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    Schumer headed for epic clash with McConnell


    At their first sit-down as party leaders in December, Chuck Schumer pledged to tell Mitch McConnell exactly what’s on his mind going forward — no subterfuge or backbiting. "You and Harry didn't get along,” Schumer recalled saying, referring to his...

    At their first sit-down as party leaders in December, Chuck Schumer pledged to tell Mitch McConnell exactly what’s on his mind going forward — no subterfuge or backbiting.

    "You and Harry didn't get along,” Schumer recalled saying, referring to his predecessor, Harry Reid. “Each of you thought the other was a liar. But I've learned in life if people think people are liars, sometimes they misconceive things when they don’t know the whole story.” Schumer went on: “Mitch, I’m from Brooklyn. I will tell you what I think. Sometimes you’ll like it, sometimes you won’t. But I’m not going to try to surprise you."

    Schumer wasn’t kidding about laying it all out in the open. The Democratic leader is now predicting victory over McConnell in two partisan confrontations about to come to a head, over the Supreme Court vacancy and a potential government shutdown. Never mind that the Democratic Party is in its weakest state in more than a decade.

    “They’re in charge. Government shuts down, it's on their back. We have leverage,” Schumer said in a lengthy interview in his Capitol suite, the same spot where Reid held court with reporters. If Democrats block Neil Gorsuch and McConnell kills the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees, “the onus is on them.”

    The Democratic leader from New York has been in the job less than three months — and largely relegated to the sidelines. Republicans have pursued an almost entirely partisan agenda, but will need Democratic votes to fund the government and — short of invoking the so-called nuclear option — confirm Gorsuch.

    If Schumer emerged from the election in an accommodating mood, those days appear long gone. The New Yorker made clear he’s itching for a fight. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play: Prevail and he’ll open his tenure as leader showing he can take on President Donald Trump and win. Lose, and the bravado looks like a lot of talk.

    Democrats notched a huge win last week when the Republican Obamacare repeal effort crashed and burned in the House. Though Schumer was largely a bystander in the GOP's partisan process, he called it the “most consequential” moment of his young tenure and kept his party from working with Republicans.


    But in many ways the Democratic leader’s most critical work is just beginning.

    He will be judged by his party on whether he can prevent Gorsuch’s confirmation, any further attempts at repeal of Obamacare and President Donald Trump from forcing Congress to pay for a border wall in a must-pass funding bill next month. This summer, the debt ceiling will need to be raised to avoid a default. And next year, he’s defending 25 Senate seats.

    His relationship with McConnell is largely untested, and in crisis situations it often falls to the Senate leaders to negotiate on behalf of all of Washington. The two have barely talked as leaders, negotiating most Senate business through aides, and the Democratic leader was surprised in an interview to learn McConnell’s first name is “Addison” — a popular bit of trivia on Capitol Hill.

    People close to both men are starting to worry about how the next few months between them will develop.

    “I don’t think they’ve had a good chance to get started on a relationship,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “Democrats are in such a state of shock, and Schumer’s having to respond to that. It really makes it difficult for him to develop a relationship with the majority leader that I would hope they could.”

    The trial by fire will begin next month, as negotiations to fund the government past April 28 begin in earnest and McConnell seeks to jam through Gorsuch’s nomination in a fight that could end the filibuster for high court nominees.

    Schumer is confident he can block McConnell from filling a Supreme Court vacancy by clearing the 60-vote threshold — and that McConnell might not have the votes to gut the filibuster to get Gorsuch through.

    "There’s been an almost seismic shift in the caucus,” against Gorsuch, Schumer said. As for McConnell changing the rules in response, the minority leader added: “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. … There are people in his caucus who really don’t want to change the rules, OK?”

    Schumer also insists he has the “upper hand” in negotiations to keep the government open, reasoning that Republicans will get blamed for a shutdown even if it’s Democrats who vote down a spending bill because it contains funding for the border wall.


    Schumer is no stranger to audacious predictions, but he’s had a spotty record of late. Last year, he ventured that Senate Republicans would turn against McConnell’s Supreme Court blockade. He also forecast that a new “generation” of Democrats would be ushered in by Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election.

    In an interview in January, McConnell cited Schumer as an example of the kind of overconfidence that can backfire against a party. When asked about Republican prospects of picking up Senate seats across a fertile battleground map in 2018, McConnell noted the widespread predictions last year that Democrats would win the chamber. He suggested that Schumer became a bit too enamored with Democrats’ favorable 2016 map and started “measuring the curtains” as potential majority leader.

    Schumer said he doesn’t calibrate his statements based on how they might be judged for “posterity or history.”

    “I say what I think. Generally I have a pretty good record,” he said. “But I make mistakes. I sure did with the Hillary campaign. And the only consolation is, so did everybody else."

    Despite his minority status, a seething liberal base and crises looming, Schumer seemed in exceedingly good spirits last week as he chomped on Cheerios and slurped on a Diet Pepsi during an interview. He sprawled out in his chair, quizzed this reporter on his background and recounted being shaken down by crooked police in Montenegro.

    McConnell’s allies believe Schumer’s relaxed air and bullishness about his party’s positioning belies his actual situation. They say McConnell is a far more seasoned negotiator than Schumer and is not facing the kind of pressure from the base that liberals are putting on Democrats.

    “Left to his own devices, Chuck is” pragmatic, said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of Republican leadership who works out alongside Schumer in the Senate gym. “But he’s got so much pressure on him from his left in the caucus. And that’s where the center of gravity in their caucus is.”


    Schumer has disappointed Republicans with his moves to the left in recent weeks. He urged Democrats to avoid talking with the GOP about health care and is encouraging them to stay there until the GOP abandons its position of repealing Obamacare.

    Democrats would work with McConnell only if “he would tomorrow say, ‘We’re not going to repeal, we’re going to work to improve it,'" Schumer said.

    In contrast to McConnell’s unilateral decision within hours of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death last February to refuse to take up a replacement until after the presidential election, Schumer arrives at these positions only after protracted conversations with Democratic senators. He constantly speaks to his members individually, even memorizing their phone numbers on his signature flip phone rather than program them.

    “His M.O. has been to consult endlessly. He’s like a vacuum cleaner in absorbing ideas and reaching out at all hours of the day or not. He’s talking at 11 o’clock at night,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).


    Democrats say they’ve been surprised by his enthusiasm given the grim position his party is in. And so is Schumer.

    He said he fell into a deep funk for three days after Clinton lost and Democrats blew their best chance at taking back the Senate until 2020. But on the fourth day, Schumer says, “it was like a thunderbolt hit me, almost a message from God.”

    “I said to myself if Hillary won and you were majority leader, the job would be more fun and it would be a lot easier. And most importantly you’d get to do some good things,” Schumer said. “But with Trump as president and you as minority leader, the job is much more important. That has fueled me ever since.”



    Gorsuch's path to 60 votes closing fast


    Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s path to 60 votes is rapidly closing — setting the stage for a nuclear showdown in the Senate as soon as next week. Senior Democratic sources are now increasingly confident that Gorsuch can’t clear a filibuster,...

    Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s path to 60 votes is rapidly closing — setting the stage for a nuclear showdown in the Senate as soon as next week.

    Senior Democratic sources are now increasingly confident that Gorsuch can’t clear a filibuster, saying his ceiling is likely mid- to upper-50s on the key procedural vote. That would mark the first successful filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee since Abe Fortas for chief justice in the 1960s.

    In the latest ominous sign for the federal judge from Colorado, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Monday he’ll oppose Gorsuch on the cloture vote, which is expected late next week. More than a decade ago, Nelson helped break a filibuster of now-Justice Samuel Alito.

    If Democrats successfully filibuster Gorsuch, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has heavily telegraphed that he will invoke the so-called nuclear option to unilaterally change Senate rules with a simple majority vote. And Republicans are confident they’ll have the votes to do it, even as wary as many senators are about forever altering the deliberative nature of the chamber.

    “We’re not going to be treated by a double standard,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in an interview on Monday. “We’ll give our Democratic colleagues a chance to see if they provide the 60 votes; if they do, it’s a moot point. And if they don’t, as I said before, we will confirm him one way or the other.”

    Gorsuch got through his marathon confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee without any obvious gaffe or misstep. But Democrats said he stonewalled the committee when pressed repeatedly about his judicial philosophy, and many have since announced they’ll vote to block his nomination.


    So far, only one Senate Democrat has firmly said he’s willing to help advance Gorsuch’s nomination to a final confirmation vote: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a moderate who is seeking another meeting with the judge this week to weigh his credentials.

    “I’ve always been for cloture,” Manchin told Politico when asked whether he would vote to advance Gorsuch’s nomination, even if he ultimately opposes him. “I’ve always been, basically, ‘I’m not going to filibuster.’”

    But several other Democrats on Monday were much less definitive.

    Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said he is “still undecided,” as did Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said he’s continuing to study Gorsuch’s record and that the threat of the nuclear option wouldn’t influence his choice. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who like Nelson voted to break the filibuster on Alito, said Gorsuch’s stance on privacy rights would be a central factor in her still-unmade decision on confirmation.

    “I’m reviewing the hearings,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is facing parochial pressure to back Gorsuch because the judge hails from Denver.

    Even Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who told a local reporter in Vermont over the weekend that he is “not inclined to filibuster,” quickly walked that back in a series of tweets Monday amid a flurry of constituent calls organized by liberal groups. The former Judiciary Committee chairman said Gorsuch will be blocked unless the judge “provides real answers” to written questions for the record. Those written responses from Gorsuch are expected back to the committee sometime midweek.

    The nuclear battle could erupt as early as next Thursday. The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote to advance Gorsuch’s nomination on April 3 after Democrats successfully secured a one-week delay in the committee. The earliest McConnell could file cloture is Tuesday, April 4, which would tee up a Thursday vote to end the filibuster on Gorsuch’s nomination.

    While Republicans are still publicly hopeful that eight Democrats will allow Gorsuch to proceed to a final up-or-down confirmation vote, they’re already preparing for the last ditch, nuclear scenario if — or when — Democrats mount the first successful party-line filibuster in history.


    GOP leaders remain publicly and privately confident that Gorsuch will be confirmed to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia before senators leave for the two-week Easter recess in early April. And institutional Republicans long skittish about deploying the nuclear option are now much less nervous about using the provocative procedural maneuver.

    “When they’re in charge, they grab power,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said of Democrats. The South Carolina Republican said he would support the nuclear option as a “last resort.”

    If Democrats successfully filibuster Gorsuch, Graham added, it would say “that qualifications will no longer matter. There’s no way you can argue that this man’s not qualified. He got the highest rating that the American Bar Association can give somebody. So it means that ideology matters.”

    Even Susan Collins (R-Maine), who like Graham is among three remaining senators from the “Gang of 14” that helped defuse a brewing nuclear battle over judicial nominations a dozen years ago, left the door open to backing the nuclear option.

    “I would be very disheartened if we had to take that step because I’m a strong believer in the rules of the institution,” Collins said in an interview Monday. “But clearly, it would be unfair if we cannot get a straight up-or-down vote on Judge Gorsuch.”

    Democrats are under heavy pressure to oppose Gorsuch from liberal activists emboldened by Friday’s collapse of the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare. The party’s unified opposition during the health care fight has helped left-leaning activists sell their message on Gorsuch: Sticking together on a filibuster can add more political momentum heading into next year’s midterms.

    Liberal groups that have fought both Gorsuch and the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bid are now homing in on the judge, cheering the growing number of Democrats declaring their opposition as they plan for a nationwide Supreme Court protest on Saturday.


    NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue described the Republican collapse on health care as “obviously a good thing” for Gorsuch opponents. But Hogue expects the GOP to work even harder this week to persuade Democrats to back down from a possible nuclear showdown with McConnell.

    “The Trump administration needs a win” to avoid a lackluster first 100 days in office, Hogue said, while conservatives “who held their noses and got behind Trump’s candidacy for this reason specifically — this is absolutely the Holy Grail to them — those are the converging forces that show me they’re going to double down.”

    Still, liberals have reason to believe that the tide has turned in their direction, even if a successful filibuster forces McConnell to push a historic change to Senate rules. Several anti-Gorsuch activists question whether McConnell locked down the 51 votes needed to quash the minority’s power to filibuster Supreme Court nominees.

    And the Democratic base is feeling good about a minority leader whose early moves had some on the left worried he might be too willing to accommodate the White House. “Schumer has stepped up,” one prominent progressive said.

    “Seeing Trump give up the moment going gets tough stiffened Democrats’ spines to fight hard for their principles on Gorsuch,” MoveOn.org Washington director Ben Wikler said. “It’s clear that if Democrats are united around popular principles, and fight back hard, they can win.”


    Congress may stiff Trump on wall funding


    Congressional Republicans might deliver some more bad news for President Donald Trump, fresh off their embarrassing failure to scrap Obamacare: No new money is coming to build his wall.Trump hoped to jump-start construction of a massive wall on the...

    Congressional Republicans might deliver some more bad news for President Donald Trump, fresh off their embarrassing failure to scrap Obamacare: No new money is coming to build his wall.

    Trump hoped to jump-start construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border with money in a must-pass government funding bill. But Democratic leaders are vowing to block any legislation that includes a single penny for the wall.

    With the GOP consumed by its own divisions, the White House and Hill Republicans will have to rely on Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown next month in what would be another disaster for Trump’s fledgling presidency.

    Republican leaders, wary of this, are considering a plan that would not directly tie the border wall money to the April 28 government funding deadline. Some Republican insiders worry that the president cannot afford another major legislative setback — and they believe a shutdown showdown would result in just that.

    While no decision has been made by GOP leadership, Republican lawmakers may decide to decouple the two to avoid a confrontation with Democrats. If they do, the chances of getting Trump’s wall funding passed this spring become slim.

    “It remains to be seen,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) in an interview. “What I would like to see is a plan for how the money would be spent and a good faith discussion about what border security is really composed of. We haven’t had that.”

    Asked about the prospects for a lapse in government funding, Cornyn was definitive: “There’s not going to be a shutdown.”


    The White House made an initial request earlier this month for $1.4 billion in border wall funding as part of a package that boosts defense spending by $30 billion, with the thought that it would hitch a ride to the broader government funding bill due next month. Republicans expect the final price tag for the wall could be more than $20 billion.

    The problem is that polls show the border wall is not all that popular, particularly if the United States is paying for it, and it does not unify congressional Republicans in the way Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch or even the basic goal of repealing Obamacare have done. That makes it a harder sell to the rank-and-file GOP — especially if pressing it means playing a government shutdown blame game with Democrats.

    “The border wall is probably not a smart investment,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who proposes funding the wall as part a package legalizing some young undocumented immigrants and beefing up enforcement.

    Several sources said it is unclear whether Trump wants to take the fight to Democrats over the wall or avoid a shutdown battle. His Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in recent weeks has suggested the administration will focus more on the wall in the future, perhaps as late as fiscal 2019. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

    But building the wall was Trump’s signature campaign promise. Pushing off funding for it now would leave Trump with another unchecked campaign pledge at a time the White House is thirsty for a victory after its Obamacare debacle.

    Some defense hawks, like Graham, are concerned that the border wall fight could complicate an effort to get extra spending for the military.

    “Democrats, I think, are in a spot where they’re open-minded to military spending as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of” domestic spending, Graham said. “Here’s what I’d tell my colleagues in the House: If you don’t think the Defense Department is an emergency situation, you’ve just stopped listening.”

    Of course, some in the GOP are itching for a border battle. A senior Republican source suggested Trump could conceivably win a shutdown fight if he went to the mat to defend it: “This is his signature issue. I cannot imagine a scenario where the Trump administration loses on the border wall funding. If I were them, I’d dare the Democrats to shut down the government over this.”


    Another senior House Republican source disagreed completely: "The Trump administration can't have another disaster on its hands. I think right now they have to show some level of competence and that they can govern."

    Republicans began the year thinking that they could get moderate Democrats and perhaps even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to fund construction of a wall that some Democrats have supported in the past. But Schumer has warned McConnell that his party will not support any “riders” in the funding bill intended to jam Democrats with conservative policies.

    “The wall is a poison-pill rider,” Schumer said in an interview. “They’ll do it at their peril.”

    Other than the issue of the wall, the spending process on Capitol Hill is proceeding apace. Republicans and Democrats are working diligently together on a measure to fund the government through September that can appeal to the center of each party, according to lawmakers and aides.

    But adding the wall into the mix would create a toxic political environment.

    “That’s a bigger problem,” said a Republican senator familiar with the emerging spending bills. Including wall funding in the must-pass government funding bill “would be hard.”

    House Republicans are expected to act first.

    While the chamber operates on majority rule and could conceivably write red-meat appropriations bills that include wall funding, GOP leaders expect a significant number of conservatives to defect on any government funding bill, as they have in the past.

    And after the hard-line House Freedom Caucus brought down the Obamacare replacement bill last week, GOP insiders worry they can’t depend on them to help get major legislation across the finish line.

    The conservative caucus discussed giving Trump "greater flexibility" on spending bills during a closed-door Monday night meeting, according to Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows — so long as it includes funding for Trump's wall.


    "We understand that we have a very narrow margin of victory… and we understand it may require us to take more difficult votes than we have in the previous Congress," the North Carolina Republican told reporters.

    One option for the House is to pass the government funding bill and the border and defense package in a way that allows the Senate to easily separate the two measures later.

    Republicans could pass a bipartisan bill keeping the government open and then attach a second GOP bill with wall funding. That would let the Senate strip the wall provision from the must-pass bill to avert a government shutdown, and the House would be forced to swallow what the Senate can pass.

    If Trump insists, House GOP leaders could include the wall money directly in the government funding bill — but they could lose only 22 Republicans if they receive no Democratic support.

    Even if the House manages to pass a spending measure that includes funding for the wall, Republicans will need at least eight Senate Democrats to break a filibuster to fund the government, something Schumer says isn’t happening if border wall money is included.


    Pruitt takes fire from conservatives in climate showdown


    EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is coming under fire from conservatives amid a simmering behind-the-scenes fight over how far to take President Donald Trump's push to undo his predecessor's climate change agenda.In discussions with the White House over...

    EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is coming under fire from conservatives amid a simmering behind-the-scenes fight over how far to take President Donald Trump's push to undo his predecessor's climate change agenda.

    In discussions with the White House over the executive order Trump is scheduled to sign on Tuesday, Pruitt successfully argued against including language revoking the agency's 2009 “endangerment finding," according to two sources close to the issue.

    The endangerment finding declared that greenhouse gas emissions threaten human health and welfare and made EPA legally responsible for regulating carbon dioxide. It later set in motion much of former President Barack Obama's climate agenda. To many conservative skeptics of mainstream climate science, overturning the finding is an essential first step toward successfully undoing Obama administration climate regulations on everything from power plants to vehicles.

    But Pruitt, with the backing of several White House aides, argued in closed-door meetings that the legal hurdles to overturning the finding were massive, and the administration would be setting itself up for a lengthy court battle.

    A cadre of conservative climate skeptics are fuming about the decision — expressing their concern to Trump administration officials and arguing Pruitt is setting himself up to run for governor or the Senate. They hope the White House, perhaps senior adviser Stephen Bannon, will intervene and encourage the president to overturn the endangerment finding.

    Trump administration officials have not totally ruled out eventually targeting the endangerment finding. Conservative groups have petitioned the EPA to look at reopening it, one source said, and the agency may eventually be compelled to respond to the petition. Axios first reported the news of the petition.

    "Getting rid of the Clean Power Plan is just not enough," said Myron Ebell, the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the former leader of Trump’s EPA transition team.


    Ebell warned that leaving the endangerment finding in place would compel the Trump administration to come up with a replacement approach to regulating emissions from power plants and other sources that might not be too dissimilar from Obama's Clean Power Plan.

    "Before you know it you end up having to do a Trump Clean Power Plan," he said.

    James Delingpole, a Breitbart News columnist, blasted Pruitt on Monday, arguing he is "more interested in building his political career than he is taking on the Green Blob, insiders report." Bannon ran Breitbart before joining the Trump campaign last summer.

    Delingpole, who first reported that Pruitt advocated against reopening the endangerment finding, even suggested that the EPA administrator should resign.

    "But what President Trump needs now more than ever are administrators with the political will to do the right thing — which is, after all, the reason so many Americans voted for him," he wrote. "If Scott Pruitt is not up to that task, then maybe it’s about time he did the decent thing and handed over the reins to someone who is."

    EPA spokesman John Konkus did not directly address Pruitt's role in discussions over the endangerment finding, and said Tuesday’s order would focus on the carbon regulations for power plants. “This executive order is a victory for American jobs, and we think that speaks for itself," he said in a statement.

    A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

    The conservative criticism of Pruitt a marks a major shift. Pruitt, a skeptic of mainstream climate science himself, was hailed by Republicans as a top-notch choice to lead the agency. “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact,” Pruitt said in a recent interview.

    Reopening the endangerment finding is much easier said than done.

    Any decision to revoke it would require a lengthy notice-and-comment rulemaking, which would lead to certain litigation brought by environmentalists and states like California and New York. To survive a court challenge, Trump officials would have to prove to a court that greenhouse gases no longer pose a danger — something most observers say would not fly before any judge given the depth of scientific evidence on climate change.

    The fracas over the endangerment finding comes amid internal unrest at the EPA.

    Pruitt has expressed frustration at the White House's slow pace in nominating deputies to help him carry out the president's agenda, according to a person close to him. The executive order Trump will sign on Tuesday will instruct EPA to begin rewriting Obama's climate regulations for power plants, a process that could be complicated by the agency's barebones staff of political appointees.

    The EPA administrator is also facing a massive 31 percent cut to his agency's budget.


    Pruitt publicly raised concerns about the White House's initial proposed cuts, which amounted to about a 25 percent reduction, arguing for preserving funding for water grants and the brownfield program. Some White House officials were annoyed by Pruitt's comments, according to a person close to the matter. And the White House then slashed the EPA's budget even further.

    Pruitt's first weeks on the job have been marred by personality clashes.

    David Schnare, a member of the Trump administration's beachhead team at EPA, resigned from the agency earlier this month in frustration.

    Schnare has publicly remained cryptic about his reasons for leaving, saying that the matter is "complex." But he said he was bothered by disloyalty to Trump among both political appointees and career employees at EPA. But Pruitt's allies say Schnare is a disgruntled ex-employee who is unfairly targeting them.

    Meanwhile, EPA officials have expressed frustration at the presence of former Washington State Sen. Don Benton, the agency's White House-assigned senior adviser.

    Benton has repeatedly butted heads with Ryan Jackson, Pruitt's chief of staff. Multiple sources speculated that Benton might soon leave the agency. And EPA is expected to bring in two new communications staffers, the sources said. The agency is eyeing J.P. Freire, a spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), as its new communications director and Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman at the American Chemistry Council, as its deputy communications director. Neither Freire nor Bowman responded to requests for comment.

    Anthony Adragna contributed to this story.


    Trump takes biggest swing yet at Obama climate legacy


    President Donald Trump will direct the federal government on Tuesday to begin dismantling his predecessor’s most significant climate change policies, with a sweeping directive telling agencies to stop trying to reduce the carbon pollution of electric...

    President Donald Trump will direct the federal government on Tuesday to begin dismantling his predecessor’s most significant climate change policies, with a sweeping directive telling agencies to stop trying to reduce the carbon pollution of electric utilities, oil and gas drillers and coal miners.

    The executive order Trump will sign represents his biggest blow yet to former President Barack Obama’s climate legacy. But it does not go as far as some conservatives would like to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, nor will it begin to separate the U.S. from a landmark international climate accord — two areas of intense disagreement within the administration.

    Democrats argue that Trump is ignoring the risks of climate change for the sake of rewarding supporters in the fossil fuel industry.

    “My hope is that we’re at peak climate science denial in the Republican Party," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told POLITICO on Monday. "They’re going to extraordinary lengths to deny this meteor that is global warming is catapulting toward the Earth. I’m scared stiff. My kids won’t be able to solve this problem if we don’t tackle it right now, because it will be too late in 20 years."

    After last week’s embarrassing failure of Trump’s attempt to repeal and replace Obama’s health care law, the energy executive order offers the president a chance to refocus on another key campaign-trail promise: unleashing the American energy industry. The order comes on the heels of Trump’s move to ease Obama’s ambitious vehicle fuel-efficiency requirements and his order to reverse the EPA’s controversial Waters of the U.S. rule. The president also recently signed legislation undoing Obama-era rules on Appalachian coal mining and energy companies’ payments to foreign governments.

    Trump plans to order the EPA to rewrite tough rules that make it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired power plant, and he will tell the Interior Department to end Obama’s moratorium on new coal mines on federal lands, among other steps, White House officials said.


    Additionally, the president’s “energy independence” executive order also will repeal several Obama-era environmental directives aimed at reducing the federal government’s own carbon footprint, and it will direct agencies to ferret out any additional policies that “result in impediments” to U.S. energy production, a likely reference to restrictions on fracking and offshore drilling. The president also will tell federal regulators to stop using the “social cost of carbon,” which attempts to quantify the effects of climate change, in economic analyses of future rules.

    “There is every reason to believe that the federal government will no longer seek to punish American consumers and businesses for using the energy resources that fuel our economy," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said in a statement welcoming the order.

    But Trump is not expected to tell the EPA to reconsider the underlying policy that lets it regulate carbon emissions — the 2009 “endangerment finding” in which it declared that greenhouse gas pollution threatens human health and welfare. Nor will he address whether the U.S. will stay in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

    “We’re happy with it so far, and we look forward to the right decisions on Paris and endangerment, but I think those are still to be made and they’re a ways down the road,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the former leader of Trump’s EPA transition team.

    EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt went on national TV earlier this month to declare that carbon dioxide is not “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” a statement that is at odds with the conclusions of the vast majority of climate scientists, including those at his own agency. But Pruitt has not followed up on that statement with any effort to reverse the Obama-era endangerment finding — a factor that sources say contributed to last week’s abrupt departure of a Trump appointee from the agency.

    On Monday, a writer for Breitbart.com, the site previously run by White House strategist Steve Bannon, suggested that a failure to revoke the endangerment finding would be grounds for Pruitt to resign.

    "If Scott Pruitt is not up to that task, then maybe it’s about time he did the decent thing and handed over the reins to someone who is," wrote James Delingpole, a prominent climate skeptic.

    The White House did not rule out later revisiting the endangerment finding, which Trump promised on the campaign trail to review. But environmentalists hope the administration decides that would be too much trouble, given that the policy already survived judicial scrutiny, and that courts are unlikely to support revoking it given the overwhelming scientific data on climate change.

    Trump has not nominated anyone to fill key leadership positions below Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, leaving open the question of how quickly his order will yield any concrete results.


    “It’s going to be harder if you don’t have those positions filled,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Unless, actually, their intention is never to fill them and work through political operatives who are not accountable.”

    Trump’s advisers are split over whether to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, which Obama joined with a pledge to reduce U.S. emissions at least 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The U.S. would face no penalty for missing that target, but many conservatives nonetheless say Trump should abandon the agreement altogether, as he pledged to do during the campaign.

    But more moderate advisers, including Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, fear that pulling out would damage relations with key U.S. allies. Administration officials are now considering a middle-ground approach: Stay in the deal in exchange for more international support for technologies to reduce emissions from fossil fuels.

    The order was also silent on a carbon tax, another issue that has become a flash point in disputes between moderates and hard-liners in the White House.

    Despite the lofty rhetoric coming out of the White House, Tuesday’s order will have relatively little immediate effect.

    It will take the EPA years to rewrite its Clean Power Plan and accompanying rules on future power plants — both of which courts already had frozen while lawsuits play out.

    The Trump administration plans to ask federal courts to suspend lawsuits over the EPA climate regulations and send the rules back to the agency to be rewritten or withdrawn. But the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the Clean Power Plan six months ago, does not have to go along. The appeals court judges could rule any day on the Clean Power Plan, and a separate D.C. Circuit panel has scheduled oral arguments on the future plant rule for April 17.

    If the EPA will not defend the regulation, environmentalists and states like California and New York have indicated they will step up and do so. And the ultimate fate of the EPA’s climate authority likely will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the agency had to regulate greenhouse gases if they endanger public health — but did not say how.

    Trump’s plans for the social cost of carbon are less clear.

    To evaluate its climate rules, the Obama administration estimated that each ton of carbon dioxide imposes $36 in costs to society. But Republicans and fossil energy supporters argued it arrived at that figure by counting global benefits while specifying only domestic costs — and they complain the metric was not subjected to a traditional notice-and-comment period before it was employed.

    Critics also said the Obama administration used the social cost of carbon to impose stricter rules at the EPA, the Energy Department and elsewhere that would be too costly to justify otherwise. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, complained that the amount was too low.


    Whether Trump significantly lowers the cost of carbon or abolishes it altogether, the change could have a serious impact on energy regulations that will play out over a period of years. And it remains unclear how the courts might react. Federal judges have upheld agencies’ use of the metric before, but some may be inclined to give deference to the Trump administration over what amounts to a highly technical calculation.

    Meanwhile, Trump’s order will also lead to the resumption of federal coal leasing. But major coal companies are hardly champing at the bit to sign new leases on federal land, although the Bureau of Land Management could make new tracts available relatively quickly. For example, a spokesman for Peabody Energy, which mines more U.S. coal than anyone else, told Bloomberg that the company will not need a new lease in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin for “approximately a decade.”

    The Obama administration imposed a moratorium in February 2016 as part of a three-year review of the federal coal program. That followed reports from the Government Accountability Office, Interior’s inspector general and a coalition of environmentalists and government spending watchdogs that concluded Interior was undervaluing coal on public lands.

    Zinke hinted earlier this month that he will continue the underlying review, despite lifting the moratorium, to ensure taxpayers get the full value of coal being sold off of federal lands.

    It's not clear that the moratorium cost any jobs, particularly since most coal mining is happening on private rather than public lands. The National Mining Association has not calculated the costs of the moratorium so far, but the group noted that coal mines on federal lands employ 14,000 miners.

    Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.


    Freedom Caucus divided on tool to force Obamacare repeal vote


    House Freedom Caucus conservatives who brought down the GOP’s Obamacare replacement bill are divided over whether they should try to force a floor vote on a repeal-only bill with a procedural tool that could put their GOP colleagues in a bind.Several...

    House Freedom Caucus conservatives who brought down the GOP’s Obamacare replacement bill are divided over whether they should try to force a floor vote on a repeal-only bill with a procedural tool that could put their GOP colleagues in a bind.

    Several of the group’s most rock-ribbed conservatives are already setting in motion plans to file a so-called discharge petition. The legislative mechanism forces the chamber to vote on legislation — in this case, one of the group member’s Obamacare repeal bills — after it garners more than 216 lawmakers' signatures.

    “We will show to the American people who actually wants to repeal Obamacare and who does not,” said caucus member Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who filed a full repeal of the 2010 health law on Friday but says he must wait 30 days until he begins collecting signatures for a discharge petition.

    But several members of the hard-line caucus, including Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), pushed back on the idea. The North Carolina Republican said there’s “nothing to” the notion that the group would try to force the vote. Even Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who took out ex-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary, said he personally is “not looking at that right now.”

    The idea came up during the group’s Monday night meeting.


    Such a petition could cause major headaches for the broader House GOP conference. While it’s unclear the group could garner that many signatures — many House Republicans are furious with the Freedom Caucus and blame them for killing the House GOP alternative — the document would allow big-name outside groups to browbeat lawmakers to add their names.

    Those groups, like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, would no doubt call on Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to allow the bill on the floor, even though Ryan, like Trump, does not want to vote on repeal without some replacement.

    The Freedom Caucus members who don’t like the idea are trying to work with centrist Republicans right now to find out if they can come to some sort of agreement on a GOP alternative, in hopes of getting what one member said was about 40 or so “nos” on both ends of the conference to yes, and allowing them to vote on a bill.

    “I think it should come back, that’s my personal opinion,” said group member Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) of the GOP bill that Ryan pulled last Friday. Franks had switched his vote to yes after Trump called him personally.


    Asked about a discharge petition, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, the HFC’s earliest and most adamant Trump supporter, said, “I don’t know whether that will be doable or not.” He said a repeal-only bill goes against what Trump promised on the campaign trail, so it needs to include replacement measures, too.

