Establishment looks to crush liberals on Medicare for All

The united front that helped Democrats save Obamacare just a year ago is falling apart over single-payer health care.

Deep-pocketed hospital, insurance and other lobbies are plotting to crush progressives’ hopes of expanding the government's role in health care once they take control of the House. The private-sector interests, backed in some cases by key Obama administration and Hillary Clinton campaign alumni, are now focused on beating back another prospective health care overhaul, including plans that would allow people under 65 to buy into Medicare.

This sets up a potentially brutal battle between establishment Democrats who want to preserve Obamacare and a new wave of progressive House Democrats who ran on single-payer health care.

"We know the insurance companies and the pharma companies are all putting tens of millions of dollars into trying to defeat us," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who co-chairs the Medicare for All Congressional Caucus. "Which I take as a badge of honor — that they’re so concerned about a good policy that they're going to put so much money into trying to defeat it."

The rift could come into full view in the opening weeks of the new Congress, as the party long bound by a need to defend the Affordable Care Act tries to embrace a new health care vision it can carry into the 2020 presidential campaign.

House Democratic leaders already are emphasizing the need to align behind a more pragmatic agenda focused largely on shoring up Obamacare, without peering too far into the future.

“We want to continue promoting the idea of accessibility and improving the Affordable Care Act,” said incoming Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.). “That should be the primary goal that we have.”

It's a sentiment shared by the major lobbies that fought alongside Democrats against Obamacare repeal and now want to reap the benefits. These interest groups contend that, after a decade of upheaval in health care, the public would prefer simple fixes that strengthen the ACA over a headlong rush into another dramatic overhaul of the system.

But House progressives, buoyed by voter enthusiasm and a surge of single-payer support among the party's base, have other ideas. Among their high-profile agenda items is "Medicare for All" legislation, an idea until recently on the fringes of policy debates that polling shows captivated voters during the 2018 election cycle, despite potentially staggering costs.

"It's more of a mainstream position than it's ever been before," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which maintains close ties to House progressives. "There's this hugely rapid advancement toward Medicare for All — single-payer — as not just an eventual North Star goal, but as something that's increasingly possible."

But major lobbies that fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Democrats last year are working now to derail such liberal ideas in order to preserve the status quo.

More than a dozen groups intend to press their point next year through The Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a vehicle to combat an expanded government role in health care.

America's Health Insurance Plans and the BlueCross BlueShield Association helped found the coalition alongside the Federation of American Hospitals, the big drug lobby PhRMA and the American Medical Association.

Since then, it's added another 13 organizations — most representing companies with much to lose under a system that shrinks or in some cases eliminates private health care.

Medicare for All legislation would effectively eliminate private health coverage. And talk of greater government influence over health care has alarmed providers that contend Medicare and Medicaid currently pay only a fraction of what it costs to care for beneficiaries.

The Partnership, some of whose members began discussions within weeks of Senate Republicans’ failed Obamacare repeal vote in July 2017, is planning to launch a campaign featuring ads, polling and white papers playing up the private sector's role and warning against further disruptions to the health system, people involved with the group said. Avalere, a consulting firm Democrats often leaned on to highlight the dangers of GOP repeal bills, is producing research for the coalition.

Avalere founder Dan Mendelson — a former Clinton White House official — declined to comment on the firm's work, citing a policy of not talking about its clients.

The Partnership has also received support from Lauren Crawford Shaver, a veteran of the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services Department and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, who is running its operations out of the lobbying shop Forbes Tate Partners.

“We believe all Americans deserve access to affordable, high-quality health care. But a one-size-fits-all, government-controlled system like Medicare for All isn’t the answer,” Shaver said, predicting it would restrict choice and innovation and put “decisions regarding our health care in the hands of politicians in Washington.”

Former top Obama campaign aide Erik Smith has also been involved in running communications for the Partnership, though he told POLITICO his relationship with the coalition is ending in the next few weeks.

Other groups that fought Obamacare repeal are quietly working to limit Democrats' ambitions by highlighting the practical complexities and political risks inherent in rewiring the entire national health care system — including an employer-sponsored insurance market that serves 151 million Americans.

Officials from several groups expressed confidence that public support for Medicare for All will plunge as people become more aware of the trade-offs it would require.

"We are convinced here that, whether it's on the state basis or federal basis, incremental change is a real possibility and is doable," said Kenneth Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, one of the loudest voices in 2017 against both ACA repeal and a state-level single-payer effort. "In New York, we have 5 percent uninsured. Why do we want to have a 100 percent solution to a 5 percent problem?"

That’s echoed in Democratic circles by strategists fearful of squandering the party's advantage on health care and losing the support of industry groups that have proved helpful in recent health care fights.

Medicare for All skeptics point to the lengths the Obama administration went to secure industry support for the ACA prior to its passage in 2010, an effort that did little to insulate Democrats from eight years of political blowback. Yet another major government health care expansion could be even more painful, they say.

"From a political perspective, it's a really high priority to keep the focus on Republicans and what Republicans have done to harm health care," said Brad Woodhouse, whose pro-Obamacare group Protect Our Care played a central role in the repeal fight. "The country just isn't ready to rip it up and start over again."

Liberals concede their effort faces institutional roadblocks but maintain they're undaunted by the firepower aimed their way.

