The sexual harassment case Rick Scott won’t talk about

TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott accused Sen. Bill Nelson at a debate this month of being unconcerned with sexual assault victims, state worker Lucille Alford felt it was the height of double talk.

Alford, a 64-year-old medical disability examiner, is suing Florida over an alleged 2014 sexual assault she says Scott ignored for years despite her pleas for action. Alford has long alleged that her boss once harassed and groped her while they were alone in his office. The state found “no cause” for her claims in part because no one else directly witnessed the incident.

“I tried to get the governor’s attention,” Alford, speaking publicly for the first time, told POLITICO in an interview. “I felt like I was out there on a limb by myself and people were not really hearing me. I’m still traumatized.”

A trial for the case, centered on allegations Alford reported to the police shortly after the incident several years ago, is set for Feb. 11 in a Leon County court. Alford’s accused perpetrator, Charles Fete, did not return calls and emails for comment. State counsel John Derr, who by extension is Fete‘s attorney, also did not return calls and emails for comment. In a response to her lawsuit, the state denied Alford’s claims, and like her, demanded a jury trial. Fete is named but is not a defendant in the lawsuit.

The explosive issue of sexual harassment has dogged both political parties nationally and in Florida since Hollywood film producer and Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein was accused by several women of sexual harassment and assault more than a year ago. After him, powerful men across industry and government fell to the swift #MeToo hammer as women felt emboldened, in a cultural movement that prioritized believing victims, to come forward and name the men who have assaulted, harassed and bullied them.

But the latest allegation by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford — that she feared then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh intended to “rape her while they were in high school — showed the limits of that movement. Ford gave emotional Senate testimony that spurred a limited FBI probe into her allegation. President Donald Trump then mocked Ford at a campaign rally; Senate Republicans called into question her motives and her memory, and Kavanaugh was confirmed.

Trump, also accused by more than a dozen women of sexual misconduct, asked why Ford didn’t report the incident at the time — a question that, in some ways, is answered by cases such as Alford’s.

A problem with reporting sexual harassment is that it is generally not considered a crime under Florida law, and while sexual assault is a crime, it's often a private affair that’s tough to prosecute without any supporting eye witnesses.

Alford, a registered independent, reported at the time to the governor’s office, the Florida Commission on Human Relations, local police and a supervisor how Fete allegedly held her in a bear hug in his office behind closed doors that was so tight that she could feel his knee caps, his hip bones against her own; how when she tried to get away, he whispered in her ear that she was “devious” just like he was. But extensive records Politico reviewed show her allegations were initially set aside in part because no one else directly witnessed the incident.

For this story, POLITICO reviewed years of documents relating to a myriad of Alford’s complaints and corresponding state investigations that stem from a basic scenario detailed in her lawsuit: In 2014, Alford said she had a direct supervisor who was intoxicated at work. She reported those concerns to Fete, a state Department of Health program administrator and the boss of both employees. Alford says Fete harassed and assaulted her on March 27, 2014, after they had a disagreement on how to handle her immediate supervisor’s drinking problem. A recent deposition of Fete in Alford’s case shows that same immediate supervisor has also claimed that Fete “touched her improperly” at work.

Most of the documents, including Alford’s 2018 medical records, were unredacted and provided by Alford and her attorney to POLITICO as part of the reporting process.

POLITICO is making available a 2014 state investigation — provided by Alford and her attorney — that dealt primarily with Alford’s sexual assault and harassment allegations; a state investigative memo — also provided by Alford and her attorney — that shows how affidavits by people supporting Alford’s claim were discounted since they were not eye witnesses to event; a 2015 redacted state investigation obtained through a records request that summarizes many of Alford’s complaints and how the state handled them; an April 2014 police report related to the assault and its corresponding supplemental report; a July 2014 request for a stalking injunction Alford filed against Fete that was denied; and three letters — by Alford’s longtime friend, Alford’s colleague and Alford’s supervisor who also accused Fete of unwanted touching — that supported Alford’s allegations against Fete and were provided to POLITICO by Alford and her attorney and included in state investigations.

POLITICO is also providing correspondence Alford and her attorney had with the governor’s chief inspector general and other investigators from 2014 to 2015. Alford’s handwriting is visible at times on her correspondence to the governor’s office and on the testimonies supporting her account. POLITICO has redacted the name of Alford’s immediate supervisor who, documents show, eventually resigned after declining a drug and alcohol test.

Alford’s January 2018 medical records reviewed by POLITICO show that she is suffering from trauma related to a “sexual assault at work in early 2014.” A police report from April 2014 shows an officer contacted a medical professional at the time who described how Alford told her “about being violated at work by Fete” a day after the incident occurred.

The officer sent the case to the state attorney‘s office but was told there was “no probable cause for an arrest; therefore, prosecution was being declined.”

Three people who saw or spoke with Alford on the day of or the day after the incident supported her account, records show, but they did not directly witness the assault, and her allegations were dismissed in 2014 by the Department of Health Equal Opportunity Section with a “no cause finding,” which her lawyer says effectively stalled her from pursuing the harassment case in state court for years.

Patrick Frank, Alford’s attorney, calls the state probes into her complaints a drawn-out exercise in “willful ignorance ... They claim they’re investigating, but they usually don’t,” Frank said. “You’re basically doomed to fail.”

Frank says he and Alford communicated with the governor’s office at least four times about her allegations and that Scott’s office was “absolutely aware” of her complaints as well as concerns for how the state was handling her case. He says Alford outlined her case in a four-page single-spaced letter sent to Scott's chief inspector general — who is hired and fired by the governor — in 2015. That letter was reviewed by POLITICO.

The governor’s office initially directed POLITICO to state Department of Health spokesman Nick Van Der Linden for comment, who said: While we cannot comment on specific cases, the department has zero tolerance for harassment of any kind and investigates any claim thoroughly.”

“Governor Scott takes allegations of sexual assault and harassment very seriously. He has zero tolerance for any sort of behavior like this,” Scott spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said Thursday in a statement. “That’s why he has proposed, fought for and signed legislation, along with signing an executive order, to protect state employees who have been victims of sexual harassment. Governor Scott does not know this employee, nor does she work in the Governor’s Office. She contacted the Governor’s Inspector General’s Office, a statutorily independent entity, and the allegations were immediately routed to her agency’s Inspector General at the Florida Department of Health, which swiftly investigated her claims.”

Gambineri pointed to an executive order Scott issued last year requiring state agencies to adopt uniform sexual harassment reporting and investigation practices in an effort to improve the system.

In addition to writing a detailed letter to Scott’s chief inspector general in 2015, Alford says she also emailed Scott’s office directly in April 2014, trying to alert the governor to how her case was being handled and how she believed she was now in a hostile work environment at a Florida health agency, but Scott’s office redirected her to the Department of Health. When Alford was recently invited to attend a reception on behalf of the governor honoring her 15 years in state service, she says she declined to go because she didn’t want “to be in the same room with [Scott] or his office because my concerns from 2014 were still not addressed.”

Scott’s campaign declined to comment and instead pointed to how Nelson has taken campaign donations from political committees associated with senators accused of sexual harassment, including Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat who stepped down from his Senate seat earlier this year after reports of sexual harassment.

Nelson campaign spokesman Dan McLaughlin said the campaign has given all the money Nelson received from Franken’s committee to charity and that Scott’s “campaign is doing is what Scott does: He blames others and points the finger at others for anything he’s done or anything that he should take responsibility for.”

The Senate debate wasn’t the first time Alford has been incredulous at Scott’s comments on harassment. She first contacted POLITICO in July — initially waffling about whether she wanted to speak out through the press — after Scott called the allegations that Sen. Jack Latvala harassed and groped Senate staffer Rachel Perrin Rogers “absolutely disgusting.”

After the state’s upper chamber was rocked by Latvala’s case, state Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) — a survivor of child sexual abuse — filed a bill, FL SB1628 (18R), that sought to reform the state government’s sexual harassment policy. It dramatically died at the very end of session, leading Book to rail against the “old boys’ club” mentality in the state Capitol. She told POLITICO on Wednesday that she intends to file another sexual harassment bill for the upcoming legislative session.

“That was a galvanizing moment for me,” said Alford, who had been intently following the sexual-harassment session debate, about how the measure died and how it impacted her ultimate decision to publicly speak out.

While Alford’s attempts to get Scott’s attention about her case appear to have failed, the governor has been more attuned to the national headlines of both Kavanaugh’s travails and the allegations against Franken, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), both of whom have been accused of sexual harassment or assault.

In the Oct. 2 Telemundo debate, Scott turned the tables on Nelson’s criticism of Kavanaugh by noting Nelson’s alliances with fellow Democratic members of Congress who had also been accused of harassment.

“Now, Sen. Nelson says he’s concerned about sexual harassment claims. So, his close friend, Congressman Alcee Hastings, settled a sexual assault claim for over $200,000, paid for by the taxpayers,” Scott said in the televised debate. “Never once did the senator come out and say anything about it.”

Alford’s lawyer says her own case could leave Florida taxpayers on the hook for at least $250,000. Since 1987, the state has shelled out more than $11 million to settle over 300 sex-harassment claims by state workers, the AP reported last year.

After Scott at the debate called the subsequent Senate hearing into Ford’s allegations a “Jerry Springer show” and a “circus,” Alford questioned his fundamental understanding of the issue and whether it affected how he handled her own complaint.

“When a person [says they’ve] been battered or assaulted or traumatized by another person, that’s a statement of a crime,” Alford said. “I thought I would be taken seriously.”

Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Nick Saban, Jerry West and Bob Huggins endorse Joe Manchin

Sen. Joe Manchin has found a few friends to come off the bench and endorse his West Virginia reelection campaign.

"Joe and I grew up together in West Virginia and he never forgets where he came from," Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban says in a new ad released Wednesday. "I don't have a better friend or know a better person than Joe Manchin."

