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Meet the lab-coat liberals

LOS ANGELES — The lab-coat liberals are marching on Washington.

Dismayed by President Donald Trump’s perceived hostility to climate science and other areas of research, a surge of scientists is entering the public arena and running for political office for the first time.

They represent an evolving brand of Democrat that has been gaining steam for months. What began with rogue Twitter accounts and protest marches has graduated into candidacies in House races in places as varied as California, Texas, Pennsylvania and New York.

The handful of scientists who have formally announced their candidacies so far — and the others who are preparing to join them — have cast themselves as a counterforce to the Trump administration’s dismissal of climate science and de-prioritization of innovation funding.

But they are also stretching the boundaries of the scientific field into unfamiliar terrain. Researchers traditionally avoided wading into politics. Now, amid winds of anti-intellectualism, they are testing whether a significant number in their ranks can break through.

“It is past time for scientists to step up and get involved … because that is the only way that we are going to change the course,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, a cancer researcher-turned-business owner who twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Pennsylvania. She is the founder of 314 Action, a political action committee that helps people with scientific backgrounds run for office. “Traditionally, the attitude has been that science is above politics, and by getting involved in politics, it could possibly pollute science. My response to that is, ‘How’s that working for you?’”

Researchers have long bemoaned stagnating federal investment in innovation, and advocacy groups have existed for more than a decade to encourage scientists to become more active in civic affairs. But few current members of Congress come from backgrounds in math and science. Among the 435 members of the House, there are seven engineers, one physicist, one microbiologist and one chemist, according to the Congressional Research Service.

For many scientists, Trump’s election marked a turning point. Researchers marched in protest throughout the world in April, and former New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, a physicist and now chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said he began fielding more calls from scientists considering running for public office.

“It’s still not in the dozens [of prospective candidates]. But instead of two or three, it might be 12 or 15,” Holt said. “There seems to be a general sense that policy is being made without sufficient attention to scientific evidence.”

Trump, whose dismissal of mainstream climate science had already alarmed researchers, infuriated the scientific community when, soon after taking office, he proposed reducing non-defense research and development spending by about 19 percent, sharply curbing spending on climate and clean energy innovation and basic science and medical research.

Hans Keirstead, a pioneering stem-cell researcher who is running to unseat GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California’s Orange County, said that when he “saw the budget and health care bills starting to come up, that’s what tipped me over the edge.”

Looking to Washington from a lab where his latest clinical trial on an ovarian cancer treatment is underway, Keirstead said of Congress, “I see it as a grander platform to do good.”

While many researchers believe they hold a firmer grasp on science-related policy than politicians from other fields, the mechanics of an election remain largely unfamiliar — and there have been uneven starts to their campaigns.

Despite a torrent of media coverage surrounding her bid to unseat GOP Rep. Steve Knight in Southern California, geologist Jess Phoenix raised just more than $77,000 in the second quarter of this year. She told a small group of supporters soon after the fundraising period closed that she had finished strong and that the next quarter would be “even better.” But other scientists have found the effort too taxing.

Patrick Madden, a computer scientist and university professor who recently abandoned his campaign to unseat Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York, described a jolt when his department chair came to him “a little freaked out” that the university had received a public records request from a conservative opposition group for Madden’s emails and other documents.

“In politics, it seems you get ahead by lying, by misleading, by misstating things,” Madden said.

He said scientists have a “good skill set” for Congress and that the records request would not have dissuaded him. But he succumbed when it became apparent he could not raise enough money to run a competitive campaign.

“I was hassling all my friends, all my contacts, and it just didn’t feel … I don’t want my life to revolve around money,” Madden said. “To get up in the morning and worry about money, worry about money all day long — it was no fun.”

By one measure, scientists would appear exceptionally well-positioned to run for public office. Seventy-six percent of Americans say they have at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists generally to act in the best interests of the public, according to a Pew Research Center poll last year. That level of confidence outpaces religious and business leaders, educators, the news media and elected officials.

But Pew has also documented wide differences in opinion between scientists and the public on issues ranging from evolution to vaccines and the safety of genetically modified foods. And other research suggests that if scientists wade too deeply into politics, public confidence in them might fall.

Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who has studied public opinion on climate change, has found in surveys that when natural scientists stray from pure science and offer policy prescriptions related to their work, trust in those scientists erodes. And scientists who engage in politics face the additional problem of communicating with lay people unaccustomed to the dialogue of a university or a lab.

“You know, the premise of having more scientists in Congress is an interesting one,” said Jennilee Brown, a Republican strategist in Los Angeles who studied chemistry as an undergraduate student. “Initially, I would say that’s a fantastic idea because scientists are very used to looking at complex situations and … finding solutions to things.”

However, Brown said, “Where I question scientists running for Congress is more in their … power of public persuasion.”

Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who sits on 314’s board and has been working with a handful of scientist candidates, said Friday that the challenge for scientists is no different than for lawyers or elected politicians, all of whom must learn to leave their profession’s jargon behind when talking with voters. But in contrast to Trump, he said, scientists may cut an especially appealing profile.

“In this environment Trump is setting, where everything is a rhetorical Twitter stream,” Trippi said, “I actually think people talking common sense based on the facts … may be where a sweet spot is” in 2018.

Naughton’s political action committee said it is working with 10 congressional candidates and has heard from thousands of people who are interested in running for office at some level. They have hosted candidate trainings to address messaging, fundraising and other tactical concerns, and they have helped candidates find strategists and other advisers to work on their campaigns.

Phoenix, the geologist, said scientists have to work harder to “humanize” their issues, reflecting a view among some academics that without concerted outreach, science can seem out of touch. In a campaign, Phoenix said, “Even if you can’t get people excited about, you know, ‘Save the whales,’” she said, “you can say, ‘Do you want your kids going outside at recess? Yes? OK, then we need to have protections for air quality in place.’”

Andrew Hoffman, a University of Michigan professor who has written about the role of scholars in public life, said many scientists are unprepared to step into the bruising field of politics, with debates that are “much messier” than in evidence-based research. But, like Holt, he said he senses that is changing.

The scientific community is “facing a crisis of relevance, and scientists are starting to feel compelled to stand up for it,” Hoffman said.

In Congress, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), a wind energy consultant, said last week that “it would be helpful to have more STEM people in both parties, really,” saying that “would help us with some of these technical issues.”

His own doctorate in mathematics, McNerney said, has given him “a perspective and an appreciation for science and research and what’s possible in a technical field,” informing his opinion about matters ranging from telecommunications to nuclear energy and data security.

But he acknowledged that when he was first seeking election — as the current crop of scientist candidates is now — his background did not afford him a ready-made network for a political campaign.

“For one thing, people in STEM … generally shy away from political involvement. So generating support … developing a support network and getting the sort of grass-roots support that I needed was a real challenge.”

Elaine DiMasi, an experimental physicist who has taken a leave from Brookhaven National Laboratory to weigh a run against Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, said that after watching her friend Madden withdraw from his race, “I think I understand how difficult it’s going to be.”

DiMasi, who is planning to burn through savings to support herself while campaigning for the rest of the year, said her father was “horrified” at her decision.

“He said, ‘You’re going to give up your job and be a politician?’” DiMasi said. “And I said, ‘I’m going to be a scientist with a job as a legislator working on policy.’”

DiMasi said her parents eventually came around. Perhaps more important for her congressional campaign, she added, “They’re donors.”

