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In Democrat-led state capitals, GOP tax reform push could scramble fiscal plans

The Republican tax reform push in Washington is setting off budgetary alarm bells in high-tax states like New York, California and New Jersey, in the latest political skirmish to pit national Republicans against Democratic state and big-city leaders.

With Republicans intent on shrinking or repealing the state and local tax deduction, California officials are worried that the House-passed tax bill, and the emerging Senate measure, would force local governments to reduce taxes and make big cuts to schools and social services. In New York, where New York City and state revenues are heavily reliant on just a handful of wealthy tax filers, budget watchdogs fear federal tax changes could trigger the flight of those residents. And in New Jersey, plans for a new millionaire’s tax, one of incoming Gov. Phil Murphy’s biggest campaign promises, are already being reined in as the Democratic-led New Jersey Senate waits on the outcome of any federal tax plan.

“We’re going to have to re-evaluate everything” if a federal bill repealing the state and local tax deduction becomes law, New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney said Wednesday in Atlantic City. Just days before, Sweeney had said he would make passage of a millionaires tax his chief priority in the new administration. “I’m just saying that what’s happening in Washington is concerning the hell out of me,” he added.

Some national Republicans are reveling in the discomfort their plans are causing in Democratic-led states — and say that those governors and state assemblies should just lower their states’ taxes.

After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that GOP plans could lead wealthy New Yorkers to leave the state, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney responded: “Whose fault is that? … Is it the federal government’s fault that New York taxes are so high that they’re driving people out of the state?” Mulvaney said. “I don’t think it’s up to the federal government to save New York from its bad decisions.”

In Illinois, another high-tax state, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has been relatively quiet on the possible repeal of the state and local deduction, despite pressure from the state’s Democratic senators.

Concerns were heightened this past week after the House approved a sweeping $1.5 trillion tax plan that would all but eliminate the deductibility of state and local income taxes. For leaders in high-tax states, that would mean a rising federal tax burden on many of their highest-earning residents. The tax bill emerging from the Senate would go even further. And while plenty of roadblocks remain, congressional Republican leaders want to secure the long-sought legislative win before the end of the year.

In solidly blue California, Democratic legislators were livid about the impact of the emerging Republican tax bills. Southern California Rep. Ted Lieu fumed that “California will be the biggest loser” from the House bill, since “under this plan, Californians will shoulder the largest net tax increase, at $12.1 billion in 2027.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein charged that “Californians will be hit especially hard by the elimination of the state and local tax deduction, or what we call SALT. The 6 million California households that claim the deduction could either see their tax bill go up or see cuts to vital services like schools and roads.”

The outrage is backed by data: California residents, by far, are the nation’s biggest beneficiaries of the SALT deductions. In 2014 alone, the SALT deductions slashed Californians’ taxable income by a total of $101 billion — more than twice that of second-place New York, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

The repeal of SALT could force an uncomfortable tax discussion for high-tax states: Should they consider lowering tax rates, to alleviate the additional tax burden that the elimination of the deductions creates? Or keep taxes as they are — and run the risk of losing wealthy residents who might move elsewhere to soften their tax burden? And for politicians who’ve called for the politically popular idea of raising taxes on the wealthy, would the SALT repeal force them to backtrack?

Forcing the debate

Officials in California now predict that the GOP tax bill could transfer tax dollars paid by millions of Californians to other states — making it tougher for both the state government and local entities to find the revenue for needed services in the future. That’s especially worrisome for California at a time when the Trump administration and the Republican Congress have already proposed to slash spending on other programs, cuts that would further stress the state’s finances.

By approving a plan to take those deductions away from California taxpayers, “it’s going to make it harder for state and local government over time. In the end, people’s appetites for paying taxes aren’t endless — and if you raise their taxes by taking away their deductions, their willingness to be taxed again to fund cut services is going to be harder,” said Chris Hoene, executive director of the nonpartisan California Budget and Policy Center, which last week issued an analysis of SALT impacts on state finances.

The impact could be particularly large on education, Hoene said. “Certainly, it will have a significant impact on funding education in the future, because the taxes people are paying that are already supporting education will go up,’’ which means “it’s going to make it harder to make a case to pay more for education in the future.”

In New York, some city and state officials are privately saying that an elimination of SALT deductions might not lead to new state-level tax cuts but would almost certainly make any plan to raise taxes on wealthier New Yorkers more difficult. State leaders voted last year on a two-year extension of an already-existing “millionaire’s tax,” and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for another one to help pay for repairs to the city’s crumbling mass-transit system.

“I think it could increase pressure [to lower taxes], but what it certainly will do, I think, is make it a tougher challenge if the city or the state wanted to raise their taxes,” said George Sweeting, deputy director of the city’s nonpartisan Independent Budget Office.

The House and Senate tax bills would hit high-income New Yorkers in different ways, Sweeting said.

“There are certainly some New Yorkers who will do well, even with state and local deductibility reduced,” Sweeting said. “Even within the very high income group, there would be winners and losers. The winners tend to be people involved with private equity, real estate development. The people who earn most of their income from salaries and wages — someone who’s paid a million dollars or more for actually being the CEO of a firm that’s getting a very high wage income, they may not lose, but they definitely don’t do as well as those who rely more on investment income.”

Leaders in the New York State Legislature, who have repeatedly reauthorized extensions of the millionaire’s tax but have never been too keen on the idea of de Blasio’s millionaire’s tax for subway repairs, remained unenthusiastic about the idea on Thursday.

“We’ll see what the Senate does,” said Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, when asked whether the federal tax plan’s passage would magnify concerns he’s already expressed about de Blasio’s millionaire’s tax idea — or halt plans to raise new taxes altogether.

“This is horrible policy for all New Yorkers. As the speaker has noted, there will be devastating ripple effects throughout the state that will negatively impact all taxpayers,” Whyland said.

De Blasio’s proposed millionaire’s tax for the subway, which would impact about 32,000 New York City residents, would increase the city’s highest income tax rate by about half a percentage point, to 4.4 percent from about 3.9 percent, for married couples whose incomes are above $1 million and for individuals who make more than $500,000.

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office wouldn’t say whether the mayor would rethink his call for the tax hike but also argued that the federal government’s plan is tantamount to “double taxation.”

“The federal government is now threatening double taxation and asking for even more at the risk of reducing the local services that people have come to rely on. Our tax dollars should stay in NYC, where they actually work for those paying them,” said de Blasio spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein.

Flight risks

In private, some city budget watchdogs said they worry that the elimination of SALT, especially when combined with potential federal budget cuts to social services programs, could increase pressure on the city government to make up the difference with the city’s own funds. It could also shrink the growth of the city’s tax base, drawing fewer high-earners over time, several officials, speaking on background, told POLITICO.

Cuomo, a Democrat who is up for reelection in 2018 and is positioning himself for a possible 2020 presidential bid, said earlier this month that eliminating deductions for state income taxes, as the new federal plan would do, would cause wealthy New Yorkers to flee the state.

In response, the state and local governments would be forced to raise taxes on the New Yorkers who remain, Cuomo said.

“Even if your federal taxes were to go down … your state tax and property tax will have to go up, because it will hurt the state,” Cuomo told reporters on Nov. 6, on a joint conference call with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “It will hurt our overall revenues, which are already in trouble. It will make this state less competitive for businesses.”

Fiscal watchdogs say the departure of even a relatively small number of high-income New Yorkers could have a massive impact on the state’s tax revenue.

For instance, New Yorkers who make more than $100,000 a year pay 83 percent of personal income tax revenues for the state, while people who earn more than $1 million make up more than 40 percent of personal income tax revenue. And while New York City residents who earn more than $1 million a year make up less than 1 percent of all city taxpayers, those residents together bring in more than $4.2 billion in income tax revenue, or 43.6 percent of all the income tax revenue the city receives.

E.J. McMahon, research director at the nonpartisan Empire Center for Public Policy, said the increase in New Yorkers’ effective tax rate could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a slice of wealthy people weighing whether to spend their golden years in New York or elsewhere.

In 2015, roughly 2,500 people in the state had adjusted gross income of more than $10 million, he said. If just one-tenth of them, or 250 people, decided to leave, it would cost the state $700 million.

“These people pay such a huge proportion of the state’s taxes that you don’t need an exodus, you just need a few hundred more people to decide that they’re gonna go to Jackson Hole, Charleston, Boca Raton, to make a huge difference,” he said. “You’ve given them all the reason in the world to think harder about that.”

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‘I Want This for George’

On December 23, 1990, President George H.W. Bush slept restlessly. The extended Bush family had gathered at Camp David for the holidays as they did every year of his presidency, boosting his spirits, but this year especially, he had a lot on his mind. A ground war in Kuwait looked increasingly likely as Saddam Hussein continued to ignore the warnings of the U.S. and allied nations. It preoccupied Bush, running continuously through his mind. On Christmas Eve morning, he awakened with the remnants of a dream in his head: He was driving into a hotel near a golf course. Across a fence was another golf course, a lesser one. He heard his father, the banker and senator Prescott Bush, was there and went looking for him, finding him in a hotel room just as he remembered him, “big, strong, highly respected.” The two men embraced. “I miss you very much,” the son told his father.

A dozen years later, during Christmastime of 2002, the extended Bush family once again found themselves at Camp David, as President George W. Bush was faced with the possibility of a war with Saddam Hussein, just as his father had been. But while 41 had unconsciously yearned for his father in 1990, 43 had his own father to lean on—and he was right there. As 43 labored to find a diplomatic solution to his standoff with Saddam, he briefed his father on the situation and solicited his view. “You know how tough war is, son,” 41 told him, “and you’ve got to try everything you can to avoid war. But if the man won’t comply, you don’t have any other choice.” The elder Bush’s advice went no further. “[H]e didn’t need to tell me, ‘I hope you’re concerned about the troops,’” 43 said of his father—in one of several interviews the two men gave for my new book on their relationship, The Last Republicans. “He knew me well enough to know that I’d be concerned.”

It was unprecedented. Never before in American history had a president had a father and presidential peer whom he could draw on immediately for counsel. When John Quincy Adams took office in Washington in March 1825, 24 years after his father left office, the decrepit elder Adams, at 89, was in Quincy, Massachusetts, in his last 15 months of life. John Quincy learned of his father’s death days after his passing on July 4, 1826, arriving in Massachusetts just in time for his funeral. “It is among the rarest ingredients of happiness,” he wrote a friend, “to have a father yet living till a son is far advanced in years.” Distance hadn’t allowed the elder Adams to be an active resource for his son during his first year and a quarter in the presidency. But the younger Bush’s father—big, strong, highly respected—was accessible to offer guidance. Regardless, by both Bushes’ accounts, 41’s succinct advice at Camp David was the only time 43 solicited his view on anything of consequence regarding Iraq—and it seemed to belie concerns 41 quietly harbored about a war.

