congress if given immunity in the House and Senate investigations.

    The sequence of events involving Flynn—a request for congressional immunity, with the endorsement of the president—was familiar to students of the Iran-contra affair. Back then, the White House urged Congress to give immunity to North and Poindexter in exchange for testimony about revelations that the Reagan administration had overseen an illegal, and seemingly harebrained, scheme to sell arms to Iran, with the proceeds used to fund anti-communist guerrillas in Central America. After receiving immunity, North and Poindexter, in their testimony, went on to largely exonerate President Reagan and other senior officials of involvement in the scandal.

    Faced with witnesses who assert their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, Congress can still force them to testify by granting them limited so-called “use” immunity, with the understanding that prosecutors cannot use the testimony—or any leads from the testimony—in bringing criminal charges against the witness. Congress has only rarely granted immunity for testimony. Under a law that dates from the 1950s, such a grant requires a majority vote in either the full House or Senate or a two-thirds majority of a congressional committee. The last high-profile investigation in which Congress granted immunity to a witness was in 2007, when a House panel did so for to a Justice Department official who went on to testify about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by George W. Bush administration.

    After the Iran-contra investigation was over, Walsh said he determined that while congressional immunity was supposed to be limited and leave open the possibility of bringing criminal charges against witnesses in high-profile investigations, the truth was that witnesses who had immunity could effectively never be prosecuted, since it was impossible to show that their congressional testimony had no effect on a prosecutor’s case. In his investigation, Walsh wrote in his 1997 memoirs, he came to see the White House request for immunity for North and Poindexter as a cynical ploy to avoid public scrutiny of more senior officials in the White House, including the president, and make the two former aides into “scapegoats” for the scandal. “Congress had destroyed the most effect lines of inquiry by giving immunity to Oliver North and John Poindexter so that they could exculpate and eliminate the need for the testimony of President Reagan,” he said.

    North’s and Poindexter’s convictions were overturned despite what Walsh said were intensive efforts to shield his staff and grand jurors from any knowledge of what the two men had said in their congressional testimony. Walsh said that, throughout his investigation, he and his colleagues only read newspaper articles that referred to the Iran-contra affair after “they had been censored to blot out references to immunized testimony,” and that they were all under orders “to turn the sound off” when television and radio broadcasts referred to North or Poindexter.

    It would not be a surprise if other Trump advisers, beyond Flynn, now come forward to demand immunity in exchange for testimony, Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law School professor who specializes in criminal prosecution issues, told me—especially, Whiting says, because Mueller, by reputation, seems likely to conduct an aggressive criminal investigation that could last for years. “The shift into a criminal investigation could definitely make a difference,” Whiting says. “As more people get lawyers, the advice of the lawyers is always going to be to stay quiet and try to get immunity for yourself.”

    Still, Whiting says, he thinks Republican leaders who control both the House and Senate might ultimately make a political calculation and decide against granting immunity to prominent Trump advisers and friends like Flynn; that would allow Congress to avoid the spectacle of televised public testimony on Capitol Hill that would only draw more attention to fast-moving scandal in a Republican White House. Instead, the congressional committees could leave the investigation largely in Mueller’s hands and defer all questions to him. “I think that the Republicans would be happy to let this drag along quietly without them making any news at all,” Whiting says.

    If that becomes the GOP strategy, Trump’s aides and advisers could be in trouble. If any of them are accused of crimes, without immunity they will be much more likely to find themselves at trial—and maybe even behind bars.


    Mueller’s appointment complicates Congress’ Russia investigations


    Robert Mueller's appointment as a special counsel has quickly complicated Congress' investigations into Russia’s election meddling. And the former FBI director has done nothing so far to provide clarity.The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence...

    Robert Mueller's appointment as a special counsel has quickly complicated Congress' investigations into Russia’s election meddling. And the former FBI director has done nothing so far to provide clarity.

    The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are anxious to speak with Mueller, who’s now overseeing the FBI’s parallel Russia probe, to ensure their congressional investigations don’t interfere. But Mueller has yet to agree to meet with congressional investigators, according to the panels' leaders.

    And if Congress’ investigation crumbles, the public may never find out the depths of Russian intrusion in the 2016 election, as a special counsel is largely focused on whether anyone broke the law.

    Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs a Judiciary subcommittee with oversight over the FBI, is simply putting the brakes on his investigation — and is urging his colleagues on the intelligence panels to proceed with caution for fear of disrupting what has become a full-fledged criminal investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

    “One of the realities of having somebody looking into potential criminal charges is that you've got to be careful what you do in Congress,” said Graham, a former Air Force lawyer. He said he plans to hold a hearing with experts on how Congress should move forward with its investigations without getting in Mueller’s way.

    “I need to talk to people who have done this before and make sure we don't interfere with an investigation,” Graham said. “And we need sort of an agreement with Mueller as to how we interact. When we plan to do something, we want to make sure we don't step into his lane.”


    The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, meanwhile, say their investigations are moving forward as planned. Members of the intelligence panels pointed to past instances in which Congress and the FBI ran parallel investigations — including Watergate.

    But they noted that they would need to set up “deconfliction” agreements to ensure they don’t step on Mueller’s toes, which might not be easy.

    Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said staffers have been in touch with Mueller and that he and Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are trying to set up a meeting with him “as soon as possible.”

    “We've reached out to Bob Mueller to have a conversation about deconfliction, but that date has not been set,” added Burr.

    Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, also said that he had not met yet with Mueller but hopes to speak with him soon.

    “We'll certainly want to establish a process where we can make sure that what we're doing isn't stepping on his efforts and vice versa,” Schiff said. “It'll be particularly important in the context of any request for immunity, but there may be other areas in which we'll need to coordinate our efforts.”

    Burr and Warner last week underscored their intent to move forward by issuing two new subpoenas to businesses owned by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who was ousted over his misleading statements about contacts with Russia’s ambassador. The House Intelligence panel is also planning to subpoena Flynn — and members of the committee have hinted that subpoenas of other witnesses could be coming soon.


    But there are already signs that Mueller's appointment might be making things harder for congressional investigators. On Thursday, the FBI declined a congressional request for memos by former FBI Director James Comey detailing his interactions with Trump. The reason: FBI officials say they need to consult with Mueller first.

    Burr and Warner are planning to hold a hearing with Comey, who was fired earlier this month — a hearing Graham argues could damage the criminal investigation.

    “Comey is a witness that Mueller would be interested in, and we'd all like to hear from him. You'd like to hear from him. I'd like to hear from him,” Graham said. “But that's probably a classic example of where us calling him could really probably hurt the investigation.”

    Andrew Herman, a lawyer and expert on congressional investigations who has represented members of Congress facing ethics probes, said he agreed with Graham’s take. He explained that Comey’s public testimony before the intelligence panel could reveal information that Mueller would rather be kept under wraps while the FBI probe is ongoing.

    “The special counsel is able to keep his interviews confidential, whereas anything Comey says in a hearing is going to be public,” Herman said. “It may affect the testimony of other witnesses who Mueller is going to be talking to.”

    At least one witness, Flynn, has requested immunity in order to testify — which the intelligence committees have shown no interest in accommodating.

    Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the No. 2 Democrat on the House panel, said it is important for lawmakers to continue their investigations, noting that Congress has a “slightly different” mission than the FBI. He said the FBI’s job is to investigate whether crimes were committed, not informing the public about the larger issues at hand.


    “We're not there to discover evidence of and to prosecute a crime,” Himes said. “We're there to really understand all the forces and aspects of the Russian hack. The scary scenario is more a scenario where the FBI does what they do, and we don't get the benefit of what they have learned just because they decide to prosecute this individual but not that individual.”

    But Herman, the lawyer who has represented lawmakers under ethics investigations, said there are “a lot of potential avenues for problems.”

    He said that as a defense lawyer, he would be “very cautious” about allowing clients to submit to multiple interviews where there’s the potential they could contradict themselves. He said he could envision a scenario in which witnesses who’ve already spoken to congressional investigators refuse to also talk to the FBI, instead directing federal investigators to their previous testimonies.

    “Obviously the things that Mueller wants to know about could be completely different from the things that the Intelligence Committee wants to know about,” Herman said. “So that's a significant problem both for the investigators and for the witnesses.

    “If I want someone doing a thorough investigation,” he added, “I want the experienced FBI agents and prosecutors that are going to be on Bob Mueller's team.”


    Trump expresses 'total confidence' in Kushner


    President Donald Trump on Sunday said he had "total confidence" in Jared Kushner, his embattled son-in-law, in a statement published by the New York Times.“Jared is doing a great job for the country," the president was quoted as saying. "I have total...

    President Donald Trump on Sunday said he had "total confidence" in Jared Kushner, his embattled son-in-law, in a statement published by the New York Times.

    “Jared is doing a great job for the country," the president was quoted as saying. "I have total confidence in him. He is respected by virtually everyone and is working on programs that will save our country billions of dollars.

    "In addition to that, and perhaps more importantly, he is a very good person.”

    The statement appeared in an article headlined "Kushner's relationship with Trump tested as Russia accusations swirl."

    Kushner, a vital part of his Trump administration from the git-go, has been under fire because of reports that he attempted — before Trump was sworn in — to establish back-channel connections with Russia that were meant to be obscured from public view. The controversy immediately became just one more part of the ongoing Russia scandals that have plagued Trump's presidency.



    Biden backs Phil Murphy, says N.J. governor's race 'most important' in nation


    LYNDHURST, N.J. — Former Vice President Joe Biden blessed the campaign of New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy on Sunday, describing the upcoming election to succeed outgoing Gov. Chris Christie as the “single most important” of the next...

    LYNDHURST, N.J. — Former Vice President Joe Biden blessed the campaign of New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy on Sunday, describing the upcoming election to succeed outgoing Gov. Chris Christie as the “single most important” of the next three years — even eclipsing the 2018 midterms.

    In what was largely a repudiation of President Donald Trump, Biden said Democrats haven’t done enough to acknowledge the problems faced by many in middle-class America and said he viewed Murphy — a former Goldman Sachs executive who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany during the Obama administration — as the man to do so.

    “There are a lot of people out there who are frightened. Trump played on their fears,” Biden told a crowd of some 1,200 Murphy supporters packed into a community center gymnasium. “What we haven’t done, in my view — and this is a criticism of all us — we haven’t spoken enough to the fears and aspirations of the people we come from.”

    He said his father used to tell him, “I don’t expect the government to solve my problem, but I damn well expect them to understand my problem.”

    Biden opened his remarks by saying he flew to Germany five years ago to encourage Murphy, then the ambassador there, to return home and run for elected office. He did so, Biden said, at the urging of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.

    “I went because I thought, and Frank insisted, that this guy had all the stuff — not only to be our ambassador, but to be a great political leader for us,” Biden said. “I went then to try to get him to jump into a race earlier on.”

    Murphy, who has also served as a finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, decided against running at the time for what presumably would have been a tough race to unseat Christie.

    Five years later, Murphy is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and is widely expected to become the leading candidate in the general election this fall.

    But the race has received little attention so far — even within the state. Biden's Sunday event gave a last-minute boost to Murphy ahead of the June 6 primary, as the former vice president said Murphy should offer hope to Democrats across the country, and told national observers it would be a mistake to ignore the New Jersey race.

    “The whole country and, without exaggeration, the world is going to be looking,” Biden told crowd. “They’re going to look to decide whether or not America has bought into this crass and mean spirited and negative and uncomfortable rhetoric that we have been subjected to these last 10 months — or whether [we are] ready to reestablish and assert who were are.”

    Murphy, who was among the top executives at Goldman, has used his personal fortune to fund most of his campaign — $15.1 million out of the $19.2 million he had raised as of May 5. The three other major Democratic candidates — former treasurer official Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak and Assemblyman John Wisniewski — are relying on matching funds.

    Murphy also holds another advantage that has given him an air of inevitability: He has been endorsed by the local party organizations in all 21 counties, a distinction that earns him a spot on their ballot lines. A Stockton University polled released last week showed Murphy with 34 percent support, trailed by Johnson's 10 percent and Wisniewski's 9 percent.

    When he took the stage with Biden, Murphy said he would fight Trump’s policies and laid out some of his own platform, including funding for Planned Parenthood, boosting clean energy and create gun regulations.

    “All the while while we’re fighting to undo the damage that Governor Christie has done, we’re going to have to deal with a hostile administration coming out of Washington,” Murphy said. “We're going to need a governor — and I will be that governor — with a steel backbone who says, ‘Mr. President, Mr. Trump, not in New Jersey will you do that.'”

    Biden said he saw similarity between his own working-class roots and Murphy’s, and said he sees from Murphy the sort of message he’s been working to get across himself: That America hasn’t fallen behind other nations and that, with the right leadership, its collective achievements can be endless.

    “Remember this one thing: The United States, in the year 2017, is better positioned than any nation in the world for the 21st century,” Biden said. “I give you my word, I am more optimistic about America’s prospects than I have ever been in my life.”

    The two left the stage to Bon Jovi’s “We Weren't Born to Follow.”


    Graham: Comey should be 'held accountable'


    Sen. Lindsey Graham called on former FBI Director James Comey to be "held accountable" for reports that he knowingly acted on false intelligence, calling the move by the former bureau chief "incredibly incompetent."CNN reported Friday that while serving...

    Sen. Lindsey Graham called on former FBI Director James Comey to be "held accountable" for reports that he knowingly acted on false intelligence, calling the move by the former bureau chief "incredibly incompetent."

    CNN reported Friday that while serving at the FBI during the 2016 election, Comey acted on a critical piece of Russian intelligence pertaining to the Hillary Clinton email investigation that he knew to be false.

    Speaking on "State of the Union," Graham on Sunday said the report was "stunning" and called for Comey's actions to be scrutinized in response.

    "From a Congress' point of view, he never told us it was fake," Graham said. "So, he needs to be held accountable."

    According to a Washington Post report published Wednesday, the FBI received a dubious Russian document that supposedly detailed over email an agreement between the Justice Department and the Clinton campaign to muffle the controversy surrounding her use of a private email server. The document, which is now reportedly widely seen as false by intelligence officials, reportedly influenced Comey's decision to publicly discuss the investigation last summer — even though Comey allegedly knew it was false.

    Graham said that regardless of whether the document and email were fake, Congress needed answers.


    "If it is not fake, we need another investigation," he said. "Or is, in fact, this a true email? I want to get to the bottom of it. I want to see the email.”

    Graham, who is heading a Senate judiciary subcommittee inquiry into Russian election interference, also cited the report as a reason for toughening sanctions against Russia.

    "At the end of the day, if the Russians are this sophisticated, we need more sanctions yesterday against the Russians," he said.


    Kelly ‘might’ ban carry-on laptops on all international flights


    Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said on Sunday he “might” ban carry-on laptops from all international flights into the U.S.Stressing the potential dangers of airborne terrorist acts utilizing in-flight electronics, Kelly said deliberations...

    Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said on Sunday he “might” ban carry-on laptops from all international flights into the U.S.

    Stressing the potential dangers of airborne terrorist acts utilizing in-flight electronics, Kelly said deliberations over whether to impose such a ban are ongoing.

    “It is a real sophisticated threat, and I’ll reserve that decision until we see where it’s going,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

    Kelly added that regardless of his decision, the Department of Homeland Security is dedicated to improving flight safety worldwide by working with U.S. allies abroad.

    “We’re still following the intelligence. The very, very good news is we are working with friends and partners around the world,” he said.

    Kelly added: “We are going to raise the bar — generally speaking — for aviation security.”


    American airlines and businesses have been bracing for an imminent decision from the Trump administration on whether such a ban would be imposed, POLITICO reported Thursday.

    The ban, which could include laptops, tablets and other larger electronics, has been broached amid fears of terrorists utilizing them to hide bombs and carry them onto flights. The DHS previously imposed similar restrictions on flights headed for the United States from numerous Middle Eastern airports.


    Clapper on Kushner-Russia reports: My ‘warning light was clearly on’


    Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Sunday that he and the intelligence community were “very concerned” about reports that White House adviser Jared Kushner discussed establishing secretive back channels with the Kremlin. “I...

    Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Sunday that he and the intelligence community were “very concerned” about reports that White House adviser Jared Kushner discussed establishing secretive back channels with the Kremlin.

    “I will tell you that my dashboard warning light was clearly on, and I think that was the case with all of us in the intelligence community, very concerned about the nature of these approaches to the Russians,” the former intelligence chief told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

    While Clapper declined to confirm or corroborate reports that Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, discussed creating communications channels with Russia that would have evaded U.S. monitoring, he said the reports are troubling given Russia’s history of seeking to undermine American democracy.

    “If you put that in context with everything else we knew the Russians were doing to interfere with the elections and the historical practice of the Russians … we were concerned,” he said.

    Clapper said that although he did not see any “smoking-gun evidence of collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russian officials while serving in the federal government, he thinks the information coming out of the ongoing congressional and FBI probes “certainly arouses your concern about what is going on.”


    “I have to say, at the time I left, I did not see any smoking-gun evidence of collusion, but it certainly was appropriate, given all the signs, certainly appropriate for the FBI to investigate.”

    The former intelligence chief also said that the dialogue between Kushner and Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak — which reportedly took place between Trump’s election triumph and the end of President Barack Obama’s presidency — may have violated the spirit of the presidential transition.

    “We have a time-honored custom that we have one president and one administration at a time,” Clapper said, “and oncoming administrations don’t get a head start before the end of the current president’s incumbency.”


    Schiff calls for review of Kushner’s security clearance


    Ranking House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff called Sunday for a review of White House senior adviser Jared Kushner's security clearance in light of reports he discussed setting up secretive back channels with Russian officials. Although...

    Ranking House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff called Sunday for a review of White House senior adviser Jared Kushner's security clearance in light of reports he discussed setting up secretive back channels with Russian officials.

    Although Schiff (D-Calif.) declined to comment on the accuracy of the reports, he said Kushner's access to highly classified intelligence should be scrutinized.

    "I do think there ought to be a review of his security clearance to find out whether he was truthful, whether he was candid," the lawmaker said on ABC's "This Week."

    Schiff added that without such a review, "there's no way he can maintain that kind of a clearance."

    The Washington Post on Friday reported that Kushner talked with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition about the possibility of enabling back-channel communications that would potentially evade U.S. monitoring. The reported actions has been critiqued by former national security and intelligence officials, who have questioned the legality of such dialogue. The Democratic National Committee on Friday called for Kushner to be fired "immediately."


    Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, declined during an interview Sunday on CNN to say whether he believes Kushner should be stripped of his security clearance.

    The Trump administration on Sunday cast any attempts to establish increased talks with the Russians as a positive.

    “I think that any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing,” Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said in responding to reports of Kushner's conversations with the Russian ambassador.

    "It doesn’t bother me," he added.


    Booker: 'I’m not going to rush to impeachment'


    Sen. Cory Booker preached patience in the ongoing investigations into Russian election interference and potential ties to the Trump campaign, saying he was not ready yet to entertain talk of impeachment charges. “I’m not going to rush to...

    Sen. Cory Booker preached patience in the ongoing investigations into Russian election interference and potential ties to the Trump campaign, saying he was not ready yet to entertain talk of impeachment charges.

    “I’m not going to rush to impeachment," Booker (D-N.J.) said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "I think we need to deal with this in a very sobered way."

    Democratic lawmakers have largely shied away from discussion of seeking the impeachment of President Donald Trump, whose White House and former transition team have been hit with a wave of recent controversies pertaining to contacts with Russian officials.

    The senator said what is needed now is an "objective assessment of facts" and not a "relitigation" of the 2016 presidential election, which was mired in partisan politics. Booker added that he was "satisfied" to see progress being made in probes of Trump-Russia ties within both the federal government and the legislative branch.

    "All I know is I’m very satisfied that we have an independent investigation now going on through the Justice Department as well as" in Congress, he told host Dana Bash.


    The New Jersey senator emphasized, though, that any attempts to subvert American democracy through cooperation with Russian officials would not be tolerated.

    “We need to get to the bottom of what happened," Booker said. “If there are Americans that colluded with the Russians to undermine our democratic processes, they should be held to account.”


    Graham 'suspicious' of reports detailing Kushner-Russia talks


    Sen. Lindsey Graham on Sunday cast doubt on reports that White House adviser Jared Kushner sought to establish secretive lines of communications with Russian officials.“I don't trust this story as far as I can throw it,” the South Carolina...

    Sen. Lindsey Graham on Sunday cast doubt on reports that White House adviser Jared Kushner sought to establish secretive lines of communications with Russian officials.

    “I don't trust this story as far as I can throw it,” the South Carolina Republican said.

    The Washington Post reported on Friday that Kushner discussed during the presidential transition the possibility of establishing back-channel communications with the Kremlin that would have evaded U.S. monitoring, according to intercepted conversations between Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Moscow.

    Graham said he found it “suspicious” that Russia would allow such a dialogue to be caught by U.S. monitors.

    “I think it makes no sense that the Russian ambassador would report back to Moscow on a channel that he most likely knows we’re monitoring,” he told host Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The whole story line is suspicious."


    Graham is one of the first GOP lawmakers to publicly downplay reports of Kushner’s conversation with Russian officials.

    The South Carolina senator added that he’s more skeptical of information coming out of Russia than ever before.

    "I’ve never been more concerned and suspicious about all things Russia than I am right now,” he said, adding: “We’re chasing our tails as a nation when it comes to the Russians.”


    Kelly: ‘Any channel of communication’ with Russia ‘a good thing'


    Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, pressed Sunday on White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s reported attempts to establish secret lines of communication with Russia during the presidential transition, said any such channels of communication...

    Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, pressed Sunday on White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s reported attempts to establish secret lines of communication with Russia during the presidential transition, said any such channels of communication are “a good thing.”

    While not confirming reports that Kushner discussed with Russian officials how to create back channels of communication that might evade potential U.S. monitoring, Kelly said that any attempts to strengthen dialogue with Russia were a positive.

    “I don’t know if it is true or not; I know it’s being reported in the press,” Kelly said on "Fox News Sunday," before being told by anchor Chris Wallace that the network had confirmed that the discussion between Kushner and Russian officials had taken place.

    “I think that any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me.”

    The White House was rocked on Friday by reports that Kushner, a top presidential adviser and the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, sought private lines of communication with Russian officials that would have evaded U.S. monitoring. Numerous former national security officials have since raised concerns about the reported conversation, questioning the legality of such a move.


    Kelly on Sunday, however, cast the alleged communications as a relationship-building effort.

    “Multiple ways to communicate back and forth is a good way to communicate with any country,” he said, while cautioning: “You just have to assume that what you’re getting may or may not be true, they may be working you.”

    Kelly also addressed the timing of the conversations, which reportedly took place before Kushner and the Trump transition team took office. The secretary of homeland security said that as long as Kushner did not “do anything to inhibit the Obama transition,” he did not see any issues.

    “As they begin to build relationships [with the Russians], there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.


    Trump, Republicans push back on Kushner reports


    President Donald Trump went on the offensive Sunday after returning from his nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe to growing scandals at home over his administration’s communications with Russian officials, including an explosive report about...

    President Donald Trump went on the offensive Sunday after returning from his nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe to growing scandals at home over his administration’s communications with Russian officials, including an explosive report about Trump son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner.

    Trump attacked the news media on Twitter, and the administration dispatched a retired four-star Marine general — Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — to defend Kushner on the Sunday news talk shows.

    “It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” Trump said on Twitter — a likely reference to The Washington Post’s story about Kushner on Friday, which was sourced to anonymous U.S. officials. The article said Kushner sought to set up a secret line of communication with Russia during the presidential transition.

    Trump also leaned on two administration officials with military experience to defend Kushner, who has become a significant person of interest in the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow in its efforts to sway the presidential election toward Trump.

    “I don’t see a big deal,” Kelly, the former head of U.S. Southern Command, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing.”

    Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general, also defended Kushner, telling reporters that back-channel communications are normal, according to Reuters.

    "We have back-channel communications with any number of individual” countries, McMaster said. “So generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner."

    Republicans, meanwhile, downplayed the reports about Kushner — with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joining Trump in casting doubt on the news media.


    Graham, who has been one of Trump’s fiercest GOP critics on other issues, said Sunday he doesn't "trust this story as far as I can throw it."

    “I think it makes no sense that the Russian ambassador would report back to Moscow on a channel that he most likely knows we’re monitoring,” Graham explained to Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The whole story line is suspicious.”

    Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) noted on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Kushner has agreed to speak with Senate investigators about his contacts with Russian officials.

    “Sounds like he’s more than glad to talk about all of these things and instead of getting wrapped up into a lot of hyperbole, as these things can sometimes do, I think talking with him directly and getting him to answer any and all questions as he said he would do would probably be the prudent course of action,” Corker said to Chuck Todd.