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Trump's approval: How low can he go?

Six months in, Donald Trump is less popular than any president elected in the modern polling era. Now what?

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Senator Kid Rock. Don’t Laugh.

As you’re reading this, odds are a Democratic operative in Michigan or Washington, D.C., is listening to Kid Rock’s gravelly voice—rapping, shrieking or crowing, depending on the song—and meticulously cataloguing every single offensive syllable. The renegade musician and prospective candidate for U.S. Senate is an opposition researcher’s dream come true: For more than two decades, Robert Ritchie—or Bobby, as he asks people to call him—has written and performed provocative records about, among other things, extravagant drug use, excessive drinking and sexual exploits with prostitutes, strippers and Hollywood starlets. These lyrics are far from hollow. Kid Rock’s hard-partying image is central to his popularity and has been exhaustively documented in media accounts over the years. Political opponents will be digging through more than just his albums, too: There’s the sex tape he starred in, the arrest following a Waffle House brawl, the no-contest plea to charges he assaulted a DJ at a Nashville strip club, the messy divorce from Pamela Anderson. If that weren’t enough, he has offered other forms of ammunition to potential foes in interviews over the years, such as when he told Rolling Stone of his distaste for Beyoncé (“I like skinny white chicks with big tits”) and gave the New Yorker his stance on same-sex marriage (“I don’t give a fuck if gay people get married. I don’t love anybody who acts like a fuckin’ faggot”).

Because of his manifest rebelliousness—the offensive language, the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, the middle finger to polite company—Kid Rock’s tweet last week announcing that he is considering a campaign for U.S. Senate in Michigan was met with predictable contempt from the political class. How dare the foul-mouthed, long-haired, wifebeater-wearing, Jim Beam-swigging, self-described redneck suggest he belongs in the world’s greatest deliberative body? Moreover, critics had immediate cause to call his bluff: The website he tweeted out, www.kidrockforsenate.com, links to a merchandise store hosted by Warner Bros. Records, and Ritchie, who’s gearing up for a fall tour, also just happened to release two new singles from his forthcoming album. Consensus formed at warp speed in the Acela corridor that it’s a money-making publicity stunt, that Kid Rock for Senate should not be taken seriously.

That might be a huge miscalculation.

Yes, healthy skepticism is warranted: Not a single prominent Republican in Michigan told us they’d heard from Ritchie or his associates about a campaign. Good musicians are great marketers, and Kid Rock has been brilliant in terms of creating and selling a brand. His flirtation with electoral politics could be nothing more than a promotional ploy aimed at rekindling interest in his career—he’s had only one single reach any of Billboard’s charts in the past four years—and boosting his bottom line. And yet this theory doesn’t appear consistent with the man himself: Ritchie, who already boasts a huge and devoted following, has sold tens of millions of albums and amassed what he calls “fuck you money”—enough of it, in fact, that he has given seven-figure sums to charity and capped ticket prices to his concerts at $20 to make them accessible to working-class fans. Meanwhile, he’s earned a reputation in his native southeast Michigan as someone who is earnest when it comes to civic involvement, helping local businesses and headlining major philanthropic events. When Mitt Romney asked for his endorsement ahead of the pivotal Michigan primary in 2012, Ritchie invited him to his Metro Detroit home and peppered him with a list of policy questions, sleeping on the decision before informing Romney the next day he would support him. The two forged an unexpected bond: Romney adopted the patriotic rock anthem “Born Free” as his official campaign song, and Ritchie later praised the former Massachusetts governor as “the most decent motherfucker I’ve ever met in my life.”

None of this guarantees Ritchie will run, but it suggests he shouldn’t be mocked when he says he’s thinking about it—especially now that the media and the left have summarily and sneeringly popped his trial balloon. This same dismissiveness greeted (and motivated) Donald Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, and yes, given that Americans last fall elected a foul-mouthed political novice who was heard boasting on audiotape of grabbing women’s genitals without their permission, it’s worth noting that significant parallels exist between the rock star and the real estate mogul. So if you’re still not taking Kid Rock seriously, here’s why you should: His path to the U.S. Senate is far easier than Trump’s was to the White House.

“Presuming Kid Rock doesn’t get caught in bed with a little boy, or beat up a woman between now and August 2018, he’s going to win the nomination if he gets in,” says Dennis Lennox, a Republican political consultant in Michigan. “I think there’s no question about that. I think he’s the prohibitive favorite if he gets in.”

Trump competed with 16 rivals for the Republican nomination, more than a dozen of whom were established, well-regarded, well-financed campaigners; Ritchie would enter a primary field of three little-known newcomers to partisan politics. Trump was targeted by a national network of influential donors and activists who laughed him off at first, only to mount a desperate scramble to thwart his candidacy once they realized their peril; Ritchie would face little such resistance in a state where primaries aren’t preordained by party bosses. Trump started his run with no obvious base or blueprint for victory; Ritchie would launch a campaign on the strength of his favorite-son status that cuts across socioeconomic boundaries and is particularly resonant with the president’s winning coalition of culturally conservative, populist-minded, blue-collar voters.

The general election is a different story. Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic incumbent, is deeply entrenched after cruising to reelection by 15 points in 2006 and 20 points in 2012. She is affable, well-known and relatively popular around the state. She has more than $4 million in her campaign account, and won’t have to start spending much until after next August’s Republican primary. She is hands-down the Democratic Party’s best politician in Michigan. Stabenow will be very difficult to beat.

But this, perhaps more than anything else, makes the case for Kid Rock: Stabenow has devoured her last two challengers and will almost certainly make it three in a row if Republicans run another traditional campaign. Enter the self-described American Bad Ass. “Some Democrats in D.C. are freaking out because he would scramble the playbook,” says Democratic strategist Joshua Pugh, who has worked numerous Michigan campaigns and was formerly the state party’s communications director. “It would scramble the playbook. But I’m still not concerned if I’m Debbie Stabenow.”

Running for Senate, especially for someone brand new to politics, can be a logistical nightmare: deadlines, disclosure forms, vendor contracts, legal fees, campaign finance regulations. Some Democrats are convinced Ritchie won’t follow through—not because he doesn’t want to, but because he’s touring through November and conventional wisdom says a viable candidate can’t wait that long to get a campaign off the ground. “There’s a wide gulf between qualifying for the ballot and spending your summer greeting voters all across the state while you’re leaving cash on the table all across the country,” says Joe Disano, a Democratic strategist in Michigan. “Campaigning time overlaps very much with the summer touring season.”

And yet others, in private conversations, are clearly anxious. Kid Rock doesn’t need to run a standard campaign; he has nearly universal name-identification that will earn him free media to make up for any lack of traditional ground game. (Sound familiar?) If he runs, some Democrats fear, not only could Ritchie chip away at Stabenow’s impressive coalition of rural, non-college-educated independents and urban, union-friendly Democrats; he alone might prove capable of mobilizing Republicans who otherwise don’t turn out to vote in midterm elections.

“The fact that he’s non-traditional is appealing to a lot of people. Obviously it scares others who want someone more predictable,” says Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan GOP. “But if you’re going to beat an entrenched candidate like Debbie Stabenow in a purple state, you need to do something different.”

“He’s well-liked in Michigan. He’s a hometown darling. He’s got deep connections to Detroit. He’s done a lot throughout the state,” Anuzis adds. “Anybody who’s writing him off is making a mistake.”