The House Democrats' progressive wing is increasingly influential, the party has a clear advantage on health care for the first time in years and polls show the once-fringe concept of a single-payer system is captivating a growing portion of the nation.

“We want to make sure we shore up protections for pre-existing conditions [and] do everything we can to make sure the Affordable Care Act is effective as possible,” Jayapal said. “But, in the end, we still have a problem with the cost of health care for ordinary people. And so that’s what we’re trying to address.”

The progressive movement's own lobbying campaign inside and outside Congress is just getting started, she added. That gives the party time to balance shoring up the ACA with figuring out a path to universal health care that could range from incremental steps like adding a public option all the way up to a full single-payer system.

And in the meantime, progressives say they're more concerned about courting voters than winning over big business. For as much as the industry lobbies contributed to defending Obamacare, they argue, the repeal fight demonstrated even more convincingly that Democrats can win any health care battle if the public is on their side.

"People across this country have worked through for themselves the public debate on the government's role in health care, and America has shifted," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a Medicare for All supporter and likely 2020 presidential candidate. "So the importance of persuading every one of the insiders that this is going to be a great deal for them has diminished."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


‘His word isn’t good’: Dems don’t trust Trump to make shutdown deal

Donald Trump’s meeting Tuesday with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may go a long way toward determining whether the government enters a partial shutdown before Christmas.

But as Democrats seriously re-engage with Trump for the first time in nearly a year, their broad distrust of the president has expectations for a deal at rock bottom.

“We’ve had limited success in dealing with this president,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “His word isn’t good. Within 48 hours he reverses himself. It’s very difficult to enter into a long-term agreement.”

The House and Senate Democratic leaders have been here before. Multiple times over the past two years they thought they'd cut a deal with Trump only to see him swiftly trash “Chuck and Nancy” and demand hefty conservative concessions.

Now Trump is threatening to shut down a large swath of the federal government if he doesn’t get billions in funding for his border wall.

But Democrats say they have no reason to think talks this week will end differently than they have in the past, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen House and Senate Democrats. And the Democratic leaders — constrained by an aggressive left flank in the party — are in no mood to even try to strike a sweeping immigration deal like in past negotiations.

Previously, they offered as much as $25 billion for Trump’s border wall in exchange for protecting 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants from deportation. That’s no longer on the table.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said of such a trade these days: “I wouldn’t support it.”

“We’ve said we’ll fund the wall in exchange for addressing the Dreamers and immigration issues. He said ‘fine,’ and then he reneged,” Shaheen said.

“I understand their concerns,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally who was undercut by the White House earlier this year during immigration negotiations. “It’s tougher around here now. We’ve had two or three stops and starts with immigration.”

Schumer and Pelosi have tried to project unity in recent days, saying they won’t give Trump the $5 billion he’s asking for and calling to keep Department of Homeland Security spending at current levels if needed to keep the government open.

But even as the Democratic leaders look to avoid a shutdown, they don’t have complete freedom to maneuver.

Pelosi is working to win over 218 Democratic votes for her speaker bid and can’t afford to alienate an emboldened left wing of her caucus. Schumer, too, is trying to brush off criticisms over his negotiating record from liberals who think he shouldn’t give the president any spending at all on a border barrier, even as Congress provided more than a billion dollars last year.

Pelosi has previewed her posture in recent remarks, saying she wants to punt the debate altogether with a stopgap Homeland Security funding bill.

In some ways, Pelosi is negotiating with Trump as much as she is with her own caucus. The California Democrat is just weeks away from clinching the speaker’s gavel for the second time but is currently short of the votes.

Pelosi knows she can’t be perceived by her caucus as acquiescing to Trump. That could anger many of the Democrats she’s counting on to deliver her the speakership, a group that includes incoming freshmen who want to abolish some immigration enforcement programs entirely.

Pelosi’s supporters say they’re confident of her position and that the longtime Democratic leader knows there’s “no compromise” with the president on his wall.

“I don’t think she would agree to [additional wall funding],” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “I think the reason she has such support is that people believe she understands the lines beyond which we can’t compromise.”

Schumer, meanwhile, has endorsed a bipartisan Senate bill that provides $1.6 billion for “fencing” along the border. House Democrats are opposed to the Senate bill despite the fact many of them voted for a similar, if smaller, amount of border security funding earlier this year.

Rep. Filemon Vela of Texas, one of a dozen-plus Democrats working to block Pelosi’s speaker bid, has been sharply critical of the California Democrat in the past but trusts Pelosi much more than Schumer in talks with Trump.

“This is a New York City conspiracy, and Schumer is on the verge of giving Trump his third down payment on the wall,” Vela said.

While Republicans in the House could potentially round up enough votes to pass a government funding deal on their own, Senate GOP leaders will need at least a handful of Democrats to pass anything, giving Schumer significant leverage in funding talks.

“[Pelosi’s] position in that meeting is meaningless unless she and those of us who oppose the wall funding can ensure that we bring all the other Democrats along for the ride,” Vela said. “You might as well call this the Schumer-Trump wall in my view.”

Senate Democrats who know Schumer well said House Democrats are misreading the Senate leader.

“I would challenge whether there is much of a relationship with President Trump,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said of the current Schumer-Trump dynamic.