    For their part, congressional Democrats were muted in their responses to the Kushner developments on the Sunday news talk shows.

    The most aggressive take came from Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s meddling in November’s presidential election, including the possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign.

    Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Schiff called for a review of Kushner’s security clearance.

    “If these reports are accurate, right after that campaign, after that intervention, to have the president's son-in-law, a key player within the Trump Organization, trying to establish a back channel with the Russians through a Russian diplomatic facility, you have to ask, well, who are they hiding the conversations from?” Schiff said.


    Schiff added that he was disappointed that McMaster defended Kushner and said “this is an administration that takes in people with good credibility and chews them out and spits out their credibility at the same time.”

    Other Democrats, including Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, did not go so far as to call for a security clearance review, instead saying the FBI investigation now being led by special counsel Robert Mueller is best equipped to get to the bottom of the issue.

    Durbin said on “Fox News Sunday” that allegations that Kushner sought to set up a back channel with Russia was “a rumor at this point,” adding: “I’ll trust Bob Mueller’s judgment.”

    On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Booker said he had “very serious concerns” but was not ready to call for Kushner’s security clearance to be revoked.

    “That could be a potential outcome that I seek, but I want to understand, at least hear from, Jared Kushner as well as the administration about what was exactly going on there,” Booker said.


    Kushner’s alleged Russia back-channel attempt would be serious break from protocol


    Jared Kushner’s alleged discussions with Russia’s ambassador about potentially establishing back-channel communications during the transition would have been viewed as not only highly improper but also possibly even illegal, according to former...

    Jared Kushner’s alleged discussions with Russia’s ambassador about potentially establishing back-channel communications during the transition would have been viewed as not only highly improper but also possibly even illegal, according to former national security officials.

    President Donald Trump’s team on Saturday tried to downplay reports from The Washington Post and others that Ambassador Sergey Kislyak told his superiors that Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, made the proposal during an early December meeting and suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities for the clandestine communications. It appears the back channel was never set up.

    “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries,” Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told American reporters traveling with Trump at the G-7 summit in Sicily. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”

    Former national security officials who spoke with POLITICO on Saturday were not so dismissive.

    Many said that while presidents often set up back-channel communications with various countries, it’s neither wise nor normal for a president-elect to set up such continuing contact before the inauguration, despite likely pressure from foreign countries.

    Also, the idea of using the equipment of a foreign country, especially an adversary such as Russia, would be acutely alarming.

    “If candidate Trump, a private citizen, had a back channel, that would be very serious,” said Bill Smullen, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell in the administration of George W. Bush. “He had no business.”


    A former senior State Department official said there’s a high likelihood that the Russians pushed Trump’s transition team to set up clandestine communications — and that Trump’s aides should have said no.

    “Invariably, foreign governments will try to establish a continuing contact with a new president-elect as soon as the November election result is in,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the official’s past communications with Trump’s team. “My advice has been to respond, ‘Thanks a lot, we look forward to being in touch with you after January 20th.’”

    The new allegations add to the deepening scandal regarding Trump and ties between his campaign and Russian leaders, who have been accused by U.S. intelligence officials of trying to tip the election Trump’s way.

    While much of the attention has been on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, increased scrutiny is being placed on Kushner, who reportedly failed to disclose the extent of his contacts with Russian officials during and after the campaign.

    But the allegation that Kushner — with Flynn in the room — discussed setting up clandestine communications with Russian officials during the transition marks one of the most potentially damaging accusations to date.

    National security officials who worked in the administration of President Barack Obama were particularly concerned by the reports, which suggest Trump’s aides were trying to avoid having Obama officials overhear their conversations with the Russians.

    “What could the Trump transition team not have the U.S. government hear them saying?” said Ned Price, a former CIA officer and National Security Council spokesman in the Obama administration. “Obviously, this is improper and may have been illegal. … You don’t have an innocuous explanation for this. You can’t attribute this to carelessness.”

    Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Obama administration, said: “The fact that they would want to hide it not just from the U.S. public but the U.S. government is unusual, and then they would want to embed the channel inside the Russian intelligence apparatus, if true, is entirely shocking and unprecedented. It’s beyond improper.”


    It’s unclear what the consequences could be for Kushner and others if the reports are proved true. At a minimum, the allegations pose a major political problem that could endanger Kushner’s White House role and could fuel impeachment talk for Trump.

    On the more severe side, such communications could test the Logan Act, a largely dormant statute that bans private citizens from interfering with U.S. diplomatic relations.

    In general, back-channel communication between heads of state and their surrogates has a long history, but what sets this situation apart is that the discussions allegedly took place before Trump took office and were meant to circumvent the official channels of the administration that remained in power.

    “Back channels are a tried-and-true form of secret diplomacy,” according to Peter Kornbluh, a researcher at the National Security Archive at George Washington University and co-author of the recent book "Back Channel to Cuba."

    For example, “Bobby Kennedy became personal and trusted emissary of his brother President Kennedy probably at the most critical and dangerous time in modern history,” during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union, he said. “President Nixon used one in the opening to China. There were back channels to [Communist leader] Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. Every president from Eisenhower to Obama used a back channel to approach Fidel Castro in Cuba and his brother Raul.”

    But the key question in this case is when Trump or his aides may have discussed such communications with President Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders, Kornbluh and others said — and for what purpose.

    “What distinguishes Trump is he wasn’t president when they tried to set it up,” Kornbluh said. “With the cloud of the Russian scandal hanging over his head, it is not clear why he would want to cut everybody out. The question that is not being posed much by the press so far is whether Kushner and Flynn were acting alone. Usually the president has known about these back channels because he initiated them.”


    Smullen, Powell’s former chief of staff, agreed with that analysis.

    “Back channels are very common. People have used them all the time. They can be a safety valve for things that can be explosive,” said Smullen, who recalled such efforts with the Soviets when he was an aide to Adm. William Crowe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Cold War.

    Smullen added that President Trump has every right to have a back channel, but President-elect Trump would not.

    Others urged caution, saying this latest controversy could be part of a more advanced Russian plot, especially because The Washington Post report cited intelligence reports in which Kislyak talked with his superiors about Kushner’s alleged proposal.

    “Typically, the Russian clandestine subversion specialists, being the best in the world in this demonical art form, operate in double, triple and sometimes multiple tactical plot lines,” said the former State Department official. “For example, in the media report … that the U.S. has intercepted a message from Kislyak to the Kremlin saying that Kushner had proposed a back-channel connection during the transition period, it has to be understood that Kislyak knows perfectly well that all his communications are being intercepted by the U.S.”


    Russia scandal casts uncertainty over Kushner’s future role


    Once the untouchable son-in-law in a White House where top aides jockey for the president’s ear, Jared Kushner has now been cast in a new role: reassuring people that he’s not going to resign, while colleagues question whether he can survive...

    Once the untouchable son-in-law in a White House where top aides jockey for the president’s ear, Jared Kushner has now been cast in a new role: reassuring people that he’s not going to resign, while colleagues question whether he can survive politically.

    Any victory lap Kushner hoped to enjoy after pulling off a successful presidential foreign trip to the Middle East was cut short after The Washington Post reported that during the transition he discussed setting up a secret back channel with the Russian ambassador. He also failed to disclose earlier phone calls with Russian officials, according to a Reuters report.

    The back channel was never established. But the news puts Kushner squarely in the middle of a wide-ranging FBI investigation into whether Trump campaign advisers were working with Russian operatives to influence the results of the 2016 election.

    And it means that the main architect of Trump’s visit to the Middle East is now the lead distraction that will greet the president, who was flying home from nine days abroad on Saturday, returning from what was seen, overall, as a successful foreign trip.

    “It’s clear that Jared Kushner will be under intense scrutiny at a time when his father-in-law has named him everything but chief cook and bottle washer,” said Democratic strategist David Axelrod, a former top White House adviser to President Barack Obama. “It’s bad for the prospects of calm at the White House.”

    Kushner’s allies are quick to point out that he hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, and his lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, has said Kushner volunteered to share with Congress anything he knows about meetings with the Russians. People familiar with the matter also speculated that Sergey Kislyak may have exaggerated Kushner’s role in his version of events.

    A senior administration official said there was widespread concern, predating the foreign trip, that Kushner was in trouble — but “no one that I know has been asked to provide documents” and it wasn’t talked about openly in the White House or staff meetings.


    “No one knows what to make of it because he’s there every day, making decisions, in the Oval,” this person said. “So everyone just tries to act normal.”

    A White House spokesman declined to comment.

    But outside of Kushner’s small circle of trust — a group that includes Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, and advisers Hope Hicks, Josh Raffel, Dina Powell, Gary Cohn, Chris Liddell and Reed Cordish — many West Wing advisers are simultaneously rattled by the back-channel revelations and feeling a sense of schadenfreude.

    The focus on a family member also brings the Russia-related heat closer to Trump. Kushner has risen so quickly in the White House that his colleagues grumble about “principal confusion” — when a staffer thinks that the reflected spotlight of the boss is actually shining on him. Colleagues have rolled their eyes that Kushner has hired a communications adviser to work on his own portfolio. That aide, Raffel, traveled abroad with him to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Rome.

    Kushner, who some say has sealed himself off from the competing White House power centers, may now be in a position of needing allies. And the pool of people in New York City eager to come to his defense has shrunk.

    Internally at the White House, according to multiple sources, there is a feeling of resentment among people about Kushner’s special status as a family member, and a feeling that it’s about time for him to have a turn under the gun.

    There is also a sense of uncertainty about how long Kushner and Ivanka Trump — who associates say likes, but doesn’t love, Washington — are planning to stick it out. Some have noted that they rent their Kalorama mansion, which allows them to keep their options of moving back to Manhattan more open.

    But for now, according to a person familiar with the situation, Kushner isn’t going anywhere.


    On Friday, a White House official said, Kushner was back in his West Wing office and had a working lunch with chief of staff Reince Priebus to recap the trip.

    Kushner, who flew home from Rome commercial on Thursday with his wife after deciding a week earlier to cut his trip short, is not easily ruffled, this person said. His plan moving forward is to keep his head down and focus on his work, including turning his attention back to building his Office of American Innovation now that the foreign trip is behind him.

    The news about Kushner, whose face blanketed cable news on Saturday, overshadowed Trump’s foreign trip on its final day.

    At a press briefing in Taormina on Friday, White House officials were peppered with questions about Kushner’s role and tried to downplay the significance of the alleged back-channel plan.

    “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster said. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”

    Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, a close Kushner ally, added: “We’re not going to comment on Jared.”

    Another official noted that it was Kushner’s conversations with foreign officials during the transition that allowed him to form relationships with the Saudis and pull off a successful first foreign trip for Trump. They also pointed to the good relationships with China and Mexico, that they credited to “back-channel” style relationships Kushner developed with those countries during the campaign.

    But many outside observers pointed to Kushner’s naiveté in understanding the need for caution when it comes to handling relationships with Moscow.

    The spotlight on Kushner’s involvement with the Russians comes at a time when the powerful son-in-law has been telling associates that he is frustrated with his job.

    Two associates who have spoken to Kushner in recent weeks described him as “unhappy” and “miserable,” in part because he has not been able to make the changes he wants to under his father-in-law. Kushner, the source said, has recently seemed resigned to the fact that the internal dysfunction that has defined the first months of Trump’s administration is unlikely to pass. “He’s still trying to tell people it will improve, but he seems like he was trying to convince himself,” the source said.


    Others, however, said there’s a healthy recognition that this is what it’s like to be in the Trump White House: a successful foreign trip one week, drowned out by negative headlines the following.

    Meanwhile, Democrats said they are planning to make Kushner a focus in the coming weeks.

    “There is no way Jared Kushner should have a top-level security clearance right now,” said Brian Fallon, who served as press secretary to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and before that as a spokesman for the Department of Justice. “In light of what we now know he discussed with Kislyak, it is impossible to believe Kushner’s omission of that secret meeting from his clearance application form was an accident. His clearance should be stripped at least until the FBI gets to the bottom of this.”

    He added: “If Republicans will not join in demanding this of the White House, Democrats would be more than justified in grinding the Senate to a halt and opposing any new Trump nominees.”

    And Senate Democrats said that they were planning to use the latest Russia-related crisis to increase pressure on attaching Russia sanctions to the Iran sanctions bill that passed the Foreign Relations Committee last week. One source on the Hill said many Democrats don’t want that bill to move without a Russia sanctions bill alongside it, and that pressure will now only increase.

    Kushner’s attorney, Gorelick, said she was not available to speak on Saturday. On Friday, she said in a statement that Kushner had “no recollection” of the calls reported by Reuters but did not respond directly to reports concerning the back-channel communications.

    Tara Palmeri contributed to this report.


    Mueller’s appointment complicates Congress’ Russia investigations


    Robert Mueller's appointment as a special counsel has quickly complicated Congress' investigations into Russia’s election meddling. And the former FBI director has done nothing so far to provide clarity.The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence...

    Robert Mueller's appointment as a special counsel has quickly complicated Congress' investigations into Russia’s election meddling. And the former FBI director has done nothing so far to provide clarity.

    The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are anxious to speak with Mueller, who’s now overseeing the FBI’s parallel Russia probe, to ensure their congressional investigations don’t interfere. But Mueller has yet to agree to meet with congressional investigators, according to the panels' leaders.

    And if Congress’ investigation crumbles, the public may never find out the depths of Russian intrusion in the 2016 election, as a special counsel is largely focused on whether anyone broke the law.

    Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs a Judiciary subcommittee with oversight over the FBI, is simply putting the brakes on his investigation — and is urging his colleagues on the intelligence panels to proceed with caution for fear of disrupting what has become a full-fledged criminal investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

    “One of the realities of having somebody looking into potential criminal charges is that you've got to be careful what you do in Congress,” said Graham, a former Air Force lawyer. He said he plans to hold a hearing with experts on how Congress should move forward with its investigations without getting in Mueller’s way.

    “I need to talk to people who have done this before and make sure we don't interfere with an investigation,” Graham said. “And we need sort of an agreement with Mueller as to how we interact. When we plan to do something, we want to make sure we don't step into his lane.”


    The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, meanwhile, say their investigations are moving forward as planned. Members of the intelligence panels pointed to past instances in which Congress and the FBI ran parallel investigations — including Watergate.

    But they noted that they would need to set up “deconfliction” agreements to ensure they don’t step on Mueller’s toes, which might not be easy.

    Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said staffers have been in touch with Mueller and that he and Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are trying to set up a meeting with him “as soon as possible.”

    “We've reached out to Bob Mueller to have a conversation about deconfliction, but that date has not been set,” added Burr.

    Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, also said that he had not met yet with Mueller but hopes to speak with him soon.

    “We'll certainly want to establish a process where we can make sure that what we're doing isn't stepping on his efforts and vice versa,” Schiff said. “It'll be particularly important in the context of any request for immunity, but there may be other areas in which we'll need to coordinate our efforts.”

    Burr and Warner last week underscored their intent to move forward by issuing two new subpoenas to businesses owned by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who was ousted over his misleading statements about contacts with Russia’s ambassador. The House Intelligence panel is also planning to subpoena Flynn — and members of the committee have hinted that subpoenas of other witnesses could be coming soon.


    But there are already signs that Mueller's appointment might be making things harder for congressional investigators. On Thursday, the FBI declined a congressional request for memos by former FBI Director James Comey detailing his interactions with Trump. The reason: FBI officials say they need to consult with Mueller first.

    Burr and Warner are planning to hold a hearing with Comey, who was fired earlier this month — a hearing Graham argues could damage the criminal investigation.

    “Comey is a witness that Mueller would be interested in, and we'd all like to hear from him. You'd like to hear from him. I'd like to hear from him,” Graham said. “But that's probably a classic example of where us calling him could really probably hurt the investigation.”

    Andrew Herman, a lawyer and expert on congressional investigations who has represented members of Congress facing ethics probes, said he agreed with Graham’s take. He explained that Comey’s public testimony before the intelligence panel could reveal information that Mueller would rather be kept under wraps while the FBI probe is ongoing.

    “The special counsel is able to keep his interviews confidential, whereas anything Comey says in a hearing is going to be public,” Herman said. “It may affect the testimony of other witnesses who Mueller is going to be talking to.”

    At least one witness, Flynn, has requested immunity in order to testify — which the intelligence committees have shown no interest in accommodating.

    Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the No. 2 Democrat on the House panel, said it is important for lawmakers to continue their investigations, noting that Congress has a “slightly different” mission than the FBI. He said the FBI’s job is to investigate whether crimes were committed, not informing the public about the larger issues at hand.


    “We're not there to discover evidence of and to prosecute a crime,” Himes said. “We're there to really understand all the forces and aspects of the Russian hack. The scary scenario is more a scenario where the FBI does what they do, and we don't get the benefit of what they have learned just because they decide to prosecute this individual but not that individual.”

    But Herman, the lawyer who has represented lawmakers under ethics investigations, said there are “a lot of potential avenues for problems.”

    He said that as a defense lawyer, he would be “very cautious” about allowing clients to submit to multiple interviews where there’s the potential they could contradict themselves. He said he could envision a scenario in which witnesses who’ve already spoken to congressional investigators refuse to also talk to the FBI, instead directing federal investigators to their previous testimonies.

    “Obviously the things that Mueller wants to know about could be completely different from the things that the Intelligence Committee wants to know about,” Herman said. “So that's a significant problem both for the investigators and for the witnesses.

    “If I want someone doing a thorough investigation,” he added, “I want the experienced FBI agents and prosecutors that are going to be on Bob Mueller's team.”


    Russia scandal ices government lawyer hiring


    President Donald Trump was already struggling to fill hundreds of top legal jobs throughout the federal government.Over the past two weeks, that task became exponentially more difficult, according to top GOP lawyers.Trump’s firing of FBI Director James...

    President Donald Trump was already struggling to fill hundreds of top legal jobs throughout the federal government.

    Over the past two weeks, that task became exponentially more difficult, according to top GOP lawyers.

    Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and the subsequent string of allegations — from Trump demanding a pledge of loyalty from Comey and pressuring him to ease off a probe into his former aide, to revelations that Trump trashed Comey as a “nut job” in an Oval Office meeting with top Russian officials — have narrowed the ranks of people willing to serve.

    “They were dealing with a pool that had already shrunk and, now, of course, some people will be avoiding it like the plague,” said one well-connected GOP lawyer who held a top-level post in President George W. Bush’s administration and asked not to be named. “The lesser-known folks are wondering if they’re going to take a huge reputational hit if the president of the United States starts tweeting about them. … There’s definitely some poisoning of the well going on in terms of who would take a job at this point.”

    From the outset, the Trump administration was facing a limited pool of candidates for senior positions. Many GOP lawyers and former officials signed “Never Trump” pledges during the campaign and never seriously considered accepting a Trump appointment. Others did, but found themselves essentially blacklisted because of blog posts or other statements made about Trump during the campaign.

    Trump still has to fill senior Department of Justice roles and the 93 U.S. attorney posts around the country — a task complicated by his decision, in March, to demand the immediate resignation of all remaining Obama-era appointees without a bench of replacements ready to go. Scores of seats on the federal bench also remain open.


    Further complicating the search is the growing demand from the president and many of his top advisers for personal attorneys to advise them as the federal probe expands into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, including contacts with Trump friends and campaign staff.

    The process has already presented some conflict-of-interest issues. Government lawyers typically have to recuse from inquiries involving their former firm’s clients for one year — and Trump’s decision to tap one of his personal lawyers, Marc Kasowitz, to oversee his outside lawyers working on the Russia-related probes appears to have contributed to the decision by former senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman to step out of the running for the FBI job.

    A lawyer being seriously considered for the coveted U.S. attorney post in Manhattan, Edward McNally, is also a partner at the same New York firm. It’s unclear whether the tie has affected McNally’s candidacy.

    “You always see the same names coming back,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a lawyer who served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. “I look around at people considering going into the Trump administration and the same names come up for every open job. … It’s the same six names for every open job — the people who are both qualified and willing to serve.”

    Asked about the unusual vacillation and tumult in the FBI director search process, Rosenzweig said: “It certainly doesn’t help when the stated basis for firing your predecessor is that he was a ‘nut job.’”

    At least half a dozen people interviewed for the FBI director job have withdrawn from consideration in recent days, including former Justice Department criminal division chief Alice Fisher, New York state Judge Michael Garcia, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).

    A White House spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but officials have said that Trump recently decided to “broaden” the search process for the FBI director post.

    Some contenders for top jobs have been particularly distressed by the travails of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is extremely well-regarded in law enforcement and legal circles but whose reputation has been bruised by his involvement in Trump’s firing of Comey earlier this month.

    The White House initially cited a letter written by Rosenstein as the basis for the FBI chief’s abrupt dismissal, but Trump later indicated that wasn’t the real reason for the firing. Rosenstein later acknowledged that at the time he wrote the letter he already knew the president had made the decision to fire Comey.

    That was enough to push at least one person in the mix for a Justice Department job to withdraw, a colleague said.


    Two more names have been added — or returned — to the FBI director mix in recent days. Former Justice Department National Security Division chief Ken Wainstein and former Transportation Security Administration Director John Pistole have both held discussions about the job with top Justice Department officials in recent days, according to an official close to the process.

    Both Wainstein and Pistole had been mentioned as potential contenders for the job a couple of weeks ago, but there was no indication they were being seriously considered. Now, that appears to have changed. Wainstein, a lawyer in Washington at the Cadwalader law firm, and Pistole, president of Anderson University in Indiana, did not respond to requests for comment.

    A Trump adviser involved in the selection process for legal jobs said it should not be surprising that the most elite posts often draw a limited pool of contenders.

    “You’re talking about very high-level jobs. All these jobs are very high-level jobs,” said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The bottom line is there’s a small universe of people who are eligible, and so, naturally, you are going to see repeat names appearing.”

    Asked whether Trump’s recent comments had scared potential candidates away, the adviser said: “I don’t get the impression that’s the case….I think: no.”

    Trump has managed to install only three Senate-confirmed officials in the entire Justice Department: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Rosenstein and Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, who won confirmation this month.

    Nominations for four other Justice Department positions have been sent to the Senate, but the rest of the slots remain in limbo.

    Trump has won confirmation of two judges: Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and 6th Circuit Judge Amul Thapar. With 129 vacancies on the federal courts, he’s formally submitted eight nominations and announced his picks for another two slots.

    So far, Trump has yet to nominate a prospect for any of the 93 U.S. attorney positions nationwide, including the more than 40 Barack Obama-appointed prosecutors forced to resign in March.

    White House officials have said that a dozen or more U.S. attorney picks are in the final stages. In some instances, the announcements have been held up as the White House negotiates with senators over a package of potential nominations including the prosecutor posts as well as vacant judgeships.

    “With some of these positions that are still open, it’s just there aren’t a lot of people who want those jobs, like OJP [the grant-making Office of Justice Programs] or Civil Rights,” the person close to the process said. “They’re kind of thankless jobs. You want an individual of high quality but you also got to get the job filled, and they’re trying to strike that balance.”

    The adviser acknowledged that the “Never Trump” phenomenon has made it a challenge to fill some senior jobs, but he disputed that the Justice Department posts were particularly affected.


    “That’s been a bit of a problem for the administration, but not as much at DOJ,” the adviser said. “That’s been a very serious problem over at the State Department. A lot of the conservative foreign-policy establishment were ‘Never Trumpers.’ ... The proportion is much higher at the State Department and the White House.”

    The hiring challenges have sometimes forced the administration to drop down a tier in terms of experience, with younger candidates being considered for top jobs a decade before they would have been in a more normal situation, people close to the process said.

    Still, some GOP lawyers are frustrated and perplexed by the delays in nominations, scoffing at the notion that no qualified attorneys can be found for the posts.

    “There are people who’d give their eye teeth for senior DOJ positions,” said Sol Wisenberg, a deputy independent counsel in the Whitewater probe and former federal prosecutor in North Carolina and Texas. “I don’t think that’s an excuse for not filling the positions. … There’s plenty of talent.”

    Still, he acknowledged that some people will not want to face Senate confirmation. And potential FBI picks in particular must now realize that they are likely to be asked to pass judgment publicly on a slew of Trump’s more provocative actions.

    “Anyone they pick … is going to have to go through the gantlet in the Senate,” Wisenberg said. “I just think it’s going to be hard given how Comey left. It’s going to be a delicate process to try to get somebody through fairly quickly and without a lot of controversy. You need somebody who is really sharp.”