***

Kid Rock comes from a prideful place. The Motor City. The arsenal of democracy. Motown. Aretha. Seger. Stevie. Eminem. Joe Louis. Hockeytown. The Bad Boys. Detroit’s popular image—grit, swagger, resilience—and the identity derived from it so permeate the region and much of the rest of the state that even those who do not hail from inside the city limits claim a sort of honorary citizenship. It’s how Bobby Ritchie, born into considerable wealth and raised in Macomb County, came to be viewed as a champion for Detroit and therefore a representative of Michigan writ large.

When Ritchie was born there in 1971, Macomb was in the middle of a great tidal shift. Over the previous decade, the county’s population had swelled by 54 percent due to white flight from Detroit, which sits just south of the county on the other side of 8 Mile Road. The new residents, like the old ones, were overwhelmingly white. They were blue-collar workers, many of whom owed allegiance to one of the “Big Three” automakers. They were Democrats and proudly so, this being Macomb, which as recently as 1960 had been the most heavily Democratic suburban county in America. But a transformation was underway, thanks to a combination of the Democratic Party lurching left on cultural issues, backlash over cross-district busing and the rise of racially tinged fears of worsening crime in inner-city Detroit. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan won his first term as president, Macomb was the most Republican suburban county in America.

It was in this Macomb County that young Bobby Ritchie grew up—and where his Senate candidacy would be anchored. Macomb, birthplace to the fabled “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, is undergoing another transformation as the population becomes better educated and more diverse, yet it remains home to an outsize number of working-class, culturally conservative voters who are motivated to vote Republican under the right circumstances. (Romney lost Macomb by 4 points in 2012; Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 12 points in the county after winning an eye-popping 48 percent of the vote there during the Republican primary.) Macomb, as well as economically similar swaths of the Interstate 75 corridor—Genesee County, Saginaw County, Bay County, all the way north to the Upper Peninsula—would be Kid Rock Country in a GOP primary, some doubling as decisive battlegrounds in the general election.

If that’s an oversimplification of his appeal, it’s one the musician has played into. Kid Rock’s public persona has been, at different points in his career, that of the chill country boy, the trailer park hoodlum and the street-prowling pimp. But Ritchie’s childhood was one of comfortable plenty. He grew up in Romeo, a small town in Macomb’s rural northwest corner—roughly 24 miles from Detroit’s outermost city limits—best known for its apple orchards and annual peach festival. His father, Bill Ritchie, owned Crest Lincoln Mercury, a successful car dealership in nearby Sterling Heights, and, for a time, served as head of the powerful Detroit Automobile Dealers Association. His mother, Susan, raised the couple’s four children (Bobby was No. 3). The family lived in an immense, 18-room, 5,628-square-foot estate with a five-car garage, three-horse barn, in-ground swimming pool and private tennis court. The Ritchies were known for their raging barn parties, blasting the heartland rock of Bob Seger late into the night.

Yet it was here—ensconced in 97-plus-percent-white Macomb, in a world of privilege and opportunity—that Robert Ritchie fell in love with rap music.

During the late ’80s, Ritchie would drive down to Mt. Clemens—one of Macomb’s only cities with buildings more than a few stories tall, a viable downtown and a black population—or further south to Detroit for basement parties in a rap scene that was literally underground. He was enamored of the DJs and soon became one himself, buying the turntables and speakers with $700 loaned from his parents and money he earned by picking apples.

In the mostly black, mostly urban rap scene of Metro Detroit, Ritchie stood out—his stage name, famously, came from surprised partygoers: ‘Look at that white kid rock.’ His legend grew as he took to rapping, earning late-night airplay in the Detroit radio market with his 1990 breakout hit, “Wax the Booty,” a paean to doggy-style sex. “In conversation, Romeo’s Bob Ritchie is pleasant, bright and insightful,” wrote Detroit Free Press music reporter Gary Graff in February 1991. “As Kid Rock, however, he poses as a foul-mouthed delinquent with a sexual fixation.”

This quarter-century-old observation splendidly captures the dueling personas of Ritchie and Rock. Throughout his rise to superstardom—on the success of head-banging singles like “Bawitdaba” and debauchery-drenched tracks such as “Cowboy” and “Welcome 2 the Party”—observers have expressed surprise, even bewilderment, at discovering an intelligent, articulate, charismatic and even introspective person in real life. At the end of a fascinating 50-minute interview with Dan Rather earlier this year, the former CBS anchor studied Ritchie and told him, “Despite how you present yourself sometimes, knowingly or unknowingly, you run deep, hoss.”

Kid Rock’s stylings have evolved in recent years, his biggest hits being family-friendly singles such as “Born Free” and “All Summer Long.” Some of that owes to maturity and growing older—as does his giving up hard drugs, he told Rather. And yet Ritchie’s continued commercial success reflects the chameleon-like ease with which he has always fit into his surroundings. He hasn’t so much reinvented himself as proved to be totally malleable while maintaining his musical credibility. He was a rapper in the age of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer, and a country rocker who dueted with Sheryl Crow on “Picture,” one of country’s classic torch songs. He embraced metal rap during the short-lived reign of groups like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, and later he went all-in on Southern rock, shamelessly lifting the most memorable riffs by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon and transplanting their melodies to summertime Michigan. Lately, he’s been a sort of walking homage to the Midwestern anthems of Seger, a fellow metro Detroiter. The same man who rapped with Snoop dueted with Hank Williams Jr. He performed in front of a Confederate flag for years before winning an award from the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, the organization’s largest branch in the nation. (After receiving the group’s recognition, the Free Press reported in 2015, Kid Rock ditched the flag.)

Through it all, he came across as utterly authentic even as he was constantly redefining himself.

In Michigan, that’s a central part of his appeal. He’s the hometown celebrity who didn’t leave, even as the economy tanked and the population plummeted statewide. He’s grafted Detroit’s identity onto his own (“We spend our days on the line and our nights in the bars,” sings the millionaire’s son). Where other artists might attract cynicism for hawking $25 T-shirts with a trademarked “Made in Detroit” logo or selling a Michigan-brewed “Badass American Lager,” Kid Rock seems to have earned the benefit of the doubt.

Ritchie gives back to the country: Performances for the troops overseas, on top of his donations to numerous military charities and home-building efforts for a wounded veteran, earned him the “Patriot Award” from Operation Troop Aid in 2014. He is similarly generous in the community—his foundation has given money to, among other groups, a local youth theater, a nature conservancy and the Detroit Historical Museum (where an exhibit is named in his honor). And unlike other beloved local figures—most especially Eminem—he’s highly accessible. Everyone seems to know somebody who met him at a bar or ran into him on the lake or got invited back to his house to hang out. (A Rolling Stone piece from 2015 detailed how Ritchie, while at his property in Alabama, invites over small-town neighbors he meets under various circumstances; he even took three of them to New York City as his “security entourage” so they could see the Big Apple for the first time.) On a random evening in Michigan, locals know you can find Ritchie chatting up guests at unremarkable watering holes in Mt. Clemens or St. Clair Shores, taking in a Tigers game at Comerica Park or even golfing alongside wealthy white-collar executives at Metro Detroit’s most selective country clubs.