Saban, NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West and West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins all star in the 30 second spot aptly called "Coaches." All three of the men are Mountain state natives, Saban is from Fairmont, West is from Chelyan and Huggins hails from Morgantown, home to the state's flagship university

In the past, Saban, whose orthodoxy known simply as the "process" is legendary, has shied away from commenting on politics. Saban is currently seeking his seventh national title, which would set the record for most by a men’s football coach in the poll era that dates back to 1936.

Manchin (D-W. Va.) is facing a tough reelection fight in a state President Donald Trump carried with 69 percent of the vote in 2016, although POLITICO currently rates his race against Attorney General Patrick Morrisey as "lean Democratic." A former governor of the state, Manchin was the only Democrat to vote for Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the the Supreme Court.

The Poisonous Allure of Right-Wing Violence

Gavin McInnes is selling a very marketable product.

The pose of the right-wing provocateur and founder of the group the Proud Boys is that he’s simply a defender of normality and old-fashioned male fellowship, when what gives his cause its frisson of excitement is violence.

McInnes is enjoying a media moment. After he gave a speech at New York’s Metropolitan Republican Club, a usually staid establishment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, his Proud Boys fought with members of antifa on the streets, in what has been a publicity coup.

The group got denounced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and video footage of the clash has been irresistible. The New York Times duly profiled McInnes the other day (“Proud Boys Founder: How He Went From Brooklyn Hipster to Far-Right Provocateur”).

McInnes may have more staying power than other fringe-y right-wing figures who have briefly gained prominence the past few years, like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer. He is outrageous and bizarre, yet funny and whip-smart. He is obviously trying to preserve some credibility, or at least plausible deniability. His alt-right affiliation is clear enough—he’s written for rancid websites like VDare and Taki’s magazine—but he steered clear of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and says members of the alt-right are banned from the Proud Boys.

The group bears the unmistakable stamp of his cracked vision—McInnes is like the Abbie Hoffman of right-wing street fighters. One level of initiation involves getting punched while shouting out the names of five breakfast cereals. This is all feels like an elaborate joke, yet the business end of the Proud Boys is serious enough.

McInnes is open about his glorification of violence. In a speech explaining Proud Boys, McInnes described a clash with antifa outside a speech he gave at NYU last year: “My guys are left to fight. And here’s the crucial part: We do. And we beat the crap out of them.” He related what a Proud Boy who got arrested told him afterward: “It was really, really fun.” According to McInnes, “Violence doesn’t feel good. Justified violence feels great. And fighting solves everything.”

He proceeded to mock the fighting prowess of antifa: “They’re easy prey”; “it feels sexist to beat them up, cause when you punch them it feels like a girl”; “it’s only fun to beat up the first three.”

Then, in keeping with his stance that the Proud Boys simply represent a return to groups that used to play a large role in American civil society (you know, like the Shriners), he declared the Proud Boys “normal.” All they want to do is have kids, live in the suburbs, and love America.

But patriotic suburban dads have better things to do than roam the streets of Manhattan getting into brawls with black-clad left-wingers, nor is this an activity conducive to meeting a nice girl and settling down. The atavistic impulse of the Proud Boys is straight from the movie Fight Club, in which a violent men’s group represents a revolt against banal, overly feminized modern society.

In his great book on soccer hooliganism, Among the Thugs, Bill Buford writes of how he started out believing that there must be some underlying economic or social cause to the thuggery. Then, he came to realize, no, the mayhem itself was the point.

“Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures,” Buford writes. By McInnes’ account, his Proud Boys heartily agree.

The violence of the Proud Boys has additional allure to a certain audience in this moment. It can be portrayed as merely defense against the thuggery of antifa (which in left-wing jurisdictions like Portland, Ore., is tolerated to a shocking extent). It is simple, and requires no effort at argument or persuasion. It is taken as a symbol of strength—the Proud Boys supposedly always win their fights.

Needless to say, this is all poisonous. You can oppose antifa without brawling with it—one mob does not justify another. Violence outside the law is always wrong. We have democratic politics exactly so political and cultural disputes can be settled without resort to fisticuffs—or firearms and bombs. If conservatism is to represent law and order, it must anathematize and exclude advocates of, and practitioners, of violence.

Gavin McInnes surely believes he has a growth commodity, and he might be right. All the more reason to resist his siren call of violence, which isn’t normal, clever or justified.

McGahn exits as White House counsel

White House counsel Don McGahn departed the Trump administration on Wednesday, leaving the counsel’s office without a head as the midterms approach and the prospect of a deluge of subpoenas from a new House Democratic majority looms.

McGahn, who had a contentious relationship with the president, met with Trump on Wednesday for about 20 minutes, according to a source familiar with the exchange, who described it as a respectful but not friendly gathering. While the president has said he favors Washington attorney Pat Cipollone as McGahn’s successor, Cipollone is still going through his background check and that process could take weeks, meaning there may not be anyone in the post immediately or through the election next month.

The office will take on even greater importance if Democrats retake the House, as they are expected to. A majority would mean liberal lawmakers could add the legal heft of subpoenas to their requests for documents from the president and his Cabinet.

McGahn’s role was complicated by questions of whether Trump tried to obstruct justice in the Russia investigations, including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. As a counselor in the White House, McGahn reportedly witnessed some of those episodes and, according to The New York Times, stopped the president from firing special counsel Robert Mueller. The relationship between Trump and McGahn soured even further when the Times reported that McGahn spent at least 30 hours with Mueller’s investigators.

A former member of the Federal Election Commission, McGahn leaves the White House with his most notable legacy the successful confirmation of two conservatives to the Supreme Court, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who could fundamentally shift the court in a conservative direction for decades to come. McGahn worked closely with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on both confirmations and on more than 60 nominees for lower federal courts.

Don McGahn Leaves Trump With Big Wins — And Big Risks

In recent months, President Donald Trump rarely spoke with Don McGahn. It’s not clear he even likes his top White House lawyer and campaign consigliere, who left his West Wing job Wednesday after 20 months fraught with plenty of tension and chaos, as well as some big wins for the conservative movement.

But when it came time to award credit for winning the epic Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle, Trump made sure McGahn got his due.

On the Monday night after the close Senate vote, Trump huddled with top aides in his residence to review the draft of a prime-time speech he planned to give to show off his latest Supreme Court justice. McGahn’s name was not mentioned in the version before him, so Trump suggested aides add it, according to one White House official — alongside praise for Republican senators, other justices and Maureen Scalia, Justice Antonin Scalia’s widow, who planned to attend that night.

The president dictated the spot for the McGahn shout-out and then delivered the speech roughly one hour later from the East Room, calling the appointment of a justice “the most important decision a president can make.” McGahn was the lone White House staffer mentioned.

“I thank counsel to the President Don McGahn, who was a warrior for fairness and performed his critical duties in the finest traditions of our Constitution,” Trump said, misstating McGahn’s title — the White House counsel traditionally serves the presidency, not the president — in a telling re-interpretation of his role.

Minutes later, the audience gave Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a standing ovation and Kavanaugh took a ceremonial oath — he’d been officially sworn in two days earlier — to serve his country.

To Republican insiders, Trump’s name-drop was further proof that McGahn’s invaluable help in pushing through two justices to the highest court in under two years did not go unnoticed by the president — even if the two men rarely speak directly to each other.

“A lawyer’s job is not to be popular with the client, and there is no question that there has been tension at times. But nothing I have ever witnessed is unresolvable,” said former Gov. Chris Christie, who considers both McGahn and the president friends. “The president is a results-oriented guy, and in the end, that is the way he will remember Don’s service: ‘This guy got a lot done for me.’ The president will look back on that fondly because he has a lot of people around him who have not gotten things done.”

Kavanaugh’s ascension allows McGahn to leave the White House on relatively good terms after working as lead attorney for both the Trump campaign and the White House — and after being on the receiving end of Trump’s angry outbursts since at least March 2017.

But while McGahn accomplished big things in a few key areas, he also may have left the president exposed to an enormous level of political and legal risk over the next two years, say his critics. In the White House, McGahn worked to confirm close to 70 judges throughout the federal court system. He installed deeply conservative lawyers in federal agencies, giving them the mandate to dismantle Democratic-era regulations as fast as possible. But he also left the handling of ethics to his one of top deputies, Stefan Passantino — a portfolio sure to be probed if the Democrats take back the House in November and start firing off subpoenas. Democrats are deeply critical of Trump and his children’s failure to fully disentangle themselves from their business interests, including the Trump International Hotel, which has minted money over the past two years hosting supporters, political groups and foreign dignitaries.

McGahn also successfully steered the counsel’s office away from the intricacies of the special investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia, a move allies acknowledge could hang over his tenure, depending on the probe’s outcome. Several Republicans close to the White House say neither the president nor his in-house lawyers are prepared to deal with the eventual fallout of Robert Mueller’s investigation because of McGahn’s hands-off approach.

“We just don’t know yet. It is too soon to tell,” said C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to former President George H.W. Bush, when asked how Robert Mueller’s work could affect McGahn’s legacy in the White House.

But more than anything, McGahn changed the approach of the White House counsel’s office, which functions as an internal law firm and risk-assessment shop inside the West Wing and Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Under his leadership, he focused intently on just a few areas where he thought he could make a difference—such as judges and regulation—and he tended not to wade into many other policy areas, as past White House counsels have.

Critics, such as the Obama administration’s former ethics attorney, Norm Eisen, say McGahn helped to put a president in the White House who made attacking the rule of law a centerpiece of his presidency—just as McGahn had attacked the campaign finance system during his tenure at the Federal Election Commission.

“He’ll also be remembered for keeping himself out of jail,” Eisen said of McGahn. “That is no small feat because he was right in the center of it all. McGahn seems to have engineered things to keep him out of personal liability.” (There is no indication that McGahn broke the law at any point, though he reportedly spent hours in interviews with Mueller’s team.)