    “The president promised he wants to repeal and replace at the same time and that’s what he ran on and won on, so we have to find a way to make that happen,” the Tennessee Republican said.

    Many House Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing their leadership to try to bring the Ryan bill up again. They want to vote on it on the floor, and hope that enough of their colleagues who were against it last time are now feeling remorseful for blocking progress. They hope they can get them to yes.

    GOP leaders say they’re having conversations about next steps behind closed doors. No decision has been made, but leaders say they feel they have to do something on health care and can’t just throw their hands up because they failed the first time.

    “We want to get it right,” Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters after a GOP conference meeting Tuesday. “We’re going to keep talking to each other until we get it right. I'm not going to put a timeline on it, because this is too important to not get right and to put an artificial timeline on it.”


    Schiff: Yates would have testified on Flynn ‘cover-up’


    Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says a hearing set for Tuesday with former acting Attorney General Sally Yates — which was canceled by Republicans — would have featured explosive testimony on Michael Flynn’s...

    Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says a hearing set for Tuesday with former acting Attorney General Sally Yates — which was canceled by Republicans — would have featured explosive testimony on Michael Flynn’s efforts to "cover up" his conversations with Russia’s ambassador.

    The intelligence panel was scheduled to hold a public hearing with members of the Obama administration, including Yates, but Republicans nixed the session last week after the Trump administration raised concerns about Yates' possible testimony.

    Schiff said Yates planned to testify on phone conversations between the Russian ambassador and Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser last month after it became clear he misled his colleagues about the nature of those conversations.

    “Today's hearing would also have provided the opportunity for former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates to testify about the events leading up to former National Security Advisor Flynn's firing, including his attempts to cover up his secret conversations with the Russian Ambassador,” Schiff said in a statement.

    “We would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without further delay,” Schiff continued, “and that Ms. Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly so that the public may understand, among other matters, when the president was informed that his national security advisor had misled the vice president and through him, the country, and why the president waited as long as he did to fire Mr. Flynn.”

    The flare-up over the canceled hearing is the latest clash between Schiff and the panel’s Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California.

    Schiff, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other top Democrats on Monday called for Nunes to recuse himself from the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.

    As part of the investigation, the panel is looking into allegations of collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump's campaign — and Democrats say Nunes is too close to the White House to lead such a probe.

    Nunes on Tuesday rebuffed questions from reporters about recusing himself.

    “The Russian investigation will continue,” he said. “Thanks for asking.”

    A spokesman for Nunes, Jack Langer, said the Intelligence panel still wants to speak to Yates, despite canceling Tuesday's hearing.


    The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the Trump administration sought to block Yates from testifying before the intelligence panel, which was also set to hear from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan.

    The Justice Department notified Yates that some of her possible testimony would be barred by presidential communications privilege. After Yates’ lawyer made clear she still wanted to testify, the hearing was canceled, according to the Post.

    In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the Post story “entirely false.”

    “The White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying and the Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible," the White House said.

    Yates was fired by Trump in January after refusing to defend his first travel ban executive order in court.


    Trump won’t throw first pitch on Nationals opening day


    President Donald Trump will not throw the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals opening day Monday, the team told reporters Tuesday. POLITICO Playbook reported Tuesday morning that Trump was in talks to throw the first pitch as the Nationals...

    President Donald Trump will not throw the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals opening day Monday, the team told reporters Tuesday.

    POLITICO Playbook reported Tuesday morning that Trump was in talks to throw the first pitch as the Nationals take on the Miami Marlins in Washington. But the White House said Trump has a “scheduling conflict” that makes him unavailable, the Washington Examiner reported.

    Every president since William Howard Taft in 1910, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, has thrown out a first pitch on opening day at some point during their presidency. President Barack Obama threw the first pitch at Nationals Park on opening day 2010.


    Graham: Nunes is running ‘an Inspector Clouseau investigation’


    House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has taken his committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election “off track,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday morning, likening the chairman’s performance to that of the...

    House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has taken his committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election “off track,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday morning, likening the chairman’s performance to that of the hapless Inspector Clouseau from the “Pink Panther” movies.

    Appearing on NBC’s “Today” show, Graham (R-S.C.) said Nunes (R-Calif.) owes his fellow committee members an opportunity to review the evidence that led him to announce last week that President Donald Trump’s transition team had been inadvertently surveilled following the election. Nunes has thus far been unwilling to disclose his source but did admit Monday that he met with that source inside the White House complex the day before he made his public disclosure.

    “If he’s not willing to tell the Democrats and Republicans on the committee who he met with and what he was told, then I think he’s lost his ability to lead,” Graham said. “My belief is the House is off track and probably can’t get back on track.”

    The South Carolina senator said the series of events revolving around Nunes is “bizarre,” but he stopped short of calling for the House Intelligence Committee chairman to step down, a move that Democrats in both the House and Senate have urged. Nunes has “put his objectivity in question at the very least,” Graham said, and must work to repair his credibility by being transparent about what information he possesses and where it came from.


    “The problem that he’s created is he’s gone off on a lark by himself, sort of an Inspector Clouseau investigation here,” Graham said. “The only way this thing can be repaired is he tells his colleagues on the House intel committee who he met with and what he saw and let them look at the same information.”


    Pelosi solicits Democrats for Obamacare tweaks


    House Democrats are charging ahead with their own push to tweak Obamacare, after the GOP effort to dismantle the law imploded last week. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to her caucus Tuesday, requesting members send their ideas to...

    House Democrats are charging ahead with their own push to tweak Obamacare, after the GOP effort to dismantle the law imploded last week.

    Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to her caucus Tuesday, requesting members send their ideas to strengthen the law as soon as possible. Pelosi and ranking members of the committees with health care jurisdiction will discuss the proposals in a meeting Wednesday morning.

    “After the collapse of TrumpCare, we must ensure that the Trump Administration does not sabotage the ACA out of spite,” Pelosi wrote. “Then, we can work to improve and update the Affordable Care Act and the health security it provides tens of millions of Americans.”

    Pelosi ended the letter by calling last week’s repeal collapse, which stemmed from dwindling Republican support and unified Democratic opposition, a “thrilling success.” Democrats aren't planning to introduce a full-scale alternative or even a comprehensive overhaul but are looking at specific areas within the 2010 health care law to target for improvement.

    House Republican leaders, meanwhile, left a nearly two-hour conference meeting Tuesday morning vowing to take another stab at rolling back Democrats’ signature domestic achievement.


    “We promised that we would repeal and replace Obamacare, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said after the meeting. “The timeline wasn’t there. The votes were not there yet. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there.”

    The White House conceded Monday that the collapse of GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare shows they’ll likely need at least some Democratic votes to make changes to the law.

    "I think we learned a lot through this process," said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. "I think we’re obviously looking at ways that we can improve not only how we handle health care, but other things — how we do everything."

    But at the same time, Spicer refused to rule out future repeal efforts, a nonstarter for Democrats.


    Mexican Archdiocese calls businesses who invest in Trump's wall 'traitors'


    The Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico charged Sunday that it would be immoral, and even treacherous, for Mexican companies to invest in President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.“Any company intending to invest in the wall of the fanatic Trump would...

    The Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico charged Sunday that it would be immoral, and even treacherous, for Mexican companies to invest in President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

    “Any company intending to invest in the wall of the fanatic Trump would be immoral, but above all, its shareholders and owners should be considered traitors to the homeland,” the archdiocese wrote in Desde la fe, its weekly publication, according to Reuters.

    Reuters reported that the archdiocese’s spokesperson, Cardinal Norberto Rivera, confirmed that the editorial stands for the archdiocese’s official view.

    Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, part of his hard-line immigration platform, has contributed to growing tensions between him and the Mexican government. He repeatedly claimed during the presidential campaign that Mexico would pay to build a wall between the two countries, and the president has not retracted that claim, even though leaders of Mexico have repeatedly said they have no intention of doing so.

    The archdiocese editorial said the government was responding too “tepidly” to businesses considering participating in the project. Reuters reported that Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, told the country’s businesses Tuesday that doing so would not be in their “interests.”


    Sen. McCain: Nunes should ‘absolutely’ reveal his sources


    Sen. John McCain called on House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to explain his decision to brief President Donald Trump on possible “unmasking” of Trump transition officials, suggesting that Nunes has undermined the credibility of the...

    Sen. John McCain called on House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to explain his decision to brief President Donald Trump on possible “unmasking” of Trump transition officials, suggesting that Nunes has undermined the credibility of the panel by not first communicating with fellow committee members.

    “I think there needs to be a lot of explaining to do,” McCain said Tuesday on "CBS This Morning." “I’ve been around for quite a while, and I’ve never heard of any such thing. Obviously, on a committee like an intelligence committee, you’ve got to have bipartisanship; otherwise, the committee loses credibility. And there’s so much out there that needs to be explained by the chairman.”

    Nunes, who served as a member of Trump's transition team, met with Trump last week to tell him that some members of the Trump transition team may have had their personal information improperly “unmasked,” or not redacted, as part of a standard surveillance of foreign officials’ communications. It was subsequently revealed that Nunes met with a source on White House grounds a day before briefing the press and then meeting with the president. Nunes has since refused to disclosed who he met with on White House grounds, and he has denied coordinating with White House officials.

    When "CBS This Morning" anchor Norah O’Donnell asked McCain whether Nunes should reveal his source, McCain said he “absolutely” should.

    “I can’t imagine why not,” McCain said.

    Nunes’ decision to brief the president directly instead of first reporting the information to members of the Intelligence Committee has been fiercely criticized by Democrats, who said Nunes proved himself to be incapable of leading an independent investigation into allegations Russia meddled in the 2016 election and into possible ties between Trump's campaign and Russian officials. McCain has called for a select committee to investigate the matters, which he reiterated Tuesday.


    “This is a very serious issue,” McCain added. “It all started with Russian interference, attempt to change the outcome of our election. It turned into a centipede like these things have a tendency of doing, and another shoe seems to drop every few days.”

    “It’s an issue of utmost importance,” he added. “And something’s got to change; otherwise, the whole effort of the House of Representatives will lose credibility. … But I think that there is more information out there. There’s more ties to Russia. There is more engagement with false information. There is a lot more associated with Russian attempts to affect our election, but there are also a lot of other Russian activities going on.”


    Wyden asks ethics officer to probe Mnuchin’s ‘Lego Batman’ comment


    Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden is asking the top U.S. ethics officer to examine whether Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin violated his ethics agreement by talking up a movie he helped finance.“I’m not allowed to promote anything I’m...

    Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden is asking the top U.S. ethics officer to examine whether Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin violated his ethics agreement by talking up a movie he helped finance.

    “I’m not allowed to promote anything I’m involved in,” Mnuchin said at a Friday event hosted by Axios. “So I just want to have the legal disclosure; you’ve asked me the question, and I am not promoting any product. But you should send all your kids to ‘Lego Batman.’”

    Mnuchin is credited as an executive producer on the movie, which was produced by a film company he founded — Ratpac-Dune Entertainment. He pledged to divest his financial interests in the company within four months of his confirmation. Mnuchin was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 13.

    Wyden said in his letter to Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub that Mnuchin has not provided the committee with any evidence that he has divested those interests and so he assumes he still holds them.

    “I am concerned that despite his ‘legal disclosure,’ these comments may constitute a violation of Secretary Mnuchin’s January 10, 2017, ethics agreement,” the Oregon Democrat wrote.

    Wyden pointed to the Treasury secretary’s pledge to not “participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of the entity until I have divested it.”

    The senator also cited OGE regulations that bar government employees from using their position to endorse a product.

    Treasury did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


    Today in Trumpworld – March 28


    TRUMP’S SCHEDULE:10:30 a.m.: President Donald Trump will receive his daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.11 a.m.: Trump will hold a listening session with the Fraternal Order of Police in the Roosevelt Room.2 p.m.: Trump will sign an...

    TRUMP’S SCHEDULE:

    10:30 a.m.: President Donald Trump will receive his daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.

    11 a.m.: Trump will hold a listening session with the Fraternal Order of Police in the Roosevelt Room.

    2 p.m.: Trump will sign an “Energy Independence Executive Order” at the Environmental Protection Agency.

    4 p.m.: Trump will meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in the Oval Office.

    7 p.m.: Trump will host a reception for senators and their spouses in the East Room.

    OTHER HAPPENINGS: Vice President Mike Pence is hitting the Hill to meet with lawmakers. Sean Spicer will brief the press at the White House at 1 p.m. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Ivanka Trump will visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum this morning at 9:45 a.m. to talk STEM education.

    TRUMP’S TWITTER THIS MORNING: “Big announcement by Ford today. Major investment to be made in three Michigan plants. Car companies coming back to U.S. JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! … Watch @foxandfriends now on Podesta and Russia!”

    And last night, Trump took to Twitter to declare: “Trump Russia story is a hoax.”

    COMING TODAY: From the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis: “President Trump will take the most significant step yet in obliterating his predecessor’s environmental record Tuesday, instructing federal regulators to rewrite key rules curbing U.S. carbon emissions. The sweeping executive order also seeks to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing and remove the requirement that federal officials consider the impact of climate change when making decisions. The order sends an unmistakable signal that just as President Barack Obama sought to weave climate considerations into every aspect of the federal government, Trump is hoping to rip that approach out by its roots.”

    SPENDING CUTS: From POLITICO Pro's Helena Bottemiller Evich and Sarah Ferris: "President Donald Trump doesn't want to wait until next year to slash government spending on everything from education to mental health programs. The White House is asking Congress to cut $18 billion from discretionary spending bills for the current fiscal year that have been long settled -- a move that could threaten a major showdown just a month ahead of the deadline to keep the government funded.”

    SPEAKING OF SPENDING: From POLITICO’s Burgess Everett and Rachael Bade: “Congressional Republicans might deliver some more bad news for President Donald Trump, fresh off their embarrassing failure to scrap Obamacare: No new money is coming to build his wall. Trump hoped to jump-start construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border with money in a must-pass government funding bill. But Democratic leaders are vowing to block any legislation that includes a single penny for the wall.”

    SCOTUS UPDATE -- TROUBLE AHEAD: From POLITICO’s Seung Min Kim and Elana Schor: “Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s path to 60 votes is rapidly closing — setting the stage for a nuclear showdown in the Senate as soon as next week. Senior Democratic sources are now increasingly confident that Gorsuch can’t clear a filibuster, saying his ceiling is likely mid- to upper-50s on the key procedural vote. That would mark the first successful filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee since Abe Fortas for chief justice in the 1960s.”

    This issue seems to be the latest reminder of an uncomfortable question for the White House: Why would any Democrat cooperate with them? Trump lost the popular vote, is under multiple investigations, has basement-level approval ratings, is signing executive actions that outrage the liberal base and has done almost no serious outreach to Democrats.


    Nunes, White House defiant as Russia controversy deepens


    Embattled House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on Tuesday rejected calls for his recusal, questioning why he should step aside from leading the panel’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election and possible...

    Embattled House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on Tuesday rejected calls for his recusal, questioning why he should step aside from leading the panel’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election and possible collusion between Russian officials and President Donald Trump’s associates.

    “Well, why would I not?” Nunes (R-Calif.) told reporters when asked whether he’d continue to lead the investigation. “Why would it not?” he said when asked whether the probe could continue with him at the helm.

    Top Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, called on Nunes to recuse himself Monday after his office confirmed that he was on White House grounds the day before he publicly claimed to have evidence that members of Trump’s transition team were inappropriately monitored by intelligence agencies. Nunes returned to the White House to brief Trump on his findings after making his public statement, but Democrats on the panel have said they still haven’t had any access to Nunes’ information.

    Asked about the growing number of Democrats who have expressed concern over his ability to lead a credible investigation, Nunes, who was a member of the Trump transition executive committee, told reporters to “go talk to them.”

    “That sounds like their problem,” he said. “You know, my colleagues are perfectly fine. I mean, they know we’re doing an investigation, and that will continue.”

    Democrats have suggested that the information on which Nunes briefed the president may have come from the White House or someone within the Trump administration. Nunes said Monday that his source was an intelligence official.

    Still, the minority has expressed skepticism over Nunes’ sequence of events, including his decision to go to White House grounds to review classified material he likely could have seen inside the Capitol.

    The White House is “not an internet café,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the intelligence panel, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “You can’t just walk in and receive classified information.”

    Swalwell said “this is done because the White House wanted it to be done,” adding, “This is what a cover-up to a crime looks like.”

    The House Intelligence Committee was scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday morning with testimony from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, but the hearing was canceled. Nunes, who initially told reporters twice on Tuesday that “nothing has been canceled” and urged them to ask the Democrats, indicated that he believes the committee can’t move forward until it hears more from FBI Director James Comey, who testified publicly last week.

    The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the Trump administration tried to prevent Yates from testifying by having the Justice Department inform her that a significant portion of her testimony would be blocked because the topics are covered under the presidential communication privilege.

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer blasted the story as “entirely false,” arguing that the administration hasn’t taken any action to stop Yates from testifying. DOJ “specifically told her that it would not stop her, and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible,” the statement said.

    Schiff has called for the hearing to be rescheduled.

    “Whether the White House’s desire to avoid a public claim of executive privilege to keep her from providing the full truth on what happened contributed to the decision to cancel today's hearing, we do not know,” the California Democrat wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “But we would urge that the open hearing be rescheduled without further delay and that Ms. Yates be permitted to testify freely and openly.”

    Rep. Jackie Speier of California, another Democrat on the committee, said she was “outraged” when the hearing was canceled and found out about it through media reports. She accused Republicans of trying to “shut down the visuals” of the committee openly talking about connections between Trump associates and Russians. Nunes’ conduct, she continued, has been “profoundly inappropriate,” and the bipartisan nature of the committee “is out the window.”

    “It smacks of a hunkering down by the White House and the chair of this committee to shut this committee down and its investigation. I am very convinced that that's what the game plan is right now,” she said. “I don’t think the president wants this investigation to move forward. It could implicate his campaign, even him, in the Russian meddling of our elections.”

    Democrats were joined in their criticism Tuesday by two Senate Republicans.

    “If he’s not willing to tell the Democrats and Republicans on the committee who he met with and what he was told, then I think he’s lost his ability to lead,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who likened Nunes to inspector Jacques Clouseau from the “Pink Panther” series. “My belief is the House is off track and probably can’t get back on track.”

    Arizona Sen. John McCain said in an interview with “CBS This Morning” that Nunes has “a lot of explaining to do.” “I’ve been around for quite a while, and I’ve never heard of any such thing,” McCain said. “Obviously, on a committee like an intelligence committee, you’ve got to have bipartisanship; otherwise the committee loses credibility. And there’s so much out there that needs to be explained by the chairman.”

    Nunes told reporters he has nothing new to report but would brief them when the time is appropriate.

    “You can continue to speculate,” he said. “As I told you before, we’re not gonna get into sources, methods, anything.”

    Louis Nelson and Kelsey Sutton contributed to this report.


    Swalwell on Nunes: ‘This is what a cover-up to a crime looks like’


    House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’ announcement last week that officials from the transition team of President Donald Trump had been inadvertently surveilled by the U.S. intelligence community came at the behest of the White House, Rep....

    House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’ announcement last week that officials from the transition team of President Donald Trump had been inadvertently surveilled by the U.S. intelligence community came at the behest of the White House, Rep. Eric Swalwell said Tuesday morning.

    Nunes (R-Calif.) confirmed Monday that he had traveled to the White House to meet with his still-unnamed source on the day before he made his announcement but denied that the public disclosure was coordinated in any way with Trump administration officials. The White House, Nunes said in a CNN interview, simply served as a secure location for reviewing classified information and “I’m quite sure that I think people in the West Wing had no idea that I was there.”

    But Swalwell (D-Calif.), also a member of the House Intelligence Committee, disputed the chairman’s argument Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “It’s not an internet cafe. You can’t just walk in and receive classified information,” Swalwell said of the White House, adding that when a member of Congress visits, “everyone in the building knows that you’re there in the building.”

    “This is done because the White House wanted it to be done,” the California Democrat said. “And this is what a cover-up to a crime looks like. We are watching it play out right now.”

    If Nunes wanted to view classified materials, Swalwell said, there are secure facilities for doing so at the Capital, making a trip to the White House unnecessary. “If this was done the proper way, they could have brought it over, shared it with both parties of the committee,” he said.

    Swalwell also wondered aloud why Nunes has been unwilling to share the source of his information when committee members have “always been on the same team up until now.”

    In the wake of Monday’s revelation regarding Nunes’ White House visit, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, has called on Nunes to recuse himself from the committee’s investigation into ties between the Russian government and the 2016 election. Swalwell echoed that call and, without naming specific lawmakers, said he’s heard frustration from Republicans that Nunes has at least created the perception of a compromised investigation.

    “A lot of them have said that we don’t need an independent commission because we’re doing the work in the House committee, on the intelligence committee, and so that’s always been the out for not having an independent commission,” Swalwell said. “So I’ve heard frustration that they don’t have that out anymore. So where do we go now?”


    Trump takes biggest swing yet at Obama climate legacy


    President Donald Trump will direct the federal government on Tuesday to begin dismantling his predecessor’s most significant climate change policies, with a sweeping directive telling agencies to stop trying to reduce the carbon pollution of electric...

    President Donald Trump will direct the federal government on Tuesday to begin dismantling his predecessor’s most significant climate change policies, with a sweeping directive telling agencies to stop trying to reduce the carbon pollution of electric utilities, oil and gas drillers and coal miners.

    The executive order Trump will sign represents his biggest blow yet to former President Barack Obama’s climate legacy. But it does not go as far as some conservatives would like to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, nor will it begin to separate the U.S. from a landmark international climate accord — two areas of intense disagreement within the administration.

    Democrats argue that Trump is ignoring the risks of climate change for the sake of rewarding supporters in the fossil fuel industry.

    “My hope is that we’re at peak climate science denial in the Republican Party," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told POLITICO on Monday. "They’re going to extraordinary lengths to deny this meteor that is global warming is catapulting toward the Earth. I’m scared stiff. My kids won’t be able to solve this problem if we don’t tackle it right now, because it will be too late in 20 years."

    After last week’s embarrassing failure of Trump’s attempt to repeal and replace Obama’s health care law, the energy executive order offers the president a chance to refocus on another key campaign-trail promise: unleashing the American energy industry. The order comes on the heels of Trump’s move to ease Obama’s ambitious vehicle fuel-efficiency requirements and his order to reverse the EPA’s controversial Waters of the U.S. rule. The president also recently signed legislation undoing Obama-era rules on Appalachian coal mining and energy companies’ payments to foreign governments.

    Trump plans to order the EPA to rewrite tough rules that make it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired power plant, and he will tell the Interior Department to end Obama’s moratorium on new coal mines on federal lands, among other steps, White House officials said.


    Additionally, the president’s “energy independence” executive order also will repeal several Obama-era environmental directives aimed at reducing the federal government’s own carbon footprint, and it will direct agencies to ferret out any additional policies that “result in impediments” to U.S. energy production, a likely reference to restrictions on fracking and offshore drilling. The president also will tell federal regulators to stop using the “social cost of carbon,” which attempts to quantify the effects of climate change, in economic analyses of future rules.

    “There is every reason to believe that the federal government will no longer seek to punish American consumers and businesses for using the energy resources that fuel our economy," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said in a statement welcoming the order.

    But Trump is not expected to tell the EPA to reconsider the underlying policy that lets it regulate carbon emissions — the 2009 “endangerment finding” in which it declared that greenhouse gas pollution threatens human health and welfare. Nor will he address whether the U.S. will stay in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

    “We’re happy with it so far, and we look forward to the right decisions on Paris and endangerment, but I think those are still to be made and they’re a ways down the road,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the former leader of Trump’s EPA transition team.

    EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt went on national TV earlier this month to declare that carbon dioxide is not “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” a statement that is at odds with the conclusions of the vast majority of climate scientists, including those at his own agency. But Pruitt has not followed up on that statement with any effort to reverse the Obama-era endangerment finding — a factor that sources say contributed to last week’s abrupt departure of a Trump appointee from the agency.

    On Monday, a writer for Breitbart.com, the site previously run by White House strategist Steve Bannon, suggested that a failure to revoke the endangerment finding would be grounds for Pruitt to resign.

    "If Scott Pruitt is not up to that task, then maybe it’s about time he did the decent thing and handed over the reins to someone who is," wrote James Delingpole, a prominent climate skeptic.

    The White House did not rule out later revisiting the endangerment finding, which Trump promised on the campaign trail to review. But environmentalists hope the administration decides that would be too much trouble, given that the policy already survived judicial scrutiny, and that courts are unlikely to support revoking it given the overwhelming scientific data on climate change.

    Trump has not nominated anyone to fill key leadership positions below Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, leaving open the question of how quickly his order will yield any concrete results.


    “It’s going to be harder if you don’t have those positions filled,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Unless, actually, their intention is never to fill them and work through political operatives who are not accountable.”

    Trump’s advisers are split over whether to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, which Obama joined with a pledge to reduce U.S. emissions at least 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The U.S. would face no penalty for missing that target, but many conservatives nonetheless say Trump should abandon the agreement altogether, as he pledged to do during the campaign.

    But more moderate advisers, including Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, fear that pulling out would damage relations with key U.S. allies. Administration officials are now considering a middle-ground approach: Stay in the deal in exchange for more international support for technologies to reduce emissions from fossil fuels.

    The order was also silent on a carbon tax, another issue that has become a flash point in disputes between moderates and hard-liners in the White House.

    Despite the lofty rhetoric coming out of the White House, Tuesday’s order will have relatively little immediate effect.

    It will take the EPA years to rewrite its Clean Power Plan and accompanying rules on future power plants — both of which courts already had frozen while lawsuits play out.

    The Trump administration plans to ask federal courts to suspend lawsuits over the EPA climate regulations and send the rules back to the agency to be rewritten or withdrawn. But the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the Clean Power Plan six months ago, does not have to go along. The appeals court judges could rule any day on the Clean Power Plan, and a separate D.C. Circuit panel has scheduled oral arguments on the future plant rule for April 17.

    If the EPA will not defend the regulation, environmentalists and states like California and New York have indicated they will step up and do so. And the ultimate fate of the EPA’s climate authority likely will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the agency had to regulate greenhouse gases if they endanger public health — but did not say how.

    Trump’s plans for the social cost of carbon are less clear.

    To evaluate its climate rules, the Obama administration estimated that each ton of carbon dioxide imposes $36 in costs to society. But Republicans and fossil energy supporters argued it arrived at that figure by counting global benefits while specifying only domestic costs — and they complain the metric was not subjected to a traditional notice-and-comment period before it was employed.

    Critics also said the Obama administration used the social cost of carbon to impose stricter rules at the EPA, the Energy Department and elsewhere that would be too costly to justify otherwise. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, complained that the amount was too low.


    Whether Trump significantly lowers the cost of carbon or abolishes it altogether, the change could have a serious impact on energy regulations that will play out over a period of years. And it remains unclear how the courts might react. Federal judges have upheld agencies’ use of the metric before, but some may be inclined to give deference to the Trump administration over what amounts to a highly technical calculation.

    Meanwhile, Trump’s order will also lead to the resumption of federal coal leasing. But major coal companies are hardly champing at the bit to sign new leases on federal land, although the Bureau of Land Management could make new tracts available relatively quickly. For example, a spokesman for Peabody Energy, which mines more U.S. coal than anyone else, told Bloomberg that the company will not need a new lease in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin for “approximately a decade.”

    The Obama administration imposed a moratorium in February 2016 as part of a three-year review of the federal coal program. That followed reports from the Government Accountability Office, Interior’s inspector general and a coalition of environmentalists and government spending watchdogs that concluded Interior was undervaluing coal on public lands.

    Zinke hinted earlier this month that he will continue the underlying review, despite lifting the moratorium, to ensure taxpayers get the full value of coal being sold off of federal lands.

    It's not clear that the moratorium cost any jobs, particularly since most coal mining is happening on private rather than public lands. The National Mining Association has not calculated the costs of the moratorium so far, but the group noted that coal mines on federal lands employ 14,000 miners.

    Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.


    Is Trump stalling a travel ban appeal at 9th Circuit?


    When President Donald Trump’s first travel ban executive order was effectively shut down by a federal judge, the Trump administration seemed to be in a huge rush to get the policy back on track. This time? Not so much. It took less than a day for...

    When President Donald Trump’s first travel ban executive order was effectively shut down by a federal judge, the Trump administration seemed to be in a huge rush to get the policy back on track.

    This time? Not so much.

    It took less than a day for Justice Department lawyers to file an appeal last month after U.S. District Court Judge James Robart blocked the key parts of Trump’s directive.

    A few hours later — just after midnight Eastern Time — the federal government filed an emergency motion asking the San Francisco-based 9thCircuit to allow the president to move forward with his plan to halt travel to the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim countries and to suspend refugee admissions from across the globe.

    A three-judge 9th Circuit panel unanimously turned down Trump’s request, prompting the president to redraft the executive order, dropping Iraq from the roster of affected countries and exempting existing visa-holders from the directive.

    But when a federal judge in Hawaii issued a broad block on the new order March 15, just hours before it was set to kick in, there was no immediate appeal. In fact, nearly two weeks later, the Justice Department is still tangling with Honolulu U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson and has yet to take the issue back to the 9th Circuit.

    The delay has puzzled many lawyers tracking the litigation, particularly given Trump’s public warning that “many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country” as a result of the courts’ interference with his first travel ban directive. A total of two months have now passed since Trump signed his first order.

    “A lot of people have talked about that,” said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. “It seems hard to wait on this without undercutting the argument” that the travel ban order is needed to address an urgent national security threat, he added.

    Some attorneys believe the Justice Department is intentionally dragging its feet in the Hawaii case because the 9th Circuit rotates the three-judge panels assigned to motions every month, with the next swap-out due Saturday. The 9th Circuit also announces the panels publicly, although not in advance. This month’s consists of two Obama-appointed judges — Morgan Christen and John Owens — along with George W. Bush appointee Milan Smith.

    “Maybe they looked at the motions panel this month and felt it was maybe, 2-1 [against them] … at best and they didn’t see any percentage in that so they figured let’s see what’s up next month,” Tobias said.

    “It does not bespeak a lot of confidence in the merits of their position if the strategy here really is waiting until the calendar flips over on Saturday,” University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck added. “It’s both a long shot and strange one.”

    A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the timing. A lawyer for the State of Hawaii, which obtained the broad restraining order, also declined to comment.

    The feds’ apparent decision to slow walk the Hawaii case may have been bolstered earlier this month when five Republican-appointed 9th Circuit judges took the unusual step of publicly signaling that they would have upheld the original order. That wasn’t enough to reconsider the initial 9th Circuit panel decision refusing to let Trump proceed with his first order, but the dissenting opinion told federal government lawyers that there was a significant reservoir of support for their position among the appeals court’s judges.

    Still, Democratic-appointed judges on the court’s active bench outnumber Republican nominees, 18-7, and the court’s senior ranks are split, 10-9, in favor of Democratic appointees. It’s also worth noting that a George W. Bush-appointed senior judge, Richard Clifton, joined two Obama appointees in turning down Trump’s emergency motion to reinstate his earlier policy.

    There are also other potential hurdles facing Trump’s revised order at the 9th Circuit. Under that court’s procedures, cases involving the same subject matter are sometimes returned to the same judges who considered the issue the first time around. In addition, the first panel’s opinion is considered binding precedent that could affect a second ruling, even one by different judges.

    That may be why the Justice Department initially asked that the first ruling be wiped out, although it eventually dropped that request.

    Another explanation for the slow-roll in the 9th Circuit could be that the Justice Department sees more fertile ground elsewhere. A judge in Maryland blocked the visa-ban aspect of Trump’s revised order about two weeks ago, leading federal government lawyers to promptly file an appeal with the Richmond-based 4th Circuit.

    That court has scheduled arguments on the issue for May 8. Unlike the 9th Circuit, the 4th Circuit announces its three-judge panels only a half an hour before arguments begin, in order to avoid what one attorney called “gaming the system.”

    However, the 4th Circuit said in an order Monday that it might send the case directly to the court’s full bench, split among nine Democratic-appointed judges, five Republican appointees and one nominated by both Democratic and Republican presidents.

    To some observers, the Trump administration’s odds at the 4th Circuit don’t look much better.

