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Washington Report April 7, 2017
07 Apr 2017

Washington Report April 7, 2017

The 113th Supreme Court Justice Confirmed … The New Narrative … SYRIA … Syria Whiplash … Bannon vs. Kushner … Bannon vs. Cohn … Palace Intrigue … No One Home … 2018 … Alright, Alright, Alright … and other news of the week.

For those watching the calendar, Congress is on recess till the last week in April.

Joyce Rubenstein
Capstone National Partners


BREAKING 215 YEAR OLD TRADITION The Fix “… ”After Democrats successfully filibustered Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination Thursday morning, Republicans simply reduced the threshold for Supreme Court picks from 60 votes to a majority — getting rid of the centuries-old practice of filibustering Supreme Court nominees. This forever changes how Supreme Court nominees will be approved. DONE Neil Gorsuch was confirmed today. (More on going ‘nuclear’ and it’s impact on 2018 elections below).




THE NEW NARRATIVE: Politico “Forget health care, infrastructure, taxes and regulations. President Donald Trump now owns a war. Trump’s decision to bomb an airfield in Syria now places that nation’s mess squarely on his plate.” “The U.S. military carried out “the first direct U.S. assault on the government of Bashar al-Assad in six years of civil war” with some 50-plus volleys of Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise missiles targeting aircraft, hangars, fuel and ammunition stores, air defenses, and radars at Syria’s Shayrat Air Base, the facility from which Syrian government forces took off to drop chemical weapons two days ago, Defense One reported Thursday evening. Reuters ” … cruise strikes “killed six people and caused extensive damage” at the airbase. The Syrian army also described the cruise strikes as a “blatant act of aggression.” Moscow Times reports: “… the Russian Foreign Ministry announced the suspension of an airspace safety agreement with the U.S. and its allies.”

Worth noting: The U.S. reportedly informed Russia in advance of the strikes. Also reportedly given advance notice: the Brits.

Roll Call “Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are waiting Friday to hear President Trump’s plan for his next step in Syria. Many members — including some of Trump’s most vocal critics — offered support in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. bombing of a Syrian airbase Thursday night. But they said Trump needs to consult Congress before he takes any more steps. … expect another conversation in Washington about the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) — a complex debate about America’s role in the world and the president’s authority to use force without Congress’s approval.

U.S. VS. RUSSIA — TRUMP V. PUTIN … at 6:14 a.m.: “MOSCOW (AP) – Russian military says it will help Syria strengthen its air defenses after U.S. strike.” KEEP IN MIND: SecState Rex Tillerson is going to Moscow next week. These Syria strikes will have a major impact on that meeting and what the relationship between the U.S. and Russia looks like going forward.

THE RISKS NYT’s “The first risk is that his gambit with Mr. Putin fails. … Mr. Putin is not likely to enter into an agreement that threatens his influence over Syria, and thus his main foothold in the Middle East. Syria is home to Russia’s main military base outside its own borders. A second risk is that Mr. Trump, in taking a shot at Mr. Assad, undercuts his own main goal in the region: defeating the Islamic State. If Syria collapses, it could become a haven for Islamic terrorists, the exact situation that Mr. Trump is trying to prevent. The third risk is that Mr. Trump has no real plan to bring peace to Syria. The American-led negotiations to create some kind of political accord — which was John Kerry’s mission for his final 18 months as secretary of state — collapsed. Roll Call “By pounding a Syrian air base with nearly 60 cruise missiles, Donald Trump could entangle the United States into the complex Syrian conflict [and find] himself in the same Middle East quicksand that his two predecessors found so stymying.”

REMIND ME ABOUT SYRIA theSkimm “Syria’s been going through a horrible civil war for years. President Assad (backed by Russia and Iran) has been fighting rebel groups (some backed by the US). Back in 2013, more than 1,000 people were killed by a chemical weapons attack blamed on Assad’s forces. Former President Obama came thiiiiis close to military intervention. Instead, Assad agreed to destroy all of his chemical weapons. Apparently he didn’t. Just before this week’s chemical attack, the Trump administration said it didn’t feel strongly about whether Assad stayed in power. Fast forward a few days, and everything’s changed. What Does This Mean? That the Trump administration wants Syria, Russia, and Iran to know that it’s willing to use military force in this war. This missile attack was also one of the smaller military options that the Pentagon presented to Trump. So it may be more of a warning than a sign of long-term US action. For years, the US has resisted getting involved in a civil war that has seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and led to the worst migrant and refugee crisis since WWII. Not anymore.

