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Paranoia grips Capitol Hill as harassment scandal spreads

The details change almost daily, but the rumor won’t die: A credible news organization is preparing to unmask at least 20 lawmakers in both parties for sexual misconduct.

Speculation about this theoretical megastory is spreading like wildfire across Congress and beyond, a lurking bad-press boogeyman that’s always described as on the verge of going public. And it’s far from the only worry that’s seeped into the collective psyche of Capitol Hill, where members and aides are now perpetually bracing for the next allegation to drop.

Washington is also gripped by uncertainty over whether the nationwide awakening to workplace misconduct might be manipulated into a political weapon. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) went to law enforcement after being targeted last week by a forged harassment complaint against him, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) last month parried a false accusation of misconduct posted on Twitter.

Lawmakers and aides are consumed by one simple question: Who’s next? That and, in this turbocharged news cycle of the Trump presidency, can actual misdeeds be distinguished from false smears?

“You want to have a welcome environment to report abuse — you don’t want to deter victims,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “But you’ve got to have enough due process and scrutiny to make sure it’s accurate.”

“I think this environment is pretty crazy right now,” Graham added, and “what happened to Sen. Schumer is a concern to a lot of us.”

Just this month, five members of Congress have been forced to resign or retire after being accused of sexual misconduct: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas).

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) also called it quits after graphic text messages sent by him were posted online.

The raft of accusations and departures is prompting uncomfortable conversations all over the Capitol.

Aides in one Democrat’s office were summoned recently to a meeting organized by a fellow staffer and asked whether they’d ever heard of an accusation against their boss, according to a source in the room. Other press secretaries have asked their bosses about any personal skeletons, wanting to unearth possible sexual land mines before they detonate in the media.

The pervasive apprehension that’s taken hold risks adversely affecting some women’s careers. One Republican aide told POLITICO that she is advising members not to be alone with any women — whether they’re female staffers or female reporters.

“Members who have high-profile elections coming up or just are really out front on a particular issue are now feeling like they may be targets,” said Kristin Nicholson, a veteran Democratic chief of staff who last month organized a letter signed by more than 1,500 former aides urging an overhaul of Congress’ harassment policies.

“The idea that something like that [Schumer forgery] could potentially get through and cause some harm before it’s discounted is causing some fear,” Nicholson said.

Beyond the hoaxes targeting Schumer and Blumenthal, apparently legitimate misconduct claims have become tinged with suspicion about possible political motivations. A Twitter account linked to GOP political consultant Roger Stone, a frequent confidant of President Donald Trump, raised eyebrows last month by forecasting the first harassment allegation against Sen. Al Franken before it emerged.

Stone later denied any advance knowledge of the first in a series of stories that ultimately pushed Franken to resign. Two of the accusations came from self-described Democrats. Still, that hasn’t stopped some supporters of the popular Minnesota Democrat from continuing to whisper about a broader conservative campaign to topple Franken.

The false sexual misconduct allegation that hit Blumenthal gained momentum on Twitter among some conservatives before The Daily Beast debunked it. Asked last week about the incident, Blumenthal said: “What most concerns me about that hoax and others like it is that it degrades the courageous and brave women and men who come forward to complain of sexual harassment and assault.”

The attempted smearing of Schumer took the form of a forged court complaint shopped around to reporters working on sexual harassment stories. The false complaint was flagged on social media by pro-Trump figures before the New York Democrat’s asked the Capitol Police to investigate.

Media outlets that received a copy of the forged Schumer complaint reported only on the attempted hoax, just as The Washington Post exposed a woman who leveled false sexual accusations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore last month at the behest of a conservative organization known as Project Veritas.

But lawmakers and aides have no guarantee, beyond media organizations’ diligence, that false allegations won’t slip through.

“Sadly, it looks like this may be something we have to look at” in preparing candidates for next year’s elections, said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the head of Senate Democrats’ campaign committee for next year’s midterms. Van Hollen underscored, however, “We obviously need to hold people accountable where there are legitimate claims.”

What no one on Capitol Hill knows for sure is where legitimacy begins and ends. Part of the reason that the rumor about 20 or more lawmakers being unmasked as sexual harassers has proved so durable is that, after the recent wave of resignations, it feels both shocking and believable.

The speculation about a harassment story started more than a month ago, even before Conyers became the first lawmaker connected to harassment allegations. Sometimes POLITICO is named as the media outlet behind the story, but CNN and The New York Times are occasionally called the central players in the speculation.

By last week, The Washington Post was the organization, and the number of members had grown more grandiose.

“I am hearing The Post has a list of 40-50, evenly split between the parties, that have had sexual harassment charges,” one lobbyist texted POLITICO.

Since the speculation began, members and aides from both parties in recent weeks have buttonholed reporters to try to gauge what they’re working on regarding sexual harassment — and, perhaps, to put their own minds at ease that no one is dogging them. In the past week alone, at least four lawmakers have asked POLITICO whether the bombshell story is real.

The atmosphere in Congress has reached the point that one Republican leadership staffer told POLITICO she worries that members might think the worst if they’re called into Speaker Paul Ryan’s office.

“It’s this way not just in Congress, but in all kinds of industries: men thinking back on the kind of behaviors they didn’t think about at the time but might be construed as harassment or inappropriate,” said Nicholson, the veteran Democrat who now serves as director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

“It’s hitting everyone, even people who are not bad actors, because you just have no idea.”

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Wave of misconduct claims reshape 2018 elections

The wave of sexual harassment allegations on Capitol Hill is already beginning to reshape the 2018 election landscape, crushing some campaigns under its pressure but providing breakthrough opportunities for others.

Sexual harassment-related scandals have already claimed four House members — Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) and Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.), who announced Saturday he would not seek reelection after his own party leadership called for his resignation.

In Minnesota, the resignation of Democratic Sen. Al Franken has thrown a wrinkle into the 2018 Senate map — now, party strategists must contend with the prospect that his appointed successor, Tina Smith, will receive a competitive challenge when she attempts to win a full term.

Members of Congress aren’t the only ones being felled by new revelations. On Friday, a female candidate, Andrea Ramsey, quit her Democratic bid to challenge Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) after news broke that her company settled a sexual harassment suit, even though she denies the allegations.

Yet the nation’s moment of reckoning on sexual harassment isn’t simply shaking up the upcoming midterm election by forcing candidates and incumbents out of races — it’s also altering the traditional terms of debate. In Florida, where Democrat Mary Barzee Flores is running in a crowded primary to replace retiring GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the former state circuit judge focused her first ad on the issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace.

“I’ve heard about other candidates who are speaking out and it wouldn’t surprise me if, more and more, women talk about this,” said Flores, whose ad pointed to a former manager who assaulted her. “We’re making it clear that we’re not just going to sweep this stuff under the rug.”