    “In general, the court has moved to be much more moderate. It used to be the most conservative court in the country, but these days is really hard to predict,” Tobias said. “It has drifted from the right to the middle and maybe even a little to the left.”

    “This is not your father’s 4th Circuit,” Vladeck joked. “I don’t think there’s any court of appeals where Obama has more of an impact.”

    That said, the 4th Circuit’s leftward drift tends to be less pronounced in national security cases. That could give the federal government a fighting chance in front of a randomly picked three-judge panel, although the full bench seems like a bigger challenge, in part because the larger panel is unbound by earlier 4th Circuit precedents.

    Another factor in the swirl of litigation: Trump’s pending nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. A modest delay in the court proceedings on Trump’s travel ban could give Gorsuch time to be confirmed and take his seat on the high court — perhaps as soon as next week.

    While his vote may not be a lock for the White House, Trump’s chances of getting a majority of the justices to back some kind of emergency relief that allows the travel ban to take effect seem decent with Gorsuch in place and infinitesimal without him.

    Although the Justice Department has not yet appealed the Hawaii ruling — which blocks Trump’s policy worldwide — federal government lawyers have not been sitting on their hands in the case.

    Two days after Watson issued his restraining order, the government asked him to “clarify” it, by narrowing it to cover just the visa ban and by limiting the provisions related to refugees, or dropping that portion altogether.

    The judge gave the back of his hand to that effort, saying that the Justice Department’s arguments asked “the Court to make a distinction that the Federal Defendants’ previous briefs and arguments never did.”

    The Justice Department could have appealed at that point, as well, but instead chose to embark on a 10-day effort to persuade Watson to let the temporary restraining order expire or to narrow it in precisely the way he rejected earlier. The judge has scheduled a hearing on that issue Wednesday.

    Those options to seek clarification or to try to get the judge to narrow the relief in a preliminary injunction were also open when Robart issued his order last month, but the government didn’t use them.

    Some greater clarity in the Hawaii litigation could come if Watson rules later this week, giving the federal government yet another chance to note an appeal. Any new stay motion filed over the weekend could be assigned to a new 9th Circuit panel, providing a verdict of sorts on the Trump administration’s legal strategy.

    “I don’t think there’s any question that the government’s approach defies easy synthesis,” Vladeck said.


    Gorsuch's path to 60 votes closing fast


    Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s path to 60 votes is rapidly closing — setting the stage for a nuclear showdown in the Senate as soon as next week. Senior Democratic sources are now increasingly confident that Gorsuch can’t clear a filibuster,...

    Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s path to 60 votes is rapidly closing — setting the stage for a nuclear showdown in the Senate as soon as next week.

    Senior Democratic sources are now increasingly confident that Gorsuch can’t clear a filibuster, saying his ceiling is likely mid- to upper-50s on the key procedural vote. That would mark the first successful filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee since Abe Fortas for chief justice in the 1960s.

    In the latest ominous sign for the federal judge from Colorado, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Monday he’ll oppose Gorsuch on the cloture vote, which is expected late next week. More than a decade ago, Nelson helped break a filibuster of now-Justice Samuel Alito.

    If Democrats successfully filibuster Gorsuch, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has heavily telegraphed that he will invoke the so-called nuclear option to unilaterally change Senate rules with a simple majority vote. And Republicans are confident they’ll have the votes to do it, even as wary as many senators are about forever altering the deliberative nature of the chamber.

    “We’re not going to be treated by a double standard,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in an interview on Monday. “We’ll give our Democratic colleagues a chance to see if they provide the 60 votes; if they do, it’s a moot point. And if they don’t, as I said before, we will confirm him one way or the other.”

    Gorsuch got through his marathon confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee without any obvious gaffe or misstep. But Democrats said he stonewalled the committee when pressed repeatedly about his judicial philosophy, and many have since announced they’ll vote to block his nomination.


    So far, only one Senate Democrat has firmly said he’s willing to help advance Gorsuch’s nomination to a final confirmation vote: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a moderate who is seeking another meeting with the judge this week to weigh his credentials.

    “I’ve always been for cloture,” Manchin told Politico when asked whether he would vote to advance Gorsuch’s nomination, even if he ultimately opposes him. “I’ve always been, basically, ‘I’m not going to filibuster.’”

    But several other Democrats on Monday were much less definitive.

    Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said he is “still undecided,” as did Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said he’s continuing to study Gorsuch’s record and that the threat of the nuclear option wouldn’t influence his choice. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who like Nelson voted to break the filibuster on Alito, said Gorsuch’s stance on privacy rights would be a central factor in her still-unmade decision on confirmation.

    “I’m reviewing the hearings,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is facing parochial pressure to back Gorsuch because the judge hails from Denver.

    Even Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who told a local reporter in Vermont over the weekend that he is “not inclined to filibuster,” quickly walked that back in a series of tweets Monday amid a flurry of constituent calls organized by liberal groups. The former Judiciary Committee chairman said Gorsuch will be blocked unless the judge “provides real answers” to written questions for the record. Those written responses from Gorsuch are expected back to the committee sometime midweek.

    The nuclear battle could erupt as early as next Thursday. The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote to advance Gorsuch’s nomination on April 3 after Democrats successfully secured a one-week delay in the committee. The earliest McConnell could file cloture is Tuesday, April 4, which would tee up a Thursday vote to end the filibuster on Gorsuch’s nomination.

    While Republicans are still publicly hopeful that eight Democrats will allow Gorsuch to proceed to a final up-or-down confirmation vote, they’re already preparing for the last ditch, nuclear scenario if — or when — Democrats mount the first successful party-line filibuster in history.


    GOP leaders remain publicly and privately confident that Gorsuch will be confirmed to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia before senators leave for the two-week Easter recess in early April. And institutional Republicans long skittish about deploying the nuclear option are now much less nervous about using the provocative procedural maneuver.

    “When they’re in charge, they grab power,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said of Democrats. The South Carolina Republican said he would support the nuclear option as a “last resort.”

    If Democrats successfully filibuster Gorsuch, Graham added, it would say “that qualifications will no longer matter. There’s no way you can argue that this man’s not qualified. He got the highest rating that the American Bar Association can give somebody. So it means that ideology matters.”

    Even Susan Collins (R-Maine), who like Graham is among three remaining senators from the “Gang of 14” that helped defuse a brewing nuclear battle over judicial nominations a dozen years ago, left the door open to backing the nuclear option.

    “I would be very disheartened if we had to take that step because I’m a strong believer in the rules of the institution,” Collins said in an interview Monday. “But clearly, it would be unfair if we cannot get a straight up-or-down vote on Judge Gorsuch.”

    Democrats are under heavy pressure to oppose Gorsuch from liberal activists emboldened by Friday’s collapse of the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare. The party’s unified opposition during the health care fight has helped left-leaning activists sell their message on Gorsuch: Sticking together on a filibuster can add more political momentum heading into next year’s midterms.

    Liberal groups that have fought both Gorsuch and the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bid are now homing in on the judge, cheering the growing number of Democrats declaring their opposition as they plan for a nationwide Supreme Court protest on Saturday.


    NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue described the Republican collapse on health care as “obviously a good thing” for Gorsuch opponents. But Hogue expects the GOP to work even harder this week to persuade Democrats to back down from a possible nuclear showdown with McConnell.

    “The Trump administration needs a win” to avoid a lackluster first 100 days in office, Hogue said, while conservatives “who held their noses and got behind Trump’s candidacy for this reason specifically — this is absolutely the Holy Grail to them — those are the converging forces that show me they’re going to double down.”

    Still, liberals have reason to believe that the tide has turned in their direction, even if a successful filibuster forces McConnell to push a historic change to Senate rules. Several anti-Gorsuch activists question whether McConnell locked down the 51 votes needed to quash the minority’s power to filibuster Supreme Court nominees.

    And the Democratic base is feeling good about a minority leader whose early moves had some on the left worried he might be too willing to accommodate the White House. “Schumer has stepped up,” one prominent progressive said.

    “Seeing Trump give up the moment going gets tough stiffened Democrats’ spines to fight hard for their principles on Gorsuch,” MoveOn.org Washington director Ben Wikler said. “It’s clear that if Democrats are united around popular principles, and fight back hard, they can win.”


    Democrats burned by polling blind spot


    As they investigate the forces behind the party’s stunning losses in November, Democrats are coming to a troubling conclusion. The party didn’t just lose among rural white voters on Election Day, it may have failed to capture them in its pre-election...

    As they investigate the forces behind the party’s stunning losses in November, Democrats are coming to a troubling conclusion. The party didn’t just lose among rural white voters on Election Day, it may have failed to capture them in its pre-election polling as well.

    Many pollsters and strategists believe that rural white voters, particularly those without college degrees, eluded the party’s polling altogether — and their absence from poll results may have been both a cause and a symptom of Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton in several states.

    Determining what exactly happened is one of the most pressing problems facing the out-of-power party. In order to win those voters back — or figure out a future path to victory without them — party strategists say they first need to measure the size of that rural and working-class cohort.

    John Hagner, a partner at Clarity Campaign Labs, a D.C.-based Democratic analytics firm, said 2016 taught the party a hard lesson about polling in the Trump era.

    “The folks who would talk to a stranger about politics just aren’t representative of people who wouldn’t,” he said.

    The first evidence of the party’s polling blind spot surfaced in a governor’s race, the 2015 contest in Kentucky. Both public and private polls going into the election showed Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin running neck-and-neck — Conway had a 3-point lead in the final RealClearPolitics average — but Bevin won by a comfortable, 9-point margin.

    Like some of the more Democratic states where Trump upset Clinton last year, Kentucky has a large rural and a large working-class white population (often there is considerable overlap in the groups). Whites make up 88 percent of Kentucky’s population, and fewer than a quarter of Kentucky residents over age 25 have a college degree.


    Demographic trends confirm that these voters have been moving toward Republicans, but they don’t provide an easy answer for why pollsters have struggled to capture them in surveys.

    Hagner sees some similarities between Bevin and Trump — both businessmen who initially positioned themselves as insurgent candidates within the GOP. In both cases, there were signs of what’s known as "social-desirability bias," the idea that voters won’t admit for whom they intend to vote because they think others will look unfavorably on their choice.

    “With both Bevin and Trump, every newspaper endorsed against them,” Hagner said. “The right answer, in air quotes, was, ‘I’m not going to vote for them.’ … There’s a small group of people who knew that, at some level, they didn’t want their support for Trump to be scrutinized.”

    Pollsters are still analyzing whether a “shy Trump voter” effect may have been decisive in some states. Like the public polls, Democrats struggled to measure the presidential race in private polls in a number of Upper Midwest states with large numbers of working-class white voters.

    Clinton’s campaign mostly ignored Michigan and Wisconsin — where public and private surveys showed Clinton consistently ahead — until the final days of the race and was edged narrowly on Election Day by Trump. And the campaign invested heavily in Iowa and Ohio — two traditional battlegrounds where she trailed — only to lose both by larger margins than expected.

    “We projected Clinton to lose Ohio by 200,000 votes,” said Hagner, “and she lost by 450,000.”

    Democrats’ polling problems might not only be voters hiding their intentions from pollsters — some voters may have been hiding altogether.


    That bias against responding covers a number of different elements, including geography. One top Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to discuss candidly what went wrong with the 2016 polls pointed to difficulty in reaching voters in more rural districts because of spotty cellphone service.

    The same strategist added that many of these voters also may choose not to participate in polls “because they don’t like the establishment and they don’t want to take a survey.”

    The yawning education gap among white voters’ preferences — Trump clobbered Clinton among white voters without a college degree, while the two ran neck-and-neck among those with a degree — means that nonresponse bias may have been determinative, said Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch, a partner at Global Strategy Group. And it may have been going on for some time.

    “I think it’s very plausible that for years pollsters have been over-representing educated voters, and that it only came back to bite us recently because it was a key driver in vote preferences this time,” Gourevitch said.

    It’s too early to say for sure that this explains Democrats’ struggles over the past two election cycles — or that these issues will still be relevant in 2017 and 2018. Most Democrats — along with Republicans and nonpartisan analysts — are waiting for more states to collect and publish data of which voters did and did not cast ballots, a process expected to conclude later this spring.

    Democrats aren’t ready to prescribe remedies yet, but officials at the national party committees are sending strong signals that they plan to hold pollsters to a higher standard in the upcoming midterm elections. Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, who is chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the second consecutive election cycle, ruffled feathers last month when he suggested that “unreliable pollsters will not be invited back to the DCCC.”

    A committee spokeswoman, Meredith Kelly, clarified last month that pollsters’ reliability isn’t just going to be determined by their 2016 results, but also by their willingness to participate in a DCCC-driven effort to test various polling methods.


    “It’s more about unreliable data combined with an unwillingness to do better and to learn from that,” said Kelly, the DCCC’s communications director. “That’s when we’ll stop working with people.”

    To that end, the DCCC plans to use this year’s races for other offices to test its pollsters — and different methods to reach the voters who caused problems in recent elections. That could include using its own automated survey infrastructure.

    “We’re going to use the 2017 elections to basically ask multiple pollsters to test rural and exurban areas that have overlaps with some of our [target] districts,” Kelly said. “It’ll be an ongoing thing, so we’ll have a way to test whose approaches worked and were most predictive.”

    Elisabeth Pearson, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said her organization conducted a review after the 2015 Kentucky governor’s race and intends to use it as a model for how to proceed headed into the next two years, when gubernatorial elections will be held in 38 of 50 states.

    “I’ve seen a ton of openness from pollsters. We’ve done a couple of these meetings where we’ve brought all these pollsters that we worked with and had a great conversation about best practices, deep dives into things like sampling,” said Pearson. “I think they all understand that it’s in their best interests.”


    Trump pushes Congress to cut domestic programs this year


    President Donald Trump doesn't want to wait until next year to slash government spending on everything from education to mental health programs.The White House is asking Congress to cut $18 billion from discretionary spending bills for the current fiscal...

    President Donald Trump doesn't want to wait until next year to slash government spending on everything from education to mental health programs.

    The White House is asking Congress to cut $18 billion from discretionary spending bills for the current fiscal year that have been long settled — a move that could threaten a major showdown just a month ahead of the deadline to keep the government funded.

    In an extensive document shared with House and Senate appropriations committees on Friday, and obtained by POLITICO, the Trump administration is offering its most detailed instructions to date on how Congress should shape the trillion-dollar spending legislation Congress must enact by April 28 to prevent a government shutdown.

    GOP leaders decided to punt last fall’s government spending bill deadline to this year, in part because Trump had asked to play a role in the package. But GOP appropriators have said they didn't receive fiscal 2017 feedback until the White House turned over a draft outline for fiscal 2018 this month.

    The department-by-department breakdown shows Trump is targeting domestic programs including education, health care and housing, as well as international food aid — cuts that are in line with the administration's "skinny budget" for next year.

    The $17.94 billion cut would help pay for Trump’s military supplemental request, which was sent to Congress earlier this month. About $2 billion would also go towards Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border.

    But the latest request for cuts — which would be absorbed over the five months left in the fiscal year — could prove to be too little, too late from the White House. Lawmakers have indicated they are prepared to reject Trump's calls to gut programs they deem important.


    After the Trump administration asked Congress earlier this month to strip 3 percent of discretionary spending in fiscal 2017, several top House appropriators said the White House weighed in too late in the process to affect the outcome of the spending legislation for the current fiscal year.

    In the document sent to Capitol Hill on Friday, the Senate’s Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, which oversees the largest individual spending bill, would see the steepest cut. Its budget would drop by $7.26 billion, largely by slashing grant funding — ranging from the NIH to mental health programs — and by eliminating programs like Americorps. NIH alone would see a $1.23 billion cut.

    The State and Foreign Operations subcommittee would see the next-largest cut, to the tune of $2.88 billion. The White House wants to cut about equally from the State Department's core functions, like peacekeeping, and its foreign aid programs at USAID.

    Other programs on the chopping block include HUD, with a $1.68 billion cutback, and the EPA with a $247 million cut.

    The proposal calls for a more than $1 billion cut to the Department of Agriculture. And much like Trump's blueprint for 2018, the plan would eliminate the McGovern-Dole International food program, a bipartisan initiative that feeds millions of vulnerable schoolchildren abroad, and make deep cuts to the Food for Peace program.

    Any administration typically provides a list of proposed offsets for supplemental spending requests when it wants to avoid adding to the deficit. But this year, that request is coming with just a handful of weeks left in session for either chamber.

    Earlier this month, budget chief Mick Mulvaney proposed cutting about $18 billion from FY18 discretionary spending to pay for the supplemental military spending. He suggested paying for an additional $30 billion defense package by raising the 2011 budget spending caps and through the emergency overseas contingency fund.

    Jennifer Scholtes contributed reporting.


    Is Bondi White House-bound? Speculation follows meeting with Trump and NFL greats


    Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi hasn’t gone Washington. At least not yet.But her schedule this week in D.C. gives the first tangible signs that she might eventually leave office early to work for President Trump. She pushed a children’s initiative...

    Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi hasn’t gone Washington. At least not yet.

    But her schedule this week in D.C. gives the first tangible signs that she might eventually leave office early to work for President Trump. She pushed a children’s initiative with the Trump administration on Monday, moderates a “Women’s Empowerment” panel Wednesday with the president and first lady and is expected to take a role in helping combat the nation’s opiate-addiction crisis.

    Bondi for months has been rumored to be considering a job with Trump, but she has steadfastly refused comment. But she became slightly more vocal Monday after bringing fellow Floridians and former football greats Tony Dungy and Derrick Brooks to Washington to meet with Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.

    “I am working on some special projects with the White House,” Bondi, whose term expires in 2019, told POLITICO Florida on Monday without elaborating more.

    Less than a day later, the White House announced Bondi would headline its Wednesday “women’s empowerment panel” with top women in the administration: DeVos, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma.

    Despite early buzz she might work as Trump’s drug czar, those close to Bondi have batted down the rumor. But, they say, Trump might still tap her to advise the administration on how the nation should respond to the spread of opiate addiction.

    Bondi said she and the White House will reveal more details about their plans at the appropriate time.

    So has Bondi shared with the White House what she wants to do next? Perhaps. But those who know her well aren’t sure what she wants to do.

    “I don’t ask her because I don’t want to be the one to be blamed for leaking it,” said one Republican familiar with the way Bondi thinks. “If she takes a job in DC, I hope she knows what she’s getting into.”

    As part of her new project “to talk about children's issues” with the administration, Bondi on Monday brought Dungy (a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers football coach who has become a kids-rights crusader), Brooks (a former Florida State University and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Hall of Fame linebacker who co-founded a Florida charter school) and All Pro Dads activist Mark Merrill to meet secretaries DeVos and Carson, who also lives in Florida. In between meetings, they dropped by the White House and snapped a picture with President Trump.

    Though Brooks runs a charter school and Bondi and DeVos support school choice programs, Bondi said they didn’t discuss that topic.

    “Coach Dungy and Derrick Brooks are incredible role models for children and make such a difference for Florida's children,” Bondi said. “They have shared these positive experiences with the White House.”

    Still, many expect the Trump administration could or should push a tax-credit school-choice program — first tested in Florida — if Congress decides to redo the tax code. Sen. Marco Rubio has a bill ready to do just that. Florida school-choice activist John Kirtley, a driving force behind Florida’s voucher and tax-credit programs, said the time to get Congress to act is now.

    “A tax reform bill could be a good vehicle, as it wouldn't take any funds from existing educational programs,” Kirtley said. “I hope that the administration and Congress looks to Florida's tax credit scholarship program as a model for something at the Federal level.”


    Mar-a-Lago can't release visitor logs — because it doesn't keep them


    PALM BEACH, Fla. — Democrats just came up with a catchy-sounding bill to force President Donald Trump to cough up a list of visitors to his private clubs.But there’s just one problem: There are no lists yet.On Friday night, guests streamed into...

    PALM BEACH, Fla. — Democrats just came up with a catchy-sounding bill to force President Donald Trump to cough up a list of visitors to his private clubs.

    But there’s just one problem: There are no lists yet.

    On Friday night, guests streamed into Mar-a-Lago, the president’s self-proclaimed “southern White House,” for the annual Palm Beach GOP Lincoln Day Dinner. All they had to do to get into the seaside retreat, where the first lady and the president’s youngest son were vacationing for spring break, was buy a $300 ticket.

    They didn’t have to submit to the kinds of rigorous background checks required if they’d been entering the White House in Washington. And there were no weapon screenings or bomb-sniffing dogs checking vehicles of the sort that have long been routine at public restaurants or other places where the president or first lady is present.

    Mar-a-Lago also doesn’t keep tabs on the identity of guests who come and go on a routine basis, even while the president is in residence. Club members call the front desk to give the names of their guests, including for parties held in the ballroom. But they don’t have to submit details, like a middle initial or birth date or Social Security number, that are standard for visitor logs or background checks — which neither the club nor the Secret Service do at the resort.

    Whether they realize it or not, what the Democratic lawmakers are asking for is a whole new system to be established putting Mar-a-Lago and the other Trump clubs a step closer to being on par with the White House when it comes to disclosure.


    Former U.S. Secret Service officials tell POLITICO that the agency isn't equipped — with the time or money — to do the kind of legwork that would be required to produce logs for the president’s clubs. Agents don’t do it when the president goes to a hotel or other events away from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And they don’t see the benefit in chasing down the names of every person that a member or party host brings in and who they vouch for as a legitimate guest.

    “You can posture all day long, but the service can’t produce something that doesn’t exist,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent. The premise behind the Democrats’ bill, he added, isn't “realistic.”

    “It’s a misapplication of resources,” he said.

    White House officials referred questions about security involving the first lady at Mar-a-Lago, as well as the collection of visitor logs at the South Florida club, to the Secret Service, which through a spokesman cited its policy of not publicly commenting “on our protective operations.” The Trump Organization, which has a large security presence at Mar-a-Lago, also did not respond to requests for comment.


    New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall took the lead Friday introducing legislation calling on the president to begin collecting information for the public release of visitor logs for both the White House and his private properties, including Trump Tower in New York and Mar-a-Lago.

    “If the Secret Service can’t keep track of who has access to the president outside the White House then that’s a national security concern,” Udall said in a statement to POLITICO.

    “And if it's prohibitively expensive to keep track of who has access to the president when he's conducting official business, then the president should consider the taxpayers and take seriously his own promises to save the taxpayers money,” he added. “The taxpayers already generously provide a very nice home office for the president, as well as security. Should they have to pay millions of dollars more for security so the president can work in luxury clubs and golf courses that his business owns?"

    The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment on the Udall bill, which the lawmaker dubbed the “Making Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act,” or “Mar-a-Lago Act.”

    Security at Mar-a-Lago remains a mixed bag. Experts have warned that the president’s repeated visits to his South Florida home — another trip is expected early next month with Chinese President Xi Jinping — exposes him and his staff to foreign intelligence agents who now have opportune targets for eavesdropping and building files on their routines and habits.


    When Trump is on the premises, club members and their guests must pass through multiple Secret Service checkpoints, including a vehicle inspection and a magnetometer screening for detecting weapons. But those protections are far less intrusive when the president isn’t in town, even if his family is. The guests who got a chance to briefly mingle and snap photos of the first lady Friday night at Mar-a-Lago during the Lincoln Dinner VIP cocktail reception, for example, weren’t screened for weapons.

    The first lady’s security detail changes depending on the particulars of any given situation, Wackrow explained. Although the Secret Service often used metal detectors at restaurants when former first lady Michelle Obama was dining out in public, the agency doesn't always default to that approach, especially if there’s no specific threat against the low-profile first lady in attendance at a semi-private club owned by the president.

    “Every asset in the kitchen sink goes to the president, and it steps down from there based on the threat profile,” he said.

    There has been one notable security change at Mar-a-Lago since POLITICO revealed earlier this month that the club’s website was accessible to the public with the names, work emails and phone numbers of key staff members, including its top manager and the directors in charge of security and housekeeping. Now, that page is no longer available online.


    The president’s repeated visits to Mar-a-Lago have been an increasing sore spot from a security standpoint. In February, during a dinner with the Japanese prime minister, Trump and his top aides were photographed going over their response to a North Korean missile test. The military officer who carries the country’s nuclear weapon codes also posed for photos with at least one Mar-a-Lago guest, and the images made it onto social media.


    The White House insisted in the aftermath of that dinner that no classified information was discussed in public that night. “Proper security protocols are adhered to at all times at Mar-a-Lago,” Marc Short, Trump’s legislative affairs director, added in a one-paragraph letter sent earlier this month to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

    But lawmakers still haven’t gotten all their questions answered. Chaffetz is still awaiting a classified briefing that Short promised to go over security protocols at Mar-a-Lago. And Democrats are looking toward a Government Accountability Office report that’s just getting started on the topic.

    Former Secret Service agents say the bureau’s primary role at Mar-a-Lago and the other Trump properties is to focus on assessing and protecting the president from physical threats. Unlike Camp David, the rural Maryland retreat that Trump has yet to visit, they note that the president’s clubs themselves are not government-controlled facilities.

    “It’s a significant issue, because we still have a new fledgling administration trying to get their arms around what their role is running this country, and there’s lots of little things they’ve never thought about in their entire life,” said Bill Pickle, a former deputy assistant director of the Secret Service. “The deeper and longer they get into it, the better they’ll get.”


    CEOs take front-seat role driving policy


    During an Oval Office meeting with Donald Trump just days after his inauguration, the CEOs of the nation's three biggest automakers urged the new president to rethink the Obama administration's strict pollution limits for vehicles.“I think he’s going...

    During an Oval Office meeting with Donald Trump just days after his inauguration, the CEOs of the nation's three biggest automakers urged the new president to rethink the Obama administration's strict pollution limits for vehicles.

    “I think he’s going to be good for our industry," Ford Motor CEO Mark Fields told attendees at an auto industry conference soon after the meeting, adding later, “As an industry, we have a seat at the table.”

    Fields was right. According to people briefed on the matter, the White House leaned heavily on top auto industry officials as it mapped out a strategy for dealing with Obama's fuel economy rules, which would mandate that the nation's fleet of new vehicles get more than 50 miles per gallon on average by 2025.

    Less than two months after the Oval Office meeting, the automakers got their way. During a speech in Detroit, Trump directed the EPA to reconsider the Obama administration's conclusion that automakers are capable of meeting the fuel economy standards, taking the first step toward potentially weakening the rules.

    Since taking office, Trump and his top advisers have met with dozens of industry and business officials, giving the executives an unparalleled opportunity to influence the president's nascent policy agenda. So far, Trump's policies neatly align with industry priorities on everything from approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline to rolling back financial regulations to moving the country's air traffic control operations out of the Federal Aviation Administration.

    The Trump administration is poised to give the business community even more influence through its new "White House Office of American Innovation," which will work with dozens of corporate executives to come up with ideas to reorganize the federal government.


    Increasingly, career staff at federal agencies are being left out of policy discussions amid simmering distrust between Trump's advisers and the thousands of bureaucrats stationed across the government.

    EPA's transportation experts were sidelined during the internal discussion about reopening Obama's fuel economy standards, infuriating staffers who had worked on the issue for years, according to two people familiar with the issue. And Trump's political appointees did not consult with State Department officials before the president issued a January memo calling for a Keystone approval.

    Trump often asks CEOs during private conversations to list the federal regulations they would most like to eliminate, according to people who have spoken with him. And he presses the executives for "big ideas" about how to bring back U.S. jobs.

    Industry and business executives are sometimes astonished by the level of access they have to the Trump administration, especially after eight years with Barack Obama in the White House.

    "They’ve been shut out for so long that they’re still trying to figure out that they are allowed to say what they want to say," said the leader of an industry-backed advocacy group, who requested anonymity to characterize interactions with the president. "It’s a different dynamic now."

    But government watchdogs and progressive groups argue that Trump is beholden to the interests of big business over the American people, comparing his frequent meetings with deep-pocketed executives to former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney's close cooperation with the energy industry.

    "Trump is definitely trying to position himself as the president of big business and that’s a problem," said Nick Schwellenbach, the director of investigations at the Project On Government Oversight. "Obviously business is important, but other considerations need to be taken into account when we’re talking about national policy decisions.”

    Over the last two months, Trump has met with executives from the technology, energy, health care, retail, airline, financial services, automotive, chemical and manufacturing industries. It's impossible to develop a complete list of Trump's discussions with industry and business executives because the White House has not yet released visitor logs and many of the president's meetings at his Mar-a-Lago estate are not made public.


    "President Trump has always made clear he recognizes the importance of meeting with business leaders and workers at all levels," a White House official said, noting that Trump has also met with union workers, veterans and small business owners. "The President is committed to supporting American workers, which is why he goes straight to the source to assess what is working and what isn't."

    During the Republican primaries, many industry officials were deeply skeptical of Trump, who often targets companies for shipping jobs overseas and once dismissed the oil industry as a "special interest." But after it became clear he'd be the Republican nominee, Trump and his team built strong relationships with the very industries he once criticized.

    Early on, Trump's transition team was stacked with lobbyists with ties to the fossil fuel, chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Transition team officials repeatedly held "listening sessions" with industry representatives from the technology, health care and energy sectors in the months before Trump took office, according to people who attended, giving lobbyists a forum to make policy recommendations to the then-candidate's advisers.

    Trump later imposed lobbying restrictions on people serving in the transition and, once he became president, issued an executive order limiting the role of lobbyists in his administration.

    Despite Trump's restrictions, several former industry lobbyists are now serving in the Trump administration, including Mike Catanzaro, a White House energy adviser who previously lobbied for fossil fuel companies. The administration is also brimming with former business executives, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

    Exxon Mobil, the company that Tillerson led for more than a decade, won a high-profile endorsement from Trump earlier this month for its announcement that it is investing in manufacturing jobs in the U.S. The White House issued a statement, a rare minute-long video praising Exxon's announcement and Trump took to Twitter to heap praise on the company.

    Trump's energy policy often echoes fossil fuel companies' priorities. Industry groups have for years advocated for a Keystone approval (Exxon lobbied in favor of the pipeline), which Trump's State Department green-lighted on Friday, reversing an Obama administration decision.

    Tillerson personally lobbied to kill an Obama administration regulation that required oil and mining companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments. In February, Trump signed a Congress-backed resolution killing the rule.

    The president is slated to sign an executive order on Tuesday that, according to people briefed on the matter, will read like an oil and coal industry wishlist. The order will begin the process of overturning Obama's landmark climate regulations limiting emissions from power plants and it will take steps to overturn or review Obama-era limits on coal leasing, fracking and methane emissions on public lands — all top industry priorities.

    Several energy executives have talked to Trump in recent months about their concerns with Obama's regulations, including Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, who helped shape Trump's energy policies during the campaign, and Robert Murray, the CEO of coal company Murray Energy. A Murray spokesman declined to comment on his communications with the president.


    Murray and National Mining Association President Hal Quinn attended an event at the White House in which Trump signed a resolution overturning an Obama administration regulation meant to protect streams from mountaintop removal coal mining.

    Trump administration officials have met with representatives from oil and coal companies, including Peabody Energy and ConocoPhillips, as they weigh whether to stay in the Paris climate change agreement, according to people familiar with the meetings.

    At the urging of billionaire investor Carl Icahn, a friend of the president, Trump administration officials also briefly discussed making changes to a federal biofuels program, according to a person familiar with the internal deliberations. The change would have benefited Icahn's oil refinery business.

    When a group of airline executives met with Trump at the White House in February, they pitched him on one of their biggest priorities: spinning off air traffic control operations from the FAA to a nonprofit corporation whose board would include airline representatives. The proposal, which was also pushed by lawmakers like House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), was later included in Trump's budget proposal.

    In many cases Trump's deregulatory agenda closely mimics industry groups recommendations. The powerful Business Roundtable, which is chaired by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, outlined a list of "top regulations of concern" in a February letter to the White House.

    Several of the measures mentioned on the list are already in the process of being overturned, including climate change regulations for power plants; a water regulation to protect the country's streams and wetlands; the so-called Cadillac tax (the tax was delayed in the ill-fated Republican health care bill); and the regulation requiring disclosure of payments to foreign governments.

    "Almost every action that they’re taking is deregulatory, which is a direct benefit to some industry," said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen.

    Days after having a private meeting with Trump at the White House, Dimon was by Trump's side when the president signed an executive order in February that took the first steps toward rolling back Obama administration financial regulations.