TRUMP’S SYRIA WHIPLASH Politico “In the span of one week, President Trump and his team have pirouetted from declaring that Syria’s murderous dictator could stay in power to launching airstrikes against his regime — and possibly committing the United States to a new military conflict whose scope and scale are unknown. It’s a dizzying turnabout for a man who complained endlessly during the presidential campaign about the trillions the United States had wasted on wars in the Middle East — and who urged his predecessor in 2013 not to launch ‘stupid’ airstrikes to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. But Donald Trump is nothing if not ‘flexible,’ as he put it in Wednesday’s press conference, describing how horrific images of gassed Syrian children had changed his ‘attitude’ toward Assad, who U.S. intelligence agencies were quick to deem responsible. As for what punishment the president had in store for the Syrian leader, he wasn’t sharing: ‘I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or the other,’ Trump said. … Nobody expected Trump, of all people, to wage a campaign to avenge Syrian children — who, after all, aren’t even allowed to come into the United States as refugees.”


INFRASTRUCTURE CHAT NYTs “President Trump said he was considering ‘accelerating’ the introduction of his $1 trillion infrastructure bill … speaking in a wide-ranging interview in the Oval Office on Wednesday, [Trump] described the infrastructure package as a high-value legislative sweetener that he could attach to a revived Affordable Care Act repeal bill or tax code overhaul to attract bipartisan support that thus far he had neither sought nor received. Actually, Mr. President … Infrastructure is definitely popular among Democrats, but with Republicans .. attaching infrastructure spending to another bill actually could complicate matters.”


NATIONALISTS VS. WEST WING DEMOCRATS Politico … the steady, loud accumulation of power by Jared Kushner and his allies, at the expense of the more ideological force hardline ideologues, led by Steve Bannon — keeps winning. Bannon’s demotion from the from National Security Council was covered as a demotion and therefore cost him juice. Drudge bannered: “BANNON LOSES POWER IN WHITE HOUSE SHAKEUP.” The change represents the first real diminution of authority for Bannon, who has been cast as an all-powerful whisperer to Trump in the administration’s first 75 days, mocked by his critics as ‘President Bannon.’

BANNON VS KUSHNER … YOU’RE A DEMOCRAT Politico “Thick with tension, the conversation this week between Stephen K. Bannon, the chief White House strategist, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, had deteriorated to the point of breakdown. Finally, Mr. Bannon identified why they could not compromise, according to someone with knowledge of the conversation. ‘Here’s the reason there’s no middle ground,’ Mr. Bannon growled. ‘You’re a Democrat.’

BANNON VS. COHN The Hive “On any given night Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, is in his office on the second floor of the West Wing. Cohn, who, until joining the Trump administration at the behest of his friend, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, was the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, is now suddenly working junior analyst hours. Just across the hall, and working similar hours, is Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the architect of his populist campaign. Bannon is also a former Goldman banker, but one who rejects much of what the bank—and Cohn—stand for. It’s a nightly struggle for Trump’s ear.

Trump ran against Goldman, against New York elitists and globalists—which is of course, pretty precisely Cohn’s résumé. He was even a registered Democrat. But Cohn is also the kind of person with whom Trump has spent most of his professional life—sophisticated, pragmatic, effective, a dealmaker. The rise of Cohn and his allies—Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, along with fellow former-Goldman-ite Dina Powell—and Trump’s obvious attraction to them, have spooked the nationalist true believers like Bannon and his ally Stephen Miller, both of whom helped provide the campaign its pointed, powerful voice and helped Trump win the election. Throughout the campaign and until the struggles of the last month, Bannon and Kushner professed a close friendship—even joking about knocking down the wall between their offices. NO MORE The problem is that for much of his first 11 weeks in office, Trump, who hates to lose, has lost, repeatedly. And a common thread woven through many of those defeats has been Steve Bannon.” (more on Cohn below)


PALACE INTRIGUE “… NYT report that Bannon resisted the move to be removed from the NSC, even threatening to resign. Axios “At the same time, the Jared/Ivanka/Cohn wing of the White House squirrels away territory in its push to take over Trumpland:
– Jared Kushner seizes control over structuring government at home and America’s public face aboard.
– Ivanka Trump adviser Dina Powell is named Deputy National Security Adviser, and keeps her portfolio as senior counselor for economic initiatives.
– The NSC is normal(ish) after Flynn is dumped and Bannon sidelined.
– Economic adviser Gary Cohn’s flexes muscle over tax reform, the coming monster on the agenda, at the expense of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
What all this means: For all the talk of radical change, Trump is taking fairly conventional approaches to trade, health care, tax reform, China and foreign policy. Score this a big win for the Jared wing.

Sound smart: Bannon’s friends worry he locked arms too tight with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and finds himself more isolated from Jared/Ivanka/Cohn – and therefore with the boss.

