Trump introduces Border Patrol agent: He ‘speaks perfect English’

President Donald Trump wanted to congratulate Border Patrol agent Adrian Anzaldua, who the president proclaimed had saved 78 lives a little over a week ago after he arrested a human smuggler.

But Trump stepped on his own message when he announced on national television that Anzaldua, whose last name the president didn't attempt to pronounce, could speak "perfect English."

Trump has a history of making assumptions about people based on their ethnic backgrounds, including claiming a U.S.-born judge couldn't be impartial because of his Mexican heritage. His commentary on the language skills of a man with a Spanish-sounding last name seemed to fit that pattern.

Trump said at the event honoring members of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Custom and Border Protection that Anzaldua had caught a smuggler who was holding 78 undocumented immigrants inside a trailer, which the president called "horrible." He praised Anzaldua for saving their lives.

"The border patrol agent who caught the accused and likely really saved many lives, he's here with us. And Adrian, where is Adrian? Adrian is here with us," the president said. "Thank you, Adrian. Great job. Thank you. It's a lot of lives."

The president then invited Anzaldua to the podium to describe the incident.

"Come here, you're not nervous, right? Speaks perfect English," Trump said to Anzaldua.

"Come here, I want to ask you about that, 78 lives. You saved 78 people," Trump continued. "So how did you feel that there were people in that trailer? There's a lot of trailers around. Please."

Anzaldua, who wore a giant smile as he stood next to the president, said the trailer was flagged after the vehicle eluded a checkpoint in Texas.

Anzaldua said after the vehicle was stopped, he ran out with a patrol canine and conducted a non-intrusive search of the vehicle.

"I opened the little latch of the back of the tractor trailer and revealed a lot of subjects," Anzaldua said. "I quickly asked for backup, and backup got there, and the subjects were transported back to...the checkpoint, and all of them were in good health."

Trump seemed pleased with Anzaldua's retelling of the encounter.

"What a good job he did. What a good job," he said. "Tomorrow he will be announcing that he's running for office."

Trump has been criticized over his immigration policies, including a "zero tolerance" approach toward people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border that resulted in thousands of parents and children being separated. While the administration has taken steps to reunite families, there are still about 550 children who were separated from their parents in custody with the Department of Health and Human Services.

De Leon demands Feinstein ‘come home to California’

SAN FRANCISCO — Underfinanced and trailing in the polls, state Sen. Kevin de Leon ratcheted up the pressure Monday on Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, demanding that she “come home to California” and participate in a debate for the first time in nearly two decades.

“The voters of this great state may know Sen. Feinstein by name, but we don’t know where she stands on many issues,’’ said de Leon, repeatedly casting California’s “senior senator” as an elected official who has over the years lost touch with constituents — and with progressive and younger Democrats on issues of concern to them in her solidly blue state.

The 51-year-old De Leon challenged Feinstein, 85, to three debates, saying: “The seat in the U.S. Senate is not entitled ... Here in California, we hold elections — not coronations.”

A former state Senate Pro Tem, De Leon made the statements after a news conference today in Sacramento, where he was joined by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, and representatives of the Service Employees International Union who endorsed his effort to push for multiple debates with Feinstein, who is seeking her fifth full term in November.

The progressive Democrat from Los Angeles, who recently won the formal endorsement of the state party — an embarrassing rebuke to Feinstein — noted that when she was elected to office more than 20 years ago, “California was a vastly different state — and the United States, a different country.”

De Leon added pointedly that “on Oct. 27, 2000, Sen. Feinstein stepped off the debate stage for the last time, and we haven’t seen her there since,’’ while the state has shifted markedly with regard to issues like jobs, economy and climate change.

Many voters who were only infants, or weren’t even born when the former San Francisco mayor first won her Senate seat, may be casting their ballots for the first time this year, he said, adding that they “need to know where she stands” on issues like “debt-free college and education.”

Asked whether he believes Feinstein isn't properly serving her constituents, de Leon told POLITICO: “If she were doing her job, I wouldn’t have run.”

On a litmus test issue for some progressives, de Leon said, “We already know she won’t support Medicare for all — just Medicare for some.”

Asked to respond to De Leon’s charges, Feinstein’s chief strategist Bill Carrick said there’s no question that the senator will debate him.

“It’s just a question of getting a date ... sorting through all that, and what dates work,’’ he said. “I know he thinks you can have a magic wand and shut down the U.S. Senate — which is the biggest fantasy I’ve ever heard.”

Carrick shrugged off de Leon’s statements suggesting that Feinstein was estranged from state voters.

“I think we’ve seen over and over again that he’s desperate to try to get some attention to this campaign — and it’s not gotten any kind of reality to it,” he said. “I’m not surprised he would reach into his cliché bag of tricks — and come up with another one.”

The most recent polls by the Public Policy Institute of California show Feinstein with a robust lead of 46 percent to 24 percent among likely voters over de Leon, with a lead among all ethnic groups and every region of the state, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, where de Leon has his political base.

In an attempt to push back against the de Leon’s play for progressive Democrats, Feinstein and her team have for weeks aimed to underscore the senator’s seniority on the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees, where key issues of concern to liberals are currently being debated, including the current investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election and the confirmation of judicial nominees.

In meetings with Democrats in California, Feinstein has also repeatedly stressed her role as a leading advocate in the banning of assault weapons — a drive she has waged for more than two decades.

Carrick argued that Feinstein has been consumed with the ongoing battle to get access to an estimated million documents that will be reviewed in advance of the confirmation hearings of President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. The hearings are scheduled to start Sept. 4 and some expect they could last through October.

Feinstein has led the charge in the quest for critical documentation, he said, “which give us more and more insight into Judge Kavanaugh’s records.’’

“Hopefully the Republicans will honor the document requests made by Sen. Feinstein and we’ll get a full look at his entire career,” Carrick said. “It was also that he was a critical player in the Bush administration on a lot of key issues.”

But De Leon, when asked about those hearings, suggested Feinstein herself is partly responsible for Kavanaugh’s ascent, noting her 2006 vote allowing Kavanaugh's appeals court nomination to advance to a final vote. He has said her opposition to a filibuster was “a colossal error in judgment.”

With less than nine weeks to the general election, veteran Democratic strategist Garry South — who’s advised Democratic candidates like former Gov. Gray Davis on debate strategies — said de Leon’s strategy to push aggressively for debates underscores both DeLeon’s money and polling challenges.

“When you’re running behind, and you’re running against an incumbent, you’re trying to find every opportunity to engage an opponent,’’ he said. “Dianne has not engaged with an opponent in this race.”

“[De Leon is] absolutely correct that Dianne Feinstein has ducked debates’’ for years, South said. “She did them in 1994 with [Republican] Michael Huffington. But she has had low-caliber opponents since then, where she was way ahead in the polls and could arguably say she had no obligation to debate. She is a candidate who really doesn’t like to engage.”

South said if the senator fended off debates again, it would reinforce the notion that she’s not terribly engaged with the electorate.’’

To many California voters,“she’s been an absentee landlord for all intents and purposes,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons why Democratic Party activists do not feel close to her. She doesn’t campaign. She doesn’t do town halls. ... She lives in Washington, D.C.”

“She doesn’t go to state conventions unless she’s running for re-election,’’ he added. And in July, when she lost the party’s endorsement, it was clear “that caught up to her this time.”

Trump: ‘I should be given some help’ by Fed

President Donald Trump on Monday said he would criticize the Federal Reserve if it continues to raise interest rates, setting up a potential clash next month when the central bank is expected to do just that.

“I’m not thrilled with his raising of interest rates, no,“ Trump said of Fed Chairman Jerome Powell in an interview with Reuters.

Powell was nominated by Trump in November and took the helm of the central bank in early February. Since then, the Fed has hiked rates twice and has signaled that it will do so again in September.

According to Reuters, Trump said he was unhappy that other countries‘ central banks were keeping the value of their currencies low. A weaker currency makes exports cheaper and imports more expensive.

“We’re negotiating very powerfully and strongly with other nations,” Trump said. “We’re going to win. But during this period of time I should be given some help by the Fed. The other countries are accommodated.”

Asked whether he believed in the Fed’s ability to make decisions independent from political considerations, Trump said, “I believe in the Fed doing what’s good for the country.”

“Am I happy with my choice [of Powell to lead the Fed]?” Trump said to Reuters. “I’ll let you know in seven years.”

The president, a real estate mogul, has repeatedly mentioned his preference for low interest rates. He reportedly told attendees at a fundraiser on Friday that he was disappointed by the chairman, saying his advisers told him Powell liked “cheap money.”

Powell, who had already served on the Fed board for six years before becoming chairman, was seen as more sympathetic to Republican calls for a simpler rule book for banks, yet also in line with former Chair Janet Yellen on interest rate policy.

Other finalists for the job – former Fed governor Kevin Warsh and Stanford economist John Taylor – were widely expected to be more aggressive in hiking rates.

Trump openly criticized Powell for the first time in July.

In recent decades, it has been considered taboo for the president to comment publicly on the Fed‘s monetary policy decisions, though it is not without precedent.

In a speech in Sweden in May, Powell indirectly referred to a previous Fed chairman, Arthur Burns, who was pressured by President Richard Nixon in the lead-up to the 1972 presidential election to keep interest rates low.

That episode eventually contributed to a rapid rise in prices, requiring one of Burns' successors, Paul Volcker, to raise interest rates as high as 20 percent to combat inflation.

“For a quarter century, inflation has been low and inflation expectations anchored,” Powell said at the time, in a veiled message to Trump. “We must not forget the lessons of the past, when a lack of central bank independence led to episodes of runaway inflation and subsequent economic contractions.”

Apart from the president’s opinions, the Fed faces a complex balancing act. If it raises rates too quickly, without being warranted by strong growth, it could strangle the expansion. But leaving rates low could spur out-of-control inflation. Or it could spark stability concerns by encouraging financial institutions to make riskier investments to turn a profit, since they earn less interest on loans.

Trump on border wall: Democrats ‘don’t mind crime’

President Donald Trump on Monday criticized Democratic lawmakers who are against his proposed border wall, saying they are “people that don’t mind crime.”

The president delivered his criticism during an event at the White House saluting members of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection. Several Republican officials attended, including Sen. David Perdue of Georgia and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona.

“Sadly, in recent months — incredibly, I have to say, incredibly,” Trump said, “a coalition of open-borders extremists — and to me that means crime, people that don’t mind crime — they’ve waged an unprecedented assault on American law enforcement, our greatest people, threatening ICE and Border Patrol for performing their duties admirably and for defending our country from horrible people and horrible, horrible events and crimes.”

He added: “Leading members of the Democrat Party have even launched a campaign to abolish ICE — in other words, they want to abolish America's borders.“

Democrats have opposed Trump’s plans for a border wall, which he has advocated since the inception of his campaign. Last year, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, filed a lawsuit to try to stop the proposal to expedite construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying it would violate laws aimed at protecting the environment.

Over the past couple of weeks, the president has threatened a government shutdown if he does not receive funding for the wall.

Trump on Monday afternoon also sent a letter to state and local leaders to highlight the administration’s support of the work by officials at ICE and CBP — which the president repeatedly referred to as “CBC” during his speech at the event.