By all inside accounts, George H.W. Bush was first and foremost a loving father during his son’s White House years, refraining from imparting unsolicited advice even as he worried about 43’s administration, especially later as the war in Iraq got mired in mission creep. “I would definitely not characterize 41 as counseling his son in a reproachful way,” said Jim Baker, his former chief of staff and secretary of state. “If he were counseling him, he would say, ‘Are you really sure this is something you want to do?’ Now, I know that 41 thought that some of the advice that 43 was getting in the foreign policy was not the right advice. … But he had the view that, ‘Look, we had our chance; now it’s [his] turn.’” Forty-one also conceded that the world had changed since his administration. “He always said to me, ‘Well, the world was different when I was there,’” 43’s national security adviser and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said. “People who try to say, ‘Well, 41 would have been more circumspect,’ or ‘Jim Baker would have handled it differently’—with al Qaeda having blown up the World Trade Center, really?”

It was in large measure because 41 had been president that he didn’t tender advice more readily. “George Bush knew what it meant to be briefed as president,” 43 said. “He also knew presidents don’t need frivolous, shallow advice: ‘Even though it may not be as informed as your aides’, here’s my opinion …’”

George Bush knew what it meant to be briefed as president,” 43 said. “He also knew presidents don’t need frivolous, shallow advice.”

It was a lesson 43 himself had learned during his father’s presidency. “At one point in time, I said something that was clearly an extra burden,” he recalled, “and he’s not a lasher, but you could just tell by his body language that what I said was clearly unnecessary. And I said to myself, ‘Wow, I’m not going to do that again.’ I just wanted to be part of an environment that [made] him relax.”

Forty-one strove to do the same. Mainly, he played the paternal role of comforter for his son, who explained it this way:

If you’ve been president, you can see the stresses of the job; if you’ve been around a president you can see the stresses of the job. And most of the conversations were between father and son. “Son, how are you doing?” “Aw, I’m doing fine, Dad.” A loving father is one who understands it’s important to comfort in times of stress. To provide love in an environment that frankly is not very loving at times. To be a listener. That’s the crux of the role. … [N]ever before have there been conversations like this between two people who’ve both been president, who love each other. It gave me comfort to talk to someone who knew what I’m going through, to hear, ‘I love you.’ Because of all the people in the country, he knew the pressures of the office. Nobody knows what you’re going through. They just don’t know.

Forty-three allowed that “few are going to believe” that his father’s influence on his presidency wasn’t deeper, adding, “It’s so simple, it’s going to be hard for people to grasp the truth.” He conceded, “the big speculation” about his father’s involvement was “about Iraq.” Indeed, Iraq and Saddam, echoes of his father’s presidency, cast Shakespearean overtones onto 43’s presidency. He stared down the same enemy who had been his father’s chief antagonist—the malevolent dictator who had been driven out of Kuwait by his father and who later plotted to kill his father.

Yet the father had declined to overturn Saddam’s regime to avert the risk of alienating member states in the U.N. coalition and creating “more instability in Iraq,” he said, which would have been “very bad for the neighborhood.” And the son, it would soon become known in 2003, fatefully chose otherwise.

The world was unaware of the conversation that transpired at Camp David between the father and son presidents, but great speculation arose among the public and in the media as to 43’s motivation behind the war. Was he trying to prove something to his father? Or avenge Saddam’s attempted assassination of his father? In September 2002, 43 had played into the latter conjecture by stating of Saddam, “There’s no doubt his hatred is mainly directed at us. … After all, this is a guy that tried to kill my dad at one time.” The statement left many to surmise that 43’s targeting of Saddam was a vendetta.

At the same time, the media speculated that the elder Bush was sending his son a message to abstain from war with Iraq using his friend and former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, as a proxy. On August 15, 2002, Scowcroft, joining a growing chorus of those opposed to the war, rendered his view in a stinging Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined “Don’t Attack Saddam.” In the piece, Scowcroft challenged 43’s rationale for the war by asserting that it would represent a diversion from the war on terror and that Iraq was not linked to al Qaeda in any direct way. Unlike the Gulf War, he contended, international opposition against the war would necessitate “a virtual go-it-alone strategy” that risks “unleashing an Armageddon in the Middle East” and would “seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign.”

Scowcroft said 41 “knew nothing about” the op-ed ahead of time, pointedly sending him a copy as a courtesy at the same time he submitted the piece to the Journal. But he “did seek [41’s] permission to go public with his misgivings,” according to 41’s chief of staff, Jean Becker. “Forty-three would have loved if his dad had said, ‘Put a muzzle on it,’” she said. “But [41] felt, ‘That isn’t fair.’” Scowcroft, he believed, had “earned the right” to express his opinion.

But while 41 had no hand in the content of Scowcroft’s piece, Scowcroft was confident that he saw the war similarly. “I think I know 98 percent of what he thinks about foreign policy,” he said. “I can guess his reaction to most things. Do I think it reflected his view? Yeah. Yeah.” Baker said Scowcroft’s frankness “gave 41 some heartburn,” adding, “in retrospect, [Brent] was right about a lot of it, and I felt the same way, too, but I wasn’t gonna go out there and say it. I didn’t think it was my place.”

“The question people will be asking is, ‘Is this your opinion?’” Bush told his father in a phone conversation after the piece ran. “You don’t need a PhD in political science to know the ramifications. He didn’t do us any favors, Dad!”

“Brent’s a friend,” 41 countered.

“Some friend,” 43 said.

To his staff, Bush raised the question: “Why did [Scowcroft] feel he needed to do [the op-ed] in the first place?” Scowcroft was, after all, the chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, an independent body formed for the express purpose of weighing in on the quality of intelligence that reached the president’s desk. “He’s in my administration, and he communicates to me through an op-ed piece!” 43 vented incredulously to his chief of staff, Andy Card. “Why didn’t he call Condi or [her deputy Stephen] Hadley?”

“It’s an interesting incident reflecting Washington,” 43 said later. “It’s interesting that a former national security adviser to [my dad] would express his opinion, which of course delighted the chatterers. ‘Even Brent Scowcroft can’t believe what’s taking place! [George W. Bush is] clearly captured by the Neocons!’ I can hear it all.”

In the end, Bush chalked up the incident to “how it works inside the Beltway.” Scowcroft became something of a pariah in 43’s White House, even though he had been a mentor to Rice and Hadley and had helped to school Bush on foreign policy during the campaign. But tellingly, Scowcroft’s relationship remained intact with 41 and Barbara, who had pulled away from friends and aides in the past for perceived disloyalty. Forty-one, while largely circumspect in his own views on his son’s administration, would continue to carefully consider those of Scowcroft and Baker, his closest friends and confidants. “They’re very close to George,” Barbara said in 2014, describing her husband and them as “like brothers.”

Ten days after the publication of Scowcroft’s piece, Baker wrote his own op-ed, which appeared in the New York Times on August 25. Less of a rebuke than Scowcroft’s, Baker’s commentary urged the president not to “go it alone” in Iraq, but to “reject the advice of those who counsel doing so” and secure U.N. authority as a means of occupying “the moral high ground.” He warned, “Unless we do it in the right way, there will be costs to other American foreign policy interests, including our relationships with practically all other Arab countries (and even many of our customary allies in Europe and elsewhere) and perhaps even our top foreign policy priority, the war on terrorism.”

Baker’s piece drew less fire than that of Scowcroft, but while it didn’t give 41 “heartburn,” it did, along with Scowcroft’s, give him pause. As Card put it, alluding to Baker and Scowcroft, “I think people around 41 were disappointed” about the path that 43 was taking in Iraq, “which made 41 disappointed.” But 41 reserved judgment. He had faith that his son “made the decisions he thought he should make given the information he had,” Card said. Forty-one also remained largely silent in the media. “What I want to do,” he said, “is support [him], period. And because of that [I don’t] get into the depths of these issues as I might otherwise be inclined.”

The elder Bush lamented the fact that the media tried to “read” his relationship with his son as “some sort of competition.” “It wasn’t. Ever,” he said flatly. “Just love between a father and a son.”

Still, 41 fretted privately about the course his son was charting in Iraq. “I know that [41] was worried about the beating of drums for war, and worried about how Iraq would turn out,” Baker said. “Now, how much of that did he communicate with 43? I’m not privy to that.” There was another thing Baker observed in his longtime friend and former boss: “The one thing that stuck in 41’s craw was when someone would ask, ‘Why didn’t you take care of Saddam Hussein when you had the chance?’”

The answer would come soon enough.


By the waning months of 2003, even before Saddam’s capture, the critics of 43’s actions in Iraq would be vindicated. Rumsfeld’s plan for waging the war had worked, but there was no clear strategy in place for rebuilding the country. The tide turned to a postwar quagmire, unleashing insurgency and stirring up ancient tribal hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects that resulted in terrorism, violence, and political dispute that no one in the administration seemed to anticipate. Chaos swept the country. In October 2003, Time magazine published a cover story titled “Mission Not Accomplished,” as the military operation in Iraq dragged on perniciously and inconclusively. A year later, with the U.S. death toll exceeding 1,000, Time delivered a follow-up feature headlined “Mission Still Not Accomplished,” while Newsweek ran a story titled “It’s Worse Than You Think.” Car bombs, kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide bombs in Iraq became staples of foreign news coverage. By the middle of 2006, an average of 120 Iraqis would be killed daily.

The promise that U.S. troop involvement would diminish after Iraq’s liberation was dashed due to the power vacuum created by the dismantling of the Iraqi Army. There was also the matter of weapons of mass destruction. Though Saddam Hussein had been found, WMDs—the impetus for the war—had not, manifesting a glaring intelligence failure and eroding Bush’s credibility. By 2004, only one in five Americans believed Bush was telling the entire truth about Iraq. Conversely, while Saddam had been toppled to prevent the threat of global terrorism, al Qaeda found Iraq fertile ground for the recruitment and training of terrorists.

The war’s mounting price was also at issue. In September 2002, Bush’s director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Lindsey, guessed the cost of the war to be between $100 to $200 billion, an estimate Rumsfeld called “baloney,” asserting that it would be more like $50 to $60 billion. In fact, five years after the war began, the Washington Post reported that its tally had topped $3 trillion, making it the second-most costly American war after World War II. Finally, there was the unexpectedly high cost in blood: As of 2017, a total of 4,424 American soldiers died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, while another 31,942 were wounded.