    “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank because frankly I have so many people, friends of mine that have nice businesses and they can't borrow money,” Trump said during the signing ceremony. "The banks just won't let them borrow because of the rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank."

    Trump's frequent contact with CEOs is leading to heightened scrutiny from outside groups.

    Former Obama administration lawyers are raising questions about a phone call earlier this month between Trump and Joseph Swedish, the CEO of Anthem, the country's second-largest health insurer. Anthem is seeking federal approval for its $54 billion acquisition of Cigna.

    In a recent letter to the Justice Department, the coalition of Obama lawyers, known as United to Protect Democracy, called for an investigation into possible contacts between the White House and the Justice Department, which is overseeing the merger. The letter points to the call between Trump and Swedish, and notes that Makan Delrahim, a current deputy White House counsel who previously lobbied for Anthem, is expected to be nominated to lead the Justice Department's antitrust division. Trump announced his intent to nominate Delrahim to the Justice Department job on Monday night.

    The White House strongly denied that anything improper took place, saying in a statement that Trump discussed the health care bill with Swedish "and the White House took specific precautions to ensure that neither the merger nor the related litigation was discussed during the call."

    "Evenhanded treatment under the law is a bedrock principle of our democracy," the Obama lawyers wrote in the letter. "The American people depend on the [Justice Department] to enforce our federal laws equally as to all parties, regardless of those parties’ size, influence, or political connections."

    Nancy Cook, Kathryn A. Wolfe, Paul Demko, Victoria Guida and Theodoric Meyer contributed to this story.


    What George W. Bush Can Teach Trump About the Press


    A White House under siege. A president considered underqualified for the job, distrusted by global elites. An administration that has branded a harshly critical media as unpatriotic and rooting for America to fail. This was the George W. Bush...

    A White House under siege. A president considered underqualified for the job, distrusted by global elites. An administration that has branded a harshly critical media as unpatriotic and rooting for America to fail. This was the George W. Bush administration in its final years, when its long, hard slog against the U.S. press reached its peak. I was working as a White House speechwriter then, part of the team that was frustrated and angered by relentless negative coverage—so much so that some of us branded the press as the enemy, and shut them out completely.

    This was a mistake.

    Today, I’m watching the Trump administration go down that same road—dismissing press criticism, calling the media the “enemy of the American people,” and taking solace in a glowing counter-narrative of their own making. Trust me, I understand the impulse. But I’ve also seen where this road leads. And while the ride seems enjoyable, the car still ends up in the ditch.

    Let’s start with what should be an obvious observation. Trump is justified in having a beef— insert Trump steak joke here—with the media. Throughout the 2016 campaign, our nation’s most esteemed and seasoned reporters and pundits, intentionally or unintentionally, did mislead the American people time and time again. The reason Trump’s constant “rehash” of his victory seems to bug so many reporters is the primary reason Trump does it: because his election triumph made them look foolish, close-minded, arrogant and wrong.

    I spent a few hours over the last week scanning YouTube to watch Election Night coverage on various news networks. Most striking were the similarities—regardless of the channel. For the first two hours or so, informed by the same wretched exit polls, our nation’s top newscasters and analysts all but forecast a Clinton victory. As the evening went on, and actual returns in places like Virginia and Florida were not living up to expectations, the tide turned toward the possibility of a Trump shocker. (A prospect that no one seemed to delight in.) Every single newscast expressed the same confident assertions as inviolable truths: Trump had to win Florida (in fact, he would have won without it); Georgia was on a knife’s edge (Trump won by 5 points, far better than Clinton did in, say, Minnesota); Pennsylvania would go Democrat (it didn’t); a “surge” of Hispanics and African Americans was bad news for Trump (he likely did better with both groups than Mitt Romney); the blue wall foreclosed realistic Trump paths to victory (he had more paths than Clinton did all night). No panelist or reporter I saw ever corrected these falsely uttered “facts,” of course. To Trump supporters, in light of a news media righteously indignant over every Trumpian exaggeration or misstatement, this was, and remains, understandably galling.

    Since his election, the TrumpWorld grievances have mounted: the mistake in reporting that Trump quickly removed Martin Luther King Jr.’s bust from the Oval Office, the AP “factchecking” Trump’s opinion—an opinion that millions of Americans shared, by the way—that he inherited “a mess” from Obama. (One doubts any major media outlet factchecked Obama’s similar gripes against George W. Bush.) The prosecutorial zeal on any meetings anyone ever connected to Trump may have had with anyone linked to anything to do with Russia. And so on.

    Which bring us to the second point—the press might not be the president’s friend, but he should not brand them as the enemy. Most reporters almost certainly voted against him; their tweets attacking everything he says and does can be grating—as even media watchdogs have contended. But summarily dismissing media criticism will backfire. Just look at what happened to Bush.

    With the Iraq War being branded a “quagmire,” Russia on the march in Georgia, and the global economy on the verge of total collapse, Bush had enormous problems with which to grapple. And while many reporters are now, as is their habit, lauding him with praise when he no longer is in office, most were vicious toward him when he was in power. He was branded a racist over the perceived lack of response for Hurricane Katrina; he and his aides were called war criminals over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib; he was being blamed for the housing crisis that contributed to the 2007-2008 economic collapse; he was criticized for his “feeble” response to Russia and mocked for having once claimed to have seen Vladimir Putin’s soul.

    Sentiments inside the Bush administration toward the media hardened. Under fire from all directions on nearly every issue, the attitude was both human and understandable: These guys are biased against us; there’s no point in engaging them. Certain networks no longer appeared on many White House office TV screens. Administration officials tended to veer toward more friendly, or at least sympathetic, networks and outlets. That was not in and of itself a terrible strategy—especially in the current era in which there are far more alternatives than ever.

    But, in the end, this solution only added to the problem. Because even if the Bush administration no longer cared what, for example, the New York Times was reporting, their allies in Congress, their constituents, their foreign allies and the rest of the outside world did care. (And the administration actually did, too.) Hiding from the mainstream press might have made us feel good, but it didn’t lessen its impact. And, because we’d given up trying to persuade many of these reporters, our side had a harder time coming through.

    One case in point was Vice President Dick Cheney, who was one of the few administration officials who for the most part truly did not care what reporters said about him. Although he had many capable and talented press aides, the effect of the vice president’s disinterest in courting skeptical reporters and responding to every press attack was the creation of a caricature of him as a Steve Bannon of yesteryear—a mythical and mysterious shadow president who had a dictatorial bent, shady private interests, and didn’t care about the business of the American people. Cheney was none of those things, as reporting years later has begun to show. But that impression did cause damage to him and the administration.

    The worst, and most consequential, result of the tune-out of the mainstream media was that many of us started to discount criticism altogether. The argument is dangerously seductive: If the media is so biased against us, therefore everything they report, and everything people on their programs say, is also biased and untrue. Cloistered in a world in which bad news is filtered out and good news is always sought created a false perspective that did more damage to us than the media ever did.

    We demanded a focus on the “good” things happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, gradually discounting the bombings, violence, disorganization and chaos underway. For some time, we doubled down on strategies that didn’t seem to work because we decided they were working, just not being reported fairly or accurately. It was only when the president turned to the advice that had been freely offered in the media for years—specifically on the need for a new approach and a “surge” of forces in Iraq—did things begin to improve there.

    As the economy veered toward catastrophe, the president would go out and speak in an effort to reassure the markets … and the Dow would collapse 300 or 400 points each time. As with Iraq, for some time we didn’t think that maybe there was a problem with our message or that critics may have had valid points. Instead, we sent the poor guy out again and again to say the same thing, with the same results. It was only when the administration brought all sides together, including some of its sharpest critics, did a consensus for dealing with the disaster emerge.


    If Republicans were hostile to the media back then—and in some cases for good reason—it’s far worse now. One of the main reasons Trump won the presidency was because he effectively channeled conservatives’ anger and disdain at media coverage of their beliefs and positions—and the media’s growing tendency to see the world from the elite confines of America’s coasts. Indeed, a recent study showed that 91 percent of coverage of the Trump administration has been negative. But that doesn’t mean the media is irrelevant, or can be ignored. Instead there needs to be an even more aggressive effort to challenge, respond and, where possible, find ways to see each other’s perspectives more accurately.

    The danger and lesson for the Trump administration is clear: In a media environment where everything the president says and does is grist for his many media critics, and many reporters are demonstrating a clear, well let’s just say, zeal to confront and expose any perceived missteps, the temptation to shun and ignore all criticism is very strong. But doing so will only leave the administration defenseless from attacks and increasingly tone deaf to the legitimate concerns media outlets often bring to the fore.

    For a time, the administration seemed to be going in the wrong direction last week on Obamacare repeal. One can almost hear Bush-era echoes in the strategy: “Everyone in the media says we will fail; fine, we’ll ignore them and go forward anyway.” Fortunately for them, they pulled back.

    The aftermath of the repeal failure presents an opportunity to learn from this, and take heed of the generous offering of criticism the media puts forward every day (some of it occasionally even coming from people trying to help). If history is any guide, listening to critics, or at least being open to them, will prove far more valuable than pretending they don’t exist.


    ‘They Think We Are Slaves’


    For Juliana, America was supposed to be the promised land. It wasn’t. Juliana traveled here in 2015 from Brazil to become an au pair—a visiting domestic worker in a State Department program designed to build friendship between the United States and...

    For Juliana, America was supposed to be the promised land. It wasn’t.

    Juliana traveled here in 2015 from Brazil to become an au pair—a visiting domestic worker in a State Department program designed to build friendship between the United States and other countries. In return for light housework and child care, she would join an American family for a year, learning the language and culture. The private company that arranged her placement assured her she’d be treated with love and kindness.

    Instead, Juliana says she worked illegally long hours and wasn’t paid; she was denied food, screamed at and was generally treated like “trash.” Her au pair company, Cultural Care Au Pair, the largest in the U.S, told me her alleged treatment was “unacceptable” and asked me for her name to investigate the situation. But Juliana says when she complained to the company’s representative at the time, she was told to be “flexible.”

    Eventually, Juliana found a new host family, which assured her she’d be able to eat in the household. (Families are expected to provide three meals a day for their au pairs, according to the State Department.) But when she got there, she learned fruit, bread and milk were off limits because they were too expensive. “You need to make choices,” she recalls her new hosts saying, telling her she’d have to decide whether to buy food or spend her meager stipend on something else. After that, Juliana gave up and went back to Brazil. “They think we are slaves,” she says. (Like most au pairs interviewed for this article, Juliana used a pseudonym because she fears retaliation.)

    Many of the roughly 17,500 au pairs who live and work in the United States every year have positive experiences. But according to a dozen current and former au pairs as well as former au pair company employees, ordeals like Juliana’s aren’t unusual, either. They relay horror stories of au pairs who are overworked, humiliated, refused meals, threatened with arrest and deportation—even victims of theft. Worst of all, they say, complaining about exploitative, unsafe working conditions rarely makes any difference. Sometimes, reporting abuse makes the situation worse.

    Of course, all stories have two sides, and it’s hard to know what really happens behind a family’s closed doors. All specific allegations against au pair companies in this article were provided to the ones involved. They addressed some incidents, but often said they were unable to comment on specific allegations without knowing au pair names. To avoid exposing au pairs, Politico Magazine didn’t contact families; instead, families aren’t named. But the real problem isn’t any particular families—it’s that the State Department and the au pair companies it contracts seem to have very little interest in finding out what might be going wrong, or in taking action when they do.

    Companies and their advocates disagree with that diagnosis. “The goal of the program is for young men and women to come to the United States and have a positive cultural exchange experience,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, an advocacy organization representing 12 au pair companies, including Culture Care. “A critical element of the program are the various support resources sponsors provide, including local representatives, dedicated regional staff and 24 hour emergency contact lines.”


    But in fact, the vast majority of complaints coming from au pairs appears to disappear into a bureaucratic black hole, where they aren’t thoroughly investigated or even publicly reported. A State Department spokesman told Politico Magazine it received 62 complaints from au pairs and families in 2015. But according to a State Department internal analysis of the program obtained by Politico Magazine, that’s inaccurate: Au pair agencies received and reported to the government more than 3,500 incidents that year.

    All this casts a shadow over a government program bringing thousands of domestic workers, mostly young women, to the United States each year. It was designed to showcase American values and generate international goodwill. But how can it achieve that when worker protections are minimal and oversight is scarce, and as a result many of these women claim to suffer the worst that America has to offer?

    ***

    The au pair program, founded in 1986 under the auspices of promoting diplomacy and cultural exchange, seems benign enough. Au pairs come to America on a J-1 visa, which allows nonimmigrant visitors like camp counselors and professors to work in the U.S. They typically stay for one year, living with a family and providing child care. The State Department contracts 16 private companies, or sponsors, to handle the nuts and bolts of the program, including recruiting, training and placing au pairs with families. It’s a “mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity,” says a State Department brochure.

    But the system has always had critics. Initially, it was run out of the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency, which advocated reforming the program because the work hours were too long for it to be classified as a cultural exchange. (Congress then passed legislation to prevent the agency from limiting work hours.) In 1990, the General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency, concluded au pairs shouldn’t receive J-1 visas, saying it was inappropriate to bring workers to the U.S. under this visa because it wasn’t meant for labor programs. In 2012, a State Department Inspector General report criticized the entire J-1 visa program, because sanctioning sponsors who break the rules “rarely results in meaningful consequences.” The report recommended transferring oversight of the au pair program to the Department of Labor, and said the program had “significant issues.”

    In 2013, the Senate debated a bill that would have prohibited companies from charging au pairs recruitment fees, which can range from $500 to $3,000 and can leave au pairs in debt. (Au pair companies also charge families roughly $8,000 per au pair.) “This program is a scam,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, during Senate debate over the au pair reform bill. “It is not a cultural-exchange program.” But the agencies lobbied vigorously against the measure; Congress voted it down.

    This [au pair] program is a scam,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2013. “It is not a cultural-exchange program.”


    Most higher profile recent controversies involve wages. Au pair companies set au pair wages at $195.75 per week for 45 hours of work, or $4.35 an hour—a number that comes from subtracting 40 percent from federal minimum wage for room and board. Labor rights organizations call this a legally dubious arrangement for several reasons, including because deducting housing costs in programs where providing housing primarily benefits the employer (like the au pair program) isn’t allowed by law. In 2015, several au pairs sued 15 companies (one company joined the program after the suit was filed) in a Federal District Court in Colorado, claiming they were illegally denied full minimum wage and au pair companies engage in illegal price fixing. “Our clients allege [their wages have] been fixed by anti-competitive conduct, maintained through fraud, and violates federal, state and local wage and hour laws,” said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of the nonprofit Towards Justice, which is representing the au pairs. The case is still pending.

    There’s another lawsuit in Massachusetts. Theoretically, au pairs are entitled to the minimum wage in the state where they live, which can be higher than the federal minimum wage. But even though that rule is advertised in State Department materials for au pairs, until recently, no state enforced it. In 2015, the Massachusetts Legislature passed workers rights legislation entitling au pairs to that state’s $11 minimum wage plus overtime (with a situational deduction for room and board that is much less than 40 percent). Cultural Care Au Pair sued to block the law, arguing au pairs aren’t “domestic workers” and provide only “limited child care services,” and therefore aren’t entitled to the minimum wage. “Because au pairs are protected by the [Fair Labor Standards Act], they are protected by state minimum wage laws as well,” wrote the Massachusetts attorney general’s office in its legal response to Cultural Care’s lawsuit. The office argues au pairs are entitled to expanded labor rights in many areas. But it’s unclear how many au pairs are contacting the Massachusetts attorney general’s office to enforce their rights. The case is still ongoing.

    But these attempts at reform don’t address the program’s biggest problem. The au pairs I spoke with said a raise would be nice, but the real issue is that some hosts ignore already existing regulations—and so do the au pair companies supposedly responsible for their well-being.


    The most common complaint is overwork. Hours for au pairs are capped at 45 per week and 10 a day. They are entitled to weekends off every month and two weeks of paid vacation. But many, like Juliana, are asked to work more than that. In fact, extra hours are “pretty much an expectation,” says Judy Bitting, a former local child care consultant for Cultural Care. (Local child care consultants are contracted by au pair companies to act as the on-the-ground contact for families and au pairs.)

    It’s supposed to be easy for au pairs to complain to their agencies about this type of exploitation, through monthly meetings with local consultants. (The State Department has a complaint channel too, though au pairs more often go through their companies.) The au pairs I spoke to, however, say that when they raised issues, they got nowhere. In an annual evaluation, Itzel Reyes, an au pair who used her real name, told Cultural Care she regularly worked more than 45 hours a week. Her program director apologized but did nothing. Then the company resent the evaluation, “as if my answer might change the second time,” Reyes says.

    Letters obtained by Politico Magazine show consultants urging au pairs to work additional hours or do work unrelated to child care. One consultant’s guide for new au pairs suggests doing extra child care during their time off, like when they go to a restaurant with the family. “You are not a guest, you are a part of the family,” the guide says.

    A few extra hours at family dinner might not sound all that bad. But it only gets worse from there. Jessica with AuPairCare—another au pair company—says her host father, “Steve,” monitored her birth control, interrogating her when she asked his wife to administer a contraceptive injection. “I had to explain my period to him,” she recalls. Jessica claims he was angry with her for spending free time with her boyfriend, rather than his family. After Steve accused her of sleeping with her boyfriend in his house, he fired her, telling her she had to be out of the house in a couple of days. When she called AuPairCare, they didn’t offer her a place to stay or even a ride from the house. “Call an Uber,” she says she was told. She says the company also denied her the chance to be placed with a new family.

    Jessica believes her au pair company didn’t let her find new hosts because she owed Steve money for a plane ticket to visit family in Brazil. (Steve also owed her for the cost of her old cellphone that he’d traded in for an iPhone upgrade when she first arrived. She had returned the new phone after she was fired.) But after she repaid Steve a few weeks later, Jessica alleges he then stole $250 from a shared bank account he’d created for her when she arrived in America. She gave Politico Magazine an email she sent to Steve and AuPairCare staff containing pictures of her bank statements. Her money had been transferred to another account. She asked for it back. Nobody answered.

    “The health, safety and welfare of our au pairs and host families are paramount,” says Joanne Hritz, AuPairCare’s director of marketing, in response to Jessica’s account. Stories have “two sides.” Hritz was unwilling to comment more without Jessica’s real name. “In order for AuPairCare to investigate this we need to know the full name of the au pair and host family,” she says.

    And yet, the au pairs I spoke to told me they and their fellow au pairs feel that the agencies aren’t particularly interested in listening to their sides, or in grappling with the messy stories they hear. In most complaints, the companies put the onus on the au pair, giving them two weeks to find a new family if a mediation process with the consultant doesn’t work. If they fail to find new hosts, their visas are canceled. The sponsors then have total discretion to label the au pairs either “inactive” or “terminated” in a Department of Homeland Security database. A “terminated” label jeopardizes their chances of getting a U.S. visa in the future. “The State Department does not monitor the accuracy of these designations [by au pair companies],” wrote Janie Chuang, a law professor at American University, in a 2013 article about au pairs in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. Fired au pairs may also have to pay for their plane tickets home. These are all factors that can make au pairs reluctant to complain about maltreatment.


    Kate, a former au pair, says her company even sent her home early before her allotted time to find a new host family had run out because “they didn’t feel like I would find a match.” Although she lacked necessary training, she’d been assigned a special-needs child who she says kicked and bit her. “I tried talking to [the family] about it, but they wouldn’t listen,” she says. “Even the agency didn’t [listen].”

    Liz Warrick, another former Cultural Care consultant, says one of her au pairs was sent home after the host mother told police the au pair had shaken her baby. A few days later, the mother admitted to social service workers the accusation was false. “How else was I able to get her out of my home?” Warwick says the mom said. Why did she want her gone? The mother admitted she’d been unable to overcome a language barrier with the au pair.

    And what happens to the families involved in an au pair complaint? Bitting claims they are rarely removed from the program. She says her company even gave au pairs to families she told them shouldn’t be hosts. “The company said it was a waste of my time” to prevent abuse. (Cultural Care disputes this, saying it removes families who violate rules. “We have ended relationships with host families, specifically if there is a flagrant violation of the regulations or program rules,” it says.) Without Cultural Care’s help in resolving exploitative situations, Bitting says, “my hands were tied.” Au pairs “would beg me not to go back [to talk] to the family.” They feared retaliation.

    ***

    Ask the State Department and they’ll tell you incidents like these are isolated and not indicative of systemic issues. “The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program today is stronger than ever, and we continually strive to improve it,” Nathan Arnold, a State Department spokesman, told me.

    According to the State Department’s public statements, there is almost no recorded abuse in the program. While acknowledging “not every incident will be reported,” Arnold said just 218 complaints—from families, companies and au pairs—were recorded from 2013 to November 2016, with 62 complaints in 2015 alone. The Washington Post reported similar numbers in November, based on what it had been told by the State Department. Companies are “required to report [to the State Department] any incidents involving or alleging a crime of moral turpitude or violence,” Arnold assured me, plus “any serious problem or controversy,” meaning anything worse than “lost luggage” or “missed flights.”

    The problem? These numbers are incorrect—according to the State Department itself. Every year, au pair agencies provide the government with a “summation of all complaints” by au pairs and families. The State Department’s 2015 Au Pair Program Annual Reports Analysis, a previously unreleased document obtained by Politico Magazine, states that not 62, but a full “3,505 complaints were received by sponsors” from au pairs, families or both during that year.


    Confronted with this 3,443-complaint discrepancy, Arnold clarified: The first set of complaints included those reported by parties only “other than a sponsor”—meaning directly to the government. (That was after the spokesperson had explicitly confirmed those numbers were the full set of complaints, including those “reported through sponsors.”)

    These higher numbers have never been publicly reported. And what has the government done about them? Not much, according to Arnold. Most “are classified as issues that do not require State Department intervention,” he told me. Many complaints are vaguely labeled and described only in terms like “incompatibility and/or personality conflict.” Mostly, the issues were resolved when au pairs were fired or placed with new families. Families were removed from the program in just 4 percent of incidents.

    According to the 2015 report, “40% of complaints were initiated by both au pairs and host families; 30% of complaints were initiated by au pairs; 30% of complaints were initiated by host families. These labels aren’t cut and dry. Family complaints could be sparked by things like an au pair refusing to work extra hours or asking to be paid on time. Jessica’s situation, for example, would be considered a family complaint.

    Politico Magazine was unable to uncover details about specific complaints. It’s unclear, for example, how Juliana or Jessica’s stories were characterized, if at all—whether they would be labeled a “personality conflict” or something more serious. (The State Department estimates it will respond to Politico Magazine’s Freedom of Information request for full audits of the program, which could provide clarity, in 2018.)

    Despite assurances, the exchange is “stronger than ever.” State Department documents also indicate the government is aware of some of its major problems. The program analysis from 2014, also obtained by Politico Magazine, doesn’t contain specific complaint numbers from the au pair agencies, but it did does say that in “many of the audits [au pair companies are required to submit to the government]” au pairs reported working extra hours.

    Au pairs are sold a cultural experience, but families are looking for cheap labor.


    At the heart of the program’s problem is a difference in expectations. Companies “market the program differently to host families and to au pairs,” the 2014 analysis notes. “For host families, the program is commonly marketed as an affordable, reliable and flexible way to obtain quality child care. For au pairs, the program is often advertised as an easy way to live with an American family, learn about American culture, take classes and earn some money.” In other words: Au pairs are sold a cultural experience, but families are looking for cheap labor.

    But the biggest problem might be that the State Department seems content to live and let live. It has just 30 staff members dedicated to monitoring the entire J-1 program for compliance with rules. (Over 375,000 J-1 visas were issued in 2016.) And while those 30 employees look into the small number of cases reported to the State Department’s hotline, it’s clear they don’t have the time or manpower to review the thousands of other complaints. For the most part, the government trusts au pair companies—businesses that have a financial interest in the continuation of the program in its current form—to regulate themselves. (When asked if the State Department ever looks into complaints reported by companies to see whether they were handled properly, Arnold did not answer. “Each situation is unique and decisions on how to respond necessarily vary,” he said.) Arnold said the State Department is unaware of any widespread pattern of abuse that would require intervening with companies. “This is a mutual partnership built on trust and transparency,” he said of State's relationship with sponsors.

    Even when it comes to complaints reported directly to the State Department, I saw no evidence the government takes meaningful action. Sets of complaints from 2012 and 2013 are revealed in transcripts of calls made to the State Department’s abuse hotline that were uploaded to the State Department’s online FOIA library. According to one transcript, an anonymous au pair told the State Department her host mother used threats of deportation to hold her in the house against her will, forcing her to work illegally long hours uncompensated. When the au pair complained to her local consultant, she says she was told the company couldn’t help because she had “signed a contract.” A different complaint alleged an au pair was being forced to work over 100 hours a week. Another au pair said she was made to sleep in her family’s laundry room like a “dog” and that her company hadn’t checked in on her. The FOIA library did not include information on how these cases were resolved, but we do know one thing: The au pair companies involved were not sanctioned. While Arnold assured me that “the Department may impose sanctions on a sponsor when it is determined that sponsor has violated the regulations and those violations warrant sanctions,” he also told me the last time any company was sanctioned was in 2006, when five companies received “lesser sanctions” for “inadequate management of educational component.”


    It’s not exactly a portrait of heavy oversight. The State Department couldn’t even tell me how many complaints sponsors reported in years other than 2015; the government has not compiled those numbers, even though the sponsors are required to report them every year. (State also refused requests to release raw data submitted by individual companies.) That doesn’t mean the government isn’t paying attention, Arnold insists. For example, the State Department holds “meet-and-greets” around the country, where au pairs are encouraged to talk to State Department officials (without their sponsors) about their experiences. But a few meet-and-greets doesn’t help thousands of au pairs with issues. Worse, the au pairs I spoke to for this story didn’t feel safe complaining to the State Department, in fear that their complaints would get back to their host families or their au pair companies. “The notion that whatever information is gained from a complaint might lead to possible sanctions against an au pair agency offers little incentive for au pairs to assume the risk of reporting,” writes Chuang, the AU law professor.

    For a program designed to enhance the way America is perceived in the world, the au pair exchange clearly has a long way to go. Sure, many au pairs have good relationships with their host families, and lax enforcement isn’t a problem for them. But good experiences aren’t guaranteed. And when a host family does want to flout the rules, who’s to stop it if the State Department isn’t watching?


    Why Philly’s Russians Are Crazy for Trump


    PHILADELPHIA—After a few hours, the abundance of Cyrillic signs begins to blend together with the smells of eastern European delicacies: cabbage samsas, honey-sweetened poppyseed pinwheels and lamb pilaf. Inside the well-trafficked supermarkets—the...

    PHILADELPHIA—After a few hours, the abundance of Cyrillic signs begins to blend together with the smells of eastern European delicacies: cabbage samsas, honey-sweetened poppyseed pinwheels and lamb pilaf. Inside the well-trafficked supermarkets—the main draws of the low-slung strip malls that define this part of northeast Philadelphia—you hear boisterous conversations in Uzbek or Russian, and more staccato versions in English. In fact, what stands out about the faraway neighborhoods of Bustleton and Somerton—sometimes referred to as “Little Odessa” for their sizable population of Ukrainian, Uzbek and Russian immigrants—is that people seem content to keep it all hidden. Businesses advertise online only sparingly. Proprietors warn you not to take pictures. A bookstore owner refuses to translate the title of a Russian novel. There’s more than a hint of suspicion of outsiders.

    Except when the conversation turns to Donald Trump.

    Not since the end of the Cold War has there been quite such a miasma of suspicion and intrigue about Russia and Russians. The news brims with murky allegations of computer hacking, election meddling and influence peddling, all of which seems to demand assertions of allegiance to one side or the other. But for many of the estimated 26,000 Russian-speaking people in Philadelphia (not to mention the more than 900,000 across the country) the us-and-them nature of the political debate in Washington doesn’t really apply. Here, in a self-created cocoon of familiar cultural touchstones, I detected a kind of dual nationalism among the residents—a manifest love for countries that once were home and an equal adoration for the populist president many of them voted for.

    “Trump is a fighter, a negotiator, a successful businessman. Four times he go through the bankruptcy. He understand how the world works from a business perspective,” says Alexander Shapiro, who came to the states in the early-1990s from what’s now Ukraine. “During the campaign, he ran against governors and senators. He beat everybody like babies.”

    Hearing how jazzed residents sounded about Trump’s first 60 days in office, I half expected to find shelves laden with Russian nesting dolls featuring Barron, Ivanka, Donald Jr. and the whole gang. There was nothing so brazen inside the Knizhnik gift store, a mom-and-pop-looking place where I was repeatedly reminded that the inventory was “all Russian—all.” There was, however, a Russian biography of Trump prominently displayed. It was the same book that became a popular giveaway at Trump-friendly election watch parties in Moscow, the one whose title has been dubbed in English as “The Black Swan.”


    It’s an apt metaphor for how Bustleton and Somerton fit into Philadelphia writ large. Meaning, hardly at all. In a city in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1, and the local GOP has become something of a joke, these neighborhoods are as close to a conservative bastion as you’ll find. It’s been that way for decades. The Far Northeast, as it’s known in local parlance, which borders on the swing-state suburbs of Bucks County, has a long history of opposition to progressivism, on everything from taxation to school desegregation. In 1983, a Pennsylvania state senator representing the area introduced a bill to have Northeast Philadelphia secede from the city. In part, this was perceived to be retribution against the city’s first African-American mayor, a dynamic that evokes the subtext to Trump’s Make America Great Again movement. “Whether they are Russian newcomers or older generations, there is a nationalist theme running throughout the political mind-set of Northeast Philadelphians, especially those who lean more conservative,” says Matt Smalarz, a professor at Manor College in the Philadelphia suburbs and a native of the Northeast whose dissertation focused on the area he grew up in. “You won’t go to any other part of Philadelphia where there are more American flags being flown.”

    For some, that adopted patriotism is cultivated in places like Bustleton’s New World Association. The nonprofit organization offers a “5 o’clock English Club,” among a host of acculturation and education services for refugees and immigrants. Like so many things in this part of town, the organization is housed in a strip mall, in a bare-bones space outfitted with folding chairs, folding tables and not many other supplies. Having a clientele that’s mostly Ukrainian, at a moment when so much of the national conversation on immigration focuses on the southern border, limits the visibility and financial support—through grants or government funding —that’s available for the New World Association, according to executive director Marina Lipkovskaya. “People don’t want to know about us,” she says. But it also engenders a sense of forced self-sufficiency that seemed to mesh neatly with Trump’s message.


    In his campaign speeches, Trump leveraged a profound feeling of abandonment being experienced by white working-class voters, as if the government had cast them aside. You don’t have be an unemployed steelworker from Western Pennsylvania to share that commonality. In fact, Lipkovskaya suggests that the population hailing from ex-Soviet states might be predisposed to an up-by-the-bootstraps message like that of the Trump campaign, and a drain-the-swamp message, too. “In my family, we paid for everything with our hard work and great attitude toward this country,” she says. “Eastern Europeans are not so much depend on public benefits. We’re not waiting for dollars to fall from the trees.”

    After all, many of these immigrants ended up here, during the 1990s, seeking freedom from ethnic or religious persecution in their respective states. “Most of the Russians here are almost libertarians,” says Andre Krug, president and CEO of KleinLife, a senior-citizen program that caters to many Russian-speaking adults. “They came from a country where the country dictated how they were going to live their lives, so when they came to this country, they feel like the less government does, the better they’re going to be ultimately.” Their ideology—to draw a generality—is more like an attitude of rugged individualism, Krug says. In other words, one that is innately American but born of life in the former Soviet Union. In the end, Trump’s wealthy upbringing and his career of questionable business deals didn’t undermine the essential appeal of his well-practiced message of personal triumph. Last November, Trump narrowly lost Philadelphia’s 58th ward, which encompasses Bustleton and Somerton, but garnered 1,464 more votes than Mitt Romney in 2012. Pennsylvania was decided by less than 45,000 votes.