McGahn’s Republican critics, meanwhile, charge that while he did a few things well, he never embraced the breadth of the job.

“Don is a very untraditional White House counsel, and untraditional is not bad. It’s just different,” said one former Trump administration official. “He prioritized what he did, and he was rarely a big force in policy debates, even when there was a clear legal component. He stayed out of that fray and focused on judicial nominations. He also never developed a close relationship with Trump—enough to act as a senior political or policy adviser.”

True to form, McGahn left the White House on Wednesday after a respectful, if not necessarily warm, goodbye meeting with Trump.

He leaves behind a complex inheritance: Just as Trump forever changed the office of the presidency, McGahn has altered the role of the White House counsel so substantially so that it could end up setting a precedent for whoever occupies the office next.

As his successor, Trump has chosen Pat Cipollone, a commercial lawyer in Washington, D.C., though Cipollone is still undergoing his background check, a process that can take weeks and will leave the White House counsel’s office without a leader heading into the midterms.

The president feels Cipollone, an experienced litigator and former Justice Department official, will serve him well as the White House faces greater oversight, said two people familiar with the president’s deliberations. The two also have much better personal chemistry. Trump and Cipollone already know each other, since Cipollone has been advising the president informally since the campaign and even helped out with 2016 debate preparations.

If Trump is ambivalent about McGahn, who pushed back on the president’s rants against the attorney general and his musings on firing Mueller, Republicans more broadly are thrilled with what he has accomplished. McGahn used the post to further long-held goals of the conservative movement, from placing like-minded allies across the federal judiciary to installing top conservatives in plum executive branch offices.

“Trump and Don both saw each other as instrumental to one another’s success, even if they never had a personal connection,” explained one Republican close to the White House. “Trump saw value in Don because he was the connective tissue to the Republican establishment, like the congressional leadership and The Federalist Society. Don’s view of Trump was that he was not ideological. He did not have fixed ideas on things that mattered to Don, except in a broad sense, and Don saw an opportunity in that.”


McGahn was no novice in the Trumpworld by the time the president-elect appointed him incoming White House counsel the day after Thanksgiving 2016. As the campaign’s top lawyer and the most prominent establishment Republican to sign onto the Trump candidacy, McGahn was already familiar with Trump’s mannerisms and his set ways of doing things. The two also had personal history, since McGahn’s uncle once represented Trump in the 1980s in Atlantic City before that relationship soured.

During the presidential transition, McGahn met with almost all of the living former White House counsels to seek their advice about the best way to approach the job. (Those meetings did not include John Dean, the former White House counsel under Richard Nixon, said one former White House official. Dean did not respond to a request for comment.)

McGahn hired a team of well-qualified lawyers from big law firms and former Supreme Court clerkships, and set his sights on filling roughly 135 vacant judgeships. He also became consumed with filling the Supreme Court seat made vacant in 2016 by the death of Antonin Scalia, and eventually leading to the confirmation of right-leaning federal judge Neil Gorsuch.

McGahn saw these judicial appointments as more important than Republican control of the Senate and the House, according to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

“I can’t think of any other White House counsel’s legacy being felt 10, 30, 40 years from now,” Bannon told POLITICO. “That is one of the reasons the left is so triggered by Trump. They are rational and they understand, more than some conservatives, that Trump will be in their lives through these judges for the next 30 to 40 years.”

But the White House counsel’s job has never revolved solely around judicial nominations, and
soon after the inauguration, the incoming crises started for McGahn.

On January 27, just seven days after the inauguration, the administration issued a legally dubious executive order—hastily written by Bannon and hard-line senior policy adviser Stephen Miller—that barred refugees and citizens from seven Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

They wrote it without the input of White House attorneys, according to several former White House officials. Then, they left the clean-up effort to McGahn and his team as several courts blocked the order and protests erupted around the country. (Eventually the Supreme Court upheld one version of the ban, bolstering McGahn’s feeling that appointing conservative judges was a key to carrying out Trump policies.)

Soon thereafter, the White House was forced to push out its new national security adviser Michael Flynn after it became public that he lied to the FBI about his contact with the Russian government during the Trump transition. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates first alerted McGahn to the possibility that Flynn could be compromised; the White House then waited 18 days before firing him. One Republican close to the White House argued at the time that internally investigating Flynn and pushing him out in two weeks was actually a fast timeline—and that McGahn found the situation uncomfortable and delicate.

By early March 2017, Trump was furious that his attorney general, former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign—and he took it out on McGahn and other top aides during a heated Oval Office meeting. On a Friday afternoon before departing for Mar-a-Lago, Trump called out McGahn in front of other aides to let him know how unhappy he was. In Trump’s view, lawyers are meant to clean up any and all of a client’s messes, said one Republican close to the White House, and Trump did not appreciate McGahn’s pushback or attempt to create boundaries even if it is unclear what the White House counsel could have done to ease the tension around Sessions’ recusal.

By May 2017, Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey—a move from which McGahn did not dissuade Trump and which led to the appointment of Robert Mueller to run the Russia investigation. That’s when his rapport with the president, never warm, really started to deteriorate.

“Their relationship got a lot more difficult once it began clear Don would not help out with the Mueller investigation because he was a witness. Trump felt very angry and wronged by the investigation and thought Don should be handling it as the White House counsel,” said one Republican close to the White House.

The Russia investigation was messy, with few political upsides and plenty of reputational risk, so McGahn retreated into a portfolio over which he felt he had a measure of control: judges and deregulation. He held weekly meetings with his team of lawyers working on judicial nominations and devoted significant time to meeting and talking with senators about various nominees, said one former White House official who estimated McGahn spent upward of 60 percent of his time on judges.

As for the Mueller probe, McGahn left the handling of that hot potato to other hired attorneys, including Ty Cobb and John Dowd, both of whom later quit.

McGahn also worked to install in key points like-minded conservatives who would carry out the rollback of regulations, including Alexander Acosta at the Labor Department and Neomi Rao as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Now some of his subordinates from the White House counsel’s office have fanned out across the agencies to become top lawyers at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Justice, among others.

Bannon told POLITICO that McGahn was like a “mechanic who knew how to get under the hood” of the government and understood better than most Trump officials how to manipulate the bureaucracy by seeding it with allies. “He is probably one of the two or three smartest people on the deconstruction of the administrative state. He is taking apart the federal Levianthan brick by brick,” Bannon said.

Happier in this world than Trump’s, McGahn rarely made an effort to insert himself into the drafting of executive orders, or heated policy debates over immigration or trade — though he did urge the president to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, said another former White House official, and his team provided legal counsel on a wide variety of issues including the airstrikes in Syria.

“He was rarely in small group meetings in the Oval Office, and otherwise spent very little time with the president,” said one former administration official. “Although he worked in the actual White House—and not one of the other adjacent buildings—he was not someone who saw the president every day.”

Usually, McGahn skipped Cabinet sessions or large staff meetings in the Roosevelt Room, said White House officials. More often than not, he passed his days sequestered in his dark wood-paneled office on the second floor of the West Wing, a corridor shared with other top advisers such as Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, Johnny DeStefano and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.

McGahn trusted few colleagues apart from his deputy counsel Annie Donaldson, whose office was on the same floor; Conway, who also hailed from New Jersey; and chief of staff John Kelly, who often took McGahn’s side as he feuded with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the two White House staffers with whom McGahn most often clashed. (McGahn allies say he battled with them over ideological differences and viewed them as too liberal for a Republican administration.)

And McGahn’s relationship with Trump never recovered. As it got worse, Kelly became the intermediary between the two.

Behind the president’s back, McGahn took to calling Trump “King Kong”—a nod to what he saw as Trump’s anger management problem and his emotional decision-making. With his deadpan sense of humor, McGahn would casually refer to the president as the overgrown gorilla in the course of conversations: “This is where King Kong is at on this now,” or “I think King Kong has calmed down a bit,” to describe the mood of the leader of the free world, according to former administration officials and two Republicans close to the White House. (McGahn declined to comment through a White House spokesperson.)

McGahn would tell other White House officials that it was a good day, or week in the White House, if he never had to go see the president in person.

Trump felt equally disappointed by the White House attorney, whom he expected to tackle any and all problems in the vein of his former New York City lawyer and fixer, the late Roy Cohn. He frequently complained about McGahn, said one former administration official. He would say McGahn is not tough enough to be his lawyer and constantly bemoaned the fact that McGahn had let Sessions recuse himself, even though the White House counsel had no sway over that decision.

“He was not a good fit for that job, but he also had a very difficult client and a difficult role,” said a former administration official. “McGahn did not know what was going on a lot of the time.”

Still, as top White House staffers departed the administration in record numbers — either through resignations or firing by tweet — McGahn hung on. He stayed in that office and plugged away on the judges, eventually helping to confirm two Supreme Court justices and 26 circuit court and 41 district court judges.

More than anything, though, McGahn became a de facto survivor in the Trump orbit and did it mostly it on his own terms to further an agenda he believed in. The only people who have lasted that long from the campaign are Jared and Ivanka, and senior adviser Stephen Miller.

“Don lasted longer within the Trump world than even Hope Hicks,” one former White House official noted.


In the end, though, not even McGahn could escape the fired-by-tweet fate.

For weeks, rumors had circulated throughout the White House, Capitol Hill and in the news media that McGahn intended to leave his post after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. (This was before the allegations of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh surfaced and the confirmation fight morphed into a partisan brawl.)

Trump got tired of the Washington guessing game about when his top attorney would leave, said several Republicans close to the White House, so he made the decision for McGahn. One day in late August, right before Labor Day, Trump abruptly announced via Twitter that McGahn would leave the White House in the fall. He wrote it without first discussing it with McGahn.