Among those who were disquieted about the situation in Iraq was George H. W. Bush. Though he declined to express his concerns to his son, he conveyed anxiety privately about the influence of his former rival Donald Rumsfeld, and the neoconservative Elliott Abrams, whom he had pardoned in his own administration for misdeeds in the Iran-Contra affair, a decision, according to Bush insiders, he came to regret. At the same time, he worried about Colin Powell’s diminished role as secretary of state, as Powell’s more moderate voice on foreign affairs was drowned out by those of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons.

Forty-three harbored his own concern that Powell was sounding off to the 41 camp about his marginalization and lack of presidential access. He also had his own view: It wasn’t that Powell didn’t have access to him, but that he simply “didn’t agree” with him. During the latter days of Bush’s first term, Powell was increasingly at odds with Cheney and Rumsfeld as tension in the White House mounted. Rice and Hadley were put in the middle of the conflict, 43 contended, but “didn’t know how to handle it.” It was no great surprise when Powell stepped down as secretary of state after Bush’s first term, replaced by Rice, who in turn was succeeded as national security adviser by Hadley.

The influence of Cheney on Bush’s presidency took on a life of its own during Bush’s first term. The media often depicted the vice president as a Machiavellian puppet master who pulled the strings on policy decisions, straying from the more moderate path he had tread in 41’s administration and leading 43 down the garden path on Iraqi regime change.

The fact that there was any doubt in anyone’s mind about who the president was blows my mind,” Bush said years later, adding that Cheney and Rumsfeld “didn’t make one fucking decision.”

Cheney’s conservative drift was a matter of some debate. Some chalked it up to his heart condition affecting his mind. Scowcroft, who had known Cheney since the two worked together in the Ford administration 30 years earlier and who went on to work with him in 41’s administration, said in 2006, “I don’t know him anymore. He’s not the same guy.” Cheney, for his part, said in 2013, “I don’t think I changed ideologically. What happened was 9/11 … that was a sobering moment.”

Well after his son had left office, 41 observed that “Cheney had his own empire and marched to his own drummer.” If so, it wasn’t something 41 addressed with his son during his administration. Any feelings 41 had about the matter were outweighed by his confidence in his son and his inherent optimism that everything would turn out all right. He “didn’t worry” about Cheney’s influence on 43’s presidency, he said in 2013. “It’s true,” Barbara Bush confirmed in the same interview, “he didn’t worry about that. He had great faith in George.” Instead, 41 used whatever sway he had with his son to gently question Cheney’s recommendations, not Cheney himself.

“I never talked to him about it,” Cheney reflected. “He never expressed views of it one way or the other. I’ve assumed that 41 and 43 talked about it, but I wasn’t there. … He didn’t come in and say, ‘Dick, you need to do X or Y.’ That just wasn’t his style.” Tellingly, though, 41 said in a 2006 interview that he and Cheney “used to be close,” while he remained more closely connected to other alumni in his administration who were then serving 43.

Barbara Bush was more vocal in her criticisms of Cheney, citing her belief that he had changed discernibly between her husband’s administration and her son’s due to the heart attacks he had suffered. “I think his heart operation made a difference,” she maintained, indicating that her view was largely influenced by Baker and Scowcroft. “I always liked him, but I didn’t like him so much for a while because I thought he hurt George. … I think he pushed things a little too far right.”

The president was aware of his parents’ wariness of the influence of Cheney and the neocons on him. “I’m confident they concerned Dad and Mother,” he said, believing that they, in turn, were influenced by the “inside-the-Beltway chatterers” he grew to disdain. Forty-three was appalled by his mother’s privately stated belief that he was “unduly influenced” by the neocons “clearly steering him to the right.” “Surely, you’ve got more confidence in your son that I would make up my own mind,” he told her on more than one occasion. “If you don’t agree with it, it’s one thing, but I’m plenty capable of making my own decisions.”

Barbara recalled her son’s admonishment. “Mom, when you’re criticizing someone in my administration, you’re criticizing me,” he had said. Afterward, she kept her doubts to herself.

Mom, when you’re criticizing someone in my administration, you’re criticizing me,” Bush said. Afterward, she kept her doubts to herself.

Forty-three was incredulous that anyone—let alone his mother—would believe that he wasn’t the one calling the shots of his presidency. “I hear the voices and I read the front page and I hear the speculation,” an exasperated Bush said in mid-April 2006, as Washington buzzed that he should replace Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. “But I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.” As he put it six years after he left office, “The fact that there was any doubt in anyone’s mind about who the president was blows my mind,” adding that Cheney and Rumsfeld “didn’t make one fucking decision.”

Still, why hadn’t 43 further sought his father’s advice on Iraq? “I was content with the informed advice I was getting,” he said, “and it’s not like I wasn’t getting advice on both sides. … I was getting ample advice, and maybe it didn’t occur to me to ask him because circumstances had changed. He had never been confronted with an issue like 9/11.” Forty-three surmised that his father didn’t openly question his Iraq policy because his “disclose, disarm, or face serious consequences” ultimatum made clear his intention. “A lesson he taught me was, if you say something, you’d better mean it,” said the younger Bush. “And I meant it.”

As the 2004 presidential election neared and 43’s approval rating fell below the 50 percent mark, 41 did offer his son some political advice. Without specifically counseling him to dump Vice President Cheney, he suggested that he might consider “shaking up the ticket” by tapping a new running mate. Forty-three considered it—just as his father had considered his suggestion that he replace Quayle in 1992—but chose Cheney again when he couldn’t think of a better replacement.

But while Cheney would remain Bush’s vice presidential pick, his influence would wane. Throughout the balance of 43’s presidency, as he settled further in the office, the “decider” would move in a decidedly different direction.


On February 21, 2017, George H.W. Bush and Jean Becker, his longtime former chief of staff, had lunch in the Grille, a cozy, elegant dining room at Houston’s Forest Club, next door to Bush’s office on Memorial Drive. Forty-one was now back in good health and good spirits after a bout with pneumonia that had landed him in the hospital for more than two weeks in January.

Less than a week after his release, on February 5, he was well enough to toss the coin at the Super Bowl in Houston’s NRG Stadium, where the former president earned a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 70,000, including Mike Pence, the vice president of just over two weeks. As 41 dug into a prodigious slice of apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream, Becker talked of how beloved he was. “You’ve become an icon,” she would often tell him, and the old man would roll his eyes. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he would say repeatedly, “Let history be the judge.” Now, history’s indebted nod was clear. “I’m glad that the judgment of history has come in your lifetime,” she told him as he enjoyed his dessert.

At that moment, George H.W. Bush’s thoughts were less about his own presidency than that of his eldest son. George W. Bush hadn’t concerned himself with his legacy while he was in the White House, nor did he have illusions that he would see a binding verdict in his lifetime. One of the lessons from his father that helped to guide his decisions in the White House was that “history will ultimately sort things out, so one shouldn’t worry about legacy.” But George H.W. Bush, whose now-lauded presidency was stunted by the verdict of American people, was worried about his son’s legacy.

“What about George?” the 41st president asked Becker plaintively, his heartbeat as palpable as at any point in his 92 years. “I want this for George.”

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U.S. military builds up in land of ‘Black Hawk Down’ disaster

The number of U.S. military forces in Somalia has more than doubled this year to over 500 people as the Pentagon has quietly posted hundreds of additional special operations personnel to advise local forces in pockets of Islamic militants around the country, according to current and former senior military officials.

It is the largest American military contingent in the war-torn nation since the the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle, when 18 U.S. soldiers died. It is also the latest example of how the Pentagon’s operations in Africa have expanded with greater authority provided to field commanders.

The growing Somalia mission, coming more fully to light after four American troops were killed in an ambush in Niger last month, also includes two new military headquarters in the capital of Mogadishu and stepped-up airstrikes. It’s driven by a major shift in strategy from primarily relying on targeted strikes against terrorists to advising and supporting Somali troops in the field, the officials said.

The new operations also come as a peacekeeping mission spearheaded by the African Union is winding down. That is putting more pressure on the fledgling Somali security forces to confront al-Shabab, a terrorist army allied with Al Qaeda that plays the role of a quasi-government in significant parts of the country.

“We had to put more small teams on the ground to partner in a regional way with the Somali government,” retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who commanded American special operations forces in Africa until June, said in an interview. “So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach. That’s why the footprint went up.”

The expansion, which was also outlined by officials at U.S. Africa Command, includes deploying Green Berets and Navy SEALs to far-flung outposts to target the al-Shabab insurgency and a group of militants in the northern region of Puntland who last year pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The deployment of a special operations adviser team to Puntland alongside Somali troops has served as a model for the broader expansion of the mission.

“Puntland was the example we used,” Bolduc said. “We said, ‘We can do this in the other areas.’ So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach.”

Also, in a move not previously reported, a SEAL headquarters unit has deployed to Mogadishu from Germany to coordinate the adviser teams that are spread across the country. And in a separate move, trainers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division spent the summer working with Somali troops at the fortified airport complex in Mogadishu. That deployment has since ended, but troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division will perform a similar mission next year, a spokesman for the headquarters overseeing Army activities in Africa said.

To oversee the expanded operation, the Pentagon has also sent a general for the first time: Army Brig. Gen. Miguel Castellanos, a veteran of the 1990s peacekeeping mission in Somali who took charge in June of a unit called the Mogadishu Coordination Cell.

At the same time, more airstrikes are being conducted than ever before to kill militant leaders and to defend the American advisers and their African allies. Those include one conducted Saturday 250 miles from Mogadishu that Africa Command said killed a militant after he attacked a convoy of U.S. and Somali troops.

Some of the strikes have been conducted under new authorities that the Trump administration approved in March. It declared parts of Somalia a zone of “active hostilities” akin to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and delegated the authority to approve airstrikes further down the chain of command.

In all, according to Africa Command, the U.S. has conducted 28 airstrikes in Somalia this year, nine of them this month. That’s compared to 13 airstrikes and ground raids that the Pentagon announced last year and just five strikes and raids in 2015, according to numbers compiled by the New America Foundation.

The more expansive military effort contrasts with the tiny and secretive U.S. military mission over the past decade headed by the classified Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s main counterterrorism force. JSOC drone strikes reportedly began in Somalia in 2011, and two dozen special operations troops started working as advisers in late 2013.

