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Washington Report February 17, 2017
17 Feb 2017

Washington Report February 17, 2017

You Heard it Right, Congress is More Popular … 77 Chaotic Minutes … Thanks, But No Thanks … Do Not Pass Go … Cleaning House… Tax Reform … You Won’t Believe What Chaffetz Is Investigating … . and other news of the week.

Oh, and President’s Day Recess starts Monday.

Joyce Rubenstein
Capstone National Partners


CONGRESS IS GETTING MORE POPULAR The Fix “Well, they still don’t like Congress — but they don’t like them less than they used to! Here’s the latest look at Gallup’s Congressional approval ratings: 28% approve. … it’s not amazing, but for a Congress whose approval ratings have been mired in the low teens for the better part of the last six years, the new Gallup numbers represent real progress.

What explains the surge? Republicans. “The increase in congressional job approval in February is mainly the result of a surge in Republicans’ approval, which more than doubled in the past month, to 50%,” writes Gallup about the results. “Independents’ approval increased slightly to 25%, and Democrats’ approval dropped eight points to 11%.”

This phenomenon is not new. In 2009, Democrats’s view of Congress soared in the wake of President Obama’s election. Each new president gives people of their party a new hope that politics can be fixed and made better. That hope tends to wear off as Congress — particularly in its recent incarnation — doesn’t do much and people realize that politics is politics.

Still, it’s worth noting that the 28% Congressional approval puts the body close to its historical average of 30% approval. The issue now is whether … the Republican-led Congress can keep their numbers up. History suggests it will be a massive challenge.”


IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE THIS WAY Politico “Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in more than a decade. After eight years of Barack Obama, GOP lawmakers had big plans: repeal Obamacare, overhaul the tax code, pass a massive infrastructure, just to name a few. But so far, Republicans have made little progress on any of President Donald Trump’s grandiose campaign promises and the daily dramas of his administration are starting to take their toll on everyone, most notably elected officials on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Republicans say they won’t be distracted by his tweets or his missives, but they are starting to be the defining characteristic of his administration. Trump’s press conference on Thursday was supposed to be a reset moment. Instead, the event became an extended sideshow of epic proportions. It’s unclear how, or if, Trump will be able to lead his administration into calmer waters. He was dealt another blow Thursday when Robert Harward, a well-regarded retired vice admiral, turned down the national security adviser job.”


WHAT TO SAY WHILE CLEANING OUT YOUR CLOSET theSkimm “Don’t need this. Or this. The GOP-led Congress is saying the same about some of former President Obama’s policies. Yesterday, the Senate voted to get rid of a rule that made it harder for people with mental disabilities to buy guns. Obama signed the rule after a man with mental health problems got his hands on a gun and killed 20 kids and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Critics say preventing people with mental disabilities from buying guns violates their Second Amendment rights. Supporters say it’s necessary to keep people safe. Now, the measure heads to President Trump’s desk for an official sign-off.

Speaking of things on Capitol Hill’s to-do list, earlier this week, the GOP introduced a bill to Houdini the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That’s the independent watchdog group formed after the 2008 financial crisis, with the goal of keeping banks and credit card companies from taking advantage of people. Critics say the group has too much power over things like regulating the financial industry. Congress says ‘we’ve gotta talk it out.’ Stay tuned.”


BEFORE VACAY “President Trump’s Cabinet-in-limbo gained a significant addition before Congress skips town for a week, as the Senate confirmed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be EPA administrator early this afternoon. Trump’s campaign and transition telegraphed what to expect from Pruitt: A major reduction in EPA’s emphasis on federal oversight in favor of giving more control to the states; a severely reduced, if not reversed, focus on climate change; and long-term moves to decrease funding and staff.

And, that’s it on the Cabinet front until Congress returns from its weeklong Presidents’ Day recess. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture earlier this week on several other cabinet nominees: Wilbur Ross for Commerce secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke for Interior secretary, Ben Carson for HUD secretary and Rick Perry for Energy secretary. The move sets up a series of votes on their nominations (in that order) once lawmakers return to Washington.

DNC CHAIR TBD Democratic National Committee members are headed to Atlanta next week for the group’s winter meeting, where roughly 447 party insiders will vote for a new chairman. The race in the home stretch has gotten chippy between the front-runners: Rep. Keith Ellison and former Labor secretary Tom Perez.

SCOTUS The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on March 20. It’s expected to last three or four days. Opening statements will be on March 20 and questioning of Judge Gorusch, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, will be held on March 21. Outside experts will also testify.

DEADLINES COMING UP FAST The Senate’s 51-49 vote to confirm Rep. Mick Mulvaney as Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director on Thursday presents him with a staggering and complex to-do list with less time to meet upcoming deadlines than any other OMB chief in recent history. For instance, the Pentagon has signaled it will ask Congress for more military money by March 1, and the White House’s defense supplemental request could also include funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.”