“White House Counsel Don McGahn will be leaving his position in the fall, shortly after the confirmation (hopefully) of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. I have worked with Don for a long time and truly appreciate his service,” read the tweet, sent at 10:30 a.m.

The missive took McGahn by surprise, but he quickly shook it off, allies said. It was just King Kong asserting himself.

McGahn is leaving the White House counsel’s office in a fairly skeletal state after the departure of his top aides — to federal agencies, private practice, or judgeships. Cipollone will have to spend a lot of his time rebuilding the staff just before the midterm elections—when Democrats are likely to retake the House and suddenly gain vast and intrusive oversight powers.

“He is leaving the White House counsel’s office in a dangerous position,” said one former White House official. “They only have roughly 20 dedicated White House lawyers and a bunch of detailees who could leave at any time. I don’t think anyone who is paying attention thinks they are prepared for a Democratic takeover.”

McGahn has not shared his plans for life after the White House.

Several of his allies say he intends to take a lot of meetings with law firms, power brokers and businesses — after he takes some time off. “Don will now be a recognized expert in crisis management,” said Christie. “Any CEO in the country would benefit from having this version of Don McGahn advising him or her. He certainly has dealt with a number of crises — and although we never discussed it, it is an area of potential practice.”

Unlike other former White House staffers, McGahn spent much of his time in the White House cultivating close ties with congressional leaders such as McConnell and senators like Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, with whom he talked several times a week during the Kavanaugh confirmation. Those relationships could pay off as he searches for his next job.

Several Republicans close to the White House predict McGahn will end up at his old law firm, Jones Day, which represented the Trump campaign and has earned millions from that work. It would be a familiar place for McGahn to land alongside his longtime mentor and fellow GOP election lawyer, Ben Ginsberg. Former President Barack Obama’s top attorney Bob Bauer followed the same path, working as White House counsel and then leaving for a private law firm where he continued to represent Obama and top Democrats.

But representing the Trump reelection campaign would not mean Trump and McGahn would have to interact directly—they could continue working together without much personal contact.

“Don doesn’t dislike Trump. They just are not very comfortable with each other, but they also see one another as being useful,” said one Republican close to the administration. “Trump wants to be reelected. Don wants Trump to be reelected. Don will be a useful person for him.”

Dem challenger says Feinstein ‘on the sidelines’ in fight against Trump

SAN FRANCISCO — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, facing an unexpectedly contentious Democrat-on-Democrat battle for a fifth full term, faced attacks on Wednesday from her progressive challenger, Kevin de León, who argued that California’s coming battles against President Donald Trump on immigration reform and climate change would need aggressive Washington leadership “on the frontlines, not the sidelines.”

“We are engaged in a battle for America’s soul against a president without one,’’ said de León, the state senator who authored California’s controversial “sanctuary state” law and a recent landmark climate change law mandating 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. “It’s time that we stop biding our time and biting our tongue,’’ he said, while Trump “unravels’’ legislation that has enforced “the California dream.”

The comments came as Feinstein sat with de León, the former state Senate pro tem, for what was billed as a conversation — not a debate — according to the forum’s San Francisco-based sponsor, the Public Policy Institute of California.

Feinstein’s team lobbied successfully for a more civil, less confrontational sit-down setting before a small audience, in conversation with PPIC’s chief executive and president, Mark Baldassare. That sparked protests from the camp of de León, who argued that voters in the world’s fifth-largest economy deserved a robust, high-profile, primetime debate that explored issues in depth.

Though the two Democrats appeared to agree on key issues, including the need for reforming immigration laws and health care, de León came equipped with sharp soundbites — and in the exchange repeatedly tried to seize the mantle of a bold change agent willing to confront Trump.

By contrast, Feinstein — first elected to the Senate in 1992, the “Year of the Woman” — sought to portray herself as a seasoned consensus builder, the kind needed in an era when Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House.

She repeatedly cited her seniority in the Senate on key committees — including Judiciary, where she is the ranking Democrat, and Intelligence — as evidence of the arenas where she has commanded a leading voice on behalf of California voters and their interests.

“I say what I think — I say it on the floor, I say it in committee hearings,’’ she told reporters. “What I find works the best is if you can put together legislation with both parties — and then it passes. It’s sort of simple. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

The race between two leading California Democrats has underscored a generational and political rift within the party in the nation’s most populous state, which in recent times has tacked more to the left.

The shift has left the more centrist Feinstein, who at 85 is the oldest serving senator, vulnerable to challenges that she is more a creature of Washington out of touch with her party’s base. De León’s campaign dealt her a deep embarrassment when, earlier this year, he won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party’s executive board over Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco.

Throughout the race, de León, 51 and the son of a single undocumented mother from Central America, has tried to cast Feinstein as a “country club” politician and the vestige of the old political guard in California.

The state senator from Los Angeles opened the Wednesday forum with a shot, noting that it had been 18 years since Feinstein met a political opponent onstage. During the hour, he noted her votes for the war in Iraq and her opposition to his sanctuary state law as examples of being out of touch with progressive values.

“We need someone in Washington who reflects the values,” he said. “Leadership that will step up and speak out.’’ Frustrated that Democrats in Washington too often “lack the courage of their convictions,’’ de León added pointedly “that lack of courage, always backpedaling every single time,” has not delivered for progressive Democrats.

“I wish Democrats in Washington would fight like hell for Dreamers the way Donald J. Trump and Republicans fight like hell for his stupid wall,” he said — a reference to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors, and to the president’s insistence on building a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In one of the rare areas of disagreement on key issues, de León cited his belief in “health care as a right” for all Americans, starting with “Medicare for all, not for some.”

Feinstein responded: “I believe in universal health care — the question is how we get it … whether we shift everything onto the federal government or whether we do it in steps.” She added: “I believe there should be a public option … where people can opt into if they want.”

Feinstein argued during the forum that she had been a leading advocate for years on key issues — successfully pushing for passage of the assault weapons ban, for example, after the 1993 massacre of eight people in a San Francisco high-rise, one of the first mass shootings to grab the public’s attention. The ban has since expired, but Feinstein reintroduced the legislation in 2017, noting that as long as Republicans hold both houses of Congress, the bill is unlikely to advance.

More than once, she sought to deliver a reality check on de León’s call for dramatic legislative change, citing what she called “a lock on power in Washington’’ currently held by Republicans.

“Right now, you’ve got a situation where you really don’t have the opportunity because you don’t control the agenda,’’ she said. “Sure, you can protest. You can march, you can filibuster, you can talk all night. It doesn’t change anything. What changes things are elections.”

But with the midterm elections, she said, Democrats now have the opportunity to “break that lock open … and if we break that dynamic, we will be able to pass really good legislation in the Senate.”

For de León, the hourlong afternoon forum in Feinstein’s hometown represented his first, and likely the last, opportunity to mount a face-to-face challenge to California’s senior senator, who has far outraised him in campaign donations and who has maintained a robust lead in the polls.

The most recent PPIC poll in September showed that de León had cut Feinstein’s lead by half since July, but that she still held a commanding 11-point lead over him.

Dem operative fired after arrest over alleged altercation with Laxalt campaign manager

A Democratic activist employed by American Bridge, the party’s outside-group research arm, was fired on Wednesday after being arrested and charged with battery in Las Vegas the previous night following an alleged altercation with the manager of Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt's gubernatorial campaign.

Kristin Davison, Laxalt’s campaign manager, told police that Mike Stark, the activist, hurt her as he tried to question Laxalt at an event at the East Las Vegas Community Center. In a statement to police that was provided to POLITICO by Laxalt’s campaign, Davison said Stark "physically pushed his body on me multiple times. I asked him to stop and to back away and he did not."

American Bridge said in a statement on Wednesday that Stark had been fired.

"Last night one of our employees was involved in an incident with a member of Adam Laxalt's campaign in Nevada," the American Bridge statement said. "In response to that incident, we have decided to relieve this employee of his duties with American Bridge effective immediately."

After the initial confrontation, Laxalt and his staff retreated to a conference room, Davison said in the report, at which point Stark "pushed the door wide open, trapping myself and staff in the doorway."

"At that point he continued to yell and hold a camera in my face,” Davison continued. “I could not move. Stark grabbed my right arm, twisted it behind my back, squeezed it very hard and every time I tried to pull away he pulled me closer and gripped my arm tighter."

Davison wrote that she started screaming for help and that Stark was hurting her. Multiple colleagues tried to pull Stark off, according to the police report, and then someone called the police.

Stark has a history of altercations in pursuit of Republican officials. In September, Stark was acquitted on charges that he assaulted an adviser to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke while filming Zinke for American Bridge and asking questions in a House office building.

Stark was released from custody after posting bail of $1,140, according to local police.

"He was arrested by our city marshals last night about 7 p.m. after Kristin Davison contacted them saying Stark had grabbed her by the arm and pushed her. The arrest is classified as a citizen’s arrest because the incident did not happen in the presence of the marshals," Jace Radke, a spokesperson for the marshals, said in an email to POLITICO on Wednesday. "The incident took place as an apparent result of an altercation involving Mr. Stark entering one of the rooms at the East Las Vegas Community Center with a camera and attempting to question Attorney General Adam Laxalt."

Former Gov. Bob List, a Laxalt supporter, wrote in his statement to the police that he was worried for the safety of Laxalt and Davison.

"There were 5 of us trying to block him. He grabbed Kristen Davisons arm and twisted it behind her, pinned her against the door jam as we tried to free her," List wrote, adding that he was "concerned for the safety of the Attorney General and of Kristen."

Laxalt's campaign described the episode as Stark "assaulting a female campaign manager."

"Kristin is tough, and she won’t let this stop her from doing her job — no matter what the other side throws her way," Laxalt campaign spokesman Parker Briden said in a statement.