    Trump Megadonor Rebekah Mercer Makes Terrible Cookies


    The Piña Colada is not a drink, but a cookie. Topped with a thin thatch of blond shredded coconut, it marries the sweet bombast of coconut and pineapple puree and artificial rum flavoring in a cakey-base studded with middling chocolate chunks. There’s...

    The Piña Colada is not a drink, but a cookie. Topped with a thin thatch of blond shredded coconut, it marries the sweet bombast of coconut and pineapple puree and artificial rum flavoring in a cakey-base studded with middling chocolate chunks. There’s a Love Boat-style fantasy of a poolside vacation in here somewhere, but the flavors are murky, the texture kind of gummy, and who wants chocolate in their tropical rum drink, anyway? In the end, it’s just a composite of contradictory, eager-to-please flavors, and a cookie I’d rather not finish.

    That’s the general gist of the cookies I sampled from Ruby et Violette, a bakery owned by Trump megadonor Rebekah Mercer and her two sisters. The Mercer family just may be the single biggest reason we have our own thin-thatched blond in the Oval Office today, and I wanted to know how the dark art of political machination interacts with the mostly sunny craft of making sweet treats. Until the Koch brothers launch their own artisanal caramel line, this was my only chance to find out. So I ordered a 24-cookie assortment.

    Mercer is the daughter of hedge-fund giant Robert Mercer, and she is viewed as the major player in her family’s political patronage, which includes ownership stakes in Breitbart News and data mining service company Cambridge Analytica. As POLITICO reported last November, the Mercer family at that point had “given more than $48 million to campaigns, committees or companies run in part by top Trump allies or advisers.” Though you won’t see Rebekah as a surrogate on Fox News, she took a key role on the executive committee of President Donald Trump’s transition, reportedly making sure his pond was stocked with the likes of now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, counselor Kellyanne Conway and once-national security adviser and current-Fifth Amendmenteer Michael Flynn. Most directly, perhaps, she is a major supporter of Steve Bannon, and reportedly talked him out of quitting his position as adviser to the president when he was ousted from the National Security Council.

    But before she was a major power broker, Mercer was a bakery owner, and she still is to this day. She and her sisters bought Ruby et Violette, a Hell’s Kitchen bakery, in 2006. At the time, the shabby-chic establishment was known for its endless variations of chocolate chunk cookies, and New York magazine named it home of one of the city’s top eight ice cream sandwiches. Eventually, the sisters closed the brick and mortar bakery locations, and the cookies are now sold strictly through phone and online orders. At one point, at least, the cookie store was willing to court both sides of the aisle: The Ruby et Violette website boasts 2009 letters from both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, thanking “the Mercer Girls,” as Clinton called them, for their cookies. (Who knows what the two presidents actually thought of the sweets; an edible gift from such flush potential donors is always delicious.)

    But now that the Mercers and their wares are solidly in the Trump camp, I worked my way through my box of cellophane-wrapped cookies wondering whether there were any messages I could glean among the cocoa and marshmallows.


    The bakery focuses on very chunky cookies; about three dozen flavors of them are listed on the website (along with a selection of brownies that I didn’t try). As at an ice cream parlor, choice is clearly part of the fun here: When ordering the cookies, you pick your box size first and then add icons for each flavor of cookie you want to put in it. The bakery has gone long on novelty flavors, particularly ones that evoke a certain cozy sense of Americana: one of baseball games and diners and Southern celebrations that all fit into the MAGA worldview. There’s the unfortunate Root Beer Float, a brown sugar cookie with lots of artificial root beer essence, chewy chunks of melted marshmallows and pale plaques of chalky white chocolate. “It’s Outta Here!” is a sticky light chocolate cookie studded with peanut butter chips, caramel chips and caramel-coated nuts, whose sugar melts into little chewy divots in the cookie. It’s a likable concept, fueled by visions of Babe Ruth bars and Cracker Jacks, but mawkishly sugary in practice. The Red Velvet cookie is more successful, a daub of tangy cream cheese offsets the sweet matrix of the lightly cocoa’d cookies. But all these high-concept varieties lean heavily on artificial flavors that ultimately undermine the quality of the cookie.

    One could argue that a plain chocolate-chip cookie is a nostalgic gesture in itself, and, of course, Ruby et Violette makes a simple version of the classic American form, dubbed the Perfect. Like almost all of the bakery’s cookies, it has a moist, unvarying cakey texture that leans hard on sugar, and it is fairly generously populated with semisweet chocolate chips. There are many ways for a chocolate cookie to be great, but all great cookies commit fully to some aspect of the form. A chocolate-chip cookie can go long on quality, bittersweet chocolate (like, say a Jacques Torres cookie) or a distinctive texture (like impossibly crisp Tate’s). The Perfect, on the other hand, fails to take a strong stand and ends up just moderately pleasant.


    I have rarely come across so many white chocolate confections in a bakery (see their Instagram celebration of the substance here). It’s tempting to take a big haymaker at white supremacist politics amid all these white chunks: Just imagine Jeff Sessions nibbling at an all-white chocolate assortment of cookies as he tells big-city police departments to stop worrying about racial bias. The truth is, however, that there is a place for white chocolate in baking, which is to sweeten and offset other flavors when they get to be too intense. The problem is that most of the cookies I tasted are far from intense. In fact, they merge on meekness, like the Lemon White, a fine-in-theory lemon cookie studded with grainy white chocolate chunks. The best lemon desserts toy with you on the edge of astringency, but the lemon flavor here is just an echo of the actual fruit: more like the soft yellow sweetness of lemon Jell-O.

    Better an understated lemon cookie, I suppose, than the Champagne Strawberry, a cookie with a stripper name that was the worst of the batch. Everything about it has the whiff of manufactured desire. The strawberries in question are sticky and dried, the semisweet chocolate chips are cloying, and its artificial champagne flavor leaves a sweet hung-over taste in the mouth. Do I imagine that Steve Bannon likes this cookie best? Yes I do.


    On the whole, the bakery’s best cookies are those built on chocolate cookie batter selections; that is, if you can get past the embarrassingly overheated names like “Primal Seduction,” (banana puree and peanut butter chips) and “Creamy Seduction” (chocolate chips and cream cheese frosting). The whole chocolate as aphrodisiac theme seems very retro, as if the comic strip character Cathy were penning the cookie titles. Still, “Rocky Seduction,” a play on rocky road, finally incorporates some interesting textural variation with crunchy nuts and chewy bits of marshmallow studding the cocoa-based cookie. Exotic Seduction, which takes the slot that at any other bakery would be called a Mexican chocolate cookie, has a prickle of hot spices in its mix along with chocolate chips, bringing enough pizzazz and sharpness to balance out the sweetness.

    Surely the time needed for a cross country flight and their airtight packaging doesn’t do the cookies any favors. Ruby et Violette might have been a pretty great bakery when it was still a brick-and-mortar shop, with the scent of baking in the air and chocolate chips semi-molten in still-warm cookies. In its current state, it’s sort of stuck between genres. It doesn’t deliver serious cookies intense with high-end chocolate and other natural flavors. Nor does it go all in for a flamboyantly decorative motif, like a rainbow assortment of macaroons. The company doesn’t even seem to be able to settle on a name. It appears to be in the midst of a puzzling soft rebranding, with its cookie packaging covered with logos for “The Indulgent Baker” and an Instagram handle to match. (Could this be a sign of discomfort with the bakery’s original Francophilic name, when the Mercers seem committed to such an America First foreign policy?)


    Overall, with its “cookie concierge” and delivery services within Manhattan dialed in, Ruby et Violette-slash-The Indulgent Baker seems most valuable for its logistical competency. The price isn’t too high (about $2 a cookie, before delivery, but in New York bakeries, cookies can easily go for more like $4 each), and a cookie gift can deliver the impression of indulgence, in a briskly efficient manner, for wedding favors or holiday gifts to your accountant or as a welcome platter for any visiting autocrat. Though honestly, if you really want to delight your autocrat, you might want to splurge on some financiers from Maison Kayser or some pineapple linzers from .

    Among the cookies, one stands out above the others by a considerable margin. It’s a chewy peanut-butter oatmeal cookie that’s a little bit assertive in flavor, with a wisp of smoked sea salt and nicely contrasting chocolate chips. It, too, has a weird name: It’s called “The Breakup: His Story.” (There is a feminine version, with, you guessed it, white chocolate.) The web copy tries to explain the name: “This is the answer to any bad day. Oatmeal, peanut butter, caramel, dark chocolate and smoked salt. The result: Breakup? ... What Breakup?”

    With so many bad days ahead, I only wish that the cookie truly had the power of oblivion.

    But it isn’t that good.


    Trump's delay of calorie-posting rule jolts restaurants


    President Donald Trump’s push to reduce the government burden on business is instead causing chaos in the food industry after he suddenly yanked a rule requiring calories to be posted on menus nationwide.Trump’s Food and Drug Administration delayed...

    President Donald Trump’s push to reduce the government burden on business is instead causing chaos in the food industry after he suddenly yanked a rule requiring calories to be posted on menus nationwide.

    Trump’s Food and Drug Administration delayed the rule just four days before it was supposed to go into effect this month, jolting food purveyors from steakhouses to convenience stores who’d already been trying to comply. And even though the FDA touted the delay as a way to reduce costs and increase flexibility for businesses, the change did not come early enough to save these companies any money. Many had already spent millions of dollars printing and shipping new menus to thousands of locations across the country so they would be ready for the original May 5 deadline.

    "We were very shocked and discouraged," said Sara Burnett, director of food policy and wellness at Panera, which has been voluntarily posting calories on its menus since 2010.

    "We've had plenty of time for organizations to figure out how to do this either on your own, or strictly in compliance with the federal legislation,” said Burnett, noting that FDA and the industry have been working on menu labeling for seven years. “We've all had plenty of time to prepare."

    Now what’s left is a hodgepodge of inconsistent menu labeling that’s confusing for consumers as each chain had to make a last-minute decision about whether to go ahead with their plans to post calories. Case in point: The $45 billion pizza industry. At California Pizza Kitchen, a sit-down restaurant, calories are now listed for each slice of pie, right next to the price. Over at Domino’s, if you order online, as most people do, you won't see any calorie counts until you get to checkout. At Pizza Hut? They label calories in at least some of their stores, but those numbers don't show up when you order online.


    The delay also re-opens the rifts between different parts of the food industry over how stringent the rules should be. The restaurant industry itself — the second-largest employer in the country — actually lobbied alongside consumer advocates for the federal labeling mandate as a way to fix to the messy and expensive patchwork of state and local laws that had cropped up at the behest of health advocates across the country. Meanwhile, the grocery, convenience store and pizza lobbies have been pushing back, seeking less-strict requirements.

    Former President Barack Obama’s FDA started writing the rule after the calorie-labeling mandate was tucked into the Affordable Care Act in 2010. But even during the Obama administration, which supported the rules as a way to help tackle the country’s crippling obesity epidemic, the requirement faced repeated delays under industry pressure. The rule that the FDA originally proposed in 2011 and finalized in 2014 requires chains with 20 or more locations to list calories on all menus so they are visible when a consumer is ordering. The Obama administration took a broad view of what should be covered under the rule, making sure to include movie theaters and alcohol.

    But in the midst of the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory push, the rule was quickly swept aside.

    "Under President Trump, our department will focus on promoting public health in ways that work for American consumers,” said HHS Secretary Tom Price, in a statement praising FDA’s decision. “Toward that end, the FDA is asking for feedback about how to make the Menu Labeling Rule more flexible and less burdensome while still providing useful information to consumers. We look forward to working with all involved to find the right balance."

    The FDA pushed the deadline for the rule back a full year, to May 2018, but it could be longer if the agency makes substantial changes to the rule, which now appears likely.

    Behind the scenes, restaurant leaders are irate about the 11th-hour change, but they are reluctant to speak out against the FDA or the Trump administration.


    The National Restaurant Association, though a spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this story, instead pointing to a statement the group made right after FDA announced the change.

    “This delay upends plans that have been in motion for years throughout the food industry,” said Cicely Simpson, executive vice president for government affairs at NRA. “We will continue to strongly advocate on behalf of what is best for small businesses and American consumers.”

    The grocery, convenience and pizza industries, however, see the delay as a chance to end up with less-stringent rules, even though many of them have already started posting calorie counts. For years, retailers, including the National Grocers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Association of Convenience Stores and major pizza makers, represented by the American Pizza Community, tried to largely get out of menu labeling, arguing that it was unfair and burdensome.

    After a bitter, yearslong war with the National Restaurant Association, which fought to keep all businesses selling prepared foods in the rule so its competitors wouldn’t get a pass, the grocery and convenience lobbies dropped their bid to be exempt. But they are still pressing Congress to take up legislation that relaxes the rules, provides sweeping protection from litigation, and gives companies doing mostly take-out and delivery orders (read: pizza chains) a pass on having to post calories on their in-store menus. The House version of the legislation, sponsored by GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, passed last February, but a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, hasn’t gotten traction.

    Meanwhile, a POLITICO review of more than 40 companies finds that most large chain restaurants, grocery and some convenience stores are prominently displaying calories on their menus despite the reprieve from Trump, but the extent to which they’re labeling is all over the map.

    Even many grocery and convenience leaders went ahead and started labeling anyway, though there are gaps in what’s being disclosed voluntarily. At a Giant in Alexandria, nearly all prepared foods were labeled during a recent visit, down to the croutons and dried cranberries in the salad bar, except for the store’s hot food items, like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. A block away, a Shopper’s was found to be labeling only its hot food and not the rest of its prepared foods. At Whole Foods, nearly everything is labeled, except for the olive bar. In the coffee stand there, most drinks are labeled except for juices.

    Less than a mile from the Capitol, 7-Eleven is posting calories for all its prepared foods, down to the individual donut. A pizza slice there will set you back between 560 and 620 calories, the menu says, and you can get two slices for $2. Sheetz, a popular gas station/fast casual restaurant, said it’s in the process of testing calorie counts at some stores.

    “While many folks have gone forward and have no intent to go back, these fixes still need to be made,” said Rob Rosado, director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents large grocers like Walmart and Kroger.
    Rosado said he wants to see Congress pass legislation that walks back some of the prescriptiveness of the rule, giving retailers more flexibility to post calories on a nearby placard, for example, instead of next to each item in the prepared food bar. He also argued that FDA needs to do a better job of explaining to companies how they can comply with menu labeling.

    “It would be great if they would just provide some clarification,” Rosado said.

    The majority of chain restaurants reviewed by POLITICO are also labeling their calories voluntarily. At Taco Bell, for example, a customer can now see clearly that the Fiesta Taco Salad there contains more calories (760) than the Crunchwrap Supreme (530). Over at IHOP, a calorie-conscious consumer might want to go with the red velvet pancakes (410-690) and steer clear of the cheeseburger omelet (1,450).

    There was also a fair amount of inconsistency. At one Shake Shack in Virginia, calories were posted on a menu outside the store, but there were no calories listed on the main menu inside. At a nearby Popeyes, the menu didn’t list calories at all, but they could be found on some promo materials.


    Consumer advocates, who have pressed for more than a decade to get more disclosure in the hopes that it will help consumers make healthier choices, are livid.

    Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she thinks that menu labeling, even though it’s mostly supported by industry, got swept up into Trump’s larger deregulatory push.

    “It was just irresistible to this anti-regulation administration ... even if it hurts business” she said.

    “I think that’s why the restaurants got screwed, while the convenience stores and supermarkets got what they wanted.”

    Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city was going to start enforcing menu labeling despite FDA’s move, prompting fears that the restaurant industry was about to find itself back where it started seven years ago.

    CSPI is now urging other cities and states to move ahead.

    “I think other states and localities are going to once again look to New York City as a leader on this and go ahead and enforce menu labeling,” said Wootan. “They’re tired of waiting. Consumers have waited long enough.”


    Kelly: Leaking classified intel 'darn close to treason'


    Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly on Sunday denounced the leaking of classified foreign intelligence as "darn close to treason."British officials briefly suspended intelligence sharing with the U.S. on Thursday after information relating to their...

    Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly on Sunday denounced the leaking of classified foreign intelligence as "darn close to treason."

    British officials briefly suspended intelligence sharing with the U.S. on Thursday after information relating to their investigation into the Manchester terrorist attack last week was leaked to the press. On Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he took "full responsibility" for the leaks, which the British attributed to the United States.

    During an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Kelly said the leaking of such intelligence was "darn close" if not "over the line" of "treason."

    "If [the leak] came from the United States, it’s totally unacceptable," Kelly told host Chuck Todd. "And I don’t know why people do these kind of things, but it’s borderline, if not over the line, of treason."

    He added: "I think it’s darn close to treason."

    Kelly said that the issue had been immediately broached in the aftermath of the Manchester attack, in which 22 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday rebuked the U.S. for the leaks.

    "I immediately called my counterpart in the U.K," he said. "And after offering my condolences about the attack. ... She immediately brought this topic up."


    The Trump administration has called the leaks "deeply troubling" and vowed to investigate the matter, with President Donald Trump directing the Justice Department to launch a probe into the incident.

    “These leaks have been going on for a long time, and my administration will get to the bottom of this,” Trump said in a statement Thursday. “I am asking the Department of Justice and other relevant agencies to launch a complete review of this matter, and if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”


    General McMaster, Step Down—and Let Trump Be Trump


    During the presidential transition, when a friend called me to discuss whether he should accept a national security post in the Trump administration, I advised him to do so. My thinking was that the more mature, thoughtful people we had in the...

    During the presidential transition, when a friend called me to discuss whether he should accept a national security post in the Trump administration, I advised him to do so. My thinking was that the more mature, thoughtful people we had in the administration, the better.

    But over the last two weeks, I have come to think I was wrong. I no longer believe in the “adults in the room” theory of containing President Trump and the similarly erratic and ignorant people around him.

    The prime reason I have come to believe I was wrong was the experience of watching Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser, make a series of statements. On the evening of Monday, May 15, he appeared before cameras at the White House to respond to a Washington Post article reporting that the president had shared sensitive intelligence about terrorism with Russian visitors. This information was sufficiently detailed, some intelligence officials feared, that it might enable interested parties to determine the source of that intelligence.

    Not so, said General McMaster. “The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” he stated emphatically.

    The next day, he appeared again before the cameras. This time his line was: “the premise of that article is false—that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security.” That’s what people in Washington say when they can’t dispute the facts in a given article, but still dislike it.

    On the president’s first foreign trip, McMaster has continued to defend Trump, for example, expressing over the weekend a lack of concern about reports that Trump’s son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner sought to establish a secret, back-channel line of communication to the Russian government that would be hidden from the U.S. national security apparatus.

    “We have backchannel communications with a number of countries,” McMaster said during a press availability in Italy. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”

    Really? According to the Post’s story, which the White House did not dispute, “Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team.” There’s no way that would be kosher. And so I fear that McMaster has confused protecting the president with protecting the country.

    It saddens me to watch him do this. I’ve known McMaster since he was a major. He is an unusual officer. He has led troops in combat in two very different wars. He is one of our most thoughtful generals. And he wrote one of the best books about the Vietnam War, “Dereliction of Duty,” about the failures of senior American leaders during that war. Consider the two concluding sentences of that book: “The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers. The failings were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.”

    McMaster also remains on active duty, which makes him subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This holds him to a far higher standard of behavior than we have seen on videotape from Donald Trump. A military officer is required to tell the truth and shun conduct unbecoming of his or her position.

    McMaster probably thinks that by staying at his post, rather than resigning in disgust, he is doing his duty. Specifically, he may think that if stepped down, he might well be succeeded by an alt-right ally of White House adviser Steve Bannon. As I said, I used to believe that too.

    But I have watched and waited, and I don’t see McMaster improving Trump. Rather, what I have seen so far is Trump degrading McMaster. In fact, nothing seems to change Trump. He continues to stumble through his foreign policy—embracing autocrats, alienating allies and embarrassing Americans who understand that NATO has helped keep peace in Europe for more than 65 years.

    Thinking over this, I worry that having people like McMaster around Trump simply enables Trump. Mature national security specialists seasoned in the ways of Washington simply lend an air of occasional competence to an otherwise shambolic White House. By appearing before the cameras, looking serious and speaking rationally, they add a veneer of normality to this administration. In the process, they tarnish their own good names.

    So I think that McMaster should step down—not just for his own good, but for the good of the country. What if he is replaced by a right-wing extremist who operates on an alternative set of “facts”? So much the better, I say.

    Here’s why: The saving grace of Donald Trump as president is his incompetence. He knows almost nothing of how the federal government works. He seems to have been repeatedly surprised by the checks and balances written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. And he seems uninterested in learning.

    Effectively, we have no president. Rather, we have someone who plays the president on television and on Twitter. Aside from a few of his pet subjects, such as immigration, Trump seems to have almost no effect on the workings of the federal government. What we have seen is a demonstration that it is actually a fairly robust establishment. On Iran policy, for example, Defense Secretary James Mattis seems to chug along by himself, pursuing an approach that is basically a somewhat more aggressive version of President Barack Obama’s policy. An ideologue likely would be as ineffective as national security adviser as Trump has been as president, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

    In my revised view, the less control Trump has over the federal government, the better. Think of it this way: Which would be more dangerous, a Mafia family overseen by the cruel and competent Michael Corleone, or one led by his ineffectual brother Fredo? So, I say, Let Donald be Donald.


    Inside Alabama’s Strange Senate race


    Luther Strange’s tenure in the Senate is not even four months old, the Republican having been handed his Alabama seat by a scandal-plagued governor who resigned on the cusp of impeachment by lawmakers in Montgomery. But Republicans in Washington are...

    Luther Strange’s tenure in the Senate is not even four months old, the Republican having been handed his Alabama seat by a scandal-plagued governor who resigned on the cusp of impeachment by lawmakers in Montgomery. But Republicans in Washington are going all out to rescue Strange in his campaign this year, treating him like a beloved Senate veteran.

    The multimillion-dollar push in a state that Democrats have almost no chance of winning is intended to help Strange muscle through a crowded primary field that includes two bomb-throwing conservatives apt to cause Mitch McConnell some major headaches should they defeat the appointed senator.

    The Senate Leadership Fund, the powerful super PAC with close ties to the majority leader, has already reserved $2.65 million in TV airtime and is pledging up to $10 million in the conservative state. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has warned political consultants about working for Strange’s competitors. One of Strange’s challengers is already complaining that McConnell is stifling his fundraising.

    And influential GOP senators are sending not-so-subtle signals that they aren’t eager to have anyone but Strange return to the Senate after the Aug. 15 primary and a potential runoff in September.

    “I won’t mention any names,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), also a two-time NRSC chairman. “But we do need people who are interested in being constructive, because obviously we have a razor-thin margin of 52 [votes] and we can’t go backwards. We need to go forward.”

    The rally behind Strange, a former Tulane University basketball player whose 6-foot-9-inch profile is befitting of his “Big Luther” moniker, is in one respect unsurprising: The GOP Conference has a longstanding policy of defending its incumbents. That standard will play out in other states this cycle where Republicans are facing primary threats, such as Arizona and Mississippi.


    “The message needs to be sent that we protect our incumbents,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “Before there’s ever a discussion about other potential races [where] we may want to pick up a new seat, first and foremost we have to make sure that our colleagues understand that they’re a priority.”

    But it’s also true Strange’s two most formidable opponents in the Alabama GOP primary — Rep. Mo Brooks and Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice — would inject some uncertainty into an already balky Senate majority by taking hard-line social positions and potentially obstructing their agenda. It doesn’t hurt that Strange is polished, predictable and low-key, in addition to having existing relationships with many Republicans from the South.

    Meanwhile, Brooks and Moore are attempting to capitalize on Strange’s establishment backing. In Brooks’ view, the support coalescing behind Strange is merely another example of the Washington “swamp” that Donald Trump pledged to drain on the campaign trail.

    “For these Republican swamp critters to spend millions upon millions of dollars protecting an appointed placeholder, appointed by a disgraced governor, I just don’t get it,” Brooks said in a recent interview from the Capitol. (In response, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, noted of the four-term lawmaker: “He’s part of that swamp, though. When did he get elected?”)

    Other Strange allies say Brooks is plenty swampish himself, having received donations from the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as the political action committees of former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his successor, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. He was also a leadership-backed “Young Gun” in 2010.

    Moore argued that the influx of cash and resources into the Alabama race will ultimately matter little.

    “The people of Alabama don’t buy this sort of political approach,” he said in a phone interview. “To spend up $50 million on a candidate that hasn’t been elected and was appointed by a governor that was impeached? That seems to be strange.”

    Moore then corrected himself: “I should say, unusual.”