77 CHAOTIC MINUTES … The Fix “Donald Trump entered the East Room on Thursday reeling from a week filled with resignations, withdrawals and continued questions surrounding his campaign’s contacts with Russia. What followed was an hour-long, full-throated attack on Trump’s favorite foil: the media.

It was a return for Trump to what worked for him during the course of the 2016 campaign: A circuslike atmosphere in which he uses the media — and his supporters’ distrust of the media — as a sort of tackling dummy to re-center the narrative on ground more favorable to him. Trump didn’t just run down the media — although he did a lot of that — but he also mocked various outlets, reviewed shows on cable TV that he likes (and doesn’t), told reporters to sit down and be quiet, and critiqued the quality of the questions he was being asked. There was a rawness to his attacks, a personal invective that seemed well beyond the typically antagonistic relationship that exists between the media and the president they cover. WHY DO IT? Because Trump understands something very important: For his supporters, the media represent everything they dislike about American society. The media is composed, to their mind, of Ivy-League-educated coastal elites who look down their noses at the average person, dismissing them and their views as stupid and ill-informed. For people who feel like their voices weren’t and aren’t heard in politics — or culture more broadly — the media is the perfect scapegoat. … And the truth is that Trump’s broadside against the terrible dishonesty of the media will leave lots of heads nodding around the country.

Trump’s decision, amid turmoil inside and outside his White House, to turn his fire on the media was a deeply predictable move. It’s also one that will almost certainly succeed in changing the subject from Russia and Mike Flynn.Trump knows all that. It’s why he did it.

TRUMP’S MEDIA ATTACKS RAISE EYEBROWS … EVEN AT FOX The Fix “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy is almost always up for a game of Bash the Media, but even he felt compelled to call time-out Friday morning when White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus started railing against recent reports by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal regarding President Trump and Russia. Here’s the key part of the exchange (that interjection by Doocy — “the reporters aren’t making them up” — is a testament to just how flagrantly incoherent the White House’s messaging has been. When “Fox & Friends” can’t let it slide, you know it’s bad.):


PRIEBUS: These are the types of things that are totally phony.

DOOCY: Well, Reince — Reince, where did these stories come from? ‘Cause the reporters aren’t making them up. Somebody’s giving them the story.

PRIEBUS: Well, they might be making — listen, there may be some bad actors within the intelligence community or some holdovers. Nobody knows.


Only one of these messages can be true, of course. Are government sources leaking to journalists or are journalists inventing sources out of thin air? The sources either exist or they don’t. Yet the White House is making both claims at the same time. It makes no sense, but maybe this is what counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway meant about “alternative facts.”

Fact: U.S. intelligence officials leaked information to the Times and the Journal.

Alternative fact: The officials cited by the Times and the Journal are not real.

The Trump White House is essentially offering supporters two possible reasons to be angry about news reports. The reasons are incompatible with one another, but the president apparently thinks his backers won’t notice or care.”


THANKS BUT NO THANKS Politico ” Retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward has turned down an offer from President Donald Trump to be national security adviser. … [A]ccording to an individual familiar with Harward’s thinking, the former Navy SEAL who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush turned down the Trump offer because he did not receive sufficient assurances about staffing and autonomy. Specifically, the source said Harward wanted commitments that the National Security Council would be fully in charge of security matters, not Trump’s political advisers. And he wanted to be able to select his own staff.”

— @jaketapper: “A friend of Harward’s says he was reluctant to take NSA job bc the WH seems so chaotic; says Harward called the offer a ‘s*** sandwich.'”


DO NOT PASS GO theSkimm “Wednesday, Andrew Puzder, President Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, showed himself the door. WHO? Puzder, a fast food exec, has been one of Trump’s most controversial cabinet nominees. Here’s why … First, he allegedly abused his ex-wife back in the ’80s. She has since walked back those allegations. Second, he once hired an undocumented housekeeper, and didn’t get taxed on her pay until very recently. And third, he allegedly underpaid his own fast-food employees in the past. Not a good look for a potential labor secretary. Some GOP lawmakers signaled that they wouldn’t vote to confirm him – so yesterday, Puzder withdrew his nomination altogether. It’s not every day members from both sides of Congress agree on something. Puzder is the only cabinet nominee so far not to pass ‘Go.’ And now Trump’s got an empty seat to fill.”