In 2017, Fairfax County police in Virginia opened an internal investigation over video of an arrest of Stark, then working for the liberal news outlet Shareblue Media, who was trying to ask then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie a question in the middle of a community parade. Stark was found guilty of disorderly conduct, according to a report in The Washington Post.

In 2006, Stark was ejected from an event in Charlottesville featuring Republican Sen. George Allen after Stark tried to ask the then-senator a "derogatory" question, according to The Virginian-Pilot.

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Tribe says 'improper political influence' led Zinke to scuttle casino

An American Indian tribe in Connecticut is asking a federal court to revive its lawsuit against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, alleging that he illegally bowed to political pressure before blocking them from opening a new casino last year.

Interior last year refused to sign off on a proposal from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to open a third casino in Connecticut, after an intense lobbying campaign from MGM Resorts International and two Nevada Republican lawmakers. Las Vegas-based MGM recently opened a new casino in Massachusetts that would have faced competition from the tribes’ joint venture 12 miles away in East Windsor, Conn.

The Mashantucket, joined by the state of Connecticut, say in the new filing that Interior’s decision not to approve its application “was the product of improper political influence and was therefore ‘arbitrary and capricious’” and in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. They cited a 1971 D.C. Circuit decision that invalidated approval of the Three Sisters Bridge in Washington, D.C, because of political pressure leading to the decision.

Judge Rudolph Contreras of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last month agreed with Interior that the tribe’s initial lawsuit should be dismissed because of technical differences between how the Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes initially won approval to operate casinos decades ago.

Interior’s decision last September appeared to have changed at the eleventh hour after career officials in the Bureau of Indian Affairs had spent weeks preparing to approve the arrangement, as POLITICO previously reported based on internal emails. The tribe says in its new filing that they were in frequent contact with Interior officials in the weeks before the decision and were caught off guard by the result.

The decision is under investigation by Interior’s Office of Inspector General, which is in the midst of an apparent shakeup. A political appointee from HUD, Suzanne Israel Tufts, is becoming acting IG at Interior, according to an internal email sent by HUD Secretary Ben Carson, but staff in the watchdog’s office apparently have not been told of the move.

The tribe on Wednesday asked to file an amended complaint adding new arguments against Zinke, including the political interference claim, as well as arguments that appear aimed at overcoming the technical issues that caused their initial complaint to be dismissed.

According to the new filing, Interior officials advised both tribes on Sept. 8, 2017, “that the Department had prepared draft approval letters.” But a week later, Interior told the tribes it was returning the documents they had submitted without taking any action.

Despite “repeated affirmations to the Tribe that the Tribal-State Agreement would be approved and widespread acknowledgment among the Department’s experts that there was no basis to disapprove the Tribal-State Agreement, the Department ultimately buckled under undue political pressure from both Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) and Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV-02),” the amended complaint alleges.

Citing “information and belief,” the tribes claim “Heller directly pressured Secretary Zinke to do what was necessary to stop the Tribes’ joint venture casino project during a private dinner at a steakhouse in Las Vegas” on July 30, 2017.

Around that time, Associate Deputy Interior Secretary James Cason “told the Tribes that members of Congress were starting to pressure the Department to not approve” the agreement, “but he also assured the Tribes that the Department had no intent to reverse course.”

Spokespeople for Heller, Interior and DOJ did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

MGM, which has been approved to intervene in the case, said the tribe’s new filing is a “meritless attempt” to overcome the dismissal of its first lawsuit.

“Even if the Court grants this procedural request, we are confident that the Court will reject those claims on the merits, regardless of how many different ways and times the Tribe tries to make the same argument,” said Debra DeShong, senior vice president for global corporate communications and industry affairs at MGM Resorts International. “This is like a student asking for a do-over after failing a test.”

Juncker and Trump’s transatlantic trade truce falters

Europe’s fragile peace deal with the U.S. on trade is at breaking point.

Washington is again threatening high tariffs on Europe’s all-important car industry just as U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to whip up support before mid-term elections on November 6.

In an unusually outspoken attack, two top U.S. officials on Wednesday made clear that Trump was growing frustrated with Europe’s foot-dragging over a promised trade deal, and was gearing up to roll out car tariffs put on ice in July.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who was in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, was visibly annoyed by the lack of progress in talks and lashed out at the explanation given by EU trade chief Cecilia Malmström.

The latest back-and-forth comes just a day after the Trump administration formally notified Congress that it was planning to begin trade negotiations with the European Union.

But the openly hostile remarks from Ross and U.S Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland are a sign that a trade truce secured by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on a visit to the White House in July is now faltering.

In that deal, Washington agreed to hold off car tariffs on the understanding that both parties would work quickly toward a broader EU-U.S. trade deal. On Wednesday, however, the two officials accused Malmström of treading water.

Referring to his Tuesday talks with Malmström, Ross said he warned her that he would only hold fire on new tariffs on Europe for “as long as talks are going satisfactorily.”

He then suggested, however, that the commissioner from Sweden was taking too long.

“This is not meant to be a five-year project: This is meant to be something that was to move quickly and in a cooperative fashion.” He also complained that Malmström was too far from opening real negotiations. Ross said: “maybe she’ll think about doing a scoping exercise and maybe after the scoping exercise there’ll be some negotiations,” a reference to the EU’s multi-stage approach to negotiations.

When asked whether he had prepared the market study that would enable him to launch sanctions against the European auto industry, Ross hinted the U.S. was ready to strike. “The study will be ready when it’s needed and that’s as far as I’m prepared to go today,” Ross said.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which is in charge of formal trade negotiations with the EU, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the remarks or on the current status of the talks.

Sondland, the ambassador, was even blunter in his assessment of the EU’s pace. He suggested Malmström and her team could be deliberately stalling and charged her team with “complete intransigence.”

“I don’t know whether the delays are purposeful, whether they are part of a plan to potentially wait out the term of President Trump. As far as I’m concerned President Trump will be the president of the United States until 2024 and I think it’s a futile exercise to do that,” he added.

Sondland also contradicted Malmström’s view that agriculture should be left out of the negotiations: “It was the full expectation of the president that agriculture would be discussed in the final negotiations,” he said.

Ross also insisted that the U.S. was keen to explore “all sectors where there are protectionist things now.”

In total contrast to the U.S. position, Malmström had earlier on Wednesday accused the U.S. of showing no sincere interest in talks.

“We have not started negotiating yet,” she said. “We have asked, and said that we are prepared, several times, to start the scoping exercise on a limited agreement focused on industrial goods on tariffs there. So far the U.S. has not shown any big interest there, so the ball is in their court.”

These comments irritated Ross, who said: “If the quotes are accurate they would appear to us as though she was at a different meeting from the one that we attended.”

Ross and Sondland’s comments came as little surprise to some in Washington who felt that July’s agreement to withhold automotive tariffs was mostly an empty promise that would do little to keep the president from changing his mind and moving forward with penalties.

“This is how they’ve been conducting trade diplomacy,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

He added that relations also soured when the Trump administration was pursuing other trade deals like those that have been completed with South Korea, Canada and Mexico.

“We’ve seen this playbook before,” he said. “The question is whether they can work through this playbook with Europe, and I’m pretty skeptical.”

This report first appeared on POLITICO.EU on Oct. 17, 2018.

Treasury sends warning shot to China on currency

The Trump administration avoided a major escalation in its trade fight with China after the Treasury Department said in a report released Wednesday that Beijing was not intentionally devaluing its currency.

Still, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sent a warning about the lack of transparency and the relative weakness of China’s currency, the renminbi.

“Those pose major challenges to achieving fairer and more balanced trade, and we will continue to monitor and review China’s currency practices, including through ongoing discussions with the People’s Bank of China,” he said in a statement.

The report offers a bit of a reprieve in the ongoing trade war by concluding that China’s direct intervention by its central bank has been limited. The U.S. has imposed tariffs on more than $250 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Still, Treasury is critical of Beijing for not pursuing more market-based reforms that could bolster confidence in the renminbi.

President Donald Trump has accused China of purposefully devaluing its currency to give its exports a competitive advantage on the world market. The report warns that the recent depreciation of China's currency will likely widen the economic giant's trade surplus with the U.S. even more.

A lower currency value also softens the sting of U.S. tariffs by making Chinese exports to the U.S. cheaper. The Trump administration has imposed the tariffs to punish China for its intellectual property and technology transfer policies that it says is ripping off U.S. companies.

China will remain on a list of countries the U.S. monitors, along with Japan, South Korea, India, Germany and Switzerland.

The U.S. has not labeled a country a currency manipulator in the report for more than 20 years. China was last given the designation from 1992 to 1994.

The last Treasury report in April 2018 made similar findings. China met one criteria for being listed — having a significant bilateral trade surplus. But it did not have an account surplus in excess of 3 percent GDP and evidence of a “persistent, one-sided” intervention in its currency market.

China allowed the value of the renminbi to slide to a 13-month low against the dollar at the end of July, but the currency has appreciated in value relative to the dollar since then. The report also said that China’s currency value has fallen “notably” in recent months — by more than 7 percent against the dollar since mid-June.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said last week that the value of the renminbi “has a lot to to with the strength of the dollar“ and did not raise alarm over China’s currency fluctuation.

“We are seeing more and more countries, including China, let their currencies fluctuate,” she said during a press conference at the IMF and World Bank annual meetings in Bali. “And that certainly has been the case for the last three years for China.“

Mnuchin has raised concerns about China’s currency practices and said the issue would be brought up in any broader trade talks.

“The renminbi has depreciated significantly during the year. There are various factors for that, which we look forward to discussing with them,” Mnuchin said in an interview with The Financial Times last week. “One of those factors has to do with their own economic issues and what has gone on in the Chinese economy."

The Treasury report also highlighted new currency provisions in renegotiated trade deals with South Korea, Canada and Mexico. The currency rules in the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement allow for disputes to be filed if a country doesn’t meet requirements to be more transparent with it currency practices.