In one competitive Northern Virginia race, the issue is center stage in part due to Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) who is leading the charge in Congress, along with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), to reform how sexual harassment cases are handled. On the Democratic side, Lindsey Davis Stover, a former Obama official running in a crowded primary field, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to “reveal the secret payouts authorized in congressional sexual misconduct” cases, according to a statement from her campaign.

What’s still unclear is how the spate of sexual harassment scandals might sway voters in 2018. Early public polling suggests Democratic voters are more likely to believe accusations of misconduct than Republicans. A Monmouth University poll released this week found that 37 percent of Republicans believe such reports about GOP legislators are accurate, while 63 percent of Democrats trust those reports about Democratic lawmakers.

“The struggle lies in the fact that [sexual harassment] is coming out in races across the country — in legislative bodies, in federal bodies and in both parties. Every time it happens, even in in some other state, it affects the mindset of voters,” said Luke Macias, a Republican consultant based in Texas.

Some GOP strategists’ worry their party’s response to various scandals could further hurt them among suburban voters and women, two blocs that they can’t afford to lose as they try to defend their 24-seat majority in the House.

“The loss of urban and suburban voters in 2016 plus sexual harassment scandals is probably not a good way to secure these moderate Republican and Independent voters long-term,” said Kevin Shuvalov, a Republican strategist based in Texas. “It’s an opening for Democrats to go get voters who aren’t naturally available to them.”

Republican pollster Robert Blizzard warned that “women voters, especially Independent women, are a key audience in the ‘18 election up and down the ticket across the country,” so to “be perceived as weak on this issue at your own peril.”

“Candidates are waiting to see what other allegations might surface and what opportunities arise as a result,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic consultant. “We’ve seen how suburban women react to these charges which could put even more seats in play.”

Some strategists see the issue as a potential boon for challengers in both parties, since they can recast the cascade of resignations as another example of members of Congress “expecting special treatment,” said Molly Murphy, a Democratic consultant.

“It goes more to the idea that rules don’t apply to them,” Murphy said. “That’s effective.”

There is a widespread expectation among strategists in both parties that more allegations will surface. “I think it’s when, not if,” Blizzard said.

With prominent politicians in dozens of states — including Florida, Kentucky, Oregon, among others — publicly accused of groping, unwanted kissing and sexual harassment, the sweep of accusations inspired Dana Nessel, a Democratic candidate for attorney general in Michigan, to ask in a campaign video posted to Facebook: “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”

Not everyone appreciated the spot, which drew national attention. “There are some who don’t appreciate that someone for the first time ever said the word ‘penis’ in a political ad,” Nessel said, explaining that the video was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, and “to point out that my gender isn’t a liability, but an asset.”

Nessel’s video, which drew more than 170,000 views, may not be the last provocative attempt to talk about sexual harassment.

It’s lesson, said Murphy, is that the message can easily go viral, and “some candidates will look for that opportunity to catch fire.”

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Democrats see plot to fire Mueller in escalating GOP attacks

A sense of foreboding has settled over congressional Democrats, who fear that GOP lawmakers, the White House and conservative media figures are orchestrating a messaging campaign with one logical goal: the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller by President Donald Trump.

A Republican offensive seemingly aimed at discrediting some of the top agents working with Mueller has intensified amid signs his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election has crept closer to Trump’s inner circle.

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, a Trump ally, described the FBI on Saturday as a “crime family” and said some of the agents involved in the Russia probe should be jailed. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who joined her show, called her comments “perfect.” Fox News ran a banner that day questioning whether the probe amounted to “A Coup in America?”

Also on Saturday, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn, called for Mueller to “clean house of partisans.” The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has trumpeted news that two former members of Mueller’s team traded anti-Trump text messages.

Trump himself has picked up on the claims of bias in Mueller’s investigation. Earlier this month, he flew on Air Force One with two Florida Republicans who are Congress’ loudest Mueller critics, Reps. Matt Gaetz and Ron DeSantis. Gaetz told POLITICO he told Trump during that trip that Mueller’s probe had become “infected with bias.”

“How they’ve done that is really, really disgraceful, and you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it,” Trump told reporters of the Mueller probe on Friday. “It’s a very sad thing to watch.”

The White House has maintained there’s no discussion about firing Mueller. “There’s no conversation about that in the White House whatsoever,” Marc Short, Trump’s top liaison to Congress, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

But while Republican leaders still profess respect for Mueller — a former FBI director in Republican and Democratic administrations — they’ve largely stayed silent as rank-and-file members claim the probe is biased. And Senate Republicans who eyed legislation to prevent Trump from abruptly firing Mueller still say they feel no sense of urgency, despite the anti-special counsel clamor on the right.

All that has Democrats viewing the situation in near-apocalyptic terms.

“From the White House on down, they’re deliberately trying to discredit every institution that we depend on … for justice and to maintain the democratic form of government, anybody that may be a threat to their power,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a recent interview. “That’s very anti-democratic.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who represents a pro-Trump state and is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he’s not buying the recent attacks on Mueller. “I do not at all believe that Mr. Mueller has been compromised or his investigation. I think he’s beyond reproach,” he said on “Meet The Press” on Sunday.

Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation in May after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, has so far indicted two former campaign aides and obtained guilty pleas from others, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted to lying to investigators about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador during the presidential transition.

Trump has long claimed the probe is a “witch hunt” and an excuse by Democrats for their loss in the 2016 election. But while many Republicans remained quiet or expressed support for Mueller in the early months, the news that the special counsel removed two team members — Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — over the summer for trading anti-Trump text messages piqued their frustration.

The Department of Justice provided a batch of those text messages to lawmakers last week. They include a slew of texts hostile toward Trump but that also contain vitriol directed toward other political figures in both parties.

Trump allies also erupted this weekend after a lawyer from the transition team suggested Mueller had inappropriately accessed thousands of transition emails that were housed on government servers. Legal scholars cast doubt on the complaint, saying it is unlikely Mueller broke any rules in obtaining the emails, but pundits aligned with Trump still argued the incident showed the probe might be tainted.

In Congress, Republicans leading a House Intelligence Committee investigation of the Russian cyber threat — and whether Trump allies aided the 2016 attacks — have quickened their pace and may conclude the bulk of their work this month. Members of the panel say they’re likely to wrap up nearly all of their witness interviews next week.

Republicans say they’ve been probing the matter for nearly a year with no conclusive evidence of “collusion” between Trump allies and Russia to undermine the election, and Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who’s leading the probe, has said he’s eager to turn his focus toward writing a farm bill in his other role as chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

Their push to wrap up has drawn howls from Democrats, however, who claim that GOP committee members have left important questions unanswered, refused to subpoena witnesses who stonewall and failed to call dozens of figures who might have information.