    The dual nationalism goes much deeper. Lipkovskaya first introduced me to Shapiro, who now lives in the nearby suburb of Huntingdon Valley. He vigorously canvassed for Trump in October. He wore a bright blue blazer and sipped on a bottle of Perrier, as we sat at a folding table in the New World Association. Shapiro’s embrace of the new president was blunt, as was his critique of Obama, whom he viewed as timid and scared of Vladimir Putin. As evidence he pointed to the U.S.’s failure to intervene forcefully in Ukraine or Syria. For him, the prospect of another Clinton presidency represented not only the status quo, but also the beginnings of a ruling political dynasty—a virtual House of Romanov disguised in constitutional democracy. Later, Shapiro admits that he wouldn’t mind an extension of the Trump lineage in power though. “After eight years of Trump, I think it’ll be Ivanka. I think she will run against Michelle [Obama]—and win.”


    Despite a palpable dislike for Putin among most of the foreign-born Philadelphians I spoke to, there was concurrent praise of Trump for displaying what might be called Putin-like qualities: His unflinching projection of strength. And his intuition—what Shapiro calls “guts.” And most of all, Trump’s promise of bygone economic enrichment for all Americans. The MAGA message can be a personal one for immigrants like Shapiro, who arrived during America’s relative prosperity during the 1990s. This pink-cloud period in our recent history happened to be his first taste of the West. “From 1996 until when the [World Trade Towers] collapsed, it was communism,” Shapiro says, meaning, everybody was reaping the spoils. “It was a very good time. Everybody happy. People buy houses. Real estate booming. Stock market booming. That’s why Trump won. He wants to make America great again. He wants to return to old times when people were happy.”

    Since 1990, no part of Philadelphia has been losing white residents faster, or taking on immigrants quicker, than the Northeast. A Pew report estimated declines of 14 and 17 percent in the white population of Bustleton and Somerton, respectively, from 1990 to 2010; meanwhile, the Hispanic and Asian populations increased more than 100 percent. While Russia’s recent turn in the news has caused a retrenchment of this nation-within-a-nation mentality among some of the Russian-speaking population here, there’s also the specter of discrimination, the sense that Russians might begin to experience the side-eyed suspicion that Muslims have come to expect.

    “I do worry about that, given my background,” says Orhan Veli, a 33-year-old businessman who grew up in the area. His family arrived in the U.S. as refugees in 1994, after fleeing the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict. They were a prominent family in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, but when tensions broke out, that all changed in an instant. “I was literally that refugee kid that you see on Facebook,” he says. “I realize how propaganda can work. My kids have no idea that they’re [ethnically] Russian. But they very quickly can become Russian within the society that they’re in.”


    Then again, Veli is a fervent supporter of Trump’s travel ban, a policy that many on the left assail as institutionalized persecution. It’s not that Veli looks back fondly on his family’s own experience attaining refugee status, which took the better part of two years—replete with background checks and mental-health evaluations—but he views the process as a valid prerequisite for would-be Americans. In contrast, Veli brings up his cousin, who also experienced war at a young age and went through the exact same refugee process as he did. “To her, our family’s paths showed that we were good people and should’ve been allowed to come here sooner, rather than be vetted and struggle through a year and a half in limbo,” he says. “We completely disagree on this.”

    Maybe it’s not surprising that immigration is the subject on which notions of Trump begin to diverge most dramatically. It’s a topic that feels less ideological and more intimate. Lipkovskaya views Americans’ treatment of the first lady as a harbinger of nativist resentment bubbling to the surface. “You know what drives me crazy? The attitude to Melania Trump because she’s an immigrant. She speaks with an accent, as well as I do. Then some redneck looks at her and says, ‘I can’t even understand what she says in English’—that’s such a disrespect,” she says. And then, Lipkovskaya adds, “Then [they] scream, ‘Trump is not right with the ban—he’s not my president!’” For her, those Melania-bashing Southerners are not the Christian right or traditionalist wing of the GOP, rather a bunch of “redneck” liberals. Talk about propaganda.


    If there’s one clear fault line I detected in Little Odessa’s support for Trump, it’s generational. Veli, Lipkovskaya and Shapiro all acknowledge the political chasms Trump has caused within their families. Plenty of older people oppose the new president because they worry Trump will simply cede Ukraine to Putin. Plenty of younger people who’ve spent more time in America—or were raised here—tend to think of Trump’s policies as intolerant and retrograde.

    But even among the folks who openly mock Trump as a puppet of corporate billionaires and Putin, there’s a contingent that sees his value. And they express it in a way that manages to praise a country some of them have no memory of. “Russia is way stronger than us, bro,” says Nazar, a millennial (who preferred to not give his last name) working at a Metro PCS inside a Bustleton Avenue strip mall. For all his flaws, Trump’s promise to reset U.S.-Russia relations stands to maintain the delicate balance of dual nationalism that many of northeast Philadelphia’s immigrants live by. At the very least, he’ll keep them from having to choose sides, says Nazar. “If Trump didn't become president and it was Hillary, Putin would probably try to start World War III.”


    Paul Ryan Failed Because His Bill Was a Dumpster Fire


    The American Health Care Act died on Friday. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has conceded defeat, declaring in words that must have been painful for him to utter—“Obamacare is the law of the land”—as he yanked the bill from consideration. After...

    The American Health Care Act died on Friday. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has conceded defeat, declaring in words that must have been painful for him to utter—
    Obamacare is the law of the land”—as he yanked the bill from consideration. After all, Republicans had spent seven long years dreaming of this moment, only to find that when it came, they didn’t have the votes. No one can say whether Friday’s face-plant was the last word. Still, this was a defining political defeat for President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

    The most serious damage, though, was to Ryan and his allies. And like you, I’m reading all the insider accounts of what went wrong. By their nature, these stories focus on anecdotes about who said what and when. But make no mistake: This was a failure of policy and legislative strategy—things that were supposed to be Ryan’s special sauce—not of tactics. Even if President Trump were the master negotiator he claims to be, he probably couldn’t have saved it.

    The House speaker is more identified with AHCA than anyone else, and had greater control than anyone else of its moving parts. It was his bill, his plan, his preferred timing. But he produced one of the worst pieces of major legislation in memory—and his reputation as a policy professional and legislative tactician may never recover. Given the opportunity to reshape critical pieces of America’s health care safety-net, Ryan might have led an effort to craft a conservative, but incremental bill consistent with President Trump’s economic populist rhetoric. He might have proposed more modest cuts on the most needy, smaller tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, and tried harder to accommodate the needs of Republican governors, interest groups and citizens who rely on the Affordable Care Act in their daily lives.

    He didn’t. Instead, he and his allies crafted a poorly constructed and radical bill that would sharply cut support to low-income Americans and those with serious health conditions, while enacting big tax cuts for the wealthy. The payout to the top 400 families alone was estimated to exceed total ACA subsidies in 20 states and the District of Columbia. All of this was wildly out of step with American voters—only 17 percent of whom supported this bill.

    Every liberal and conservative think tank hated AHCA, albeit for different reasons. Medical provider groups hated it. The AARP hated it—even before the Congressional Budget Office estimated that 64-year-olds with $26,500 annual incomes would see their average net individual insurance premiums go from $1,700 to a $14,600. Republicans tried to patch this up. Too late. This 760 percent premium increase was politically immolating.

    This was a baffling error. Everyone in health policy knew this assessment was coming. Did Speaker Ryan or the White House run these numbers? If not, did they understand their own legislation? If so, did they simply hope that no one would find out? Ryan’s spin of the CBO report—that it vindicated his argument that the AHCA would drive down costs—was laughable. The real takeaway was that 24 million fewer Americans would be insured, and those that remained would see their premiums increase as their coverage worsened.

    What’s so baffling about Ryan’s failure is that he knows as well as anybody that social entitlements are devilishly hard to take away—because people like them. As the main features of ACA become embedded in American life, overturning it required legislative craftsmanship at the boundary between coalition politics and policy.

    That’s the craftsmanship Nancy Pelosi provided in 2009 and 2010. She brought together—and kept together—a fractious Democratic House coalition that included coastal liberals wedded to the public option, Southern conservatives in vulnerable seats, committed pro-life and pro-choice members. She cajoled and coordinated major committees to provide common legislative language on a much more complex bill than the AHCA. When Democrats were rocked by Republican Scott Brown’s surprising Massachusetts Senate victory, liberal stalwarts such as Barney Frank were faltering, given Democrats’ loss of a filibuster-proof Senate majority. Pelosi mobilized livid House Democrats to sacrifice much of their valuable work and pass unchanged the more moderate Senate bill. These members put their trust in her to clean things up as she could through complex accompanying legislation and the reconciliation process.

    By comparison, Speaker Ryan’s crafting of AHCA was a slapdash enterprise. Republican leaders threw in wild revisions up to the last moment in a vain effort to gain critical votes. Thursday morning brought word that the House Freedom Caucus demanded repeal of ACA’s Title I, the parts of the law that protect consumers from the harsh vicissitudes of the insurance markets. But even leading health-care experts were confused by the changes. As Timothy Jost noted at Health Affairs: “This comprehensive a repeal of the ACA would have far-ranging consequences for our health care system that can scarcely be described, much less understood, in the hours that remain before a vote.”

    The more outlandish the process, the more I wondered whether the game plan was just for the House to pass something—anything—and then let the Senate do the real work. Several insiders told me that the real action would be a totally different Senate bill, and that whatever passed there would become the new law once the House assented.

    As the conservative health-care analyst Philip Klein notes, the contrast with Obamacare couldn’t have been greater. Well before the Obama presidency, Democratic congressional leaders, interest groups and policy experts prepared the groundwork for the ACA, hammering out messy compromises, aligning House committees, working with presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama, all of whom proposed plans similar to what became the ACA. Then in 2009 and 2010, the House and Senate held dozens of hearings over the course of months, not days, and accepted more than 150 Republican amendments along the way. Learning the lessons of President Bill Clinton’s prior failed health reform effort, President Obama let Pelosi and her Senate counterpart Harry Reid take the lead, but he knew the intricacies of the legislation inside and out. Ryan and Trump threw in the towel after just 18 days.

    So why did Republicans fail? In a word: insincerity. Republicans had seven years to do their own hard work, to coalesce around a credible conservative alternative to the ACA. They might have used this time to work with Republican governors, to explore which conservative policy ideas seem to stick, which aspects of ACA needed to be retained. They might have crafted a more moderate bill along the lines of the Cassidy-Collins bill, which would have given liberal states and Republican governors who adopted Medicaid expansion much greater leeway. Or they might have refined another conservative model, such as Avik Roy’s modifications to ACA exchanges, to turn ACA’s exchanges in a more conservative direction. They might have prepared the American public for whatever plan they chose.

    They didn’t do any of this, perhaps because they believed they would never have to. Secure in the knowledge that they would face President Obama’s veto, Republicans rammed through a succession of extreme repeal-and-replace bills that resembled AHCA’s original draft. These bills excited the Republican base, but would have horrified most other Americans if they ever found sufficient reason to look. Then Congressional Republicans suffered what George W. Bush might call a “catastrophic success” with Donald Trump’s unexpected victory. They had nothing real to deliver.

    Much has been made of Republicans’ hypocrisy in trying to ram the AHCA through Congress after complaining so vociferously about the legislative process that produced Obamacare. This hurt House Republicans less than the shoddy content of their actual bill, and the glaring mismatch between their political rhetoric and what their actual policy proposals were designed to do.

    Nobody thinks Obamacare is perfect. Republicans from candidate Trump on down exploited real public dissatisfaction with the ACA. Millions of Americans are disappointed that the law didn’t do more to reduce burdensome insurance premiums, co-payments and deductibles. Senate Majority Leader McConnell was fairly typical, knocking the ACA for leaving 25 million people uninsured, and for leaving people in plans where the “deductibles are so high that it’s really not worth much to them.” President Trump was aided this election cycle by his apparent support for universal coverage. He vowed to replace the “failing,” “horrific” Obamacare with “something terrific.”

    As Josh Barro, Ezra Klein, and Matt Yglesias impolitely note, Republicans had no plan or intention to address these complaints. President Trump has not honored his campaign promise. Republican proposals always provided smaller subsidies than ACA does, and would gut one of the key features that makes health insurance risk pools work: cross-subsidies from the young, healthy and prosperous to their older, sicker and poorer peers. Republican plans are designed around higher deductibles and narrower benefits, not to mention more limited Medicaid. The inevitable result is higher costs and more limited access for low-income people and near-retirees, and smaller financial subsidies for people with chronic health conditions. That was the clear intention, but Ryan refused to admit it.

    There’s one more thing, too. Seven years ago, Democrats were proud of the ACA, even though they knew it wasn’t perfect and wouldn’t be popular—at least not at first. President Obama gave a beautiful speech rallying House Democrats before the main ACA vote, in which he said they had a rare chance to “vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made in all those town meetings and all those constituency breakfasts and all that traveling through the district, all those people who you looked in the eye and you said, ‘You know what, you’re right, the system is not working for you and I’m going to make it a little bit better.’”

    Many Democrats in that room lost their seats. I bet many still tell their grandchildren how they helped to insure 20 million people, about their pride in standing with President Obama. Despite all of ACA’s compromises and glitches, there was a largeness of purpose in that room, in that entire effort.

    There was a conspicuous smallness to this AHCA effort, a puzzling shoddiness given the human and political stakes. Many in the GOP, above all President Trump, seemed strangely uninterested in the policy details. To the extent Republicans did have an animating passion, it was to puncture President Obama’s legacy—and to avoid looking foolish by failing to honor their “repeal and replace” rhetoric.

    Only they had no viable replacement. For all their endless warnings about how Obama’s signature health law was hurting American families, driving up costs and putting us on the path toward socialism, it turns out they didn’t care enough to put in the work.


    Why Jim Harbaugh Took a Shot at Trump’s Budget


    There was a time when a college coach made news if he took a political stand—and not always welcome news. Think back to Joe Paterno at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans: "I'll be damned if I'll sit still while people who can't...

    There was a time when a college coach made news if he took a political stand—and not always welcome news. Think back to Joe Paterno at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans: "I'll be damned if I'll sit still while people who can't carry George Bush’s shoes ridicule him,” Paterno said. “After a lifetime of being around great competitors, I know a winner, and I know a leader.” The convention crowd ate it up, but back home in Pennsylvania the Democratic governor took a dimmer view. “If you’re Bear Bryant or Bobby Bowden or Bo Schembechler of course, for a long time the state had a lot of impact on your funding,” says John Bacon, the author of multiple books on the University of Michigan’s football program. “So you certainly did not want to get into state politics as a rule.”

    It’s harder these days to keep track of all the legendary names—college and otherwise—mixing it up in the most contentious and unforgiving political arena in memory. Bobby Knight, the surly and argumentative former Indiana University basketball coach, was a favorite surrogate of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Bowden and Lou Holtz, coaching icons themselves, effusively praised Trump throughout the campaign. But active coaches, too, have lost their inhibitions about throwing elbows in the political paint. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has tallied the most wins in Division I basketball history, trashed his home state’s controversial bathroom bill as “embarrassing.” He said this while leading the U.S. men’s national team in Rio. Ohio State University football head coach Urban Meyer appeared alongside Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a frequent Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, in an ad highlighting financial investment accounts for Ohioans with disabilities.

    And then there’s Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, 53, whose political star power eclipses even some members of Congress, is one of the few coaches who has sat down one-on-one with President Barack Obama, dropped in for meetings with half of the Supreme Court and slipped in to a rally on campus where Obama was stumping for Hillary Clinton. Harbaugh has also said he likes Trump for not being “afraid to fight the establishment.” Last summer, he found himself in hot water for criticizing San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for refusing to stand during the national anthem. He later apologized on Twitter.

    On February 28, a couple of weeks before President Trump unveiled his budget, Harbaugh took to his favorite platform with a slightly surprising foray into policy and on an issue that would hardly be considered top of mind even for the wonkiest of Washington insiders: legal aid for the poor. He tweeted: “I hope reports that White House trying to defund Legal Services Corp aren't true. LSC is CRUCIAL to making justice system fair. #LSCmatters” Obscure though the cause might have been, the tweet got some attention: 2,400 retweets and twice as many likes.

    Harbaugh, it turns out, is a part of the leaders council of the LSC (along with baseball great Hank Aaron). The LSC’s current budget allocation of $385 million funds programs that provide legal aid in civil cases—everything from foreclosures and evictions to child custody and restraining orders against an abusive partner—to over 1.8 million low-income people across the country. Harbaugh got on the phone recently to talk about how he got involved in this cause, where he draws the line for coaches when it comes to political engagement, his go-to quote from the Federalist Papers and what he thinks of being compared to Trump and Obama.

    Politico Magazine: Why did you get involved in LSC and what are the consequences of defunding the program?

    Jim Harbaugh: I got involved two years ago. Some people say 'Why is a football coach concerned?' I explained I'm an American first and all Americans should care about justice. The idea, as you learn about our legal system, [is] the danger of not being able to have access to justice. From what I can see it's that, if you have money you have access to justice. If you don't, it's becoming increasingly less and less access for low-income Americans and that's the crux of it. I mean, to have a society that has liberty and justice for all, it's right there in the constitution. And LSC is the largest funder of civil legal aid in our nation.

    Politico: Were you approached to do this?

    Harbaugh: I was invited to an LSC meeting in Washington D.C. I've attended it each year for the past two years, that's how I became involved. I also attended a meeting in Atlanta last summer on legal aide in Atlanta. I just educated myself on the critical issues and have looked at some numbers and it's an issue that faces all Americans.

    Politico: What was the response to the tweet when you sent it out?

    Harbaugh: Mostly positive, varying to some degree of people’s awareness. There's issues that people just don't understand. One of the biggest issues that got me most fired up is how fines and fees are being used to punish the poor. I've learned how the devastating effect it can have on lives of low income Americans. I mean across the country 48 states have increased civil court fees since 2010 and they're using those fees to pay for government services and not just courts but roads and generating millions and in some states billions of dollars.

    But basically the crux of it is when people can't afford to pay a fine or a fee for things like a speeding ticket or municipal violation then they get additional fees. Late fees can start piling up and these fees can double, triple, quadruple the total amount due and if somebody has an inability to pay that fine that can quickly snowball into a driver's license suspension or driver time. People aren't even able to go to work. So you can't pay a fine or a fee and then you lose your driver's license. You're not able to get to a job, and a lot of people, I mean, they’ve got to work.

    Politico: Have you met with President Trump at all since he became president?

    Harbaugh: No, I have not.

    Politico: Have you tried pinging Obama also?

    Harbaugh: Have I talked to President Obama since the election? Yes, I have.

    Politico: Was that about the LSC?

    Harbaugh: It was about Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative.

    Politico: What more do you plan to do as the budget process moves forward? Are you going to followup at all?

    Harbaugh: Yeah…Making people aware of some of these issues is a start. I can hope and I can pray that some of these proposed reductions in funding and even worse elimination won't undercut our nation's civil legal assistance programs and it would threaten our fundamental American commitment of legal justice for all.

    Politico: Is there a line you try to walk on political issues? There are other high profile coaches who have increasingly begun speaking out about politics.

    Harbaugh: No, I wouldn't say that. I'm not saying this as a football coach, I'm saying this as an American. I'm for America first.

    Politico: Well that's a Trump slogan right now—America First.

    Harbaugh: I wasn't aware of that.

    Politico: Yeah, he likes saying that.

    Harbaugh: As [Madison] said in Federalist 51, ‘Justice is the end of government, the end of civil society. It ever has been [and] ever will be pursued until it be obtained or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.’

    Politico: Coach, there are other coaches also who have signaled partisan views. Urban Meyer has appeared in that Josh Mandel video. Do you think coaches are becoming more comfortable weighing into policy or political issues these days?

    Harbaugh: I don't know. Again, it's not a coaching issue to me. This is an American issue. If I may make a football analogy, we're a team whether we're a football team or community or the United States of America. We are part of a team and I believe the people on that team have a right, but they also have the obligation if there is something that is not good or we don't agree on, to speak about it. And you asked me what I'm doing, I'm speaking about it.

    Politico: If you had two minutes with President Trump, what would you say to him on this or anything else?

    Harbaugh: What I said in the tweet. I hope that the rumors that LSC is being reduced or there are some rumors that it's going to be defunded, I hope that those rumors are not true. And please, please study this, please look into it and realize that this is a very important issue.

    Politico: In the past you've appeared at events for President Obama and Clinton on campus and at times you said you liked that Donald Trump is someone who likes [taking on] the establishment. What do you think of comparison?

    Harbaugh: What do I think of those comparisons? I never like those comparisons. I've never liked comparisons. I've really avoided them like the plague. I feel like somebody always gets diminished when you compare two things or two people or two teams. I really try to avoid them and this is a bipartisan issue. This an American issue and as I said it's about justice, and it's essential. It's simple fairness.

    Politico: Is there anything in your contract or at the University of Michigan that prevents you from weighing in on political or social media or anywhere else?

    Harbaugh: I think it's recommended—I work at a public university—to be apolitical. As I've told you before, this is a bipartisan issue. It's an American issue and I'm allowed to be an American.

    This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


    The Year Nixon Fell Apart


    We know what happened in the spring of 1972: Five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, were caught and arrested, and triggered the slow-dripping scandal that became known as Watergate.But a full understanding of President...

    We know what happened in the spring of 1972: Five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, were caught and arrested, and triggered the slow-dripping scandal that became known as Watergate.

    But a full understanding of President Richard Nixon wouldn’t be possible without the events that came before Watergate, when the stress of the presidency—the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, the secret bombing and invasion of Cambodia, the deaths of four student protesters at Kent State, became too much. He was agitated, drinking, paranoid about the press—and in one memorable pre-dawn excursion, exited the White House without his aides, driven by a mix of memory and pain, to try and connect with demonstrators on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When his frantic staff at last caught up with him, he treated them to breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel.

    This chapter of the Nixon presidency is the story of how his tragic flaws caught up with him, of how he cracked in the crucible of the presidency. With foreign and domestic crises tearing the country apart, the always-distrustful, unstable, insecure president started going after his enemies.

    ***

    The flag-draped caskets kept coming home. Opponents of the Vietnam War organized huge, nation-wide demonstrations in the fall of 1969—the Moratorium and the Mobilization—leaving Nixon’s White House in a state of siege.

    Then, in March 1970, the pro-Western leaders of the Cambodian military staged a coup, overthrowing the neutralist Prince Sihanouk and prompting the North Vietnamese and the homegrown Communist Khmer Rouge to march upon Phnom Penh. Events drew Nixon into crisis mode. That spring would produce some of the most emotionally charged and dramatic moments of his presidency.

    He was finding enemies everywhere: among liberals, the bureaucracy, on Capitol Hill and in the press. “We can have peace. We can have prosperity. We can have all the blacks screwing the whites,” and still not get credit from the liberal establishment, he would complain, in comments captured on his secret White House taping system. His orders sometimes sounded like the mutterings of a paranoid. “The press is the enemy,” he would tell his staff, and ordered aides to comb through the microfilm at the D.C. public library and compile every article by columnist Drew Pearson, dating back to 1946, that mentioned his name.

    Work was Nixon’s medication. So was risk. The arduous quest for the presidency and the all-consuming exercise of its powers furnished relief. “He had no personal ability to get control,” his television adviser, Roger Ailes, recalled. “He was to live in a drama—in a Western: Nixon against the world.” Another aide, years later, came to the conclusion that Nixon sought crises like a gambler craves the game.

    “He needed to tempt self-destruction,” said Monica Crowley. “He courted controversy intentionally … the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air.”

    “Was Nixon paranoid? Yes,” said aide Dwight Chapin. “But he also had the right to be.”

    In April 1970, an oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded, putting the lives of three astronauts in jeopardy. The country and its president faced a week of anxiousness and worry: Would those brave men suffocate in space, as Earth listened in on their deaths? Nixon was as tense as anyone and, relieved when the heroes returned safely, ordered celebratory drinks. By 3 p.m. the commander in chief, Haldeman noted, was hammered and snoring.

    It was during that week, on a trip to Hawaii to welcome the heroic astronauts home, that a briefing from his Pacific commanders persuaded Nixon that he needed to take forceful action to save Cambodia from falling to the Communists. He would have to expand a war he had promised to end. The president seemed “overwrought” and “increasingly agitated,” National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger recorded in his memoirs, but Nixon’s reasoning was sound. If the Communists seized the rest of Indochina, South Vietnam appeared doomed, and there would be no peace with honor.

    “Do you think there’s a prayer for Vietnamization if Cambodia is taken over?” Kissinger asked Secretary of State William Rogers, using the term that described the transfer of combat responsibility from the United States to the South Vietnamese.

    “Yes,” said Rogers. It would be a setback, but the South could survive.

    “You’re entitled to your opinion,” Kissinger told him.

    The initial plan was for the South Vietnamese Army, supported by U.S. artillery and aircraft, to go into Cambodia and attack the North Vietnam­ese military headquarters and ordnance depots at a salient called the Parrot’s Beak. At a meeting of NSC officials, Vice President Spiro Agnew recommended that the administration stop “pussyfooting,” and Nixon, not to be outdone at manly chest-beating, expanded the scope of the invasion. He proposed to double the mission, adding 30,000 American troops to cross the border and sweep through a second Communist sanctuary known as the Fishhook. He fortified his nerves with viewings of the motion picture Patton and cocktail cruises on the White House yacht Sequoia with his family, his best friend Bebe Rebozo and aides. On May 1, as the boat approached Mount Ver­non, Nixon punched the air and told an aide that he wanted the national anthem “blasted out.” He and Bebe, his wife Pat and his daughter Julie, along with her husband David Eisenhower, stood at attention in the bow while a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. “It was a lonely time for him,” his military aide, Jack Brennan, remembered. “I had never seen him appear so physically exhausted.”

    Nixon was raging, hanging up on aides and increasingly huddling in his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building, “reflect­ing, resenting, collecting his thoughts and his anger,” Kissinger would recall.

    “Don’t worry about divisiveness—having drawn the sword, don’t take it out—stick it in hard,” Nixon told his staff. He was ready to do full battle with his political enemies over his plans for Southeast Asia. “Hit them in the gut.”

    The Cambodian incursion was marginally successful, in that it disrupted the Communist command, bought Nixon more time, and dem­onstrated that the South Vietnamese could put up a fight. The incursion secured the border for most of 1971.

    The gains, however, were not commensurate with the cost. The pur­pose of the mission was not, as many in the peace movement charged, to open a new front, escalate the fighting, and involve all of Southeast Asia in the conflagration. Quite the opposite: The offensive was limited in scope and designed to provide time and cover for Vietnamization. But it looked like Tricky Dick was expanding the conflict—after promising the country he would wind it down. His April 30 speech announcing the incursion was not so calm and reasoned as the silent majority address; he looked tense and had to pause to wipe the sweat from his upper lip. “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world,” he said.

    Drafted with the help of the pugnacious Pat Buchanan, Nixon’s speech was deceptive (falsely claiming that the United States had always “scrupulously” respected Cambodian neutrality) and gratuitously confrontational. So was the president’s comment, recorded by the press as he left the Pentagon the next day, that college students who opposed the war were pampered and ungrateful “bums.” It reflected his lifelong prejudice against the sons and daughters of the Ivy League but was difficult to apply to the hundreds of demonstrations that had erupted throughout the country, at institutions like Notre Dame, the University of Virginia or Kent State—an Ohio university with a student body drawn from the working and middle class. During a weekend of unrest at the college, in which arsonists torched the ROTC building, Governor James Rhodes dispatched the Ohio National Guard to restore order, with live ammunition and predictable results. On May 4, the raw, tired, taunted guardsmen fired into a crowd of protesters. Four students died, nine were wounded. Several were just spectators; oth­ers had been walking to class.

    Nixon was stunned. “I could not get the photographs out of my mind,” he recalled in his memoirs. “I could not help thinking about the families, suddenly receiving the news that their children were dead.”

    “I thought of my own daughters … of their learning to talk and to walk, and their first birthdays, and the trips we took together, going to the ballgame … and to the circus … getting them through the teenage years, getting them through college and then—whoosh—all gone.”

    But publicly, his response was unyielding, even cruel. “When dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy,” the White House statement said.

    Nixon’s pose crumbled in the face of the resultant, “profoundly unnerving” uproar, Kissinger recalled. Across the nation, higher education ground to a halt, as campus after campus suspended classes or was closed by student strikes. Three members of Nixon’s NSC staff resigned. The atmosphere was “absolutely poisonous,” aide William Smyser recalled. “We were not only fighting the North Vietnamese, we were fighting the Americans.”

    ***

    Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had all suffered moments when the stupefying strain in their lives—the knowledge that a blunder could leave hundreds of millions dead, and civilization in radioactive ruin—led them to episodes of rage or sorrow, use of drugs or alcohol, stress-induced illness, or bizarre behavior. The spring of 1970 saw Nixon’s visit to that sort of Gethsemane.

    It was a “paradox,” Nixon adviser Leonard Garment said. When wounded, Nixon was both strengthened—in that he drew renewed confidence from surviving—and weakened, in that he just could not forgive, or forget, or bring a halt to his self-destructive gnashing. “This man had real demons,” Gerald Ford remembered.

    On the night of May 8, Nixon held a prime-time press conference, assuring Americans that the U.S. forces in Cambodia would withdraw soon and that he would keep his promise to bring home another 150,000 troops from Southeast Asia. In the Parrot’s Beak and the Fishhook, “we have bought at least six months, and probably eight months of time,” he said. Afterward, wired from the performance, and “agitated and uneasy” from the week’s events, he worked the telephone long past midnight, con­sulting with aides, advisers and reporters. He was facing an emotional crisis as real as that confronting the country. Unable to sleep, he put Rach­maninoff on the stereo and awakened his valet, Manolo Sanchez.

    Sometime after 4 a.m., he decided to show Sanchez the glories of the Lincoln Memorial at night.

    “Searchlight is on the lawn!” a White House guard reported, using the president’s Secret Service code name. (Nixon would later recall with satisfaction, “I’ve never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension.”) Nixon, Sanchez and the presidential physician, Dr. Walter Tkach, got in a car and left the White House. A few minutes behind them, in a second auto, was the frantic Egil Krogh, the White House aide who was on duty that night.

    At the time, the Lincoln Memorial steps, rising above the Mall, were a rendezvous for students assembling for the day’s demonstrations. “Perhaps the major contribution I could make to them was to try to lift them a bit out of the miserable intellectual wasteland in which they now wander aimlessly,” Nixon told his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman later that week. Some of the students gathered round, and he awkwardly tried to connect. His feelings surfaced in zoetropic flashes. Peace and war were on his mind that night, the lesions of his childhood, his beloved mother and her recent death.

    “My goals in Vietnam were the same as theirs—to stop the killing and end the war,” he would remember. He spoke about his own generation, about Munich and Chamberlain and Churchill, and the need to deal with Russia and open China. “It was not just a drop by … he had no talking points,” Krogh recalled. “His manner was intense—trying to reach out into them, to communicate with them. I’ve never seen him do it like this before. … He was trying to empathize with them as best he could.”

    “I hope you realize that we are willing to die for what we believe in,” one student demonstrator told the president.

    Of course, Nixon responded. “Many of us when we were your age were also willing to die for what we believed in,” he said. “The point is, we are trying to build a world in which you will not have to die for what you believe in.”


    Trying to “draw them out,” Nixon asked about their college football teams and spoke of his own days at Whittier College; about surfing, the environment, the plight of the American Indians and the rewards of traveling through Europe and Asia. It was important to understand, he said, that amid the material comforts of life, it is “the elements of the spirit that really matter."

    Streaks of rose above the Capitol signaled the approach of day. As he returned to his limousine, Nixon ran across Bob Moustakas, a tall and portly bearded longhair from Detroit who, by self-admission, was not looking his best after a long drive to Washington, in which mood-altering substances were consumed. Moustakas had a camera, and Nixon called on Tkach to take their picture. The mood was not hostile, Moustakas later recalled, but it was stilted—like that of a high school party, in which the host’s parents came down to the basement rec room to make small talk. As they posed and chatted, Nixon assessed Moustakas, and told him how, in China, the children were culled at an early age and sent off on different tracks, toward professional, academic or manual labors. The system was flawed, Nixon said, for it missed “late bloomers.” Then he patted Moustakas on the back, as if to say, there is hope for you yet.