In a region long divided along lines of race and class, Ritchie’s equally at home among black Detroiters and the suburban and exurban whites of the surrounding counties. Doubtless this is informed by his own family: Ritchie has a college-aged biracial son, whom he raised as a single father after winning a custody battle in court. Yet in song, Ritchie has also described himself as “a lowlife” who thinks “racist jokes are funny” and questioned in “Amen,” a track on his 2007 album, “How can we seek salvation when our nation’s race relations got me feeling guilty of being white?”

These contradictions and complexities make for an intriguing artist. They represent liabilities for an aspiring politician.

***

If Ritchie runs, the urgent question will be how he addresses—if at all—his decades’ worth of controversies. For all the excitement generated by his potential candidacy, Republicans cringe knowing it could derail not just his campaign but those of GOP rivals caught up in what could become a circus-like primary. “It’s a legitimate concern. I would see that as Kid Rock’s weakness,” says Wes Nakagiri, a Michigan tea-party activist who first floated the idea of a Ritchie candidacy at this year’s state GOP convention. Nakagiri loves the idea of Kid Rock running as an “outside the box” populist who supports the president, but wonders whether the musician can get away with what Trump did. “How do voters view those things?” he asks. “Do they look past it like they did with Trump?”

If they do, Ritchie will have to reconcile the many versions of himself and find a coherent message. When it comes to social issues, for example, Kid Rock showed his libertarian streak with the comment to the New Yorker about same-sex marriage, and said of Republicans in that same interview, “I think they go too far with some of that pro-life stuff. I just want some nerds watching my money.” However, the singer grabbed headlines—and won plaudits from conservative groups—back in 2000 when he released the song “Abortion,” which tells of a father grieving to the point of contemplating suicide after his unborn child is aborted.

More vulnerabilities will surface as opponents wade through Ritchie’s finances, family life and personal records searching for ways to discredit him. Within a week of his exploratory tweet, the libertarian-leaning Mackinac Center think tank reported that Kid Rock’s brewing company was awarded $723,000 in state incentives in 2009—one year before he released the song “Flyin’ High,” in which he sang, “I ain’t never had to take a handout.” Trivial? Sure. But it’s an example of how granular the dumpster-diving will get. The simple fact that Ritchie has owned homes in at least five states (Michigan, Tennessee, Alabama, California, Florida) is certain to produce discomforting legal disclosures.

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be deciding whether he wants to be Kid Rock or Bobby Ritchie—not for purposes of ballot identification or campaign literature, but rather, the persona he wants to present voters. In the heat of the 2012 election, Ritchie preached the value of bipartisanship by recording—at his own expense—a purposely corny PSA with liberal actor Sean Penn. “There’s nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in and having an honest conversation with people,” Ritchie told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in a June 2013 interview. “Sean Penn, he’s a good friend of mine, and we go at it toe to toe all the time, but you know what? We have great conversations, and we have a better understanding of some things, and I think if more people could just have that dialogue—if everybody would just calm down, all right?”

But that inclusive, kumbaya vibe has vanished in the Trump era. Shortly after the 2016 election ended, Kid Rock’s online store began selling tawdry pro-Trump merchandise. One T-shirt showed the electoral map with a key: red states = United States of America; blue states = “Dumbfuckistan.” Another showed a smiling Trump above the words “_onald Trump. The ‘D’ is missing because it’s in every hater’s mouth.”

If Kid Rock’s popularity owes to his ability to straddle cultural fault lines and give everyone a little bit of what they want—rap, rock, country, blues and sometimes all of the above—running for Senate might force him to choose sides in a way that endorsing Romney or Trump never did. That, more than the logistical hurdles or financial sacrifices associated with running for office, might prove a deterrent for the musician who has excelled at being everything to everyone.

If it does not, Kid Rock’s candidacy for U.S. Senate will be the manifestation of the left’s nightmare about what Trump’s election has wrought—and a fulfillment of unwitting attempts at humor. When Zach Galifianakis interviewed Hillary Clinton on “Between Two Ferns” during the 2016 campaign, he asked, “When [Trump] is elected president and Kid Rock becomes secretary of state, are you going to move to Canada?” If that feels eerie, consider that in the music video for his 2001 single “You Never Met a Motherfucker Quite Like Me,” Ritchie opens a newspaper with an all-caps front-page headline: “KID ROCK NEGOTIATES PEACE AGREEMENT.” He then tosses the paper aside with a smirk on his face.

Nobody should be laughing now.

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Republicans brewing Russian scandal to target greens

Republicans are trying to conjure up a Russian scandal they can get behind.

GOP House members and at least one Trump Cabinet member are pushing years-old allegations from conservative activists that Russia has funneled money to U.S. environmental groups to oppose fracking. The story has reappeared in conservative circles in recent weeks — a respite, perhaps, from the steady drip-drip of news reports about dealings between Russians and President Donald Trump’s inner circle.

Allegations have circulated for years that Moscow has sought to discourage European countries from developing their own natural gas supplies as an alternative to Russian fuel. And conservatives have sought to extend those concerns to the U.S. — though there’s little but innuendo to base them on.

But the rumors gained new life in late June, when House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and fellow Texas Republican Rep. Randy Weber asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to investigate whether the Kremlin is bankrolling green campaigns against the fracking technology that helped the U.S. overtake Russia in gas production.

Among other material, Smith and Weber cited articles in conservative news publications and an alleged Hillary Clinton speech published by WikiLeaks — part of a trove of stolen Clinton campaign documents that U.S. intelligence agencies have linked to Russia’s election-meddling efforts.

The reports, the Republican lawmakers wrote in the letter to Mnuchin, suggest “that Russia is also behind the radical statements and vitriol directed at the U.S. fossil fuel sector.”

Green groups dismissed Smith’s allegations as an attempt to divert attention from all the news surrounding Trump and Russia.

“If congressional Republicans are so concerned about Russian influence, they should start seriously investigating that country’s interference in our election, not attacking long-standing environmental organizations,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, one of the groups Smith and conservatives have accused of potentially taking Russian money.

The League of Conservation Voters, another group named in Smith’s letter, also blasted the Science Committee’s allegations.

“This is false,” LCV spokesman David Willett said. “We have no connections to Russia and have been an effective advocate for environmental protection for over 45 years. This seems like nothing more than an attempt at distraction away from the Trump campaign’s well-publicized interactions with Russian interests to influence the election.”

Still, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal op-ed page have both run items about the committee’s letter, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry lent his voice to the effort when a Fox Business anchor asked whether he supported an investigation.

“Absolutely,” Perry said in the July 11 broadcast. “Steve is a very capable and very focused business individual who knows that this type of activity has to be investigated, has to be halted.”

Spokespeople for the Energy Department and Treasury Department did not respond to questions. A White House spokesperson did not reply to questions about whether the allegations had made their way to Trump.

Anti-fracking sentiment in the U.S. started bubbling up among U.S. environmental groups as soon as the oil and gas production method started surging in the late 2000s, with the documentary “Gasland“ appearing in theaters in 2010 after a year and a half in production. Much of that opposition was driven by local activists in new gas hot spots like Pennsylvania who complained about threats to their drinking water, while major national environmental groups like the Sierra Club were slower to take up the cry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who oversees an economy almost totally dependent on oil and gas exports, has also slagged fracking technology. He once said that fracking makes “black stuff” come out of people’s water faucets, according to a New Yorker report.

Still, there is no evidence that Russian money has gone to U.S. green groups, at least on the national level, said Brenda Shaffer, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies. And there is even less evidence that any money would have been well spent, given how hard it would be to push widespread fracking bans through the myriad of local, state and federal governments involved in permitting, she added.