Sure, he’s open to talking to Trump, but the idea that the fix is in and Schumer will backstab liberals to help the president is pure fiction, they say.

“Schumer is a person who, if it doesn’t go well today, he’ll still get up tomorrow and say: ‘Is there a path forward?’ So he’s not going to let the president tweet something negative, make him mad and hold a grudge,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

But Kaine cast doubt on the idea that there’s even an agreement to be had with Trump: “For him, immigration is about waving a bloody shirt before an election. If there’s a deal, what is there for him to talk about?”

But there needs to be a breakthrough if there’s any way around a shutdown on Christmas. Roughly a quarter of the government will shutter on Dec. 21 absent a funding agreement, and though congressional Republicans and Democrats would probably be able to avoid it on their own, Trump must sign any bill — facing the choice of either backing down or digging in for a long confrontation.

He’s made clear in meetings with Republicans that he wants $5 billion for the border wall in whatever he signs, which could give his reelection effort a boost by delivering on one of his key campaign pledges.

“We’ve basically worked out most of our funding. Most of it. Except the linchpin there,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), referring to the border funding. “And that is the difference between the Democrats and the president.”

On cue, the president crowed over the wall in an appearance in Kansas City on Friday, declaring “it will be better than anybody’s ever seen” when he builds it. But to do so, he needs a lame-duck Congress to rally behind him, one with a House GOP majority limping out the door and Democrats digging in to stop Trump from claiming any victories.

With Democrats just weeks away from seizing control of the House, Vela said now is the time for his party to “draw a line in the sand.”

“If there were ever a time to send Trump a message, it’s now,” he said.

Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Conspiracy theorist sues Mueller alleging illegal leaks and surveillance

An author and conspiracy theorist who says he’s being threatened with indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in the Trump-Russia probe filed a federal lawsuit Sunday night accusing Mueller of constitutional violations and leaking grand jury secrets.

Jerome Corsi’s new suit against Mueller also accuses the special prosecutor of trying to badger Corsi into giving false testimony that he served as a conduit between Wikileaks found Julian Assange and Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump.

“Defendant Mueller and his prosecutorial staff have demanded that Plaintiff Corsi falsely testify that he acted as a liaison between Roger Stone and WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange concerning the public release of emails downloaded from the DNC’s servers,” the complaint says.

Corsi is demanding $100 million in actual damages and $250 million in punitive damages for injury to his reputation.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, is just the latest maneuver in a public campaign against Mueller by Corsi and his attorneys. Last month, they gave reporters copies of draft court documents showing that Mueller wanted Corsi to plead guilty to a false statements charge.

Prosecutors from Mueller’s office proposed that Corsi admit that he repeatedly lied to investigators about his interactions with Stone about his interest in emails WikiLeaks could release that would be damaging to Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. In the draft plea documents, Corsi was to concede that his falsely said he rebuffed Stone’s attempt to go through him to make contact with WikiLeaks; falsely denied that Stone asked him to enlist someone else in the effort; and falsely denied conveying information about what hacked emails WikiLeaks had.

Corsi is represented in the suit by his defense attorney, David Gray of New Jersey, and longtime conservative gadfly and Judicial Watch founder, Larry Klayman. The suit takes some unusual tacks, accusing Mueller of conducting unconstitutional surveillance of Corsi through the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, a digital snooping program exposed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

“Defendants Mueller, DOJ, NSA, CIA, and FBI have engaged in ongoing illegal, unconstitutional surveillance on Plaintiff Corsi, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the USA FREEDOM Act as well targeted ‘PRISM’ collection under Section 702 of the Foreign Sovereignties Immunity Act at the direction of Defendant Mueller,” the suit says, with the latter reference apparently intending to invoke a different statute, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The suit blames Mueller and his team for disclosures about Corsi’s role in the investigation, although Corsi has granted numerous interviews about his predicament. The court complaint notes that records released through a Freedom of Information Act suit Klayman brought show that Mueller spokesman Peter Carr held numerous in-person meetings with individual journalists who requested them.

The records don’t indicate that Carr or anyone else in the office, which is generally regarded as tight-lipped, disclosed secret grand jury information at these sessions.

Corsi’s suit also levels harsh invective at the special counsel’s team, at one point referring to “Defendant Mueller and his leftist and Democrat partisan prosecutorial and ethically and legally conflicted staff.”

Last week, Klayman filed on Corsi's behalf what he called a "criminal complaint" with the Justice Department over Mueller's conduct. It accused Mueller and his staff of a range of ethical violations as well as crimes, including treason.

Mueller is a lifelong Republican who was initially appointed as FBI Director by President George W. Bush and later reappointed by President Barack Obama. Several of his attorneys are registered Democrats, although at least one of the key FBI agents involved in the probe is a registered Republican. Federal law prohibits the Justice Department from considering part affiliation in hiring decisions for prosecutors or investigative staff.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


From pinnacle to punchline: How Trump diminished the job of his chief of staff

For decades, the job of White House chief of staff was once among Washington’s most desirable jobs — a pinnacle of access and power. Like so many other things in the White House, President Donald Trump has changed that.

On Sunday evening, the vice president’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, who had been the leading candidate to succeed outgoing White House chief of staff John Kelly, took himself out of the running.