    The failure of the Lincoln Memorial visit was “a great shame,” said John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s assistant for domestic affairs, because “that was an opportunity for some reconciliation that didn’t take place.” Nixon and the students “just never reached each other.”

    Nixon was not finished roaming. To the Capitol they drove, where he tried to show Sanchez the Senate and his old vice-presidential office and, finding the doors locked, settled on taking him into the House chamber and ushering him up to the rostrum, to stand where the Speaker wields the gavel and deliver a speech that Nixon applauded. In Statuary Hall, as the president made his way back to the car, a cleaning lady caught his attention and asked him to sign her Bible. He did so and urged her to read it faithfully. “Most of us don’t read it enough,” he said. And then, holding her hand, he stammered with some emotion, “You know, my mother was a saint. She died two years ago. She was a saint. You be a saint too.”

    Frenzied aides, who had rushed into town from their homes in the suburbs (“Weirdest day so far,” Haldeman confided to his diary), caught up to Nixon at the Capitol. He decided to take them to breakfast. To the Mayflower, he told his driver. The presidential entourage arrived at the hotel restaurant, sat down, and gave their orders to the startled waitresses. Nixon remembered how, as a young politician in the 1950s, he liked their corned beef hash and eggs. Finally, with morning well under way, and groups of demonstrators tromping the streets, Haldeman and Krogh per­suaded Nixon, with more than a little difficulty, that it was not safe to walk back to the White House. He got back in the car, passed through a ring of buses parked end to end around the mansion grounds, and the gates of “this great white jail,” as President Harry Truman called it, shut behind him.

    “I am concerned about his condition,” Haldeman confided to his diary. “The decision, the speech, the aftermath killings, riots, press, etc.; the press conference, the student confrontation have all taken their toll, and he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper and mood suffer badly. … He’s still riding on the crisis wave, but the letdown is near at hand and will be huge.”

    Kissinger was worried as well. “He was prepared to make decisions without illusion. Once convinced, he went ruthlessly and courageously to the heart of the matter,” the national security adviser recalled, “but each controversial decision drove him deeper into his all-enveloping solitude.”

    ***

    Nixon was known to overindulge in alcohol, a habit that seemed to grow worse that spring. “I don’t think that it should be exaggerated,” said Winston Lord, an NSC aide. “However, there is no question that he had a problem.”

    “He never could handle liquor,” his former press secretary Jim Bassett said, “and you had to be very careful with him about that.” On several occasions—the Apollo 13 drama, a banquet in China, an eve­ning during the Yom Kippur War, a flight back from Denver—his aides reported that he drank to excess. Nixon’s daughter Julie and friend Billy Graham both acknowledged it after his presidency.

    Ehrlichman, after watching a sodden Nixon make a clumsy pass at a young lady in 1964, had made him promise to lay off the stuff before agreeing to work for him. Garment remembered instances during the 1968 campaign when his exhausted friend—after a drink or a sleeping pill or both—would call him late at night and ramble on and on until Morpheus claimed him in midconversation. After one such phone call, in which Nixon passed into slumber, an inexperienced, panicky Charles Colson, Republican operative and special counsel to the president, called Manolo Sanchez, thinking the president had a stroke or a heart attack. Nixon apolo­gized the next day; sleeping pills and jet lag had caught up with him, he said.

    A beer and a sleeping pill, and Nixon began to mumble, Speechwriter Ray Price recalled. Two drinks and “his voice would become slurred,” said another Nixon speechwriter, William Safire. “He would reminisce … open himself up.” On a private jet to Florida during the 1968 campaign, Nixon had downed a quick scotch or two and began to cry as he spoke to his aides of his parents, Frank and Hannah, and Arthur and Harold, the two brothers who died in their youth. “People don’t know me,” he pitiably told his staff.

    Three drinks? “He couldn’t handle it,” said veteran California strate­gist Stu Spencer. “He really got paranoid when he got three drinks in him. There are things I’m not even going to discuss that were said, but they were the result of drinking. He could not handle drink.” His White House tapes capture the tinkling of ice cubes on several occasions in which Nixon, coming down from the high of a nationally televised address or a prime-time press conference, starts slurring his words while polling friends and advisers on his performance. “When I talked to the president he was loaded,” Kissinger told a colleague, explaining why Nixon could not take a phone call from the British prime minister during a Mideast crisis.

    Insomnia was a long-standing problem. Nixon augmented his prescription sleeping pills with Dilantin, an anti-seizure drug recommended by a friend, the businessman Jack Dreyfus, who championed the drug for an unintended use: to combat depression. The slurring of speech was one potential side effect.

    Nixon “took all those sleeping pills that would give him a low in the morning and a high in the evening,” said his spiritual counselor, Billy Graham. The president’s failures could be blamed on “sleeping pills and demons,” said Graham. “All through history, drugs and demons have gone together. … They just let a demon-power come in and play over him.”

    “Looped,” Ehrlichman wrote in his diary after visiting with Nixon the night of the president’s speech on Cambodia.

    ***

    As the midterm elections of 1970 approached, Nixon faced an unforgiving calculus. For Vietnamization to succeed, he had to stave off the Communists, but every action he took to do so—bombarding Laos, invading Cambodia, bombing sites in southern North Vietnam—stirred the fears of the public back home, lacing steel through the backbones of the antiwar members of Congress.

    From government infiltration and intimidation, changes in the draft laws, internal bickering or simple exhaustion, the peace movement sagged after the deaths at Kent State. But the uproar over the Cambodian incursion had heartened the opposition on Capitol Hill, and by a 57–38 vote, the Senate approved a measure introduced by Senators Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, and John Sherman Cooper, a Republican of Kentucky, prohibiting U.S. military action in, and aid to, Cambodia after June 30.

    The House refused to go along, and the Senate soundly rejected another amendment (offered by Senator George McGovern, the Democrat from South Dakota, and Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon) to cut off funding for all military action in Southeast Asia. But the hourglass had been turned. It was only a matter of time before the rebels in Congress succeeded. “The president’s personal relations with Congress have deteriorated gravely,” White House aide Bryce Harlow warned. Hanoi took heart.

    Identifying enemies, and offering battle, were among those things that Nixon did best. The events of the spring of 1970 left him feeling beleaguered. The face he showed to his foes, for the rest of his presidency, would be one long contorted snarl.

    In 1969, Nixon had dispatched Agnew to lambaste the network news executives (“a small and unelected elite”) and American intellectuals who opposed the war. The vice president had urged Americans to “separate them from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples.” Now Agnew took to the stump again, railing against Nixon’s critics (“nattering nabobs of negativism”) and liberals (“radic-libs”) and stoking the nascent culture wars. “How do you fathom the thinking of those who work themselves into a lather over an alleged shortage of nutriments in Wheaties,” Agnew asked, “but who cannot get exercised at all over a flood of hard-core pornography?”

    “Dividing the American people has been my main contribution to the national political scene,” Agnew would come to boast. “I not only plead guilty to this charge, but I am somewhat flattered by it.”

    Buchanan wrote a 13-page memo to Nixon, urging him to engage in “heated political warfare, of not cooling off our supporters but of stirring the fires” as they were now “in a contest over the soul of the country” with their liberal enemies in Congress, the press and the universities. “It will be their kind of society or ours; we will prevail or they shall prevail.”

    And another aide, Michael Balzano, urged the president to transmit the following message to disgruntled white voters: “Today, racial minorities are saying that you can’t make it in America. What they really mean is that they refuse to start at the bottom of the ladder the way you did. They want to surpass you … [and] they want it handed to them. … You worked the menial jobs to get where you are - let them do it too.” Balzono knew what he was proposing—an intentional rending of American society along racial lines, for political profit. “CAUTION – DANGER,” he wrote. “With respect to the calculated polarization described in this paper, ABSOLUTE SECRECY CANNOT BE OVERSTATED” or “there would be no way of calculating the damage to the Administration.” The capitalization was his.

    White House aide Tom Huston drafted an organizational plan for government intelligence agencies, to improve upon the performance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was deemed too timid in his dotage to adequately suppress the radicals. The “Huston plan,” as it became known, explicitly authorized wiretapping, clandestine mail openings and break-ins, and acknowledged that such measures were illegal. Nixon approved it.

    After several hundred construction workers went on a rampage in downtown Manhattan, beating antiwar protesters and other young people on what came to be known as “Bloody Friday,” the White House helped organize hard-hat demonstrations. A hundred thousand marched in New York. Nixon welcomed a group to Washington, and accepted a helmet of his own. The offensive continued through the fall election, as Nixon joined Agnew on the stump, and the two of them blistered the Democrats for encouraging a climate of riot and disorder.

    On October 29 the president himself was the target of a rowdy demonstration in San Jose. He and Haldeman were hoping to turn such an incident into an evocative confrontation (“If anybody so much as brushes against Mrs. Agnew, tell her to fall down,” Nixon told his aides. “If the vice president were slightly roughed up by those thugs, nothing better could happen for our cause.” ), and the president climbed atop his limo to defy the rock-throwing protesters. He followed that performance with an ill-tempered speech from a poorly lit airport hangar in Phoenix that his aides chose to televise as the Republican curtain-closer for the fall campaign:

    Let’s recognize these people for what they are. They are not roman­tic revolutionaries. They are the same thugs and hoodlums that have always plagued the good people. …

    For too long, and this needs to be said and said now and here, the strength of freedom in our society has been eroded by a creeping permissiveness in our legislatures, in our courts, in our family life, and in our colleges and universities.

    For too long, we have appeased aggression here at home, and, as with all appeasement, the result has been more aggression and more violence. The time has come to draw the line.

    Nixon looked awful—too “hot” and mean for television—and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, responding with calm dignity from his homey living room Down East, made a far better impression for the Democrats, becoming an instant front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination in 1972.

    The Election Day results were mixed, but Nixon’s foes on Capitol Hill were emboldened. In March 1971 the Democratic caucus in the House went on record, demanding a “date certain” for withdrawal from Vietnam. William Timmons, the White House congressional liaison, warned the president that it was just a matter of time before Congress cut off funding. The loss of leverage “will murder us with the North Vietnamese,” Kissinger noted.

    And in the early months of 1971, Nixon approved the installation of a secret White House tape-recording system to memorialize his decision-making process for posterity. It quickly captured the president ordering his aides to target Muskie, Ted Kennedy and other Democratic rivals, Jews, liberal donors, journalists, and media organizations for harassment, sabotage and electronic surveillance. “Politics over the next two years is not a question of bring­ing in the blacks, and liberal senators, and making them feel that they are ‘wanted,’ ” Nixon told Haldeman. “It is going to be cold steel.”

    This article has been excerpted from Richard Nixon: The Life, which will be published this week by Doubleday.


    The Ugly History Behind Trump’s Attacks on Civil Servants


    Last week, as the House Intelligence Committee questioned FBI Director James Comey, it was as if two parallel hearings were taking place: one on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and one on the torrent of leaks emanating from sources throughout the...

    Last week, as the House Intelligence Committee questioned FBI Director James Comey, it was as if two parallel hearings were taking place: one on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and one on the torrent of leaks emanating from sources throughout the federal government—what President Donald Trump’s allies are calling the “deep state.”

    The claim that an entrenched federal bureaucracy is betraying American democracy is preposterous, but it serves the Trump administration’s objectives: As the president blames a disloyal federal workforce for the messes he has made, he is simultaneously rallying popular support to slash the federal workforce and revise U.S. Civil Service laws.

    Well before Trump proposed a budget that would result in widespread layoffs throughout the government, he promoted the idea that many federal workers are disloyal and pursue their own political agenda. He’s tweeted that “national security ‘leakers’ … have permeated our government for a long time.” In August, he suggested that high-ranking federal employees should be forced to sign nondisclosure agreements, worrying that they might otherwise author tell-alls about him. In January, after State Department workers began to use the long-established official “Dissent Channel” to voice their opposition to Trump’s travel ban, White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivered an ultimatum: they can “either get with the program, or they can go.” Conservative media outlets are piling on, too. Breitbart, the right-wing news site formerly led by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, recently published a top-10 list of “holdover Obama bureaucrats” whom Trump should fire immediately.

    Such partisan efforts to undermine public confidence in the integrity of government workers have a long and ugly history in American politics. Proponents of limited government have almost by definition been hostile to federal “bureaucrats”—the word itself has become a slur—but that hostility has been more broadly based and widely shared at certain pivotal moments in our history. When national security threats have coincided with rapid economic and social change, Americans have been more susceptible to demagogues peddling paranoid portrayals of politically and morally suspect civil servants.

    We again are living in such an era. And if the past is any guide, the attacks on the Civil Service will become uglier.

    ***

    Attacks on federal employees have long carried more than a whiff of emasculation, with the American ideal of rugged individualism weaponized against supposedly effeminate public workers bilking upstanding taxpayers. Since the “snivel service” reform battles of the 1880s, which made government employment contingent on qualifications rather than party loyalty, conservatives have questioned the masculinity of male government workers, casting them as non-entrepreneurial types who prefer to follow rules for modest pay rather than take risks in pursuit of profit. That the federal workforce was sexually integrated earlier than others invited further ridicule.

    The Red Scare of the early 1920s—which followed waves of Catholic and Jewish immigration, black migration northward for wartime work, and women’s enfranchisement, not to mention the Bolshevik Revolution—included conservative attacks on government agencies, especially state and national labor and welfare departments, which employed many women. Margaret Robinson, a conservative and antisuffragist leader, warned that state bureaucracy “offers jobs for women in politics,” which could “destroy our form of government” as well as the very basis of society. But that Red Scare was short-lived, and those agencies were not powerful.


    As the U.S. government expanded under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the attacks became more virulent. The challenges of the Great Depression, global war and nuclear weaponry expanded the federal bureaucracy and shifted power away from legislators to career civil servants (who often were better-educated and more cosmopolitan than elected officials). Lawmakers, especially rural conservatives, resented this change. Aided by media outlets such as the Hearst empire, they derided civil servants as eggheads, know-it-alls, and, in a pejorative phrase of the day, “short-haired women and long-haired men.” A best-selling “nonfiction” book by two Hearst journalists, Washington Confidential (1951), took readers on a gossipy, pulp-filled tour of the nation’s capital, and described its inhabitants as robots of indeterminate gender who enjoyed lifetime security on the government’s “perennial payroll.”

    During the Second Red Scare, which reached a crescendo in the 1950s, this populist hostility to government experts became a useful tool for those who sought to roll back liberal policies. The anticommunist crusade spawned a sprawling federal loyalty program that did not catch any spies (other measures did that) but destroyed thousands of lives, stifled political debate and stymied effective policymaking long after the scare subsided.

    When national security threats have coincided with rapid economic and social change, Americans have been more susceptible to demagogues peddling paranoid portrayals of politically and morally suspect civil servants.


    The Second Red Scare’s momentum derived from claims that communist spies in government positions were serving Soviet masters. The exposure of a spy ring in Canada in 1946 increased the credibility of such charges. In 1947, President Harry Truman expanded existing procedures for weeding out employees deemed “disloyal” to the U.S. government. From 1947 to 1956, more than 5 million federal workers were screened for communist ties. Loyalty standards were vague and ever-changing; investigators looked not only for association with allegedly subversive organizations but also for subversive “tendencies”—which, depending on the eye of the beholder, sometimes included homosexuality, a woman’s use of her birth name rather than husband’s surname, “sympathy for the underdog,” and socializing across “the color line.” About 25,000 underwent the FBI’s “full field investigation,” about 2,700 were dismissed, and about 12,000 resigned. The stigma of investigation—regardless of outcome—destroyed careers. Chronic unemployment plagued the accused, as loyalty tests spread to the private sector.

    The State Department was especially vulnerable to accusations. The espionage trial of former State employee Alger Hiss in 1950 made the department an obvious target for crusading anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.). But that case reflected deeper conflicts. To men like McCarthy and Senator Richard Nixon (R-Calif.), State’s “striped-pants diplomats” represented the patrician East Coast establishment. Their careers in government signaled an inability to compete in, or disdain for, the private sector. Their internationalism suggested a dearth of patriotism. Their advanced Ivy League degrees and social exclusivity indicated condescension, with a whiff of homoeroticism. McCarthy charged that “communists and queers” at State had aided Mao Zedong’s victory in China, and he vowed to drive the “prancing mimics of the Moscow party line” out of the department.

    McCarthy also appealed to his base by targeting the career women of Foggy Bottom. State was one of the agencies in which a few highly educated women had achieved positions of authority; early cohorts of white female professionals found that the government would hire them when the private sector would not. Senator McCarthy’s very first case was against the former judge Dorothy Kenyon, State’s delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women; she was cleared, but her career never recovered.


    The damage went far deeper than individual lives. The purges led to an exodus of experts in fields from foreign affairs to national health insurance. Those who remained lived in fear of saying or doing anything that might strike some unknown informant as suspicious. That repressive climate weakened the government’s capacity to respond effectively to complex challenges both domestic and international.

    Although some of the policy damage was irreversible, by the 1960s, McCarthyism was remembered as an embarrassing episode of national hysteria. Few politicians questioned the loyalty of public servants, and when they did, the charges did not gain much traction with voters.

    ***

    Until now. Many of the forces that fueled the last American inquisition are resurgent. The public sector is under siege by an alliance of corporate robber barons, right-wing media and free-market ideologues. Much of the population, especially but not only in rural areas, feels economically and culturally insecure in the face of globalization, multiculturalism and gender fluidity. Hostility to experts and susceptibility to conspiracy theories are rampant. Those fundamental forces weigh more heavily than the fact that President Trump’s onetime mentor was the lawyer Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s right-hand man—but that connection, too, is worrisome.


    There is one key difference, of course: The Cold War is over, and Trump seems unconcerned about Soviet espionage or “un-Americanism.” Indeed, he rejects the notion of American exceptionalism, or unique moral duty, and admires Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin. Trump demands loyalty not to a political ideology but to himself—hardly reassuring for civil servants, who may face even more capricious expectations than the anticommunists’ loyalty program imposed.

    Trump’s goal is not just a smaller bureaucracy, but a more ideologically congenial one (“White House installs political aides at Cabinet agencies to be Trump’s eyes and ears,” read a Washington Post headline on Monday). Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an unofficial adviser to Trump, called for the president to clean out “leftists” from the State and Justice departments. Bannon has called not only for ridding the government of holdovers from past administrations, but for deconstructing the “administrative state.”


    A government of sycophants selected for personal loyalty rather than expertise cannot check authoritarianism or protect the public interest from exploitation for private gain. The last purges ended only after the U.S. Senate censured McCarthy, the press exposed key accusers as frauds, and Supreme Court rulings reined in the federal loyalty program. Today, the demagogue is in the White House, and the Republican-controlled Congress seems disinclined to put country above party. To defend the roughly 2 million civil servants who help sustain American democracy, we need independent journalists and judges even more desperately now than we did in McCarthy’s day.


    Will Obamacare Really Explode?


    “Obamacare, unfortunately, will explode,” President Donald Trump said on Friday afternoon after House Republicans pulled their bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a stunning defeat seven long years—and 18 sudden days—in the...

    “Obamacare, unfortunately, will explode,” President Donald Trump said on Friday afternoon after House Republicans pulled their bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a stunning defeat seven long years—and 18 sudden days—in the making. A glum House Speaker Paul Ryan, the architect of the doomed bill, was forced to acknowledge “Obamacare is the law of the land,” but likewise warned that the current system is unsustainable.

    But is it? It’s true that the big problems of skyrocketing premiums in certain states and insurance companies backing out of the exchanges set up under the 2010 law have yet to be solved. Even Democrats admit that. But will Obamacare really explode in one big death spiral? Trump has repeatedly said Republicans would be better off letting it fail in the hopes that votes will blame Democrats when they next go to the polls in 2018.

    We tried to pare back some of the spin and grandstanding in the wake of Friday’s no-vote and talk to someone who knows health care inside and out: Larry Levitt, senior adviser at the Kaiser Family Foundation and former senior health policy adviser to the White House. He told us what might really become of Obama’s signature health law in the months and years to come.

    Politico Magazine: What do you think is next? Do you think they will just let Obamacare go, and what will that look like?

    Larry Levitt: The Trump administration faces some tough decisions over what to do with the Affordable Care Act. The president has talked in the past about how the law is collapsing, and he has said maybe he’ll just let it collapse. The general consensus is that the law is actually not collapsing, and the Congressional Budget Office recently said that regionally, the insurance market would be stable under the ACA or the alternative the House GOP was considering. But the Trump administration could actively undermine the Affordable Care Act marketplaces or own them and work to improve them, from their perspective, and work to reshape it in a more conservative mold. I think the insurers are going to be watching very closely how the Trump administration approaches this in the next weeks and months.

    Politico: You said they could reshape it. What would that look like?

    Levitt: The administration has a lot of authority to reshape the law, both on the Medicaid side and the insurance marketplaces. There’s been this big fight over the essential benefits that insurers are required to provide, and the administration has some flexibility in altering those benefits administratively. There’s a lot the administration could do with state waivers, both to Medicaid and under the ACA.

    Politico: So with the essential benefits, for instance, they could exempt some things from those?

    Levitt: Well, so the statute lays out the 10 benefits that insurers have to provide, but within those broad categories, it’s up to the secretary of HHS to define the details. So HHS could allow insurers to set more limits on those benefits, could give states more leeway in defining them. There’s some limits to the authority: The benefits have to be comparable to a typical employer insurance policy, but you know, there’s still a lot they could do to alter the benefits. So the Pottery Barn rule does apply here: If they break it, they own it. From this point forward, anything that happens to the ACA belongs to the Trump administration.

    Politico: So you’re saying, for instance, that they can’t take maternity care out of the essential benefits, but they can say what falls under that umbrella?

    Levitt: Well, maternity care is a tough one. Prescription drugs, there’s probably a little bit more flexibility—allowing insurers more leeway in defining which drugs they cover. Or in some benefits being able to set limits on the number of physical therapy limits an insurer has to cover.

    Politico: The case that Obamacare is collapsing is driven by this uncertainty, which is making insurers pull out. What does this fight do that uncertainty?

    Levitt: The uncertainty insurers had been facing was what would come next after the Affordable Care Act, after this repeal-and-replace debate. It now looks like, for the foreseeable future, the Affordable Care Act is what’s coming next. So in some sense, there is greater certainty for insurers now in knowing that the ACA is here to stay. The big uncertainty has come in what the Trump administration may do administratively.

    The most immediate risk is what happens with cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurers. These are the payments that are at issue in the lawsuit that the House filed against the HHS, challenging their authority to make these payments. If the administration decides to stop those cost-sharing subsidy payments, you could see insurers running for the exits.

    Politico: So there is a case that in some ways this uncertainty is at a new low after this. So that’s a case the marketplaces might do better, right?

    Levitt: Right, so those insurers know that the ACA is here to stay. But what they don’t know is what the administration might do to undermine the law or allow it to collapse. This is a program that has to be operated for it to succeed. So, for example, for insurers to be profitable in this market, there has to be active outreach to bring in new customers. The Obama administration was active in doing that outreach, including the president himself. It’s hard to imagine President Trump going on “Between Two Ferns” to encourage young people to sign up for health insurance through the ACA.

    Politico: So you mentioned the cost-sharing subsidies to undermine Obamacare. What other tools can the Trump administration use to undermine it?

    Levitt: The individual mandate, as we heard recently from the Congressional Budget Office, is key to keeping insurance markets stable. And the Trump administration has a lot of administrative authority to undermine the individual mandate. They could grant waivers to large groups of people because they could lead to hardship under the individual mandate. They could announce they’re not going to enforce the penalties under the individual mandate, so there could be an open invitation for people to flaunt it. You know, it is the individual mandate that is the stick to try to get young, healthy people to sign up to balance out the sick people who know they need insurance.

    Politico: So when you were looking at the disagreements that sank the bill, did you think there were any kind of creative workarounds or middle-ground options that you thought people had left unturned?

    Levitt: There was this idea of a stability pool—the hundred million dollars in grants to states that would go a long way toward keeping some markets that are now fragile. That hundred-million-dollar pool could go a long way toward stabilizing fragile markets around the country. This was the kind of thing that Republicans in the past called a bailout to insurers, but was a part of their own bills. It’s hard to imagine any congressional action at this point to shore up the ACA, but a grant pool like that could shore things up.

    Politico: So what problem would that get around?

    Levitt: So, by and large, insurance markets are stable under the ACA, but insurance risk is pooled at the state level, and there are some states where the markets are fragile, where premiums have increased substantially and in some cases, enrollment has started to drop. These markets are still well short of a death spiral, but there could be bigger premium increases to come in these places. And a pool of money that states could use to help cover the cost of a very expensive and sick people could help stabilize those markets. This is what I think people will be watching for in how the Trump administration responds. For example, in Tennessee, which is one of those markets that’s fragile, [the insurance company] Humana recently announced it is pulling out, and it will leave a number of counties in the state with literally no insurers participating. Now, under the Obama administration, there would be a lot of jawboning going on to try to get an insurer to offer coverage there—it’s not clear that will happen under this administration. That happened in Arizona this past year when there was a risk there might be no insurers participating.

    Politico: So let’s say the Trump administration pulls out all of its tricks and goes after Obamacare. Do you think it could collapse?

    Levitt: The worst case is there are parts of the country where there are no insurers offering coverage, and that could certainly happen, but it’s not going to be the case in the vast majority of the country. I don’t think that in the vast majority of states there’s a risk of collapse. But things could absolutely get worse, with fewer people enrolled and premiums rising fasters.

    That’s insurance markets, but with Medicaid—the Medicaid expansion continues as long as states continue to get federal money.

    Politico: Would there be a Trump way of undermining the Medicaid expansion?

    Levitt: Not so much undermine, but the Trump administration has already signaled it would grant waivers to states that want to experiment more broadly with how they run the Medicaid programs. So things like work requirements, things like requiring more low-income people to pay premiums to enroll in Medicaid. I think those are likely to change.


    What you need to know about the road ahead for tax reform


    Fresh off the repeal-and-replace Obamacare implosion, President Donald Trump wants to take the reins on tax reform, but that only partly answers one of several questions as Washington’s attention moves on to its next policy drama. Republicans want to...

    Fresh off the repeal-and-replace Obamacare implosion, President Donald Trump wants to take the reins on tax reform, but that only partly answers one of several questions as Washington’s attention moves on to its next policy drama. Republicans want to pivot fast, looking for a victory after their health care failure. Here's a roadmap to the path tax reform could take and the early jockeying that's going on.

    When will things get going?

    The House Ways and Means Committee plans to meet Tuesday to kick things off — or get back on track.

    Republican tax-writers are sticking to a spring timeline to advance a plan House GOP leaders first proposed last June, said the panel’s chairman, Kevin Brady (R-Texas).

    “We have been meeting nearly daily while we’re in session toward that goal,” he said. “We have more work to do.”

    Improvements are needed, Brady said, without offering specifics. Most public opposition to date has centered on the proposal to tax imports and exempt exports, called border adjustment, and Trump has waffled over whether he likes the idea or not.


    Broadly speaking, White House officials are aligned with at least 90 percent of the leading House GOP plan, Brady said, up from the 80 percent estimate he frequently cited in the past.

    The two camps still need to iron out differences on how low tax rates can possibly go and the best way to transition to new tax laws to maximize the economic benefits of shifting to a revamped tax system, Brady said.

    How long will this take?

    Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has insisted, several times, that tax reform will be signed, sealed and delivered to taxpayers by the end of August. But that’s seen by most on Capitol Hill and K Street as highly unlikely. Tax reform is just too complex to do in a few months, as Republicans found out with their Obamacare excursion.

    “It’s incredibly hard,” Brady said.

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer tamped down expectations on Monday.

    “I think it depends. ... These are big things,” he said. “There’s a lot of groups that are gonna want a ton of input because of the very nature that it’s been 30 years [since the last major tax reform]. But I think part of this is gonna be dependent on the degree to which we can come to consenus on a lot of big issues."

    Mnuchin will have a huge role in the effort, along with Gary Cohn, head of the National Economic Council, Spicer said. The White House legislative affairs team will also have a hand.

    “There’s a lot of folks on the team,” Spicer said.

    Brady has said he would like to have a bill out of his committee sometime this spring. But that’s only one-third of the equation. The Senate will have its own ideas, and so far hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for the House plan.

    Who’s 'driving the train?'

    “Obviously, we’re driving the train on this,” Spicer said. “We’re going to work with Congress on this. But I think the president, as you’ve heard multiple times, the president has made very clear this is a huge priority for him, something he feels passionately about.”

    But tax reform is House Speaker Paul Ryan’s passion, and Brady has been out selling the House Republican blueprint for months. So who controls the process could be an early flash point.


    Though Trump has agreed on individual tax rate cuts with House Republicans, the president has called for lower rates on corporations and other businesses than the blueprint has proposed. They could also differ on whether to raise the same amount of money through future taxes as the current tax code does, Spicer suggested.

    How much is this going to cost?

    House Republican leaders laid out a plan that would be revenue neutral, meaning it would bring in the same amount of revenue as the government collects now. But that task became much more daunting with the implosion of the health care plan, which was supposed to free up $1 trillion to help finance tax reform.

    Because repealing the Affordable Care Act would also repeal taxes associated with the law, doing so would also lower baseline revenue expectations and help the revenue-neutral tax reform goal. This was used as part of the rationale for doing health care reform before tax reform.

    But Brady said he hadn’t actually counted on repealing Obamacare taxes as part of the broader tax reform plan, and some non-congressional scorekeepers agreed.

    Nevertheless, Trump isn’t wedded to revenue neutrality, and neither are some conservatives in Congress.

    Spicer indicated that the economic growth Trump predicts tax reform will unleash is more important to the administration than revenue neutrality.

    “There’s a question about what part of tax reform, especially on the corporate side, will help us spur the economy and grow jobs. … And I think that’s more of the driver of this, and then I think as it evolves we’ll have the [budget] score and we’ll know more,” he said.

    It’s the budget, stupid

    The key to passing tax reform, according to Republican tax lobbyist Ryan Ellis, is “two words: budget resolution.”

    Just like the Republican attempt at health care repeal-and-replace, congressional Republicans will try to pass tax reform through a parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation, which allows the Senate to bypass the typical filibuster threshold of 60 votes on matters relating to the federal budget.


    However, in order to use that, Republicans have to pass a budget framework first — an exercise that has been much harder than normal the past few years due to ideological differences within the party.

    “From this point it seems very difficult for me to see these guys getting [a majority of] votes for a budget resolution,” Ellis said.

    Without a new resolution on tax reform, none of the debate over border adjustments or comprehensive reform will be more than an academic argument.

    Another option, floated by House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), is a ten-year bill under reconciliation to bypass budget restrictions. But Brady said that simply isn’t a viable alternative since businesses and individuals need permanance and predictability. He also downplayed the idea of cutting tax rates rather than more comprehensively reshaping the tax code.

    Any role for the Dems?

    It was pretty clear from the start that tax reform would be a Republicans-only affair. The decision to use budget reconciliation to close the door on a possible Senate filibuster was the clearest sign of that. But Brady intends to meet with Ways and Means Democrats on Tuesday. And after hard-line conservatives helped bring down the health care legislation, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus threatened that the administration may try to forge a coalition with moderate Democrats on other big items on Trump's agenda, including tax reform.

    Don't bet on it.

    Democrats are unlikely to go for the sort of across-the-board tax cuts Republicans want, even though Mnuchin has insisted that tax reform will primarily benefit the middle class.

    "The American people are not crying out for tax breaks on the wealthiest Americans. ... But thus far it seems our Republican colleagues are headed in that direction," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Monday. "... The White House says tax reform isn’t partisan, but it surely will be if they only propose massive tax cuts for the wealthy."


    House spat leaves Senate in driver’s seat on Russia probe


    After a week of partisan rancor that threatened to bring down the House's probe into Russian interference during the 2016 election, the Senate is quickly realizing it may be the only chamber left that can produce findings free of the cloud of White House...

    After a week of partisan rancor that threatened to bring down the House's probe into Russian interference during the 2016 election, the Senate is quickly realizing it may be the only chamber left that can produce findings free of the cloud of White House meddling.

    “You don’t have the kind of blow-ups [in the Senate] you had at the House,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO.

    The Senate Intelligence Committee has been able to avoid the partisan fissures that have weakened its House counterpart, and began conducting private interviews with intelligence officials last week. Sources say it also plans to interview Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and close adviser, who had met in December with the Russian ambassador.