“It would be almost impossible to prevent fracking in the United States,” Shaffer told POLITICO.

The evidence the committee cites includes comments that former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made at a London-based think tank in 2014, when he said he believed Russia was working with environmental groups in Europe to oppose shale gas development.

“Other officials have indicated the same scheme is unfolding in the U.S.,” Smith’s letter goes on to say — though from there the trail becomes murkier.

The letter also cites a speech that Clinton allegedly delivered in Canada in 2014, according to Clinton campaign emails published by WikiLeaks, in which the former secretary of state supposedly said she had encountered “phony environmental groups” that opposed pipelines and fracking. The emails were part of a cache of Democratic documents that U.S. intelligence officials believe were originally pilfered by Kremlin-linked hackers.

“I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by Russians,” Clinton says in the alleged transcript.

But the text does not indicate whether Clinton — who promoted shale gas drilling in Europe — was referring to environmental groups in Europe or the United States. A Clinton campaign aide did not answer questions about the veracity and the context of the speech. The campaign has refused to confirm or deny the content of any of the leaked materials.

Still, the alleged Clinton quotes have taken off in conservative news outlets, with The Daily Caller and Washington Times including them in articles published in the past year. Smith, in turn, cited those articles in the footnotes of his letter to Treasury.

“It’s a theory, but the reasoning behind it makes sense,” said a committee aide, who requested anonymity. “The chairman is saying there’s data points pointing to this theory, and he’s saying the Treasury secretary can shine some light on this. This isn’t out of left field and crazy.”

Science Committee aides also argued that last year’s national intelligence report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election supports the concerns raised in Smith’s letter. However, the intelligence report doesn’t allege any Kremlin outreach to U.S. environmental groups.

The intelligence report’s non-classified, 14-page version makes reference to anti-fracking programming broadcast by Kremlin-controlled news channel RT. “This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and U.S. natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability,” the report says. Gazprom is a Russian natural gas giant.

Much of the rest of the case that Russia funneled money to U.S. green groups comes from a 2014 report created by the Environmental Policy Alliance, which describes itself as “devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups.”

The group shares a Washington, D.C., address and a phone number with a public relations firm run by Richard Berman, a lawyer and former lobbyist who has also created issue groups such as the Center for Union Facts and Center for Consumer Freedom — prompting liberal critics to nickname him “the astroturf kingpin.” CBS News once called him “Dr. Evil” in a 2011 piece focusing on his lobbying efforts on unpopular issues, including a campaign against Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

A representative of the Environmental Policy Alliance confirmed that Berman’s firm manages the group.

The group’s report and Smith’s letter focus on $23 million that a Bermuda-based philanthropic firm, Klein Ltd., donated in 2010 and 2011 to the San Francisco-based Sea Change Foundation, according to information disclosed in Sea Change’s IRS tax forms. Sea Change then awarded around $55 million in each of those years to the Sierra Club Foundation, U.S. Climate Action Network, Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups to promote energy efficiency and climate change-related operations, according to its IRS tax filings.

“Although the source of Klein’s capital has not been documented,” the Science Committee’s letter says, the panel alleged that various corporate and personal connections “strongly suggest” that the money originated with “the Russian government and energy sector.”

But a lawyer representing Klein told POLITICO that none of the money came from sources connected to Russia. And a Sea Change spokesperson said none of its donations to environmental groups were earmarked for opposition to fracking.

“The Klein Foundation grants were given as general support and no requirement was made that the funds be used for specific projects, programs, or activities of the Sea Change Foundation,” the spokesperson said.

Berman’s report draws on a court case filed in the British Virgin Islands in the mid-2000s that resulted in a money-laundering conviction against IPOC Group, an entity owned by Leonid Reiman, Russia’s former telecommunications minister and adviser to Putin, according to an outline of the case maintained by the World Bank. Roderick Forrest, a lawyer for Wakefield Quin, a law firm representing Klein Ltd., was one of IPOC’s directors, according to case documents.

The House committee did not contact Klein as part of its fact-finding, a committee aide said. But Forrest railed against the accusations and said the company was considering legal action following the committee’s letter.

“The allegations are completely false and irresponsible,” Forrest told POLITICO. “We can state categorically that at no point did this philanthropic organization receive or expend funds from Russian sources or Russian-connected sources, and Klein has no Russian connection whatsoever.”

The Sierra Club’s Pierce also denied that any of the money it received from Sea Change ultimately came from Moscow.

“We have confirmed that the origin of these funds is a private U.S. donor who cares about climate change and has invested in the work the Sierra Club does to tackle the climate crisis and advance the clean energy economy — not from Russia,” she said.

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9 things we've learned about Scaramucci's White House role so far

New White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci is making sure Americans know he’s loyal to President Donald Trump — and that he has the president’s ear.

Since it was announced Friday that the New York financier would take over from former aide Mike Dubke, who resigned in May, Scaramucci has spoken to reporters in the White House briefing room, made television appearances and tweeted plenty.

From his views on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election to the changes he wants to make in the White House, here are nine things we learned from Scaramucci’s public comments.

1. He knows how to flatter Trump. When talking about the prospects for health care legislation, Scaramucci said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Trump always gets what he wants. If Trump was watching, he heard Scaramucci call him “probably the most effective legislative liaison person in the world” on CBS and tell CNN that no one else could make the leap from business mogul to politician to president as quickly as Trump did.

2. He is talking to the boss. Scaramucci said Sunday during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump had called him from Air Force One on Saturday to discuss Russia’s involvement in the presidential election.

3. Like Trump, he’s not sure Russia meddled in the election. During the same interview on CNN, he asserted — citing Trump anonymously at first before later revealing him as his source — “that if the Russians actually hacked this situation and spilled out those emails, you would have never seen it.”

4. He’s sorry he called Trump a “hack.” During a TV appearance in August 2015, Scaramucci called Trump a “hack politician,” saying it was “anti-American” for Trump to have made comments about “hedge fund guys paying nothing” in taxes. On Friday, Scaramucci said that was “one of the biggest mistakes that I made because I was an unexperienced person in the world of politics.” He’s still hearing from Trump about it — Scaramucci said the president “brings it up every 15 seconds.”

5. He shares the boss’ distaste for leaks. In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Scaramucci said he is going to “take dramatic action to stop those leaks.” He added that “something is going on in the White House that the president does not like, and we’re going to fix it.”

6. He’s considering more staff shake-ups. Scaramucci told “Fox News Sunday” he would “pare down the staff” if leaks continue. On Friday during the White House press briefing, Scaramucci guaranteed only that Hope Hicks and Dan Scavino would remain in their posts, saying he would “get to know” the rest of the staff.

7. He would like to bring back on-camera press briefings. After weeks of off-camera briefings, Scaramucci said during Friday’s press briefing that he would speak to Trump about the format of press briefings, adding that “we may” have more on-camera appearances for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new press secretary.

8. He might micromanage. Scaramucci said Sanders will be behind the lectern, but that does not mean he will not have tips for how to wrangle the press. On Sunday, the communications director said on CNN that if Sanders was watching, he wanted her to know that he liked the hair and makeup person the press shop used on Friday.

9. He’s proud of his credentials. Scaramucci is a Wall Street financier who went to law school with former President Barack Obama. His credentials might not always be germane to the topic at hand, but the new communications director brought them up anyway. On Sunday, Scaramucci talked about how his Harvard Law attendance could make it easier for Trump’s legal and White House teams to interface.