But the small American contingent was confined mostly to Mogadishu and the Baledogle military airfield in southern Somalia — except during short-duration missions farther afield.

“It was something like 100 people on the ground essentially being the intel and targeting apparatus” for counterterrorism strikes, said an active-duty special operations officer who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity while discussing sensitive operations.

Officially, the Pentagon disputes that the recent increase in troops constitutes a major buildup of forces.

“I would not associate that with a buildup, as you’re calling it,” said Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, referring to the troop increase. “I think it’s just the flow of forces in and out as different organizations come in that might be sized a little differently, and I certainly don’t think there’s a ramp-up of attacks.”

A spokesperson for Africa Command, Robyn Mack, told POLITICO that the U.S. presence has increased from around 200 to more than 500 this year.

The larger “advise and assist mission,” she explained, is now “the most significant element of our partnership” in Somalia.

The increased presence has not been without controversy inside national security circles, according to multiple people who have been directly involved in the decisions.

Prominent in the discussions has been the recent history of Somalia, which has been wracked by a series of civil wars over the past quarter-century. But the legacy of JSOC’s ill-fated man-hunting mission in support of the U.N. peacekeepers in 1993 — in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and a pilot captured — has long made American and Somali officials wary of deeper U.S. military involvement.

“Everybody defaults to ‘Black Hawk Down’ and what happened in Somalia in 1993,” said Bolduc, the former commander of special operations forces in Africa.

“That was a real concern when I was working on Somalia policy at the Pentagon and the White House,” added Luke Hartig, who worked on counterterrorism operations at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “Some military people would say, ‘We’ve evolved a lot as a force, we’ve done these raids every night in Iraq and Afghanistan and can mitigate risk in a way we couldn’t in 1993.’ But it is still one of the real catastrophes of U.S. military operations in the past couple decades.”

Nonetheless, most military and counterterrorism officials agreed that air and drone strikes and other pinpoint operations were deemed insufficient to prevent Somalia from becoming a terrorist haven.

“We came to the realization that trying to handle the threat in Somalia just kinetically was not going to work,” Bolduc said. “Taking out high-value targets is necessary, but it’s not going to lead you to strategic success, and it’s not going to build capability and capacity in our partners to secure themselves. So we provided a plan that complemented the kinetic strikes” with a larger military advisory effort.

The arrival of the Trump administration also gave the military an opportunity to make its case to a more receptive audience, the active-duty special operations officer, who had knowledge of the strategy review, told POLITICO.

“It wasn’t, ‘Oh, thank God, new president, new party, now we can go kick ass,’ but there were opportunities with the change in the political situation,” he said.

An equally important factor, Bolduc said, was the Obama administration’s appointment last year of Stephen Schwartz as ambassador in Mogadishu. Schwartz is the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since before the Black Hawk Down battle and is credited with laying the groundwork with the Somali government, he explained.

But with the stepped-up U.S. military effort also comes greater risk. A member of SEAL Team 6 was killed during one such mission in May.

“Do we get into contact with the enemy? Yes, we do — our partners do and we’re there to support it, and sometimes we come into contact by virtue of how the enemy attacked them,” Bolduc said. “The benchmark that we used in our planning was that U.S. forces coming into contact with the enemy was unlikely. We met that standard most of the time.”

However, Hartig, the former counterterrorism official who also helped craft the new strategy, said he worries about special operations troops getting involved too deeply in rural regions with complex tribal politics. That’s a problem that has plagued U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

“Somalia’s incredibly complex human terrain, and you want to be sure you know what you’re getting into,” he said. “Some of the special operations guys do know a lot about Somalia, but we haven’t previously had people on the ground out in the communities.”

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The Hidden History of Trump’s First Trip to Moscow

It was 1984 and General Vladimir Alexandrovich Kryuchkov had a problem. The general occupied one of the KGB’s most exalted posts. He was head of the First Chief Directorate, the prestigious KGB arm responsible for gathering foreign intelligence.

Kryuchkov had begun his career with five years at the Soviet mission in Budapest under Ambassador Yuri Andropov. In 1967 Andropov became KGB chairman. Kryuchkov went to Moscow, took up a number of sensitive posts, and established a reputation as a devoted and hardworking officer. By 1984, Kryuchkov’s directorate in Moscow was bigger than ever before—12,000 officers, up from about 3,000 in the 1960s. His headquarters at Yasenevo, on the wooded southern outskirts of the city, was expanding: Workmen were busy constructing a 22-story annex and a new 11-story building.

In politics, change was in the air. Soon a new man would arrive in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s policy of detente with the West—a refreshing contrast to the global confrontation of previous general secretaries—meant the directorate’s work abroad was more important than ever.

Kryuchkov faced several challenges. First, a hawkish president, Ronald Reagan, was in power in Washington. The KGB regarded his two predecessors, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, as weak. By contrast Reagan was seen as a potent adversary. The directorate was increasingly preoccupied with what it believed—wrongly—was an American plot to conduct a preemptive nuclear strike against the USSR.

It was around this time that Donald Trump appears to have attracted the attention of Soviet intelligence. How that happened, and where that relationship began, is an answer hidden somewhere in the KGB’s secret archives. Assuming, that is, that the documents still exist.

Trump’s first visit to Soviet Moscow in 1987 looks, with hindsight, to be part of a pattern. The dossier by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele asserts that the Kremlin had been cultivating Trump for “at least five years” before his stunning victory in the 2016 US presidential election. This would take us back to around 2011 or 2012.

In fact, the Soviet Union was interested in him too, three decades earlier. The top level of the Soviet diplomatic service arranged his 1987 Moscow visit. With assistance from the KGB. It took place while Kryuchkov was seeking to improve the KGB’s operational techniques in one particular and sensitive area. The spy chief wanted KGB staff abroad to recruit more Americans.

In addition to shifting politics in Moscow, Kryuchkov’s difficulty had to do with intelligence gathering. The results from KGB officers abroad had been disappointing. Too often they would pretend to have obtained information from secret sources. In reality, they had recycled material from newspapers or picked up gossip over lunch with a journalist. Too many residencies had “paper agents” on their books: targets for recruitment who had nothing to do with real intelligence.

Kryuchkov sent out a series of classified memos to KGB heads of station. Oleg Gordievsky—formerly based in Denmark and then in Great Britain—copied them and passed them to British intelligence. He later co-published them with the historian Christopher Andrew under the title Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations 1975–1985.

In January 1984 Kryuchkov addressed the problem during a biannual review held in Moscow, and at a special conference six months later. The urgent subject: how to improve agent recruitment. The general urged his officers to be more “creative.” Previously they had relied on identifying candidates who showed ideological sympathy toward the USSR: leftists, trade unionists and so on. By the mid-1980s these were not so many. So KGB officers should “make bolder use of material incentives”: money. And use flattery, an important tool.

The Center, as KGB headquarters was known, was especially concerned about its lack of success in recruiting US citizens, according to Andrew and Gordievsky. The PR Line—that is, the Political Intelligence Department stationed in KGB residencies abroad—was given explicit instructions to find “U.S. targets to cultivate or, at the very least, official contacts.” “The main effort must be concentrated on acquiring valuable agents,” Kryuchkov said.

The memo—dated February 1, 1984—was to be destroyed as soon as its contents had been read. It said that despite improvements in “information gathering,” the KGB “has not had great success in operation against the main adversary [America].”

One solution was to make wider use of “the facilities of friendly intelligence services”—for example, Czechoslovakian or East German spy networks.

And: “Further improvement in operational work with agents calls for fuller and wider utilisation of confidential and special unofficial contacts. These should be acquired chiefly among prominent figures in politics and society, and important representatives of business and science.” These should not only “supply valuable information” but also “actively influence” a country’s foreign policy “in a direction of advantage to the USSR.”

There were, of course, different stages of recruitment. Typically, a case officer would invite a target to lunch. The target would be classified as an “official contact.” If the target appeared responsive, he (it was rarely she) would be promoted to a “subject of deep study,” an obyekt razrabotki. The officer would build up a file, supplemented by official and covert material. That might include readouts from conversations obtained through bugging by the KGB’s technical team.

The KGB also distributed a secret personality questionnaire, advising case officers what to look for in a successful recruitment operation. In April 1985 this was updated for “prominent figures in the West.” The directorate’s aim was to draw the target “into some form of collaboration with us.” This could be “as an agent, or confidential or special or unofficial contact.”

The form demanded basic details—name, profession, family situation, and material circumstances. There were other questions, too: what was the likelihood that the “subject could come to power (occupy the post of president or prime minister)”? And an assessment of personality. For example: “Are pride, arrogance, egoism, ambition or vanity among subject’s natural characteristics?”

The most revealing section concerned kompromat. The document asked for: “Compromising information about subject, including illegal acts in financial and commercial affairs, intrigues, speculation, bribes, graft … and exploitation of his position to enrich himself.” Plus “any other information” that would compromise the subject before “the country’s authorities and the general public.” Naturally the KGB could exploit this by threatening “disclosure.”

Finally, “his attitude towards women is also of interest.” The document wanted to know: “Is he in the habit of having affairs with women on the side?”

When did the KGB open a file on Donald Trump? We don’t know, but Eastern Bloc security service records suggest this may have been as early as 1977. That was the year when Trump married Ivana Zelnickova, a twenty-eight-year-old model from Czechoslovakia. Zelnickova was a citizen of a communist country. She was therefore of interest both to the Czech intelligence service, the StB, and to the FBI and CIA.

During the Cold War, Czech spies were known for their professionalism. Czech and Hungarian officers were typically used in espionage actions abroad, especially in the United States and Latin America. They were less obvious than Soviet operatives sent by Moscow.

Zelnickova was born in Zlin, an aircraft manufacturing town in Moravia. Her first marriage was to an Austrian real estate agent. In the early 1970s she moved to Canada, first to Toronto and then to Montreal, to be with a ski instructor boyfriend. Exiting Czechoslovakia during this period was, the files said, “incredibly difficult.” Zelnickova moved to New York. In April 1977 she married Trump.

According to files in Prague, declassified in 2016, Czech spies kept a close eye on the couple in Manhattan. (The agents who undertook this task were code-named Al Jarza and Lubos.) They opened letters sent home by Ivana to her father, Milos, an engineer. Milos was never an agent or asset. But he had a functional relationship with the Czech secret police, who would ask him how his daughter was doing abroad and in return permit her visits home. There was periodic surveillance of the Trump family in the United States. And when Ivana and Donald Trump, Jr., visited Milos in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, further spying, or “cover.”