Ayers, who is only 36, is a savvy political operative wired with GOP donors and party leaders, and friends say he hopes to run for office himself one day. In any ordinary White House, the job he is declining — for what he calls family reasons — would be an ambitious insider’s dream. To take two recent examples: Rahm Emanuel, who served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama, went on to serve as mayor of Chicago, and Leon Panetta, who spent two and a half years in the job under President Bill Clinton, served as CIA chief and Secretary of Defense.

It’s a different story under Trump. A job that was once a ticket to Washington royalty has recently become a laughing stock. Trump’s first two top aides, Kelly and Reince Priebus before him, have left as diminished and arguably humiliated figures, unable to control the wild chaos of this president’s White House. Priebus was marginalized and mocked before he was abandoned on an airport tarmac. Kelly was subjected to analyses of his facial expressions during awkward moments, repeatedly threatened to quit, and wasn’t even allowed to announce his own resignation despite a reported agreement with Trump that he could do so.

“You really do have to wonder why anybody would want to be Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff given that so far it’s been mission impossible,” said Chris Whipple, the author of a history of White House chiefs of staff.

“This White House is headed into a world of trouble — a Democratic Congress, Mueller closing in, and anybody who comes into this White House has to be thinking about lawyering up. Worst case scenario you could become H.R. Haldeman,” Whipple added, referring to the chief-of-staff to President Richard Nixon who ended up serving 18 months behind bars.

Trump officially declared the chief of staff job open on Saturday when he announced that Kelly, a retired Marine general whom Trump often suspected of trying to constrain him, would leave his post by the end of the month. But while he is considering several candidates — including Mick Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — he has no obvious second choice, according to two people close to the White House.

Republican sources also said the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, is another possible candidate.

Mnuchin, for one, isn’t eager to take the post, according to a person close to him — but others in Trump’s orbit aren’t so sure. While other candidates, like Meadows, are more eager, it is unclear how interested Trump is in offering it to them.

Ayers had worked over the past month to negotiate a short-term tenure in which he would serve only until spring, in part hoping to avoid the kind of snarky speculation Priebus and Kelly suffered about their expected life spans in the job.

Kelly endured it for months before reaching an agreement with Trump that he would depart at the end of the year, even though Kelly had assured his staff in July that he would stay in the job through the 2020 election.

Trump had recently stopped speaking to Kelly, and instructed several White House aides to work through Ayers. Even so, Trump praised Kelly briefly on Saturday, thanking him for his tenure and calling him a "great guy," but more fulsome praise came from Republicans on Capitol Hill who seemed to acknowledge his unenviable position.

“John Kelly is a patriot," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. "He was a force for order, clarity, and good sense. He is departing what is often a thankless job, but John Kelly has my eternal gratitude.”

Friends say Ayers wants to return home to Georgia, and that he is interested in seeking public office there. He has nearly done so once already, when he seriously contemplated a 2018 bid for Georgia governor. Ayers mapped out detailed plans for a campaign, only to make a sudden decision to instead join the administration as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff several months into the administration.

He announced his forthcoming departure from the White House on Sunday in tweet, writing: “Thank you @realDonaldTrump, @VP, and my great colleagues for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House. I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause…”

For now, Ayers is expected to return to America First Action, the pro-Trump super PAC he helped to lead before taking the Pence job. The organization is expected to play a major role in the 2020 campaign, and Ayers enjoys close relationships with major GOP donors who are likely to be funding the super PAC.

“I think the world of Nick Ayers,” said Tommy Hicks, who chairs America First.

Fellow Republicans said they understood Ayers’ decision given the pitfalls of working at the side of a controversial and volatile president.

“I get it,” said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi-based Republican lobbyist who knows Ayers. “He’s enhanced his stature working at White House and positioned himself to go home and think about the future.”

Ben White and Nancy Cook contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Biden hits Sanders' home turf as he tests 2020 waters

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Joe Biden on Sunday waltzed into the backyard of potential future opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders sounding an awful lot like a 2020 candidate.

Six days after saying he's “the most qualified person in the country to be president,” Biden took the stage here and railed against “naked nationalism,” “phony populism” and a GOP that is “not your father’s Republican Party.”

“If you have a problem, what’s the problem? The other. The other. That immigrant, that black guy, that woman,” he said of populism, without mentioning President Donald Trump by name. “That’s the problem, instead of facing up to the problem called greed.”

But Biden — speaking at an event to promote his book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose" — equivocated on the question of whether he’d challenge Trump. Biden has said previously he would decide on a run in the next few months.

Novelist Jodi Picoult asked Biden how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. The former vice president said only that he would keep his promise to his late son, Beau, to stay involved in public life.

“I gave my word, as his dad, that I’d stay engaged,” said Biden.

He added, however, that he also wants to “spend as much time as I can with my family.”

Sunday’s event was Biden’s second-to-last stop on his "American Promise Tour," which has been advertised as “a series of conversations that will go beyond the 24-hour news cycle and 140-character arguments to connect friends and neighbors around the topics that matter most.”

Since late 2017, Biden has traveled to 23 states and the District of Columbia to publicize his book — and, perhaps, lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign.

He’s done six events alone in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, the Rust Belt states that helped put Trump in the White House, and three in the critical battleground state of Florida. Biden’s supporters believe he can win white working-class voters who defected to Trump in 2016 after twice backing former President Barack Obama.