    The conservative jurist is currently leading in the polls, but national Republicans hope to push Strange at least to the primary runoff on Sept. 26 and then win there. Moore has strong name identification from his time on the state Supreme Court, although Strange himself has won two statewide races as attorney general and also ran for lieutenant governor.

    Brooks and Moore could siphon support from each other, while Strange backers were relieved when Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh — who could’ve plucked votes from Strange — said earlier this month that he would not run for the seat.

    Establishment Republicans also believe they have a straightforward strategy to taking down Moore and Brooks: hammering them as reluctant Trump supporters in a state where the president is still deeply popular. Brooks, who endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the GOP presidential nomination, previously called Trump “destructive” and complained of his “gutter-mouth tendencies.” Moore’s wife, Kayla, also backed Cruz in the primary.

    “I’ve always been supportive of President Trump and his agenda, and that’s what people in the state that I talk to care about,” Strange said in an interview. “My two opponents, I haven’t looked at their record, but I don’t think they were supportive of President Trump.”

    And Strange, who replaced Jeff Sessions when he was confirmed as attorney general, embraces the backing from fellow Republicans in Washington.

    “I’m really proud to have the support of my colleagues. They, more than anyone, knew and worked with Jeff Sessions, and for them to find me the worthy successor to Sen. Sessions is very encouraging,” Strange said. “I feel very comfortable being compared to Sen. Sessions.”

    The support for Strange is not unanimous. Cruz — whose former presidential campaign manager, Jeff Roe, is now working for Strange — notably declined to endorse Strange when asked by POLITICO, saying he still abides by his practice of staying out of primaries involving incumbent senators.

    For his part, Brooks — who has also faced attacks from the Senate Leadership Fund that he’s been an ineffective lawmaker — argues that he was “instrumental in my communications” with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in crafting the House’s bill to repeal Obamacare and ultimately muscling it through the chamber. And Moore also says he’s supportive of Trump’s agenda.


    “I agree with him on many things. Not because I know him, but because I know things need to be changed on our health care, education, military, foreign relations,” Moore said. “I support the president’s attempt to change things.”

    Moore would certainly be an outlier in the Republican Conference and proudly brags about being “not part of the establishment.” He was removed as the state’s chief justice in 2003 for opposing the removal of a Ten Commandments statue from the state Capitol, but was later elected again, before then being suspended for not enforcing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. He maintains that anti-gay marriage position today and says the Supreme Court had “no authority” to legalize it.

    Brooks, meanwhile, has argued in the past that Democrats have declared a “war on whites” and has made his mark in the Capitol for his hard-line stances on immigration.

    Both Brooks and Moore declined to say whether they would support McConnell as Republican leader.

    “I don’t know Sen. McConnell," Moore fumed. "Obviously he doesn’t support me. He called up consultants and made it very difficult to raise money."

    Strange will have his own questions to answer. The biggest liability is likely the circumstances in which Strange was tapped by former Gov. Robert Bentley, who was embroiled in a lurid sex scandal before he resigned earlier this year. Last November, Strange — then the attorney general — asked a House committee investigating a potential Bentley impeachment to hold off while his office conducted “related work.”

    Brooks says he professes “no judgment one way or the other” about Strange’s history with Bentley. And Strange himself has argued that there was no impropriety, saying last month shortly after Bentley’s resignation that “everything I did was working with and on the advice of the best public corruption team in the United States.”


    Democrats have no illusion that they can flip the Alabama Senate seat, and they have no plans for now to get behind a candidate in their field. But the chaotic GOP primary has nonetheless prompted them to keep an eye on events down south.

    Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the campaign arm is “following the developments in Alabama very closely.”

    Indeed, the battle in Alabama appears likely to get nasty, expensive and unpredictable.

    “I can’t second-guess the primary,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s senior senator. “I don’t know. It’s Aug. 15, that’s a long time. You kidding me?”


    Trump's foreign trip: 5 takeaways


    President Donald Trump ended his first overseas trip on a buoyant note Saturday, telling a crowd of American sailors at a naval base in Sicily: “I think we hit a home run.” But aside from closing a $110 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia on the...

    President Donald Trump ended his first overseas trip on a buoyant note Saturday, telling a crowd of American sailors at a naval base in Sicily: “I think we hit a home run.”

    But aside from closing a $110 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia on the first day of his nine-day tour, it wasn’t entirely clear what concrete goals the president achieved.

    Trump made it through the grueling trip without a major diplomatic incident—despite a close call in Israel, where he volunteered to reporters that he’d never uttered the country’s name as the source of intelligence he reportedly shared with Russian officials during an Oval Office visit.

    And he succeeded in putting off allies who were pressuring him to keep the U.S. in the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, buying himself the space to make a diplomatically awkward decision that will please his base at home.

    Now, Trump returns home to deepening scandals related to his aides’ ties to Russia, having shown his ability to represent the U.S. on the world stage in true Trump fashion.

    Here are POLITICO’S five takeaways after traveling with the president through five stops:

    Trump prefers one-on-one meetings to big multilateral summits

    Trump seemed to enjoy the first leg of his trip, with visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. His time in Saudi Arabia was dominated by a celebration in a gilded palace where Trump mingled among royalty. Along with the dealmaking in Saudi, the first half of the tour was dominated by talk about security and terrorism, both favorite Trump topics.

    But in Brussels and Sicily, Trump found counterparts who were largely unified against him—and decided not to give them what they wanted, whether it was a public commitment to NATO’s mutual defense clause or assent to staying in the Paris climate deal.


    The optics were the message

    Trump glowed as he placed his hands on an illuminated orb alongside King Salman at the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Trump was reverent and peaceful as he touched the wall with a yarmulke on his head. At the Vatican, Trump grinned alongside his black-clad wife and daughter while Pope Francis glowered.

    In Europe, Trump had more awkward encounters that telegraphed his attitude. The photo of him tightly gripping the hand of French President Emmanuel Macron and video of him appearing to push past the prime minister of Montenegro out of his way made headlines. At the G7 summit family photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked away while standing next to Trump, who was looking down.

    Trump’s ‘home-run’ accomplished very little – perhaps by design

    Privately, some U.S. officials called the jaunt “completely useless.” Very few decisions were made in the summit meetings, while Trump played to his base with an "America First” approach to foreign relations. But the president got away without making any promises that would be hard to keep back in Washington—and managed to reverse positions taken by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, without causing major diplomatic rows.

    EU Council President Donald Tusk called this weekend’s gathering “the most difficult G7 summit,” because Trump arrived seeking to reverse prior positions held by the United States. Co-signers, desperate to keep the agreement together, have privately accepted that they may have to higher emissions levels for the U.S. to keep them in the pact, which Trump could eventually tout as a win, according to a U.S. diplomat.

    The end result for the G7 was a watered-down communiqué, in which six of the seven members reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to the Paris accord on climate change. Trump has said he’ll make a final decision as soon as next week.


    But Trump finally took a position on Russia

    While the G7 allies weren’t able to nail down Trump’s stance on the Paris climate accord, they did get some more clarity on the administration’s position concerning sanctions against Russia.

    Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn initially suggested in Brussels that the White House didn’t yet have a position on sanctions stemming from Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, but then told reporters on Friday, “We’re not lowering our sanctions on Russia. If anything, we would probably look to get tougher on Russia.”

    The final G7 communiqué maintained a hard line on Russia.

    Trump hoped for a reset, but at least he got to avoid his trouble at home for a week

    President Donald Trump did not give a single press conference on the trip, breaking with tradition of speaking with reporters during major trips to promote the White House narrative.

    While the other six leaders that attended the G7 summit held press conferences Saturday at the conclusion of the event, Trump took off for a U.S. naval base, where he thanked his wife, Melania, for joining him, and touted his “truly historic week.”


    Leaders issue G7 declaration with U.S. a holdout on climate change


    TAORMINA, Sicily — Leaders of the G7, the world's most exclusive geopolitical club, issued their 2017 declaration Saturday, with U.S. President Donald Trump refusing to join his counterparts in pledging commitment to the 195-nation Paris accord on...

    TAORMINA, Sicily — Leaders of the G7, the world's most exclusive geopolitical club, issued their 2017 declaration Saturday, with U.S. President Donald Trump refusing to join his counterparts in pledging commitment to the 195-nation Paris accord on climate change.

    The statement also included language on trade, which appeared to be a compromise between the new U.S. administration's skepticism about some current trade deals and the more pro-free trade views of other G7 members. On Russia, Trump went along with the group, maintaining a hard line on the conflict in Ukraine.

    Trump, posting on Twitter, said he would make a decision on whether the U.S. would remain in the climate change accord next week, after he returns to Washington. The other six members of the G7 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K. — reaffirmed "strong commitment" to the agreement, which Barack Obama signed in 2015.

    While the declaration included remarkable language highlighting that the U.S. stood apart, the other G7 members expressed some relief that Trump had not outright rejected the accord and said they remained hopeful he would come around

    "The United States of America is in the process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris Agreement and thus is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics," the leaders wrote. "Understanding this process, the Heads of State and of Government of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom and the Presidents of the European Council and of the European Commission reaffirm their strong commitment to swiftly implement the Paris Agreement, as previously stated at the Ise-Shima Summit."

    Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn told reporters on Saturday that the president "continues to study" the Paris agreement.

    Cohn said Friday that the U.S. president had told his fellow G7 leaders that “the environment is very, very important to me, Donald Trump”—but reiterated his concerns that the U.S. was falling behind India and China in manufacturing. “He didn't want to do anything to put the U.S. at a disadvantage,” Cohn said.


    One senior EU official said that leaders recognized that Trump was at the center of an impassioned debate in the U.S., and even within his own administration, over whether the U.S. should stick with the Paris agreement, that they appreciated the chance to make their case, and wanted to give him space to come to a decision.

    The senior official said that Trump’s fellow leaders had stressed their view that the Paris accord was not only about protecting the environment, but also served the business interests of the U.S. and its G7 partners.

    Some supporters of the agreement have suggested that a withdrawal by the U.S. would help position China as a leader of global environmental policy, and new green technologies.

    The declaration also included what appeared to be some softening of resistance by the U.S. on multilateral trade. Earlier this year, the U.S. had blocked traditional language in the G20 declaration about fighting "all forms" of protectionism.

    While the "all forms" construction, which appeared in last year's G7 statement, was not revived, the new communique stated: "We reiterate our commitment to keep our markets open and to fight protectionism, while standing firm against all unfair trade practices."

    The declaration, however, also included new language that acknowledged some drawbacks to trade. "At the same time, we acknowledge that trade has not always worked to the benefit of everyone. For this reason, we commit to adopting appropriate policies so that all firms and citizens can make the most of opportunities offered by the global economy."


    On another crucial topic, the declaration retained language previously adopted by the G7 warning Russia that it could face additional punishment if the situation worsens in Ukraine.

    While calling for Russia and Ukraine to work to implement the Minsk 2 peace agreement, the G7 leaders declared, "We also stand ready to take further restrictive measures in order to increase costs on Russia should its actions so require."

    Earlier, Trump posted two other tweets about policy priorities raised at his overseas meetings.

    First, he wrote, “Many NATO countries have agreed to step up payments considerably, as they should. Money is beginning to pour in – NATO will be much stronger.”

    In fact, the agreed commitments are for NATO allies to spend more on defense overall, mainly on their own militaries – so the increases would not necessarily be seen at NATO headquarters but in the military budgets of individual countries.

    Shortly after, Trump wrote: “Big G7 meetings today. Lots of very important matters under discussion. First on the list, of course, is terrorism.” Terrorism has been a major topic of the G7 summit, given the backdrop of last week’s bombing in Manchester, England.

    The G7 leaders approved and published a two-and-a-half page joint statement on terrorism on Friday, before U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May flew home to London.


    Trump accuses 'fake news' media of making up sources


    President Donald Trump on Sunday morning accused news outlets of fabricating stories and making up sources.In a series of tweets, the president said he believed the leaks coming from his administration are actually "fabricated lies.""It is my opinion...

    President Donald Trump on Sunday morning accused news outlets of fabricating stories and making up sources.

    In a series of tweets, the president said he believed the leaks coming from his administration are actually "fabricated lies."

    "It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media," he tweeted at 8:33 a.m.

    He went on to say that the anonymous sources used in articles do not exist.

    "Whenever you see the words 'sources say' in the fake news media, and they don't mention names .... it is very possible that those sources don't exsist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy," he continued. Several minutes later he rewrote one of the tweets to fix the spelling of "exist."

    Trump has been plagued with a series of leaks coming from sources within the White House since his inauguration. This past week, Trump made his first overseas trip — a stretch of time in which he did minimal tweeting.


    Trump also implied that the special election in Montana between Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte was poorly covered, given that Gianforte won the race.

    "Does anyone notice how the Montana Congressional race was such a big deal to Dems & Fake News until the Republican won? V was poorly covered," he wrote, presumably meaning "V" for victor. Earlier in the morning, Trump tweeted about that race, saying: "Big win in Montana for Republicans!"

    Trump also tweeted Sunday morning about his trip abroad, calling it "a great success for America."

    "Just returned from Europe. Trip was a great success for America. Hard work but big results," he tweeted.


    Arlington Cemetery: A year in pictures


    As the nation prepares to honor fallen service members on Memorial Day 2017, POLITICO takes a look back at a year inside our nation's...

    As the nation prepares to honor fallen service members on Memorial Day 2017, POLITICO takes a look back at a year inside our nation's cemetery.

    Week One: The President Flew Away and an Investigation Took Root


    It would take a colossal dash cam—rolling 24 hours a day, filming in Cinerama, capturing it all in surround sound—to retain all the Donald Trump and Russia news that sailed by this week. As Air Force One carried Trump to the Middle East and Europe in...

    It would take a colossal dash cam—rolling 24 hours a day, filming in Cinerama, capturing it all in surround sound—to retain all the Donald Trump and Russia news that sailed by this week. As Air Force One carried Trump to the Middle East and Europe in the first big trip of his presidency, the images broadcast back home made him look like the star of a musical comedy directed by Robert Altman. There was some goofy sword dancing in Saudi Arabia, gaffe-ing in Israel, where he said he hadn't said “Israel” to the Russians, and some body-control issues in Brussels as he dispensed semi-secret handshakes, under-basket elbows and lectures to befuddled European leaders who shunned him.

    This was the week that the seeds of scandal and ineptitude planted over the past six months finally sprouted their first shoots, wrapping green tendrils around the president’s ankles and around the throats of his aides, yanking them to earth. This was the week the idea that Trump could stall or outrun his tormentors was put to rest as two congressional committees, one special counsel, the FBI and the deep state pressed him from every angle. Trump is now caught in history’s grinder, and the sparks and noise emitted are lighting up the media universe.

    By the time the president returns to Washington Sunday, he'll need an action director to document the political intrigue that has morphed like a B-movie swamp monster since he left. How will Trump counter? With gentle weeding, political herbicide, a gas-fired weed-whacker, or napalm? The scandal that has no name is unspooling like a police procedural in congressional hearings and news stories in the Washington Post and New York Times. The Post landed the most damaging story at the beginning of the week. A blind sourced piece alleged that the president had asked both the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and the head of the NSA, Michael S. Rogers, to help him stall the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's Russia connections. What appears to have prompted Trump's request was then-FBI Director James B. Comey's March 20 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee about his Trump-Russia investigations.

    According to the press, President Trump attempted to set Jersey dividers between his campaign and the DNI, the head of the NSA, and the head of the FBI (as the Times reported last week). Add to this intrigue Sally Yates' recent testimony before Congress in which the former acting Attorney General said she was fired after informing the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn appeared to be mobbed up with the Russians. Meanwhile, investigative flypaper has trapped son-in-law Jared Kushner, who we learned sought to set up a secret backchannel with the Russians during the transition that would be run out of the Russian embassy on Russian gear! No small wonder then, that anonymous sources have pronounced him a focus of the FBI’s Russia investigation. Not even John le Carré could pitch this cartwheeling plot to Hollywood.

    The Post based its Monday DNI/NSA blockbuster on anonymous sources—but the sourcing wasn't "trust us" vapor. The Post wrote that "two current and two former officials" had shared the stories, making the scoop a joint Trump and Obama administrations exercise in tattling. (Everybody needs to brush up on their "deep state" theorizing if they're not already.) A contemporaneous memo of the Trump-Rogers conversation exists, the Post reported, similar to the ones Comey reportedly wrote after Trump shook him down repeatedly.

    Outside Washington all the memo-writing must look like professional ass-covering. To Trump’s steadfast supporters, it must look like the first steps in a coup against their leader. Inside the swamp, officials have long generated exonerating paper trails just in case trouble rears. What's the likelihood that a contemporaneous memo covering the Trump-Coats conversation exist? High, I'd say. What are the chances that these memos will be subpoenaed by independent counsel Robert Mueller if they exist? One hundred percent. Never underestimate the imitative power of the American public, which often looks to Washington for inspiration. Soon, perhaps, hotel clerks and Uber drivers will be writing their own contemporaneous memos and asking Washington which paper is best for archival preservation. The words must burn, but the paper should be acid-free.

    By Tuesday, visible sources had robbed the media spotlight from blind ones as Coats issued a no comment at a Senate hearing when asked if the Post's reporting was right—had Trump urged him to shutter the FBI investigation? "It’s not appropriate for me to comment publicly on any of that,” Coats said, repeating himself when asked again if, hypothetically, a president were to make such a request.

    At a separate congressional hearing held Tuesday, former director of the CIA John O. Brennan confessed that suspicions of Russian manipulation of Trump campaign associates had first been raised in the summer, and that he forwarded his worries to the FBI which started the Trump-Russia investigation in July. “The Russian intelligence threat is a serious one, and this is just one manifestation of the nature of that threat," Brennan said. “It should be clear to everyone that Russia brazenly interfered in our 2016 presidential election process.”

    Brennan served additional fresh meat to the committee. The Russians "try to suborn individuals and try to get individuals, including U.S. individuals, to act on their behalf, wittingly or unwittingly,” he said. Obviously alluding to Michael Flynn, he said, "Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.” Yet for all his scintillating testimony, Brennan didn't advance the case for Trump-Russia collusion, as Byron York commented in the Washington Examiner.

    As cable's talking heads reminded us again and again, the Trump-Russia investigation can no longer be considered just a collusion probe. Sensing legal turbulence ahead, Trump has hired an outside counsel, Marc E. Kasowitz, famous for representing the mogul in an unsuccessful libel suit against New York Times reporter Tim O'Brien—O'Brien wrote that Trump wasn't a billionaire! Flynn has donned a 5th Amendment cloak to protect him from congressional subpoenas, a strategy that might not work when it comes to his business records. The FBI is expected to seek from Kushner detailed records of where he traveled, whom he visited, what the nature of his relationship with Flynn was, what sort of loans he applied for, and what kind of deals he cut during the campaign and transition. Kushner is not a suspect, but the leak that labeled him a target means the feds are interested in his complete "patterns of activity," enough to give anyone the willies.

    The river that is the Trump-Russia story may connect to countless tributaries. Wall Street Journal explorers mapped one such stream this week, finding that hackers, presumably Russians, had leaked 2.5 gigabytes of Democratic voter-turnout analyses to Florida Republican consultant Aaron Nevins, who forwarded a summary of it to Trump intimate Roger Stone. How much does it bother Nevins that the leakers might be Russians?

    “If your interests align,” Nevins said, “never shut any doors in politics.”

    Each presidential administration ends up being viewed through a lens, rarely of its own choosing. The scandal that really needs a name (as long as it doesn’t end in “gate”) has now become the lens through which we now view Donald Trump. Each investigative lash struck by the press, every finding advanced by congressional committees and each probe by the federal sleuths will streak the Trump portrait in the unflattering colors of scandal. No matter what Trump says, no matter what he does, every news story will be framed inside the continuing investigation. Not yet convicted of anything, he’s already history’s prisoner.

    ******

    What should the press should call the Trump investigations? Send ideas to [email protected]. Subscribe to my email alerts, follow my Twitter feed, heed my RSS feed.


    How the Middlebury Riot Really Went Down


    In March, as he stood somewhat defiantly at the podium of Middlebury College’s Wilson Hall, as 200 students chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “Your message is hatred, we will not tolerate it,” Charles Murray thought to himself, “This is...

    In March, as he stood somewhat defiantly at the podium of Middlebury College’s Wilson Hall, as 200 students chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “Your message is hatred, we will not tolerate it,” Charles Murray thought to himself, “This is crazy.” The audience saw him as embodying everything they oppose, but the truth was he and his audience probably had something in common: They hated Trump.

    By that point in his appearance, however, any possibility of common ground had long since passed. Murray had barely uttered “This is going to be a real anticlimax...,” before much of the audience had turned its back on him. Murray has been a lightning rod for liberal protest ever since the publication of his book The Bell Curve in 1994, which suggested that racial differences in intelligence could partly explain the socioeconomic gap between black and white Americans, and he had published seven books since then. But he hadn’t seen anything like this kind of fervid pushback for years.

    That is, until Donald Trump was elected.

    Immediately, Murray noticed that every college speaking engagement had become an exercise in absorbing the outrage of people who saw him as a convenient punching bag for a president they hated but couldn’t reach. That part he understood—Trump, he believed, was a fraud and an incompetent narcissist—but he couldn’t abide what he considered anti-intellectual “thuggery” that he was seeing in halls like this one around the country.

    By evening—after Murray delivered his talk via video feed in a locked room, following a tense exit to the parking lot where a professor escorting him would get roughed up by a half dozen or so protesters—Middlebury would be well on its way to becoming the latest front in an intensifying culture war on college campuses. The op-eds in major newspapers the following week were blunt and unforgiving. “The Mob at Middlebury,” announced the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times editorial board came to Murray’s defense: “Free speech is a sacred right, and it needs protecting, now more than ever.” Middlebury’s protest, followed quickly by violent protests at Berkeley, fed an increasingly popular narrative of intolerance on college campuses. More than just redoubts of liberalism, schools like Middlebury are now seen as actively hostile territory for conservatives, anti-intellectual safe spaces self-policed by students who would rather turn their backs than argue an idea on its merits.

    But a deeper look at Murray’s appearance, including interviews with students and protesters who have not spoken publicly before, reveals that the protesters—in particular a band of outsiders who seized an opportunity to hound an adversary—were driven as much by the larger political forces sweeping the country as they were a specific grievance with a 74-year-old author whose most controversial work is more than 20 years old. During the week that led up to the confrontation, it’s possible to identify multiple points at which the administration and faculty could have defused the growing frustration of students who felt that school officials too easily dismissed their concerns in favor of extending every courtesy to someone they considered a flamethrowing pseudoscientist. And the aftermath, in which students accused the college of stacking the disciplinary process, has only exacerbated their sense that the administration, and some of the faculty, were more concerned with appeasing conservatives than defending their own students. Seen in this light, the episode is not just a case study in changing free speech norms but a generational power play acted out in an era of bitter political upheaval.

    ***

    The announcement appeared on February 23 the opinion page of the Middlebury Campus student newspaper. The student authors of “An Invitation to Argue” revealed that Charles Murray would speak on campus the following Thursday, March 2. Their stated goal was to “encourage robust discussion and expose the Middlebury Community to diverse thoughts, opinions and understandings on the important topics of today.”

    The students belonged to the school’s chapter of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank with connections to conservatives such as Dick Cheney, John Bolton and Newt Gingrich. In 1990, AEI hired hired Murray, who six years earlier wrote Losing Ground, which startled readers at the time by arguing that welfare programs increase poverty, not reduce it. That controversy was eclipsed by the furor that greeted The Bell Curve, which critics assailed for overstating the evidence for racial differences in intelligence. The student members of the AEI club said they knew little about either of the books or their controversies. AEI had suggested Murray on a list of speakers it sent to its student chapters and the students thought Murray’s 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, seemed relevant to Trump’s electoral victory.

    “Honestly, and this is the funny thing, we did not think Murray was going to be controversial,” said Hayden Dublois, one of the AEI members involved with the invitation.

    “Murray had actually been at Middlebury in 2007,” explained Dublois. “I guess there was a little bit of back and forth during the Q&A but it was relatively uncontroversial. My AEI colleagues and I spoke to the faculty member who had invited him, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you guys probably won’t get much backlash.’”

    The students who agreed to invite Murray hadn’t known the complete back story on Murray’s 2007 visit. But a few faculty did, and their recollection was that it hadn’t gone well. Soon stories were spreading on campus that Murray, during the Q&A session, had told a black student that he probably would have been better off at a state university.