At the top of their list of complaints is that Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., invoked attorney-client privilege to avoid answering a question about a conversation with his father after the New York Times reported on a secret June 2016 meeting between the younger Trump and Kremlin-connected associates in Trump Tower. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel, argued to reporters that Trump Jr. can’t claim attorney-client privilege to shield talks with his father.

Conaway told POLITICO Wednesday he was waiting to hear back from Trump Jr.’s legal team about how they justify their claim of attorney-client privilege.

Schiff has also vented about committee leaders’ decision to hold to key witness interviews this week away from Washington even though Congress is in session, meaning staff members will likely travel to conduct the meetings and that lawmakers will not participate.

Separately, Republicans on the House Judiciary ommittee have spent the past two weeks highlighting claims that top members of Mueller’s team are biased against Trump, pointing first to political donations given by some of his prosecutors to Democrats and then to the anti-Trump text messages from two team members.

Democrats on the committee say there’s no evidence Strzok or Page acted on their hostility toward Trump to taint the investigation. But Jordan, a member of the committee, said late Saturday he’d secured a commitment from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the panel’s chairman, to subpoena Strzok and other top FBI officials. Goodlatte aides declined to comment.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) summed up her party’s view of Republican pushback against the probe in a local TV appearance on Friday.

“This is a circus at this point,” Speier said. “I believe that the president wants all of this shut down. He wants to shut down these investigations and he wants to fire special counsel Mueller.”

Speier related what she called a “rumor” that Trump might fire Mueller as soon as Congress leaves town for the holidays this Friday, even though the White House has not indicated that would happen.

Schiff issued a similar warning.

“By shutting down the congressional investigations when they continue to discover new and important evidence, the White House can exert tremendous pressure to end or curtail Mueller’s investigation or cast doubt on it,” the Californian said in a Friday tweet. “We cannot let that happen.”

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The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook

An ambitious U.S. task force targeting Hezbollah’s billion-dollar criminal enterprise ran headlong into the White House’s desire for a nuclear deal with Iran.

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GOP leaders in House, Senate endorse conflicting shutdown strategies

Republican leaders in both houses of Congress face a sticky situation this week as they try to avert a government shutdown: Each side has promised its members things that will not fly in the other chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) he’d support passage of legislation by the end of the year to prop up Obamacare insurance markets — so long as she votes for tax reform. That addition, however, puts Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in a pickle: His members are loath to be seen as bailing out a health care law they hate.

Ryan, meanwhile, green-lighted a short-term spending strategy that funds the Pentagon but does nothing for Democratic priorities — and suggested House members could leave town to try to “jam the Senate” into accepting their bill. But McConnell needs eight Democrats to pass anything, so the House plan is sure to fail in his chamber.

“Right now, they’re just headed straight off a cliff,” one person familiar with the negotiations said of the House. “[The] Senate’s not likely to jump with them.”

Instead of addressing the obvious inconsistencies, GOP leaders have tried to put off the issue and focus on tax reform for now. They’re eager to delay internal spending fights until the tax package — which Republicans view as critical to maintaining their congressional majorities in the 2018 midterm elections — reaches the Oval Office for President Donald Trump’s signature sometime this week.

“It’s going to be a bipartisan [spending] deal; [some House Republicans] are going to be unhappy with that — and you don’t want to have the tax issues as the place they decide to retaliate,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla), a member of the House appropriations panel, hinting at House GOP fears that conservatives could hijack tax reform to make a stand on spending issues.

But time is running out, and the GOP’s tax-reform tunnel vision has left Republican leaders without a clear strategy for the spending legislation. All this is quietly raising concerns that the government could shut down after Friday, when, short of congressional action, federal coffers are set to dry up.

While Democrats have at times struggled to fend off GOP legislative efforts, this time they have leverage. Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi of California and Chuck Schumer of New York appear to have backed off immigration demands they initially wanted addressed by the new year, but they’re still adamant that any boosts in defense money be matched by increases in domestic spending.

Leaders in both chambers hoped to strike a deal to raise strict spending caps for both by Friday. But the so-called Big Four — Ryan, Pelosi, McConnell and Schumer — have yet to agree on those numbers. The most likely outcome, some Republicans now say, is kicking everything into 2018: They predict another short-term funding bill, leaving a broader spending and immigration agreement until January.

There has been some progress on the immigration front, aides say. A bipartisan group of seven senators met multiple times last week to try and hammer out an immigration deal that combines legislation for Dreamers — hundreds of thousands of whom are losing their temporary work permits and deportation protections due to actions by Trump — with other immigration enforcement measures.

The group includes Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and GOP Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. They want to be able to strike a deal on immigration they can subsequently present to their leadership.

It’s unclear, however, whether Democrats will go along with pushing major issues into next year, upping the pressure on Republicans to come up with a funding proposal that can avert a shutdown.

First up this week is tax reform. House Republicans expect to pass the tax bill Tuesday morning, huddling for a rare Monday night conference to discuss the final package negotiated with Senate Republicans. After that, the Senate will take up the bill as the House sends them its “continuing resolution” through Jan. 19, which also includes Republicans’ much-desired Pentagon funding boost.

The upper chamber is expected to amend the government funding bill and send it back to the House — which is where things could get ugly. Leadership sources in both chambers say the Senate version of the spending bill could include the bipartisan Obamacare stabilization effort, written by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to satisfy Collins.

The White House is expected to back that approach because the tax bill repeals another part of Obamacare that conservatives despise: the requirement that everyone carry health insurance.

It’s unclear, however, whether even a Trump endorsement would make the Obamacare language on the spending bill palatable to House conservatives. House GOP leaders during a Thursday afternoon conference last week began running the idea by lawmakers — but it didn’t go over well. Multiple Republicans encouraged leaders to continue with the “jam the Senate” strategy rather than accepting changes made by the other chamber. GOP leaders said they needed to make sure the conference gives them “flexibility” to negotiate with the Senate.

Privately, senior Republicans say any House plan to stick the Senate with a bill it can’t pass would be political suicide. They worry it could lead to a shutdown — which could backfire in the November midterms.

Even more complications could still arise for the spending legislation. Anti-abortion groups with strong connections to House conservatives have said recently that if the bill includes the Obamacare subsidies patch, they want it to also include language barring federal funding for abortions. Senate Democrats, whose votes are needed for passage, would likely push back.

“Any Member voting for the Alexander-Murray proposal, or other Obamacare stabilization legislation not covered by the Hyde amendment, would not only be voting to sustain what many have called the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade, but would also be voting to directly appropriate taxpayer dollars for insurance that includes abortion,” wrote Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, in a letter to lawmakers.

Beyond that, lawmakers also have to iron out several less-discussed policy matters that could wind up tied to the spending bill. One of those includes funding for a popular children’s health insurance program whose funding has expired; another includes reauthorizing the government’s surveillance authority.