The president has also, over the past several months, criticized cities and states that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement — also known as sanctuary cities —and has threatened to cut off their federal funding.

Obama muscles into Illinois governor’s race

CHICAGO — On the sidelines no more, President Barack Obama flexed his political muscle in his home state on Monday.

In a boost to billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker’s gubernatorial bid, Obama went beyond his customary political comfort zone, leaning in hard by cutting his first video on behalf of a candidate in the 2018 midterm elections.

The roughly 90-second video, currently airing on social media, is expected to be turned into a TV ad. Pritzker, the brother of Obama’s former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, is trying to unseat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in a race that’s already seen more than $200 million in spending — and is on pace to become the most costly governor’s contest in U.S. history.

Pritzker has invested about $127 million of his own money in the race to date.

“I know J.B. I trust J.B. and that’s who he is, someone who’s always thinking about how he can make a difference. Somebody who identifies the right problems and brings the right people together to solve them,” Obama says, looking into the camera. “And that’s something we can use in Illinois. J.B. will be a governor who looks out for all of us.”

Traditionally a reluctant political kingmaker, Obama in early August released an endorsement list of 81 Democrats in 14 states running for the House and Senate, governor, and down-ballot state legislative races.

But the Pritzker video represents a more significant investment of his political brand, a step beyond simply providing his imprimatur. Obama now is expected to roll out additional “candidate-specific” videos across the country leading into the midterms, according to a spokesman.

Obama holds perhaps no greater influence than in Illinois, where he began his political career as a state senator, won election to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and launched his presidential bid from the state capital. He remains a popular figure throughout much of the state, particularly in Chicago where he still owns a residence and where his legacy presidential center will be built.

Obama also has deep political ties to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff.

“The president is revered in Illinois,” said John Atkinson, former Obama National Finance Committee member. “To the extent he’s willing to take time and let citizens of the state know how passionate he is about Pritzker for governor, I think that moves the needle in a way that perhaps it wouldn’t in other states.”

This isn’t the first time Obama has weighed into Illinois politics — at any level — since he became president. He publicly backed Emanuel for mayor and in 2016, Obama cut a TV ad for little known Chicago resident Juliana Stratton, who was attempting to unseat longtime legislator Ken Dunkin in a proxy war between Rauner and powerful Illinois House speaker and state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Madigan.

Stratton defeated Dunkin and today, she’s Pritzker’s running mate.

Obama’s Pritzker backing puts to rest the notion that the former president was holding any grudge from 2008 when Pritzker backed Hillary Clinton over him.

Pritzker later said of an Obama-Romney matchup: “You just have to pick the best of a mediocre set of choices.”

The Rauner campaign was quick to that video Monday when news of Obama’s video endorsement broke.

According to a Democrat with knowledge of the discussions in the run-up to the video endorsement, Obama didn’t hesitate when approached.

“The ask was made and Obama said ‘yes’ right away,” the Democrat said. He’s tired of getting the body blows from Trump, and he’s sick about what Rauner did for social services.”

The former president also has had longtime close ties with Pritzker’s sister, Penny. Penny Pritzker raised money for Obama’s 2004 Senate bid and he then tapped her as national finance chairwoman for his first presidential run.

Her early involvement with Obama has been long credited with opening the door to an elite world of campaign financiers who then turned on the spigot, making him a financially viable candidate. Last year, she was tapped to serve on the Obama Foundation’s board of directors.

The foundation is overseeing the design and construction of the Obama presidential center, estimated to cost some $500 million. Earlier this year, the state approved $180 million in infrastructure improvements for the future Obama center.

There is an effort among some state House Republicans, including third party gubernatorial candidate Sam McCann, to reverse that funding.

While Pritzker is heavily favored to knock off the incumbent Rauner in November, he’s also battled a GOP narrative that he’s cut insider deals and is too close to Madigan, the state’s premier power broker.

Rauner’s campaign has also invested millions of dollars in TV ads linking Pritzker to imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich — who was convicted on charges including attempting to cash in on his power to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Obama’s 2008 election as president.

Cardenas sets up legal defense fund for groping lawsuit

California Democratic Rep. Tony Cardenas — who has been accused of allegedly molesting a teenage girl in 2007 — has set up a legal defense fund to cover lawyers’ bills stemming from the case, according to newly filed documents.

Cardenas will now be allowed to receive contributions of up to $5,000 annually from donors to defray legal costs, although registered lobbyists and foreign agents cannot contribute to the fund. Cardenas will have to file quarterly reports to disclose the donors.

“The congressman has established a defense fund in accordance with House rules,” said Brian Svoboda of the law firm Perkins Coie, who is advising Cardenas on the fund. Svoboda noted the House Ethics Committee has reviewed and approved the move, as is required prior to the creation of such defense funds.

Cardenas is being sued in California state court for allegedly drugging and fondling a teenage girl in 2007, when the Democratic lawmaker was serving on the Los Angeles City Council.

In court documents, Cardenas’ accuser — who is now in her 20s — said he invited her to a golf outing. The woman was a rising young golf star at the time. After receiving a drink of iced water from Cardenas that "tasted distinctly different from both tap and filtered water,” the then-teenage girl collapsed. Cardenas took her to the hospital, but during the trip, allegedly reached under her clothes and fondled her breasts and genitals, according to court documents.

The girl didn’t object to Cardenas’ actions because she “did not want to offend Mr. Cardenas because she trusted him and he was a very powerful man in the community and in her family's lives," her lawsuit alleges.

The alleged victim’s father worked for Cardenas both on the Los Angeles City Council and Capitol Hill.

Cardenas has vehemently denied the allegations, with his lawyers rejecting them as “categorically untrue.”

While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who has taken a hard line with any Democrat accused of sexual harassment — has called on the Ethics Committee to investigate Cardenas, it is unclear whether the secretive panel will do so.

Under House rules, the allegations against Cardenas may have occurred too long before he was elected to Congress for the Ethics Committee to take it up, although the panel would have jurisdiction if it “determines that the alleged violation is directly related to an alleged violation which occurred in a more recent Congress,” according to the House Ethics manual. Since the accuser’s father worked for Cardenas as a staffer, that may give the Ethics Committee a way into the case, although it is unclear if Ethics is reviewing the matter at this time.

Poll: Most Americans think Trump doesn't 'hire the best people'

President Donald Trump repeatedly said during the 2016 election that he would “hire the best people” for his administration, but a new poll Monday shows that most Americans don't think he delivered on that promise.

The new Monmouth University Poll found that only 30 percent of respondents believe that Trump has hired the "best people," with 58 percent saying he has not. Twelve percent of those polled responded either that the president’s hiring record was mixed or that they didn’t know about his hiring record.

Trump's White House has experienced higher-than-usual turnover. And several of his hires for his 2016 campaign and White House have made news in recent weeks.

Paul Manafort, who ran Trump’s presidential campaign in the summer of 2016, is awaiting a jury verdict on tax evasion and bank fraud charges as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference. The president has distanced himself from his former campaign chairman but on Friday said that he was a "very good person" and that his trial was a "very sad day."

Meanwhile, longtime Trump loyalist Omarosa Manigault Newman has commanded the airwaves over the last week as she embarks on a press tour to promote her new tell-all book, including the release of secret recordings she made during her time in the White House.

The Monmouth poll found that about three-quarters of respondents were aware of Manafort’s trial and Manigault Newman’s book release.

Respondents held a dim view of how the Trump White House operates in general — just 19 percent said that they were “very confident” in the way that the president’s advisers and staff are handling their jobs, with 23 percent saying they were “somewhat confident” in White House personnel. More than half said they were "not too confident" or "not at all confident."

The poll was conducted by phone from Aug. 15 to 19 with 805 adults in the United States. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

POLITICO Playbook PM: Pelosi announces $191M DCCC haul

NANCY PELOSI’S NAPA WEEKEND RECAP -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held her annual “invite-only” Napa donor conference this weekend. A record 300 attendees, including nearly 50 House Democrats and top candidates, joined in the event. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, California Gov. Jerry Brown and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe all gave policy remarks.

PELOSI announced Saturday that the DCCC has raised $191 million, which is $57 million more than the party committee had raised over the same period during the 2016 election cycle. Pelosi is raising about half of every dollar that comes into the DCCC, according to a source familiar with the operation. Many of the speakers praised Pelosi, according to an attendee.

SPOTTED: DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) and Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu (Calif.), Mark Takano (Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Ted Deutch (Fla.), Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Brad Schneider (Ill.), David Cicilline (R.I.), Lois Frankel (Fla.), Charlie Crist (Fla.) and Debbie Dingell (Mich.).

NEWS … CROWLEY ESTABLISHES NEW YORK STATE COMMITTEE … House Democratic Caucus Chairman JOE CROWLEY’s team sent out a letter to general-election donors this morning notifying them they would be receiving a refund check, but they added this: “We would like to ask you to please re-write the check to ‘Joe for NY,’ a NYS committee that the Congressman has established to position himself for future opportunities.”

-- NUMBERS, from Crowley: The numbers are in for Crowley’s latest “Better Days” fundraiser July 31 at The Loft at City Winery. He raised more than $166,000 for Democratic candidates Angie Craig of Minnesota, Susan Wild and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Antonio Delgado of New York. While Crowley lost his primary bid, the New York Democrat may do another fundraising round this fall to help candidates.

COMING ATTRACTIONS -- Anna and Jake are heading to Philadelphia on Aug. 31 for a Playbook Elections event featuring Democratic Sen. BOB CASEY and Philadelphia Republican Party Chairman MICHAEL MEEHAN. RSVP

Good Monday afternoon. ATTENDING the “Salute to the Heroes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection” this afternoon at the White House: VP Mike Pence, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Mercedes Schlapp, Kevin McAleenan, Ronald Vitiello, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Tom Homan.

SPOTTED: Paul Ryan having dinner at Il Villaggio Osteria in Teton Village in Jackson Hole on Saturday night. He was also seen by our tipster talking to Jay Kemmerer, who owns Jackson Hole Ski Resort. …

… Larry Kudlow on a very delayed New York-to-D.C. Amtrak late Sunday night. … Stephen Miller carrying what appears to be takeout food Sunday evening outside CityCenter. Pic

SCOTUS WATCH -- “Kavanaugh proposed graphic questions for Bill Clinton during Starr probe,” by Josh Gerstein: “A memo Brett Kavanaugh wrote two decades ago with graphic detail about President Bill Clinton's conduct with Monica Lewinsky became public Monday, showing the Supreme Court nominee was adamant that independent counsel Kenneth Starr's team had a responsibility to ‘make his pattern of revolting behavior clear.’ … The 33-year-old lawyer said the investigators had a truth-seeking function distinct from determining whether Clinton broke the law. …

“Among the questions: ‘If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions in the Oval Office area, you used your fingers to stimulate her vagina and bring her to orgasm, would she be lying?’” POLITICO12,349 new records released by the National Archives today

ANECDOTE DU JOUR -- THE NEW YORKER’S ADAM ENTOUS, “John Brennan’s Choice”: “As Trump stepped up his public and private attacks on Obama, some of the new president’s advisers thought that he should take the extraordinary step of denying Obama himself access to intelligence briefings that were made available to all of his living predecessors. Trump was told about the importance of keeping former Presidents, who frequently met with foreign leaders, informed. In the end, Trump decided not to exclude Obama at the urging of [H.R.] McMaster.” The New Yorker

WHAT’S ON THE PRESIDENT’S MIND -- @realDonaldTrump at 7:28 a.m.: “Disgraced and discredited Bob Mueller and his whole group of Angry Democrat Thugs spent over 30 hours with the White House Councel [sic], only with my approval, for purposes of transparency. Anybody needing that much time when they know there is no Russian Collusion is just someone....”