    “I would have never said that,” Murray told POLITICO Magazine. He remembers the talk because his daughter, who graduated from Middlebury that same year, was sitting in the audience, and he was unusually nervous. “It’s possible that a question was asked about me saying that affirmative action has resulted in mismatches.” This is the controversial argument that students of color who are admitted to elite schools through affirmative action may struggle to keep up with peers who were admitted on merit alone. “Would I have acknowledged that I believe there is a mismatch problem? Yes,” said Murray. “Would I have said to an individual student you would have been better off at a state university? Never ever would I say that.”

    But the embellished and unflattering version made its way around the student body nevertheless, aided by an already tense climate. The day after Trump was elected, two Muslim students at Middlebury walked out of their dorm room to find “Fuck Muslims #Trump2016” on their door’s whiteboard. One week later, in town, two swastikas were found drawn on the door of a Jewish congregation center.

    “After Trump was elected, there was really a lot of tension on campus,” said Alex Newhouse, a student journalist for the Middlebury Campus. “There was a need for some outlet, for some sort of event, or demonstration that students could rally around.”

    The first stirrings that Murray’s upcoming visit was going to draw more backlash than anticipated came almost immediately. Posters on campus announcing Murray’s talk were grafittied with “White Supremacist.” Someone created a Facebook event, where people educated one another on Murray’s work and brainstormed on ways to respond.

    “We had such little time to organize,” said Arianna Reyes, a junior at Middlebury who helped plan the protests. Even the students and faculty who invited Murray to campus later admitted that announcing the event only a week beforehand was a mistake. It was the first in a series of missteps that would make the college itself a target of student anger.

    “The group’s leaders did want to keep the event under wraps,” said Dublois.“If I could go back and change one thing, that would be the thing. I would have announced it a month before.”

    ***

    By Monday, Murray was the subject of intense conversation all over campus, inside the classroom and out.

    At an early afternoon meeting, around 50 students and faculty met in an auditorium. “It became pretty clear that there was a divide between those who intended to challenge Murray a bit and then allow him to speak, and those who did not want him to speak at all,” said Nick Garber, a sophomore who was reporting on the meeting for the Middlebury Campus.

    That evening, another 40 students met, assembled by three women of color: Elizabeth Dunn and Arianna Reyes, both juniors, and Sami Lamont, a senior. There was again a divide between those who wanted to protest Murray but let him speak, and those who wanted to prevent him from speaking altogether. But this time, Reyes led those who wanted to shut Murray down—about 20 students—into a smaller room nearby. “I wanted to make sure everybody in the new room felt comfortable with shutting down the event specifically,” said Reyes. That way, “we didn’t have to spiral off into debates about whether or not we were going to do it.”

    Dunn and Lamont, who supported what Reyes and the others were planning, stayed in the original room and helped students write an open letter to the college president and educational pamphlets to pass out on the day of Murray’s visit.

    Though it had been the AEI chapter’s decision to announce the speech with only a week’s notice, some on campus were suspicious that the short notice was a purposeful attempt by the administration to take students by surprise. Distrust of the administration intensified once students began asking their professors in class who Murray was. Even many of the faculty who supported Murray’s right to speak agreed that the debate over his work had ended two decades ago.

    “Murray’s books don’t go through peer review. They’re much more written for the popular press,” said Michael Sheridan, an anthropology professor at Middlebury. “Generally, pseudoscientists tend to work without fully engaging with the other scholars working on the same topic.”

    Murray, for his part, said that peer review is “an academic norm in technical journals, but not for books.” And before publishing the book, Murray said, they sent draft copies to a variety of experts. “We spent dozens—probably hundreds—of hours rewriting drafts and reanalyzing data in response to critiques.”

    But it seemed to some students and faculty that by inviting Murray, the administration was less interested in free speech for the sake of intellectual exercise, and more interested in bolstering the school’s reputation as open to dissenting views at a time when public opinion of college campuses was at an all-time low.

    “When Murray was here 10 years ago, people asked him hard questions during the Q&A, and he was insulting and obviously wasn’t going to change his mind,” said Linus Owens, a sociology professor who supported the protesters. “The Q&A is purely performative.”

    But what frustrated the students most was their sense the administration was lending Murray legitimacy. Why was the political science department co-sponsoring the event, and why did Patton, the college’s president, agree to give opening remarks? “Is this the ‘discourse’ and ‘debate’ and ‘intellectual diversity’ we want on our campus?” wrote Nic Valenti, a senior, in a Middlebury Campus op-ed. “Are we back to the 18th Century—debating the equality of human beings?”

    Students, faculty and alumni wrote open letters and signed petitions asking for the political science department to rescind its co-sponsorship and for Patton not to speak. Instead, the political science department chose to hold an open meeting to explain their reasoning for co-sponsorship. It was set for Wednesday, the day before the event.

    But before the open meeting could happen, a student made a decision that would have important consequences for the tenor of the protests. On Tuesday evening, a student took a trip to attend a meeting of Green Mountain Anti-Fascist Action, a group that styles itself as “a community network of militant anti-fascists.” “Throughout the process we were in communication with students,” said a 25-year-old woman who is a member of the group. She asked that her name not be used because she fears the “alt-right” will target her. It was her group that would help earn the protest its unsavory “mob” label.

    ***

    If the open meeting organized by the political science department was intended to clear the air, it had the opposite effect.

    Burt Johnson, the chair of the department who originally decided to co-sponsor Murray’s visit, argued that sponsorship did not equate to endorsement. He spoke about how the political science department had mixed feelings about Murray themselves, but that it had been department policy to co-sponsor any event ostensibly related to political science; he was not making a judgment of Murray’s academic legitimacy. President Patton, for her part, explained that she had always been willing to give opening remarks at campus events when asked, regardless of the event, and AEI had asked. These clarifications, they believed, should assuage student concerns.

    But for many of the students in attendance, the comments by faculty members only made things worse.

    Allison Stanger, the political science professor who was slated to moderate the Q&A with Murray, had made clear publicly that she disagreed with Murray’s views. But she had also defended Murray as an academic and dismissed accusations of racism. Two days earlier, she had written on Facebook, “please ponder how Charles Murray can be a white supremacist when he married an Asian woman and had two children with her. How does that work?” She repeated the question at Wednesday’s open meeting.

    “As an Asian woman myself, that is pretty offensive,” said Elizabeth Lee, a senior philosophy major. “It seems so obvious.” Lee made reference to Madame Butterfly, the opera in which an American lieutenant takes and discards a Japanese wife before returning to America. An Asian wife, said Lee, is not a shield from accusations of racism. “I think people got angrier as the meeting went on.”

    At the beginning of the week, only a small number of students wanted to keep Murray from speaking at all. Another equally small contingent wanted to protest outside, perform a walkout or intensely interrogate Murray during the Q&A. But after a week of administrative missteps and perceived slights, student trust in their college had eroded to the point that nobody knew what would happen the next day.

    ***

    “The line outside of the event stretched longer that most anything I’ve seen before at Middlebury,” said Elizabeth Dunn, one of the protest organizers. A number of locals from the town of Middlebury, which has a population under 9,000, had come in support. This wasn’t the first time students and locals had banded together. In 2002, when George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer came to campus to give a lecture, 1,500 Middlebury students and town residents protested the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq.

    The lecture hall, which couldn’t hold everyone who wanted to get in, was set up with chairs below the stage and bleachers in the back. A majority of the dedicated protesters, who had waited in line for hours, dominated the front and center of the audience. Students held posterboard and cardboard signs of varying quality, from “NO EUGENICS” to “AEI MUST GO.”

    Bill Burger, the college’s vice president of communications, was the first to speak. He read from the college policy, with good humor: “You’re gonna love this next part,” he said at one point, reading from a list of disallowed behaviors. Students laughed. “Noise or action that disrupts the ability of the audience to hear.” Students then drowned him out with cheers and mock applause.

    When Murray walked on stage, a student yelled a friendly, “Hey, Charles!” and the audience lightheartedly laughed. As soon as he opened his mouth a majority of students stood up and turned their backs. After they finished reading in unison from a scripted statement, the chanting started. Any student who hoped the disruption would force Murray from the stage was mistaken.

    Murray had told the administration beforehand that he was determined to wait out the protesters no matter how long it took. “I had an attitude of, ‘I’m going nowhere,’" said Murray. “I was standing up there and thinking, ‘I don’t want to leave this stage.’” But Burger had told Murray beforehand that they had a backup plan. For 20 minutes, students continued to chant as Murray stood still at the podium. At one point, several students were surprised to see Stanger, the professor who was planning to lead the Q&A with Murray, chanting “Black Lives Matter” along with the protesters.

    Burger finally informed the crowd of their back-up plan. Stanger would interview Murray in a nearby room on a live feed. The announcement, viewed by the protesters as a trick sprung by the administration, caught students off guard. More than three quarters of the audience left—many to their dorm rooms to watch the livestream, some for the dining hall and others to start homework.

    But approximately 50 people stayed inside to continue protesting. Another 20 left the hall and joined the band of protesters from the anti-fascist group that had assembled in the parking lot, hoping to intercept Murray when he emerged. Some of the anti-fascists wore masks and one of them had a bullhorn to lead the crowd.

    Inside, the chanting continued and a couple of students pulled the fire alarm—three times. The administration was prepared for that because Murray, who had been the target of student protests before, warned administrators that might happen.

    “I think the Middlebury students were protesting, but in some ways the outside groups were leading it too,” said Lee. “They seemed more organized and intent on continuing the protests. It was a small but organized group.”

    After the live-stream ended, Burger left the student center with Murray, Stanger and two members of campus security. Burger was first one out the door, and he saw a man in all black staring at him, his face partly covered. About seven antifascists blocked Murray and Stanger’s path. “We intercepted them between the door and the car and surrounded them with signs and chanting and clapping,” said one of the antifascists. “And really, just like letting Charles Murray know that you can’t come to this campus and expect to leave without repercussions.”

    Students and anti-fascists claim that school security overreacted by aggressively shoving protesters out of the way, but it’s clear that the protesters pushed back. Stanger wrote in the New York Times a few weeks later that while some protesters shoved her, another pulled her hair, causing whiplash and a concussion that still bothers her.

    They finally arrived at Burger’s car, a 2013 Subaru Outback. Stanger scrambled into the passenger seat and Murray jumped into the back. The antifascists, now joined by students who had been watching nearby, surrounded the car. Burger says they were pushing so hard he feared the windows would break.

    Inside the car, says Burger, nobody spoke. Looking in his rear-view mirror, which was filled with protesters, Burger contemplated his options. That is when he saw a campus security guard, and he rolled down his window.

    “What do you want me to do?” Burger asked him.

    “Start backing up.”

    “Really?”

    “Yes.”

    Behind the vehicle, the security guards pushed protesters aside, clearing a path for the vehicle to slowly inch backwards. The group reformed quickly, allowing the car to move only a couple of feet at a time. Every time a security guard pushed her, said one of the anti-fascists, she steadied herself, planted her feet in front of the car’s path, and waited for her turn to be pushed again. She and her comrades, as she calls them, had trained for moments like these. Their goal wasn’t violence, but the anti-fascists did want to make life hard for Murray. Almost out of the parking lot, Burger sped up to take a left turn onto the street, but he wasn’t yet completely free of the crowd.

    “There was a man right in front of the car, and he didn’t get away in time,” said one of the antifascist protesters. “He could go either on top of the car or under the car, and he chose top.”

    With the man holding onto the hood, Burger began driving down the street at 20 miles per hour. According to Burger, he then slowed down to let the man jump off. According to one of the outside protesters, Burger slammed on the brakes, throwing the man off, before speeding away. Pretty soon the Middlebury Police pulled up, but the man had already fled the scene and the crowd was quickly thinning.

    ***

    In the following days, students at Middlebury found their newsfeeds full of articles lambasting their student body as symbolic of the worst illiberal tendencies on college campuses today. “There is a lot of anger directed outward at how Middlebury was characterized, more anger than directed inwards,” said Alex Newhouse.

    For one, students and faculty feel that the “mob” from after the event has been unfairly conflated with the non-violent protest that prevented Murray from speaking. Only a fraction of that day’s student protesters—a couple of dozen, at most—attempted to stop Burger’s car from leaving the parking lot. And condemnation of the violence was nearly universal, although the debate continued over who was at fault for it.

    The disciplinary process has also presented its challenges. Many students declined to be interviewed or refused to talk about certain subjects out of fear that it would be used against them. And the disciplinary proceedings have not endeared the administration to the students of color whose frustration with the college partly fueled the events on March 2.

    On March 20, a black senior named Addis Fouche-Channer received a phone call from a Middlebury police officer who told her a campus security guard had testified that he recognized her as one of the protesters surrounding Burger’s car. “How is it possible that I’ve been placed there,” Fouche-Channer asked, “if I actually just wasn’t there?”

    A month later, she told three inquiring private investigators hired by the college that she had statements from six friends who said they saw her working on a job application during the protests. But then in May, a Middlebury administrator ordered her to meet with him. At that meeting, Fouche-Channer learned that the campus security officer who identified her was someone she had known for years.

    “I don’t think he is mistaking me,” Fouche-Channer said, “I just think he is just literally profiling me.”

    Her judicial hearing was later canceled, but Addis still felt the college had profiled her for being black, and word of her story quickly made it around campus. “I will still not be donating to Middlebury College after graduation,” Addis wrote in an email. “It's a shame that I, on top of finals and enjoying the remainder of my senior year, had to provide evidence that I was not involved with the protest. I was guilty until proven innocent, and that isn't fair.”

    On the other end of the spectrum, though the school has punished 67 students for various violations of the school handbook, commentators in national media and even Murray himself have criticized the college for not punishing students severely enough. “The disciplinary response of Middlebury is pathetic,” said Murray. “It will encourage more of the same thing to happen.”

    Meanwhile, racist incidents on campus, some seemingly inspired by Trump, continue. About a month after Murray’s visit, a group of drunk, white athletes started throwing food across the dining hall on a Sunday evening. An Asian-American student went to their table and asked them to stop. Students who witnessed the exchange said an athlete replied: “Let’s build the wall!”

    If there is any positive news from Murray’s visit, it is that ironically, shutting down his talk has fostered difficult conversations on campus that might not have happened otherwise. “There has never been any one topic on campus that has dominated the discourse on campus like this one has,” said Nick Garber. “Its been refereshing to see people be this engaged.”

    Middlebury’s faculty, too, have used the Murray controversy as a platform for discussion. “The major thing that I think has been important, and probably constructive, although really difficult,” said Professor Michael Sheridan, “is it’s gotten the faculty to really get down to talking about what principles do we value.”

    Even between the administration and students, arguably the most frayed relationship of them all, there are the beginnings of a dialogue. In early May, 40 students, along with Professor Linus Owens and a dozen other faculty members, met with the administration for an impromptu discussion of the ongoing disciplinary procedures.

    “They were confronted with actual hard questions and struggled with them in real time in a meaningful way, which I think was a productive moment,” said Owens. “That was a better moment that anything Charles Murray could have produced talking at Middlebury.”


    Montana’s Charles Sumner Moment


    One hundred and sixty-one years ago, in retaliation for a blistering speech against slavery, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a gold-tipped cane on the Senate floor until he was unconscious. The...

    One hundred and sixty-one years ago, in retaliation for a blistering speech against slavery, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a gold-tipped cane on the Senate floor until he was unconscious. The unapologetic Brooks (“Every lick went where I intended”) audaciously resigned his seat, and then was promptly re-elected in the subsequent special election, proving his constituents had his back.

    Northerners were appalled, but Southern newspapers leapt to Brooks’ defense. The Richmond Whig hailed the caning as “a most glorious deed”; the Examiner said Sumner “ought to have nine-and-thirty [lashes] every morning.” The shocking attack, and the South’s fulsome embrace of it, became a rallying point for the abolitionist movement and fueled the rise of the nascent Republican Party. Sumner, who suffered lasting physical and emotional damage from the assault, did not fully return to the Senate for four years.

    Conservative radio host Glenn Beck has long warned that a polarized America would eventually suffer another violent and divisive “Charles Sumner moment.” Last June he said, “Mark my words. It will be someone like Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert that gets the cane to the head. It will be a self-righteous progressive that will beat a liberty person almost to death.”

    Close, but not quite. It was a testy conservative named Greg Gianforte who is said to have beaten a journalist, or as the president would say, a member of the “opposition party.” Like Preston Brooks, Gianforte found immediate validation from his constituents at the ballot box. And he earned the approbation of President Donald Trump, who interrupted his trip to Italy to hail the “great victory in Montana.” (It should be noted that House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Gianforte to apologize, which he did—after he won.)

    Without Gianforte’s alleged misdemeanor assault, he still would have won; we now know that before the incident he had already banked a healthy lead in Montana’s sizeable absentee vote. In turn, political observers would have likely concluded that the Trump base was holding fast despite swirling scandals. Champions of Bernie Sanders-style populism would have a tougher time claiming they held the key to turning red states blue, though optimists would hold out hope that the single digit margin of victory is a sign of weakening support for Republicans. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, goaded by “50 State Strategy” progressives to put some money behind their nominee Rob Quist despite the state’s red hue, would have greater justification to save cash for more competitive districts instead of throwing money at longshots.

    All such analyses still have merit, but are secondary to a more unsettling conclusion: America’s already destabilizing political polarization has only gotten worse since November.

    Gianforte’s Election Day vote share appears to be a little smaller than his early vote share (FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver cautions that the composition of Election Day voters and absentee voters is not identical, making comparisons difficult), but he kept his lead. Montana Republicans willingly, in some cases gleefully, sent a man to represent them in Washington who attacked a journalist for no other reason but asking a question he didn’t want to answer.

    Gianforte’s solid win makes Trump’s election seem like less of a fluke. Trump encouraged beatings of protesters and was caught on tape bragging about groping women. But one might have surmised he won in spite of that, thanks to his celebrity and showmanship, as well as Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties and politician persona. But maybe we should be contemplating the awful possibility that perhaps he won because of it.

    The personalities in the Montana race could not be any different than the presidential race. Gianforte was not a charismatic candidate – he couldn’t win the governor’s seat on the same day Trump won the state by 20 points. Quist, a country musician well-known statewide, was an authentic, relaxed and pure prairie populist. He had few of Hillary Clinton’s virtues, but he also had few of her liabilities.

    Gianforte didn’t win in spite of his violent outburst. He channeled a rage against the media that Trump routinely stokes. “You’re lucky someone doesn’t pop one of you” one Gianforte voter told a CNN reporter on Election Day. A caller to Rush Limbaugh’s show from Billings insisted, “If every Republican candidate in the country picked up a reporter and threw him to the ground, it would increase my chances exponentially of voting for them.” Another caller from near Missoula told Rush, “I’m all for what Gianforte did to that, however you called him, sleepywear Pajama Boy. It’s about time that people started sticking up for our side. If enough of this happens, those reporters are gonna learn to back off a little bit.” Keep in mind that the question the Guardian’s exceedingly polite Ben Jacobs asked was about Gianforte’s reaction to a CBO report.

    The palpable antipathy has less to do with journalistic quality than tribal loyalties. The largely college-educated scribes are treated, fairly or not, as representatives of a cultural elite that sneers at working-class whites who lack bachelors degrees. Democrats were on the losing end of this culture war in 2016 thanks to the Electoral College. Those who thought some economic populism and down-home folksiness would bridge the cultural divide got a rude awakening on Thursday night.

    Quist, who campaigned in a ten-gallon hat, gamely tried to claim the mantle of “Montana values,” but Republicans still yoked him to coastal liberalism. After a report that Quist had once performed at a nudist colony, one super PAC ad snarked, “He’s not interested in Montana values. He’s more interested in Hollywood values.” He was also hit hard for not always paying his taxes, which Quist futilely tried to explain was a result of financial troubles following a botched surgery. But even that was treated as evidence of his ties to national Democrats: “Can you trust Quist and Pelosi with your money?” charged another super PAC ad.

    As neither an upbeat Montana country singer nor a gun-toting Kansan could yield red-state breakthroughs in this year’s special elections, Democratic hopes will now return to Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, who faces Republican Karen Handel in a June 20 runoff. Unlike Quist and James Thompson, the buttoned-down Ossoff is running in highly educated, somewhat racially diverse suburban district that Clinton almost won in 2016. Ossoff leads in a recent poll, winning big with moderate and minority voters. If he pulls out a win, that would suggest Democrats hoping to take the House will have more success focusing on what New York Times’ Nate Cohn called the “Sun Belt” track: the “relatively well-educated, metropolitan districts with above-average Hispanic populations.”

    Thursday night was more evidence that the anger from Trump’s base, however irrational and misdirected, has yet to subside. Montana’s “Charles Sumner moment” won’t lead America into another civil war. Jacobs, who is urging his supporters to direct donations to the Committee to Protect Journalists rather than an online fund set up to buy him new glasses, will probably be OK. But the incident may convince Democrats that some divides cannot be bridged anytime soon.


    Michael Flynn Is Taking the Fifth. So What?


    So Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, is asserting his Fifth Amendment rights. He is refusing to comply with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s subpoena for documents related to its investigation of Russian interference...

    So Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, is asserting his Fifth Amendment rights. He is refusing to comply with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s subpoena for documents related to its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The mere act of producing the documents, Flynn said through a lawyer, would violate his constitutional protection against self-incrimination—as would testimony, he suggested.

    Flynn’s assertion has infuriated the Republican chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina, who has threatened to hold Flynn in contempt of Congress if he continues to stonewall the committee.

    Hearing testimony and news accounts suggest Flynn has plenty of cause for concern, including his unregistered representation of entities associated with ties to Turkey, his discussions with Russia’s ambassador about President Barack Obama’s imposition of sanctions, his acceptance of payments from Russian media outlet RT, and his apparent lack of candor with White House colleagues, law enforcement and the American people. However, his invocation of the Fifth Amendment should not be one of them.

    Unfortunately, Congress has a terrible track record of safeguarding the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Too many members of Congress, from both parties, have treated invocation of the Fifth Amendment as evidence of illegal conduct. In investigations ranging from the collapse Enron to botched gun trafficking investigations to IRS treatment of conservative groups, witnesses have been subjected to public innuendo and accusations of criminality after signaling their intent to assert the Fifth.

    That’s not how the self-incrimination clause of the Constitution is supposed to work. The Fifth Amendment privilege is not solely for the benefit of the guilty. The Supreme Court has described its basic function “to protect innocent men … who otherwise might be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances.” In criminal cases, invoking the privilege doesn’t imply guilt. And to protect the Fifth Amendment for everyone, Congress shouldn’t view it that way either.

    Some legislators have sought aggressively to undermine the privilege. During the Red Scare, Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.), asked witnesses if they had spied for the Soviets, and once they answered “no,” he would declare that the witness had waived his Fifth Amendment rights with respect to any question related to espionage. More recently, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), found IRS official Lois Lerner had waived the Fifth Amendment by declaring her innocence at the outset of a hearing. Issa’s legal ruling as chair later served as the basis for the House citing Lerner for contempt of Congress.

    In a criminal trial, it is improper for a prosecutor to ask a question designed to elicit a claim of privilege under the self-incrimination clause, and continuing to interrogate a witness after she refuses to testify on Fifth Amendment grounds could amount to prosecutorial misconduct.

    Congress is different. The congressional record is rife with examples of requiring witnesses to repeatedly assert the Fifth Amendment in the public glare. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) required a member of President Bill Clinton’s White House staff to appear at a public hearing and assert the Fifth Amendment 38 times. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) required disgraced junk bond financier Michael Milken to repeatedly assert the Fifth Amendment after Milken had provided the committee a sworn affidavit in advance. The lawmakers’ clear goal in each case was to embarrass the witnesses and make them appear guilty.

    Earlier congressional abuses prompted the D.C. Bar in 1977 to declare it a violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility for a congressional staff lawyer to require a witness to appear before a congressional committee when the committee had been informed that the witness would invoke the privilege against self-incrimination in response to all substantive questions. “[T]he sole effect of the summons [would] be to pillory the witness,” the Bar said.

    Flynn possesses tons of information critical to this investigation, both as a matter of his conduct and his interactions with other White House officials. He can definitively answer whether he called the Russian ambassador to undermine President Obama on his own accord or did so under orders from President-elect Trump. In the words of his lawyer, Flynn “certainly has a story to tell.”

    But there are other ways to obtain this information. For starters, the committee has now issued subpoenas to the two corporate entities under Flynn’s sole control. Businesses do not have the right to plead the Fifth as to documents and records. Second, further information could convince Congress, in consultation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, that it is worth prosecution risks to grant Flynn immunity. Third, if Flynn is convicted of a crime, the judge could use sentencing as leverage to persuade him to testify before the Senate. That is exactly what Judge John Sirica did to the Watergate convicts: He delayed sentencing and said he would take into account their subsequent cooperation with the congressional investigators.

    So far, the committee appears to be responding to Flynn appropriately. Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) bears a special responsibility to judiciously defend the Fifth Amendment. Without steadfast support by Warner, attempts by Chairman Burr to safeguard the Fifth Amendment in Flynn’s case will be vulnerable to attack as sandbagging.

    Political theater is to be expected in Congress, and its hearings do not adjudicate rights. But the self-incrimination clause applies to Congress and should be given its full effect. During the presidential campaign, Flynn did not offer the same defense of constitutional values to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s aides who asserted the privilege in the investigation of her email practices—he said it implied they were guilty. But Flynn was wrong as it related to Clinton, and it would be wrong to use the Fifth Amendment as evidence of his guilt now.


    The Issue Democrats Wish Would Go Away


    The progressive hope in Thursday’s special election to represent Montana’s at-large House district can be seen in an ad caressing a gun he lovingly calls “this old rifle.” In another spot, Democratic nominee Rob Quist pulls a shiny bullet from...

    The progressive hope in Thursday’s special election to represent Montana’s at-large House district can be seen in an ad caressing a gun he lovingly calls “this old rifle.” In another spot, Democratic nominee Rob Quist pulls a shiny bullet from his barn coat pocket, locks and loads, and fires at a TV airing a spot questioning his Second Amendment bona fides. “I’ll protect your right to bear arms,” Quist pledges, “because it’s my right, too.”

    None of this is subtle, but Quist’s break with the Democratic Party platform hasn’t produced a peep from the activist left; the gun issue wasn’t even raised before MoveOn.org decided to endorse him. Are progressives knowingly practicing hard-headed electoral pragmatism? Or, as is more likely, are they ducking a divisive and frustrating issue for as long as possible, until another horrific mass shooting produces a fresh wave of outrage?

    Quist is not an isolated case. Progressives celebrated the spirited run in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District made by Democrat James Thompson, who brandished an assault weapon as he pledged to “fight for our personal freedoms.” They have not been bothered by Jon Ossoff’s avoidance of the gun issue in his bid to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. When asked about his gun control position during an online interview with a Democratic activist, Ossoff stressed that he “grew up with firearms” before airily offering his support for hypothetical legislation that would “help keep people safe and uphold the Second Amendment.” And he avoids the issue entirely on his website. (Ossoff did come out against Georgia’s new law permitting concealed weapons on public college campuses, however.)

    The “big tent” mentality among progressives today seems to apply only to guns. Ideological flexibility was not on display when the Democratic National Committee and Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed an Omaha mayoral candidate with an anti-abortion voting record. NARAL Pro-Choice America excoriated the move in a blistering statement, warning the party not to turn “its back on reproductive freedom.” In response, party chair Tom Perez hastily declared that reproductive rights are “not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”

    (Quist and Ossoff have both backed abortion rights, but neither may be taking much of a political risk. Libertarian-flavored Montana has a solid pro-choice majority according to a 50-state Pew Research Center poll. Georgia’s 6th District is heavily college-educated, and there is strong correlation between college degrees and support for abortion.)

    Sanders also wasn’t inclined to cut Ossoff any slack regarding his economic platform. To reach right-leaning voters in his district, Ossoff emphasizes his support for “cutting wasteful spending” and does not embrace single-payer health care or free tuition. When it came to Mello, Sanders defended the endorsement on the grounds of political geography, “If you are running in rural Mississippi, do you hold the same criteria as if you’re running in San Francisco?” But when it came to Ossoff,
    Sanders sniffed, “He’s not a progressive,” before belatedly offering an endorsement under duress.

    NARAL and Sanders have a strong incentive to protect their agendas from Machiavellian strategists. They want to prove that their platforms are not political albatrosses in the red-state districts Democrats hope to reconquer. And they don’t want their issues to become second-class priorities, easily sacrificed when the going gets rough.

    Which is exactly what is happening to gun control, and not for the first time.

    ***

    Democrats have been squeamish about gun control ever since they felt the backlash to President Bill Clinton’s enactment of a ban on assault weapons and “Brady Law” background checks, which shouldered some blame for the Democratic loss of Congress in 1994. But 2000 presidential nomine Al Gore doubled down. In the wake of the 1999 Columbine massacre and a liberal primary challenge from New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, Gore ran on a robust gun control package that included a ban on cheap handguns. When he lost gun-friendly states that Clinton had won—namely Arkansas, West Virginia and his own home state of Tennessee—guns were blamed again.

    Soon after, Democrats began keeping their voices down about gun control, even when mass shootings occurred. The Republican Congress let Clinton’s assault weapons ban expire without a vote, but Democrats didn’t fight exceptionally hard. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean touted his “A” rating from the National Rifle Association during the 2004 presidential primary. The nominee that year, John Kerry, futilely tried to pick off Ohio, and leaven his support for reinstating the assault weapons ban, with an October goose hunting expedition.

    Downplaying gun control finally paid off for Democrats in the 2006 midterms, when four Senate candidates (in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Montana and Missouri) and more than a dozen House candidates used pro-gun rhetoric to win their seats and help the party take control of Congress. The results affirmed the strategy laid out in the 2006 book “Whistling Past Dixie” by political scientist Thomas Schaller, who argued that while “God, guns and gays” was too much for Democrats to overcome in the socially conservative South, tacking rightward on guns would earn Democrats a hearing from relatively libertarian voters in the Midwest and interior West.

    Barack Obama took that cue in 2008. When the Supreme Court decreed that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, Obama said the ruling tracked his views: “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms … I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne.” His path to victory ran through several states with significant gun ownership: Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina.

    The rhetorical strategy had real-world impact. Gun-shy Democrats did not pursue gun control legislation in Obama’s first term, even though those years were marked by the mass shootings at Fort Hood, Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Tucson constituent meeting and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Seeing no reason to junk a winning game plan, Obama kept gun control out of the 2012 election, and he held on to most of his gains in the Midwest and interior West.

    Then came the gut-wrenching horror of the December 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, and looking away became untenable. Obama made a fateful decision to temporarily shelve plans for a full-court press on immigration reform in favor of one on guns.

    Still scarred by the past, Democrats set their sights low: They aimed to pass expanded background checks, not a fresh assault weapons ban and certainly not a handgun ban (even though 80 percent of gun deaths are from handguns.) Anti-gun activists “got smart,” according to The Atlantic, using the phrase “preventing gun violence” instead of “gun control” and showering praise on “law-abiding gun owners.” A bipartisan duo, both previously endorsed by the NRA, crafted the background check bill. Yet the effort still ran into a brick wall of NRA opposition, and four red-state Democratic senators joined most Republicans in a successful filibuster. Obama ended up with neither a gun control law nor an immigration reform law.

    Republicans suffered no consequences from their obstruction, taking nine Democratically held Senate seats, mainly in red states, to win full control of Congress in the 2014 midterms. Undeterred, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton ran on the most explicitly pro-gun control platform since 2000, calculating that it would help her against Sanders in the primary and betting that Sandy Hook had changed the political equation for the general election.

    It did not. As OpenSecrets reported after the 2016 election, “the NRA’s investment, which was more than any other outside group, paid for a slew of ads that directly targeted the same voters who propelled Trump to victory.”

    Committed gun control activists may not be inclined to attribute Clinton’s loss to her stance on guns—after all, there were a myriad of other factors behind her loss and polls show broad support for expanded background checks. Yet there have always been strong poll numbers for specific gun control proposals, and the NRA wins time and time again. Clearly, the polling data is not giving us the full picture.

    Bill Clinton delivered that warning weeks after Sandy Hook to a room of Democratic donors: “All these polls that you see saying the public is for us on all these issues—they are meaningless if they’re not voting issues.” The Arkansan further explained the cultural significance of guns in rural America, “A lot of these people … all they’ve got is their hunting and their fishing. Or they’re living in a place where they don’t have much police presence. Or they’ve been listening to this stuff for so long that they believe it all.” North Carolina’s John Edwards summed it up more succinctly during his 2004 presidential bid: “Where I come from guns are about a lot more than guns themselves. They are about independence.”

    If you thought that the urbanization of America would lead to a decline in hunting culture and a loosening of our attachment to guns, you’re half right. The percent of American households with a gun has ticked down in the past 20 years from 25 percent to 22 percent. And hunting is no longer the primary reason why people buy firearms.

    But the gun industry and its allies have merely changed strategies. As The New York Times explained, following a landmark study of gun ownership by Harvard and Northeastern universities last fall, “A declining rural population and waning interest in hunting have pushed gun companies to look for new customers. Industry groups have heavily marketed the idea of concealed carry and personal protection.” Now 63 percent of gun owners, gripped by fear of criminals and terrorists, cite personal protection as their rationale for exercising their Second Amendment right. There’s scant evidence that owning guns actually makes them safer. But when the NRA says even the littlest gun control measure is a step toward taking away their guns, their protection, their independence, they believe it.

    Democratic operatives eager to expand the political map, and economic populists hungry to build a broad coalition, are tempted to jettison gun control all over again. And if Quist and Ossoff win, they’ll have a strong case. But are Democrats across the board really resigned to sweeping America’s gun violence problem under the rug?

    The gubernatorial primary in Virginia, an increasingly suburban and diverse state with memories of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, suggests otherwise.

    In a mirror image of the 2016 presidential primary, the establishment Democrat, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, is trying to fend off a progressive insurgent, former Rep. Tom Perriello, by hitting him for past flirtations with the NRA. In 2008, Perriello was one of those pro-gun rights Democrats when he ousted a Republican incumbent in a right-leaning district. But his NRA rating didn’t protect him from his Obamacare vote and he was quickly sent home. Now running statewide, Perriello has turned on the NRA, while Northam argues his efforts for gun control measures in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings prove his credibility on the issue.

    It has been easier for Quist and Ossoff to keep their distance from gun control without angering progressives because America hasn’t suffered a major mass shooting since last June’s Orlando nightclub massacre. (Public mass shootings are far from the main cause of America’s gun deaths, but they are what grabs the public’s attention.) When a mass shooting is fresh in the public mind, Democrats feel a sense of urgency. But memories can be short.

    However, the lull won’t last. America didn’t go a year between public mass shootings of more than five people throughout the entire Obama presidency (including the 12½ month span between the misogynistic Isla Vista rampage of May 2014 and the racist Charleston murders of June 2015). It’s been almost a year since Orlando. There will be another.

    At that point, Democrats won’t be able to sweep the gun issue under the rug. They will have to make a choice: to be or not to be the party of gun control. And if they are still going to be the party committed to reducing gun violence, they had best not waste time figuring out how to do it.


    Trump’s Budget Scam


    I have a plan to dunk a basketball. First, I’ll grow a foot taller. Then, I’ll recapture the athleticism of my youth, so I can jump a lot higher. I didn’t say I had a serious plan—just a plan.Today, the Trump administration released a plan to...

    I have a plan to dunk a basketball. First, I’ll grow a foot taller. Then, I’ll recapture the athleticism of my youth, so I can jump a lot higher. I didn’t say I had a serious plan—just a plan.

    Today, the Trump administration released a plan to balance the federal budget over the next decade, and it’s no more plausible than my plan to become LeBron James. It does reveal the administration’s fiscal priorities, like deep cuts in spending targeting programs for the less fortunate and the environment, no cuts to Medicare or Social Security retirement benefits, steady increases in spending on the military and the border, and an abiding faith in the restorative miracles of tax cuts for corporations and well-off families. But its claim to a balanced bottom line is based on a variety of heroic assumptions and hide-the-ball evasions, obscuring trillions of dollars of debt that it could pile onto America’s credit card.

    Budget proposals always involve some guesswork into the unknowable, and administrations routinely massage numbers to their political advantage. But this proposal is unusually brazen in its defiance of basic math, and in its accounting discrepancies amounting to trillions-with-a-t rather than mere millions or billions. One maneuver in President Donald Trump’s budget arguably waves away an estimated $5.5 trillion in additions to the national debt from tax cuts, nearly $20,000 for every American alive today, enough to fund the Environmental Protection Agency at current spending levels for nearly 700 years. Trump critics in the budget-wonk world are pointing to another $2 trillion of red ink as a blatant math error—or, less charitably, as an Enron-style accounting fraud.

    Numbers that huge tend to melt into abstraction. And the media will help downplay them by declaring the Trump budget dead on arrival in Congress, as if the fact that it won’t be rubber-stamped into law means that nothing in it matters. But a presidential budget is a detailed blueprint for governing—and in this case, the blueprint has a fair amount in common with blueprints offered by the Republicans who still control Congress. It matters for policy and it matters for politics.

    It also matters that Trump’s numbers don’t add up. Whether or not you agree with the tea party philosophy behind the numbers, Trump and his hard-driving budget director, Mick Mulvaney, deserve credit for backing up their limited-government rhetoric by proposing $3.6 trillion in spending cuts, including politically courageous cuts in farm subsidies, rural development programs and other benefits geared toward Trump’s base. But they do not deserve credit for their aspirations to balance the budget, any more than I deserve credit for my aspirations to dunk. Budgets hinge on assumptions about taxes, spending and economic growth, and the Trump budget plays fast and loose with all three to try to achieve the illusion of balance, relying heavily on spectacular growth assumptions as well as vague and unrealistic promises to eliminate tax breaks and additional spending programs that go conveniently unnamed in the text. It proclaims that “we have borrowed from our children and their future for far too long,” but it is a blueprint for far more borrowing and far more debt.

    Ultimately, the Trump budget reads like a corporate prospectus for a shady widget manufacturer who claims that cutting widget prices will spark a massive surge in widget sales, while promising major cutbacks in ineffective widget salesmen and unnecessary widget costs. It doesn’t pencil out. And it’s worth understanding the main reasons it doesn’t pencil out, because soon Republicans in Congress will get to use their own pencils.

    ***

    The Growth Spurt: Economic growth is as vital to balancing budgets as physical growth is to dunking basketballs. A booming economy means more tax revenue flowing into Washington because workers have more income and corporations have more profits; and less federal spending flowing out of Washington, because fewer unemployed workers and poor families need the government safety net. “Economic growth,” Mulvaney recently said, “solves all our problems.”

    So the Trump budget simply stipulates terrific economic growth. Specifically, it assumes the U.S. economy will expand an average of 3 percent per year over the next decade, more than 1 percentage point higher than the Congressional Budget Office assumes. And it uses that assumption to chop about $3 trillion from the 10-year deficit. “Everything is keyed to getting us back to 3 percent,” Mulvaney said Monday.

    Terrific economic growth would be a terrific thing, and we should all hope for a recession-free decade of nonstop boom. But in the budgeting world, diverging that dramatically from the official forecasts is essentially cheating. President Barack Obama’s growth forecasts sometimes slightly overshot the CBO’s, but Trump’s gap with the CBO is nearly three times as large as Obama ever had in eight years. The U.S. economy hasn’t grown at a 3 percent rate for two consecutive years since 2000, which, not coincidentally, was when President Bill Clinton’s last budget balanced.

    Trump aides say it makes sense to assume 3 percent growth since it’s at the heart of the president’s promises to make America great again. Mulvaney calls it the guiding principle of Trumponomics, a rejection of the pessimistic notion that 2 percent is as good as it gets; he suggested yesterday that he probably should have assumed a more aggressive baseline of 3.5 percent or 4 percent growth, because 3 percent should merely be seen as normal. “Honestly, we have aspirations to do better,” one senior OMB official told me.

    But 3 percent isn’t just something that will happen automatically, especially at a time when the population is aging, immigration is slowing and productivity is lagging. The Trump budget does not go into great detail justifying its growth assumptions, other than to suggest that rolling back onerous regulations and promoting domestic energy development will help the good times roll. It also suggests that one of the keys to the Trump boom will be tax reform, which happens to be the next area where its math gets fuzzy.

    The Tax Dodge: So far, Trump has unveiled only a one-page summary of his tax reform principles, not tax reform legislation. Nevertheless, his budget “assumes deficit-neutral tax reform,” which is a bit like the old joke about the economist on a desert island who assumes a can opener. Trump’s tax reform principles, which he repeats on Page 13 of his budget, do not look deficit-neutral at all. Groups like the Tax Foundation, the Tax Policy Center and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget have estimated that they would add $4 trillion to $6 trillion to the debt.

    That’s because Trump’s principles look like they’re more about tax cuts than real tax reform. His budget proposes lower individual tax rates, lower corporate tax rates, lower investment tax rates, an end to the alternative minimum tax, an end to the estate tax and other tax relief. Its only proposal to offset the cost of those tax cuts is a vague pledge to “eliminate most special interest tax breaks,” but it specifies that tax breaks for mortgage interest, charitable gifts and retirement savings wouldn’t be included, while failing to specify the tax breaks that would be included.

    The implication is that the tax cuts would stimulate so much additional economic growth that they would pay for themselves, a supply-side economic theory that has not worked out in practice. President George W. Bush’s tax cuts helped turn Clinton’s surpluses into gaping deficits; the state of Kansas recently had a similar experience of sizable tax cuts creating sizable budget shortfalls. Even the conservative Tax Foundation calculated that the growth effects from Trump’s proposed tax cuts would recoup less than one-third of the loss in revenue.

    The senior OMB official told me those nonpartisan analysts are all jumping the gun, because the administration really does intend to propose tax increases large enough to offset the tax cuts it has already proposed. It just hasn’t decided which loopholes and deductions it wants to close, so it didn’t mention them in its budget. “What the budget is saying is that tax reform will be paid for,” the official said. “There’s a large conversation to be had about how we’re going to do it.”

    But the Trump budget doesn’t just assume that tax reform will pay for itself; it also predicts that the economic growth produced by tax reform will help pay for the rest of his budget, an additional $2.1 trillion windfall.

    Budget wonks have seized on this as a classic case of double-counting, presuming that the administration was already relying on that growth to make tax reform deficit-neutral in the first place. That would be like proposing to deposit a $20 bill that you’re not even sure is yours in two separate bank accounts, except with 11 extra zeroes at the end of the bill. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers called it “the most egregious accounting error in a presidential budget in the nearly 40 years I have been tracking them.”

    Mulvaney ducked the issue Monday, suggesting that the administration doesn’t yet have enough details in its tax plans to provide more accurate accounting. But the other senior OMB official told me the double-counting accusations are wrong, because the budget assumes tax reform will be deficit-neutral without taking growth into account.

    In that case, though, a Republican administration is counting on unspecified tax increases to convert a plan that independent analysts believe will cost about $5.5 trillion in its current form into a plan that will cost nothing at all, and would somehow end up producing $2 trillion worth of deficit reduction through growth. It’s conceivable, but it would be more plausible if the budget had disclosed even one of those potential tax increases. It would back up Mulvaney’s rhetoric about “how important it was and is to this president to try and bring some fiscal discipline.”

    The Two-Penny Opera: The Trump budget isn’t really about fiscal discipline, but it does have real elements of spending discipline. It includes more than $600 billion in Medicaid cuts on top of the more than $800 billion of cuts in the Republican health care bill that just passed the House. It would eliminate rural housing loans, home heating aid for the poor, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and dozens of other line items. It would slash funding for climate science, foreign aid, medical research, Social Security disability and food stamps. It would boost spending for the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs for 2018, but it would cut the budget of every other Cabinet department.

    Congress probably won’t embrace most of those cuts, but they’re specific proposals for cuts that would move the federal budget toward balance. That said, the largest chunk of Trump’s proposed spending reductions come from a non-specific and even less realistic “two-penny plan,” which would reduce nondefense discretionary spending by an additional 2 percent every year. That’s hard to fathom, because nondefense discretionary spending—which includes the FBI, the EPA, NASA and almost every other federal dollar that doesn’t go to the Pentagon or entitlements—is already at its lowest level as a share of the economy since the Eisenhower years. Trump is proposing to cut it by about one-third over a decade, a total of $182 billion by 2027, while continuing to boost the parts of it (like border security) that he likes. He wants to start in 2018 by eliminating agencies like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as programs like 21st Century Community Learning Centers, but he wouldn’t be able to re-eliminate them in the out years; he’d have to find new targets for cuts.

    The OMB official told me that his agency has already begun a review of the entire federal bureaucracy with an eye to eliminating inefficiencies, and that it expects to have a streamlining strategy in place by next year to follow through with the two-penny plan. But even many Republicans who hold the purse strings in Congress are unenthusiastic about slicing billions of dollars out of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control or the State Department.

    “Give me a break,” one congressional Republican appropriator told me. “A lot of the discretionary spending is already squeezed. You can’t get blood from a stone.”

    ***

    It is tempting to dismiss the Trump budget because so much of it seems unlikely to become law, but it’s still a revealing window into the administration’s priorities. And just because a budget is declared “dead on arrival” does not mean it won’t influence the budget that eventually emerges on Capitol Hill; Trump’s budget may envision larger cuts than Republican leaders want, but it reflects many of the priorities that House Speaker Paul Ryan has included in his budgets in the past. It ought to be taken seriously if not quite literally, to borrow the cliché about Trump.

    It just shouldn’t be taken as evidence of fiscal rectitude or a deep aversion to debt, which isn’t really what Trump is about. It looks more like a plan to cut taxes for the rich and spending on the poor, while covering up the effect on the debt by flagrantly violating Washington norms. And that’s exactly what Trump is about.


    Jim Bunning, U.S. senator and baseball luminary, dies at 85


    Jim Bunning, the only person ever elected both to the U.S. Senate and the Baseball Hall of Fame, died late Friday. He was 85 and, according to his family, died of complications from a stroke suffered last year.  Bunning, a blunt, conservative...

    Jim Bunning, the only person ever elected both to the U.S. Senate and the Baseball Hall of Fame, died late Friday.

    He was 85 and, according to his family, died of complications from a stroke suffered last year. 

    Bunning, a blunt, conservative Republican who spent a combined 24 years representing Kentucky in the House and Senate, weathered several close elections to earn his place in both institutions. Sometimes, his two professions seemed to go together perfectly. 

    “I have been booed by 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium standing alone at the pitcher’s mound, so I have never really cared if I stood alone here in Congress as long as I stood by my beliefs and my values,” he said in his farewell Senate speech in December 2010. “I have also thought that being able to throw a curve ball never was a bad skill for a politician to have.” 

    A fair number of former athletes have attempted to make careers in politics, but few made it as far as Bunning, whose distinguished major-league career from 1955 to 1971 was followed by decades on the political stage. 

    After his playing career, Bunning went into coaching — he hoped to be named manager of the Phillies in 1973 but was bypassed — and then became a sports agent. “I never thought about being involved in politics,” he told Philadelphia sportswriter Stan Hochman in 1986. 

    That changed in 1977, when he was approached to run for a local office. “I didn’t want to run,” he told Hochman. “I had just gotten out of the frying pan and they wanted me to jump into a fire.” 

    But Bunning changed his mind and made a successful run for the City Council in Fort Thomas, then moved up to the state Senate two years later. After an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1983, he jumped into an open-seat race and was elected to the House in 1986 from Kentucky’s 4th District. He kept that seat until running for Senate 12 years later. 

    Both of Bunning’s Senate elections were perilously close. In 1998, he battled for an open seat with another ex-athlete, Democrat Scott Baesler, a former University of Kentucky basketball player. The race was considered too close to call all election season and the ultimate margin was less than 1 percent — Bunning won by 6,766 votes out of more than 1 million cast. 

    Entering 2004, Bunning started off in a better spot, but his advantages were rapidly frittered away. Facing state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, Bunning conducted a campaign that struck observers as dangerously odd — filled with strange remarks such as saying Mongiardo looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons — and he declined to debate his foe in person, debating instead by video. Rumors circulated that Bunning was in bad health, or, worse yet, losing his faculties. At one point, the Louisville Courier-Journal — a regular subject of Bunning’s wrath — pondered whether “Senator Bunning has drifted into territory that indicates a serious health concern.” 

    Ultimately, Bunning held off his challenger by 2 percentage points but drew almost 200,000 fewer votes in the state than President George W. Bush. 


    For years, Bunning was best known for his efforts to safeguard Social Security benefits, sponsoring, among other things, legislation that made the Social Security Administration a separate agency. He also supported legislation to aid adoptive parents and was known for actively working on local Kentucky issues and, whenever they came before Congress, baseball-related issues. 

    Like his eventual successor in the Senate (Rand Paul), Bunning was wary of the Federal Reserve and its powers. When Ben Bernanke’s nomination to lead the Fed came before the Senate, Bunning used the occasion to denounce both Bernanke and the Fed itself. “I will do everything I can to stop your nomination and drag out the process as long as possible,” Bunning said. “We must put an end to your and the Fed’s failures, and there is no better time than now.” 

    He did not seek a third term in 2010. Bunning’s retirement was not entirely voluntary; during his final years in the Senate, he battled with the GOP leadership, including his home-state colleague, Mitch McConnell. In July 2009, when he announced he was not running again, he was notably critical of his party: “Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fundraising.” 

    In February 2010, Bunning drew perhaps more attention to himself than he ever had before, launching a one-man crusade against the short-term extension of unemployment benefits because Congress had not found a way to pay for those benefits. With the unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent, he sparred verbally with Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and the press and even faced criticism from his fellow GOP senators. 

    He did relent in early March. “Neither side has clean hands,” he said at the end of his stand. “What matters is that we get our spending problems under control.” 

    The episode helped cement his image as ornery. 

    He was blunt and abrasive, particularly when discussing Washington. In 1993, for instance, he referred to President Bill Clinton as “the most corrupt, the most amoral, the most despicable person I’ve ever seen in the presidency.” In 2009, he made headlines by predicting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead of cancer within nine months. 

    “On Capitol Hill,” wrote the The Almanac of American Politics 1996, “Bunning had shown much of the aggressiveness that he had on the pitching mound and organizing the baseball players’ union.” 

    Bunning’s prickly personality definitely dated back to his hyper-competitive years as one of baseball’s best pitchers. A 1965 Sports Illustrated article referred to him as a “grim competitor.” 

    “I was very intense about every performance,” Bunning told Hochman of his baseball days in 1989. “I thought it was a life-and-death situation at the time. “ 


    His greatest moment in baseball came pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies on Father’s Day 1964. Bunning hurled a perfect game against the New York Mets — 27 batters up, 27 batters out, ending with a strikeout of the clearly overmatched John Stephenson.

    Remarkably, it was the first perfect game in the National League since 1880. 

    “It’s like achieving something you never thought you would ever achieve,” he told Hochman, “and I don’t know how many people get to do that. Plus being totally aware of what you were doing as you did it.” 

    The perfect game was the second no-hitter of his career (he had thrown one in 1958 for the Detroit Tigers) and one of his 224 career wins. The win over the Mets also came in the middle of what ended up as a traumatic season for the team and the city of Philadelphia, as the Phillies collapsed at the end of the season, losing 10 straight games to blow a seemingly insurmountable lead and a shot at the World Series. “We had it; it was ours, and we let it go,” Bunning was quoted as saying in The Philadelphia Story by Frank Dolson. 

    Bunning became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1977 and started building a constituency, collecting 38.1 percent of the vote that year out of a required 75 percent. He steadily gained until reaching 74.2 percent in 1988 — four votes short of what he needed — but stalled there. Finally, after 15 years of annual consideration by baseball’s writers, his candidacy was kicked over to the Hall’s Veterans Committee, which then elected him in 1996. 

    Wrote Murray Chass for the New York Times: “Jim Bunning, a Republican congressman from Kentucky who is one of the few members of his party not running for its Presidential nomination, won his own election today, and he wasn’t even running in a primary.” 

    Fittingly, Bunning’s election was celebrated on the House floor: His colleagues stopped the proceedings to announce his honor and give him a standing ovation.

    On Saturday, baseball remembered him again. Saluting "a beloved member of the Phillies family," the Phillies paid tribute to their one-time ace before a game against Cincinnati at Citizens Bank Park. Black ribbon also draped his plaque and his retired uniform number, 14, in the team's Ashburn Alley.


    Boehner: Trump has been a 'complete disaster'


    Former House Speaker John Boehner said earlier this week that Donald Trump’s presidency so far has been “a complete disaster” and that the billionaire-turned commander in chief is still learning the job.“Everything else he’s done [in office]...

    Former House Speaker John Boehner said earlier this week that Donald Trump’s presidency so far has been “a complete disaster” and that the billionaire-turned commander in chief is still learning the job.

    “Everything else he’s done [in office] has been a complete disaster,” Boehner said during a question-and-answer session at a conference in Houston on Wednesday. “He’s still learning how to be president.”

    The former GOP speaker, whose remarks were initially reported by the energy-sector publication Rigzone, said he and Trump had been friends for 15 years and that the two had played golf together multiple times. Still, Boehner said he “never envisioned him” becoming president.

    Pressed further about Trump’s still-nascent administration, Boehner praised the president for his handling of international affairs and foreign policy, especially his aggressive stance toward the Islamic State.

    Boehner also tamped down talk of impeachment, calls for which have grown among House Democrats amid the swirling controversy of multiple investigations into the possibility of collusion between the Russian government and individuals with ties to Trump.


    “Talk of impeachment is the best way to rile up Trump supporters,” Boehner said. “Remember, impeachment is not a legal process; it’s a political process.”

    The former speaker said the president “did what he could” on legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, perhaps the president’s most prominent campaign promise, but added Trump should have instead sought to repair his predecessor’s signature health care legislation.

    Talk of tax reform, another legislative priority for Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, is just “happy talk,” Boehner said. “I was a little more optimistic about it early in the year; now my odds are 60/40.”

    The former speaker seemed content with his life as a retired politician and was quick to shoot down any talk of a future presidential bid.

    “I wake up every day, drink my morning coffee and say hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah,” Boehner said. “I don’t want to be president. I drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. I golf. I cut my own grass. I iron my own clothes. And I’m not willing to give all that up to be president.”


    GOP turns gloomy over Obamacare repeal


    A feeling of pessimism is settling over Senate Republicans as they head into a weeklong Memorial Day recess with deeply uncertain prospects for their push to repeal Obamacare.Senators reported that they’ve made little progress on the party’s most...

    A feeling of pessimism is settling over Senate Republicans as they head into a weeklong Memorial Day recess with deeply uncertain prospects for their push to repeal Obamacare.

    Senators reported that they’ve made little progress on the party’s most intractable problems this week, such as how to scale back Obamacare's Medicaid expansion and overall Medicaid spending. Republicans are near agreement on making tax credits for low-income, elderly Americans more generous, but that might be the simplest matter at hand.

    Republicans have started writing the very basics of their repeal legislation, even though they've made few decisions about what it will say. Staffers will work on the bill over the break to try to increase the pace of negotiations, as well as haggle with the Senate parliamentarian over whether the chamber can even consider the bill because of procedural reasons.

    But in the meantime, frustrations are rising and confidence is diminishing.

    “We talk about it every goddamn day,” said one GOP senator, who did not want to be quoted criticizing his own party. “But we haven’t done anything about it.”

    Senators privately reported being surprised by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s assessment on Wednesday that he doesn’t know how the party gets the requisite 50 of the party’s 52 members on board. Though aides said McConnell was restating the challenge of passing a bill in a sharply divided conference, senators said they also did not take the calculating majority leader’s words as a vote of confidence.

    “He doesn’t do much that’s not purposeful. So is he sending a message here of: ‘Don’t anybody think this is likely to happen?’” said a second Republican senator. “If I had to bet my house, I’d bet we don’t get it done.”


    They tried to shrug off a Congressional Budget Office score showing that 23 million fewer people will have insurance under the House GOP’s plan and that premiums would rise for two years before beginning to fall. But Senate Republicans also aren’t sure how much they can improve on a score that, in their view, fell far short of an acceptable outcome.

    The nonpartisan assessment of the House’s bill “makes everything harder,” said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the most vulnerable GOP senator in next year’s midterm elections.

    “The point is, we should have a better CBO score. But I can’t guarantee it,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), acknowledging that broad coverage losses cast a long shadow over the Republicans who may be skittish about repeal. "Of course it does ... on the other hand, it's an estimate and it doesn't mean it's accurate. That's something that would worry anybody."

    Yet Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said the Senate “absolutely” has to surpass the CBO’s assessment of the House effort. One of two true GOP moderates in the chamber, Collins is urging her colleagues to tilt the bill toward the center rather than to the right.

    “There is no way that I can personally support a bill that is going to result in 23 million Americans losing their health insurance coverage, that will cause an 850 percent premium increase of a low-income adult aged 64, of which there are many in my state, and that does nothing to ultimately bend the cost curve of health care,” Collins said in an interview.

    The GOP spent much of Thursday distancing itself from the House bill’s CBO score, attacking the organization as unreliable for its inaccurate estimates of Obamacare’s effectiveness. That left the question open of how Republicans’ will measure the success of the bill they are crafting, but GOP senators insisted their target isn’t to produce a bill that the CBO looks on charitably.

    “Our goal is not to please the CBO,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).


    Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi said he has started writing the bill, along with leadership and Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Hatch. He said he would “hope” to have a bill after the Memorial Day recess but wouldn’t put a deadline on the legislation.

    Enzi said the GOP has made enough policy decisions “in some areas” of the bill to start writing. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said his conference has "really fleshed out the issues, what the fault lines are."

    But Senate Republicans’ opaque repeal strategy has annoyed some rank-and-file members. Republicans are having three lunches a week to chew over Obamacare repeal in addition to two weekly working group meetings. All are behind closed doors, and McConnell and his leadership team have been careful to keep details from leaking out.

    That’s kept outside groups and House members from criticizing any particulars of the health care plan, but it’s also viewed by some Republicans as poor optics.

    “It would aid the process to have public hearings where this could be debated publicly. It would help bring the public along,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters Thursday. “The meetings themselves are of substance. I do think it’s always best to have [the media] opine as we’re moving along.”

    There are limits to how much the Senate can really juke the numbers of the CBO score to make a bill more palatable to the public. Senators cannot write a bill that saves fewer than the $119 billion in savings from the House bill, which could restrict just how much room Republicans have to produce better coverage numbers or lower premiums.


    And there is some concern among Republicans that they will have a hard time besting the House score on coverage or premiums, even though senators are wary of absorbing the political beating that the House took over the CBO’s assessment. If anything, the political fallout of the CBO score made clear that the Senate won’t eliminate Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions coverage requirement after the House allowed states to opt out. CBO said Wednesday that doing so would destabilize markets and in some places, drive up premiums.

    The House still hasn’t sent the bill to the Senate and aides say they’re still not completely sure it adheres to all the rules of budget reconciliation. During next week’s recess, Republican and Democratic staff are expected to meet with the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, to start litigating the House bill. Democrats will hope to find fatal flaws that will end the reconciliation process and open the bill up to a Senate filibuster.

    Assuming there are no major errors, Republicans will then start testing the waters of what legislation is allowed into the Senate bill, such as whether the GOP can automatically enroll people in insurance plans, allow states to opt out of Obamacare provisions or defund Planned Parenthood.

    Aides working on the bill are slightly more upbeat about the prospect of repeal than senators themselves, believing that Republicans may have some room to maneuver. One option under consideration: Delaying repeal of Obamacare’s taxes to produce more money to shore up Medicaid coffers and reduce premiums in the short term.

    But Republicans said they haven’t gotten that far yet, and are mainly stuck over how quickly to wind down Obamacare’s more generous Medicaid benefits and preventing millions of low-income people from losing insurance. That doesn’t mean Republicans are giving up on Obamacare repeal, but it does mean that after a month of talk, the GOP has made few real decisions on a path forward.

    “There is no consensus yet,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). But he added: “Doing nothing is not an option. We’re doing the best we can.”


    Trump's right about Germany


    President Donald Trump had harsh words for Germany at a NATO meeting in Belgium this week, where he reportedly referred to the Germans as “bad, very bad.” Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, later clarified that Trump was referring to...

    President Donald Trump had harsh words for Germany at a NATO meeting in Belgium this week, where he reportedly referred to the Germans as “bad, very bad.” Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, later clarified that Trump was referring to Germany’s trade practices.

    The criticism of a close U.S. ally at a typically pre-programmed diplomatic conference raised eyebrows across Europe, as world leaders sought to understand the new, unpredictable American president. But to many economists, such criticism was long overdue. They believe Germany’s economic policies really have hurt global economic growth, especially in Europe whose recovery from the 2008 financial crisis has been very slow — much slower than in the United States.

    “They are valid criticisms, certainly of the German macroeconomic policies,” said Gary Hufbauer, a trade expert who worked in the Treasury Department in the 1970s.

    The U.S.-German relationship is one of the strongest in the world and was especially close over the past eight years, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former U.S. President Barack Obama formed a tight personal bond that led to increased cooperation on national security issues. But Obama also was reticent to publicly criticize Merkel, even as many economists warned that Germany was holding back European growth and dragging down the global economy.

    Trump and Merkel have no such close personal ties and the president has shown little hesitancy to break long-held diplomatic norms, especially on trade policy, one of his top campaign issues. Already, Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, given Congress official notice of his intent to renegotiate NAFTA and promised to eliminate the U.S. trade deficit. He has criticized South Korea’s trade practices, targeted cheap Chinese steel, and slapped a large tariff on Canadian lumber.

    It’s a protectionist trade agenda the likes of which the U.S. has not seen for decades and it has left many economists, who generally oppose tariffs for restricting the free flow of goods, scratching their heads. But when it comes to Germany and its economic policies, they say, Trump is aiming in the right direction, although his diagnosis still misses the mark.

    At the NATO summit on Thursday, Trump focused on Washington’s $65 billion trade deficit in goods with Berlin, the U.S.’s fifth largest with any country, and German tariffs on American-made cars and trucks. Trump has a point when he criticizes the U.S.-Germany trade deficit: German exports really are artificially inflated. Contrary to Trump’s focus on automobile tariffs, though, this isn’t because of any specific German trade policy. In fact, Germany doesn’t even have its own trade policy. Instead, the European Union sets trade policy for its members and Germany is a part of it. “The European Union is a full customs union — lock, stock and barrel,” said Brad Setser, a former senior official in the Treasury Department under Obama. “Germany is one voice amongst many in setting the common European tariff policy."

    How are German exports inflated then? It has to do with Germany’s fiscal policy and the European Union’s currency. For years, German rules and regulations have held down wage growth. With productivity growing faster than workers' pay, German manufacturers have developed a competitive advantage against their international counterparts. Furthermore, this slow wage growth, in combination with tight fiscal policy, has led to less German consumer demand, an especially large problem for countries like Spain, Greece and Italy that have suffered because of lower consumer demand since the financial crisis. In other words, German citizens could be buying Greek wines and Italian pastas, providing an influx of money into those countries. But German economic policies have choked off such consumer spending, holding back both the recovery of their weaker neighbors as well as the global economy.

    “By not encouraging a stronger domestic demand, Germany continues to be reliant on trade and exports to maintain their economic strength,” said Bruce Hirsh, a former assistant U.S. trade representative. “They would, of course, claim that’s just good economics. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s certainly having that impact.”

    Germany has also benefited from the euro. The value of the euro is based on international trade and capital flows of the 18 countries that use the currency. Because Germany has a relatively stronger, more productive economy than its EU counterparts, the euro is effectively undervalued for Germany. In other words, if Germany was still using the deutschmark, the currency would be stronger, reducing exports and increasing imports. Germany would be less competitive internationally if it had a national currency. According to an International Monetary Fund report from last year, German’s inflation-adjusted exchange rate is undervalued by 10 percent to 20 percent, up from 5 percent to 15 percent in 2014. And in 2016, Germany’s dollar-denominated current account surplus — the amount savings exceed investment — was $300 billion, the largest in the world.

    “When the euro is weak, Germany will be exceptionally competitive globally,” said Setser. “That’s a byproduct of participation in the euro.”

    The Germans have also exported these macroeconomic policies to the rest of the Eurozone by forcing nations like Greece to adopt tight fiscal policy in exchange for bailouts. Such policies have benefited German manufacturers which have maintained their economic competitiveness, but it has led to a very slow recovery across Europe, which has weighed on the global economy.

    The Obama administration pressured Germany to ease its fiscal policy and support looser monetary policy at the ECB, including through semi-annual Treasury Department reports on foreign exchange rate policies and privately during international forums. It’s tough to tell how much those entreaties actually accomplished; economists still hold that German economic policy is too tight, although the European economic recovery appears to be accelerating.

    Will Trump’s blunt language have a stronger effect? Economists are skeptical. After all, Trump in targeting German carmakers is missing the true problems with German economic policies and by focusing on German tariffs, he is getting basic facts wrong about European trade policy. In addition, his broader protectionist stance on trade has not engendered much goodwill with European leaders and the fate of the U.S.-EU trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, remains unknown. None of this gives Merkel, who is up for reelection later this year, any reason to change course.

    Said Hufbauer, “The Germans are quite happy with their surplus with Europe and surplus with the U.S. So what can really be done?”


    Trump's magical budget math


    On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump said he would eliminate the national debt “over a period of eight years.” But his first budget as president would increase the debt by more than $3 trillion—and that’s only through rosy assumptions...

    On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump said he would eliminate the national debt “over a period of eight years.” But his first budget as president would increase the debt by more than $3 trillion—and that’s only through rosy assumptions about economic growth and double-counting of tax revenue.

    Despite these budget gimmicks, the White House is touting the 62-page plan as a model of fiscal responsibility, criticizing the Obama administration’s spending and promising that the Trump administration “will restore fiscal discipline and make the hard decisions to put our country on a path to repay the debt in full,” according to a fact sheet accompanying the budget. Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, told reporters Tuesday that the blueprint was a “Taxpayer First” budget.

    On paper, Mulvaney is right: under Trump’s plan, the government would have a $16 billion surplus by 2027; during the 10-year budget window, the annual deficit would average 1.4 percent of GDP, less than half its 2016 level. And the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio—a measure of the country’s ability to pay its debt—would fall from 77 percent in 2018 to under 60 percent in 2027, according to White House figures.

    But those figures are, at best, misleading and, at worst, a willful attempt to deceive Americans about the true fiscal implications of Trump’s agenda. The budget uses an optimistic assumption about economic growth, which few economists believe is realistic, and assumes the president’s tax plan is deficit-neutral, despite independent scores that the plan would reduce revenues by around $5 trillion. Worse, it double counts up to $2.1 trillion in revenue, a blatant accounting error. Corrected, the $5.6 trillion in savings could disappear entirely; in fact, Trump’s budget may even increase the debt.

    On close reading, the budget is less a credible attempt to eliminate, or even pay down, the U.S. debt and more an ideological policy agenda disguised as a program of fiscal responsibility. It makes sharp cuts to domestic spending programs, including nearly $200 billion from food stamps and $72 billion from disability programs. But when it comes to the “hard decisions” that the White House professed to make in this budget, Trump chooses the easy route, refusing to consider any cuts for the two biggest drivers of the U.S.’s long-term debt: health care and retirement benefits for seniors.

    “The decisions that they are calling hard would cut benefits for the Americans who deserve our support the most,” said Doug Elmendorf, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office. “That’s not making a difficult decision. That’s making a bad decision.”

    To some extent, all politicians use rosy assumptions and budget gimmicks to promote their policy agendas, but the Trump White House goes beyond normal practices in its 2018 budget. The administration assumes that its policies, including tax reform, Obamacare repeal, and the rollback of Obama-era regulations, will jump-start the economy, eventually pushing growth from its current 2 percent level to 3 percent by 2021. Almost no economists believe such an increase is possible because structural forces, including reduced productivity growth and the aging of baby boomers, are a drag on growth.

    Trump’s most egregious budget gimmick occurs in the accounting of his tax reform plan. The White House includes the plan, which right now is just a one-page outline, in the budget but assumes the plan is revenue neutral. In the past, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the tax plan will pay for itself through increased economic growth, a promise that economists have deemed unlikely. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal watchdog, estimates the plan would actually cut revenue by $5.5 trillion, a figure Mnuchin rejected at a congressional hearing last week. “We would never propose a plan that we thought would cost $5 trillion,” he said.

    Mulvaney, in his briefing on Monday, said the administration assumed revenue neutrality in its budget “because it was, in all honesty, the most efficient way to look at it.” Otherwise, he said, the White House would have had to provide more details about the plan. In doing so, though, the White House is effectively admitting that its revenue baseline may be inaccurate, potentially by trillions of dollars.

    The administration also makes an even more basic accounting error in its tax plan: It assumes that revenue generated through increased economic growth can both offset the cost of the tax plan and also reduce the deficit. In other words, the tax plan already uses any revenue generated through increased growth to offset cuts in the plan. But then the White House uses the same money, which totals up to $2.1 trillion, to reduce the deficit. This is as if a consumer decides to use a $100 salary bonus to pay a $100 cable bill and make a $100 car payment using the same money. In fact, of the $5.6 trillion in total savings, as much as 38 percent may come from this double-counting of revenue.

    Mnuchin, at the Peterson Foundation’s Fiscal Summit Tuesday, did not reject the double-counting criticism but instead said, “This will be a preliminary document that will be refined.” An OMB spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    For all these mathematical errors, the biggest flaw in the budget is conceptual: It doesn’t do much to address the true drivers of the U.S.’s long-term debt, which is caused by the growing costs of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Trump does propose $600 billion in Medicaid cuts, in addition to the more than $800 billion in cuts in the Republican health care bill. But he doesn’t touch Medicare or Social Security retirement benefits. According to CBO, Social Security costs will grow from 4.9 percent of GDP today to 6.3 percent in 2047 while Medicare’s costs will rise 3.1 percent of GDP to 6.1 percent GDP. By 2047, CBO projects, those two programs alone will equal more than 40 percent of total spending.

    Social Security and Medicare are called “entitlements” because Americans are entitled to those payments by law. So instead, Trump takes a sledgehammer to nondefense “discretionary” spending—basically the government funding for items like education, housing and veterans’ programs. In this category, the budget cuts everything from crop subsidies to student loans. Overall, nondefense discretionary spending would fall to 1.4 percent of GDP by 2027, lower than any point going back to at least 1967, the first year the CBO published data.

    These drastic cuts to domestic spending programs would reduce overall government spending to 18.4 percent of GDP by 2027, down from 21 percent today. But they don’t do anything to make Medicare and Social Security sustainable. Leaving the two old-age entitlement programs untouched simply postpones the day of reckoning, using short-term cuts to push off long-term reforms. (Trump does propose reforms to Social Security Disability Insurance but SSDI makes up only a small percentage of Social Security.)

    “A budget proposal that cordons off large parts of the budget for consideration and incorporates unduly optimistic assumptions about economic growth is not a responsible budget proposal,” said Elmendorf.

    Politicians like to talk tough about reducing the debt and making “hard decisions” about the budget. But reducing the long-term debt is impossible without real reforms to Social Security and Medicare or large increases in federal revenue. This is the fundamental problem that few politicians of either party will level with voters, and for all his apparent truth-telling bluster, neither does Trump.

    To the White House, the fact that the budget incorporates such steep spending cuts while leaving Social Security and Medicare untouched is a success in itself. “This plan will put our nation’s budget back into balance and begin to reduce the national debt through fiscally conservative principles that respect American taxpayers — all while preserving Social Security and Medicare,” the accompanying fact sheet reads. But from a different perspective, Trump is sacrificing basic government programs and support for the poor in an attempt to fulfill his twin campaign promises of reducing the debt and protecting Medicare and Social Security.

    It’s a playbook that isn’t that different from House Speaker Paul Ryan, who became famous for the budgets he released as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Like Trump, Ryan used rosy revenue assumptions and deep cuts to nondefense discretionary spending to balance the budget within 10 years. But Ryan differed in one big way: He actually proposed a major reform to Medicare. That reform, known as “premium support,” wouldn’t take effect for 10 years under the Ryan budget, grandfathering all Americans over the age of 55 into the current Medicare program. But premium support nevertheless represented a radical reform, one that was eventually accepted by his House GOP colleagues but has yet to garner enough support in the Senate.

    While Trump has ruled out any such changes to entitlement programs, he has already flip-flopped on his past promise to reject cuts to Medicaid. It’s possible he will come to support premium support, or a different Medicare or Social Security reform, in the future. But so far, there are no signs he is changing his mind. In the meantime, with promises to cut taxes, protect Medicare and Social Security and reduce the debt, he has nowhere else to cut but domestic programs.


    'Where do you live?'


    I’m a doctor in East Harlem, where residents die, on average, 10 years earlier than their neighbors just a few blocks south on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Many of my patients worry more about paying the rent than buying the medication they need to...

    I’m a doctor in East Harlem, where residents die, on average, 10 years earlier than their neighbors just a few blocks south on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Many of my patients worry more about paying the rent than buying the medication they need to manage their diabetes or high blood pressure. That’s why I’ve learned that one of the most important questions I can ask my patients during an exam is, “Where do you live?”

    In recent years, research has demonstrated that there’s a strong relationship between safe and affordable housing and improved health. The findings of a 2013 Federal Interagency Working Group further reinforced the conclusion that improving housing conditions can have a dramatic impact on patients’ health. But despite all we know, our health systems do not address patients' housing needs as a matter of course. That's not what they were designed to do.