A third has become more than a little contentious: a sorely needed disaster aid package for hurricane-ravaged areas in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We’ve been told time and time again by the speaker and the House leadership that the supplemental’s going to be coming, but it never seems to come,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the loudest voices urging for more aid for his home state, said last week. “The can always seems to be kicked down the road. It’s a source of more than a little frustration on my part and I think on the entire Texas delegation.”

Nonetheless, Trump administration officials and senior Republican lawmakers are publicly confident that funding for the government won’t dry up — particularly three days before Christmas. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told “Fox News Sunday” that while he couldn’t rule out the prospects of a government shutdown, “I can’t imagine it occurring.” And Senate GOP leaders, from McConnell on down, have been adamant that Congress will successfully avert one by the end of the week.

“I think we’re determined that it’s not going to happen, and it won’t happen,” Cornyn said late last week.

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Progressives hunt down one of the last conservative Democrats

CHICAGO — Powerful interests are lined up against him. Outside spending groups are forming to advocate for his defeat. National political figures have endorsed his opponent.

And that’s just within Democratic Congressman Dan Lipinski’s own party.

Lipinski, one of the few remaining conservative Democrats in Congress, is under siege from the left, battling for his political life against progressives who are teaming up to replace him with a candidate far more in line with liberal orthodoxy.

That candidate, Marie Newman, a businesswoman and former marketing consultant, already has high-profile endorsements from feminist icon Gloria Steinem and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — an unusual show of opposition against a fellow Democratic congressional incumbent.

Newman has also received a rare joint endorsement from a handful of influential progressive groups: NARAL, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Human Rights Campaign.

While Lipinski is accustomed to drawing primary challenges in his Chicago-based district, he’s never before been targeted with so much local and national firepower.

“Dan Lipinski has a real, formidable challenger like he’s never had before. The environment is different … The energy is palpable,” said Sasha Bruce, vice president for campaigns and strategies with NARAL, referring to the energy created by resistance to President Donald Trump. “This is a staunchly progressive values-Democratic district.”

First elected in 2004, Lipinski is something of an exotic species: a Democrat who opposes abortion and cast votes against both the Affordable Care Act and the DREAM Act, which sought to provide a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants.

He was the only Democrat to cosponsor the “First Amendment Defense Act,” which protects those who refuse services to same sex couples, and the only Illinois Democrat to support drug testing of those seeking unemployment benefits — a move that has at least some union leaders considering opposing his reelection.

According to one analysis, Lipinski has voted in line with Trump’s positions 34.5 percent of the time — a legislative record that is begging for a primary challenge in a highly polarized era.

Some of those votes have left a bitter aftertaste in his solidly Democratic district, which includes Latino working class neighborhoods in Chicago — the district is roughly one-third Latino — and suburbs south of the city. Until recently, Lipinski was the only Illinois Democrat not to commit to supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

“There are quite a few precincts in the district that are heavily Latino, where immigration issues are of primary concern and he’s just never been anyone who has supported immigrants,” said Democratic state Rep. Theresa Mah, whose own legislative district overlaps with the congressman’s.

Progressives long frustrated with Lipinski’s habit of siding with Republicans view the March 20 primary as the best chance they’ve had in years to unseat him. Some still harbor bad feelings toward Lipinski for the heavy-handed way his father, 22-year Congressman William Lipinski, engineered his son’s succession to the seat more than a decade ago.

NARAL Pro-Choice America has already aired a TV ad in his district that asks “Who is Dan working for? It sure isn’t us.” Along with other national progressive groups, they plan to put feet on the ground to knock on doors and campaign for Newman.

Lipinski pushes back against the characterization that he’s conservative — in fact, in 2016 he supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. The congressman notes that he and Sanders both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.

Lipinski instead casts himself as a moderate voice in Congress who is willing to find middle ground on issues instead of adding to a polarized debate.

“There are people who just want me to follow in line and vote however the party says … We have gotten to a point where everything is black and white. You are either for something in theory or against something in theory, when a lot of these things come down to: what are the details? Let’s try and get the policy right,” he said. “I think my constituents see that is how I’ve always been… I think that’s a real hunger that a lot of Americans have. I’m not just going to be an automaton.

He maintains that he’s long cared for the needs of his constituents, bringing back tens of millions of dollars for transportation. He also points to his work to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the military and a requirement compelling the administration to publish a manufacturing strategy.

Lipinski said he won’t support a repeal of Obamacare, but doesn’t regret his vote against it — and notes he was reelected three times since then.

“There are Democrats who are a lot more conservative than I am on issues. I wish there were more moderate Democrats,” Lipinski told POLITICO. “I’m pro-life. I make no bones about that. Always have been. I think this painting me as somebody who is really conservative — I have a strong environmental record,” as well as support for seniors, Medicare and Social Security, he said.

Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury defends Lipinski, calling him an elected official who does all the little things right, like showing up to both parades and meetings with seniors.

“Of all our representatives in Congress, I have found him highly responsive, always engaged. He’s hands-on in the community… especially to some in the population, seniors, kids, veterans,” she said. Bury noted that Lipinski helped bring back a $1.35 million federal grant for fire protection. “I can’t speak for everybody, but Congressman Lipinski is very beloved in Oak Lawn.”

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The Pentagon’s Secret Search for UFOs

The Pentagon, at the direction of Congress, a decade ago quietly set up a multi-million dollar program to investigate what are popularly known as unidentified flying objects—UFOs.

The “unidentified aerial phenomena” claimed to have been seen by pilots and other military personnel appeared vastly more advanced than those in American or foreign arsenals. In some cases they maneuvered so unusually and so fast that they seemed to defy the laws of physics, according to multiple sources directly involved in or briefed on the effort and a review of unclassified Defense Department and congressional documents.

The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, whose existence was not classified but operated with the knowledge of an extremely limited number of officials, was the brainchild of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who first secured the appropriation to begin the program in 2009 with the support of the late Senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Republican Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), two World War II veterans who were similarly concerned about the potential national security implications, the sources involved in the effort said. The origins of the program, the existence of which the Pentagon confirmed on Friday, are being revealed publicly for the first time by POLITICO and the New York Times in nearly simultaneous reports on Saturday.

One possible theory behind the unexplained incidents, according to a former congressional staffer who described the motivations behind the program, was that a foreign power—perhaps the Chinese or the Russians—had developed next-generation technologies that could threaten the United States.

“Was this China or Russia trying to do something or has some propulsion system we are not familiar with?” said a former staffer who spoke with POLITICO on condition of anonymity.

The revelation of the program could give a credibility boost to UFO theorists, who have long pointed to public accounts by military pilots and others describing phenomena that defy obvious explanation, and could fuel demands for increased transparency about the scope and findings of the Pentagon effort, which focused some of its inquiries into sci-fi sounding concepts like “wormholes” and “warp drives.” The program also drafted a series of what the office referred to as “queried unverified event under evaluation,” QUEU reports, in which pilots and other personnel who had reported encounters were interviewed about their experiences.