… at 7:38 a.m.: “....looking for trouble. They are enjoying ruining people’s lives and REFUSE to look at the real corruption on the Democrat side -- the lies, the firings, the deleted Emails and soooo much more! Mueller’s Angry Dems are looking to impact the election. They are a National Disgrace!”

… at 7:48 a.m.: “Where’s the Collusion? They made up a phony crime called Collusion, and when there was no Collusion they say there was Obstruction (of a phony crime that never existed). If you FIGHT BACK or say anything bad about the Rigged Witch Hunt, they scream Obstruction!”

-- ABOUT THOSE SECURITY CLEARANCES … at 10:13 a.m.: “I hope John Brennan, the worst CIA Director in our country’s history, brings a lawsuit. It will then be very easy to get all of his records, texts, emails and documents to show not only the poor job he did, but how he was involved with the Mueller Rigged Witch Hunt. He won’t sue!”

… at 10:23 a.m.: “Everybody wants to keep their Security Clearance, it’s worth great prestige and big dollars, even board seats, and that is why certain people are coming forward to protect Brennan. It certainly isn’t because of the good job he did! He is a political ‘hack.’”

-- ON TRUMP’S JUSTICE DEPARTMENT … at 10:36 a.m.: “Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired from the Jeff Sessions ‘Justice’ Department? A total joke!”

… at 10:46 a.m.: “‘Bruce Ohr is at the center of FALSE ALLEGATIONS which led to a multi-million dollar investigation into what apparently didn’t happen.’ Darrell Issa, House Oversight. We can take out the word ‘apparently.’ @FoxNews”

MEANWHILE … WHAT’S ON THE FIRST LADY’S MIND -- “Melania Trump tackles ‘destructive and harmful’ effects of social media,” by CNN’s Kate Bennett and Betsy Klein: “‘Let’s face it: most children are more aware of the benefits and pitfalls of social media than some adults, but we still need to do all we can to provide them with information and tools for successful and safe online habits,’ she said. Trump called for educating children on responsible social media habits. …

“Less than one week ago, her husband, President Donald Trump, took to social media to harshly attack a former White House aide. … Her spokeswoman sought to downplay any disconnect between the East Wing and the West Wing, calling the first lady ‘independent.’” CNN

SCOOP -- “Pentagon raises alarm about sharp drop in Iraqi refugees coming to U.S.,” by Reuters’ Yeganeh Torbati: “Military officials are sounding the alarm inside the Trump administration about the sharp drop in admission to the United States of Iraqi refugees who have helped American troops in battle, said two U.S. officials aware of the internal discussions.

“The Pentagon is concerned that not providing safe haven to more of the Iraqis, many of whom interpreted and did other key tasks for U.S. forces, will harm national security by dissuading locals from cooperating with the United States in Iraq and other conflict zones, the officials said.” Reuters

TRADE WARS -- “Trade war puts new strains on America Inc.’s factories in China,” by Reuters’ Samantha Vadas in Shenzhen, Adam Jourdan in Shanghai, and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong: “Interviews with over a dozen manufacturers from medical device makers to agricultural equipment firms illustrate how companies exporting to the United States are now rethinking their calculations about making goods in China.

“‘Before the tariffs came on board, we were looking to move about 30 percent of our production from China to the United States,’ said Charles M. Hubbs, European director at Premier Guard, a medical products manufacturer … ‘With the latest tariff development, assuming those tariffs will go into effect, we’ll probably be moving about 60 percent of our manufacturing out of China to the United States.’” Reuters

-- “U.S. firms to Trump: Don’t raise tariffs on more Chinese goods,” by AP’s Paul Wiseman: “The Trump administration will hold six days of hearings starting Monday in Washington on the next barrage in an escalating trade war between the world’s two largest economies: Trump’s proposed tariffs of 10 percent to 25 percent on $200 billion in Chinese goods that could kick in as early as next month. …

“In their filings to the Trump administration, companies that import from China complain that the tariffs will force them to raise prices, pay higher costs, try to find alternative suppliers or lose business to foreign rivals that don’t have to pay a penalty on components and machinery they import from China.” AP

-- A new National Association for Business Economics survey found that more than 90 percent of economists expect the Trump administration’s current and threatened tariffs will negatively affect the U.S. economy. The survey

-- VIDEO DU JOUR: JOHN OLIVER tackled Trump’s trade wars and the role Peter Navarro plays in the White House on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” Video

2018 WATCH -- “Progressive vets, gun control advocates join forces on the campaign trail,” by McClatchy’s Alex Roarty: “A pair of organizations — one led by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, another that supports progressive veterans — will campaign on behalf of more than a half-dozen candidates next month, a tour meant to try and put the issue of gun control front and center in general election battlegrounds.” McClatchy

-- “Democrats Look to Flip New England’s One GOP House Seat,” by WSJ’s Jon Kamp in Bangor, Maine: “The graying district, which is 95% white, mostly rural and includes Maine’s poorest counties, mirrors the kinds of places where Democrats have struggled in the Trump era. But [Jared] Golden, who is focusing on access to health care and aiding struggling workers, is betting the trend won’t hold. …

“Both parties’ political-action committees focused on House control are preparing to spend heavily in the small-market state. The GOP super PAC has set aside about $3 million, [and] the Democratic super PAC $2.3 million.” WSJ

-- NEW: MTV is launching a midterm get-out-the-vote effort called “+1TheVote,” which will be introduced tonight at the VMAs. The campaign will include more than 1,000 parties and events at the polls across all 50 states. This is the first time MTV has gotten involved in youth voter engagement around the midterms. The voter registration tool

-- “The Texas Swing: Beto O’Rourke Could Be The Democrat Texas Has Been Waiting For,” by BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen: “Speaking with dozens of hopeful supporters over five days in West Central Texas, it’s clear that the enthusiasm and organization around O’Rourke’s campaign is there. And based on conversations with independent and Republican voters at his events, his message is traveling beyond progressive bubbles. …

“But there’s a gap between energy and obtaining the kind of power that can effect change, and it’s one that it’ll take more than a ‘blue wave’ to fill. It’s not just about convincing voters to swing O’Rourke’s way. It’s about convincing people to vote, period.” BuzzFeed

-- “The Nuns On The Bus Are Going To Mar-a-Lago To Protest The Republican Tax Law,” by HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard: HuffPost

-- ALEX ISENSTADT (@politicoalex): “PENCE headed to Houston area on Thursday to fundraise for John Culberson, per invite. Big Texas race.”

WHAT BARACK OBAMA IS UP TO -- “Obama records video backing Pritzker for Illinois governor”: “The roughly 90-second video released Monday is the first Obama has recorded for the fall election. In it, he says he’s backing Pritzker to lead his home state because ‘J.B. gets things done.’” APThe video

2020 WATCH -- “Dem Rep. Swalwell eyeing presidential run in 2020,” by CNN’s Lindsey Ellefson: CNN

ON THE WORLD STAGE -- “Kim Jong-un Focuses on Economy as Nuclear Talks With U.S. Stall,” by NYT’s Choe Sang-Hun in Seoul: “Since late June, Mr. Kim has devoted almost all his public activities to visiting factories, farms and construction sites, rather than the military units and weapons test sites that he frequented last year. And instead of boasting of his country’s military prowess, he is lashing out at poor management at the sites he visits, highlighting his intense focus on fixing his economy.

“Mr. Kim’s message is directed as much to the United States as to his people, experts in North Korean politics said, since his pledge to deliver economic prosperity depends on persuading Washington to ease damaging international sanctions.” NYT

-- “United States ‘plays Taiwan card’ with Tsai Ing-wen’s trip to NASA’s mission control centre,” by South China Morning Post’s Lawrence Chung: SCMP

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION -- “Trump hits corporate violators — with a feather,” NBC’s Suzy Khimm: “Across the federal government, the Trump administration is emphasizing the less-punitive approach to combat white-collar crime and civil violations by expanding its efforts to reward companies that come forward to report violations and take steps to fix them, based on an NBC News analysis of enforcement actions at multiple key agencies since the president took office.

“In return, the administration is offering to shield the offenders from costly litigation, federal prosecution and the steepest possible penalties.” NBC

JENNIFER JACOBS and SALEHA MOHSIN: “Trump Is Complaining to Donors in the Hamptons About Powell’s Rate Hikes”: Bloomberg

AP’S JULIET LINDERMAN in BALTIMORE: “In the city that claims him, Ben Carson falls from grace”: “Carson’s story of climbing out of poverty to become a world-renowned surgeon was once ubiquitous in Baltimore, where Carson made his name. In some schools his memoir was required reading, an illustration of the power of perseverance. … But his role in the Trump administration has added a complicated epilogue, leaving many who admired him feeling betrayed, unable to separate him from the politics of a president widely rejected by African-Americans here.” AP

MARIJUANA FILES -- ANNIE LOWREY in The Atlantic, “America’s Invisible Pot Addicts”: “If not necessarily because of legalization, but alongside legalization, such problems are becoming more common … Public-health experts worry about the increasingly potent options available, and the striking number of constant users … with some even warning that the country is replacing one form of reefer madness with another, careening from treating cannabis as if it were as dangerous as heroin to treating it as if it were as benign as kombucha.

“But cannabis is not benign, even if it is relatively benign, compared with alcohol, opiates, and cigarettes, among other substances. Thousands of Americans are finding their own use problematic—in a climate where pot products are getting more potent, more socially acceptable to use, and yet easier to come by, not that it was particularly hard before.” The Atlantic

HEADS UP -- “There’s a time bomb for U.S.-Mexico relations ticking underground,” by Quartz’s Zoë Schlanger in College Station, Texas: “All along the 1,250 miles of border between Texas and Mexico, hidden under hundreds of feet of soil and rock, lie more than a dozen underground aquifers—areas of permeable earth that hold water—that crisscross the national boundaries. They might be the only sources of water the region will have left when the Rio Grande, hit by a one-two punch of climate change and a booming population, inevitably dries up. And yet there is no binational agreement for all this shared groundwater.” Quartz

EXPLAINING ‘TRUTH ISN’T TRUTH’ -- @RudyGiuliani: “My statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology but one referring to the situation where two people make precisely contradictory statements, the classic ‘he said, she said’ puzzle. Sometimes further inquiry can reveal the truth other times it doesn’t.”

AFTERNOON READ -- “David Hogg, After Parkland: Furious and unflinching, an NRA enemy, an accused ‘crisis actor,’ and a high-school grad trying to figure out what’s next,” by Lisa Miller on the cover of New York magazine: “Hogg has emerged as the leader of a newly invigorated anti-gun-violence movement, the living embodiment of its message and a human front in a new culture war. … A lot of what has catapulted Hogg to this elevated and precarious place is his wonkishness: his dexterity on social media and cable news, his appetite for the nitty-gritty of policy disputes. He is aware of the way his particular talents mesh with how his generation thinks.” New YorkThe cover

MEDIAWATCH -- SEWELL CHAN will be a deputy managing editor at the Los Angeles Times. He is currently an international news editor at NYT.