OVER AT STATE CBS “While Rex Tillerson is on his first overseas trip as Secretary of State, his aides laid off staff at the State Department on Thursday. Much of the seventh-floor staff, who work for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and the Counselor offices, were told [Thursday] that their services were no longer needed. These staffers in particular are often the conduit between the secretary’s office to the country bureaus, where the regional expertise is centered. Inside the State Department, some officials fear that this is a politically-minded purge that cuts out much-needed expertise from the policy-making, rather than simply reorganizing the bureaucracy. “There are clear signals being sent that many key foreign policy portfolios will be controlled directly by the White House, rather than through the professional diplomats. Not a single State Department official was included in the White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner – who has no regional expertise or diplomatic experience – had a greater role in the meeting than the Senate-confirmed secretary of State.”


TAX REFORM UPDATE Politico “Paul Ryan showed up to Senate Republicans’ weekly lunch on Tuesday hoping to salvage a controversial pillar of his tax reform plan that would change how imports and exports are taxed. …”Keep your powder dry,’ the House speaker pleaded. The next day, Sen. Tom Cotton took to the Senate floor to slam Ryan’s so-called border adjustment tax, saying ‘some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual could believe them. Many other senators share these concerns and we most certainly will not “keep our powder dry,”‘ Cotton went on, without naming the speaker in his speech.

“The sequence was an ominous sign for a linchpin of Ryan’s tax plan — and perhaps for the prospects of tax reform happening at all. The border adjustment tax would generate more than a trillion dollars over a decade; there’s no obvious way to replace that money, which is needed to help pay for a steep cut in corporate and income taxes. … Americans For Prosperity, the nonprofit funded in part by Charles and David Koch, is readying a major push to defeat Republicans’ border-adjustment tax proposal, pitting the group against House Speaker Paul Ryan and Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady. The group’s efforts to kill the tax so far have consisted of meetings with individual members but the group is moving now to mobilize its activists on the ground in 35 states as Congress heads home this weekend. The border adjustment tax, meanwhile, could die in the Senate even if it makes it through the House. “Many Republican senators say privately they detest the concept, fretting that it will hurt their in-state retailers like Wal-Mart, which is headquartered in [GOP Sen. Tom] Cotton’s state of Arkansas. “Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), sources said, has warned Trump and Ryan that border adjustment won’t likely have the support needed to clear the Senate.”


IN THE ‘YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE THIS’ DEPARTMENT AP “The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who has refused Democratic requests to investigate possible conflicts of interest involving President Donald Trump is seeking criminal charges against a former State Department employee who helped set up Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday asking him to convene a grand jury or charge Bryan Pagliano, the computer specialist who helped establish Clinton’s server while she was secretary of state.”

“So let me get this straight. There’s evidence that Russia launched an illegal espionage operation to help put Donald Trump in the Oval Office. There’s evidence that Team Trump was in communications with officials in Vladimir Putin’s government at the time. There’s evidence that leading members of Team Trump lied about these contacts. There’s evidence that the communications continued during the presidential transition process, which Trump administration officials lied about, and which led to the White House National Security Advisor resigning. There’s evidence that this entire scandal, possibly the most serious since Watergate, is part of an ongoing U.S. counter-espionage investigation. AND It’s against this backdrop that Jason Chaffetz, just yesterday, contacted the Justice Department seeking criminal charges related to … wait for it … Hillary Clinton’s email server.”

Meanwhile, House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz asked the Justice Department to investigate leaks surrounding Flynn’s ouster. Not Flynn … the leaks.


@johnrobertsFox: @POTUS was in fact fully briefed on the content of those conversations that Gen. Flynn had with the Russian ambassador.

IS FLYNN’S RESIGNATION ONLY THE BEGINNING The Fix “… late Monday night wasn’t the end of the story about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. It was just the latest chapter. While Trump and his senior advisers hope that sacrificing Flynn at the altar of the Washington establishment will quiet many of the questions raised by the former National Security Agency chief’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, it’s very hard to see how that happens given all of the new reporting on the matter and how much we still don’t know.”

Remember, there are (at least) two ongoing investigations into U.S. government officials’ contact with the Russians: One by the FBI and one by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who sits on that committee, told The Post’s that the investigation will include Flynn’s contacts with Kisylak and “anything else that involves the Russians.” Added Rubio: “We are going to go wherever the truth leads us.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) released a statement Tuesday morning insisting that Flynn’s resignation “raises further questions about the Trump administration’s intentions toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”

Put simply: Flynn’s resignation solves a problem for Trump. But it doesn’t solve all the problems related to Russia for him or his administration. Not even close.”

FLYNN LIED TO FBI WashPo “Former national security adviser Michael Flynn denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States before President Trump took office, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies, current and former U.S. officials said. The Jan. 24 interview potentially puts Flynn in legal jeopardy, as lying to the FBI is a felony, but any decision to prosecute would ultimately lie with the Justice Department. BUT NO CHARGES LIKELY CNN: “The FBI is not expected to pursue any charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn regarding a phone call with Russia’s ambassador, barring new information that changes what they know, law enforcement officials told CNN Thursday.”