“We will consider adding similar concepts to future U.S. trade agreements, as appropriate,” the report states.

House GOP leader McMorris Rodgers faces Obamacare backlash

SPOKANE, Wash. — Cathy McMorris Rodgers got an earful about health care on a recent Friday afternoon knocking on doors in the suburban Balboa neighborhood of Spokane. McMorris Rodgers, the top-ranking Republican woman in the House facing the toughest reelection contest of her career, heard one resident complain his wife’s monthly insurance premiums have swelled to over $700 per month. Another agonized about affording long-term care for her elderly mother. Yet another worried whether Medicare would go bankrupt.

In past election cycles, the seven-term lawmaker might have had an easy talking point: Repeal and replace Obamacare. But like other Republicans who suddenly find themselves on the defensive on health care, she avoids mentioning her party’s long-standing pledge to eliminate the 2010 law.

McMorris Rodgers is not just another endangered Republican facing a tough race. She’s No. 4 in the House Republican leadership — and the only woman. The fact that she’s now steering clear of one of the GOP’s core tenets about repealing Obamacare shows just how treacherous the health care issue has become on the campaign trail. A mother of three, including a child with Down syndrome, McMorris Rodgers is often portrayed as a softer, more compassionate face of a party that’s tacked harder right in the age of Trump. But she’s also the sole Washington state lawmaker to have voted to repeal Obamacare last year.

Now, she faces attack ads spotlighting that vote, not to mention lawn signs imploring voters to “repeal McMorris Rodgers, not our health care.” And while McMorris Rodgers talks about the importance of insurance protections for people like her son who have pre-existing conditions, she voted for a bill that health experts largely agree would have eroded those protections.

“She’s still defending that vote,” said her Democratic rival Lisa Brown, a former state Senate majority leader with health care bona fides, including helping to start a medical school in eastern Washington. “She’s still saying, ‘Well, people just didn’t understand our vision.’ It’s so much not in the best interests of this region and the whole state of Washington that I had to conclude she’s either really out of touch with the district … or has just decided to choose the party over the district.”

McMorris Rodgers counters that Obamacare failed to deliver on its stated goals, including that nobody would lose their health insurance and that insurance costs would decrease significantly. Instead, premiums have skyrocketed across the country, including an average jump of 13.8 percent for next year in Washington.

“It was well intentioned, but it has not fulfilled its promises,” she said during a break between visits to a new behavioral health clinic in the district and a nonprofit agency that serves refugees. “We continue to need health care reform in this country. We need to address what’s driving the cost of health care.”

Notably, she touts a 10-year extension of the children’s insurance program, more funding for medical education and her work to combat the opioid crisis among the health care accomplishments on her website, but makes no mention of Affordable Care Act repeal or a GOP replacement plan.

When pressed on health care on the campaign trail, she promises to ensure that vulnerable people, including those with pre-existing conditions, get the care they need, even though the Trump administration is asking the courts to throw out Obamacare’s insurance safeguards.

“Let’s make sure we keep what’s working well and build upon that,” McMorris Rodgers told POLITICO.

Washington is one of the epicenters of the Democrats’ fight to flip 24 House seats to retake the chamber: Besides McMorris Rodgers’ seat, they see pickup opportunities in the seats of Reps. Dave Reichert, who is retiring from a district stretching from the Seattle suburbs hundreds of miles to the east, and Jaime Herrera Beutler in the southwest corner of the state.

McMorris Rodgers’ district, which sprawls across the eastern part of the state and borders Canada and Oregon, carries historic symbolism that makes it an irresistible target for Democrats. When the Gingrich revolution led a Republican takeover of the House in 1994, the most prized scalp was that of former House Speaker Tom Foley, who held the seat for three decades and became the first sitting speaker to lose reelection since the Civil War.

“There’s not a single Democrat in that district that has forgotten that history,” said Tina Podlodowski, chairwoman of the Washington State Democratic Party.

The seat has been held by Republicans since Foley’s ouster, and President Donald Trump won the district by 13 points in 2016. Most analysts peg McMorris Rodgers as a slight favorite, and Republicans are voicing confidence.

“The 5th is the one I’m probably most optimistic and bullish on,” said Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, speaking of the state’s three competitive House contests. “At the end of the day, she’s going to win by 6 to 8 points.”

But Democrats believe Brown is the candidate who could turn the district blue again. She spent two decades in the state Legislature, rising to Senate majority leader before becoming chancellor of Washington State University’s Spokane campus. In both roles, she helped create a new medical school at the college, which enrolled its first class last year, cementing Spokane’s status as a regional health care hub.

On a recent afternoon, Brown touted her work establishing the medical school during a candidate forum on the Colville Indian Reservation, about two hours north of Spokane. “The health care issue is probably the most important issue I hear about as I travel through the district,” she told the audience.

Andy Joseph Jr., a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation who’s been active in trying to increase funding for the Indian Health Service, thinks the new medical school could help lure doctors to parts of eastern Washington that struggle to attract health care providers. He lauds Brown for working closely with the tribe on that process.

“We’re really tired of burying our people at a very young age,” Joseph said. “The opioid issue that’s going on, that’s been in Indian country for a long, long time.”

Brown, like other Democratic candidates this cycle, frequently criticizes Republicans for threatening insurance protections for pre-existing conditions, which a recent POLITICO-Harvard poll found is an overwhelming concern for Democrats. The Trump administration’s decision to support a lawsuit from 20 conservative states that would gut Obamacare’s protections has been a political gift for Democrats and a messaging challenge for Republicans.

McMorris Rodgers accuses Democrats of using “scare tactics” to confuse voters, claiming that Republicans “will take action” to protect patients if the courts rule against Obamacare.

“Protecting those with pre-existing conditions is fundamental to any health care reform for me, and I have made that a priority,” she said.

In a column she wrote last month for The Spokesman Review, she said that neither Obamacare nor “the system we had before” have worked for the people of eastern Washington.

But while she says her opponent is focused “on attacking my record and not offering her own ideas,” McMorris Rodgers said she’s advancing “real solutions,” endorsing general principles such as “more choice and greater competition to lower health care costs,” “ensuring the most vulnerable get the care they need” and “leveraging technology.”

But those principles ring hollow to Democrats, who say Republicans have proved they can’t come up with a viable replacement for Obamacare.

“By trying to dismantle it and not having anything to put in its place, clearly that’s in jeopardy,” Brown said. “It’s the distance between the rhetoric and the reality.”

This story was produced with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism’s Center for Health Journalism.

Senate GOP midterm agenda: Judges, judges and more judges

A handful of Republican senators did something unusual on Wednesday: With the Senate not even in session, and no Democrats in sight, they convened the Judiciary Committee to advance a half-dozen of Donald Trump’s judicial nominees.

For Republicans, there’s nothing that matters more. They aren’t pitching a big visionary agenda to persuade voters to return them to power next year — there’s only passing mention in the midterms of repealing Obamacare, and little talk of making Trump’s border wall a reality. It’s all about the judiciary.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has given every indication that his primary focus — through Election Day and, assuming Republicans still control the Senate, in the two years to follow, will be the ongoing reshaping of the courts.

“I love the tax bill and a lot of the other things we did. But I think lifetime appointments — not only to the Supreme Court but to the circuit courts — are the way you have the longest last impact on the country,” McConnell said in an interview this month. “The president and his team have sent up, in my view, excellent judges, and we’ve had the unity we’ve needed … to get them confirmed.”

That could mean a 2019 that looks a lot like the scene Wednesday: Reporters asking senators about unrelated issues outside the Senate Judiciary Committee, while inside the GOP continues barreling ahead with confirming a parade of younger conservative judges like 36-year-old Allison Rushing, who could serve on the Fourth Circuit for perhaps 40 or 50 years given her youth.

McConnell’s pace of filling federal court seats has been eye-popping, especially on the powerful appellate circuits. Addressing the conservative Heritage Foundation on Tuesday night, McConnell touted 29 circuit court judges confirmed since Trump took office, which he described as a record pace “in any administration in history.” That’s 16 percent of the 179 appeals court seats.

Trump’s latest circuit nominee, Rushing, faced occasionally sharp questions from one of the four Republicans who attended on Wednesday. But the Democratic side of the aisle was empty less than a week after the minority agreed to confirm 15 Trump judges in exchange for an early recess, a boycott a Democratic aide said was intentional. While Brett Kavanaugh’s brutal confirmation fight left the new Supreme Court justice with dismal approval ratings, Republicans are betting that McConnell’s judicial hot streak will do more to energize their base in this year’s conservative battleground states than Democrats.

The Kentucky Republican pledged Tuesday night to continue two more years of work on his confirmation agenda if the GOP keeps the Senate. It’s a mission, set in motion by his 2016 decision to bottle up Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, that is looking easy to carry out.

To transform the courts, Republicans need the presidency and 50 GOP votes in the Senate given the recent evisceration of the filibuster on nominees. With 51 seats and a generous Senate map laid out before them, there’s an easy roadmap for the GOP to continue clawing back the more than 300 lifetime confirmations that Democrats oversaw during Barack Obama’s presidency.

“A president is entitled to nominate people,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said on Wednesday, adding that he “would support legislation that says if the president, no matter who the president is, nominates somebody in the executive branch or judicial branch, the Senate’s got 90 days to vote yea or nay. That’s what we’re paid to do.”

Democrats believe the GOP’s bump on the judiciary from the Kavanaugh fight will recede over the next three weeks.

Courts are “obviously a very, very important issue,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, in a recent interview. “But it’s also a fact that the issue that is at the top of most people’s mind around the country are things like: rising health care costs, the very real and warranted fear that people will undermine pre-existing conditions for health care.”

But GOP Senate candidates have leaned into the Kavanaugh fight: Josh Hawley in Missouri and Matt Rosendale in Montana have cut ads tied to Senate Democrats’ opposition to Kavanaugh. Individual candidates also mention working again at health care reform and repealing Obamacare, but McConnell will set the agenda if Republicans hold on.