Like with other Eastern Bloc agencies, the Czechs would have shared their intelligence product with their counterparts in Moscow, the KGB. Trump may have been of interest for several reasons. One, his wife came from Eastern Europe. Two—at a time after 1984 when the Kremlin was experimenting with perestroika, or Communist Party reform—Trump had a prominent profile as a real estate developer and tycoon. According to the Czech files, Ivana mentioned her husband’s growing interest in politics. Might Trump at some stage consider a political career?

The KGB wouldn’t invite someone to Moscow out of altruism. Dignitaries flown to the USSR on expenses-paid trips were typically left-leaning writers or cultural figures. The state would expend hard currency; the visitor would say some nice things about Soviet life; the press would report these remarks, seeing in them a stamp of approval.

Despite Gorbachev’s policy of engagement, he was still a Soviet leader. The KGB continued to view the West with deep suspicion. It carried on with efforts to subvert Western institutions and acquire secret sources, with NATO its No. 1 strategic intelligence target.

At this point it is unclear how the KGB regarded Trump. To become a full KGB agent, a foreigner had to agree to two things. (An “agent” in a Russian or British context was a secret intelligence source.) One was “conspiratorial collaboration.” The other was willingness to take KGB instruction.

According to Andrew and Gordievsky’s book Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions, targets who failed to meet these criteria were classified as “confidential contacts.” The Russian word was doveritelnaya svyaz. The aspiration was to turn trusted contacts into full-blown agents, an upper rung of the ladder.

As Kryuchkov explained, KGB residents were urged to abandon “stereotyped methods” of recruitment and use more flexible strategies—if necessary getting their wives or other family members to help.

As Trump tells it, the idea for his first trip to Moscow came after he found himself seated next to the Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin. This was in autumn 1986; the event was a luncheon held by Leonard Lauder, the businessman son of Estée Lauder. Dubinin’s daughter Natalia “had read about Trump Tower and knew all about it,” Trump said in his 1987 bestseller, The Art of the Deal.

Trump continued: “One thing led to another, and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel, across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government.”

Trump’s chatty version of events is incomplete. According to Natalia Dubinina, the actual story involved a more determined effort by the Soviet government to seek out Trump. In February 1985 Kryuchkov complained again about “the lack of appreciable results of recruitment against the Americans in most Residencies.” The ambassador arrived in New York in March 1986. His original job was Soviet ambassador to the U.N.; his daughter Dubinina was already living in the city with her family, and she was part of the Soviet U.N. delegation.

Dubinin wouldn’t have answered to the KGB. And his role wasn’t formally an intelligence one. But he would have had close contacts with the power apparatus in Moscow. He enjoyed greater trust than other, lesser ambassadors.

Dubinina said she picked up her father at the airport. It was his first time in New York City. She took him on a tour. The first building they saw was Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, she told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. Dubinin was so excited he decided to go inside to meet the building’s owner. They got into the elevator. At the top, Dubinina said, they met Trump.

The ambassador—“fluent in English and a brilliant master of negotiations”—charmed the busy Trump, telling him: “The first thing I saw in the city is your tower!”

Dubinina said: “Trump melted at once. He is an emotional person, somewhat impulsive. He needs recognition. And, of course, when he gets it he likes it. My father’s visit worked on him [Trump] like honey to a bee.”

This encounter happened six months before the Estée Lauder lunch. In Dubinina’s account she admits her father was trying to hook Trump. The man from Moscow wasn’t a wide-eyed rube but a veteran diplomat who served in France and Spain, and translated for Nikita Khrushchev when he met with Charles de Gaulle at the Elysée Palace in Paris. He had seen plenty of impressive buildings. Weeks after his first Trump meeting, Dubinin was named Soviet ambassador to Washington.

Dubinina’s own role is interesting. According to a foreign intelligence archive smuggled to the West, the Soviet mission to the U.N. was a haven for the KGB and GRU (Soviet military intelligence). Many of the 300 Soviet nationals employed at the U.N. secretariat were Soviet intelligence officers working undercover, including as personal assistants to secretary-generals. The Soviet U.N. delegation had greater success in finding agents and gaining political intelligence than the KGB’s New York residency.

Dubinin’s other daughter, Irina, said that her late father—he died in 2013—was on a mission as ambassador. This was, she said, to make contact with America’s business elite. For sure, Gorbachev’s Politburo was interested in understanding capitalism. But Dubinin’s invitation to Trump to visit Moscow looks like a classic cultivation exercise, which would have had the KGB’s full support and approval.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump writes: “In January 1987, I got a letter from Yuri Dubinin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, that began: ‘It is a pleasure for me to relay some good news from Moscow.’ It went on to say that the leading Soviet state agency for international tourism, Goscomintourist, had expressed interest in pursuing a joint venture to construct and manage a hotel in Moscow.”

There were many ambitious real estate developers in the United States—why had Moscow picked Trump?

According to Viktor Suvorov—a former GRU military spy—and others, the KGB ran Intourist, the agency to which Trump referred. It functioned as a subsidiary KGB branch. Initiated in 1929 by Stalin, Intourist was the Soviet Union’s official state travel agency. Its job was to vet and monitor all foreigners coming into the Soviet Union. “In my time it was KGB,” Suvorov said. “They gave permission for people to visit.” The KGB’s first and second directorates routinely received lists of prospective visitors to the country based on their visa applications.

As a GRU operative, Suvorov was personally involved in recruitment, albeit for a rival service to the KGB. Soviet spy agencies were always interested in cultivating “young ambitious people,” he said—an upwardly mobile businessman, a scientist, a “guy with a future.”

Once in Moscow, they would receive lavish hospitality. “Everything is free. There are good parties with nice girls. It could be a sauna and girls and who knows what else.” The hotel rooms or villa were under “24-hour control,” with “security cameras and so on,” Suvorov said. “The interest is only one. To collect some information and keep that information about him for the future.”

These dirty-tricks operations were all about the long term, Suvorov said. The KGB would expend effort on visiting students from the developing world, not least Africa. After 10 or 20 years, some of them would be “nobody.” But others would have risen to positions of influence in their own countries.

Suvorov explained: “It’s at this point you say: ‘Knock, knock! Do you remember the marvelous time in Moscow? It was a wonderful evening. You were so drunk. You don’t remember? We just show you something for your good memory.’”

Over in the communist German Democratic Republic, one of Kryuchkov’s 34-year-old officers—one Vladimir Putin—was busy trying to recruit students from Latin America. Putin arrived in Dresden in August 1985, together with his pregnant wife, Lyudmila, and one-year-old daughter, Maria. They lived in a KGB apartment block.

According to the writer Masha Gessen, one of Putin’s tasks was to try to befriend foreigners studying at the Dresden University of Technology. The hope was that, if recruited, the Latin Americans might work in the United States as undercover agents, reporting back to the Center. Putin set about this together with two KGB colleagues and a retired Dresden policeman.

Precisely what Putin did while working for the KGB’s First Directorate in Dresden is unknown. It may have included trying to recruit Westerners visiting Dresden on business and East Germans with relatives in the West. Putin’s efforts, Gessen suggests, were mostly a failure. He did manage to recruit a Colombian student. Overall his operational results were modest.

By January 1987, Trump was closer to the “prominent person” status of Kryuchkov’s note. Dubinin deemed Trump interesting enough to arrange his trip to Moscow. Another thirtysomething U.S.-based Soviet diplomat, Vitaly Churkin—the future U.N. ambassador—helped put it together. On July 4, 1987, Trump flew to Moscow for the first time, together with Ivana and Lisa Calandra, Ivana’s Italian-American assistant.

Moscow was, Trump wrote, “an extraordinary experience.” The Trumps stayed in Lenin’s suite at the National Hotel, at the bottom of Tverskaya Street, near Red Square. Seventy years earlier, in October 1917, Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had spent a week in room 107. The hotel was linked to the glass-and-concrete Intourist complex next door and was— in effect—under KGB control. The Lenin suite would have been bugged.

Meanwhile, the mausoleum containing the Bolshevik leader’s embalmed corpse was a short walk away. Other Soviet leaders were interred beneath the Kremlin’s wall in a communist pantheon: Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov—Kryuchkov’s old mentor—and Dzerzhinsky.

According to The Art of the Deal, Trump toured “a half dozen potential sites for a hotel, including several near Red Square.” “I was impressed with the ambition of Soviet officials to make a deal,” he writes. He also visited Leningrad, later St. Petersburg. A photo shows Donald and Ivana standing in Palace Square—he in a suit, she in a red polka dot blouse with a string of pearls. Behind them are the Winter Palace and the state Hermitage museum.

That July the Soviet press wrote enthusiastically about the visit of a foreign celebrity. This was Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist and journalist. Pravda featured a long conversation between the Colombian guest and Gorbachev. García Márquez spoke of how South Americans, himself included, sympathized with socialism and the USSR. Moscow brought García Márquez over for a film festival.

Trump’s visit appears to have attracted less attention. There is no mention of him in Moscow’s Russian State Library newspaper archive. (Either his visit went unreported or any articles featuring it have been quietly removed.) Press clippings do record a visit by a West German official and an Indian cultural festival.

The KGB’s private dossier on Trump, by contrast, would have gotten larger. The agency’s multipage profile would have been enriched with fresh material, including anything gleaned via eavesdropping.

Nothing came of the trip—at least nothing in terms of business opportunities inside Russia. This pattern of failure would be repeated in Trump’s subsequent trips to Moscow. But Trump flew back to New York with a new sense of strategic direction. For the first time he gave serious indications that he was considering a career in politics. Not as mayor or governor or senator.

Trump was thinking about running for president.

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Moore harassment scandal spreads to 2018 battle for Congress

Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct scandal is metastasizing beyond Alabama into the 2018 battle for Congress.

Democrats have quickly seized on accusations that the Republican Senate hopeful assaulted and harassed teenage girls, trying to lash other GOP hopefuls to the reeling Alabama candidate and use the outcry to raise money.

“This is precisely what we’ve warned about when discussing the importance of election-quality candidates in GOP primaries,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The opposition will ascribe their liabilities to candidates all across the country.”

Democrats are hardly irreproachable on the sexual harassment issue. The allegation Thursday that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) forcibly kissed a woman against her will a decade ago could complicate attempts to use Moore against other Republicans. Franken now faces a likely ethics investigation into his conduct, and a slew of Democrats have donated campaign cash from Franken’s leadership PAC to charity.