The Burlington Free Press remarked that Biden’s stop in Sanders’ state is “an interesting way to test the waters” for 2020.

A Reuters-Ipsos poll of potential presidential Democratic candidates found Biden in the lead at 29 percent, with Sanders (I-Vt.) nipping at his heels at 22 percent.

An estimated 1,400 people attended Sunday’s sold-out event, according to staff at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets were advertised for $45 to $90 apiece. VIP tickets, which included a photo with Biden, were priced at $375.

Before Biden took the stage, audience members were handed copies of his book and shown a slick four-minute video depicting his life story.

The fact that Biden was on Sanders’ home turf never came up during the event. Afterward, POLITICO asked Biden why he traveled there.

“Because I love Vermont!”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Ayers won't be Trump's chief of staff

Nick Ayers, the longstanding favorite to take over as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, is no longer getting the job, according to two White House officials, leaving the president without a clear successor for John Kelly just weeks before he departs.

Ayers, who had been engaged in private negotiations with Trump for months, had widely been considered Kelly’s heir apparent, even by his many detractors in the White House. Some in the West Wing, who just 12 hours earlier were certain Ayers would be Trump’s next chief of staff, privately expressed shock on Sunday evening that he ultimately didn’t get the job.

The president has floated other possible candidates for the position in private conversations with allies in recent weeks, but he had all but settled on Ayers, White House aides said.

In the end, the two men were unable to agree on the terms of Ayers’ service. Ayers, who has young children, had told associates that he hoped to return to his home state of Georgia and could remain in the position only until the the spring. Trump, on the other hand, wanted his next chief of staff to commit to serve for two years.

It’s the latest personnel drama in a White House that has suffered from unprecedented staff turnover and backbiting among senior aides. Trump’s previous two chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and Kelly, were subjected to unflattering leaks and constant questions about their status with an often mercurial president, who regularly blamed them for blunders large and small.

With Ayers out of the picture, Trump now faces the challenging task of finding a chief of staff who is both capable of doing the job and, perhaps more important, willing to step into the West Wing hornet’s nest.

Already, two candidates for the job — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — have signaled that they would prefer to stay put, though they could change their minds if the president lobbied them aggressively.

Two White House officials said Trump would make a final decision on his next chief of staff by the end of the year. One of the officials said he was considering four candidates, including Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a staunch Trump ally. In recent days, the president has been polling advisers and allies on what they think about Meadows.

Another name in the running is acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, according to a Republican close to the White House. Trump has told allies he is very fond of Whitaker, who was among the top aides who attended Saturday’s Army-Navy football game with the president.

White House aides cautioned that the shortlist of candidates was fluid and likely to change in the coming days.

A person familiar with Mnuchin’s thinking stressed that the secretary was very happy at the Treasury Department and had never asked to be considered for White House position. Mnuchin feels that he can be most useful to the president continuing to run the department, the source added.

Lighthizer, who is leading the trade negotiations with China, is also a potential candidate for the job. But he signaled on Sunday that he was uninterested in leaving his current post.

“I’m entirely focused on what I’m trying to do — and it’s difficult enough,” Lighthizer said said on Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” when asked about a New York Times report that he might be considered for chief of staff, adding that he hadn’t spoken to anybody in the White House about assuming the role.

In recent days, another name for chief of staff has cropped up among Trump’s advisers: Wayne Berman, senior managing director and head of global government affairs at the Blackstone Group. Berman, who served as a top political aide at the Commerce Department under President George H.W. Bush, is close to Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, who remains one of Trump’s closest confidants in the business world.

People close to the White House also mentioned the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, who has been campaigning quietly for the job for months.

Ayers, who currently serves as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, confirmed in a tweet on Sunday that he would be departing the administration, though he made no mention of White House chief of staff.

“Thank you @realDonaldTrump, @VP, and my great colleagues for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House,” he wrote. “I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause.”

Ayers, who had previously told White House aides that he planned to step down in December, is leaving the administration to join America First, a Trump-aligned outside group, officials said.

Though he was expected to only take the job for a fixed period of time, Ayers pushed for significant authority during his negotiations with the president — including the ability to hire and fire whomever he wanted even if he did not intend to stay at the White House over a long period of time, said a person familiar with the discussions.

While both Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, supported Ayers’ becoming chief of staff, other senior aides are deeply skeptical of him, arguing that he is a sharp-elbowed ladder climber.

Ayers’ political savvy was considered a major asset heading into a re-election year, but some of his critics worried that he would shirk the nonpolitical parts of the job inside the administration.

Trump and Ayers had been quietly discussing his potential promotion for months. But it took Trump until Saturday to finally push out Kelly, giving Ayers’ enemies more time to make the case to the president that he wasn’t right for the job.

“You give enough time and air to have people shoot at him, and at some point it takes its toll,” said a person familiar with the hiring process.

Trump announced on Saturday that Kelly, a four-star Marine general who served as his chief of staff for a year and a half, would depart by the end of the year.

Ben White and Sabrina Rodriguez contributed to this story.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump reverses course, tells Pentagon to boost budget request to $750 billion

President Donald Trump has told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to submit a $750 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2020, in a reversal from his pledge to trim defense spending, two people familiar with the budget negotiations have told POLITICO.