-- CNN announced its first 2020 embeds: D.J. Judd, Daniella Diaz and Jasmine Wright.

SPOTTED at Larry Kudlow’s birthday party Saturday night hosted by him and his wife, Judy, at their home in Connecticut: Charlie Gasparino, Roger Stone, Chris Ruddy, Brian Kilmeade, Margo and John Catsimatidis, former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Charles Glazer, Richard Breeden, Michelle Caruso Cabrera, Pia Lindström, Liz and Jeff Peek, and Alexandra Preate.

WEEKEND WEDDINGS -- HILLARY ALUMNI: Alisa La, an aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and an HFA and State Dept. alum, married Ryan Guthrie, VP of government relations at Coca-Cola and former chief of staff to former Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), who attended the wedding. The reception was at Alisa’s dad’s restaurant, Meiwah, in Chevy Chase and featured a traditional nine-course Chinese wedding banquet. Pic by Ralph Alswang ... Another pic

-- Tony Samp, senior policy adviser for Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), married Scarlet Doyle, legislative assistant for Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). The couple got married with a rose backdrop on the rooftop of D.C.’s new City Winery. Pic

-- Joshua Bradley, legislative assistant for Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), married Maggie Mahfood, who works for House chief administrative officer Phil Kiko, at a ceremony at the Lake Tyler Petroleum Club in the couple’s hometown of Tyler, Texas. PicAnother pic

WELCOME TO THE WORLD – Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of the Communism Memorial Foundation and a Heritage Foundation alum, and Anna Smith Lacey, executive director of the Hungary Initiatives Foundation, welcomed Emma Marie Smith Lacey. PicInstapic

-- Andrew Kilberg, former law clerk to retired Justice Anthony Kennedy and now an associate at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, and Julia Kilberg, a digital marketing consultant, welcomed Tenley Rebecca Pierce Kilberg, who came in at 7 pounds, 3 ounces and is 20 inches long. Pic

BONUS BIRTHDAYS: Larry Kudlow is 71 … Dan Kanninen, Smoot Tewes Group CEO (h/ts Caleb Cate and Andrew Bates)

Kavanaugh proposed graphic questions for Bill Clinton during Starr probe

A memo Brett Kavanaugh wrote two decades ago containing graphic detail about President Bill Clinton's conduct with Monica Lewinsky became public Monday, showing the Supreme Court nominee was adamant that independent counsel Kenneth Starr's team had a responsibility to "make his pattern of revolting behavior clear."

Two days before Clinton testified to a grand jury via a video feed from the White House, Kavanaugh urged Starr and other lawyers on his staff to take a tough line regarding the president's behavior, according to the memo released by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The 33-year-old lawyer said the investigators had a truth-seeking function distinct from determining whether Clinton broke the law. The memo also is full of his moral judgment of the president’s conduct.

The release comes as special counsel Robert Mueller is negotiating with the White House over a possible interview with Donald Trump in his investigation into whether the president's 2016 campaign aided Russia in its efforts to intervene in the election.

"The idea of going easy on him at the questioning is...abhorrent to me," Kavanaugh wrote in the two-page memo, which was sent to Starr and all other attorneys on his staff on August 15, 1998. "The President has disgraced his Office, the legal system, and the American people by having sex with a 22-year-old intern and turning her life into a shambles — callous and disgusting behavior that has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle...He has tried to disgrace you and this Office with a sustained propaganda campaign that would make Nixon blush."

Kavanaugh's tone in the memo could fuel questions at his confirmation hearings about whether Starr's prosecution went beyond an investigation of criminal conduct, evolving into a moral crusade against Clinton.

"He should be forced to account for all of that and to defend his actions," Kavanaugh added in a bold font. "It may not be our job to impose sanctions on him, but it is our job to make his pattern of revolting behavior clear — piece by painful piece — on Monday."

The memo goes on to list 10 questions he proposed for Clinton, six of which are explicit and several of which are extraordinarily graphic.

Among the questions:

"If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions in the Oval Office area, you used your fingers to stimulate her vagina and bring her to orgasm, would she be lying?"

"If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions you had her give oral sex, made her stop, and then ejaculated into the sink in the bathroom of the Oval Office, would she be lying?"

"If Monica Lewinsky says that you masturbated into a trashcan in your secretary's office, would she be lying?"

Kavanaugh's views on whether Starr should discuss Clinton's conduct in graphic detail appear to have varied, even around the time he wrote the memo. Later that same month, Kavanaugh wrote to colleagues that he was concerned with the volume of explicit content in a report to Congress that Starr was preparing.

"IS IT TOO GRAPHIC?” Kavanaugh asked in an Aug. 31, 1998 memo to Starr aides. “SHOULD IT BE MORE GRAPHIC (kidding)?”

Later that year, Kavanaugh expressed regret that Congress published the whole report, including the sexually explicit portions. He defended the content of the report, but seemed to view its disclosure as a public relations debacle for Starr's team.

"We did not intend or have reason to know that Congress would simply dump the referral onto the Internet without even reviewing it," Kavanaugh wrote in a Feb. 5, 1999 missive to current and former Starr aides. "I believe we have done a very poor job of communicating to the public on this issue...I personally believe it unfortunate (for Ken, the Office, all of us individually, the case, the Presidency, and the public) that the entire body of the referral was publicly released before it had been reviewed and redacted by the House of Representatives."

Kavanaugh later would argue that Congress should make the president immune from both civil lawsuits and criminal investigations while still in office.

Brian Fallon of Demand Justice, a Democratic activist fighting Kavanaugh's nomination, said Monday that the explicit August 1998 memo highlights how the nominee's views have evolved in favor of greater deference to the presidency.

"It sure is odd how Brett Kavanaugh had such detailed questions in mind for Bill Clinton, but now apparently thinks it is improper for a president to even be asked about foreign meddling in our elections," he said.

Portions of the graphic memo written before the grand jury appearance were first revealed by author Ken Gormley in a 2010 book, "The Death of American Virtue: Clinton v. Starr." However, the document was not published in its entirety until Monday, when it was released by the National Archives along with other Kavanaugh-related files from Starr's office.

The records are part of a broader set of documents Democrats and Republicans are tussling over in advance of Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings, set to begin Sept. 4.

A statement from the Archives said the memo was made public in papers at the Library of Congress belonging to Sam Dash, an ethics adviser to Starr who died in 2004.

Dems raise concerns over Bolton’s ties to Russia

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are questioning whether national security adviser John Bolton’s ties to Russia were properly vetted before he joined the White House this year.

In a letter to White House chief of staff John Kelly, Democrats cite recent reports indicating that Bolton worked with a Russian woman who was charged last month for failing to register as an agent of a foreign power in the U.S.

In their telling, Bolton “worked directly with a Russian citizen who has now been charged by federal prosecutors with infiltrating [the NRA] and spying against the United States for years.”

“Given the alarming and unprecedented nature of these revelations — and the high-level position of trust Mr. Bolton now holds — we request that you produce documents relating to whether Mr. Bolton reported his previous work with this alleged Russian spy on his security clearance forms or other White House vetting materials prior to President Trump appointing him to his current position,” Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts wrote.

The lawmakers are asking for documents to be produced by Sept. 4 by the White House, National Security Council and FBI.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council did not immediately respond for comment.

Bolton, who was named national security adviser in April, was appointed to lead the NRA’s Subcommittee on International Affairs in 2011. He appeared by video at a 2013 roundtable forum on gun rights that was organized by Maria Butina, who was arrested last month for acting as a Russian agent inside the U.S. In the video, Bolton encouraged Russia to amend its constitution to expand gun rights.

The Justice Department alleges that Butina sought to “arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics, including an organization promoting gun rights, for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Butina, who pleaded not guilty, was relocated to a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, over the weekend.

Trump asks if Jeff Sessions' DOJ will 'ever' fire Bruce Ohr

President Donald Trump tweeted Monday to ask why his attorney general had not fired a Justice Department official with ties to the firm behind a dossier alleging connections between Trump and Russia.

“Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired from the Jeff Sessions ‘Justice’ Department? A total joke!” Trump wrote.

It was the closest Trump had come to calling directly for Ohr, whose wife was a contractor for Fusion GPS, to lose his job.

Ohr, who was demoted earlier this year, has come under fire from conservatives and now Trump over his connection to Fusion GPS. Ohr also had contacts with former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who wrote the dossier, and with Fusion co-founder Glenn Simpson. Trump has threatened to revoke Ohr's security clearance.

But there has been no indication that Ohr was involved in launching the FBI's investigation into possible ties between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russian efforts to intervene in the election.

Ohr is expected to testify before Congress on Aug. 28, Rep. Mark Meadows said on Twitter.

Trump has tweeted multiple times about Ohr, citing segments on Fox News, wondering aloud why Ohr is still at the DOJ and calling him a "creep."

Trump goads 'political hack' Brennan to sue over stripped clearance

President Donald Trump Monday pushed back on former CIA director John Brennan's threat that he may seek legal action against the Trump administration after his security clearance was revoked last week.

"I hope John Brennan, the worst CIA Director in our country’s history, brings a lawsuit," the president tweeted Monday morning. "It will then be very easy to get all of his records, texts, emails and documents to show not only the poor job he did, but how he was involved with the Mueller Rigged Witch Hunt. He won’t sue!"

Brennan on Sunday during an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” said that he had been given advice on the basis for complaint or an injunction by numerous lawyers to try to prevent Trump from taking away security clearances in the future.

The White House last week announced that it was revoking Brennan’s security clearance and reviewing the clearance of a number of other former officials and one current Justice Department official Bruce Ohr.

The action has been criticized by a number of former top intelligence officials and by 60 former CIA officials as an attempt by the White House to try to silence those who have opposed the president and his policies.

Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer who specializes in security clearance law, told POLITICO that lawyers are "in completely unchartered waters."

He said that a challenge to Trump's actions would be derived from the individual’s Fifth Amendment due process rights.

"That right doesn’t guarantee ultimate success on the merits, and the person might still lose their clearance for substantive reasons, but the process would have to conform to at least the basis requirements of the Fifth Amendment," Moss said.

Brennan, who last week said he wasn't informed by the White House that they were removing his clearance but only heard about it from a colleague watching press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' briefing to reporters, on Sunday acknowledged that he may not get his clearance back but said it was "a small price to pay" to prevent Trump from taking this action again.

"I am going to do whatever I can personally to try to prevent these abuses in the future and if it means going to court, I will do that,” Brennan said on "Meet the Press."

Moss said that it is "impossible to predict with certainty" the outcome of a lawsuit due to "the unprecedented manner in which the President revoked John Brennan’s security clearance."

"No one can say with certainty how the courts would adjudicate a clash between the President’s Article II authority to control classified information and an individual’s Fifth Amendment right to due process prior to the revocation of a security clearance because the factual scenario has never manifested before outside of academic exercises," he said.