Reid initiated the program, which ultimately spent more than $20 million, through an earmark after he was persuaded in part by aerospace titan and hotel chain founder Bob Bigelow, a friend and fellow Nevadan who owns Bigelow Aerospace, a space technology company and government contractor. Bigelow, whose company received some of the research contracts, was also a regular contributor to Reid’s re-election campaigns, campaign finance records show, at least $10,000 between 1998 and 2008. Bigelow has spoken openly in recent years about his views that extraterrestrial visitors frequently travel to Earth. He also purchased the Skinwalker Ranch in Utah, the subject of intense interest among believers in UFOs. Reid and Bigelow did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

According to a Pentagon official, the AATIP program was ended “in the 2012 timeframe,” but it has recently attracted attention because of the resignation in early October of Luis Elizondo, the career intelligence officer who ran the initiative. In his resignation letter, addressed to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Elizondo said the efforts of his program were not being taken sufficiently seriously. The Pentagon official could not confirm Mattis had actually seen the letter.

“We tried to work within the system,” Elizondo told POLITICO in a recent interview. “We were trying to take the voodoo out of voodoo science.”

He described scores of unexplained sightings by Navy pilots and other observers of aircraft with capabilities far beyond what is currently considered aerodynamically possible. The sightings, Elizondo told POLITICO, were often reported in the vicinity of nuclear facilities, either ships at sea or power plants. “We had never seen anything like it.”

But, in his view military leadership did not appear alarmed by the potential threat. “If a Russian ‘Bear’ bomber comes in near California, it is all over the news,” he said. “These are coming in the skies over our facilities. Nothing but crickets.”

Shortly after his resignation, Elizondo was listed as one of the key players in a for-profit company called To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founded by Tom DeLonge, an entertainment mogul and former guitarist and vocalist for the rock band Blink-182. An April 2016 profile of DeLonge in “Rolling Stone” magazine described his fascination with theories about extraterrestrial space travel as an “obsession.”

In a video advertising the company, DeLonge describes To The Stars as a “public benefit corporation” that has “mobilized a team of the most experienced, connected and passionately curious minds from the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, Department of Defense, who have been operating under the shadows of top-secrecy for decades.”

The founders say they believe “there is sufficient credible evidence of UAP [unidentified aerial phenomenon] that proves exotic technologies exist that could revolutionize the human experience.”

The goal of the academy’s researchers, it says on its website, is “to use their expertise and credibility to bring transformative science and engineering out of the shadows and collaborate with global citizens to apply that knowledge in a way that benefits humanity,” adding “without government restrictions.”

Also helping drive the effort is Chris Mellon, a former Democratic staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence. Other members of the company include a former high-level CIA official and the former director of advanced systems at Lockheed Martin’s super-secret Skunk Works facility in California.

“I think we’re all frustrated by the fact that our government and science neglects some of the most interesting and provocative and potentially important issues out there,” Mellon says in the video.

POLITICO learned of the Pentagon program earlier this fall, shortly after Mellon and his colleagues rolled out their new private effort, which is now seeking investors with a minimum purchase of $200 in common stock shares. Its website claims 2,142 investors, who have purchased slightly more than $2 million worth of shares.

At a recent press conference for To The Stars in Las Vegas, Mellon described one of the sightings reported by U.S. Navy pilots: “It is white, oblong, some 40 feet long and perhaps 12 feet thick…The pilots are astonished to see the object suddenly reorient itself toward the approaching F/A-18. In a series of discreet tumbling maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics. The object takes a position directly behind the approaching F/A-18. The pilots capture gun camera footage and infrared imagery of the object. They are outmatched by a technology they’ve never seen.”

“They did not exhibit overt hostility,” Elizondo, listed as director of global security and special programs for To The Stars, explained in a recent published interview of the series of reported encounters. “But something unexplained is always assumed to be a potential threat until we are certain it isn’t. On the bright side, I believe we are closer than ever before in our understanding of how it operates.”

The Pentagon’s AATIP program marked a 21st century effort to replicate some of the decades of inconclusive research undertaken by the Pentagon in 1950s and 1960s to try to explain thousands of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs by military and civilian pilots and average citizens—particularly an effort known as Project Bluebook that ran from 1947 to 1969 and still a focus of intense interest for UFO researchers.

The more recent effort, which was established inside the Defense Intelligence Agency, compiled “reams of paperwork,” but little else, the former staffer said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White confirmed to POLITICO that the program existed and was run by Elizondo. But she could not say how long he was in charge of it and declined to answer detailed questions about the office or its work, citing concerns about the closely held nature of the program.

“The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program ended in the 2012 timeframe,” White said. “It was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a change.”

White added: “The DoD takes seriously all threats and potential threats to our people, our assets, and our mission and takes action whenever credible information is developed.”

But some who were aware of the effort in its earliest days were uncomfortable with the aims of the program, unnerved by the implication that the incidents involved aircraft that were not made by humans.

“I thought it was a little bizarre at the time,” recalled a former senior intelligence official who knew about Reid’s role first-hand. He asked those in the know: “Tell me what this is, and what we are doing and what is going on and that we aren’t doing something that is nonsense here.”

“I was concerned the money was being funneled through is to somebody else who was an associate of Harry Reid’s,” added the former official, who asked not to be identified. “The whole circle was kind of a bizarre piece.”

Reid enlisted the support of Inouye, then chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, as well as Stevens, who two sources involved in the effort were told had related to Reid that as a pilot he had personally witnessed similar unexplained aerial phenomenon.

There was also interest among some analysts at the DIA who were concerned that the Russians or Chinese might have developed some more advanced systems. Reid’s views on the subject were also shaped by a book about the Skinwalker Ranch, co-authored by his acquaintance George Knapp, the former congressional staffer said.

“When this was brought to Senator Reid he said, ‘There is enough here and I am obligated if this is a national security issue to invest some money in this,’” he explained. “Stevens and Inouye agreed with this.”

“I still remember coming back from that meeting and thinking of the implications of what Reid said,” the former senior official said. “I remember being concerned about this. I wanted to make sure it was supervised and we were using the appropriation to do actual research on real threats to the United States.

He said he was assured that the research being done was valid. “It was not a rogue individual out of control.”

The former staffer said that eventually, however, even Reid agreed it was not worth continuing.

“After a while the consensus was we really couldn’t find anything of substance,” he recalled. “They produced reams of paperwork. After all of that there was really nothing there that we could find. It all pretty much dissolved from that reason alone—and the interest level was losing steam. We only did it a couple years.”

“There was really nothing there that we could justify using taxpayer money,” he added. “We let it die a slow death. It was well spent money in the beginning.”

Theodoric Meyer and Gabriel DeBenedetti contributed reporting.