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The untouchable Hope Hicks

Hope Hicks was celebrating a family wedding at a Bermuda golf club the weekend after Donald Trump was elected president when she overheard members of another party expressing dismay about his victory.

The young press secretary was off duty, but she couldn’t help inserting herself into the conversation at the next table. “I promise, he’s a good person!” Hicks chimed in, begging them not to worry, according to multiple people who witnessed the exchange.

Hicks’ instinctual defense of the president is emblematic of how she views her role in the White House: as someone who deeply understands Trump, but also understands why, in her mind, people misunderstand him. The polite, soft-spoken 28-year-old newbie to Washington politics holds the lofty title of director of strategic communications, pulls down the top White House salary of $179,700 – the same as strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus – but operates outside of any organizational chart.

She is protected, in a world of rival power centers, by the deep bond she shares with the man at the top. He affectionately refers to her as “Hopester.” She still calls him “Mr. Trump.” And she views her job, ultimately, as someone who is installed where she is in order to help, but not change, the leader of the free world.

But an explosive Trump interview this week with the New York Times, in which Hicks was the only aide in the Oval Office with the president, has thrust her protected and preferred under-the-radar status into fuller view. In the interview, Trump expressed regret and anger over his hiring Attorney General Jeff Sessions in light of his recusal from the Russia investigation, and then left open the possibility of firing special counsel Robert Mueller—all risky statements, given the legal scrutiny he, his family, and his associates face.

Hicks’ sole presence in the office has raised questions about whether she’s helping Trump advance his stated America First agenda – or whether she is simply enabling a president with self-destructive tendencies to hobble the entire administration, and, ultimately, himself.

In the chaotic West Wing, rattled again on Friday by the surprise resignation of press secretary Sean Spicer, Hicks has been a stable, consistent presence at Trump’s side – her loyalty never in question, her status in the president’s inner circle never in jeopardy, her back never being stabbed by colleagues in the snakepit work environment. One person described Hicks, who worked for the Trump Organization before joining the campaign at its start, as a “souvenir from Trump Tower,” i.e. someone who has made the journey with the president from his old life, with whom he can wax nostalgic about the good old days in New York.

She also may be one of the only long-term survivors of a complete overhaul of the White House communications department. “Dan [Scavino] and Hope Hicks are staying,” incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci said at his first press briefing on Friday. “As it relates to the other people in the comms shop, I’ve got to get to know them.”

But her front row role in the New York Times interview had Washington veterans raising their eyebrows about whether anyone in Trump’s orbit can rein him in.

“What’s amazing to me is that Hope sat there and let it happen,” said one former top GOP Hill aide. “I have a very different construct on what it means to staff people. You exist because your job is largely to improve otherwise difficult situations. The fact that people around him are not trying to protect the president blows my mind at this level of politics.”

People familiar with the interview said Hicks, whose own comments during the session were off the record, did try to intervene on multiple occasions, reminding the president that he did not have to answer every question on the record. But Trump, who thrives off the easy back and forth with reporters he has been engaging in for decades, ultimately overruled her and wanted to charge on.

Some said Hicks isn’t to blame for acting like a gatekeeper who lets the fox into the hen house – they see her as part of a larger problem plaguing the Trump administration, where no staffer can control the president’s most self-damaging impulses, and there is no larger communications strategy beyond indulging the president in the instant gratification he enjoys from making news.

“He doesn’t have many people seasoned in governing around him, people who are able to give him the candid advice based on the experience of working in government who can help guide him to avoid pitfalls,” said Scott McClellan, a former press secretary to President George W. Bush.

Hicks, however, is different from his other aides. She stays off television, which has given her some cover and credibility with the media: she has never lied, on the record, in service of the president. She declined to comment for this story, and turns down most media requests that come her way, because she prefers to serve the president without a spotlight shining on her.

In a White House staffed with aides pushing their competing personal agendas, Hicks stands apart as a loyalist who is there solely because of her commitment to Trump and his family, who isn’t eyeing the next job up the food chain. She is sometimes treated like an extended family member of the close-knit clan. She has joined Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump for Shabbat dinner at their Kalorama mansion, and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Trump family during an audience earlier this year in Rome with the pope, along with other inner circle aides.

Internally, she has joked that her title is not about strategically communicating with the press – it’s about strategically communicating with the president. She knows that telling Trump what not to say, ahead of an interview, is a losing proposition. She has accepted that he will say things that people find shocking, or upsetting – but she long ago made the decision that she deeply believes in Trump as a leader, and that she wasn’t going to change or judge a 70-year-old man whose career highs have been based on trusting his own instincts.

When it comes to indulging his desire to speak on the record to the New York Times, insiders said, she also understands the important place the respected hometown broadsheet holds in his Queens-bred psyche.

To colleagues and reporters, she often expresses frustration at why the president is often described as angry or fuming when she views the man she works for as generally charming, supportive and friendly.

Hicks, a Greenwich, Connecticut, native and onetime teen model who rose through the ranks of the Trump Organization, has also become more solitary and protective of herself as her power in the White House has grown. Friends said she rarely ventures out socially in Washington because her close relationship with the president makes her feel like a target. She is not on Twitter, and her Instagram account – where she is followed by Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump, Jr. and the president himself – is set to private.

Colleagues described Hicks as someone who communicates with Trump in a similar way to his daughter Ivanka – she can express her disagreements to the president privately, but ultimately supports his decisions unquestioningly.

Internally, she has become something of a Trump whisperer – other aides rely on Hicks’ judgement to gauge when is a good time to speak to the president. “She can help give readouts on conversations the president has had with legislators,” said Marc Short, Trump’s director of legislative affairs. “If there’s something that’s happening in urgent fashion, she’s able to convey that information quickly to the president and get back with the answer that we need.”

He added that the “continuity” she represents is an important ingredient in a White House filled with newcomers to the Trump Train.

It’s become self-evident, six months into Trump’s first term, that no single person can change Trump’s style of communication. First Lady Melania Trump’s presence in the White House has done little to stem the flow of outrageous Tweets, and his communications team has fallen apart in because the president, ultimately, acts as his own press secretary. But Hicks’ management of the president – knowing what battles not to fight, and pushing no outside agenda of her own – might make her the last aide standing, even if it’s a break from how people in her position have acted in the past.

In the pre-Trump world order, an interview with the president of the United States was used by the administration as a cherry topper to sell a policy proposal the White House sought to highlight. In his final interview with the New York Times, for instance, President Barack Obama was interviewed in Hawaii and then in Midway Atol about climate change in order to land a front page story about his legacy on the issue.

“Every time a president talks to the press, it should be part of a coordinated communications effort to promote what the president is doing,” said Ari Fleischer, another former press secretary to George W. Bush.

Not so in Trumpworld, where reporters are often invited into the Oval Office by Hicks with no warning, for free-wheeling conversations that read like venting sessions and do little to further any policy agenda being pushed by the White House. “Coordinating interviews with him – that’s all her,” said one White House official.

From her perch near the Oval Office, Hicks has become part of Trump’s shrinking circle of trust, overseeing more of the president’s response to damaging stories as he has lost faith in the rest of his communications team.

In May, for instance, the Times reported that Trump asked former FBI director James Comey to shut down his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Spicer wasn’t involved in the response and only learned of the story’s publication minutes before it landed, White House sources said. Instead, it was Hicks shuttling in and out of the Oval Office, working on a response with the president.