Sound even smarter: Trump himself remains very frustrated and not sure who to blame or who can truly help turn things around. Jared is filling the void as aggressively as Bannon did during the early days.”

MCMASTER SOLIDIFIES CONTROL “Trump’s directive reorganizing the National Security Council gives McMaster the lines of authority and independence he sought when offered the job and restores the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford, as a regular member of the NSC, along with the director of national intelligence, former senator Dan Coats. An administration official with direct knowledge of the deliberations said the changes are part of broader reforms McMaster is implementing, including reducing the size of the NSC’s professional staff, which ballooned to about 450 under President Barack Obama. It’s also seen as a major victory in reviving the so-called ‘Scowcroft model,’ in which the national security adviser avoids pushing his own policy agenda in favor of serving as a referee for proposals put forth by NSC staff and the career professionals from national security and foreign policy agencies that also participate in high-level meetings.”


NO ONE HOME The huge number of vacancies throughout the top ranks of government is concentrating power in the West Wing — to Jared’s benefit, and with the effect of balls getting dropped. Too few people are doing too much, and it’s keeping the Cabinet weak,” said one outside adviser to the West Wing. “In a Cabinet of people who are used to being superstars, no one has been able to negotiate to get a high-powered team in. Bannon will tell you: We’re doing things differently — that’s the way it used to be,” said a veteran of past Republican White Houses. “But there are some actual functions of government that need to be carried out by these buildings. The belittlement of the Cabinet is most apparent in the invisibility of SecState Rex Tillerson, a 65-year-old former corporate titan who’s now operating in the shadow of 36-year-old Kushner. I don’t know what Rex does every day,” a friend said. “[SecDef] James Mattis is home alone.” According to the Political Appointee Tracker of the Partnership for Public Service, of 553 key positions in the Trump administration requiring Senate confirmation, 486 have no nominee, 24 are awaiting nomination, 21 have been nominated and 22 confirmed. The partnership shared the latest historical equivalents. As of today:

Trump: 21 nominations, 22 confirmed.
George H.W. Bush: 72 nominations, 27 confirmed.
Bill Clinton: 69 nominations, 44 confirmed.
George W. Bush: 65 nominations, 32 confirmed.
Obama: 120 nominations, 54 confirmed.
As Trump might tweet: Big difference!


DRAMA! “Trump loyalists fight to survive – in his administration,” Politico “A civil war between Donald Trump loyalists and establishment-minded Republicans is escalating throughout the federal government – and increasingly the president’s allies are losing. From the State Department to the EPA, a sharp dividing line has formed: Cabinet secretaries and their handpicked teams of GOP veterans are rushing to take power as Trump campaign staffers – ‘originals,’ as they call themselves – gripe that they’re being pushed aside. … In recent weeks, a number of longtime Trump supporters have abruptly quit, saying they felt the administration had been overtaken by the same establishment they worked to defeat. The backbiting is further paralyzing federal agencies, which have been hamstrung by slow hiring, disorganization and an overall lack of direction since Trump’s inauguration.”

WENT ‘NUCLEAR’ DOES ANYONE CARE? The Fix “[With the filibuster of Supreme Court Nominees gone], we can credibly make the case that neither side is going to suffer politically for this. In short: Republicans didn’t pay a political price last year for holding up Merrick Garland (Obama’s nominee) for some nine months — in fact, you could argue they even came out on top by winning the White House, too. Network exit polls found that about 2 in 10 voters said appointments to the Supreme Court were the most important factor in their presidential vote. Among those who said it was the most important factor, 56% voted for Trump, compared with 41% who voted for Clinton. That’s commensurate with what we understand about which side’s base gets more riled up about the Supreme Court — conservatives.

Using the past to predict the future has become an increasingly fraught thing to do in this no-rules political world (see: Nov. 8, 2016). But in addition to what happened to Garland, here are two more things that allow us to believe that Thursday’s Senate drama won’t make much difference in the 2018 midterm elections:

1. Most Americans still aren’t that familiar with the court and the process by which justices are chosen for it. It’s also safe to assume even fewer Americans are familiar with what Republicans just did to the filibuster. In 2010, Pew Research Center asked Americans how many senators it takes to break a filibuster — just 26 percent correctly chose 60.

2. Even if voters did care about the Supreme Court, the 2018 Senate map isn’t one that will be easily swayed. Republicans control the Senate by two seats (actually, three if you count Vice President Pence, who can cast a tie-breaking vote). That’s not enough to break a Democratic filibuster on legislation (you need 60 votes), but in the next election, Republicans are in a position to gain more seats, not lose them.