Moss also addressed Trump's tweet, saying that the president and his legal counsel would never see Brennan's correspondence such as e-mails or text messages and that Trump and his lawyers are "candidly, living on another planet if they realistically think that’s how such a lawsuit would unfold."

"The litigation would be resolved strictly with motions, whether a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment," Moss said. "Neither side would ever get to the discovery process and even if in some bizarre world it did get that far the e-mails and text messages the President is referring to would be completely outside the scope of what would be relevant material.”

Trump also accused former officials of wanting to keep their clearances because of the "prestige" it provides, and even accused those with clearances of using it to get onto "board seats."

The president did not specify what he meant by board seat or who has specifically used their clearance to become a member of one.

Brennan, however, is currently a member of the SecureAuth Corp. + Core Security Advisory Board, the company announced in April. The former CIA director would "serve as a trusted advisor during the next phase of growth for the combined companies as they focus on the intelligent intersection of Identity and Security," according to the company's press release.

Jeff Kukowski, chief executive officer of SecureAuth + Core Security, said in a statement that Brennan never used his clearance while working with the advisory board and that the president removing it does not change the working relationship they have with Brennan.

"John Brennan is a recognized expert in cybersecurity, and his immense experience in the field and his deep knowledge of cyber threats has been valuable to the company," Kukowski said.

"Everybody wants to keep their Security Clearance, it’s worth great prestige and big dollars, even board seats, and that is why certain people are coming forward to protect Brennan. It certainly isn’t because of the good job he did! He is a political 'hack.'" Trump tweeted.

United States ‘plays Taiwan card’ with Tsai Ing-wen’s trip to NASA's mission control center

This story is being published by POLITICO as part of a content partnership with the South China Morning Post. It originally appeared on scmp.com on Aug. 20, 2018.

Beijing protested to Washington on Monday over Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s tour of NASA’s mission control complex during a stopover in the United States on the weekend.

Tsai became the first Taiwanese president to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, on Sunday, touring a facility off-limits to a series of leading space scientists from mainland China because of espionage fears.

She made the stop on her way back from a trip to Paraguay and Belize, two of the island’s shrinking number of diplomatic allies. It followed a high-profile visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Los Angeles at the start of her trip a week earlier.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing had made “solemn representations” to various nations over the Taiwanese leader’s “separatist” moves in the international arena.

“China resolutely opposes any country with diplomatic ties with China, including the U.S., having official contacts with Taiwan,” Lu said.

Analysts said the high level of courtesy shown to Tsai was a sign that Washington was willing to play the Taiwan card in dealings with Beijing.

Tsai told about 1,000 people who greeted her at her hotel in Houston that her American stays were the strongest proof that relations between Taiwan and the U.S. were at their warmest.

While in Los Angeles, Tsai made a public speech and met U.S. officials and lawmakers, treatment that prompted protests from Beijing. In a break with the past, the media contingent travelling with her was also allowed to report on all of her public activities.

Washington had previously tried to avoid provoking Beijing by ensuring that transit stays by any Taiwanese leader were as low key as possible.

Tsai was expected to return to Taipei on Monday night.

The U.S. Congress passed a spending bill in 2011 that expressly forbids NASA from working with Chinese authorities, citing a high risk of espionage.

Two years later, a group of Chinese scientists was excluded from attending a conference on NASA’s Kepler space telescope program.

In 2017, Yu Guobin, deputy director of China’s Lunar and Space Exploration Engineering Center, was also denied a U.S. visa to attend a gathering in The Woodlands, Texas, hosted by Brown University to discuss China’s plans to explore the moon and Mars.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has strengthened ties with the self-ruled island in the last two years, including encouraging official exchanges through the Taiwan Travel Act and promising military support to Taiwan.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province subject to eventual union, if necessary by force, had warned Washington against allowing Tsai to enter the country, citing the U.S. recognition of the “one China” policy.

Wang Kung-yi, a political-science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said the U.S. administration had been careful to not provoke Beijing too much, given the stops were not in New York or Washington.

“[The trip is] a breakthrough compared with previous treatment for Taiwan’s leaders transiting in the U.S., but a NASA tour does not necessary mean a significant breakthrough in U.S.-Taiwan ties,” Wang said.

He said the Taiwanese president should be aware that the island long been a U.S. card.

“Tsai should realise that the Trump administration is playing the Taiwan card against China in the face of a widening row between Washington and Beijing over trade and other major strategic interests,” Wang said.

Tao Wenzhao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said the transit arrangements for Tsai were a sign of better ties between Taipei and Washington but had not crossed Beijing’s red line by taking place in a major U.S. city.

Cross-strait exchanges have been suspended since Tsai, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, became the island’s president in May 2016 and refused to acknowledge the “one China” principle, which Beijing considers essential for communication between the two sides.

Beijing has also staged military exercises near the island and put the squeeze on Taipei on the international stage, including wooing away four of Taiwan’s 22 allies in the last two years.

Giuliani walks back 'truth isn't truth' comment

President Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried to walk back his statement over the weekend that "truth isn't truth," writing on Twitter that it wasn't meant to be taken as a "pontification on moral theology."

Giuliani made waves on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, responding to a New York Times report that the president's outside legal team was not aware of the extent to which White House counsel Don McGahn cooperated in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation during the 30 hours of interviews he sat for.

Giuliani told "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd that the president should not sit for an interview with Mueller because he could end up trapped in a lie and charged with perjury.

“When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth,” Giuliani told Todd.

“Truth is truth,” Todd responded.

“No, no, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani said. "Truth isn't truth."

His words, taken in the vein of counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway's much-mocked "alternative facts" argument from last year, quickly caught fire online. A day later, Giuliani sought to clear the air.

"My statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology but one referring to the situation where two people make precisely contradictory statements, the classic 'he said,she said' puzzle. Sometimes further inquiry can reveal the truth other times it doesn’t," Giuliani wrote on Twitter.

Giuliani often acts as a surrogate for the president, appearing on television in his capacity as Trump's lawyer to counter news reports about Mueller's probe. The president has long complained about the special counsel's investigation, branding it a "witch hunt" stacked with "angry Democrats," even though Mueller himself is a registered Republican.

Trump accuses Mueller's team of midterm meddling

The team of investigators working on special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation "are looking to impact" this November's midterm elections, President Donald Trump claimed Monday morning, labeling Mueller's team a "national disgrace."

The president's fresh attack against the special counsel's office comes on the heels of a New York Times report that Trump's legal team is not fully aware of how much information White House counsel Don McGahn shared with Mueller's team across 30 hours worth of interviews. The president insisted over the weekend that McGahn only sat for those interviews at his instruction.

"Disgraced and discredited Bob Mueller and his whole group of Angry Democrat Thugs spent over 30 hours with the White House Councel [sic], only with my approval, for purposes of transparency. Anybody needing that much time when they know there is no Russian Collusion is just someone looking for trouble," Trump wrote on Twitter Monday morning. "They are enjoying ruining people’s lives and REFUSE to look at the real corruption on the Democrat side - the lies, the firings, the deleted Emails and soooo much more! Mueller’s Angry Dems are looking to impact the election. They are a National Disgrace!"

Mueller is spearheading an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and whether then-candidate Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. Mueller's team is also probing accusations of obstruction of justice tied to the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, who was at the time overseeing the Russia investigation. The president has loudly denied all allegations of wrongdoing, a point he reiterated on Monday.

"Where’s the Collusion? They made up a phony crime called Collusion, and when there was no Collusion they say there was Obstruction (of a phony crime that never existed)," he wrote online. "If you FIGHT BACK or say anything bad about the Rigged Witch Hunt, they scream Obstruction!"

The president's accusation that Mueller's team will seek to influence the upcoming midterm elections come as campaign season begins to kick into high gear. Control of both houses of Congress is expected to be up for grabs in November's election, with many predicting a "blue wave" of Democratic victories prompted by the president's low job-approval poll numbers and the near-constant stream of controversy emanating from the White House.

The president offered no evidence to back up his claim that Mueller's team would seek to impact the 2018 election, an accusation he previously made last May. Justice Department guidelines generally dictate that investigators actively avoid taking any steps that might have political implications in the weeks leading up to elections.

Shots reported outside U.S. embassy in Turkey

Three bullets hit a security booth outside the U.S. embassy in Turkey early Monday morning, according to an Associated Press report.

No one was hurt, the AP reported.

According to the Ankara governor's office, suspects in a moving white vehicle fired six times towards the embassy in Istanbul. The incident is under investigation and officials are working to identify suspects, according to the AP.

David Gainer, spokesman for the U.S. embassy, praised Turkish police for their "rapid response." The American embassy is closed this week for the Muslim holiday Eid-al-Adha.

The attack comes amid rising tensions between Turkey and the United States, most notably over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, whom Turkey has accused of espionage and aiding a terrorist organization. President Donald Trump's administration has imposed sanctions on Turkey over Brunson's detention and threatened more if he is not released.

The U.S. hit Turkey with an initial round of sanctions earlier this month. In response to the trade spat, the Turkish lira has seen a dramatic decline in value.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for decades, could face life in prison if found guilty of espionage charges in a Turkish court. He denies the allegations against him.

POLITICO Playbook: Scoop: Ivanka, Jared are headlining Ryan’s Jackson Hole donor retreat

BREAKING … AP/ISTANBUL: “Shots fired at gate of U.S. Embassy in Turkey, but no one hurt”: “Unknown attackers fired shots at a security booth outside the U.S. Embassy in Turkey’s capital early Monday, but U.S. officials said no one was hurt. [The] Ankara governor’s office said six shots were fired from a moving white car towards the embassy compound at 5:30 am. Three of the bullets hit the gate and a window.

“The statement said the investigation was ongoing and the suspect or suspects have not yet been identified. U.S. Embassy spokesman David Gainer thanked police for their ‘rapid response’ and said no injuries had been reported.” AP

-- ALSO ON THE SCHEDULE: Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, who will speak about tax reform, Condoleezza Rice, who will speak about foreign policy, and Mitt Romney, who will speak alongside Ryan.

SENATE LEADERSHIP FUND had its best July fundraising effort ever, raising $26 million. SLF and American Crossroads have $47.3 million cash on hand, and the four groups have $65 million in the bank. One Nation and Crossroads GPS have raised $38.5 million through the end of July and have $17.8 million cash on hand.

STEVEN LAW, SLF president and CEO, attributed the July uptick to Democrats’ reactions to President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh, which “convinced our donors of the absolute importance of holding the Senate majority.”

-- “Inside Trump’s Judicial Takeover: How conservative operatives and Senate Republicans are helping the president pack the courts at a record pace,” by Andy Kroll. Rolling Stone

BURGESS EVERETT and MAGGIE SEVERNS: “Liberals crushed in SCOTUS spending war”

NYT’S MIKE SCHMIDT and MAGGIE HABERMAN: “Trump Lawyers’ Sudden Realization: They Don’t Know What Don McGahn Told Mueller’s Team”: “President Trump’s lawyers do not know just how much the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, told the special counsel’s investigators during months of interviews, a lapse that has contributed to a growing recognition that an early strategy of full cooperation with the inquiry was a potentially damaging mistake.”