Some Trump critics are sympathetic to Hicks’ task of managing an uncontrollable personality. “She’s doing an excellent job with the worst client in the history of the world,” said Stu Loeser, former press secretary to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “There isn’t a permanent solution to him calming down.”

Loeser credited Hicks with channeling Trump’s comments on the ongoing Russia investigation to the Times, rather than waiting for him to spout off on Twitter. “Not threatening the Justice Department and independent counsel is not one of the options that faces her,” Loeser said. “She arranged for him to say what he is inevitably going to say in the most dignified and professional way he could.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report

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McConnell's last-ditch Obamacare strategy

Talking is no longer working. It’s time to vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking the rare step of forcing his members to take a tough vote on an Obamacare repeal bill, H.R. 1628 (115), that is on track to fail, making them own their votes.

Senior Senate Republicans believe the high-profile vote expected Tuesday — followed by conservative backlash over the GOP’s failure to fulfill its seven-year campaign pledge — might provoke enough heat from the base to bring senators back to the negotiating table.

It seems like a long shot. But McConnell may be playing the long game — making his members walk the plank not as an act of desperation but as part of a strategy that just might work. He’s used it before to get what he wants.

If the vote fails, “I don’t think it’s over,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate leadership. “We’re going to need a little longer runway to get to 50 votes on something.“

“Even if we fail on the procedural vote next week,” Thune added,” all that really does is say ‘OK, we’ll regroup and then take another run at this.’”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has been demanding McConnell hold a vote on a repeal-only bill, agrees. “We can do this for quite a while,” he said.

McConnell has used this approach before. In May 2015 he forced multiple votes that ultimately granted then-President Barack Obama fast-track trade powers during negotiation of a massive Pacific Rim trade deal.

This time, the vote comes after months of discussion on repeal legislation that hasn’t garnered support from 50 senators.

If the strategy doesn’t bring senators back to the table, the vote could demarcate a decisive end to at least the public Obamacare repeal debate for some time. That would allow the Senate, which has already spent two months trying to dismantle and replace the health law, to move on and notch some legislative wins. Many are more than ready to turn to other priorities, like tax reform.

Still, holding a doomed vote is unusual for McConnell, who typically goes to great lengths to protect his members from politically difficult votes.

“Everybody has to be held personally accountable,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has been furiously whipping the repeal effort. “Everybody is a good enough politician that if they’ve got a reason to justify their vote, they’ll be able to sell that.”

The vote Tuesday will be to start debate on Obamacare repeal. But it is unclear as of now which bill would serve as the actual policy — an extremely unusual move. McConnell said earlier this week the Senate would vote on a repeat of a 2015 bill that repealed much of the health care law. Since then, senators have floated the idea of voting on multiple options, including repeal, the Senate’s repeal-and-replace measure or a combination of these and other policies.

That would be moot if the Senate doesn’t even vote to start debate.

With at least two senators having announced they would oppose proceeding to the bill — and the expected absence of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was diagnosed with a brain tumor — the vote is likely to fail without major last minute changes. Leaders have opened the door to the idea that if the margin is narrow, they could vote again when McCain could return to Washington. Given his diagnosis, it’s not clear when that could happen.

Senate Republicans have other reasons to stop the political bleeding over repeal. They want to move on to tax reform but they also have health care bills that must pass in the coming months, including renewing the Children’s Health Insurance Program and a pivotal FDA funding program. The Obamacare debacle could affect those other bills.

The decision to hold a vote — versus just pulling the bill from the floor without forcing members to go on the record — will be more difficult for some senators than others.

It could be the biggest liability for Republicans who supported a 2015 repeal bill — which Obama vetoed — and now won’t support the same measure. All Republicans currently in office besides Sen. Susan Collins of Maine supported it.

“We’re going to find out if there’s hypocrisy in the United States Senate in the next few days,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). “I don’t believe in situational ethics. So if you thought it was a good idea to repeal when we had a president that probably would not have accepted it, what’s wrong with repealing it now when we have a president who would sign it into law?”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is not up for reelection until 2020 in a conservative state, argued that “circumstances have changed” since she voted to repeal the law in 2015 and that she “would hope” voters understand her argument. For instance, expanded Medicaid has played a big role in combating the opioid epidemic in her state.

“People’s minds change and circumstances change,” Capito said. “And as time goes on, that’s what’s happened and you know, I gotta do what I think is the right thing to do.” She doesn’t want to vote on a repeal until she sees a replacement measure for the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who may face a competitive reelection bid next year, dismissed suggestions that voting for a straight repeal of the 2010 health care law could hurt his prospects.

“I’ve already voted on it. I’m fine with it,” Flake said in an interview. “All I can say is, if it comes up, I’ll vote for it. There have been so many votes on this over the years that if your opponents want to paint you one way or another, there’s lots of fodder they can use.”

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Parliamentarian rules against key provisions in Obamacare repeal bill

Several key provisions in the Senate’s Obamacare repeal and replace bill, including language targeting Planned Parenthood, may have to be stripped or could be eliminated on the Senate floor by Democrats because they don’t comply with budget rules, according to Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee.

The Senate parliamentarian advised Friday in an informal and preliminary ruling that key conservative agenda items, including defunding Planned Parenthood for one year and banning coverage of abortion in Obamacare insurance plans, do not comply with Senate rules on reconciliation, the fast-track procedure the GOP is using to repeal Obamacare.

Republicans plan to vote next week on whether to begin debate on Obamacare repeal, but it is unclear whether the Senate will vote on the repeal and replace bill. The other option for the GOP is to bring up a repeal-only measure that passed the Senate two years ago and was vetoed by President Barack Obama.

The 52 Senate Republicans would need to muster 60 votes to preserve each provision flagged by the parliamentarian for potentially violating the so-called Byrd rule. But Democrats have united in opposition to the GOP repeal effort. In addition to the Planned Parenthood and abortion language, other provisions identified by the parliamentarian would fund insurance cost-sharing subsidies and impose a six-month waiting period for individuals attempting to enroll in coverage for the first time.

The parliamentarian’s guidance — provided as part of a process known on Capitol Hill as a “Byrd bath” — amounts to a significant win for Democrats, who are aiming to eliminate as much from the health care bill as possible. But Republicans cautioned that the rulings apply to a prior version of the Senate bill, and GOP aides are already reworking some of the provisions flagged by the parliamentarian, according to one source familiar with the effort. GOP lawmakers faced similar obstacles over language eliminating Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates when they drafted the 2015 repeal bill but overcame them through rewrites.

An e-mail from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office to Republican legislative directors said that the parliamentarian’s guidance “largely follows what we expected; most of our bill is appropriate for reconciliation” and that “a few items may need modification” in order to comply with the Byrd rule. The message also urged GOP aides to “look out for bad reporting and Democrat spin.”

“The parliamentarian has provided guidance on an earlier draft of the bill, which will help inform action on the legislation going forward,” said Joe Brenckle, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee.

The guidance from parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough could still amount to yet another obstacle for the repeal effort. Two key groups that oppose abortion — National Right to Life and the Susan B. Anthony List — have been prominent advocates of the overall bill because of its abortion and Planned Parenthood provisions.

Planned Parenthood praised the decision Friday.