And the GOP’s practical prospects for progress on changing health care are relatively weak compared to the judiciary’s energizing effect on conservatives. That’s in part because unity on judges is far easier to come by than on most other major policy issues. Kavanaugh sparked controversy for the sexual assault allegations against him, but the Senate spends much more of its time on lower court nominees whom Democrats can delay but not stop.

Lately they’ve struggled to even do that. Twice in the past two months, Democrats have consented to large confirmation packages of Trump judges to allow endangered senators to go home and campaign. And Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) scheduled two hearings during the pre-election recess to begin moving more nominees that can be confirmed in the lame duck session and clear the decks ahead of the new Congress next year.

The top Democrat on Judiciary, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, decried the hearing on Wednesday, which was run by Kennedy and lasted fewer than two hours. Although Republicans said that Feinstein had agreed to Wednesday’s judicial hearing as well as another one expected next week, Feinstein spokeswoman Ashley Schapitl said that she had given no such approval to move ahead on a “controversial” nomination hearing during a Senate recess.

Rushing, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, is not admitted to the bar in her home state of North Carolina and her nine years’ experience falls short of the 12 years typically sought by the American Bar Association before they can provide ratings of nominees. She was admitted to practice in the appeals court circuit where she’s now slated to become a judge one year ago, according to Democrats.

A Senate Democratic aide argued that by agreeing to recess the Senate before the election, the party at least limited McConnell’s ability to confirm Rushing immediately. But Democratic activists say they are tired of watching their party get steamrolled, likening McConnell to a schoolyard bully.

"If the Democrats were going to fast-track all those Trump judges to get out of town for the rest of October, the least they could have gotten for their trouble was a commitment from McConnell to not still hold hearings while the Senate was adjourned,” said Brian Fallon, who leads liberal judiciary group Demand Justice. “It wasn't enough for Democrats to let themselves get shoved into a locker, they also had to have their lunch money taken."

Republicans spent the second half of Obama’s presidency delaying many of the Democrats’ nominees when they were in the minority and then blocking dozens of them outright once they got the majority in 2015. Now that Trump is president, they have smashed down on the accelerator: The GOP has confirmed two Supreme Court justices and 29 Circuit Court nominees and 53 District Court nominees in fewer than two years. During Obama's first two years in office, Democrats — who held majorities in both houses — confirmed 62 federal judges.

And the ability to push those numbers even higher is clearly the biggest reward up for grabs on next month in the midterms. Democrats are defending a half-dozen vulnerable incumbents and must pick up at least two seats in mostly conservative territory to pick back up the majority, putting the odds firmly in the GOP’s favor.

“It’s always the main prize, because it’s a chance to get the best people we can on the bench,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former Judiciary chairman. And Rushing, he added, “is the type of person you want to get for the federal bench.”

Trump urged to visit troops in combat zones

President Donald Trump should visit U.S. troops in wars zones to get a firsthand view of military operations and show gratitude to the thousands of American soldiers serving in harm’s way, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee advised Wednesday.

Nearly two years into his presidency, Trump has yet to visit troops deployed to Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama.

And in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, he expressed his view that it is not “overly necessary” to do so, even as he has intensified the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and committed additional troops to the war in Afghanistan despite personal misgivings.

That stance was seen Wednesday by some critics as a break with tradition and dismissive of the men and women in uniform.

“It should be done by the president, not just to get an idea of what’s going on, but to personally thank men and women in the uniform of the United States who are exposing themselves to great dangers for the country,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told reporters.

“That goes a long way, and that’s something that the commander in chief should do,” he added.

Reed, who has visited Iraq and Afghanistan numerous times, recounted traveling to Iraq in the summer of 2008 with Obama, then a presidential candidate, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who would go on to serve as Obama’s Defense secretary.

The personal experience, he contended, is essential for lawmakers and the commander in chief.

“The idea of going over and telling the troops, thanking them, [is important] … but also face-to-face, on the ground, what are the problems, what are the issues,” Reed said. “Absolutely indispensable.”

But there are costs for such a high-profile tour.

Presidential visits can be disruptive to military units on the ground and top officials can only visit a few heavily fortified locations, like Afghanistan's Bagram Airfield. That was the only site Vice President Mike Pence stopped at during an unannounced visit to Afghanistan last December.

And rather than visiting Iraq or Syria, where thousands of U.S. troops are deployed mostly at small outposts with relatively little security, Pence dropped by a military base in neighboring Jordan where troops were supporting the fight against the Islamic State.

Obama made his first of five presidential trips to the front lines three months after taking office, while former President George W. Bush visited a half-dozen times.

Menendez calls Hugin ‘desperate’ and ‘a liar’ after prostitution ad airs

HACKENSACK, N.J. — An angry Sen. Bob Menendez on Wednesday ripped into Republican opponent Bob Hugin, labeling him a “slimeball,” and a “liar” for airing a commercial that dredges up old, unsubstantiated allegations that Menendez solicited underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.

“Bob Hugin is a desperate man. He’s down in the polls. He’s out of step with the people of New Jersey, and he’s desperate to distract voters from his shameful record,” Menendez (D-N.J.) said at the headquarters of the Bergen County Democratic Organization, where he was surrounded by about 20 women supporters.

“This deceitful, despicable attack ad tells you everything you need to know about Republican Bob Hugin: That he’s a slime ball, he’s a misogynist and he’s a liar,” Menendez said.

Earlier Wednesday, the Washington Post‘s fact checker gave the Hugin ad four “Pinocchios” — the worst rating it gives.

“There’s nothing new in the ad except for a dark descent into corrosive haze,” fact-checker Sal Rizzo wrote.

The controversial ad comes as polls show Menendez with a smaller lead over Hugin than a Democrat in heavily blue New Jersey would normally expect.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Menendez leading Hugin by 7 points — 51 percent to 44 percent. That lead would evaporate if not for Menendez’s 56 percent to 38 percent lead among women. Hugin has a narrow lead among men.

“You know what this is about? Bob Hugin knows that I have a huge double-digit lead with women in the state of New Jersey,” Menendez said.

The close race is largely the result of Menendez‘s legal and ethical problems.

Late last year, the senator survived a federal corruption trial over allegations he did political favors for his friend and co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, in exchange for gifts. The jury deadlocked, with 10 of the 12 members voting in favor of acquittal.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Menendez repeatedly tied Hugin to President Donald Trump, for whom the Republican served as a delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Hugin also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect Trump, who late in the 2016 election was caught on tape boasting of groping women.

“When you lie like this, you show the people of New Jersey you’re a Trump kind of Republican,” Menendez said.

The senator also brought up Hugin’s fight against admitting women to the Tiger Inn — an eating club Hugin belonged to when he was a student at Princeton University. Hugin continued the fight on behalf of the organization well into the 1990s, when he was in his 30s, accusing the woman who ultimately won the case of “politically-correct fascism.”

Over the summer, Hugin said he has since changed his mind on the issue.

The Hugin ad is based on a 2015 brief by federal prosecutors that claimed the prostitution allegations against Menendez were “specific” and “corroborated,“ based on an FBI agent’s affidavit.

However, no alleged underage prostitutes ever came forward to meet with the FBI. Their allegations were forwarded to the FBI by an anonymous tipster who went by the name “Pete Williams” — a reference to former New Jersey Sen. Harrison “Pete” Williams, who was forced from office after a corruption conviction.

Other women whose stories “Pete Williams“ shopped to media outlets later recanted their accusations and told Dominican authorities they were paid to lie. Like the women, “Pete Williams“ refused to come forward and meet with FBI agents, who did not know the identity of any of the alleged prostitutes.

The corroboration the FBI referred to in the brief is based on one of the alleged prostitutes saying she had sex with Menendez on several dates that largely lined up with times Menendez had been in the Dominican Republic.

The only two women with whom the FBI did meet both denied they were prostitutes or that they saw Menendez with prostitutes.

Elizabeth Meyer, founder of the Women’s March of New Jersey, called the Hugin ad a “bomb that is filled with nothing but innuendo and old, unsubstantiated breadcrumbs” and part of the “Trump playbook.”

“Bob Hugin isn’t a different kind of Republican. He’s proving that he’s an apprentice,” Meyer said.

Meyer acknowledged that some might have trouble supporting the senator — reflected in the fact that 52 percent of voters told Quinnipiac they have an unfavorable view of him — but said his record on abortion rights, health care and equal pay legislation makes him worthy of reelection.

“There are two candidates in this race who can win it: Senator Menendez and Bob Hugin,” Meyer said. “It may not be the choice that some of you like or disagree with, but it is the choice that we have.“

About a dozen Hugin supporters congregated outside the building where Wednesday’s press conference was held. Many carried signs, one of which called Menendez a “hypocrite,” and some handed out copies of the FBI document.

Megan Piwowar, a spokeswoman for the Hugin campaign, defended the Republican’s latest ad.

“Senator Menendez is a hypocrite and a liar,” she said in an email. “While Menendez may want citizens of NJ to forget that the FBI had very specific allegations he had sex with underage women in the Dominican, our ad reminds them exactly what kind of a person they have in Bob Menendez. New Jersey voters have a very clear choice: Do you believe the denials of corrupt, career politician Bob Menendez and convicted felon Salomon Melgen, or do you believe the FBI and the Obama Justice Department?“

'That grip and grin will come back to haunt him': Pompeo takes heat for friendly Saudi sit-down

Just this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo published an essay arguing that one major reason President Donald Trump’s foreign policy vision will succeed is its “moral clarity.”

But then there he was: The same Mike Pompeo, in the same week, smiling and chatting amiably with Saudi leaders suspected of orchestrating the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pompeo expressed confidence that the Saudis will conduct a legitimate probe into the case and hold wrongdoers accountable — a stance many in Washington found hard to believe.