“The president’s lawyers said on Sunday that they were confident that Mr. McGahn had said nothing injurious to the president during the 30 hours of interviews. But Mr. McGahn’s lawyer has offered only a limited accounting of what Mr. McGahn told the investigators, according to two people close to the president.

“That has prompted concern among Mr. Trump’s advisers that Mr. McGahn’s statements could help serve as a key component for a damning report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, which the Justice Department could send to Congress, according to two people familiar with the discussions.” NYT

WSJ EDITORIAL BOARD: “Trump Waives the Privilege: How to read Don McGahn’s cooperation with Robert Mueller”: “The bottom line is that readers should remain skeptical about what is reported about Mr. Mueller’s probe, waiting to see the evidence he actually produces.” WSJ

Good Monday morning. The Nationals lost to the last-place Marlins 12-1 yesterday afternoon. WAPO’S TOM BOSWELL: “After too many self-inflicted wounds, this Nationals season can probably be pronounced dead”

MANAFORT TRIAL PREVIEW -- DARREN SAMUELSOHN: “Manafort trial Day 15 begins Monday at 9:30 a.m. We expect a return of last week’s carnival-like atmosphere as jury deliberations stretch into their third day and with Judge Ellis raising alarm bells Friday by talking generally about ‘threats’ coming his way and toward the jurors.

“Reporters will be camped out up in the courtroom reading newspapers, playing cards and just enjoying the brief serenity (I am at least, while the newbies still seem twitchy) of a cellphone-free existence. Others will be staked out in the grassy plaza, amid a wall of cameras that swivel back and forth between the courthouse’s front entrance and the Westin hotel, where Manafort’s attorneys and Mrs. Manafort are usually stationed waiting for the verdict.

“The tension should build in the days ahead. The major television network and cable reporters have parachuted onto the scene, as have the neighborhood retirees, pro-Mueller protestors and even a Washington D.C. tour guide promoting his business. ... Lastly, I’ll say this note is starting to feel like a letter from a desert island or a spaceship traveling further out of earth’s orbit.”

NYT SCOOP -- “Cohen, Trump’s Ex-Lawyer, Investigated for Bank Fraud in Excess of $20 Million,” by William K. Rashbaum, Ben Protess and Maggie Haberman: “Federal authorities investigating whether President Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen, committed bank and tax fraud have zeroed in on well over $20 million in loans obtained by taxi businesses that he and his family own, according to people familiar with the matter. Investigators are also examining whether Mr. Cohen violated campaign finance or other laws by helping to arrange financial deals to secure the silence of women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump.

“The inquiry has entered the final stage and prosecutors are considering filing charges by the end of August, two of the people said. Any criminal charges against Mr. Cohen would deal a significant blow to the president. ... Federal investigators in New York are seeking to determine whether Mr. Cohen misrepresented the value of his assets to obtain the loans, which exceed $20 million. They are also examining how he handled the income from his taxi medallions and whether he failed to report it to the Internal Revenue Service.” NYT

-- “Michael Cohen’s attorney says he’s talking to lawyer who brought down Nixon,” by Daniel Lippman: “Lanny Davis, an attorney for former longtime Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, said he has been reaching out regularly over the past few months to John Dean, the former White House counsel who helped bring down the presidency of Richard Nixon. ...

“‘I reached out to my old friend John Dean because of what he went through with Watergate, and I saw some parallels to what Michael Cohen is experiencing. I wanted to gain from John’s wisdom,’ Davis told POLITICO.” POLITICO

K-FILE CLAIMS ANOTHER ONE -- “Speechwriter who attended conference with white nationalists in 2016 leaves White House,” by CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski: “A speechwriter for President Donald Trump who attended a conference frequented by white nationalists has left the White House. CNN’s KFile reached out to the White House last week about Darren Beattie, a policy aide and speechwriter, who was listed as speaking at the 2016 H.L. Mencken Club Conference. The Mencken Club, which is named for the early 20th century journalist and satirist whose posthumously published diaries revealed racist views, is a small annual conference started in 2008 and regularly attended by well-known white nationalists such as Richard Spencer. ...

“The White House, which asked CNN to hold off on the story for several days last week declined to say when Beattie left the White House. Beattie's email address at the White House, which worked until late Friday evening, was no longer active by Saturday. ‘Mr. Beattie no longer works at the White House,’ White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told CNN on Friday night. ‘We don’t comment on personnel matters.’ Beattie confirmed to CNN he spoke to the 2016 conference, saying his speech was not objectionable.” CNN

-- WAPO’S BOB COSTA: “Once White House officials were informed about CNN’s pending report, Beattie reportedly was confronted and urged to step down immediately. But he apparently refused to resign, arguing that he was not racist and that he had made uncontroversial academic points at the Mencken gathering. When it became clear that Beattie would not resign, the people familiar with the matter said, the White House terminated him.” WaPo

L.A. TIMES’ MARK Z. BARABAK and MICHAEL FINNEGAN in GREENFIELD, N.H.: “Donald Trump redefined what's possible in presidential politics. Enter Michael Avenatti”: “‘I think I want him for my attorney,’ said Denise Clark, 64, a semi-retired teacher from nearby Milford, who took in the politicking and picnic beneath a safari hat and dark sunglasses. ‘I’m not sure I want him as president of the United States.’

“The exertions of the 47-year-old Newport Beach lawyer could just be another publicity stunt or a way to buff his ego. ‘I have not decided whether I’m going to do it,’ Avenatti said of a full-fledged run for president. ‘My life would be a lot better if I did not,’ he added in an interview before leaving Los Angeles for New England, by way of a Saturday night fundraiser for Democrats in Tampa, Fla.” LAT

-- AVENATTI sounds a lot like Trump.

2018 WATCH -- “Republican Rick Scott sends a bilingual message in Florida race: He’s not Trump,” by WaPo’s Mike Scherer in Tampa: “In Florida, the efforts have had an impact, especially among the Puerto Rican community that felt neglected by the Trump administration after Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, knocking out power and killing many.

“A June survey by Florida International University found that more than 7 in 10 Puerto Ricans in Florida had a negative view of Trump, but 55 percent of the same group had a positive view of Scott, who had a higher approval rating than his opponent, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

“A more recent head-to-head poll by several Democratic-leaning groups found Scott and Nelson locked in a statistical tie, with 46 percent approval for Scott among Florida Latinos, compared with 34 percent approval for Nelson. Notably, Scott was leading among Puerto Rican men and those without a college degree.” WaPo

-- “North Dakota nasty: GOP makes Heitkamp top target for defeat,” by Elana Schor in Bismarck, North Dakota: “Major GOP groups have written him off. His Democratic opponent has more than twice as much cash in the bank, was interviewed for a job in the Trump administration, and has paid more than a half-dozen visits to the White House. But Rep. Kevin Cramer just might get elected to the Senate, anyway.

“Despite the poor electoral environment for conservatives, the political talents of incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Cramer’s own flaws, top Republicans routinely rank him as one of their best prospects to seize a Democratic-held Senate seat in 2018. And the reason is simple: North Dakota remains Trump country, and Cramer’s unflinching support for the president might be a more popular play with voters than Heitkamp’s vow to rein him in when she feels she has to.” POLITICO

ELENA SCHNEIDER: “Sex, lies and DUIs: GOP dumps oppo on Dem House hopefuls: Republican ads are getting personal in the fight for the House majority.”

-- THE CONGRESSIONAL LEADERSHIP FUND is running four ads, criticizing Democrats for not joining the National Organization for Women in calling for Keith Ellison to drop out of the AG race after his ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic violence. They are targeting Minnesota’s first, second, third and eighth congressional districts.

TRUMP’S MONDAY -- The president will have lunch with VP Mike Pence and will host “the Salute to the Heroes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.”

PLAYBOOK ON THE ROAD -- Tweet or send us a photo of you, your friends and companions reading Playbook this August to @playbookplus using hashtag #PlaybookLoyal or email them to Daniel at daniel@politico.com for the chance to be featured on Friday each week this month.

FOR YOUR RADAR -- “North Korea alludes to confrontation with U.S. over secret nuclear sites during negotiations,” by Japan Times’ Jesse Johnson: “The United States has explicitly confronted North Korea about suspected secret nuclear weapons facilities during ongoing denuclearization negotiations, a commentary published over the weekend by the North’s state-run media has appeared to show.

“In the commentary released Saturday, the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, blasted ‘those opposed to dialogue’ in the U.S., saying that officials both inside and outside the White House had ‘provided the negotiating team with a truncheon called (the) ‘theory of suspected north Korea’s secret nuclear facilities,’ a fiction, driving it to derailing dialogue.” Japan Times

-- “U.S. Rebuffs Effort to Tether Bank Fine to Pastor’s Release,” by WSJ’s Mike Bender: “The Trump administration has rejected an effort by Turkey to tie the release of a U.S. pastor with relief for a major Turkish bank facing billions of dollars in U.S. fines, telling Ankara other issues are off the table until the minister is freed, a senior White House official said. ... The rejection of a possible trade sets the stage for the U.S. to impose another round of penalties against Ankara as soon as this week. ... ‘A real NATO ally wouldn’t have arrested Brunson in the first place,’ the senior White House official said.” WSJ

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION -- “As Trump Dismantles Clean Air Rules, an Industry Lawyer Delivers for Ex-Clients,” by NYT’s Eric Lipton: “As a corporate lawyer, William L. Wehrum worked for the better part of a decade to weaken air pollution rules by fighting the [EPA] in court on behalf of chemical manufacturers, refineries, oil drillers and coal-burning power plants.

“Now, Mr. Wehrum is about to deliver one of the biggest victories yet for his industry clients — this time from inside the Trump administration as the government’s top air pollution official. On Tuesday, President Trump is expected to propose a vast rollback of regulations on emissions from coal plants, including many owned by members of a coal-burning trade association that had retained Mr. Wehrum and his firm as recently as last year to push for the changes.” NYT

HOLLYWOODLAND -- “Asia Argento, Who Accused Weinstein, Made Deal With Her Own Accuser,” by NYT’s Kim Severson: “The Italian actress and director Asia Argento was among the first women in the movie business to publicly accuse the producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. She became a leading figure in the #MeToo movement. Her boyfriend, the culinary television star Anthony Bourdain, eagerly joined the fight.

“But in the months that followed her revelations about Mr. Weinstein last October, Ms. Argento quietly arranged to pay $380,000 to her own accuser: Jimmy Bennett, a young actor and rock musician who said she had sexually assaulted him in a California hotel room years earlier, when he was only two months past his 17th birthday.” NYT

WHAT BARACK OBAMA IS READING THIS SUMMER -- He posts on Facebook: “Tara Westover’s ‘Educated’ is a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind. Set after WWII, ‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje is a meditation on the lingering effects of war on family. With the recent passing of V.S. Naipaul, I reread ‘A House for Mr Biswas,’ the Nobel Prize winner’s first great novel about growing up in Trinidad and the challenge of post-colonial identity.