“No amount of legislative sleight of hand will change the fact that the primary motivation here is to pursue a social agenda by targeting Planned Parenthood because we provide the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion,” said Dana Singiser, a vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The provision defunding Planned Parenthood did not pass muster with the parliamentarian because it was viewed as targeting a specific group, according to two Senate sources. That was the same reason MacDonough gave for ruling against a provision in the Housepassed Obamacare repeal bill that changes the way New York funds Medicaid and was widely viewed as a way to win over GOP holdouts from the Empire State.

Democrats now believe the state-specific provisions in the Senate version of the measure — including language that may benefit Alaska, Louisiana and Florida — would not pass muster, either, although sources said MacDonough has not yet ruled on those particular measures.

“Republicans have given up on good policy, so they turned to legislative giveaways instead,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “Today’s ruling by the parliamentarian means they can’t count on the Polar Payoff, Bayou Bailout, or Sunshine Sellout to do their whipping for them.”

Other provisions on the chopping block include ending the Essential Health Benefits in Medicaid beginning in 2020, allowing states to set their own medical loss ratios — which influence how much insurers spend on patient care — and allowing states to roll over funding obtained by a block grant. Each would need 60 votes to overcome expected Democratic challenges.

The parliamentarian did informally approve of several parts of the bill, including allowing work requirements in Medicaid, providing funding to states that didn’t expand Medicaid and repealing the cost-sharing subsidy program in the future. MacDonough also approved a state stability fund along with an abortion restriction on the fund.

The parliamentarian has not yet ruled on state waivers, small business health plans, Medicaid block grants and allowing states to alter how much more older people can be changed than younger people.

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Russia sanctions deal reached without changes Trump sought

Negotiators in both parties on Saturday released a sweeping sanctions deal that does not include changes President Donald Trump’s administration sought to make it easier for him to ease penalties against Russia.

The accord on a package of sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea is set for a House vote on Tuesday, according to the announcement from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office. To resolve a partisan clash over giving House Democrats the power to force a vote blocking Trump from easing sanctions on Moscow, the deal expedites House consideration of any anti-Trump vote that the Senate has already passed.

The sanctions legislation is expected to pass with overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate before lawmakers leave for their annual August recess, giving the Republican-led Congress a major bipartisan achievement to tout amid struggles on health care and taxes — albeit an achievement that delivers a thumb in the eye to Trump.

The White House had pressed to dilute the bill’s provisions empowering Congress to block Trump from easing or ending sanctions against Russia, but its request fell on deaf ears among Republican leaders.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland, hailed the agreement Saturday.

“I believe the proposed changes to the bill have helped to clarify the intent of members of Congress as well as express solidarity with our closest allies in countering Russian aggression and holding the Kremlin accountable for their destabilizing activities,” Cardin said in a statement.

Cardin added an encouragement for Trump to sign the bill once it reaches the White House, despite his administration’s failure to secure more “flexibility” to deal with Vladimir Putin’s government.

“A nearly united Congress is poised to send President Putin a clear message on behalf of the American people and our allies, and we need President Trump to help us deliver that message,” Cardin said.

The sanctions deal makes a technical change to the portion of the bill by ensuring that Congress would not review minor and routine licenses for businesses seeking to operate in partnership with Russian entities.

The deal also gives oil and gas companies some of what they sought in order to avoid what they feared would be undue hindrance of their ability to partner with Russian entities. While the industry had asked for a 50-percent interest threshold for sanctioned Russian entities before penalties kicked in on joint projects, the final agreement set a 33-percent threshold.

Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

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Trump pushes his 'complete power' to pardon

President Donald Trump touted U.S. military strength at the world’s largest naval base Saturday, but clouded his own message with a series of early-morning tweets about the topic that has plagued his presidency — the Russia investigation.

Prior to his visit to Virginia’s Naval Station Norfolk, Trump tweeted at 6:35 a.m. that “all agree” that he has full power to pardon, following reports that his legal team is exploring his ability to pardon not only his allies and family members, but also himself.

“While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us.FAKE NEWS,” Trump tweeted in advance of attending the commissioning of the new aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Trump’s lawyers are looking into his pardon powers, a move that prompted a swift rebuke from the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees conducting wide-ranging Russia-related probes.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is also leading a sprawling Russia probe and is said to be investigating whether Trump obstructed justice, in part by firing James Comey, the former FBI director then leading the Russia probe.

Trump’s claim about the broad scope of his pardoning power was unfounded: many legal experts say it’s far from a settled question. According to Richard Primus, a University of Michigan law professor, Trump would be entering uncharted territory if he tried to pardon himself.

“The Constitution doesn’t specify whether the president can pardon himself, and no court has ever ruled on the issue, because no president has ever been brazen enough to try it,” he wrote for POLITICO Magazine. “Among constitutional lawyers, the dominant (though not unanimous) answer is “no,” in part because letting any person exempt himself from criminal liability would be a fundamental affront to America’s basic rule-of-law values.”

Trump on Saturday also appeared to push for investigations into Hillary Clinton and Comey, amid the intensifying probes into his own orbit.

“So many people are asking why isn’t the A.G. or Special Council looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes. 33,000 e-mails deleted?” Trump tweeted, adding, “…What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches etc.”

He wrote that his son, Donald Trump Jr., who is under scrutiny for meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the campaign, was more forthcoming with his emails regarding that meeting.

“My son Donald openly gave his e-mails to the media & authorities whereas Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted (& acid washed) her 33,000 e-mails!” Trump tweeted.

Trump, facing multiple probes into whether his campaign colluded with Russian officials, has repeatedly tried to push the attention onto Clinton for her own Russia ties and on Comey for sharing information about his conversations with the president to a friend, with the idea it would become public.

At the Norfolk commissioning ceremony, Trump stood on stage with former Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, two Ford administration veterans, and commented, “They look good.”

The president praised the ship as “100,000-ton message to the world” that would cause enemies to “shake with fear.”

He closed his “Made in America” theme week with a message about the American steel used to build the ship.

“American steel and American hands have constructed a 100,000-ton message to the world: American might is second to none, and we’re getting bigger, and better, and stronger every day of my administration,” he said. “That I can tell you.”

After the event, he headed to his Trump Virginia golf course where he had lunch with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton, as well as senior aide Stephen Miller and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Priebus had a particularly tough week, after losing his longtime ally and colleague, press secretary Sean Spicer, who resigned after Trump appointed financier Anthony Scaramucci to be his communications director. White House officials said that Priebus fiercely objected to the appointment. One aide and an outside advisor told POLITICO that Priebus has signaled that he may not make the one-year deadline that he has set for his tenure at the White House.

Senior aide Steve Bannon, who also objected to the hiring of Scaramucci, has been laying low, especially since a book by journalist Josh Green appeared to be giving him credit for winning the election for Trump.

When asked at a Friday press conference if Scaramucci will report to his foe Priebus, he said that he will report directly to the president. Special assistant and Trump’s social media guru Dan Scavino seemed to echo those remarks in his own tweet on Saturday morning: “I plan on continuing to serve and report directly to President @realDonaldTrump at the @WhiteHouse, as I’ve done since 1/20/2017.”

Some interpreted both comments as a blow to Priebus, who is the chief of staff.

Meanwhile, Scaramucci has hinted that he will clean out a communications shop that is filled with former Republican National Committee staffers from Priebus’ tenure as chairman, by promising an “audit” on Friday.

Josh Dawsey contributed to the report.

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