But the alleged sins of Moore — accused of engaging in unwanted contact, sexual and otherwise, with teenagers as a single man in his 30s — appear to be in a different category. And other Republicans are being asked to answer for them.

The Moore situation presents a complicated choice for Republican candidates facing tough 2018 primaries: Side with Moore and risk that suburban swing voters will think you’re defending a pedophile, or call for him to drop out and risk hard-core conservative voters believing you’re buying into a liberal witch hunt. And while Democratic strategists say they don’t expect Moore himself to be a central plank of any candidate’s 2018 campaign six months from now, they are working to ensure the overall Republican brand is associated with Moore more broadly as a way of tarnishing it early in the cycle.

While national Democrats want to avoid the appearance of diving into the race in deep-red Alabama, the party has used the Moore accusations to attack candidates including Ohio Senate hopeful Josh Mandel, Arizona Rep. Martha McSally and South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton. All three were criticized for refusing to take sides on whether Moore should drop out of the race.

“You can say we didn’t respond,” a Mandel spokeswoman initially told The Associated Press.

By Thursday, Mandel had come to a decision. “I agree with @IvankaTrump. If these allegations are true, Roy Moore must step down,” he wrote on Twitter.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee still hasn’t commented on the allegations against Moore, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer repeatedly declared during a news conference last week at the Capitol that it was an “Alabama race.”

But American Bridge, the Democratic opposition research group, has been more aggressive. It released digital ads attacking Mandel, McSally and Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller. “What does Josh Mandel have to say about his party’s nominee?” the ad asks of the Senate candidate, after showing clips of local news coverage of the Moore scandal.

Meanwhile, local reporters are pressing Republican candidates for their stances on Moore. While Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, a candidate for Senate, drew headlines for his decision last week to investigate Google, local reporters also took the opportunity to ask him about Moore. Hawley said Moore should step aside “if these allegations are true.”

“I’m a lawyer,” he said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I don’t take anything that I read in the newspaper at face value on either side — from anybody. Facts are often complicated. I don’t know what the facts are in this case, but Judge Moore does.”

Democrats have also issued statements attacking other Republicans — including Virginia’s Corey Stewart, Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita and California Rep. Darrell Issa — for failing to condemn Moore.

“This is smart psychological warfare that both parties implement to force the other side off message,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker. “The longer Moore stays in the race, the worse it gets for the GOP. Ironically, the worst-case scenario for Senate Republicans is if Moore actually wins and they are stuck with an alleged sexual predator and pedophile in their conference.”

Democrats are also using the situation to raise their own campaign cash. Both Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke have sent out a string of fundraising emails about Moore in recent days, denouncing their opponents’ ties to the Alabamian.

“Corey Stewart, who wants to represent all Virginians in the Senate, believes that Roy Moore’s disgusting and predatory behavior should not be condemned,” Kaine’s digital director told his backers in a Monday fundraising email, referring to the former Trump Virginia campaign chairman who is challenging Kaine.

“It’s not that complicated, Ted Cruz: We’re talking about potentially elevating a man who preyed on young girls to the U.S. Senate,” added the campaign team for O’Rourke, who is challenging Cruz, on Friday. Cruz has since rescinded his Moore endorsement.

In a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 63 percent of registered voters nationwide said Moore should drop out and just 23 percent said he should stay in the race. Among Republicans, the divide is much smaller: 42 percent said Moore should drop out, while 38 percent said he should stay in. Thirty-one percent of Republicans approve of how GOP leaders have handled the accusations, while 29 percent disapprove.

The Moore situation has also inflamed tensions between the establishment and activist wings of the GOP. For mainstream Republicans, one man alone is responsible for the Moore mess: former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who endorsed him late in the race and has emerged as a key backer of right-wing GOP candidates running anti-McConnell campaigns.

“Steve Bannon needs GOP chaos in order for his business model to work,” Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Chris Pack said. “Without it, Bannon couldn’t afford to fly around the country in private jets with a 24-7 security detail.” (Senate Leadership Fund previously downplayed Bannon’s role in Moore’s campaign.)

A Republican strategist aligned with Bannon, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, noted that Bannon didn’t know about the allegations against Moore during the primary campaign — and neither did establishment Republicans, who spent millions researching and attacking him. Bannon’s wing of the party also blames establishment Republicans for attacking Rep. Mo Brooks in the first round of the primary, forcing Sen. Luther Strange into a race against Moore that they argue Strange was destined to lose.

The situation is even more awkward for Bannon-aligned Republicans. Some, including Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Senate candidates Kevin Nicholson of Wisconsin and Matt Rosendale of Montana, have suggested Moore should drop out of the race.

But another member of Bannon’s army of insurgents, Nevada’s Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller in the GOP primary, has said he doesn’t think Moore should leave the contest.

“I’m deeply troubled by the character assassination campaign now being directed at Judge Roy Moore in the Alabama U.S. Senate race,” Tarkanian said. “People have every reason to be skeptical about the timing and nature of these attacks, especially with reported media payoffs and partisan attack dogs involved.”

That drew a sharp rebuke from Heller’s campaign.

“This is the worst moment in Danny Tarkanian’s sad political career,” spokesman Keith Schipper said.

Holmes and other establishment Republicans, meanwhile, argue this is just the beginning of the party’s Bannon-induced headaches.

“His first candidate was a pedophile. It doesn’t really get worse,” Holmes said. “If Moore serves in the U.S. Senate, who knows where it will go.”

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Gillibrand remark on Clinton sends shockwaves through Democratic Party

NEW YORK — Kirsten Gillibrand is having a moment, whether she meant to or not.

Going where no other prominent Democrat had before on Thursday evening by declaring that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the New York senator and potential 2020 presidential contender yet again found herself the face of a national conversation with the potential to dominate headlines and divide her party.

At a time Democrats are desperate to keep the focus on accusations against President Donald Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Gillibrand’s stand shocked even some of her close allies. They had no inkling that she was planning to make news — let alone news that would invite questions about her own ties to a political power family that has dominated her party’s consciousness for nearly three decades.

The comment also put new, awkward distance between two women whose careers have been politically intertwined since Gillibrand — then a second-term House member — took over Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat upon her ascension to the State Department in 2009.

Yet it allowed Gillibrand to act as the tip of the spear on a position that many Democrats suspect will slowly become more popular in the party.

The longtime Clinton ally’s answer to The New York Times’ question neatly encapsulated how Gillibrand has placed herself front and center on the dominant issue of the day, even if it forces a debate her own party is uncomfortable confronting. And it highlighted the political dexterity that her critics and rivals often deride as opportunism: A former conservative Blue Dog House member, Gillibrand has reinvented herself as a leading progressive and face of the Trump resistance ahead of a potential presidential run.

“I admire her for speaking out and for being really honest and blunt and brutal about it, even when it comes to Democrats and even when it comes to President Clinton,” said longtime Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, a former Hillary Clinton aide.

But, Cardona said, Gillibrand’s fight is far from a straightforward one even within the party: “President Clinton is beloved.”

Gillibrand’s comments in a New York Times podcast interview came as a surprise even to people close to her, according to multiple Democrats in her tight political circles. Asked whether Clinton should have stepped down, the senator paused and responded, “Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.”

However, she then pointed to the difference between the late 1990s and now, highlighting the dramatically changed social and political environments.

“Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances, there should be a very different reaction. And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him,” she said.

Gillibrand tried to pivot to safer ground, pointing to the many accusations of sexual misconduct directed at Trump. But Clinton’s allies were unimpressed. Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton’s spokesmen had any response, but much of their political circles were buzzing with confusion over Gillibrand’s statement. They speculated about whether her intention was to distance herself from the Clintons ahead of a 2020 presidential run, or whether she had misspoken.

A handful of aides to both Clintons declined to comment for this story, citing the political danger of weighing in on such a delicate matter between influential figures in the party. But Philippe Reines — a longtime aide to the former secretary of state — lashed out at Gillibrand on Twitter.

“Ken Starr spent $70 million on a consensual blowjob,” he wrote, referring to the investigation into Bill Clinton. “Senate voted to keep [President Clinton]. But not enough for you @SenGillibrand? Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”

The message was later retweeted by former Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala after a reporter pointed it out.

“The problem with adding Bill Clinton to these things is you were implying that there was no consequence, that nothing happened — there’s arguably no one in American political history who has gone through a greater scrutiny of their personal life when they were in office,” Reines subsequently told POLITICO on Friday.

“You might not like what [Clinton] did, but the idea that he got away with something in the context of what’s being discussed now is a little absurd, and I don’t think [Gillibrand] was trying to do anything, but for her to allow it to be put in the context of a Roy Moore is not right,” he added

Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate candidate, was accused of pursuing — and in two cases assaulting — minors.

But the remark put the spotlight on New York, not Alabama.

Gillibrand and Clinton were never close personal friends — 20 years separate them in age, and they never served in the same legislative body. But a range of Democratic operatives have worked for both of them, and Gillibrand has appeared repeatedly in public and private events with both Clintons, including during the 2016 campaign.

The Republican National Committee was quick to note that fact in an attempt to further isolate Gillibrand on Friday.

The blowup lands at a politically sensitive time for the senator, who is regarded as a potential top-tier presidential candidate should she decide to run in 2020 — as many of her donors and political allies expect. The New Yorker often deflects questions about a presidential bid by pointing to her 2018 reelection campaign, but she is unlikely to face any serious opposition then.

Gillibrand has been positioning herself as a leader of the national resistance to Trump’s administration ever since the women’s marches in January and her subsequent votes against nearly every one of the president’s high-profile Cabinet nominees.

Now, one of her signature issues, combating sexual harassment, is at the forefront of the national discussion, making her a natural voice to emerge from the scrum.

Gillibrand has been introducing versions of a military sexual assault bill since 2013 while also pushing campus sexual assault legislation. And she introduced another bill to reform Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment complaint procedure just this week.

Her political work has also focused primarily on elevating women in recent years.

She has helped raise over $6 million for female candidates since 2011, said an aide. And on Friday, her PAC announced it would take the unusual step of backing Marie Newman, a challenger to sitting Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who has long been criticized by Democrats for his views on abortion.

Before the Times interview on Friday, Gillibrand became one of the first Democrats to condemn the behavior of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who was accused of groping a fellow entertainer when he was a comedian. She promised to send his $12,500 worth of donations to her to Protect Our Defenders, a group that combats military sexual assault.

“One of the things that I have always loved about Senator Gillibrand is that she has never shied away from tough subjects,” said her pollster, Jefrey Pollock. “Listening [to] and hearing [about] suffering is what drives her to action.”

Gillibrand’s remarks have put other Democrats in the uncomfortable position of being asked about their former president at a time when they — and she — would prefer to be putting pressure on the GOP over Moore and Trump himself.

Even some Democrats who are close to Gillibrand were wary of defending her remarks outright on Friday. Placing the former president in the same conversation as others like Trump, Moore and Harvey Weinstein is not fair, they maintain.

“I think we should not get careless in the process of judging and lumping things together that — although they are indefensible on one level — do not rise to the level of some of the things we’re hearing about today,” said Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County Democratic Party chairman who led New York’s Democratic Party during Gillibrand’s first three years as a senator.

But, he said, “I think Kirsten Gillibrand doing what she’s doing to promote what I’ll call the cleaning up of the workplace is a good thing.”

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Trump’s Tweets Are Hurting Him With the Voters He Needs Most

It seems that virtually every day Donald Trump and his administration are embroiled in a new fiasco. The Mueller investigation is ongoing, indictments are coming out, and the president can’t help himself from picking fights on Twitter. His targets run the gamut, from the New York Times and CNN, to NFL players and ESPN hosts. There’s even friendly fire directed at fellow Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Ed Gillespie.

What Trump may not realize—and what new data shows—is that he may be tweeting his way into losses in 2018 and 2020.

Ten months into his presidency, the failure of any one single scandal to sink his administration has led some in the media to suggest that Trump is like “Teflon,” with the grime that would stick to (and ruin) other politicians simply slipping right off. But the numbers show that nothing could be further from the truth—Trump’s scandals aren’t just damaging him, they’re causing swing voters to reevaluate both his priorities and the very health of the economy.

The Messina Group recently completed a long-term research project looking at a specific group who helped decide the 2016 election: white voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who supported Barack Obama in 2012 but in 2016, did not vote for Hillary Clinton, instead choosing to either stay home or vote for Trump or a third-party candidate. What we found—combined with this month’s election results—should worry Trump and every ally who has hitched their wagon to his fast-burning star.

Among the swing voters most critical to his viability, Donald Trump isn’t just vulnerable, he’s harming himself. Even as Wall Street reaches new highs in profitability and Trump endlessly brags about his stock-market numbers, these voters aren’t seeing the improvement in their own lives. And, most worryingly for Trump and Republicans, the president’s outlandish statements cause the voters we spoke with to believe that he’s focused more on his own petty dramas than on improving their families’ lives.

Trump’s behavior and the endless parade of controversies he drums up? They’re how he loses.


At the beginning of April, we convened an online focus group of voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania who supported Obama but not Clinton. The overriding opinion expressed by the participants was that, yes, Donald Trump was racist, sexist, and offensive, but he was shaking up Washington and working to improve the economy. As one woman in Michigan put it, Trump “wants to change things that everyone has been complaining or talking about for years.”

It’s a belief that was underlined by the results of our polls from both July and October, which showed that key voters in these three states gave Trump much higher marks on his handling of the economy than his job approval—among this subset of voters, a late October poll had Trump at a net -23 points on job approval but only -7 on handling the economy. This trend is consistent with what public polls are showing; in the latest NBC/WSJ poll from the end of October, Trump’s job approval was -20, but his rating for handling the economy was +5.

That said, the white Obama-Non-Clinton voters we surveyed were clear: If the economy does not improve measurably, they are not going to give Trump a second chance—and they already have a clear reason to explain his failure: Twitter.

Consistently, the members of our focus groups worried that Trump was so pre-occupied with picking Twitter fights and the general chaos of his administration that he was not focusing on making the economy better. This sentiment is backed by quantitative data that offers a peek at Trump’s political kryptonite.

Based on the focus-group findings, we drafted four distinct messages about Trump and his handling of the economy. In one, we explained that he had stacked his cabinet with billionaires who weren’t looking out for everyday Americans; in another, we offered facts about the economy under Trump, including stagnant wages; in the third, we highlighted how Trump’s budget would cut programs important to the middle class and reroute the money into tax cuts for the wealthy. And finally, we tied his incendiary, all-hours tweets to his failure to bring jobs back to the U.S.

When exposing all voters in the survey to a tough message laying out the consequences of Trump’s tweeting—how it signals what he really cares about and prevents him from focusing his energy on making good on his promises to improve people’s lives—we found that the overall rating of Trump’s handling of the economy dropped by 6 points. And among the key Obama-Non-Clinton voter demographic? It dropped a staggering 21 points.

Similarly, when voters were told that Trump wants to give massive tax cuts to the wealthy while cutting programs for middle-class families, voters’ ratings of his handling of the economy sunk by 8 points overall and by an astounding 24 points among Obama-Non-Clinton voters.

Perhaps even more interesting is that when we re-surveyed Obama-non-Clinton voters six weeks later, those who’d been exposed to the tweeting message had a much dimmer view of Trump than those exposed to other messages.

The real-world application of these findings is clear: Voters might give President Trump a pass for individual outrageous statements, but if Democrats continually tie his pattern of remarks back to the economy, voters will not be forgiving. Progressives across the country should be driving this message relentlessly: Donald Trump is more focused on helping the rich and picking fights on Twitter then he is with making people’s lives better.

Since we started this research back in March, a debate has developed within some of the Democratic Party about whether we should focus on the white working-class voters or what pollsters call the “rising American electorate,” which is usually defined as Millennials plus people of color and unmarried women. And while I hope the recent election—in which Democrats rode a cresting tsunami of enthusiasm and engagement into office from coast to coast—will quell this debate, I want to reiterate that Democrats don’t need to adopt an either/or strategy, treating support from each group as though it’s mutually exclusive. Barack Obama won two presidential elections because he focused on both, and going forward, Democrats would be wise to remember the lesson of his example.

It’s true that Donald Trump is unlike any politician we have seen in a long time. Things that pundits say should sink him do not. He has thus far managed to rebound from even the most vile behavior.

But voters are only willing to go along with that so far.

When they realize that he is failing to deliver on the economy, the heap of fiascos he has piled up becomes evidence of what he has focused on instead. And then, Trump will be held accountable, just like every other politician.

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Trump still loves polls

As a TV host, Donald Trump loved ratings. As president, he loves polls—as long as they show him on the upswing.

He crowed on Twitter hours after landing back in Washington from his 12-day Asia tour about his Rasmussen number—46 percent—noting it was “one of the most accurate” in 2016, and decried “fake news” polls showing his approval in the 30s while also suggesting, with no evidence, that “some people” think his numbers could be in the 50s. (The Rasmussen poll sank to 42 percent on Friday.)

Aides in the White House often show Trump polls designed to make him feel good, according to aides and advisers. Usually they’re the ones that focus just on voters who cast ballots for him in 2016 or are potential Trump supporters —Trump’s base—but occasionally include public polls like Rasmussen, depending on what the numbers say.

“You know, I thought that he’d be a little less in campaign mode than he’s been. I think he’s never really kind of gotten out of campaign mode and I thought he might,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump adviser. “I guess it’s his judgment that that’s what he has to do but that’s surprised me a little bit.”

Keeping track of polls while in office isn’t unusual. President Bill Clinton infamously had his pollster Dick Morris survey voters about where to go on vacation before the 1996 election—the data led the Clintons to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, after previously summering on Martha’s Vineyard—and President Barack Obama asked his pollster Joel Benenson to collect public opinon data as the 2009 stimulus bill took shape.

“Usually you know what you want to do [in office], and you have to figure out, ‘What’s the best argument for persuading the greatest amount of people?’” Benenson said.

George W. Bush cared less about polling early in his term, said Ari Fleischer, his former press secretary.

“If you came into his office and said, ‘The polls say this, the polls say that’ — it was the easiest way to get kicked out,” said Bush’s former press secretary Ari Fleischer.

That’s not the case in Trump’s White House, which uses polls not just to cheer the president up but to get other Republicans in line.

“The polls are about the base,” one adviser said. “He cares about the base.”

When the White House sent internal poll numbers to about 15 legislators last month in hopes of pressuring them to support tax reform, it wasn’t the usual approve-disapprove.

Instead, the polls delineated by the president’s base, steady Trump voters, soft Trump voters, lean Dem independent voters, white working class men, suburban women. For example, in New Jersey’s seventh congressional district, a wealthier stretch that includes Trump’s Bedminster golf club, 72.7 percent of the president’s base approves of him, while 67.9 percent of Republicans approve, internal polls obtained by POLITICO show. There was no data on his approval rating overall.

The numbers came from the Republican National Committee. An RNC spokeswoman said the data is available to show “the priorities and sentiments of voters in a way that traditional polling does not.”

“The White House routinely briefs members of Congress on the strong support that the president and his legislative agenda in their districts, particularly tax cuts for middle-income Americans,” said White House spokesman Raj Shah.

Neil Newhouse, the lead pollster on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the White House’s polling presentation focused on selling an overhaul of the tax system to the president’s electoral base was a smart use of survey data.

“I would call this strategic polling where — this is going to sound maybe a little crass — they don’t really care where all Americans stand on the issue of tax reform. Because 35 to 40 percent of Americans are never going to support anything he does,” said Newhouse. “Why should I spend my money trying to find out what they think?”

Concerns grow in the White House when the support slides among voters who picked Trump in 2016, several senior aides and advisers said. Aides in Trump’s political affairs shop shrug off public polls that survey the general public. Most of the public pollsters are seen as “not understanding him,” one senior White House official said, a position carried over from the campaign, when many polls underestimated support for Trump and showed him losing in key counties that he won.

Adviser Jared Kushner often tells Trump not to trust traditional data, while former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon used to tell Trump to focus only on the 40 percent or so of Americans who make up his base.

John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, has limited interest in polling data and doesn’t get deeply involved in parsing it, aides said.

Yet several senior officials said they don’t trust the internal polls because they are “delusional” or “just not accurate,” in the words of two officials. The numbers Trump are shown are almost always higher than his public polling numbers. “I wouldn’t trust our polling on that,” one senior aide said, after ticking off numbers on health care earlier this year.

Some outside advisers like Tom Barrack have urged Trump to try and expand his base, not simply maintain it. He often asks questions about polls to Kellyanne Conway, who warns him to keep the base but also shows him other polls outside the RNC data, according to several White House aides.

But while Trump’s aides sometimes go out of their way to give him the rosiest view, Trump himself tracks the Gallup data almost every day, two advisers say, and always knows what the numbers say. When Trump decided to shake up his senior staff this summer, he frequently cited his sinking poll numbers to advisers and friends as a reason he needed to make a change.