Midterms are normally kind to the party not in power, but this map shows serious headwinds for Democrats. Is the filibuster-Supreme Court drama a piece of the puzzle in the political battle for the Senate? Sure, to the extent everything that happens in Washington could motivate someone to vote one way or the other. But this major change to Senate procedure doesn’t look like it will be a major political factor in 2018.”


ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT theSkimm “The FBI and Congress are investigating whether President Trump’s team worked with Russia to interfere in the presidential election. Separately, last month, Trump accused former President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower before the election. Pretty much everyone else said ‘not true.’ Then, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) – who’s leading the House Russia investigation – said he’d seen classified docs that showed that members of Team Trump had been “incidentally” surveilled while the US was legally spying on foreigners. Turns out, he got that info from the White House. Making it look like he might have been working with Team Trump to back up the president’s wiretapping claims. Critics called for him to step down from the House Russia investigation. HERE’S WHAT’S NEW … yesterday, Nunes said ‘alright alright alright’ and removed himself from the Russia investigation. It didn’t help that the House ethics committee is investigating him for publicly talking about this potentially classified info without permission. HIS REPLACEMENT IS … Rep. Mike Conaway to take over. A couple of key things to know about the Texas Republican: he uncovered an accounting scandal at the NRCC in 2008 when he served as audit chair of the executive committee; former Speaker John Boehner had considered him to lead the intel panel before tapping him to head the chamber’s ethics committee; and he was one of the names floated to replace Boehner as speaker, though he never officially raised his hand for the job.”


AND ON WALL STREET Bloomberg — “Cohn Backs Wall Street Split of Lending, Investment Banks” “In a private meeting with lawmakers, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said he supports a policy that could radically reshape Wall Street’s biggest firms by separating their consumer-lending businesses from their investment banks … Cohn, the ex-Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive who is now advising President Donald Trump, said he generally favors banking going back to how it was when firms like Goldman focused on trading and underwriting securities, and companies such as Citigroup Inc. primarily issued loans … The remarks surprised some senators and congressional aides who attended the Wednesday meeting, as they didn’t expect a former top Wall Street executive to speak favorably of proposals that would force banks to dramatically rethink how they do business.” HERE’S WHAT a Capitol Hill Republican told [Politico] yesterday about Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser: “He’s a liberal Democrat.” This was said with a dead straight face by a person who has interacted with the former Goldman Sachs banker.”

SPECIAL ELECTION TO WATCH The Fix “In two weeks, the first competitive congressional election since President Trump’s inauguration will take place in Georgia, and the money is pouring in at an unprecedented rate as Democrats seek a confidence-inspiring upset. The special election will fill the vacancy left by Tom Price, who became Trump’s secretary of health and human services. Jon Ossoff — a 30 year old Democrat who has never held public office — is leading a crowded field of Republicans in the open race with around 40% of the vote, brought in a whopping $8.3 million in the first quarter of 2017. And that actually dwarfs the last pre-election quarterly hauls of every congressional campaign from the 2016 cycle. Campaigns in competitive races, on average, took in just 6% of Ossoff’s total over a comparable period.

Although the numbers are staggering, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ossoff … is attracting national attention — and the money that comes along with it. The election offers the first potential referendum on Trump’s and Republicans’ performance since they took control of the government. Democrats, emboldened by a Trump approval rating quickly falling below 40 percent, are hungry for a big symbolic victory. And Georgia’s 6th District is a great place to do it; the suburban district is affluent, highly educated and favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by only 1.5 percent after favoring Mitt Romney by more than 20 points the previous election — meaning it’s fertile soil for what Democrats could cast as a rebuke of Trump. Helping matters is the fact that there are no competitive Democrats in other congressional races to take donors’ attention and checks. But even considering those factors, raising 17 times as much as the average candidate in a competitive district is remarkable. Ossoff and his competitors will face off in the first round of the special election April 18. If no candidate garners 50% of the vote, the top two will face off in a runoff election in late June.”


President Trump welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to his Mar-a-Lago estate on Thursday, kicking off a two-day summit. The un­or­tho­dox location of the summit is intended to lessen the formality of the first meeting between the two leaders, White House aides said, and help establish a working relationship, if not rapport, between Trump and Xi after moments of tension during the U.S. election season.

“Our presidents should stop trying to use a personal touch with Chinese leaders. It doesn’t work. They have their interests, we have our interests. A D.C. meeting shows we can focus on interests, which is what the Chinese expect.”
– Michael Auslin, an Asia expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.


WHITE HOUSE PRESS BRIEFING AS KINDERGARTEN CLASS Because by the end of the week, we all need a laugh. Click Here

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