The $750 billion figure emerged from a meeting Tuesday at the White House among Trump, Mattis and the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, both people said.

“It’s 750. Secretary Mattis secured that over lunch with the president,” an administration official said of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a figure that has not yet been announced. Mattis was joined by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). “That’s the top line.”

That would dwarf the $733 billion budget proposal Mattis and other top military leaders have been fighting to preserve and would represent a stunning about-face for a president who recently called the fiscal 2019 top line of $716 billion for defense spending “crazy.” In October, Trump said the defense figure for 2020 would be $700 billion, a roughly 5 percent cut in line with decreases planned for other agencies.

Mattis and top military officials, including Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and the generals nominated to head two key four-star commands, have publicly pushed back hard against a cut to $700 billion, and their counteroffensive seems to have succeeded. POLITICO reported Saturday that Pentagon officials recently scrapped the $700 billion proposal they had been working on to meet the 5 percent cuts and have reverted to working on a $733 billion proposal that top generals have said is their preferred, “strategy-driven” figure.

Trump suggested the new $750 billion number during the Tuesday meeting as a “negotiating tactic” to ensure that Democratic opposition does not push the eventual defense budget below the $733 billion that Mattis, Inhofe and Thornberry were pursuing, said the second source, a former administration official with knowledge of the meeting and the current budget negotiations.

The budget number represents all national defense spending, including the Pentagon and Department of Energy funding for the nuclear arsenal. Defense funding is still subject to Budget Control Act spending caps, so lawmakers would need to agree to a deal to lift the caps before the Defense Department could realize this new increase.

The new $750 billion figure is not yet official and will likely be announced this week, the current administration official said, and the former administration official added that both the Pentagon and OMB are still moving forward on the $733 billion proposal.

“There was a discussion with POTUS about how to get $733 billion, and POTUS suggested that if the position is $733 billion, then we should submit a budget at $750 billion as a negotiating tactic,” the second source said. “That said, the president changes his mind constantly."

In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Andrews said Sunday that the Pentagon is still “working with OMB to determine the department’s top line budget number.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Lighthizer: Huawei case 'totally separate' from U.S.-China talks

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Sunday that U.S.-China negotiations should not be impacted by the controversial arrest of a top executive from Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

“This is a criminal justice matter. It is totally separate from anything I work on or anything that trade policy people in the administration work on,” Lighthizer said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Lighthizer’s comments come as China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad on Sunday in protest over the arrest of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei. Le urged the United States to drop the arrest warrant and cautioned that China “will respond further” depending on U.S. response.

Markets took a hit on Thursday following the news that the executive was detained in Vancouver and would be extradited to the U.S. She stands accused of violating American trade sanctions against Iran.

The arrest cast doubt over whether the U.S. and China would be able to make progress toward reaching an agreement. Both sides agreed to a 90-day temporary truce last week while they work through the trade dispute that has threatened both economies for the past eight months.

Top advisers in President Donald Trump’s circle, including White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, have also sought to downplay the negative impact the high-profile arrest could have on the negotiations.

However, Lighthizer acknowledged that he “can understand from the Chinese perspective how they would see it that way.”

Lighthizer, Trump’s top trade negotiator, outlined that the Trump administration expects China to agree to structural changes that will protect U.S. technology and get additional market access for American businesses.

“If that can be done, the president wants us to do it. If not, we’ll have tariffs,” he said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump could face jail time, Schiff warns

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Sunday said President Donald Trump could spend time in jail once he leaves the White House.

"My takeaway is there's a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him. That he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time," Schiff, a former prosecutor and the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.

The suggestion comes after federal prosecutors on Friday said Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, was directed by Trump in 2016 to make hush money payments to two women who claimed affairs with Trump, who was then a candidate for the Oval Office. The statement came in a memo that suggested Cohen serve a “substantial” prison sentence of 51 to 63 months.

"We have been discussing the issue of pardons that the president may offer to people or dangle in front of people," said Schiff. "The bigger pardon question may come down the road as the next president has to determine whether to pardon Donald Trump."

The congressman added he thought that prosecutors made a "powerful case against that idea" in their sentencing memo.

"This was the argument for putting Michael Cohen in jail on these campaign violations. That argument I think was equally made with respect to Individual-1, the president of the United States," according to Schiff.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Incoming Dem governor calls Wisconsin GOP moves ‘a hot mess’

The incoming Democratic governor of Wisconsin on Sunday didn't rule out legal action if his defeated rival, Gov. Scott Walker, signs Republican legislation that would strip his administration of key responsibilities.

"All issues are on the table," Gov.-elect Tony Evers said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Evers said he had a telephone conversation with Walker about vetoing the "bad legislation" and that the defeated incumbent was "non-committal."

However, Walker has indicated in interviews that he will sign the measures, which the GOP-controlled state legislature pushed through last week in a rare lame-duck session.

"The entire thing is a mess," Evers said. "It's a hot mess."

He said that if Walker had won on Election Day, he "wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today" and urged Walker to "think about his legacy" in the state.

"I won the election, any way you slice it."

Evers also said he wasn't elected "to fight over administrative powers," and lamented that the Republican push means his relationship with the legislature has gotten off to a "bad start."

However, he declined to agree with statements from other Wisconsin Democrats, who have called the GOP's actions a "coup."