    However, we now have a unique opportunity for change. President Donald Trump has put physicians in charge of both housing and health — Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Tom Price at the Department of Health and Human Services — and together they are positioned to address this linkage, improving health and lowering the costs of health care at the same time.

    Let me explain how the connection between housing and health works in practice. The questions I ask my patients have to be precise. They include:

    “Are you worried that in the next two months, you may not have stable housing?”

    “Do you think you are at risk of becoming homeless?”

    “How often in the past 12 months were you worried or stressed about having enough money to pay your rent or mortgage?”

    “Do you have trouble paying your heating bill in the winter?”

    Many of my patients move from couch to couch. Some who have housing get sick from the leaks or mold in their rooms. If their housing situation is stable and adequate, we can talk about everything else. If it isn’t, I know they have an issue that makes their health — or their family’s health — a secondary concern.

    I recently ran into a patient whom I had not seen in sometime. She had just been discharged from the emergency room for “high sugar,” which she was told was due to uncontrolled diabetes. I was surprised, because when she came to see me in clinic, her diabetes was well controlled due to her own self-management. But she explained that she had recently started spreading out her insulin to save money for rent.

    The price of insulin has tripled over a decade, while wages have stayed the same and housing costs have increased in many markets. Given this, it’s no surprise people can’t afford housing, and often, the cost of medical care is a major reason why they can’t. The homeless, low-income Americans, the elderly, and families in substandard housing conditions suffer the most.

    This isn’t just an urban issue. More than 30 percent of homes lacking hot and cold piped water are in rural communities. Given the current design of health insurance and health systems, patients’ housing issues are usually beyond my scope as a clinician. However, as wages continue to stagnate and housing affordability declines nationwide, recognizing the relationship between housing and health outcomes is imperative.

    For my patient, I know what is likely to happen if we do nothing: her health will deteriorate while the costs of her care will skyrocket. Rather than paying for supplemental support to make rent, or keeping heat on in winter, or removing environmental hazards from homes, we instead pay many more tens of thousands of dollars in needless emergency room visits and hospitalizations that feed into a downward cycle of poor physical and mental health.

    At the same time, health systems can't simply divert scarce medical resources to solve a bigger social challenge. Numerous federal and state regulations ensure that most of the $3 trillion America spends on healthcare is stuck in clinical systems alone. As a result, we miss obvious opportunities to combine health care and housing spending. We need a better way forward.

    We already know about some interventions that work outside of clinical systems. Some communities have adopted the “Housing First” approach of providing stable housing to the homeless without preconditions, such as addressing substance abuse issues. The state of Utah found that the average cost of health care for a chronically homeless person was more than $20,000, but providing permanent housing cost the state just $8,000. On the healthcare side, a Medicare initiative called Independence at Home showed that providing primary care for seniors at home (including assessing their home environment) saved an average of $3,070 per patient.

    While these efforts are promising, bolder action is necessary. Housing is a national issue with implications beyond healthcare, so where should Dr. Carson and Dr. Price focus their efforts?

    First, give states more flexibility to use Medicaid funds together with non-healthcare spending. Fortunately, states are in the best position to decide how to rebalance healthcare spending through the use of Medicaid waivers, which were created under the Affordable Care Act to accelerate state-led innovations. States can then use Medicaid funds to support housing-related health programs. The federal government should ensure that we’re learning from their success and challenges, by resolving the significant barriers to sharing data between healthcare and social services.

    Second, increase the use of health impact assessments. We already know that certain populations are more sensitive to housing-related health impacts. Looking through the housing lens, it’s possible to quantify the positive or negative impacts of a proposed project or policy on residents’ health. If a housing project has a favorable health impact assessment, we should increase the availability of tax credits to support it.

    Third, encourage the mixing of public and private resources at the local level to improve housing availability, affordability and quality for populations that would result in reduced hospital visits and better health outcomes. In Maryland, Local Management Boards are used to find the right mix of funding to build collaborations that cut across silos and funders.

    Ultimately, the right combination of infrastructure development, programs that bridge the health and housing divide, and supportive policies are best determined at the state and local level. However, Dr. Carson and Dr. Price have a critical role to play in removing the payment, data and policy roadblocks that make addressing health care and housing needs in an integrated fashion nearly impossible.

    Without a more comprehensive approach, physicians like myself will continue to watch people needlessly suffer. It is my hope that before too long, I’ll not only be able to screen my patients for housing challenges, but that all clinicians will have immediate solutions to offer them.

    Prabhjot Singh, MD, Ph.d, is director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health and chair of the Department of Health System Design and Global Health at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. He is author of “Dying and Living in the Neighborhood: A Street-Level View of America’s Healthcare Promise” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).


    Trump's critical Cuba policy


    On May 10, a tanker with a full load of Russian crude oil made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and docked in Cuba — the largest petroleum shipment from Russia to Cuba since the Cold War. The previous October, Russia’s defense minister announced...

    On May 10, a tanker with a full load of Russian crude oil made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and docked in Cuba — the largest petroleum shipment from Russia to Cuba since the Cold War. The previous October, Russia’s defense minister announced Moscow was considering reopening military bases in Cuba — its first official return to the island since 2002. The Chinese are getting in on the action as well: China is both Cuba’s largest trading partner and the largest holder of Cuban government debt. The Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei is in direct competition with Google to provide internet access throughout Cuba — a high-stakes commercial battle that could determine whether Cubans have access to an open internet or one controlled by the government.

    The Cold War might not be back, but Cuba has returned as a national security battleground as Russia and China increasingly engage with Havana and seek influence on an island less than 100 miles from the U.S. mainland. But since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. has been sitting out this fight.

    Former President Barack Obama’s historic opening to Cuba didn’t just create an attractive market to American companies. It also enhanced America’s national security, reshuffling regional geopolitics in our favor, increasing border security and expanding access to counterterrorism intelligence. In fact, the past two years of direct engagement with Cuba have had more success in protecting our border, bolstering our influence in the region and preventing adversaries from threatening our security than the six previous decades of attempted isolation.

    But since Jan. 20, all engagement with the Cuban government has been halted as the Trump administration conducts a review of its Cuba policy, potentially rolling back the Obama-era reforms and closing off all diplomatic communication with Havana. Such a move wouldn’t just set back U.S. policy goals with Cuba; it would also make the U.S. less safe, allowing foreign adversaries like China and Russia to gain a foothold in our backyard and making our border less secure. For a president committed to an “American first” agenda who is willing to spend billions of dollars on a border wall, closing ourselves off from Cuba would be a shockingly dangerous decision.

    We should know: We both served in the American armed forces for over three decades and always kept a watchful eye on Cuba. Looking back on our long careers, it was with some surprise that we found ourselves in Cuba in March as a part of a delegation led by the American Security Project, a nonpartisan national security think tank with which we both are affiliated. The trip’s goal was to gain insight into U.S.-Cuban relations and build confidence between our countries. If someone had told us as young officers we would someday be in Havana, we would have expected to have been a part of an invasion force, one that the Pentagon had long planned as a contingency during the Cold War. Instead, we were peacefully welcomed by the government and people of Cuba.

    We have spent our lives guarding America’s national security in every corner of the world and have seen firsthand the policies and initiatives that worked and those that did not. What we saw in Havana was that the U.S. embargo, blocking all trade and investment with Cuba for the past 55 years, has not worked. It has failed to isolate the Cuban government, failed to regain any nationalized property and succeeded in giving an excuse to the Castro government for its abuses and economic mismanagement. The embargo continues to impoverish a people who are naturally drawn to the United States.

    Yet, this failure extends beyond the backwardness of the regime in Cuba. The embargo has also weakened U.S. national security because it prevents almost any business that wants to work in the United States from trading with Cuba. In other words, if you want to do business in America (and are not in select industries like farming or medicine), you have to avoid the Cuban market. That has given a huge opening for our adversaries to gain influence in Cuba, starting with the Soviet Union’s aid to the Cuban government. Since the Cold War ended, Venezuelans and Chinese have propped up the Cuban economy by providing subsidized oil or buying distressed Cuban government debt. This support has allowed the Castro regime to survive U.S. sanctions.

    On a more tactical level, the embargo prevents the Cuban government from buying the most sophisticated airline security equipment for its airports, meaning that screening procedures for flights from Cuba to the United States may not meet our high standards.

    Of course, Cuba is no longer as big a security issue as it was during the Cold War. But Russia and China still view it as an important theater, a place to gain influence and access near the U.S. coast — just as the U.S. seeks influence with countries near Moscow and Beijing. Obama’s opening to Cuba, which re-established diplomatic ties between the countries, expanded Americans’ ability to travel to Cuba. It also gave U.S. companies limited ability to do business on the island and demonstrated that the U.S. was turning the page on a long history of American intervention, reassuring other Latin American countries and pushing back on Russian and Chinese incursions.

    Engagement with Cuba was already paying dividends for America’s security, even without the end of the embargo. Prior to Jan. 20, our two countries signed 22 individual memoranda of understanding on everything from how to re-establish direct mail to how to work together on cancer research. Of those 22 agreements, nine directly addressed national security, including on air travel security; countering narcotic smuggling; cross-border law enforcement; and maritime borders and security. This engagement was only going to grow stronger, with several government-to-government meetings on security-related issues scheduled.

    Furthermore, since diplomatic relations were re-established in July 2015, the Cuban government claims to have provided information in support of more than 500 U.S. counternarcotics operations and identified 34 human smugglers. At a June 2016 Counterterror Working Group Meeting, combating terrorism in the Caribbean region — from which hundreds of foreign fighters have traveled to join ISIS — was the key focus.

    During our trip, we saw firsthand the Cuban government’s commitment to cooperating with the U.S. on security issues. The delegation met with various departments and ministries across the Cuban government and discussed in detail specific areas for U.S.-Cuba cooperation in support of shared security including counterterrorism, cybercrime, combating human trafficking, and immigration and border security. While we may not share governing philosophies, we share the goal of a more prosperous, healthful and peaceful world.

    Make no mistake, the Cuban government is in firm control of the nation, and we are clear-eyed about Cuba’s history on human rights. However, its willingness to engage with the United States on equal terms can only motivate and encourage transformational social and economic thought over the long term. A key reality we and many of our former colleagues have come to learn is that imposing our norms and processes on other societies detracts from our strategic interests. The terms “freedom” and “prosperity” have different meanings and generate different expectations across societies.

    Trump has promised to put America first and to secure the U.S. borders. But there can be no such security if he rolls back the opening to Cuba. Our elected leaders must continue the process of normalization with Cuba and not let the momentum fade. America can become stronger, safer and more prosperous by means other than military force. The rapprochement between Cuba and the United States has been a great lesson in how effective diplomacy can build national security in the 21st century.

    Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton served in the U.S. Army for 33 years, including operational assignments in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Albania. Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis served in the Army and New York National Guard for 29 years, including two combat tours in Vietnam.


    Trump brings his solo act to Europe


    TAORMINA, Sicily — Days before President Donald Trump embarked on his first foreign trip, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the administration’s message to allies would be: "America first" does not mean "America alone."But over the course...

    TAORMINA, Sicily — Days before President Donald Trump embarked on his first foreign trip, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the administration’s message to allies would be: "America first" does not mean "America alone."

    But over the course of the nine-day trip, which wraps up Saturday with a stop at a U.S. naval base in Italy, Trump has seemed happiest when the focus is on him — like the red carpet rollout for his arrival in Riyadh, followed by a sword-dancing display in his honor.

    In Europe, where he’s attended group meetings with other world leaders — first in Brussels at the European Union and NATO and now at the G-7 summit in Sicily — Trump has appeared less at ease.

    While he avoided any major gaffes or serious diplomatic breaches, Trump’s lack of rapport with European leaders raises serious questions about his ability to effectively team up with critical U.S. allies.

    “Like when there's a new strange kid in the class nobody likes,” said a senior EU official who was briefed on the closed NATO meetings in Brussels. “You behave civilly when teachers [media] watch but don't spend time with him in private because he's so different.”


    Trump’s discomfort has been particularly obvious in comparison to European leaders, who move easily in a pack. At NATO or at the European Council, they routinely attend dinners with 30 leaders around the table. They have posed for countless “family photographs.” Attending joint news conferences and sharing the spotlight are old habits.

    By contrast, Trump at one point was caught on camera apparently pushing past the prime minister of Montenegro during the NATO gathering to be at the front for the group photograph.

    Trump has been at his best in one-on-one sessions, like his bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-7 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spent a weekend at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and spoke glowingly in Sicily about his “close partnership and collaboration, and friendship” with the new president.

    Another senior EU official said Trump did fine in a smaller meeting with the bloc’s top leaders, Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “He was very pleasant, he was very easygoing,” this official said. “He was welcoming everybody, greeting everybody. ‘Thank you all guys, you did a great job.’ Very sort of American.”

    Trump's chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, said Friday that Trump had made a concerted effort to engage with his fellow leaders at the G-7.

    “He offered the opportunity to open up the conversation, he yielded to all of the leaders in the room, wanting to hear their opinions on trade,” Cohn told reporters. “He literally let all of the leaders go around the room at least once, some of them spoke multiple times before he talked about his views on trade."

    But even some of the individual meetings had their awkward moments, like when Trump, standing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, volunteered that he hadn’t specified Israel as the source of secret intelligence he was reported to have shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a recent Oval Office visit.

    In his meeting with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump effusively praised him for his victory over far-right contender Marine Le Pen. The American president went so far as to say that he’d been rooting for Macron, according to French reports — though Trump said days before the first round of of the French election that he thought Le Pen was the “strongest” candidate on border issues and terrorism.


    The Middle East leg of the trip may have been easier for Trump because many of the nuts and bolts were nailed down in advance. Before he stepped off the plane, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that was formally announced on the trip.

    On the Europe leg, allies wanted answers from Trump on questions like whether the U.S. would stay committed to the Paris accord on climate change. They also were unable to come up with a deliverable, say on increasing NATO’s counterterrorism efforts, that Trump could celebrate as clearly as the Saudi arms deal.

    While Trump dodged a commitment on the Paris agreement before the G-7 and complained about Germany’s advantage on trade, he charged into the NATO conference with a clear message: pay up. He accused the Europeans of being “unfair” to U.S. taxpayers, opting to make a pitch to his base in the U.S. over building new friendships with allies.

    Efforts by some of the Europeans to smooth over the divide seemed to fall flat, such as when European Council President Tusk, tried to joke that the U.S. was lucky not to have two presidents like the EU.

    Instead of laughing, Trump replied: “I know.” On his way out, Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland who is still working to perfect his English, tried some idiomatic English on Trump, saying, “See you on the road in Taormina.” He might just as well have said “Do widzenia.”


    Trump aides facing perilous stage of Russia probe


    Robert Mueller’s special investigation may just be starting, but for President Donald Trump and his aides, it’s already entered one of the most legally treacherous phases. Now that Trump’s current and former aides and allies officially know a probe...

    Robert Mueller’s special investigation may just be starting, but for President Donald Trump and his aides, it’s already entered one of the most legally treacherous phases.

    Now that Trump’s current and former aides and allies officially know a probe exists, they’re responsible for preserving all available information that might be relevant. That’s a task complicated by the rise of auto-delete apps like Confide, Signal and WhatsApp, as well as the move his campaign staffers have made into the White House.

    Hanging over them all: Any failure to keep track of emails, messages and other records could expose them to criminal charges down the line.

    Trump staffers have relied on the latest in smartphone technology to shield their digital activity from hackers as well as leak-obsessed superiors — so much so that White House press secretary Sean Spicer even reprimanded his press shop for using them in February.

    But anyone questioned by Mueller’s team may find that just having encrypted apps on their phones — which didn’t exist the last time there was a major Washington investigation of this kind — may raise suspicions that they’re hiding information.

    “Technology changes, but the law doesn’t,” said Stanley Brand, an attorney who represented White House press secretary George Stephanopoulos during the probe of President Bill Clinton’s Whitewater land deals.

    Another wrinkle that could cause headaches for Trump staffers: the lack of available materials from the Trump campaign. The Washington Post reported Friday that the Senate Intelligence Committee has already asked Trump’s campaign committee to produce documents — including emails and phone records — related to Russia going back to June 2015.

    Unlike the White House, which is subject to federal recordkeeping requirements, campaigns aren’t bound to preserve documents. But staffers may have some emails still backed up on their phones or computers, or documents — including calendars and other records that could wind up being critical for investigators.


    Presidential campaigns tend to have short windows for maintaining emails on their private servers. And while they often do keep field plans, budgets and other critical personnel documents for archival or legal purposes, the retention policies for emails frequently mean all messages are automatically deleted within 30 to 90 days unless they’re specifically preserved.

    Trump’s campaign, said a former senior aide, didn’t do much in the way of establishing a backup plan to preserve those digital records. “You’d be giving us too much credit,” said the former staffer. “The idea of document retention did not come up. The idea of some formal structure did not come up.”

    The White House declined to comment when asked what staff have been told about preserving documents related to the ongoing investigations. In March, The Associated Press reported that White House counsel Don McGahn instructed White House staff in late February to save all materials that could potentially be relevant for investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The AP report noted that the memo also applied to materials belonging to White House staffers who worked on the campaign.

    Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee publicly demanded in mid-February that the White House, Justice Department and FBI take steps to ensure the retention of all relevant records from the Trump Organization, campaign, transition and administration tied to the Russia case.

    Under U.S. criminal law, documents must be preserved once an individual is aware they may become relevant to an investigation, even if there’s no formal notice one has begun.

    “It’s not like you can destroy anything until you receive a subpoena,” said Kathleen Clarke, an ethics and law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on the use of federal special prosecutors.

    Publicly, the first official notice that Trump’s campaign was under investigation for potentially colluding with Russia came on March 20 during testimony from then-FBI Director James Comey.

    There were several other moments over the past 10 months that legal experts say qualify as ample warning for document preservation too. As the FBI last July quietly launched its probe into the Trump campaign’s possible links to Russia, Trump was causing an uproar during a news conference by calling on Russia to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Hillary Clinton’s private email account.

    During the campaign, Clinton repeatedly questioned Trump’s ties to Russia and the connection to cyberattacks that saw thousands of her top staff’s private email messages publicly released via WikiLeaks — including in their first debate in September on Long Island. And on Oct. 7, the Obama administration’s top intelligence agencies publicly accused Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee to interfere with the election.


    Trump advisers before the election also recognized that they could end up answering questions from law enforcement. For example, Roger Stone, a longtime Trump associate, told POLITICO in mid-October he would be “happy to cooperate” if the FBI called for an interview to discuss his relationship with WikiLeaks and a series of anti-Clinton statements he’d made that Democrats took as acknowledgment of the hacking into Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account.

    Former Trump aides who have been drawn into the active congressional investigations have adopted different approaches when pressed for their documents. Stone’s personal attorney, Robert Buschel, said in an email last week that Stone had complied with requests from Congress to supply “all documents that were consistent with their respective specific requests.”

    Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman whose work in Ukraine is under review, also turned over documents last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to a Capitol Hill source who added that the materials are still under review and it’s not yet clear whether he’s complied or not.

    Michael Caputo, a political consultant who worked in Russia and then on the Trump campaign, has been asked by the House Intelligence Committee to produce documents. Caputo, who resigned from the Trump campaign in June 2016, said in a recent letter to the panel’s GOP and Democratic leaders that he didn’t have any documents related to its investigation. “I knew nothing of this matter, I had no discussions of this matter when I served the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, nor did I send or receive emails about this topic,” Caputo wrote, while also offering to testify publicly on the issue.

    Former Trump White House national security adviser Michael Flynn’s attorneys last Monday also sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee citing his Fifth Amendment right to reject a subpoena seeking a list of all his communications with Russian officials before the November election. But that’s hardly the end of the chase. The Senate Intelligence panel voted unanimously last Thursday to give its leaders blanket authority to issue subpoenas as they deem necessary. And more subpoenas are coming soon from the House Intelligence Committee, said California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the panel’s ranking member.

    Congress has the power to file contempt charges against people who do not comply with subpoenas, but it’s far from certain either the GOP-led House or Senate would go that far. That makes the Mueller probe that much more potent. His requests are likely to generate expensive, time-consuming searches and potentially explosive legal fights that could come to define the Russia investigation just as much as the underlying mission to figure out whether Trump’s staff colluded with a foreign adversary to win the White House.

    Mueller, the former FBI director, is known for his thoroughness diving in on all relevant angles, and that has law enforcement veterans expecting his search for materials to start with the lowest-level campaign aides who may have useful documents and potentially even work their way up to Trump himself.

    “In any of these investigations, and especially one of this magnitude, you’re going to start at the easy part and then work to the hard,” said Robert Anderson, a former senior FBI official who ran the bureau’s criminal and cyber investigations.


    Mueller and his investigators have lots of options for gleaning Trump materials like telephone records, emails and other digital trails. They can issue a criminal subpoena through a grand jury, and for matters involving counter-intelligence issues, they can get a national security letter, which is a classified administrative subpoena that doesn’t require a judge’s prior approval.

    Even if Trump aides successfully masked the content of their communications with Confide or other encrypted tools, prosecutors aren’t at a total loss in their search for answers. They can obtain phone records, app downloads and other useful data logs under Supreme Court precedent that allows the government to obtain information shared through a third party, like a telephone company or internet search engine.

    “Just the fact you have this app on your phone I think is going to be a red flag to investigators, particularly if it’s on a phone that’s being used for official business,” said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor and former official at the Federal Trade Commission.

    Search warrants are another option — though that would require an extra burden of proving probable cause. They’d also need to be handled in delicate fashion given the sensitive nature of the investigation.

    “That’s a power they have,” said William Jeffress, a white-collar defense attorney who represented I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff for then-Vice President Dick Cheney, during the investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity.

    Democrats are warning Trump and his current and former staffers that the consequences can be very real if they don’t comply with Mueller’s document requests.

    "The rule of law depends on lawyers and other sworn public servants actually caring to follow it — preserving documents, not tampering with evidence, not interfering with investigations,” said Ian Bassin, a former attorney in the Obama White House counsel’s office.

    “This takes knowledge of the rules and effort to abide by them, two things that seem to be in short supply in this White House,” he added. “They'd be wise to fix that quickly if they want to avoid what can be serious legal consequences for individual lawyers and staffers who get this stuff wrong.”

    Trump’s White House could try to invoke executive privilege to prevent document disclosures. But that would likely lead to a heated public legal fight invoking the unanimous 1974 Supreme Court case rejecting President Richard Nixon’s attempts to keep private presidential tape recordings and other materials that had been subject to subpoena.

    “To the extent there’s any precedent to this, and there’s not a lot, that’s what we got,” Vladeck said. “And the bottom line is the tapes ended up in the hands of the special prosecutor.”


    Trump: NATO money 'beginning to pour in' from alliance partners


    President Donald Trump early Saturday tweeted that NATO countries have “agreed to step up payments” and “money is beginning to pour in” following his contentious meeting with leaders of the western alliance during his ongoing foreign trip....

    President Donald Trump early Saturday tweeted that NATO countries have “agreed to step up payments” and “money is beginning to pour in” following his contentious meeting with leaders of the western alliance during his ongoing foreign trip.

    “Many NATO countries have agreed to step up payments considerably, as they should. Money is beginning to pour in- NATO will be much stronger,” he tweeted.

    Trump on Thursday berated U.S. allies for not spending enough on defense, suggesting they owe “massive amounts” in back payments to the U.S. under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

    “Over the last eight years, the United States spent more on defense than all other NATO countries combined,” he declared as the leaders of other NATO member countries looked on uncomfortably.

    However, the commitments are for NATO allies to spend more on defense overall, mainly on their own militaries – so the increases would not necessarily be seen at headquarters but in the military budgets of individual countries.

    Trump in his Brussels address also declined to confirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the treaty, which guarantees the U.S. would back a treaty partner in the event of a conflict with a foreign power.

    Early Saturday, the president also tweeted: “Big G7 meetings today. Lots of very important matters under discussion. First on the list, of course, is terrorism. #G7Taormina.”


    The U.S. will be the lone holdout on endorsing the Paris accord on climate change when leaders of the G7 will issue their 2017 declaration later Saturday, officials said.

    Trump had said he would give European leaders a chance to make their case for the climate change accord, but will make a final decision until returning to Washington on whether his administration will remain committed to the 2015 agreement.

    Later Saturday Trump tweeted about trade talks, writing: ""we push for the removal of all trade-distorting practices....to foster a truly level playing field."