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Week 30: Republicans Put a New Special Counsel (or Two) on Their Wish Lists

If the president’s most ardent supporters on the Fox News Channel, at pro-Trump websites and at other anti-anti-Trump outposts get their way, we might find five or six new special counsels under the tree on Christmas morning to investigate special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation.

Mueller’s critics aren’t ticked off by what he has accomplished—the guilty pleas (George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn) or the criminal charges (Paul Manafort and Rick Gates). Those cases seem rock solid. Nor did many of his current critics find fault with him when he was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. They found him to be of unimpeachable character and high credentials. But now that he’s drawing a noose around the president, they have turned on him, alleging behind-the-scenes acts of bias and conflict of interest by the Mueller team. The only correctives possible, they say, are new investigations to uproot all the Mueller bias and conflict. Mueller, once worshiped as a terrific Republican cop, must be taken down a peg.

Several stories broken by Fox have energized the investigate-the-investigators movement. One Fox story points to the connections between Fusion GPS and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and spouse, Nellie Ohr, connections the critics say taint the whole case against the president. Ohr was demoted last week, Fox implied, for meeting with Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson and Christopher Steele (author of the Simpson-commissioned dossier) just after the 2016 election. Nellie Ohr, Fox continues, worked for Fusion GPS during the campaign and, in the eyes of Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, this cross-pollination constitutes “obvious conflicts of interest.” Sekulow demands a second special counsel to look into the matter. His call follows the November news about Attorney General Jeff Sessions contemplating a second special counsel to look into the Clinton Foundation’s connections with Uranium One, the pseudo-scandal that has replaced Benghazi among Hillary-haters.

Earlier this month, Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted a similar message: “It’s long past time for a Special Counsel to investigate Clinton email scandal, Uranium One, role of Fusion GPS, and FBI and DOJ bias during 2016 campaign.” In his Washington Post column, conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt has called for an additional special counsel to delve into the words and deeds of FBI agent Peter Strzok, sacked from the Mueller team last summer after the discovery of anti-Trump text messages he sent to another Mueller team member (and which the Department of Justice, in a controversial move, shared with reporters). Did Strzok “tilt” the investigation? Hewitt asks. “It’s time for Mueller to put up or shut up. If there’s evidence of collusion with Russia, let’s see it,” said Representative Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., this week. The Mueller show, concurs President Trump, is a waste of money, as he said—once again—in a tweet this week. His direct campaign against the investigation was captured in a Nov. 30 New York Times headline which read, “Trump Pressed Top Republicans to End Senate Russia Inquiry.” Meanwhile, former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy plugged in National Review for a special counsel to plunge into Iran’s nuclear weapons program to investigate “any Obama-administration collusion in that enterprise.” Not wanting to be left out of the game, Democrats claim that if any political bias contaminates the FBI, it’s anti-Clinton bias.

Given their way, Trump supporters will establish so many special counsels the offices will cease to be special. But they will have enough to field a reasonably competitive office softball team.

Of course, Trump loyalists in the House of Representatives have been advocating Mueller’s dismissal for months, insisting that only his departure will prevent his investigation from turning into a coup d’état. But for now the political balance appears to reside with Senate Republicans who, as the Washington Post reports, hope to “shield” him from interference. Mueller, these Republicans say, did the right thing when he learned of the anti-Trump texts. Even Senator Graham conceded that point, saying, “This FBI agent doesn’t taint Muller’s investigation, because Mueller’s going to be responsible for the final product. Mueller fired the guy, I liked that.” Mueller’s boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein went to Capitol Hill to affirm his confidence in the special counsel—“I believe he was an ideal choice for this task”—and to deny that he has asked for the special counsel’s removal.

Also backing Mueller was Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who wrote a convincing column sketching out the known-knowns of the Russia investigation. “There is a growing, mostly undisputed body of evidence describing contacts between Trump associates and Russia-linked operatives,” he wrote. Russian operatives hacked the computers of Trump’s opponents; Trump expressed his affinity for Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign, and Trump aides echoed that affinity by taking or attempting to take Russia-friendly meetings. Russians made a pitch to deliver political dirt on Hillary Clinton to Trump’s son. Cambridge Analytica, hired to do research for the Trump campaign, asked WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange to share the hacked emails with it. Trump and the Trump camp demonstrated a familiarity with the hacks that raise suspicions.

Just before Trump’s inauguration, the Washington Post reported in a jumbo-sized piece (7,000 words) this week, his inner circle begged him to publicly acknowledge the message U.S. intelligence agencies had delivered to the higher echelons of government—that the Russians had interfered in the 2016 elections, and done so at the bargain basement price of about $500,000. Trump bristled then as he does now at the thought that Putin’s people had helped him in any way. “If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference—that takes the [president’s daily brief] off the rails,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official told the paper. “Rather than search for ways to deter Kremlin attacks or safeguard U.S. elections, Trump has waged his own campaign to discredit the case that Russia poses any threat and he has resisted or attempted to roll back efforts to hold Moscow to account,” reports the Post.

Rob Goldstone, everybody’s favorite bit player in the Trump Tower scandal, reappeared this week. Goldstone, the publicist with a Russian roster, gained fame for scheduling the June 2016 meeting between Russians who claimed to have incriminating evidence on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. In a Washington Post story sourced to email “turned over to investigators,” the paper asserts that Goldstone worked as early as July 2015 to arrange a meeting between candidate Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Goldstone claimed that his client Emin Agalarov (son of oligarch Aras Agalarov) could act as the go-between. In a July 24, 2015, to Trump assistant Rhona Graff, Goldstone wrote, “Maybe [Trump] would welcome a meeting with President Putin.” Did Goldstone (or Agalarov) want Trump to meet Putin? Or did they want Putin to meet Trump? Or did they divine that Trump would want to meet Putin, so they sought to make it happen? And why?

The only way to find out for sure would be to appoint me as the umpteenth special counsel.

******

At the rate we’re going, I’ll either be a special counsel or be targeted by one. Send incriminating evidence to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts would cast the late John Candy as Goldstone in the movie version of the scandal. My Twitter blames all the election hacking on that mythic 400-pounder. My RSS feed, like Trump, sizzles whenever anybody mentions Russia.

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Why a drug for aging would challenge Washington

What if you could live to 85, 90 or even 100 with your mental faculties intact, able to live independently without debilitating conditions until the last year of your life? What if just one medical treatment could stave off a handful of terrifying ailments like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s?

The idea of a pill for aging sounds like science fiction or fantasy. But the hunt is increasingly real. At the cutting edge of research, scientists and doctors are already deep into the quest for a drug that could transform the experience of aging. The goal isn’t a pharmaceutical fountain of youth, exactly; nobody is promising to stretch human lifespans indefinitely. Instead, they’re looking for a way to ensure healthier aging—a drug that could make it more likely people reach their eighth or ninth decade of life with fewer of the ailments that make old age painful and disabling for millions, and cripplingly expensive for the health care system.