"It seems strong," Evers said of the term.

He vowed he would reach across the aisle to work with Republicans when he is sworn into office next month, saying that bipartisanship is "part of my DNA."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Rand Paul ‘disturbed’ by attorney general nominee’s views

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Sunday said he hasn't decided whether to support President Donald Trump's pick to be the next attorney general because of concerns about privacy issues.

Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Paul said that he's concerned William Barr, who previously held the attorney general post from 1991 to 1993, "has been a big supporter of the Patriot Act, which lowered the standard for spying on Americans, and he even went so far as to say the Patriot Act was pretty good — we should go much further."

He also alleged Barr is a "big fan" of seizing people’s property through civil asset forfeiture.

"I haven't made a decision about him, but I can‘t tell you — the first things I've learned about him being for more surveillance of Americans is very, very troubling," Paul said.

Barr, who served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, is Trump’s pick to replace Jeff Sessions.

The Kentucky Republican also took issue with the Trump administration's continued support of Saudi Arabia and its years-long war with Yemen.

"I think selling arms should have to do solely with our national security," according to Paul, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He argued that U.S. support and involvement in the conflict only "engenders more terrorism" and increases risks to national security.

The Saudis "are not good actors" and won't cease their operations against Yemen unless Washington stops selling arms to Riyadh," Paul said.

He also that that Saudi ambassador in Washington "should go home."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Beijing blames Canada for Huawei arrest, threatens ‘grave consequences for hurting feelings of Chinese people’

This story is being published for POLITICO as part of a content partnership with the South China Morning Post. It originally appeared on scmp.com on Dec. 9, 2018.

China has ratcheted up the pressure on Canada to release the detained executive of Huawei Technologies over the weekend by threatening “grave consequences” and accusing Canada of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” escalating the case into one of the worst diplomatic rows between Beijing and Ottawa.

Chinese foreign vice-minister Le Yucheng on Saturday summoned Canadian ambassador John McCallum to lodge a “strong protest” against the arrest of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver and urged Ottawa to release Meng immediately, according to a brief foreign ministry statement.

Meng, the chief financial officer at Huawei and a daughter of the Chinese telecom giant’s founder, was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1 and faces extradition to the United States, which alleges that she covered up her company’s links to a firm that tried to sell equipment to Iran in defiance of sanctions.

The arrest of Meng in Canada, which took place on the same night that Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump dined together in Buenos Aires, has infuriated Beijing.

The official Xinhua news agency published an editorial on Sunday morning condemning the arrest as an “extremely nasty” act that had caused “serious damage to Sino-Canada relations,”

“According to the words of the Canadian leader, he had known of the action in advance,” Xinhua said, referring to the fact that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — whom it did not did name directly — had a few days’ notice of the arrest.

“But he didn’t notify the Chinese side. Instead, he let this kind of nasty thing to happen and assisted the US side’s unilateral hegemonic behavior — this has hurt the feeling of Chinese people,” Xinhua added.

The last time that Beijing accused Canada of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people was more than a decade earlier in 2007, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper hosted the Dalai Lama.

People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, published a similarly strongly worded statement, condemning Canada for arresting Meng and threatening to take action against Ottawa if Meng is not released.

“The Canadian side must realize clearly that there’s no vagueness between justice and arbitrariness,” the People’s Daily editorial reads.

“The Canadian side must correct its wrongs and immediately stop its infringement of the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizen to give the Chinese people a right answer so that it can avoid paying a dear price.”

The joint condemnation by China’s foreign ministry, Xinhua and the People’s Daily against Ottawa is an unusual step, reflecting how seriously Beijing is taking the case and its determination to set Meng free.

While China did not specify what action it would take to inflict pains on Canada, the harsh wording suggests that it has plans to retaliate.

These could range from the freezing of diplomatic exchanges to the suspension of trade and would be likely to be set in motion if Meng is extradited to the U.S.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, told Reuters on Friday that there will probably be “a deep freeze with the Chinese in high-level visits and exchanges.”

“The ability to talk about free trade will be put in the ice box for a while. But we’re going to have to live with that. That’s the price of dealing with a country like China,” Mulroney was quoted as saying.

Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Center for American Studies and an adviser to the State Council, said that the Meng incident put China in a bind between the need to show it can protect its business people abroad without spooking other advanced industrial nations with a strong response against Canada.

“China is concerned that in the future more of its important people abroad will be seen as a threat, and that their safety will become an issue.”

“On the other hand, especially in the context of the comprehensive tension between Beijing and Washington, China has an interest to maintain and improve relations with other advanced industrial countries.

“If China takes a very strong revenge against Canada, it will hurt these relations. This is a dilemma, and it is difficult to predict what will happen.”

Adam Austen, a spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, said Saturday there is “nothing to add beyond what the minister said yesterday”.

Freeland told reporters on Friday that the relationship with China was important and valued, and Canada’s ambassador in Beijing has assured the Chinese that consular access will be provided to Meng.

A court hearing over whether Meng should be bailed will continue on Monday.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Rubio: ‘Terrible mistake’ for Trump to pardon Manafort

Sen. Marco Rubio said Sunday that it would be “a terrible mistake” for President Donald Trump to pardon his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

“I think it would be a terrible mistake if he did that. I do,” the Florida Republican told journalist Martha Raddatz during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

Rubio continued: “You know, pardons should be used judiciously. They're used for cases with extraordinary circumstances.”