It means Trump often has a complicated routine of keeping up with polls—which paint a dismal picture, giving him an average approval rating of 38 percent, according to RealClearPolitics—and getting upset privately, while blustering and calling them “fake” in public.

Sometimes, though, they drive him to change his behavior—like when he made a brief, quickly-undone agreement with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to save Obama’s program offering young undocumented immigrants work permits and some protection from deportation.

Trump saw his poll numbers tick up and started using the word “bipartisanship,” but that was short-lived. After he was told by his team and some on Capitol Hill that the move would depress support among his base, he backed off, advisers say.

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How the Bonn climate talks survived Trump

BONN, Germany — The White House goaded activists at the international climate talks by pushing coal and other fossil fuels. But behind closed doors, U.S. negotiators stuck to their Obama-era principles on the 2015 Paris deal — despite President Donald Trump’s disavowal of the pact.

State Department negotiators at the U.N. conference that ended Saturday hewed to the United States’ long-established positions on the details of how to carry out the Paris agreement. And that’s the U.S. role that most foreign political leaders sought to highlight, despite the low expectations inspired by Trump’s “America First” agenda and his dismissal of human-caused climate change as a hoax.

“You couldn’t have expected more,” said German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, who described the U.S. delegation as constructive and neutral. “Its diplomats who are working here, they act professionally.”

White House energy adviser George David Banks portrayed the outcome in even more glowing terms, saying the U.S. had been “indispensable in thwarting efforts by some countries to get a free pass” under the Paris agreement.

The American negotiating team, Banks said, had “led across many issues, promoted U.S. national interests, and protected U.S. taxpayers and businesses.”

Among the contentious issues that arose were efforts by poorer nations to allow them to use less arduous systems than wealthier countries to ensure they are measuring their greenhouse gas emissions. China had led that push, which the European Union and U.S. have long opposed, though ultimately the issue was left largely unsettled.

Negotiations at the conference, which began Nov. 6, wrapped up Saturday morning after developing nations launched an 11th-hour campaign to require wealthier nations to outline in advance how much climate funding they will provide — a sticking point for countries like the U.S. that amend their budgets each year.

Although observers said the U.S. made no effort to disrupt the talks, former Obama administration climate diplomat Todd Stern said Washington was “not in the negotiations with the same credibility as before.”

“It’s not that the U.S. isn’t there, but it’s not the same,” said Stern, who had led the U.S. negotiators in Paris nearly two years ago. “It’s the EU, the U.K. … New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan, etc. They don’t weigh as much as the U.S. did, but they can be very important.”

The State Department sent fewer than 20 staffers, a far smaller delegation than it has sent to other climate gatherings in recent years.

Some observers said a U.S.-sponsored panel discussion earlier this week that promoted coal, natural gas and nuclear power appeared designed to please Trump’s political base and energy industry supporters in the U.S. At the event, which provoked a high-profile protest, Banks told the audience that the U.S. would support “universal access” to affordable and reliable energy, which for many places in the world meant coal.

Andrew Light, who was part of Obama’s delegation and is now a fellow at the World Resources Institute, said bringing that pro-fossil fuel event to the climate talks showed that the U.S. can remain a party to the international talks without substantively changing its positions.

“This administration can continue telegraphing its core beliefs, whether or not anyone one believes that with them,” Light said. “In the long run there’s everything to be gained from an environment where the United States does cooperate with other parties on whatever they want to cooperate on.”

Other U.S. representatives, from companies to a group Democratic governors and mayors led by California Gov. Jerry Brown, sought to reassure the world that many in the U.S. still want to take action to ratchet down carbon pollution, even without Trump. Microsoft Corp. announced own its goal to slash carbon emissions 75 percent by 2030 and pitched sustainable technology, including for agriculture and land-cover mapping, in meetings it held with foreign governments.

But the talks on carrying out the Paris agreement will face major hurdles before the next major gathering next year in Poland. Countries will also face a deadline to finish deciding how they achieve the deal’s goal of keeping global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, the mark that scientists warn would cause irreversible damage.

“Parties haven’t allowed the threatened U.S. withdrawal to derail this process,” said Elliot Diringer, a former Clinton administration adviser who is executive vice president for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “They’ve made good progress and set themselves up for a more focused negotiation next year. At the same time, the talks here have underscored the significant political challenges ahead next year.”

But Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, the lead climate change specialist for the environment ministry in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said many major issues were pushed until next year. “I have a feeling that people were a little bit complacent,” he said, disappointed in what he called a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that countries wouldn’t make much progress this year.

Environmental advocates insisted they still aren’t seeing the emissions reductions or money necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris deal.

“The conference gets a grade of ‘meets expectations,’” said Andrew Deutz, director of international governmental relations for The Nature Conservancy.

Deutz said that while the U.S. didn’t blow up the process, “the absence of national U.S. leadership was evident within the negotiating process this week and for driving more ambitious climate action in the future.”

Island nations that face the most immediate threats from climate change and sea-level rise pressed their case throughout the two weeks. Allen Chastanet, the prime minister of Saint Lucia, told reporters that island nations are “paralyzed,” because they can’t stop rising temperatures alone.

Hurricane Maria demolished Barbuda and brought heavy damage to Puerto Rico, after passing just 40 miles from Saint Lucia.

“I have to say to you deep down inside of me I’m angry, I’m anxious and I’m fearful,” he told a news conference. “It can’t be that a prime minister’s only resource is to get on the side of your bed on your knees and pray, and that’s what I feel every time I’m here and a hurricane is developing over the Atlantic, is ‘Lord, please take care of our people.’”

Kalina Oroschakoff and Sara Stefanini contributed to this report.

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Tax reform roadblocks emerge in Senate

Republicans were able to muscle their tax-rewrite plan, through the House exactly two weeks after it was unveiled, but they are already facing far tougher sledding in the Senate.

GOP leadership is confronting mushrooming demands from individual senators with much more power to bollix up the tax plans, thanks to the party’s super-thin majority.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has already said he won’t vote for his colleagues’ proposal because of how it treats small businesses, leaving Republicans with just one vote to spare when the plan hits the Senate floor after Thanksgiving.

Deficit hawks like Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are worried the plan will cost far more than advertised thanks to its liberal use of “temporary” tax provisions that will likely be eventually extended, and say they are working on changes to bring down the cost.

Moderate Susan Collins (R-Maine) has her own concerns, including with plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate to have health insurance as part of tax reform.

Others like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have been wildcards, avoiding taking a public position on the proposal.

Murkowski told Roll Call on Thursday that if lawmakers are going to repeal the individual mandate as part of the tax plan, they “absolutely” must pass separate health legislation aimed at stabilizing health care markets and controlling costs.

“If that tax cut is offset by higher premiums, you haven’t delivered [a] benefit,” she told the newspaper.

But Murkowski said in a statement late Friday that passage of a bipartisan deal to fund Obamacare’s cost-sharing program is not a precondition to her support for the GOP’s tax reform package.

The Alaska Republican said she was planning to review the Finance Committee tax reform bill over the Thanksgiving holiday and will review “the entire package before coming to any conclusion on the legislation.”

McCain praised the Finance Committee, which approved a draft of the plan last night, for “taking another step forward in providing much-needed tax relief,” while also serving notice that he wants plenty of time to offer amendments when the plan reaches the Senate floor.

House Republicans have their own red lines, warning a Senate proposal to end a long-standing deduction for state and local taxes is a nonstarter with their colleagues.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been teeing off on the plan, especially after the official Joint Committee on Taxation said Thursday that while everyone’s taxes would initially go down under the plan, some middle-income people would eventually see tax increases.

Senate leaders acknowledge they have their work cut out for them, with Majority Whip John Cornyn singling out the small business issue as “particularly challenging.”

“We still have quite a bit of work to do there,” he said Thursday night, as the Finance panel wrapped up its consideration of the plan. “This is still just the beginning of the legislative process.”

The result is there could still be substantial changes to the proposal in the Senate in the coming weeks. That risks dragging lawmakers further away from the “Big Six” framework that was designed to keep the House and Senate on the same page, and avoid a repeat of the Obamacare repeal debacle, when the House approved a plan only to watch the whole effort collapse in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will bring the plan before the entire Senate when lawmakers return from a week-long Thanksgiving recess.

Republicans want to complete as much work on the plan as they can before they have to turn to funding the federal government and also before Alabama’s Dec. 12 special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ old seat. Some Republicans worry that Republican Roy Moore will oppose their tax plans if he’s elected or that Democrats will steal the seat.

Their tax plan cleared the Finance Committee Thursday night on a party-line vote after four days of consideration, during which Republicans made major changes to the plan while killing dozens of Democratic amendments. The debate was sometimes contentious, with Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch at one point exploding at Democrats’ repeated complaints their tax plans would be boon to the rich.

“This bull crap that you guys throw out here really gets old,” he said. “I come from the poor people and I’ve been here working my whole stinking career for people who don’t have a chance, and I really resent anybody saying that I’m just doing this for the rich — give me a break.”

“I think you guys overplay that all the time, and it gets old,” Hatch said.

The House cleared a competing draft Thursday on a 227-205 vote. Republicans aim to get a compromise plan to President Donald Trump’s desk by the end of the year.

Corker said Thursday that he and other lawmakers are working on changes aimed at bringing down the cost of the Senate, now pegged at $1.4 trillion.

They’re worried the bill includes more than 35 temporary provisions that Congress has no intention of actually allowing to ever expire, ballooning the cost far beyond it’s supposed sticker price. He declined to discuss specifics.

“There are several of us that are trying to figure out a way to make sure this doesn’t hurt us relative to deficits,” he said Thursday. “We’re looking globally at the whole thing and trying to do what we can to make it more fiscally palatable.”

That will be difficult to address, with the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimating the Senate plan includes a whopping $515 billion in budget gimmicks aimed at artificially reducing its cost.

Another vexing issue will be dealing with small businesses and other so-called pass-throughs, whose owners pay taxes on their business’s earnings through the individual side of the tax code. To the consternation of Johnson and others, many of those companies would pay higher taxes than corporations under the Senate plan. Republicans have been struggling for months to come up with a plan to allow pass-throughs to tap their lower proposed business tax rate without creating a loophole for the wealthy to avoid paying taxes.

“I know that there are members that have concerns about that,” said Sen. John Thune, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican.

Kevin Hassett, the head of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, said he met with Johnson on Thursday to discuss the issue.

“He has some serious concerns,” Hassett said. “I’m hopeful that people can work it out.”

Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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