Pompeo’s performance can be chalked up to any number of factors, including the inevitable trade-offs most U.S. administrations find they must make in dealing with unsavory allies who happen to be key to American interests. But it was also an example of Pompeo — no stranger to hawkish talk — toeing the Trump line, even if it risks tarnishing his image.

The approach, particularly Pompeo's friendly tone toward the Saudis in public, has drawn criticism from the foreign policy establishment, Democrats and newspaper editorial boards, with some warning he could be complicit in a Saudi cover-up.

“Would a little more solemnity have harmed his mission?” asked Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It might have helped it.”

Added a Democratic congressional aide: “That grip and grin will come back to haunt him.”

Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who was living in the U.S. and writing for The Washington Post, is alleged to have been killed and dismembered after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain marriage-related documents.

Turkish officials have alleged a 15-member Saudi hit squad targeted him, possibly for criticizing the powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Turkish media on Wednesday published details from audio recordings that indicated the Saudi hit team severed Khashoggi’s fingers while interrogating him, then later beheaded and cut up his body.

The crown prince and Saudi King Salman have denied any knowledge of what happened. But while at first the Saudi government insisted Khashoggi had left the consulate safely, more recently they’ve been floating another theory: that Saudis sent to either interrogate or abduct Khashoggi went too far.

The case, and Saudi officials’ shifting narratives about it, has angered Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who already were unhappy with a range of Saudi actions, including their killing of civilians in the war in Yemen. U.S. lobbyists and business leaders have also been abandoning their Saudi ties in the wake of the Khashoggi incident.

Trump and his aides have been more cautious in their response, keeping in mind that Riyadh is a major part of their plans to weaken the regime in Iran while keeping oil markets stable. Trump has also balked at halting U.S. arms sales to the Saudis, saying it would hurt U.S. jobs.

From the start, Pompeo and the State Department have been occasionally hesitant to discuss the case. Pompeo issued his first statement about the journalist almost a week after Khashoggi vanished. The statement noted that were “conflicting reports” about what may have happened.

Since then, Pompeo and the department have largely stuck to the line that the U.S. doesn’t know much about what happened and called for more facts to come out before making a judgement on the incident.

By State Department standrds, observers say the U.S. tone has been mild for what is a growing diplomatic crisis. For instance, while the department keeps saying it is “concerned” about Khashoggi’s fate, it has not raised the verbal heat as it traditionally would by saying it is “deeply concerned."

The State Department’s readouts of Pompeo’s meetings in Saudi Arabia and Turkey this week also don’t focus strictly on Khashoggi — whose killing was presumably the reason Trump dispatched his chief diplomat to the region. Instead, the readouts describe the discussions as covering a range of bilateral issues, including Syria. In at least one case, Khashoggi is the last topic listed.

And while a number of U.S. lawmakers, as well as Khashoggi’s family, have called for an independent investigation, Pompeo seems content to let the Saudis do their own probe, even thanking the Saudi king for his commitment to a “transparent” investigation.

The Washington Post wrote a blistering editorial about Pompeo’s friendly demeanor alongside the Saudi crown prince, saying Pompeo “appeared less intent on determining the truth than in helping the de facto Saudi ruler escape from the crisis he triggered.”

Pressed Wednesday on why he might believe Riyadh’s future findings, Pompeo declined to acknowledge the possibility that Khashoggi was killed, describing him instead as “missing.” The secretary of state also stressed the many interests the United States has in Saudi Arabia.

“I do think it’s important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relationships — financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies, governmental relationships, things we work on together all across the world — efforts to reduce the risk to the United States of America from the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, Iran,” Pompeo told reporters. “The Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us on those issues.”

Pompeo denied he was giving Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt on its promised investigation.

“It’s reasonable to give them a handful of days more to complete it so they get it right, so that it’s thorough and complete,” he said. “That’s what they’ve indicated they need and I’m hopeful they — and then we’ll get to see it. We’ll evaluate this on a factual, straight-up basis.”

Since joining the Trump administration, Pompeo has often downplayed or denying any potential differences between him and the president. He’s supported Trump on just about every front, standing by the president, for instance, when he claimed that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the United States despite Pyongyang taking what experts say are few, if any, tangible steps towards denuclearization.

Trump this week went further than Pompeo in trumpeting Saudi leaders' talking points on Khashoggi, repeatedly pointing out that the crown prince and king denied any knowledge of what happened. The president even likened the case to the sexual assault accusations against Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court.

“Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Trump told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday night. “I don’t like that.”

Pompeo’s approach to the Khashoggi incident may be another example of the secretary of state choosing to stay in lock-step with the president.

It could also be part of the administration's desire to stay the course on Iran.

Pompeo has long been a hawk on Iran. While serving in the House, Pompeo repeatedly slammed the Obama administration for agreeing to a nuclear deal with Iran — a deal Trump quit — casting the former president as naive for believing Iran would curb its nuclear program.

Since joining the Trump team, Pompeo has made weakening the Iranian regime a top goal — one that could shape his legacy at Foggy Bottom.

In the essay in Foreign Affairs posted this week, Pompeo lays out the administration’s strategy against Iran, calling for a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and public exposure of the Iranian leadership’s brutality and corruption. Pompeo wrote that Trump’s approach to Iran involves a “moral confrontation” that he likens to how Ronald Reagan approached the Soviet Union.

Pompeo’s decision last month to certify to Congress that the U.S. should keep supporting the Saudis in Yemen, despite allegations they are committing war crimes, was believed to hinge in part on maintaining Saudi cooperation on Iran.

While the Saudis have their own rivalry with Iran, making it unlikely a rupture with the U.S. would lead Riyadh to embrace Tehran, Pompeo is working to ensure that the Saudis will fill any gaps in the energy market after Nov. 4, when a series of punishing U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports take effect.

While there may be discomfort on the right about the forgiving tone Trump and Pompeo are taking with Saudi Arabia, there have been no calls to completely break off ties with the strategically important country.

Asked on Wednesday to discuss Pompeo’s performance in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Republican lawmakers largely sidestepped the question.

“We have a tremendous relationship with the Saudis. They’re important to us, we’re important to them but we have to be honest and watch these things closely,” said Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

The U.S. has to think about its long-term interests, said GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana.

“You’re a dream weaver if you think we can keep a lid on the Mideast by turning to all of the countries there and saying, ‘You’re all a bunch of authoritarian despots and we’re not going to talk to you anymore,’” Kennedy said. “You do that and you’re going to create a vacuum. And I can tell you [is] who’s coming in: Russia, and China and a lot of other countries.”

Burgess Everett and Elana Schor contributed to this report.

Heitkamp staffer resigns following ad mistakenly naming sexual assault victims

A staff member for North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's campaign has resigned after a campaign ad erroneously named several women without their permission in an open letter from sexual assault victims.

Julia Kreiger, a spokeswoman for Heitkamp's campaign, confirmed the senator requested and received the resignation of a campaign staff member following the mistake. The Associated Press reported that Heitkamp told a local TV station she is still investigating how her campaign obtained the names that appeared in the ad.

Heitkamp apologized for the mistake after several women said they did not give permission for their names to be used in the ad. Heitkamp has called some of the women who were affected by it to apologize personally to them.

"Obviously we wanted to make sure that these women had a voice. Unfortunately, the execution here was horrible. This is a big mistake," Heitkamp said Tuesday in a local radio interview.

The misstep came as Heitkamp tried to focus attention on GOP Rep. Kevin Cramers comments about sexual assault victims in the closing days of the North Dakota Senate race. Heitkamp has trailed in the polls but maintained hope of mounting a late comeback.

"This was a major mistake on our campaign's part and I can't say I'm sorry enough. I am so, so sorry that this happened and I am trying to reach out to make sure that we make it right," Heitkamp said in the radio interview.

The senator declined on the radio show to name anyone from the campaign who was involved in the ad, and she said she took personal responsibility for the incident.

Trump threatens 5 percent spending cut for agencies, $700B Pentagon budget

President Donald Trump on Wednesday instructed federal department leaders to slash 5 percent from their budgets next year, signaling a renewed interest in belt-tightening amid mounting deficits.

“I’m going to ask each of you to come back with a 5 percent cut for our next meeting,” Trump declared at his Cabinet meeting, seated alongside his top officials. “I think you’ll all be able to do it.”

“Some of you will say, ‘Hey, I can do much more than five,’” Trump said, hinting at more drastic cuts for some agencies.

Even the military could see slight cuts from its current budget: Trump said the Pentagon’s budget would “likely be $700 billion,” according to a White House pool report. That would shave off roughly $16 billion, or 2.3 percent, from the Department of Defense, which was recently granted its largest budget since the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trump’s comments come just days after his own administration reported the U.S. budget deficit reached a six-year high. The budget shortfall for Trump’s first full fiscal year in office totaled $776 billion — 17 percent higher than the previous year.

For the first two years of his presidency, the White House has largely ignored the rising red ink as Trump prioritized a massive military build-up and poured money into campaign promises like funding to fight opioids or boost veterans' benefits.

“Last year, the first year, I had to do something with the military,” Trump told the Cabinet, justifying a Pentagon budget that has exceeded $700 billion over the last two years.

But after sealing a $300 billion budget deal this spring, administration officials are hinting the second half of Trump’s term could mark a pivot toward budget austerity. Trump will present his next budget request early next year for fiscal 2020.

“As you watch our next budget come out — and you’ll start to see things in the next few weeks — then you’ll see a much more aggressive stance,” said Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, at a panel last week. “The deficit is absolutely higher than anyone would like.”

Trump has already called for drastic cuts for most domestic departments in both of his presidential budget requests so far. That included a 5 percent across-the-board cut to the Department of Education for fiscal 2019, for example.

Congress has roundly rebuffed those proposed cuts.