The leading approach even has a name: senolytic drugs. The science is still far from proven; it may turn out that like many new ideas, these drugs never show up in American medicine cabinets at all. But the prospect of a drug for healthier aging has already attracted significant investment from well-known drug companies, and the first human studies of anti-aging drugs are getting underway. If the results pan out, the first drugs could be available in as little as a decade.

As the research moves forward, however, it is raising a series of new questions that both medicine and regulators will need to confront. And the most complex questions arise around exactly the issue that makes the field so exciting: The notion of treating the aging process itself. There’s never been a drug for aging in part because “aging” isn’t considered a disease by the FDA. Should it be? What signs and symptoms of aging is it OK to medicalize? And if a drug were approved for aging – something that every human experiences — who would bear the costs for a pill that potentially could be prescribed for every person alive?

And those aren’t the only questions. It turns out that evaluating the science is also complex, partly because it’s hard to measure whether a drug is fundamentally changing the course of human aging. It’s also ethically fraught: Aging is a normal human process, so testing a drug for “aging” means that otherwise healthy people would be subjected to its inevitable side effects, for unproven benefit. How long a trial would even be needed? Regulators aren’t close to answering this kind of question.

So far scientists are tiptoeing around many of these complicated issues by testing these drugs only in very sick people, studying to see if they help treat deadly diseases with few other treatment options. The idea is to get a potential anti-aging drug approved first under more traditional protocols without having to tackle the thornier, longer-term questions raised by the idea of treating “aging.”

However, doctors are unlikely to wait for answers to the larger questions around these drugs before they begin to prescribe them to patients. As soon as a senolytic or other anti-aging drug is approved for any purpose, physicians are allowed to start prescribing them to their patients for any condition they want, and likely will. Which means that these ethical challenges need answers soon — sooner than many expect. “It would change all of life,” said Robert Temple, FDA’s deputy center director for clinical science. “If there was something that really slowed the aging process, wouldn’t everyone want to be on it? I think so.”

“Zombie” cells

Anti-aging science has long been viewed with skepticism, a “soft” science more often the province of quacks selling dubious potions like jellyfish extract than serious medical researchers. But senolytic drugs are changing that. The idea behind them is to attack senescent or “zombie” cells – cells that have stopped dividing, but aren’t dead. Senescent cells release toxic and inflammatory compounds that impair the function of healthy cells, and scientists believe they help drive the decline of important body tissue, like organs. Scientists have found that the number of senescent cells increases with aging in mice, monkeys and humans; they’re associated with chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis and overall frailty.

ln small mammals, scientists have found that killing senescent cells delays and prevents many age-related conditions and diseases. In animal testing, senolytic agents have also successfully treated conditions including heart dysfunction, lung diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and damage induced by radiation. Clearing senescent cells from adult mice has even been shown to increase median lifespan.

Ethicists are also more comfortable with senolytics than some other anti-aging ideas, because the drugs aren’t intended to extend how long we live, but improve how well we live. The goal is to achieve what McGill University bioethicist Jennifer Fishman describes as the “ideal form of aging”: to be healthy until right before you die. People would experience more years of healthy, active, dementia-free life and then a briefer, more merciful final illness. “It’s not this sort of post-human robot, [or] artificial intelligence freezing your brain,” she said. “It’s not any of these fantastical things. It is actually targeting something that has been a dream of mainstream medicine for quite a long time, too.”

As it happens, the drug first in line for possible anti-aging approval is not new, and not a senolytic agent – it’s an old, off-patent diabetes treatment that has been used in other parts of the world for more than 50 years. The drug, called metformin, has been shown to delay aging and extend health span in animals. Observational studies in humans have linked metformin to decreased incidence of cancer, improved cardiovascular function and reduced risk of cognitive impairment.

Scientists believe that if regulators approve metformin as an anti-aging drug, it could pave the way for other, newer agents. They have pitched a large, long-term randomized controlled trial of metformin called TAME: Targeting Aging with Metformin. It would be a test case to convince FDA it is possible to devise trials that can show a drug helps prevent or delay multiple age-related diseases – what the FDA calls “indications.” That’s needed so the agency could eventually sign off on marketing language that would let companies sell products with anti-aging claims,
including senolytic medicines.

Right now, “aging is not an indication, it’s not a disease, so health care providers won’t pay,” said Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and the leader of the TAME study. “If health care providers will not pay, then pharmaceuticals [companies] won’t jump in to develop more drugs, better drugs, combination drugs.”

Metformin may not be the strongest potential drug in the anti-aging arsenal, but Barzilai and fellow aging researchers see it as a good stepping stone. It’s cheap, available and has been used by humans for decades with a reasonably clean safety record. All that should make it easier for the FDA to say yes to approval as an anti-aging treatment. The TAME trial has received preliminary approval from FDA, but Barzilai and other researchers are still trying to line up the funding needed to launch it.

Even if they find the money, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. Because the nature of anti-aging drugs is fundamentally different than drugs designed to treat a specific disease, the kinds of clinical trials they need will also be different. “The traditional approach is one drug, one target, one disease… ” said James Kirkland, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic who helped develop the idea that removing senescent cells may ease the disabilities of old age. “This is not in that realm at all.”

The TAME study would evaluate metformin versus placebo in 3,000 American patients – ages 65 to 79 – measuring the time to a new occurrence of diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, or time to death. But to get FDA to sign off on an anti-aging claim, scientists will likely need to go further. So the six-year trial would also look at the drug’s effect on other conditions of old age, like walking speed and injuries from falls. It would also assess how well study participants perform what the medical field calls “activities of daily living” — the basic skills people need to take care of themselves and live independently as they age, like preparing meals or using the restroom.

Interpreting results of such anti-aging studies won’t be easy. If, for instance, the TAME study shows metformin decreases chances of a heart attack, we won’t necessarily know whether that’s because the drug prevented heart attacks or because it slowed aging overall, said FDA’s Temple. “All chronic disease always gets worse over time,” Temple said. “Is that because having the disease for longer makes it worse? Or does it have something to do with the age of the patient?”

To prove that a drug prevents aging, companies will ultimately have to find changes in people that aren’t known to be affected by disease. For example, skin gets lined and wrinkled and loses elasticity over the years – but that doesn’t cause illness. Muscle mass also decreases with age. If a company could show that the drug alters these changes, “that’s a pretty good argument that you are affecting aging,” Temple said.

But the potential for approving anti-aging drugs on the basis of these signposts is already triggering the alarm bells of bioethicists. They fear companies’ pressure to approve these medicines quickly could lead to patients being exposed to medicines that offer only superficial benefits – and possibly hidden harm. For McGill’s Fishman, this harkens back to mistakes made when hormonal treatments for post-menopausal women were approved. Those studies, she said, were too short to pick up on significant adverse effects that occurred in women taking the drug for a long time. And while the drugs were approved specifically to treat symptoms of menopause, in practice they were often prescribed for a general anti-aging benefit.