    “Trust me, I feel the — everybody on the committee feels — the responsibility to continue to try to do this right,” said the Senate committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, who is leading the upper chamber’s Russia investigation alongside Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

    That’s a far cry from the acrimony dividing the House Intelligence Committee, whose Democrats maintain that their panel's probe is shrouded in suspicion after Chairman Devin Nunes made explosive public comments last week about alleged incidental surveillance of Trump transition team members by the Obama administration. The House committee’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, later accused the White House of pressuring the committee to cancel an upcoming public hearing.


    Such meddling, Schiff said, “threatens the integrity of the only investigation that’s been authorized in the House.”

    The animosity carried over into the weekend, with Schiff questioning Nunes’ credibility to lead the investigation, and Republicans countering that Democrats have no evidence of actual collusion with the White House.

    The series of spats on the House side has left the Senate panel feeling the pressure to deliver.

    If it can’t, Congress’s Russia probes risk meeting the fate of the House’s investigation into the 2012 terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which ended with separate Republican and Democratic reports. Senate Intelligence Committee members want to avoid a similar fate, and believe they have a strategy to do so.

    “I’m not concerned about their process,” Burr said of the House committee. “I’m concerned about mine.”

    Burr said he and Warner had “constructed” the Senate’s plan “between the two of us, and there seems to be a great deal of trust in it.”

    The upper chamber’s inquiry hasn’t been entirely without controversy: In January, Warner and all his Democratic colleagues nearly walked out of the investigation just as it was beginning. They were protesting Burr’s initial decision to not examine possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

    Burr himself has also come under intense criticism for his ties to the Trump administration. And Democratic committee members are still worried about the investigation’s pace.


    But given the partisan warfare that has broken out among their House counterparts, Senate lawmakers believe they are running smoothly by comparison.

    The House side reached new levels of bitterness last week, starting on Wednesday when Nunes held a solo news conference — without telling anyone else on his committee — to announce he knew of evidence indicating that U.S. intelligence agencies had incidentally monitored members of the Trump transition team. Nunes then marched to the White House to brief the president himself, but has not shared his alleged findings with the panel’s Democrats.

    The next day, Nunes — a member of the Trump transition’s executive committee — apologized to his colleagues for keeping them in the dark. But he reopened the wounds Friday when he canceled an open hearing slated for Tuesday that had been set to feature former top Obama intelligence officials.

    “I’m still, probably the most polite word I could use is baffled, by what Nunes did,” Warner said before Friday’s events.

    The Virginia Democrat chalked up the Senate committee’s ability to move past those initial controversies to his “long-term relationship” with Burr.

    Unlike the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing last March 20— which featured bombshell revelations from FBI Director James Comey — the Senate side’s upcoming hearing will feature only a top cybersecurity expert and former NSA head Keith Alexander, who left the agency in 2014. The Thursday gathering will be the panel's first hearing since it set the parameters of its investigation.

    “What we want to do is we want to go through this in a much more methodical process,” Warner told reporters last week. “We’ll have an appropriate time to talk to the FBI director, but we want to have more information first.”


    Despite calls from House Democrats to take their chamber’s investigation away from Nunes, Senate Intelligence panel members declined to say whether they think the House can eventually churn out a credible set of conclusions.

    “They’re certainly going to have some rehab work to do,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

    Nunes’ actions have reinvigorated the push by some lawmakers to put a special prosecutor or independent commission in charge of the Russia probe. But even some Democrats say that’s not a panacea.

    “In effect, they would have to start over,” Wyden cautioned. “People just say, ‘Well, let’s have a this, and let’s have a that.’ That work doesn’t automatically get transferred, you’ve got to go out and hire new people and the like.”

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), another Intelligence panel member, issued a similar warning.

    “If you start a new process, it’s a year,” he said.

    Austin Wright contributed to this report.


    How a secret Freedom Caucus pact brought down Obamacare repeal


    Speaker Paul Ryan and House leaders had been toiling behind closed doors for weeks assembling their Obamacare repeal bill as suspicion on the far-right simmered to a boil.So on March 7, just hours after Ryan unveiled a plan that confirmed its worst...

    Speaker Paul Ryan and House leaders had been toiling behind closed doors for weeks assembling their Obamacare repeal bill as suspicion on the far-right simmered to a boil.

    So on March 7, just hours after Ryan unveiled a plan that confirmed its worst fears, the House Freedom Caucus rushed to devise a counterstrategy. The few dozen true believers knew that pressure from House leaders and President Donald Trump to fall in line would be immense and they were intent on not getting boxed in.

    In a conference room in the Rayburn House Office Building, the group met that evening and made a secret pact. No member would commit his vote before consulting with the entire group — not even if Trump himself called to ask for an on-the-spot commitment. The idea, hatched by Freedom Caucus Vice Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), was to bind them together in negotiations and ensure the White House or House leaders could not peel them off one by one.

    Twenty-eight of the group's roughly three dozen members took the plunge.

    Three weeks later, Republican leaders, as many as 25 votes short of passage, were forced to pull their bill from the House floor.

    “This is a defining moment for our nation, but it's also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus,” said group leader Mark Meadows about a week before the doomed vote was scheduled. “I don't think there's a more critical vote for the Freedom Caucus than this."

    The unpublicized pledge sowed the seeds of Friday’s collapse of the Republican Party’s seven-year campaign to replace Obamacare with its own vision of health care reform. While Trump and leadership were able to win over some Freedom Caucus members, the parties to the pact refused to budge without a green light from their peers, despite receiving one concession after another.

    Their resistance — along with the objections of a handful of moderates — stymied Trump and Ryan in the first major legislative gambit between the policy expert and political novice. The Freedom Caucus stared down its own commander in chief and won — delivering a black eye to his early presidency and potentially damaging the rest of his agenda.

    “Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!” Trump tweeted Sunday morning.


    “They [were] basically saying, ‘We’re going to find all the guys who support it, and we’re all going to hold hands and be a ‘no' on something,’” said a senior Republican source. “It’s ironic because these are the guys who say, ‘I don’t turn my voting card over to leadership. I am the only guy who controls my voting card.' But then they do this stuff, where they say, ‘I can’t because my group is a no.’"

    This account of the Freedom Caucus’ central role in the health care showdown is based on interviews with more than two dozen Republican legislators, White House officials and congressional aides. Time and again, they described the tortured, toxic political dynamic within the House Republican Conference — old news to those who’ve followed years of internecine battles between the far-right and leadership, but never experienced or appreciated until now by Trump.

    Freedom Caucus members told the White House they distrusted Ryan because he doesn’t listen to their concerns. They refused to work with him, going around his back to negotiate with the White House. Little Trump did to woo them worked because the group always wanted more, White House officials and GOP leadership insiders said. They were buoyed by outside groups rooting them on, and didn't fear the White House's fury because the law was unpopular — and, increasingly, so was the president.

    "There was this huge, deep distrust," one senior administration official said. "No matter what you offered them, or what you said, someone was unhappy with you. The level of distrust in the House ranks is far more than has been reported."

    Their House colleagues are furious with them for, as Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) put it, “deserting the team.” Some top White House officials say they learned their lesson about trying to negotiate with the group.

    “How can [Freedom Caucus members] go back and face their constituents if they’re the reason we didn’t get the most significant entitlement reform in a generation, if they’re the reason we didn’t keep our promise for repealing Obamacare?” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said shortly before Ryan pulled the bill. “It defies to me to understand where they’re coming from."

    Their all-for-one strategy bedeviled Ryan’s leadership team and other top White House officials during a frantic whipping operation in the days leading up to the vote. It undermined a key strategy laid out by GOP Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who believed Trump’s personal involvement, including face-to-face negotiations with some lawmakers and groups, would ultimately win over the Freedom Caucus. Trump even subtly threatened their political careers during a closed-door conference meeting three days before the scheduled vote, telling Meadows while winking: “Mark, I’m coming after you.”

    “They informally said: 'Let’s stick together,'” said one Freedom Caucus source who described the strategy. “Whenever someone had a conversation with a whip or a member of the leadership team, or there was a discussion with White House staff, there was immediate discussion with the group, whether it was via telephone or a ton of group meetings.”

    The source added: “It made it much harder if you were in leadership to pick these guys off.”

    Most Freedom Caucus members say the group was merely sticking up for conservative values. In tanking the bill, they believed they’d get a shot at making it more conservative at a later point. During a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Meadows said “Trump will deliver.”

    “As we look at this today, this is not the end of the debate,” he said. “It’s up to the conservatives and the moderates to come together in the coming days to present something to the president.”

    HFC members also pushed back hard against any notion that they changed their demands, saying they've wanted the same thing the whole time.


    Some caucus members struggled with the strategy, wanting to repeal Obamacare but furious that Ryan’s proposal didn’t go far enough. A few felt obligated to vote “yes” to back Trump, but never switched because they didn’t get the go-ahead from the band of ideological purists.

    During a last-minute Friday afternoon plea from Vice President Mike Pence, members including Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) and even Meadows were visibly upset, sources said. But if some were starting to crack, they never got the chance. Ryan pulled the bill, and many are now pinning the debacle on the Freedom Caucus.

    "There is no logical explanation for their behavior except they wanted to kill the bill,” said one senior House Republican, furious about the bill’s defeat. "Trump is now looking to work with Democrats to get health care done. … Now, any health care reform will be less ambitious, less conservative."

    From the start, few liked the Republican plan and no one loved it. Immediately after the bill dropped, high-profile conservative lawmakers and groups panned it as “Obamacare Lite.” Just about every medical and health care group warned it would hurt Americans. And moderates were spooked by a Congressional Budget Office score that showed it would result in 24 million more uninsured Americans in the next decade.

    So Republicans started logrolling.


    New York lawmakers got the “Buffalo bribe,” a provision to stick the state instead of counties with rising health care costs. Leaders bought goodwill from North Carolina and Kansas lawmakers with a ban on new states expanding Medicaid.

    Individual lawmakers secured pet initiatives, persuading them to come on board. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) flipped after Ryan agreed to hold a vote on his bill to require Social Security verification to receive health care tax credits offered by the GOP health plan.

    And the White House clinched a deal with the 160-member strong Republican Study Committee by agreeing to its demands on Medicaid and curbing abortions.

    But the Freedom Caucus remained elusive. Senior Republicans were heartened by the fact that the group never took an official position against the bill, and three of their more pragmatic-minded members voted for it in committee. That proved to be a false sense of security.

    The president launched his charm offensive starting with Meadows, a ripe target after having campaigned with the president in North Carolina. Trump invited the Freedom Caucus chief and his right-hand man Jordan to lunch with him at the White House and called him dozens of times the week before the planned vote. He also wooed individual members of the group in the Oval Office and over late-night phone calls.


    The White House also leaned on GOP leaders to make further concessions to appease the right, including getting rid of Obamacare taxes more quickly.

    But as soon as that provision came out, caucus members said it wasn’t enough. They wanted Congress to, in effect, start over: Pass a repeal-only bill, then come back with replacement legislation later on, with their input. That idea, however, would have been dead on arrival in the Senate.

    Freedom Caucus insiders said offers of compromise or arguments for support were often panned by the most ardent members of the group, such as Jordan and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho). The group acceded to those voices.

    “When you’re a minority in an organization, your strength is in sticking together … and at least not making the commitment to someone else before you talk to the rest of the folks who are like-minded,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a caucus member, said of the group’s strategy. “You don’t agree to something … until you come back to the group and say, ‘Hey, this what I heard.’”

    The members were also buttressed by outside forces. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) repeatedly showed up to Freedom Caucus meetings to remind members that they could take down the bill if they stuck together. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) met privately with caucus members to explain his issues with the bill — though he stopped short of telling them how to vote, sources said. And Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) called at least a dozen conservative House members before the planned vote to urge them to hold firm.

    Outside groups also cheered them on. The powerful Heritage Foundation, which has links to the White House, as well as Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers network, which has deep ties among members, frequently encouraged Freedom Caucus members to stand their ground. The deep-pocketed groups offered to start a seven-figure war chest to defend members who voted against the plan.

    At times, the Freedom Caucus pact showed cracks. At a bill-signing ceremony at the White House, Trump pulled aside Freedom Caucus member Jim Bridenstine and implored him to vote for the bill. The Oklahoma congressman flipped his position that day. Trump also was able to win over Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), multiple sources said. And Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) offered his vote after a phone call with the president.

    That wasn’t enough. GOP leaders, who lost just over a dozen centrist and moderate Republicans, needed at least half the group if not more to pass the bill. They weren’t anywhere near that.

    Seeing how the battle was trending, and well aware they were running out of time, White House legislative staffers were still concerned they didn’t have the numbers.

    So the White House again offered more. After a meeting with the group at the White House Wednesday, Trump leaned on Ryan to repeal “essential health benefits,” an Obamacare requirement that insurance plans include a minimum level of services. Ryan caved, after arguing just hours earlier that such a provision would tank the bill in the Senate under the chamber’s arcane budget rules.

    "We thought that could get us there," one senior administration official said.

    Freedom Caucus members weighed the offer, but a few hours later said it would not secure their support. They wanted to repeal “Title One” regulations, which encompass the most popular aspects of Obamacare, such as mandating coverage of people with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health plans.

    That was a nonstarter for the White House. Trump had campaigned on keeping those popular provisions and there was no way such a proposal could pass the House, let alone the Senate.

    “I don’t think [White House officials] understood the depth of our commitment to try to make the repeal of Obamacare, a repeal of Obamacare, instead of an embedding of Obamacare into the federal system, albeit a morphed form,” said caucus member Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) just hours after the White House's latest peace offer.

    White House officials grew frustrated as they felt Meadows kept asking for “more and more,” as one senior GOP official put it, even though they felt he personally wanted a deal.

    For instance, after a 90-minute meeting with the president Thursday, officials felt the caucus was getting closer to coming around. "It was all happy talk," said one senior administration official.

    But when the group went back to Capitol Hill and huddled privately, momentum was lost. No caucus member changed his vote.

    White House officials started to feel the internal war in the House was about more than just policy. They frequently heard from Freedom Caucus members about how much they distrusted Ryan, who they complained excluded them from his drafting of the Obamacare replacement. White House officials became convinced that the more Ryan was involved, the less the Freedom Caucus trusted them to deliver.

    During an emergency meeting in Ryan's office Thursday night, the speaker and top Trump aides made their final appeal to the Freedom Caucus. White House officials Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Andrew Bremberg and Marc Short argued the group should hang their hat on the essential health benefits win and declare victory. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, presented the lawmakers with a letter from Trump outlining all the Obamacare regulations his administration would repeal on its own.

    But the written promises from the president also didn’t move them.


    In a particularly tense exchange, Ryan at the end of the meeting tried to go around the room to each individual caucus member and ask where they stood. He first turned to Brooks. But Meadows jumped in, seeming to not allow the other caucus members to answer the speaker, according to three sources in the room.

    "Meadows said, ‘I speak for the group, I speak for the group,’” said one person in the meeting. “None of them could really get a word in. … [Meadows] didn't want to get these guys on the record in the room with the White House."

    Ryan reminded Meadows that he said publicly the group was free to vote as they choose since his group never took a position on the bill. But that didn’t make a difference.

    "They weren't going to get any commitments in the room,” said one attendee. "They just weren't. It wasn't productive anymore."

    There was a growing sense among White House officials and senior Republicans that the group’s members didn’t want to negotiate and that it didn't matter what they promised.

    Finally, the White House had had enough. On Thursday night, immediately following the tense meeting in Ryan’s office, Mulvaney was dispatched to a Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol. The former Freedom Caucus member told lawmakers they had a choice: Pass the bill or live with Obamacare.


    The ultimatum hit some Freedom Caucus members hard. Some in the group began to wonder if they were doing the right thing. One conservative source in the group told POLITICO he felt perhaps they were becoming too “greedy.”

    White House aides and GOP leaders, meanwhile, kept up their pleas on Capitol Hill until midnight, a senior administration official said. Trump worked the phones and began telling advisers he was worried, but he wanted the vote the next morning — regardless if the votes were there.

    On Friday afternoon, just hours before the scheduled vote, Freedom Caucus members gathered at the Capitol Hill Club to get their bearings and rally when Vice President Mike Pence walked in unannounced. He pleaded with the group, saying Trump’s entire agenda depended on this vote. Pence told them he knew where they were coming from and begged them to trust him, a stalwart conservative, that this was the best repeal bill they could get.

    Half of the group was moved by his personal appeal; the other half, recalcitrant, sources at the meeting said. Meadows, they said, was plainly distressed that he had to choose between the president he admires and the group he leads.

    Despite the agonizing, the Freedom Caucus had already slammed the door. Just before that meeting started, Ryan had pulled Meadows off the House floor to check in one last time: Would the caucus back the bill or not? Meadows said “no.”

    Ryan then headed to the White House to deliver Trump the bad news.

    John Bresnahan and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.


    Republicans learn to love a regulation


    The GOP Congress hasn't had much luck getting big policies passed under President Donald Trump, but it's been very efficient at repealing them—quietly using its powers under the 1996 Congressional Review Act to roll back Obama-era regulations on oil...

    The GOP Congress hasn't had much luck getting big policies passed under President Donald Trump, but it's been very efficient at repealing them—quietly using its powers under the 1996 Congressional Review Act to roll back Obama-era regulations on oil companies, coal companies, and workplace injury tracking, among others. It's all part of the Republican campaign promise to roll back nuisance rules that impose burdens on states and private companies.

    But in a twist, the next two rules to get the axe might do just the opposite. As soon as this week, the Senate is poised to overturn two Department of Labor rules that concern retirement savings. But instead of tying firms in red tape, the rules actually reduce the burden of regulations on states and businesses trying to help people save for retirement. So repealing them would put the obstructive regulations right back in place.

    The disagreement stems from laws passed in five states—California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Oregon—that require employers without 401(k)-style retirement plans to automatically enroll their workers in state-run retirement accounts. The idea is to create a new, automatic retirement-saving option for the millions of workers who don't have access to any kind of retirement plan that deducts from their paycheck. (Though auto-enrolled, workers could opt out.)

    Those laws might not seem like they'd involve the federal government at all, except that a 1974 law, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), ties employers up in a number of rules if they establish or maintain a worker's retirement account. ERISA is intended to protect workers, but it also makes retirement plans more costly to run, and is a big part of why many smaller employers don't offer 401(k) plans. When the five states passed the new savings law, firms started to worry they'd be held liable to ERISA standards, making the new laws just as expensive as running their own 401(k)s, even though they only function as middlemen.

    So last fall, the Department of Labor issued two rules—one for states and one for municipalities—providing a “safe harbor” so that auto-IRA plans will not fall under burdensome ERISA requirements. These "safe harbor" rules are the ones the GOP wants to roll back.

    Republicans call the Obama rules a “regulatory loophole” and frame their campaign against these rules as a simple matter of consumer protection: States have a bad record of managing pension money, and new laws funneling money to state-run IRA programs could just invite new abuses of private sector pensions, as has happened with public sector pensions. (In this case, however, the states would simply act as administrators, and the actual IRA accounts contracted out to private firms like Vanguard and Fidelity.)

    Critics suspect something else lies behind the GOP's sudden affection for costly consumer-protection rules. “People have ascribed different motivations to why they are doing it," said Justin King, a policy director at New America who supports the DOL rules. "Is it just because it’s an Obama thing? Is it a favor to the financial services industry?”

    Republicans say that exempting the state-run auto-IRAs from ERISA won't just eliminate consumer protections—it will give the state an unfair competitive advantage over the private sector. “They are put on the same footing with a 401(k),” Rep. Francis Rooney, a sponsor of one of the CRA bills in the House, said in an interview. “They have an administrator dealing with other people’s money and need the fiduciary protections of ERISA.”

    “Our position is the following: The states should be able to offer anything to private sector employees that are subject to the same standards and requirements,” said Jill Hoffman, a vice president for government affairs at the Financial Services Roundtable, a banking lobby that supports repealing the rules. “If it’s good enough for the private sector, it should be good enough for the state.”

    It’s true that IRA accounts don’t come with the exact same protections as ERISA-covered accounts. In particular, ERISA imposes a fiduciary duty on employers to act in the best interest of their employees, which is not the case with IRAs. But it's also true that employers can already offer IRAs which, under certain circumstances, are not protected by ERISA. Those accounts aren’t unprotected; IRAs themselves have many ERISA-like protections, including rules that prevent self-dealing by their money managers. And supporters argue that states will pass additional consumer protections as well. “These state-run plans are not employer-sponsored plans,” said King. “They are IRA plans and exist in the private market already, and come with a bunch of protections that are not ERISA protections. Nobody has a problem with that.”

    As for the argument about state money management: States underfunded their employee pensions for years, repurposing the money and passing the problem to future policymakers. As interest rates have fallen, these liabilities have become more imposing, and many states face major pension crises in the years ahead. Conservatives say the new IRA laws will lead to a repeat scenario. “[It’s] politicians playing politics with private sector workers’ retirement funds,” said Rachel Greszler, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who has studied this issue. The funds, she warned, could even be used for political purposes, such as disinvesting from energy resources or propping up public pension accounts.

    Democrats strongly disagree. “It’s complete bullshit,” said Joshua Gotbaum, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institute who chairs the board that is designing and running Maryland’s auto-IRA plan. He served as the head of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation from 2010 to 2014. The better comparison, he said, isn't to public pensions but to college-savings plans known as 529s, which have been extremely popular and have largely avoided scandal. “Dozens of states have college savings plans that use this exact model," he said, "and no one has claimed that they are mismanaged.”

    The idea of a state-run IRA isn’t totally without risk: in theory states could take over the management of the money and do it as poorly as they did with pensions. In practice, however, that appears unlikely: All five of the states that have passed the laws so far not only plan to outsource the management to private money managers, but have included a fiduciary requirement in their auto-IRA laws, meaning the state must act in the best interest of the employees.

    The two CRA bills passed the House in February and received just one Democratic vote. Congressional staffers weren’t sure when they would reach the Senate floor, but it could be as soon as this week. The White House said it “strongly supports” the two bills.

    When the bills do reach the floor, there’s no guarantee that they’ll pass. With a 52-seat majority, Republicans have just three votes to spare, and some Republicans could be tempted to oppose the bills. Sen. John McCain, for instance, actually supported a similar national law during his 2008 presidential run. And Sen. Marco Rubio hails from a state—Florida—that benefits when seniors have additional retirement savings. Neither office returned a request for comment on their position on the legislation.

    To those in the states, the stakes are high. About 13 million people could gain access to new retirement accounts through the laws. (Nationwide, around 40 million people lack access to employer-sponsored retirement accounts.) State leaders see the laws as an innovative new way to encourage Americans to save for retirement and, importantly, to help their own fiscal situation in years ahead. After all, they say, poor seniors eventually become the state’s costly responsibility. “This is a program that doesn’t cost taxpayers any money, enables people to exercise their personal responsibility to save for retirement in the same way that most professionals save for retirement,” said Ruth Holton-Hodson, a senior policy adviser with the California State Treasurer. “If we don’t allow states to do this, the back end is going to costs states a lot more.”

    Even if Republicans do repeal the two rules, states say they still move forward with their plans, even though that could put their small businesses at risk of having to comply with ERISA. And whatever happens in Congress, the implications could soon be much broader: at least 10 more states are considering similar laws.


    What Kevin Brady thinks of Trump's trade agenda


    House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady was still cutting his political teeth in the Texas legislature in 1993 when Congress nearly tore itself apart over the vote to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement.But two decades later, he's on the...

    House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady was still cutting his political teeth in the Texas legislature in 1993 when Congress nearly tore itself apart over the vote to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement.

    But two decades later, he's on the front lines as President Donald Trump prepares to make good on his campaign promise to renegotiate the landmark agreement with Canada and Mexico — or pull the United States out of it.

    Trump's NAFTA push is a high-wire act that, as Brady sees things, could determine whether the White House succeeds in its pursuit of a series of bilateral trade agreements, as opposed to regional pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the new president abandoned days after taking office. Asked if the pending renegotiation was an important “test case” for the administration, Brady's expression showed his agreement even before the question was finished being posed.

    “Oh I think so,” Brady told POLITICO in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “Clearly, the trade world will be micro-examining every comment related to NAFTA.”
















    Few Republicans in Congress agree with Trump that NAFTA was one of the worst deals in trade history. After all, it was negotiated under a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, and approved by Congress with strong Republican support.

    But since Trump has walked away from TPP — which included Mexico and Canada as well as Japan and eight other countries — it makes sense for the GOP to push the White House toward modernizing NAFTA rather than killing its second major regional pact.

    “I think NAFTA has been extremely beneficial to the United States, in many ways, but there’s no question after 23 years it needs to be updated, to say the least,” Brady said.

    For the Texas Republican, that means finding new ways to expand agriculture, manufacturing and services trade between the three countries, as well as addressing a number of newer issues, such as digital trade and state-owned enterprises, which weren’t on any trade negotiator’s agenda in the early 1990s.

    Trump clearly has a different approach to trade than previous Republican presidents, but Brady praised Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro for aggressively seeking advice from Congress and other interested parties on three key questions as they prepare for talks with Canada and Mexico.

    “What’s working for America in NAFTA today? What’s not? And what should be included in a 21st century trade agreement?” Brady said. “Those are exactly the right questions.”

    So far, the Trump administration has laid out only a bare-bones sketch of its priorities for trade agreements. But Brady said he believed Trump could use NAFTA renegotiation to make good on his promise to bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S. “We have a new economy, much different than 23 years ago, and the potential for greater cross-border trade I think is really kind of exciting,” Brady said.

    Still, since NAFTA eliminated most duties on trade between Mexico, Canada and the U.S., the Trump administration might be challenged as it tries to make improvements that will generate lots of additional manufacturing jobs.

    If the final deal is submitted to Congress for a vote, the U.S. International Trade Commission will be required to do an economic analysis. When the ITC looked at the 12-nation TPP pact, it projected the agreement would boost U.S. employment by just 128,000 full-time job equivalents by 2032, including gains from reforms made by Canada and Mexico.

    Brady said he continues to think a regional approach, like TPP, would be more effective than negotiating a series of bilateral deals, but adds that he's willing to give the White House a chance to show what it can do.

    “I think the Trump administration feels comfortable that each agreement will build upon the next,” Brady said, outlining a process that he sees beginning with a revamped NAFTA and continuing with bilateral deals with Asia-Pacific countries, and potentially a deal with the European Union and, later, the United Kingdom, after it completes its exit from the European bloc.

    He downplayed the possibility that other countries would be wary to enter into talks with the U.S. because of Trump’s harsh rhetoric, noting that it's still early days. “We wouldn’t expect any administration to have their legs under them at this point. So they deserve a chance to begin to put that strategy in place,” Brady said.
















    The veteran lawmaker emphasized he would be pushing the administration to pursue deals with former TPP countries. “We must move aggressively in Asia-Pacific because our competitors like China are moving very swiftly to tie down a regional trade agreement that leaves … our farmers and our workers and our businesses out,” Brady said.

    On another question related to NAFTA renegotiation, Brady said he’s still not certain a revised package would need a congressional vote, even though the Trump administration is following congressionally mandated procedures to set the stage for that.

    “You know, the answer is that’s not clear yet,” Brady said. “While we have explored some of that, the vast majority of our time has been working with the Trump administration on how to make NAFTA an even better trade agreement.”

    But the White House, for its part, seems determined to do whatever it can now to make sure it has the necessary support if and when they submit a revised deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote, Brady said.

    “What I sense from Secretary Ross is that they’re willing to spend the time upfront listening to Congress about what should be in this updated NAFTA agreement because they want to negotiate a good one and have strong bipartisan support when it’s ready,” he said.


    Trump’s budget: Where’s the evidence?


    President Donald Trump promised to run the government like a business, and the budget blueprint he released last week had one Big Business-inspired idea baked into it: Testing the evidence. The blueprint promised to figure out which government programs...

    President Donald Trump promised to run the government like a business, and the budget blueprint he released last week had one Big Business-inspired idea baked into it: Testing the evidence. The blueprint promised to figure out which government programs and agencies work, and eliminate the ones that don’t—“using real, hard data to identify poorly performing organizations and programs.”

    Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, doubled down on that idea in a briefing last week, arguing that the Trump administration wasn’t going to ask for Americans’ money “unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually being used in a proper function.”

    Technocrats on the left and the right know this as “evidence-based policymaking,” and they love the idea. The vast majority of federal programs and agencies have never been rigorously evaluated, and only recently has the government started to get serious about trying to measure its results. Evidence-based policymaking has a lot of support in both parties: The Clinton and Bush administrations both tried to integrate evidence into policymaking, and the Obama administration went even further, reforming many grant programs so that projects that demonstrated effectiveness received more money. “It’s like a venture capital fund,” said Andrew Feldman, who worked on evidence-based policymaking in Obama’s budget office.

    In theory, supporters should be cheered that Trump and his budget chief would take such a strong stand in favor of evidence. But how much did “evidence” really drive Trump’s budget? A POLITICO review of the cuts in the blueprint found a gap between its promises and what it really chose to cut and keep. Evidence-based policy is still rare in government, but the budget actually eliminates a handful of the few programs that have proven themselves cost effective. It also dodges evidence in some other ways, ignoring settled science or funding projects with low expected returns. In one situation, it proposes eliminating a program that’s right in the middle of getting a rigorous assessment.

    The White House did not respond to questions about why it wanted to cut specific programs. (Update: After deadline, OMB communications director John Czwartacki said the blueprint shows Trump "isn’t afraid to drain the swamp and reassess federal programs" and "is keeping his promises to the American people to change Washington’s status quo.") And many in the evidence-based policy community suspect that the administration is using “evidence” as a fig leaf to cut whatever they wanted to cut in the first place. “Government definitely needs a haircut, but it doesn’t need the head lopped off,” said John Bridgeland, a lawyer who served as head of George W. Bush’s Domestic Policy Council. He and others worry that the Trump administration’s loose use of “evidence” could ultimately undermine support for an idea that is still gaining ground in Washington, turning a rare area of bipartisan agreement into yet another political battlefield.

    A look at a handful of cuts in the budget gives a sense of how evidence is starting to percolate into federal policymaking in different ways—and how the Trump budget, for all its surface commitment to evidence, steers around it when convenient.

    The Corporation for National and Community Service is a small agency (a budget just north of $1 billion) that funds AmeriCorps, the public service work program for the young, and Senior Corps, a similar program for older Americans. It also houses the Social Innovation Fund, which provides grants to nonprofits to improve economic opportunity, health and youth development. The CNCS has come out well in effectiveness measures: A 2013 study from Columbia University, for instance, found that the benefits of the community service programs, including CNCS-funded ones, well-exceed the costs.

    But it also helps push evidence-based policy in other ways. The Social Innovation Fund provides grantees with money and technical assistance to evaluate their programs, building knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. They are grouped into three tiers of evidence of effectiveness—preliminary, moderate and strong—and required to reach the “moderate” tier by the end of the grant term. The CNCS also has an “evidence exchange” that contains more than 50 evaluations and case studies—all published within the past two years—of CNCS-funded programs. Results for America, an organization that promotes evidence-based policymaking, has found that the agency does a good job incorporating evidence and data into its activities. “It’s a great strategy,” said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is the co-chair of the congressional commission on evidence-based policymaking. “You can't just dismiss this.”

    The CNCS represents less than 2 percent of Trump’s cuts to domestic spending—and 0.02 percent of all government spending. The budget blueprint cuts it entirely.

    The pre-disaster mitigation program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency gives money to state and local communities to reduce risks before future disasters. (This is the reverse of how FEMA usually operates, by swooping in for rescue and cleanup after a disaster has already occurred—at a huge cost.) These risk-reduction grants have turned out to be an excellent federal investment: one study estimated that for every $1 the government spent, it saved $4 in disaster costs later. The Congressional Budget Office has also found that benefits exceed the costs of the program. “It would be shocking to walk away from that program,” said Ali Zaidi, a former Obama OMB official who now is a senior adviser to Morrison & Foerster.

    The Trump budget zeroes it out. The stated reason is simply that the program is unauthorized by Congress—but this is technically true of huge amounts of spending in the federal government. (As POLITICO documented in 2015, the entire State Department hasn’t been reauthorized for 15 years.)