“‘An American Marriage’ by Tayari Jones is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple. ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.” The Facebook post

SPOTTED at Bangor, Maine, airport on Sunday: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney (separately) ... at Caves Valley Golf Course, Maryland, on Sunday: Australia Ambassador Joe Hockey, Coach Kathy Kemper, Tom and Ann Friedman.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD – James Quinn, chief of staff for Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Shannon Quinn, a teacher at Randolph Elementary School, welcomed Grace Frances Quinn on Wednesday. She weighed 6 lbs 9 oz. Pic

BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Oliver Darcy, CNN senior media reporter. A fun fact about Oliver: “I am a man of routine. I go to the same diner, at the same time, on the same day every week. [Darcy declined to say which diner.] When I come to D.C., I enjoy brunching at Firefly. It’s a fantastic establishment and I’m lucky enough to have friends who relish in dining there with me. Looking at you Kaitlan Collins, Michelle Fields, and Olivia Nuzzi.” Playbook Plus Q&A

BIRTHDAYS: Fox News’ Fin Gomez … Lea Berman ... Jenny Backus ... Amb. Michael Froman, vice chairman and president of strategic growth at Mastercard and former USTR, is 56 (hat tip: Andrew Bates) ... Brad Fingeroot … Politico’s Doug Palmer ... Scott Rothrock ... BPI birthday twins: partner Ben LaBolt and COO and partner Ann Marie Habershaw … Al Roker is 64 ... former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is 83 ... former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) is 85 ... Targeted Victory CEO Zac Moffatt ... Connie Chung … Rae-Lynn Ziegler, director of social media and outreach for the Washington Free Beacon (h/t Anton Vuljaj) … Rachel Thomas, strategic communications director at ACRONYM + Lockwood Strategy and an IBM and EMILY’s List alum ... Susan Aspey ... Gina Keeney ... Brianna McCullough … Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) is 57 (h/t Josh Brown, filing from Aspen) … Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) is 52 ... Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is 56 ... former Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Tex.) is 78 ... Tarrah Cooper, partner at Rise Strategy Group ... Matt Shapanka is 31 ... Morgan Murtaugh ... Elyse Medvigy ...

... Jim Hock, SVP of external affairs at PSP Capital and former Commerce COS … Edelman’s Jeffrey Norfolk ... Jody Serrano (h/t Amy Sisk, filing from Pittsburgh) ... Alice Frost Richardson ... Madison Gouveia, communications associate at Vox Media (h/t Sujata Mitra) … Targeted Victory’s Ryan Meerstein (h/t Zac) … Michael Montelongo ... Meghan Grant ... Madeline Shepherd, associate director of federal policy at Council for a Strong America (h/t Rachel Wein) ... Gordon Neal ... Hayley Peterson, senior correspondent at Business Insider ... Patrick Drahi is 55 ... Matthew Gould is 47 ... David Ryan Adelman is 37 ... Pat Collier IV, policy director at JB Pritzker for Governor … Jeff Morehouse is 38 ... Angelica Alatorre … Nicholas Himebaugh ... Kenny Swab ... Jordan Kittleson ... Shannon Travis ... Linnea Dyer Hegarty ... Katie Peters, communications director at Giffords ... Casey Badmington ... Eleni Roumel ... Steve Pfrang ... Shannon Harris ... Ari Goldberg, director of advocacy comms at CARE, is 45 ... Faryar Shirzad ... Jen Brown … Lona Valmoro … Bob Hudek … Ryan O’Keefe.

North Dakota nasty: GOP makes Heitkamp top target for defeat

BISMARCK, N.D. — Major GOP groups have written him off. His Democratic opponent has more than twice as much cash in the bank, was interviewed for a job in the Trump administration, and has paid more than a half-dozen visits to the White House.

But Rep. Kevin Cramer just might get elected to the Senate, anyway.

Despite the poor electoral environment for conservatives, the political talents of incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Cramer’s own flaws, top Republicans routinely rank him as one of their best prospects to seize a Democratic-held Senate seat in 2018. And the reason is simple: North Dakota remains Trump country, and Cramer’s unflinching support for the president might be a more popular play with voters than Heitkamp’s vow to rein him in when she feels she has to.

Though Cramer entered the race only after cajoling from President Donald Trump, the 57-year-old career politician is now plainly relishing the fight against Heitkamp. The first-term Democrat won her Senate race in 2012 by less than 1 percentage point on the strength of her retail campaign skills, independent streak and plainspokenness.

Cramer is trying to turn those assets against her with his own tell-it-like-it-is style.

“She tries to disguise her lack of political conviction as some noble thing,” Cramer told POLITICO, in between a string of events highlighting homegrown fuel and power companies with Energy Secretary Rick Perry last week. He said Heitkamp is having an “identity crisis” when it comes to Trump’s agenda.

Asked about the Trump tariffs that threaten to wallop North Dakota soybean farmers, Cramer said his foe is “undermining the very strategy our country’s involved in” on trade by criticizing the president’s policy. He went further in a radio interview days later, fretting that Heitkamp had “become an enemy of our country, for crying out loud,” as he cited her recent trip to the Mexican Embassy with North Dakota farmers.

Cramer wasn’t always this gung-ho about taking on Heitkamp, whose warm rapport with Trump won her an interview for a Cabinet job after the 2016 election and — to the annoyance of her now-challenger and his fellow Republicans — multiple invitations to the White House since then. Heitkamp appeared on stage with Trump last year at a North Dakota event to tout the tax bill she ultimately voted against, with the president deeming her a “good woman.”

Of course, Trump has since made clear his preference for Cramer, and the bigger Senate majority that he could help build. Cramer decided against a Senate run earlier this year, then jumped in after Trump called in February and urged him to “start thinking more about your country and less about yourself,” as Cramer put it.

Cramer still portrays the campaign as a question of personal sacrifice. His candidacy “became more obligatory” when Trump leaned on him as the best chance to boost the GOP’s prospects, Cramer said, adding that his family “know[s] there’s nothing about this that’s good for” them.

Two leading GOP groups, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the free market Club for Growth, have decided not to offer Cramer any help this cycle out of frustration with his record on trade and spending. Heitkamp’s campaign reported $5.2 million on hand at the end of this year’s second quarter, while Cramer reported about $2.4 million in his coffers.

Elected to the House in 2012 after a decade serving on the state’s public utilities commission, Cramer has other vulnerabilities besides his cash deficit. A series of verbal gaffes last year — Cramer said Sean Spicer was unfairly criticized for invoking Adolf Hitler, and remarked about “poorly dressed” Democratic women who wore white pantsuits in an homage to suffragists — caused many in his own party to cringe.

Yet now that he’s all in, party leaders are bullish on Cramer’s prospects. The most recent nonpartisan public poll in the race, released in June, showed Cramer up by 4 percentage points.

In a recent interview, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Heitkamp the “most vulnerable senator” this year and named North Dakota the “No. 1” most closely contested race.

Cramer looked in his element last week glad-handing with executives and employees as he toured energy companies. The veteran state energy regulator showcased his command of the issues during a day alongside Perry and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who joined him in donning hard hats with “Coal Guns Freedom” stickers. Cramer hosted Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao the week before Perry and will bring Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to North Dakota this week for a visit that could turn tense amid farmers’ apprehension about Trump's trade war.

Cramer is walking a fine line when it comes to tariffs that have pushed North Dakota soybean prices down as China, the world’s top purchaser of the crop, buys outside the U.S. in retaliation for Trump's levies. The third-term Republican warned in House testimony last month of his state’s “eminent concern that longstanding markets may be lost forever.”

He’s just as adamant in person against the policy Trump’s chosen, saying that “I think tariffs are basically a tax on your own consumers.” But Cramer, who endorsed Trump in 2016 before many other Republicans, is ready to test his pain tolerance in order to give the president room to negotiate a new deal with China. Instead, he’s trying to deflect to Heitkamp and her trip to the Mexican Embassy.

“I think what would help us win these trade deals would be if we backed his strategy rather than undermining it,” he said.

Heitkamp laughed heartily in an interview when asked about Cramer’s jab at her for being inconsistently aligned with Trump. “Congressman Cramer’s myopic dedication to a political party is exactly what we don’t need in this town, and it’s exactly what North Dakota doesn’t expect,” she said in the Capitol last week.

She recoiled at his “enemy of the country” jab, calling it “really extreme language.” After the interview, Heitkamp called a reporter back on the phone to throw another punch at Cramer.

“For me, it’s the difference between being a follower — always doing what someone else tells you to do,” she said, referring to Trump, “and being a leader.”

Even so, farmers who backed Trump in 2016 may share Cramer’s wait-and-see perspective more widely than Heitkamp’s unabashed criticism of the president’s trade policy. North Dakota Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies said that his group has “taken very few to no phone calls from our members saying the renegotiation of these trade agreements is a bad thing.”

“Our members are saying, ‘No, tariffs aren’t perfect, but you’ve got to let an administration use every tool in its toolbox to get us a better deal for decades to come,’” Lies added in an interview.

It’s not just trade that has pushed Cramer and Heitkamp into rhetorical combat. Their state may have a reputation for “North Dakota nice,” but Cramer and Heitkamp’s race is shaping up as “among the nastiest, or maybe the nastiest, in my experience,” said Jack Zaleski, who spent 30 years as the editorial page editor of the state’s Forum newspaper.

Health care is another live issue in the race. Heitkamp last week unveiled an ad that cited “300,000 North Dakotans” with pre-existing conditions, while noting Cramer’s vote to repeal Obamacare. Cramer called that statistic “a scare tactic.”

“Republicans should have covered pre-existing conditions when we were in control, instead of letting Barack Obama do it,” Cramer said, adding that “now we’re committed to getting it done.” He’s still supportive of a Trump administration lawsuit that could dismantle Obamacare, despite the slim prospects for congressional action on any replacement legislation.

The duo also have tangled over energy, a topic in which both are well versed. Cramer has sought to undercut Heitkamp’s work on a proposal Trump signed into law this year expanding tax credits for capturing carbon from coal, and on the deal to end the U.S. oil export ban in 2015, by touting his own involvement on both fronts.

“I hold my record up against his record any day of the week, because if all you do is talk to one side and vote one side, you’ll get nothing done in this town,” Heitkamp responded. “And this is exactly why I’m going to win this race. Because North Dakotans aren’t electing a Republican. They are electing the next U.S. senator from North Dakota.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

Sex, lies and DUIs: GOP dumps oppo on Dem House hopefuls

Dramatized police dispatch calls of a DUI arrest. Allegations of sexual harassment. Court filings reviewing “failed” business investments.

Those are attacks leveled against Democratic congressional candidates in a new Republican ad campaign in recent days — part of a growing effort to personalize the midterm elections and disqualify individual Democratic hopefuls early in a bid to save the Republican House majority.

National trends are driving the general direction of the 2018 midterms, fueled by strong feelings about health care, taxes, President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But with so many first-time candidates running on the Democratic side — without the baggage of legislative voting records or controversial positions adopted over a long public career — and the political environment tilting toward them, GOP efforts to keep them out of the House may hinge on specific personal critiques, vetting them publicly for the first time.

That’s how Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC, is starting its campaign against Democrat Sean Casten in Illinois, blasting him for “mismanagement, fraud, greed” at his company in a TV ad released Wednesday. (Casten’s campaign called it “false attacks” in a statement.) The group is also hammering Randy Bryce, the Democratic nominee in Speaker Paul Ryan’s district, over drunk driving arrests.