This concern over “indication creep,” as Fishman calls it—the tendency for drugs to be prescribed for problems they weren’t approved to treat—is another trigger for ethicists. Many of the companies testing the first senolytic drugs aren’t trying to get them approved for aging but instead are targeting diseases where they believe senescent cells play a role. For example, Unity Biotechnology plans to start its first clinical trials with a senolytic for osteoarthritis of the knee in 2018.

Because of the enthusiasm around the drugs, researchers are already concerned about anecdotal stories of people wanting to use the medicines to treat aging before they’re ready for prime time. Paul Robbins of the Scripps Institute said some senolytics are natural products you can buy from Walgreens or Amazon — compounds like quercetin, which gives many fruits and vegetables their color. Others are older drugs like dasatinib, a blood cancer chemotherapy drug. He’s heard of clinics already being set up overseas to provide drugs like these as anti-aging treatments, even without evidence they work, or data on the right dosage.

The hype is dangerous, warns Kirkland, whose employer, the Mayo Clinic, is investing in senolytics through Unity and other companies. Lots of drugs look promising when they are used in mice or rats or monkeys – but fail in humans. “Anything can go wrong along the way,” Kirkland said. “If you could caution your readers, tell them absolutely not to take these drugs until trials are done, because this is a new way of doing things. We don’t know if they are going to work and we don’t know what the side effects are.”

‘Crazy lucrative’

The potential benefits of drugs that extend the healthy period of human life are huge. But so are the potential costs.

The United States’ population aged 65 and older is expected to double by 2050; the population over age 80 will triple. After age 65, the incidence of chronic degenerative diseases increases exponentially. More than 75 percent of people over age 65 have two chronic diseases, and the older people get the more health spending they require.

“If you demonstrate that these drugs work, probably everybody is going to want to take the drugs. So then the question becomes a question of cost,” said Steven Austad, scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research, which is sponsoring the TAME study.

While metformin is relatively cheap, the drugs that follow could be much more expensive. Senolytics “could be crazy lucrative for a pharmaceutical [company] in a way that we might find problematic,” Fishman said. It’s also likely that there won’t be one silver bullet anti-aging drug, meaning different people may require different treatments or combinations of anti-aging treatments, adding to the costs.

A high-priced drug taken by everyone could place a burden on an already strained health care system, including Medicare, which presumably would have to pay for everyone to take the drug for many decades. And the longer people live, the longer they will draw from Social Security and other government benefit programs. “Politically, this is a hot topic,” said Laura Niedernhofer of the Scripps Research Institute. “Someone who does not dig in deeply thinks immediately, ‘Oh my God, lifespan is going to extend and Social Security is already in bad shape, and so how are we going to handle this’?”

Niedernhofer is an optimist, however, arguing that the costs of anti-aging therapies will more than pay for themselves, their costs offset by the fact that healthier people will require less medical care in the final years of their lives. The drugs may even allow people to work longer, contributing more to the economy and to Social Security and freeing up family members to stay in the workforce instead of taking care of elderly relatives.

Another concern, said University of Minnesota bioethicist Leigh Turner, is pushing resources toward an unproven idea, instead of toward tried-and-true public health programs that have already been proven to extend lives and improve health, like providing clean drinking water or better waste management. Even in the United States, these social determinants of health — unequal access to good education, economic opportunities and even health insurance coverage and health care — often contributes to poor health outcomes, particularly for minorities and those with fewer financial resources.

But “nothing in our world is equitably distributed — not money, not food, not water,” counters S. Jay Olshansky, who studies aging at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. These inequities aren’t an excuse to stop pursuing an idea that could improve health for everyone. And the potential high cost shouldn’t stop the research, he says: Richer countries have pursued a lot of expensive health interventions that were at first not affordable, or are still not affordable to parts of the developing world, he said.

Finally, there’s the question of what ethicists call “moral hazard” — whether availability of an anti-aging medicine might backfire, by encouraging people to skimp on healthy habits like eating right or exercising. Why work up a sweat earlier in life when there’s a pill you can take later? This risk isn’t purely hypothetical; a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found people taking the cholesterol-lowering drugs increased their intake of fat and calories more than people not on the medicines. So, after spending millions of dollars and years of research on anti-aging drugs, could the net effect be … zero?

In the end, the bottom line for many senolytic advocates is that despite the ethical quandaries, the reality is that hundreds of thousands of people suffer tremendously in the last years of their life. And relieving that suffering is a worthy goal. Just talk to people who treat geriatric patients, said Niedernhofer, watching them live longer but not healthier. “First, you are going to hand them a cane and then a walker and then a diaper and then [they] are completely dependent on help,” she said. “Anything is going to be an improvement.”

Sarah Karlin-Smith is a health care reporter, specializing in covering the policy and politics that affect the drug industry.

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Kihuen will not seek reelection

Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) said Saturday that he will not seek reelection after facing accusations about sexual harassment.

Kihuen has been under fire after a former campaign staffer and a Nevada lobbyist both accused Kihuen of sexual harassment while he was a Democratic candidate and during his tenure as a state legislator.

“I want to state clearly again that I deny the allegations in question,” Kihuen said in a statement. “However, the allegations that have surfaced would be a distraction from a fair and thorough discussion of the issues in a reelection campaign. Therefore, it is in the best interests of my family and my constituents to complete my term in Congress and not seek reelection.”

The Nevada Independent reported Saturday that a 24-year-old woman who worked with Kihuen this fall said he “made unwanted overtures and asked overly personal questions,” like “asking if she lived alone and offering to help her move up in her career — something she interpreted as a possible suggestion for sexual favors.” Kihuen also denied this accusation in a statement to The Independent.

On Friday, the House Ethics Committee announced that it planned to open an investigation into the earlier allegations. The Nevada congressman said in his statement that he is “committed to fully cooperating” with the investigation.

Kihuen joins a string of other members of Congress to resign or not run for reelection, after a spate of sexual harassment scandals: Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) all announced that they were leaving Congress in recent weeks. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) also announced he would resign following after multiple claims of groping and unwanted sexual advances.

Kihuen, a 37-year-old first-term congressman who was seen as a rising star, represents a battleground seat that stretches from north Las Vegas into rural Nevada.

In 2016, Kihuen beat GOP Rep. Cresent Hardy by 4 points, attracting $10 million in outside spending. In early December Hardy told The Nevada Independent that he was considering another run at his old seat.

Local Democratic operatives named former Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who lost the seat in 2014 and opted against running again in 2016, as a potential candidate. State Sen. Yvanna Cancela, who replaced Kihuen in the state legislature, is also drawing attention as a possible candidate.

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