    • Choice Neighborhoods. This small project in the Department of Housing and Urban Development was launched in 2010 to redevelop distressed communities, and cost $125 million in fiscal 2016. The White House wants to eliminate the program, calling it a “low priority.” That label isn’t wrong—in fact it’s just an early-stage project meant to test what actually works in redevelopment of distressed communities. Already, two interim evaluations of the program have shown promising results, but the final evaluation isn’t due until the end of next year.

    If Choice Neighborhoods succeeds, housing experts say it could have much larger implications, providing an evidence-based way to help distressed neighborhoods. If it fails the final test, that’s also valuable information: It could prevent money from being spent the wrong way next time. Barbara Sard, a housing expert at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says the design “is almost unprecedented in these programs, which rarely have tried to evaluate both the process and the impact on people.” If the program is eliminated, it’s unclear if the final evaluation would even occur—meaning the government will actually have wasted money by gathering evidence it never uses.

    The Community Development Block Grant, a program within HUD, funds local projects that address a variety of challenges, including retaining local businesses and expanding affordable housing. Perhaps the best-known grantee is Meals on Wheels, which provides meals for seniors. It broke through in the budget news last week when Mulvaney said Meals on Wheels “sounds great” but was ineffective. “To take the federal money and give it to the states and say, ‘Look, we want to give you money for programs that don't work,’” he said, “I can't defend that anymore.” The blueprint argues that CDBG “is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

    Experts largely agree with that conclusion about the results: The CDBG program has never received a rigorous evaluation, partially because states and localities use the money for a variety of purposes, and it’s difficult to know what would and wouldn’t get funded in its absence. “You can’t hit the nail on the head with CDBG,” said William Shear of the Government Accountability Office. “It’s just difficult to do.” Of course, that also means there’s no evidence that the CDBG is ineffective, which means the White House would be hard-pressed to argue that it makes sense to defund it. As Bridgeland said more broadly about programs without clear track records, “We have to create an environment of continuous learning. We can’t just turn an on-off switch when we don’t know.”

    Ironically, however, in choosing to target the Meals on Wheels portion of this program, Mulvaney may have crystallized just how selective the White House’s use of evidence is. In fact, many experts quickly pointed out, Meals on Wheels has shown clear effectiveness: A long string of studies indicates that Meals on Wheels and similar programs increase nutrient intake and reduces loneliness, among other benefits.

    The border wall. The budget also includes additional money to build Trump’s promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. This represents a genuinely new investment, and it doesn’t come cheap: Estimates for the total cost range from $14 billion to $50 billion. But as for evidence? It’s not clear that the wall would make much of a difference in illegal immigration. The southern border is already patrolled by federal immigration officials and high-tech drones, and the government has already installed fences at certain, high-risk sections of the border. With net migration from Mexico actually negative—that is, more Mexicans are currently leaving than coming to the U.S.—a long list of former Department of Homeland Security officials and lawmakers of both parties have argued that a wall across the entire border would waste scarce resources that could be better invested elsewhere. To the extent there’s evidence for the cost-effectiveness of a border wall, it seems to stack up in the other direction.

    THE TRUMP BUDGET blueprint does clearly incorporate evidence into some of its budgetary decisions, including the elimination of the Education Department’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which cost more than $1 billion a year and a rigorous 2005 study found did little to help students. (Advocates hold that the study is out of date and the program has been improved since then.) The budget also proposed increased funding for apprenticeship programs and Reemployment and Eligibility Assessments, both of which have strong track records for reemploying the unemployed.

    There are other ways for the federal government to use evidence in its decision-making, though, and it seems to ignore those as well. A key example is climate change: Last week, Mulvaney dismissed the idea that the federal government should continue spending money on programs and agencies that address climate change. “We're not spending money on that anymore,” he said. “We consider that to be a waste of your money.” In turn, the blueprint cuts the EPA’s budget by 31 percent and eliminates more than 50 programs. Other climate-related programs within the Department of Energy also are cut, including funding for international climate funds.

    Are those evidence-based decisions? That’s unlikely; most of those programs, like most programs in the federal government overall, have never been evaluated. It’s more likely that Trump wants to eliminate the programs because he doesn’t believe in man-made climate change. That position, in some ways, is the ultimate in ignoring evidence: As politically appealing as it might be to his voters, it flatly contradicts the vast majority of scientific data—looking straight at the information available, and putting money somewhere else.


    The honeymoon's over for Trump and Putin


    After months of overtures from President Donald Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Trump administration is trading harsh diplomatic words with Moscow, further dimming the prospects for a strategic alliance between the two countries.White...

    After months of overtures from President Donald Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Trump administration is trading harsh diplomatic words with Moscow, further dimming the prospects for a strategic alliance between the two countries.

    White House press secretary Sean Spicer opened his Monday briefing by reading a statement saying the U.S. “strongly condemns” the detention of hundreds, including leading Putin critic Alexei Navalny, following a weekend crackdown on peaceful anti-corruption protests across Russia.

    The statement featured the toughest language Trump’s White House has directed at Putin’s government, surprising some Russia hawks unsure whether Trump—who has repeatedly avoided criticizing Putin—would allow the government to rebuke Moscow’s actions. As a candidate, Trump frequently promised to seek friendly relations with Moscow, but that talk has cooled in recent weeks amid intense scrutiny of his campaign’s ties to Russia.

    Experts say Putin is highly sensitive to American criticism of his internal political actions, and the Russian leader could react angrily to the condemnation. But it remains unclear whether the statement reflects carefully considered U.S. policy. The top Russia jobs at the State Department and Pentagon remain unfilled. A White House official said the incoming senior national security council director for Russia, Brookings Institution scholar Fiona Hill, has not yet started her job.


    Meanwhile, the Kremlin has in recent weeks steadily sharpened its rhetoric about the Trump administration, which has recently taken steps perceived in Moscow as adverse to Russian interests.

    On Saturday, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman blasted new Trump administration sanctions against companies doing business with Syria, Iran and North Korea, whose targets included eight Russian companies. In a statement posted on Facebook, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said her government is “bewildered and concerned” by the U.S. move.

    Zakharova said the U.S. action “undermines the prospects of setting up comprehensive multilateral cooperation” to jointly fight terrorists. “Washington again does the bidding of those who made a consistent destruction of Russia-US cooperation their main priority,” Zakharova wrote.

    And shortly before Spicer spoke on Monday, Moscow’s top diplomat pounced on reports that a March 17 U.S. airstrike killed as many as 200 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was “startle[d]” by the report of the airstrike and said Moscow had requested a special briefing at the United Nations Security Council. Lavrov claimed that "several other tragic incidents in which civilians died have happened since” in the ISIS-controlled Iraqi city since then, according to an official transcript of his remarks posted online by Russia’s foreign ministry.

    Lavrov, following a standard Russian playbook of flipping charges back at an accuser, also suggested that the joint U.S. and Iraqi offensive to liberate Mosul from ISIS was more brutal than the recent Russian and Syrian military campaign in Aleppo, Syria. “We have been monitoring the operation to liberate Mosul since its inception, because we remembered how some of our Western colleagues criticized us during the operation in eastern Aleppo,” Lavrov said.


    Lavrov argued that Russia—which was widely condemned for brutal tactics, including airstrikes on hospitals and aid workers—had actually protected civilian lives in Aleppo by opening a “corridor” to allow militants to leave the city, reducing the scale of Russia’s military operation there.

    He also urged that a similarly “cautious and responsible approach would be used by the coalition in its further actions in Mosul.” (The U.S. and Iraqi militaries have each launched investigations into the March 17 Mosul strike.)

    “I don’t think anyone in the Pentagon will take kindly to being lectured by the Russians about what happened in Mosul,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Bill Clinton White House official handing Russia issues, who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    “Sadly, this is part of a familiar Russian playbook that has been used time and again by Putin, Lavrov and other senior figures,” Weiss added.

    U.S. intelligence officials believe Putin interfered in the 2016 U.S. election in part to exact revenge on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who publicly backed major street protests against Putin in 2011.

    Trump administration statements relating to Russia have so far generally tracked those of the Obama administration, which could suggest that U.S. officials are following old guidance as they await fresh policy direction.

    More detail could come when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Brussels on Friday for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at which Russia is certain to be a main topic. Tillerson originally planned to skip the meeting, creating an uproar among NATO allies anxious about Trump’s commitment to European security.


    White House blame game intensifies as Trump agenda stalls


    With President Donald Trump’s sweeping agenda hitting the rocks as he edges toward the 100-day mark, top aides, political allies and donors are embroiled in a furious round of finger-pointing over who is at fault.The recriminations extend far beyond...

    With President Donald Trump’s sweeping agenda hitting the rocks as he edges toward the 100-day mark, top aides, political allies and donors are embroiled in a furious round of finger-pointing over who is at fault.

    The recriminations extend far beyond the implosion of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal on Friday. Senior aides are lashing one another over their inability to stem a never-ending tide of negative stories about the president. There is second-guessing of the Republican National Committee’s efforts to mobilize Trump’s electoral coalition on behalf of his legislative priorities. At the Environmental Protection Agency, a top official quit recently amid accusations the department is failing to advance the president’s campaign promises. And one of Trump's most generous benefactors, Rebekah Mercer, has expressed frustration over the direction of the administration.

    This account of White House infighting is based on interviews with more than two dozen Trump aides, confidants and others close to his administration, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. They described a distracting and toxic atmosphere, with warring power centers blaming one another for an ever-growing list of setbacks. The dysfunction has further paralyzed an administration struggling to deliver on its blunt promises of wholesale change.

    The environment, many Trump aides are convinced, has been created by the president himself — a larger-than-life figure famously loath to admit error. As Trump’s health care plan ran into problems, he found ways to divert blame — sometimes turning on his own staff.

    After Gary Cohn, the chief White House economic adviser, went on Fox News Sunday this month to talk about the reform push, the media-obsessed president complained bitterly about the appearance, venting that Cohn failed to clearly sell the merits of the plan, according to three people familiar with the matter. (A White House spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, denied that Trump had expressed unhappiness and said he had been “complimentary of Gary's appearance.”)


    For the new White House, nothing has been more frustrating than health care. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was one of Trump’s signature campaign promises. But the discussions surrounding the rocky weeks leading to its collapse generated an outpouring of ill will in the West Wing. Steve Bannon, Trump’s populist-minded chief strategist, privately singled out the more moderate Cohn for criticism, charging that he was too willing to make concessions to mainstream Republicans that repelled the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.

    Others say the fault lies with chief of staff Reince Priebus. The former RNC chairman was elevated to his current role because he was seen as a savvy Washington operator whose Capitol Hill relationships, particularly with House Speaker Paul Ryan, would help the newcomer Trump. The health care talks, these people say, reveal the limits of his reach.

    Still others pinned blame on Jared Kushner, Trump’s politically moderate son-in-law and senior adviser. As White House staffers struggled to galvanize support for the flagging health care bill, some became convinced that Kushner was working to defeat the repeal effort. Suspicions increased when Kushner invited Obamacare architect Ezekiel Emanuel to address staffers at a meeting on Monday — a gathering that left some staffers rolling their eyes.

    Then, with the legislation teetering, Kushner left town for a two-day ski trip to Aspen.

    "It was noticed," one senior administration official said of the Colorado jaunt.

    The recriminations, however, were not limited to the health care fiasco. For weeks, many staffers have expressed profound unhappiness with a communications office that has struggled to accomplish what it had set out to do: inoculate a president who is preoccupied with his public image.

    “We've done a disservice because we haven't handled things well,” one White House aide said of the press team’s performance.

    Many Trump loyalists criticize former RNC employees now working in the communications office. Among the complaints: that RNC veterans mobilize with force when reporters are working on critical stories about Priebus, the former party chairman, but sometimes lack the same urgency when responding to articles about Trump.


    It has spurred allegations that communications officials, many of whom worked for Priebus at the committee and followed him to the White House, are loyal to the chief of staff above all else.

    The ever-present focus on Priebus was on full display during a communications office meeting last month. Press secretary Sean Spicer, a Priebus lieutenant, became so visibly upset over a story about the chief of staff that some were startled by his reaction, according to a person familiar with the matter. (Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, denied that happened and dismissed the notion that the press office had taken extra steps to protect Priebus.)

    There are also growing complaints being directed at Trump’s political operation, which senior Republicans had hoped would marshal support for the president’s agenda. The efforts, however, have been described as halting and ill-planned.

    Among the objections: that the RNC erred when it declined to give jobs to a trio of Trump loyalists, Michael Biundo, Christie-Lee McNally and Stephanie Milligan, all of whom had applied for jobs in the political department. Instead, the positions were awarded to a group of Republican operatives who had not worked on Trump’s campaign.

    The Trump loyalists’ deep knowledge of the president’s political network could have been an asset, some argue. Adding to the hurt feelings, the three did not receive phone calls informing them that they did not get the positions before the hires were publicly announced.

    “If you have people that don’t believe in the president, I don’t think they’re going to be that forceful in protecting the White House,” said one former Trump campaign staffer. “There’s nothing there to push through the agenda, to push through the Supreme Court justice, there’s nothing there to help him with.”

    RNC officials insist they’ve taken steps to include Trump veterans. The committee recently hired Brad Parscale, who was Trump’s digital director, as an outside consultant.


    The White House office of political affairs is another target of grousing. On March 15, Trump visited Michigan, a traditionally Democratic state that he won, to talk about his efforts to revitalize the automobile industry. Yet the Michigan Republican Party was not made aware that the event would occur until it was publicly announced, hampering its ability to organize and rally Trump boosters to the appearance in Ypsilanti.

    Then there’s Trump’s official campaign, which last Monday organized a Trump event in Kentucky. The visit was designed to sell the health care bill and to put pressure on GOP Sen. Rand Paul, who had been an outspoken opponent. Some of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s allies had hoped that McConnell, an outsize figure in Kentucky politics who has a large following in the state, would introduce Trump and make a forceful sell for the legislation.

    But in the end, after some back-and-forth between the White House and McConnell's aides, it was decided that McConnell would speak at the event but not introduce the president, instead taking the stage about 15 minutes before Trump. While some McConnell aides said it was all much ado about nothing, others close to the senator were surprised by the decision and thought it was a mistake.

    “What was the purpose of this event?” said one McConnell ally. “If it were me, I would have had him out there.”

    "We're two months into the presidency, and it's kind of a cluster," said one state Republican Party official. "It's not that they're bad people. It's just that they don't know what they're doing."

    Sniping over Trump’s early troubles is occurring at federal agencies, too.

    Revitalizing the beleaguered coal industry and loosening restrictions on emissions was a cornerstone of Trump’s pitch to blue-collar voters. Yet, two months into his presidency, Trump loyalists are accusing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt of moving too slowly to push the president’s priorities.


    Earlier this month, David Schnare, a Trump appointee who worked on the transition team, abruptly quit. According to two people familiar with the matter, among Schnare’s complaints was that Pruitt had yet to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding, which empowers the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as a public health threat.

    Schnare’s departure was described as stormy and those who’ve spoken with him say his anger at Pruitt runs deep.

    "The backstory to my resignation is extremely complex,” he told E&E News, an energy industry trade publication. “I will be writing about it myself. It is a story not about me, but about a much more interesting set of events involving misuse of federal funds, failure to honor oaths of office and a lack of loyalty to the president."

    Other Trump loyalists at EPA complain they’ve been shut out of meetings with higher-ups and are convinced that Pruitt is pursuing his own agenda instead of the president’s. Some suspect he is trying to position himself for an eventual Senate campaign. (EPA spokespersons did not respond to requests for comment.)

    The president’s biggest donors are pointing fingers, too. Mercer, a philanthropist who has bankrolled the “alt-right” movement that formed the underpinnings of Trump’s campaign, had hoped the new White House would adopt an anti-establishment mindset.


    Yet in recent weeks, Mercer, who pushed for Bannon to be chief of staff but was overruled, has complained that too many Beltway Republicans were being hired, said one person who has spoken to her. She partly faults Priebus, saying he has used his position to bring a number of establishment allies into the administration.

    The White House is also moving to soothe megadonor Sheldon Adelson. The Las Vegas casino mogul has been pleased with many of Trump’s early moves, including his decision to tap David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Yet people close to Adelson say he was alarmed by the administration’s decision to retain State Department official Michael Ratney, an appointee of former President Barack Obama who is viewed with suspicion by those in the pro-Israel community. Kushner, who is overseeing Trump’s push for a Middle East peace accord, has discussed the matter with Adelson.

    As the dust cleared over the weekend from the health care failure, Trump aides dismissed talk of a possible staff shakeup. While they described the president as disappointed, they also said he was ready to move on. After all the pushback the bill had gotten, he’d come to realize that it might not be the right piece of legislation after all.

    Yet the blame game is taking a toll on an exhausted White House. At the highest levels of the West Wing, the mood has grown so tense that staffers have begun calling up reporters inquiring whether other senior aides are leaking damaging information about them.

    "The various warring fiefdoms and camps within the White House are constantly changing and are so vast and complicated in their nature,” said one former Trump campaign aide, “that there is no amount of reporting that could accurately describe the subterfuge, animosity and finger-pointing that is currently happening within the ranks of the senior staff."


    White House looks to rack up wins after health care calamity


    After suffering its first legislative blow at the hands of the Washington establishment, the White House regrouped over the weekend with senior aides strategizing on ways to score their boss a few wins and reassessing future friends and foes. Instead of...

    After suffering its first legislative blow at the hands of the Washington establishment, the White House regrouped over the weekend with senior aides strategizing on ways to score their boss a few wins and reassessing future friends and foes.

    Instead of dwelling on the humbling Obamacare repeal defeat, President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon told POLITICO there would be "action, action, action" this week coming from the White House. Expect executive orders this week on trade, energy and environmental regulations, he said in a text message.

    Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said on ABC's "This Week" that Trump will sign an executive order this week rolling back President Obama's Clean Power Plan — an "Energy Independence Executive Order” designed to reduce regulations on domestic energy resources. The White House also confirmed that it would announce the creation of the Office of American Innovation on Monday, led by Jared Kushner.

    All of that would help put the weekend of bitter recriminations behind them. The president took a step in that direction by calling House Speaker Paul Ryan on Sunday to reaffirm his commitment to their partnership. Ryan has indicated he is ready to move on to the next item on the ambitious GOP agenda — despite Trump’s tweet this weekend appearing to endorse Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro's take-down of Ryan.

    Some in Republican leadership even saw a silver lining in Trump's defeat — he may have figured out who he can work with on the Hill.

    They're hoping that Trump has realized out it's useless dealing with the House Freedom Caucus that they believe moved the goalpost on the health care bill many times without ever committing to the vote.


    One senior administration official says the White House now has their eyes on courting moderate Democrats. That official said they plan to reach out to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and other rank-and-file Democrats who they think will be amenable to infrastructure spending and tax reform. The White House has already made contact with the Congressional Black Caucus.

    Chief of Staff Reince Priebus appeared to telegraph that approach Sunday by repeatedly saying on Fox News Sunday that they need to reach out to moderate Democrats.

    "The last 48 hours were about letting the dust settle, and the next week will be about talking to Democrats," said another senior administration official who was involved in pushing the health care bill on the Hill.

    One senior GOP Hill source surmised that the messaging campaign from the White House about the potential courtship of Democrats is designed to make the House Freedom Caucus feel irrelevant in the fights ahead — a risky tactic since the president will likely need the House Freedom Caucus for the next flash points on the legislative agenda — the debt ceiling and the budget in April.

    "He's not only risking alienating them [the Freedom Caucus] but conservatives as a whole," said a senior GOP Hill adviser. "People were always suspicious of his conservative credentials, but they supported the candidacy. He's running the risk of turning off conservatives and he still has to deal with the debt ceiling fight and everything else. He walked into Speaker Ryan's trap of calling out the Freedom Caucus."


    On Sunday, Trump blasted both the House Freedom Caucus and Democrats in a single tweet. "Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!" Trump tweeted.

    Trump will likely have to wait more than a week for his next big win — assuming Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is confirmed in the face of Democratic Senate vows to block his nomination.

    Until then, the White House appears to be ready to take on a more active role in tax reform than it did on the health care bill. According to a House leadership aide, when Ryan came to the White House on Thursday to deliver the bad news to Trump on the vote count, the president’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin were eager to talk about tax reform.

    While Trump laid his salesmanship on thick in the final week before the health care vote by courting the different GOP factions, some believe that he needs to sustain that work well in advance of the push for tax reform.


    "To be his own best advocate, the President needs to know the Republican conference much better — invite members to the White House socially, invite them on Air Force One and to a golf outing," said Doug Heye, who served as an aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. "This effort can pay dividends the next time the White House wants to influence votes on the Hill."

    Other have suggested that Trump should go even further and spend more time on the road selling his message, to add to his leverage when he's trying to twist arms on Capitol Hill.

    "He spends everyday meeting with interest groups in the White House, I think going out and meeting with average Americans wouldn't hurt," said Alex Conant, Sen. Marco Rubio's former communications director, noting hat Trump's average of one rally outside of D.C. per week isn't enough with his slipping approval ratings. "They need to develop a strategy, where they agree that 37 percent is unacceptable for a president's approval rating after two months on the job."


    Democrats eye Comstock's swing seat after Obamacare repeal failure


    Rep. Barbara Comstock dodged constituents, declined town halls and avoided taking a public stance on the Republican Party’s increasingly unpopular health care bill in the months leading up to its collapse.Her last-minute decision to oppose it — after...

    Rep. Barbara Comstock dodged constituents, declined town halls and avoided taking a public stance on the Republican Party’s increasingly unpopular health care bill in the months leading up to its collapse.

    Her last-minute decision to oppose it — after other GOP moderates had spoken out and sealed the bill’s doom — is unlikely to protect her in 2018. Democrats had already smelled blood, targeting Comstock after Hillary Clinton won her increasingly purple district in northern Virginia by 10 percentage points.

    Comstock, a second-term moderate Republican, came out against her party’s Obamacare repeal bill just several hours before her ally, House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled it from the floor to forestall an even more humiliating defeat.

    On that same day, a Fairfax County school teacher named Kimberly Adams announced her intention to run against Comstock as a Democrat. Others are also stepping up: Loudoun County Democratic Committee Chairman Marty Martinez said he’s talked to at least 10 potential candidates interested in unseating the Republican.

    “I think she’s in big trouble,” he said of Comstock. “Normally, we have trouble finding just one.”

    Comstock, who had campaigned against Obamacare and who won re-election by six points is among a handful of moderate Republicans who came out against the bill right before it went down. Many caught in the crossfire over Obamacare may pay the price in the midterms -- earning acrimony from newly energized Democrats who see an opportunity in the botched repeal effort and in some cases (not yet in Comstock’s) from Republicans to their right.


    The day before the planned vote, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that just 17 percent of voters nationally supported the repeal bill, while 56 percent opposed it. The rest were undecided

    Republican officials say they're not worried about Comstock. “I don't think she's going to have a problem in the midterms at all," said Loudoun County Republican Committee Chairman Will Estrada, adding that he doesn't believe she will face a primary challenger in 2018.

    Comstock said in a statement Friday that while she liked parts of the Republican repeal bill, she could not support the final version — in part, because GOP leaders had pulled requirements for maternity care and mental health services in their 11th-hour negotiations with the Freedom Caucus.

    “The uncertainties in the current version of the bill caused me not to be able to support it today,” she said.

    In Comstock’s politically splintered suburban district, repealing Obamacare was never going to be an easy sell.

    Former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican, who used to represent parts of the same district, said Comstock has been handling the divisive issue of health care exactly how she should be as a member representing a suburban swing district.


    “She kept her powder dry, which is smart,” he said. “She’s a pretty savvy politician holding a swing seat in a tough year. She’s not naive about this stuff. The bill was a moving target. It kept changing. It was smart to keep a low profile.”

    The district has nearly 40,000 people, or just under 5 percent of its residents, enrolled in Obamacare’s marketplace. And while the state did not expand Medicaid, a Virginia health department analysis found the bill would have cost nearly $1.8 billion in federal funding for Medicaid over a six-years, according to the Associated Press. The bill would have changed the program from an open entitlement to capped payments for states.

    But Comstock’s reluctance to speak out earlier against the bill like fellow Virginia moderate Republican Rob Whitman, who opposed the bill in mid-March saying he feared his constituents would lose coverage, caught the attention of district Democrats.

    A local grassroots group called “Dump Comstock” was formed earlier this year with the mission of defeating her in the midterms. Aiming to tie her to a president unpopular in the district, it calls her a “puppet of the Trump regime.” A super PAC called “Take Back the Tenth” was created to fund the group’s activities.

    Abbey Mansfield Ruby, a DC-area corporate lawyer who founded the group, said the “ragtag army” of people in the 10th District, which has a little over 1,000 followers on Facebook, throws events to register and educate voters for the upcoming midterms. The sole purpose of the group is to unseat Comstock.

    “Comstock doesn’t stand for anything other than what House Speaker Paul Ryan tells her to stand for,” Mansfield Ruby said. “She’s a Paul Ryan loyalist who chooses party over country and constituents every time.”

    An ill-timed ad campaign sponsored by the American Action Network, which aired during the NCAA Basketball tournament the day after the bill collapsed, caused further embarrassment. It thanked Republican lawmakers who supported the repeal efforts, including Comstock in the list. A spokesperson for the American Action Network said the ads had been airing for the last two weeks, adding that they would end this week.


    “People in the 10th district see through all of her actions,” said Fairfax County Democratic Committee Chair Sue Langley. “It was clear that the bill was going to fail. But knowing that the bill would have been such a disaster, she should have opposed it from the start. It was the right vote for her — but at the wrong time and for the wrong reason. We don’t think that sort of move will earn her political capital in this district.”

    Republican leaders dismiss those arguments: Estrada, for instance, says Comstock’s last-minute decision to oppose the bill was smart because the legislation kept changing up until the very end.

    Comstock’s deputy chief of staff Jeff Marschner, meanwhile, denies she avoided constituents who wanted to discuss the repeal bill. He said Comstock has been “ever present in her district,” talking to hundreds of people about their personal health care concerns while attending nearly 50 events since the start of the 115th Congress.

    “The congresswoman has also held two telephone town halls connecting to 9,000 constituents on health care, and our office has corresponded with approximately 5,000 constituents on healthcare related questions,” he said.

    Still, most Republicans acknowledge the defeat of the Obamacare repeal bill is a loss for the GOP that could hurt the party's slate in next year's elections.

    “Midterms are all about who shows up and we know the Democrats will. You can see the anger. They’re ready to go,” Davis said, adding “Republicans need to generate the same intensity and this doesn’t help.”


    Republicans turn fire on each other


    White House officials insisted Sunday that the relationship between President Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan is strong, even as Republican infighting over the failure to repeal Obamacare exploded into the open over the weekend. After Trump urged his...

    White House officials insisted Sunday that the relationship between President Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan is strong, even as Republican infighting over the failure to repeal Obamacare exploded into the open over the weekend.

    After Trump urged his Twitter followers Saturday to watch Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro — who opened her show last night with six-minute plea for Speaker Paul Ryan to step down — Washington was abuzz with speculation about a Trump-Ryan rift. Trump-boosting Breitbart News, the former publication of the president’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, used the sequence of events to highlight the apparent discord.

    But White House officials later emphasized that Trump was not endorsing Ryan’s ouster.

    “He is a fan of her show plain and simple,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in an email, explaining Trump’s tweet.

    White House officials say Trump does not support Pirro's comments on Ryan, but was merely trying to show support for the Fox host, who has long backed Trump.

    "Nothing was meant by it," said a White House aide.

    Trump and Ryan spoke for an hour Saturday, and other GOP insiders said Trump has praised Ryan in private conversations since the speaker was forced to pull the American Health Care Act on Friday amid eroding support from hardline conservatives and House moderates. Trump’s top aides also took to the Sunday shows to underscore the strong relationship between the president and Ryan.


    “He doesn't blame Paul Ryan,” chief of staff Reince Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He thought Paul Ryan worked really hard, enjoys his relationship with Paul Ryan, thinks that Paul Ryan is a great speaker of the House. None of that has changed.”

    Asked about Trump’s call to watch Pirro’s show on Saturday, Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “I have spent more time within the last week with the president of the United States than I ever thought I would. … Never once have I seen him blame Paul Ryan. So I'm not sure what that was about last night.”

    The uneasy alliance between Trump and Ryan did little to hide the increasingly acrimonious recriminations among Republicans. It’s a preview of the challenge Trump and Ryan will face as they nurse their wounds and attempt to regroup for what could be an even more divisive fight over tax reform,

    Trump began Sunday with a tweet ripping the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus and their outside backers, the group of three-dozen Republicans and like-minded groups that banded together to help block the health care bill.

    “Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!” he tweeted.

    But Trump’s ire, apparently, wasn’t limited to the conservative rebels. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) — leader of the moderate Tuesday Group — confirmed that Trump upbraided him during a recent meeting at the White House and accused him of “destroying” the Republican Party. Dent was referring to an anecdote published Sunday in the New York Times Magazine describing the tense confrontation.

    “According to an attendee, Trump angrily informed Dent that he was ‘destroying the Republican Party’ and ‘was going to take down tax reform — and I’m going to blame you,” the magazine’s Robert Draper reported.

    Dent told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that the exchange did take place and said he listened to the president “very respectfully.” He also said he had no plans to back down in the face of Trump’s anger.

    In his own Sunday show appearance, Priebus emphasized that Trump’s frustration at the health care failure is aimed in multiple directions.


    “I think the president’s disappointed in a number of people that he thought were loyal to him that weren’t,” Priebus said.

    The Freedom Caucus and outside groups panned the AHCA as a watered-down version of Obamacare that retained many of its core elements and failed to lower premiums. Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham fired back at critics in Congress as well.

    “Let's be clear about the situation: House leadership drafted an awful bill and is now lying to itself that a deal wasn't possible,” he tweeted Sunday.

    Infighting even erupted among Republican lawmakers.

    Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) resigned from the House Freedom Caucus Sunday over the group's opposition to the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

    "I have resigned from the House Freedom Caucus. In order to deliver on the conservative agenda we have promised the American people for eight years, we must come together to find solutions to move this country forward," the seven-term lawmaker wrote in a statement. "Saying no is easy, leading is hard, but that is what we were elected to do. Leaving this caucus will allow me to be a more effective Member of Congress and advocate for the people of Texas. It is time to lead."

    Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) said Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) “betrayed Trump and America and supported [House Democratic leader Nancy] Pelosi and Dems to protect Obamacare.”

    His unusual attack drew a personal rebuke from Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a Freedom Caucus member and opponent of the AHCA.

    “Austin, thank God there are honorable congressmen like @RepMarkMeadows who aren't seduced by logical fallacies,” he replied.


    Sanders: Public outcry helped derail GOP health care bill


    Sen. Bernie Sanders cast the GOP as "out of touch" with the public on health care Friday, citing opposition to the Obamacare repeal and replace efforts at a series of contentious town halls as a driving factor behind Republicans' inability to push...

    Sen. Bernie Sanders cast the GOP as "out of touch" with the public on health care Friday, citing opposition to the Obamacare repeal and replace efforts at a series of contentious town halls as a driving factor behind Republicans' inability to push through the American Health Care Act.

    "I think one of the reasons this legislation went down today is that all over this country we had hundreds of thousands of people coming out to rallies," the Vermont senator told CNN's Anderson Cooper several hours after a canceled vote on the Republican health care bill.

    "People began the process of fighting back. We have got to continue that," he added.

    Sanders, who panned the Republican bill as merely a tax break for the rich, said that while the rising premiums that have plagued President Barack Obama's signature health care law are an issue, Congress should be focused on improving it, not replacing it.

    The former Democratic presidential contender also deflected questions on whether the failed legislative bid constituted a significant loss for President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan.


    "Nobody really cares that it's a failure of Trump or a failure of Ryan," he said. "What the American people are asking is how does it happen that we are the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a right?"

    Sanders, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, also scoffed at the Trump administration's comments lamenting the difficulty of pushing a health care bill through Congress.

    "I thought it was rather amusing that a few weeks ago President Trump said health care's really complicated," he said "Well, you know, for those of us who are on the health education committee, those of us who had dozens of hearings and mark-ups, yeah, health care is pretty complicated."

    "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated," Trump said on Feb. 28 during a gathering with the nation's governors.