And there's more to come: A review of research materials collected by the National Republican Congressional Committee shows that the campaign committee plans to litigate many more Democrats' professional history, including digging through client and case histories of a half-dozen attorneys running in top battleground districts. CLF set up its own in-house research unit, a first for the group this cycle as it seeks to dig up its own dirt on Senate and House candidates.

“The fact is that the treasure trove of research books on these Democratic candidates is amazing,” said Guy Harrison, a Republican consultant who led the NRCC during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. “It’s probably the deepest and most wacky I’ve ever seen in a cycle.”

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Harrison added.

In Wisconsin, CLF’s ads hit Bryce for nine arrests, including driving while under the influence and driving on a suspended license. The ad mimics audio of a police dispatch call, with the narrator saying, “We have a drunk driver in custody … his name is Randy Bryce, repeat offender.”

Bryce apologized for his drunken driving in a statement to CNN in July, saying: “There is no excuse for what I did 20 years ago when I got behind the wheel and operated under the influence.”

In California, CLF is airing TV ads that say Democrat Gil Cisneros, who’s running in the race to replace California Rep. Ed Royce, “has been accused of sexual harassment by a prominent Democrat.”

Cisneros’ campaign released a statement on the ad, denying the assault allegations. “Every legitimate news outlet that has researched this false allegation has found that it is simply not true,” said Nic Jordan, a Cisneros spokesman. “There are multiple eyewitnesses, including a local Emmy Award-winning television journalist, that fundamentally contradict the alleged events and can verify that the allegations are completely false.”

CLF and other Republican groups aren’t only going personal; the NRCC is already running TV ads in New York attacking Democratic candidates as “liberal” and “radical” followers of Pelosi, another major GOP messaging effort. But Republicans hope that prosecuting these candidates’ personal resumes will define their opponents early, especially since so many challengers don’t have voting records to pick apart.

“As an outside group, our job is to be the hammer and to attack,” said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for CLF. “The whole purpose of the ads is to define the candidates and set the tone."

Some operatives predicted that voters will see a spike in personal attack ads in 2018, citing an intensely polarized environment “that people aren’t as responsive to ideological messaging anymore," said one Republican consultant who works on House races.

But the profile of some Democratic candidates in 2018 makes the messaging difficult. Take Mikie Sherrill, the Democratic nominee in the open race to replace retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). She flew helicopters for the Navy and served as a federal prosecutor, and she has positioned herself cautiously on health care and promised to not support Pelosi for speaker. But Republicans have dug into her prosecutorial record and have signaled they plan attack her for negotiating a plea deal for a man charged with child pornography during her work as a federal prosecutor.

“Mikie Sherrill claims to have the best interests of children in mind, but as a lawyer, she negotiated a deal with someone who knowingly distributed child pornography,” one research memo reads.

Sherrill’s campaign manager Mollie Binotto called the attack “absurd,” adding in a statement, “all it shows is a bankrupt Republican agenda in Washington that can’t defend its record to voters on taxes, health care or infrastructure."

The NRCC used a similar attack line against Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) during the Pennsylvania special election, accusing him of “[negotiating] a plea bargain” for a “drug kingpin” and “dropping 269 charges, allowing the drug kingpin to receive a much weaker sentence” in TV ads. Lamb would go on to win the race in March, flipping a district that backed the president by 20 points.

Democrats argue that this messaging strategy is a sign that Republicans “don’t have anything to run on, in terms of issues where the voters are on their side, so they’re going to look for smaller-ball things to try and discredit candidates,” said Brian Smoot, a Democratic consultant who served as the DCCC’s political director in 2008. “This is a bigger picture election."

In 2010, Democrats deployed a similar strategy to “help us withstand the wave," said one former DCCC official, but “those Republican candidates are now members of Congress.” Democrats ultimately lost 63 seats in 2010 in President Barack Obama’s first midterm cycle.

“We went through every business record and tax record and video and client list that they’ve ever been involved in and, in the end, those weren’t the issues that were top of mind to voters,” the official continued, granted anonymity to discuss internal party strategy. “You win elections by meeting voters where they are, not by trying to convince them something else matters that’s not relevant to their life."

Democrats pointed to Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who overcame allegations that his former wife accused him of harassment, intimidation and physical abuse during their divorce, as The Times Free-Press reported in September 2010. DesJarlais, then a first-time candidate, denied the allegations and defeated Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis by 18 points.

Harrison, who led the NRCC during the 2010 cycle, said that Democrats "waited until too late in the race" to go after Republicans’ personal traits, "which allowed us to grow."

But another Republican consultant put it more bluntly: "In a wave election, even bozos can get elected. It’s often just about grabbing a surfboard."

Manafort trial Day 15: Jury meets for third day as Trump-fueled political cacophony grows

Paul Manafort’s tax- and bank-fraud trial is set to kick off its third day of jury deliberations Monday with questions swirling about jurors’ ability to ignore the politically charged cacophony enveloping them, including President Donald Trump’s public suggestion that his former campaign chairman’s trial is a miscarriage of justice.

Jurors weighing the evidence against Manafort have long known that they’re assigned to a high-profile case; the packed courtroom, reporters dashing out to file stories and fleet of satellite trucks deployed around the Alexandria, Virginia, courthouse leave little doubt of that.

However, Trump’s comments Friday calling Manafort a “good person” and his trial a “very sad day” may have intensified the pressure on jurors as they try to follow U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis’ repeated instructions to ignore media coverage and other public commentary about the case.

Manafort’s defense team has embraced the presidential condolences and seems to have embarked on a public campaign in favor of their client. Defense attorney Kevin Downing has spoken briefly to the phalanx of TV cameras outside the courthouse on each of the last three days that court was in session, after keeping mum outside the courtroom during the first few weeks of the trial.

On Friday, Downing said on camera that the team was grateful to Trump for speaking out on Manafort’s behalf.

“Mr. Manafort appreciates the support of President Trump,” the defense attorney said.

Downing seems to be trying to boost public sympathy for his client, which could pay off regardless of whether his comments reach jurors’ ears. Many legal observers believe Manafort’s team is making a play to Trump for a potential pardon if the former Trump campaign chief is convicted on any of the charges in the Virginia case or a separate trial set to take place in Washington beginning next month.

But while Trump’s allies have amplified the message — “We have our fingers crossed for Paul,” former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said on Twitter — critics said it was inappropriate for the president to weigh in mid-trial and for Downing to draw attention to Trump’s remarks while the jury, which is not sequestered, is deliberating.

“Manafort attorney is likely violating ethical rules by his comment,” former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah said on Twitter. “Gov should make motion. Completely inappropriate. (President’s comments are too of course but Ellis doesn’t have control over that).”

A spokesman for the defense declined to comment Sunday.

Trump, meanwhile, has kept up a steady drumbeat of complaints about the ongoing probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether any Trump associates helped. Manafort is not accused of wrongdoing directly related to Russia, but the charges against him arose from that investigation.

“So many lives have been ruined over nothing – McCarthyism at its WORST!” Trump wrote on Twitter Sunday morning, blasting Mueller’s investigation as a “Rigged and Disgusting Witch Hunt.”

Despite Trump’s frequent attacks, jurors at Manafort’s trial have encountered no explicit argument in the courtroom that Mueller’s appointment as special counsel or his team’s work is illegitimate. Before the trial, Ellis rejected a motion challenging the special counsel’s authority, but the judge made clear he is no fan of the concept of an independent prosecutor.

Nevertheless, it seemed no accident that in closing arguments last week, defense attorneys reminded jurors no fewer than eight times that the case against Manafort was brought by the special counsel’s office. In one instance, Downing stopped to explain to jurors that the small-print footer “SCO” in one of the exhibits meant it came from the special counsel’s office.

Defense lawyer Richard Westling also told jurors that “typical Justice Department prosecutors” don’t bring bank-fraud charges based on facts like those in the Manafort case.

Adding to the tension surrounding the trial, Ellis said Friday he was aware of unspecified “threats” related to the case, and he said jurors would likely be “scared” and “afraid” if their identities became public. Even if jurors didn’t hear directly about his comments on that front, their friends and family members surely have.

“I had no idea that this case would excite these emotions, I will tell you frankly,” the judge said, adding that he travels to a hotel each night in the company of federal marshals.

Ellis made the statements at a hearing on a motion by seven news organizations, including POLITICO, seeking access to a variety of sealed motions and transcripts of closed hearings the judge held. The media also requested access to the jurors’ names and addresses — a request that prompted pushback from some who said the jury's task is already difficult enough.

Legal experts said it was far from shocking that the jury, which heard testimony from 27 witnesses and has been handed nearly 400 exhibits, is still mulling its verdicts after two days.

“At least they are still deliberating,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from Miami. He said the defense “must be feeling better” than the Mueller team but warned that speculating much more than that is hazardous.

It takes time to reach unanimous decisions, and he said it’s also possible the jury has reached decisions on some of the counts and is struggling with others. Weinstein said it’s not unusual to see an hour of deliberation for each day of the trial, which would put the jurors on track for three or more days of discussions, depending on how often they take breaks.

“While I was among those who expected a verdict prior to the weekend, I realize that this will take some time because ultimately Manafort's intent is at issue,” Weinstein said. “For now, it appears it was a wise choice to keep him off of the stand.”

“If it goes beyond Monday, I’d start to worry,” Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told POLITICO Friday.

The California congressman noted his experience as a former Alameda County deputy district attorney to highlight how each jury is different and warned against reading too deeply into what the delays and jurors’ notes to the judge could mean.

One of the jurors’ questions Thursday afternoon could signal that the deliberations could be a long haul. One or more jurors sought an index of all the exhibits in the case, cross-referenced to all the criminal counts. No such document is known to exist. Preparing one would be a daunting task and involve many subjective judgments, so Ellis turned the request down.

If members of the jury want to make such an index themselves, it could take days.

Jurors also asked about the meaning of reasonable doubt and about when Americans have to file reports on bank accounts overseas.

Manafort’s lawyers called the set of questions a “good sign” that jurors were rigorously reviewing the government’s evidence.

“For all those who said they don’t understand why Manafort is not cooperating, maybe now they’re seeing why,” said Jon Sale, a close friend of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and a former Watergate investigator.

Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor from northern Virginia, said jurors’ questions show they were “very thoughtful, conscientious and paid attention during the trial” but may not have gotten the relevant information from witnesses.

“Reading into jurors' motives based on questions can be more hazardous than Victorian tea-leaf reading,” Rossi said. But he added that it was notable the jurors had requested a larger room to examine the nearly 400 exhibits made available to them for deliberations.

“This is an exceedingly good omen for the government,” Rossi said. “The more the jury looks at the documents, the less reliant the government's case is on Rick Gates and other immunized witnesses. If the jury finds from the documents corroboration of Gates' and others' testimony, then that spells extremely bad news and doom for Mr. Manafort.”

Meanwhile, the scene around the courthouse has taken on something of a carnival atmosphere. A wall of cameras stationed in the plaza keep swiveling between the federal building’s main entrance and the Westin hotel where the Manafort attorneys and Kathleen Manafort, the defendant’s wife, are usually stationed in the restaurant to await a verdict.

All the major television and cable networks have sent reporters to the scene. Retirees, protesters and a tour guide holding a sign promoting the website for his Washington, D.C. company, which offers tours focused on the city’s African American history, have also shown up.