DOE LABS The nominee for DOE Secretary, Rick Perry, has pledged his strong support for the agency’s 17 laboratories, writing, “The best and brightest minds at DOE’s national laboratories can play an integral role in developing those technologies that provide economic benefits and climate benefits.” DOE labs advance technologies across the energy spectrum, including improvements in energy efficiency and storage, wind and solar energy generation, LED lighting, shale gas extraction and nuclear energy innovations. Lab discoveries have yielded new chemical elements and new states of matter. Agency labs secure the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile and develop safe and efficient methods for cleaning up contaminated nuclear sites.


ONE STATE, OR TWO, LIKE, WHATEVER, YOU DECIDE NYTs “President Trump jettisoned two decades of diplomatic orthodoxy on Wednesday by declaring that the United States would no longer insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. … Trump said during a White House news conference with Mr. Netanyahu. ‘I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.’ At the same time, Mr. Trump urged Mr. Netanyahu to temporarily stop new housing construction in the West Bank while he pursues a deal, echoing a position past presidents have taken. The Palestinians are highly unlikely to accept anything short of a sovereign state, and a single Israeli state encompassing the Palestinians would either leave them as second-class citizens or would no longer be majority Jewish, given the growth rate of the Arab population. Until now, Mr. Trump’s team has largely avoided conversations with Palestinian leaders. But Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, met with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in Ramallah in the West Bank on Tuesday, according to news reports.”.


TRUMP’S MILITARY BUILD-UP TO SPARK GOP CIVIL WAR Politico “President Donald Trump is about to blow up the uneasy détente between GOP defense and fiscal hawks. “The Pentagon is set to seek tens of billions of dollars from Congress to implement Trump’s vow to rebuild the military – ‘to load it up’ with ‘beautiful new equipment,’ as he said at the U.S. Central Command in Florida last week. And Republicans are already drawing battle lines over whether the extra defense dollars should be added to the deficit or, as many in the party have long insisted, be matched with equal cuts elsewhere.”

NORTH KOREA’S BALLISTIC MISSILE Reuters: “North Korea said on Monday it had successfully test-fired a new type of medium- to long-range ballistic missile the previous day, claiming advances in a weapons programme it is pursuing in violation of U.N. resolutions. The North’s news agency said leader Kim Jong Un supervised the test of the Pukguksong-2, a new type of strategic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.” NYTs “After North Korea threatened on New Year’s Day to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, Donald J. Trump … vowed to stop the North from developing a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. ‘It won’t happen!’ he wrote on Twitter. But six weeks later, after North Korea defiantly launched a missile into the sea, Mr. Trump, now president, reacted with surprising restraint. Appearing before cameras late at night on Saturday in Florida with his golfing guest, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Mr. Trump read a statement of just 23 words that pledged American support for Tokyo without even mentioning North Korea.”

TRUMP EYES ALLY TO REVIEW U.S. INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES, NYTs “President Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview. The possible role for Stephen A. Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials already on edge because of the criticism the intelligence community has received from Mr. Trump during the campaign and since he became president. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump blamed leaks from the intelligence community for the departure of Michael T. Flynn, his national security adviser, whose resignation he requested.”

SPIES REPORTEDLY WITHHOLD INTELLIGENCE WSJ “U.S. intelligence officials have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. ‘NOT TRUE,’ WSJ adds: “A spokesman for the Office of Director of National Intelligence said: ‘Any suggestion that the U.S. intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true.'”

HEY NATO ALLIES … PONY UP WashPo “President Trump sent Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Brussels to press European allies on Wednesday to do something they have long been reluctant to do: open up their wallets on defense in an era of austerity and budget cuts. The hammer-hard message – a warning from Mattis that allies must significantly increase their defense spending if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance’ – was a harsh threat to countries that have been struggling with anemic growth and high unemployment…Now, Europeans have been jolted by Trump’s questioning of the basics of U.S. foreign policy since World War II.”

IGNORE THAT RUSSIAN SPY SHIP theSkimm “In recent days, a Russian Spy ship has casually been floating around off the East Coast of the US. The ship is in international waters and officals say it not unusaul or a threat. But it comes at a time when people are just a lllliiiiiitleeee on edge about all thing Russia. Meanwhile, Russian President Putin suggested US and Russian intellignece communities should work together to fight things like terrorism. This would be pretty unusual. Tump has hinted he’s open to the idea. His Def. Sec. Mattis is OFFICIALLY NOT. Yesterday, Mattis told Putin ‘we’re good, thanks.’ But at his first meeting with NATO he said that US and Russian political leaders would ‘try to find common ground.’ Your move, Vlad boy.

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