According to a Friday filing from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, Manafort breached the terms of his September guilty plea by repeatedly lying to federal prosecutors about his contacts with Trump administration officials.

The special counsel also accused the longtime GOP operative and lobbyist of providing false information about his interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian citizen and Manafort aide who has been charged in Mueller’s probe.

“I would not be supportive of it. I would be critical of it,” Rubio said, referring to a potential Manafort pardon. “I don't believe that any pardons should be used with relation to these particular cases. Frankly, not only does it not pass the smell test, I just — I think it undermines the reason why we have presidential pardons in the first place.”

Rubio also warned that if Trump were to grant clemency to Manafort, “it could trigger a debate about whether the pardon powers should be amended, given these circumstances.”

Manafort has been jailed since June, after prosecutors claimed he attempted to tamper with the testimony of two potential witnesses in a criminal case he faces over a Ukraine-related lobbying campaign.

Manafort was convicted on eight felony counts of bank and tax fraud in August, and is scheduled to be sentenced by federal judges in Virginia and Washington, D.C. early next year.

Manafort’s September guilty plea spared him a second trial in which he would have faced seven felony counts, including money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent and making false statements to federal investigators. Instead, his deal with Mueller resulted in just two counts: conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Hush money payments could be 'impeachable offenses,' top Dem warns

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) on Sunday said that if accusations that President Donald Trump directed illegal payments during his campaign are true that it would "certainly" be an impeachable offense, but stopped short of saying such action would be taken.

"They would be impeachable offenses. Whether they're important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question," Nadler, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Certainly, they're impeachable offenses, because, even though they were committed before the president became president, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office," he added.

On Friday, federal prosecutors said that Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, was directed by Trump to make payments during the 2016 presidential race to silence women who claimed to have had affairs with the real estate mogul.

Cohen pleaded guilty in August to eight federal crimes, including hush payments he made or helped carry out.

Nadler said that while Trump's alleged direction of the hush payments might be an impeachable offense, that wouldn't necessarily guarantee lawmakers would proceed with impeachment proceedings.

"You don't necessarily launch an impeachment against the President because he committed an impeachable offense," according to Nadler.

"There are several things you have to look at. One, were there impeachable offenses committed? How many? And secondly, how important were they? Did they rise to the gravity where you should undertake an impeachment?" he asked. "An impeachment is an attempt to affect or overturn the result of the last election and should do it only for very serious situations."

Nadler said that Congress, as well as the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller, must "get to the bottom" of the accusations against the president.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


‘It’s been a long 2 years’ for Kelly, Kudlow says

It is unclear if White House chief of staff John Kelly decided to resign from his post or was forced to leave, according to economic adviser Larry Kudlow.

"I don't know, to be perfectly honest," Kudlow said on "Fox News Sunday," adding from what he understood Kelly's decision to leave was "perfectly amicable."

President Donald Trump on Saturday announced that Kelly would leave at the end of the year.

"He’s a great guy," Trump told reporters of the retired Marine general. A replacement would be named in the next few days, the president said.

Speculation about Kelly's departure had run rampant since Friday, with reports that Trump had grown tired of arguing with his top aide and had settled on Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, to replace him.

Kudlow said the "gossip" about Trump and Kelly disagreeing regularly was "just wrong," noting that the commander in chief attended a Christmas dinner on Friday for senior White House aides and lavished praise on Kelly.

"Everybody's going to have disagreements; that's just the way life works," he added.

Kudlow said Kelly, who Trump took away from leading the Homeland Security Department to replace Reince Priebus, was a "very good chief" who instilled "very orderly processes in the White House ... it's not an easy thing to do."

"It's been a long two years for the chief, General Kelly," according to Kudlow. "Perhaps it is time for a rest."

Kudlow said Kelly's replacement would be announced Monday or early in the week.

Of Ayers he said, "I think quite a lot of Nick Ayers ... I think the world of him."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Kudlow: U.S.-China trade talks 'on track'

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Sunday insisted that U.S.-China trade talks are moving in a "positive" direction, despite mixed signals from top Trump administration officials and the arrest of the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei.

"We are on track," Kudlow said on "Fox News Sunday" when asked about the stock market's 1,100 point drop over the course of last week, pointing to "promising" statements from Beijing's commerce department and government agencies.

On Friday, White House trade policy adviser Peter Navarro told CNN that if there’s no agreement during the 90-day truce between Washington and Beijing, U.S. officials would move forward with higher tariffs, contradicting statements Kudlow himself made earlier in the week.

However, Kudlow dismissed concerns that administration officials aren't on the same page.

"I don't think there's much daylight between Peter and I," according to Kudlow. “I really think that’s an exaggerated point.”

He also said that President Donald Trump "did not know" of the plan to arrest Huawei CFO Sabrina Meng Wanzhou in Canada when hammering out trade details with his Chinese counterpart at the G-20 summit last week.

"He learned way later," Kudlow said. "And he had no reaction afterward."

He would not say if, in the course of trade talks, the United States would allow Meng to be freed.

"I can't guarantee anything," Kudlow said.

He insisted that the arrest and trade negotiations are in "different channels" and would be treated as two distinct issues.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine