Unfiltered Political News

Will Preet Run?

It was pitch-perfect political theater, the kind that politicians pay public relations firms millions of dollars to orchestrate: Preet Bharara, defying an order by the President of the United States, all but daring Trump to fire him. Even better, the whole thing was wrapped in confusion, playing out in conflicting reports that dropped late at night over the course of several days. And it ended when Bharara took to Twitter, Trump’s favorite medium, to grab control of the narrative.

“I did not resign,” he wrote. “Moments ago I was fired.”

“It was unbelievable how he played that,” said longtime political operative in New York and friend of Bharara’s said once it was over. “You couldn’t help but watch and think, ‘My god is he good at this.’”

And suddenly the question that has been whispered about in New York political circles for years was everywhere: What’s next for Preet?

A hard-charging US attorney beloved by the press and political reformers in both parties, Bharara has been rumored as a potential New York governor, or a mayor.The job he held for eight years is a singular one. Being the US attorney for the Southern District of New York is one of the highest-profile legal jobs in the country, one held by Rudy Giuliani, James Comey and Mary Jo White on their way to national prominence. All manner of bad actors, from Wall Street crooks to international terrorists to drug kingpins, come across the desk of the Southern District; Bharara had focused so much of his attention on political corruption, investigating both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Resignation Could Prompt Run Against Cuomo or de Blasio,” declared the Daily News before it became clear that Bharara had been fired. A run against Governor Andrew Cuomo “would be irresistible political theater between two masters of strategy and the press” said New York Magazine, while a run against Mayor Bill de Blasio would allow Bharara to position himself “as the candidate who will drain the city’s swamp.

Billionaire Republican Ken Langone told CNBC that it would be “wonderful” if Bharara ran for either office, while New York’s liberal public advocate Tish James was even less circumspect: “Run, Preet, Run” she tweeted at the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York after he announced that he had been fired.

The news this week that Bharara would take a job at New York University as a “distinguished scholar in residence” did nothing to tamp down the speculation: it’s precisely the kind of perch that lets a candidate-in-waiting wade in on public debates. Bharara himself announced the post on Twitter with a tantalizing “This is one way I plan to keep working hard on important issues I care about.”

There’s only one problem: According to more than a dozen former colleagues and longtime friends interviewed on and off the record, Preet isn’t running.

They describe a man clearly enjoying the spotlight, who doesn’t mind kicking Donald Trump in the shins when he gets the chance—but also someone who has never shown much interest in political office himself, and with two soon-to-be college age children is more likely looking to make money in a hurry. And even if Bharara wanted to run, it is not far from clear that the people who actually vote in New York have the same kind of enthusiasm that the political press has for Preet.

Though the firing drama played out as a PR coup, friends who were in touch with Bharara over that weekend say that rather than a carefully laying the breadcrumbs for the launch of a future campaign, he was at home in Westchester, trying like the rest of us to figure out what the hell was going on. (Bharara declined to comment for this story.) In their account, Bharara was prepared to resign along with the rest of the 45 US attorneys who were set to step down at the president’s request, even though he had been summoned to a meeting at Trump Tower in November and told that he would be kept on. Then the Thursday before he was fired, a Trump assistant called Bharara at his office; Bharara declined to take the call without knowing the subject matter, saying he need approval from his superiors first. He reached out to the office of attorney general Jeff Sessions—who two days earlier had concluded a conference call with Bharara and the rest of the sitting U.S. attorneys with go-get-’em “Happy Hunting!” send-off. Sessions’ office affirmed Bharara’s decision not to take the call, and Bharara called the White House to say he couldn’t speak to the president.

“He was genuinely confused,” said one friend, who, like others close to Bharara who were interviewed for this story asked not to be named in order to preserve a personal relationship.

Was that why the president called—because he was being asked to resign? Or was the president calling because he was going to be asked to stay? Was he supposed to submit his resignation only to have Trump reject it, since he had asked Bharara to stay on before?

“The whole thing was turning into a mini-crisis, but it was really just because Preet couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone,” said a friend.

Bharara wanted to stay. “He wore his heart on his sleeve about this. He loved that job more anything,” said one former colleague. But when he couldn’t get a straight answer from the White House or the Justice Department about where he stood, and then news reports started leaking out that he was refusing to resign—which Bharara assumed were leaking from the White House—he grew angry. Then he became actually defiant. If Trump wanted a showdown, he was going to get a showdown.

“The guy is just tough as shit,” said one longtime friend. “He’s thinking, ‘I am the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. I am not going to be pushed around by Donald Trump or anybody else. I am going to see this thing all the way to the end, and guess what? I can tweet too.’”

This is not how a campaign launch would ideally have unfolded. Many people close to Bharara pointed out that if in fact he were on an eight-year grand plan to set himself up to run for higher office, the thing to do would have been to resign on schedule, at the end of Barack Obama’s second term. That’s how Rudy Giuliani did it, when he ran for mayor in 1989 after years of investigating New York City mayor Ed Koch from his perch as US attorney. No one would have given it a second thought if he left in January, and it would leave him even more time to raise money and set himself up for a run.

But Bharara has said, loudly and on the record, that he isn’t interested in politics. “I have no interest and desire to seek public office,” he told The Times in 2014. “Now or ever.” Last fall, he was asked by the local political newspaper City & State if he was willing to rule out ever running for office. “It seems really, really, really unlikely,” he replied. (Even when NYU announced the Bharara appointment, the school’s spokesman told reporters that the job “doesn’t preclude him from taking on other engagements” hint, hint.) His actual politics remain a mystery. Does he support a higher minimum wage? Higher taxes on the rich? Free college? The DREAM Act? No one knows, and yet pundits and progressive politicians are ready to draft him.

“Everyone wants a hero,” said one friend. “The concept that our crusading prosecutor runs for mayor, runs for governor, it’s tantalizing. He is obviously good at what he does. He is obviously smart, he’s great with the press. He has a great reputation”

But, this friend added, “Why would he want to sully himself with running for office?”


It is not hard to see where the Preet-as-political-savior idea comes from. A one-time aide to Chuck Schumer, Bharara had served as the nation’s most prominent US attorney for nearly eight years. In that time, he took on international arms traffickers, close associates of Osama bin Laden, insider traders, banks, hackers and street gangs. Most significantly, he took on the city and state’s entrenched culture of political corruption, sending the leaders of both houses of the legislature to prison and hounding both Cuomo and de Blasio.

He was on the cover of Time Magazine. “The Man Busting Wall Street,” read the headline. He was profiled in the New Yorker. Twice. Fortune followed suit. Buzzfeed called him “The Most Dangerous Man In American Politics.” (That said, he was dogged by the critique, especially on the left, that he’d given big banks a pass after the financial crisis: “When It Comes to Wall Street, Preet Bharara Is No Hero,” declared Pro Publica after he stepped down.)

And while most federal prosecutors are serious and straight-jawed Eliot Ness-types—think Patrick Fitzgerald, the Chicago prosecutor who brought down Scooter Libby and Rod Blagojevich—Bharara was funny and personable and self-deprecating. And he knew exactly what made him compelling: his story of the Indian immigrant who ends up in New Jersey as a child and makes his way to Harvard; his brother, the billionaire founder of; the son of a Sikh father and a Hindu mother, who married a woman with a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. “Even when my wife fasts for Yom Kippur, and my father-in-law fasts for Ramadan, I get to stuff my face with samosas all day,” he told Fortune. And The New York Times. And The Washington Post. And Time. (“I wish the media loved me like that,” sniffed one prominent New York City-based elected official when asked about Bharara.)

Which helps explain why the widespread assumption about Bharara was always that he must be setting himself up to run for something. Why else the cultivation of a slavish media? Why else the showman’s flair for the dramatic? Consider the time he waited to indict Shelly Silver, the decades-long Speaker of the Assembly, a sphinx-like figure who stood as permanent pillar of power over successive governments in Albany, until the day after Silver stood on stage with Cuomo at the annual State of the State address. Or after Bharara posted on Twitter that he had been fired, and then walked out of the US attorney’s office in lower Manhattan as bagpipes played and office staffers gathered behind barricades to cheer him on, a moment that was carried live by cable and local news networks.

What is all of this for, if not building political capital with voters?

“Preet was a little more open about himself and about the work,” said Daniel L. Stein, who spent a decade-long career in the Southern District, serving three chief prosecutors. “He encouraged attention, but it was because he believed in the value of the work. Before he became U.S. attorney there was this sense that the public wasn’t aware of the good work we were doing.”

And the all the media attention had another effect, career lawyers in the office say: It alerted the bad guys that they were on to them, and they had better knock it off before they ended up in Bharara’s crosshairs. Lawyers in the office were delighted, for example, when the son of Dean Skelos, the Senate majority leader and an only slightly less august figure than Silver, was caught on a wiretap complaining to his father about the culture of rectitude newly created in Albany.

“You can’t talk normally because it’s like fucking Preet Bharara is listening to every fucking phone call,” the younger Skelos said. “It’s just fucking frustrating.”

“It is,” his father intoned.

Former residents of Club Schumer fill the ranks of every level of politics and government in New York. Among those who spent time there, they say it isn’t difficult to spot the ones who think they will one day join the boss among the ranks of office-holders. Bharara was never one of them. The job he always wanted was the one he held for the past eight years.

“We live in strange times, and I don’t know if all the klieg lights are getting to him,” said one friend of over a decade. “But it’s really nothing he ever indicated he was much interested in, and nothing I’ve ever gotten the sense that he is much interested in.”

People who worked closely with Bharara blame the obsession with their former boss’s political ambitions on the limits of how the media thinks about power: That Bharara proved to be an adept student of Chuck Schumer’s brand of message management doesn’t mean he shares the same ambitions.

“He’s an achiever,” said one former aide. “He like doing things, and yeah, he likes accolades for getting things done, and whatever he does next, having a lot of good press is bound to help.”

A lot of that good press came from Bharara’s choice of targets: Why would he start hounding the mayor and the governor and a sizeable portion of the legislature unless he wanted to run things himself? Lawyers who worked on those cases, however, say that shows an historic amnesia about how those cases came together. They began with the kind of petty crimes that voters had almost become inured to. Bharara took down an upstate lawmaker for taking kickbacks on money he steered to two non-profits. Then he got a former city councilman for the same. Then another. Further wiretaps showed that two lawmakers and a high-powered lobbyist were unabashedly seeking campaign contributions in exchange for political favors. It was then that Bharara and his staff realized how far the whole culture of corruption went. The investigation that led to the indictment of a close aide of Andrew Cuomo was like any other investigation: start small, let people on the inside know you are interested in information, and then keep going up the food chain until you net bigger and bigger fish.

And as much as editorial boards and good government types think all this swamp-draining makes Bharara the perfect candidate, in truth, those who have actually run campaigns say that it more than likely disqualifies him from seeking office for the foreseeable future. To turn around and run against the very people he was investigating would look as if Bharara had spent years using the justice system to clear the way for his own political advancement.

“This is someone whose whole career is based on a kind of moral purity,” said one political operative close to de Blasio. “You turn around and run against the people you were investigating? I don’t see it.”


The dream of political reporters everywhere is that Bharara challenges Cuomo in 2018 in a battle royale for the ages, one that pits Cuomo, someone who bent Albany to his will with backroom deal-making against Preet, who seems to believe there is some impure inherent in the practice of politics. But for Bharara it wouldn’t just be morally suspect: It would be an awfully uphill climb. Cuomo remains unloved by political elites and the left, but he does already have $22 million on hand nearly two years before he is set to face the voters, and his poll numbers have remained relatively stable, even after Bharara busted his top aide late last year in an alleged bid-rigging scheme that netted the aide over $300,000 in payoffs. The dream of campaign against de Blasio is even less likely, especially since a few days after Bharara left his post the US Attorney’s office dropped the investigation. Petitioning to get on the ballot starts in June, and Bharara would have to move from his Westchester home and have residency in New York City by primary election day in September. It remains the dream of city and state Republicans that Bharara switch parties for his chance at higher office, but the mood of rank-and-file Republicans remains unfavorable towards the Schumer wing of the party, never mind the mood of the electorate as a whole in a Democratic state in the era of Trump.

The ideal scenario for those who want to see Bharara in office would be for Cuomo to decide not to see re-election, and then for Bharara to either seek that seat, or, more likely, run for attorney general if the current-holder of that office, Eric Schneiderman, runs for governor. But even a downballot race would be difficult. “We have literally no idea what this guy’s politics are,” said one prominent progressive. “He fights corruption, great. Where is he on The Dream Act? Where is he on criminal justice? Where is he on taxing the one percent?”

People close to Bharara describe him as a “Chuck Schumer Democrat,” which would put him somewhere on the center-left in a Democratic primary–not a good place to be in a state party where the organizing energy is among unions and activist groups like the Working Families Party. Even running for an open attorney general’s seat, Bharara would find himself vulnerable to someone more willing to do the bidding of entrenched interests.

That is a challenge that can be overcome, but Bharara’s recent history makes it more difficult. As much as his investigations of Cuomo and de Blasio endeared him to editorial boards, it didn’t to New York’s political regulars, many of whom view Bharara as an overzealous prosecutor trying to criminalize the practice of politics. (“You mean to tell me that people who make large campaign contributions can get meetings with the people they donate to?” sniffed one political insider. “I am shocked.”)

“He’ll get to go around and say, ‘I was the one who chopped off their heads,’ but a lot of people in politics think those politicians got a raw deal, and there but for the grace of God go I, and they are not going to be enthusiastic about supporting his candidacy,” said Norman Adler, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked the 1989 race when newly former US attorney Rudy Giuliani ran. “It’s the old Bobby Kennedy line–’Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.’”


Those who think Bharara can overcome these handicaps point to his rock-star level of political fame—though outside the political classes, it’s not clear just what level of rock star we’re talking about. One operative compared him to Colin Powell, circa 2000—a figure that the chattering classes are abuzz about but someone who has no real base of support. A Siena poll from last year found that only 23 percent of New Yorkers had a favorable opinion, while 12 percent had an unfavorable opinion and nearly two-thirds of voters had no opinion at all. A new Siena poll is slated to be out next month; the tumult with Trump is likely to improve his numbers slightly, but it’s still a long way from a groundswell.

“Is Preet really going to spend a year of his life going to town hall meetings, and union meetings and endorsement meetings,” said one prominent New York pol. “Do you really see him wearing green and kissing babies and marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Because I want him to run, but I just don’t see it.”

So what does Bharara do next? Money, and lots of it, is surely in his future, especially with two children approaching college age, a hyper-competitive streak and a brother who sold his start-up to Amazon for $545 million. His friends and associates say that they can’t see him going to work for a corporate law firm somewhere, but it’s not hard to imagine Bharara brought in as a fixer for various technology companies whenever they run into problems over hiring practices, or diversity, or skirting municipal regulations. Friends say they could see him returning to public life under a Democratic president, perhaps as F.B.I. director, or as attorney general. But it would take a president supremely secure in his or her past and position.

“Barack Obama could appoint him to U.S. attorney because Barack Obama didn’t have any skeletons in his closet,” said one former colleague. “The guy is relentless, though. Who would take the chance?”

So if Bharara really does have no desire for a political life, what was up with that scene on his office’s front steps the day he walked out? There were bagpipers, after all. Staffers lined up on the stairs, clapping as he made his way down. It was carried live by a local New York news station and by CNBC—exactly the kind of grand send-off that fuels speculation about what he has in mind next.

As it turns out, though, the “clap-out” is fairly common practice anytime someone leaves the US attorneys office. The bagpipers work at the courthouse as court security officers. They probably do something similar every two weeks or so, one lawyer in the office said. That the television cameras were there—well, that says more about the cameras than about Bharara.

“I think people were pretty emotional about him leaving. It has been such a shock,” said one longtime deputy. “That he gets to stick it to Trump a little bit on the way out the door is I am sure something he enjoys.”

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Democrats weigh deal to let Gorsuch through

A group of Senate Democrats is beginning to explore trying to extract concessions from Republicans in return for allowing Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch to be confirmed, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

The lawmakers worry that Gorsuch could be confirmed whether Democrats try to block him or not — and Democrats would be left with nothing to show for it. That would be a bitter pill after the GOP blocked Merrick Garland for nearly a year.

The deal Democrats would be most likely to pursue, the sources said, would be to allow confirmation of Gorsuch in exchange for a commitment from Republicans not to kill the filibuster for a subsequent vacancy during President Donald Trump’s term. The next high court opening could alter the balance of the court, and some Democrats privately argue that fight will be far more consequential than the current one.

If Democrats move ahead with the plan — it’s still in the early discussion phase — it would require buy-in from some Republicans, but not necessarily Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or his top deputies. At least three rank-and-file GOP members would have to pledge not to vote to unilaterally change the Senate rules through a majority-only vote later in Trump’s term — the so-called nuclear option.

Cobbling together a group of senators from opposing parties to take such a stand would be difficult, given the long-running partisan war over confirming judges and pressure from the left to deny Gorsuch confirmation. But some Democrats are worried enough about the Senate losing its unique minority rights that they’ve begun kicking the tires on the potential for a new bipartisan “gang.”

The current talks are limited to about a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers. They haven’t made an offer to Republicans yet, and Democratic leaders wouldn’t support one.

Democrats familiar with the effort requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter that divides the caucus. Some liberals are aiming to block Gorsuch, while others are worried about the electoral prospects for 10 senators up for reelection next year in states won by Trump if they’re seen as obstructing the president’s court pick.

Any move to save the filibuster would be reminiscent of the “Gang of 14,” a group that included Democrats who agreed to confirm some of President George W. Bush’s stalled judicial nominees as Republicans pledged not to support a rules change. Just three members of that 2005 collection are still in the Senate.

“It’s a really tough situation, and they’re going to have to find their way through it because that 60-vote threshold is important for the Supreme Court,” said former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a member of the Gang of 14.

No Democrats have announced their support for Gorsuch yet. Under current Senate rules, McConnell will need at least eight Democratic votes. In the minds of some senators, that gives Democrats some leverage over McConnell — though the GOP leader could move to get rid of the 60-vote threshold if Democrats obstruct Gorsuch.

“We don’t need to be taking a deal,” said a senior Republican aide.

Some Democrats believe McConnell is loath to change Senate rules on a majority vote. Doing so would allow Democrats to more easily confirm liberal judges the next time the party wins the White House and Senate. It’s also not clear McConnell could get 50 of his 52 members to agree to eradicate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, a step that would move the Senate even further toward a majority-rule, House of Representatives-style body.

The move would be met by criticism on the left. Josh Orton, a longtime Democratic aide working against Gorsuch, said any attempt to confirm Gorsuch would “hand Trump’s White House not only it’s first win, but one of the biggest victories any White House can get. I can’t think of anything less strategic.” Others are skeptical they could even trust Republicans to keep a promise if any deal is reached.

But the threat of a rules change that would affect future Supreme Court vacancies is alarming to some centrist Democratic lawmakers.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is perhaps the most concerned about the party’s predicament, according to Democrats. He is the only Senate Democrat left in the chamber who opposed the 2013 rules change.

“I would not want to be the person — and that would be Mitch McConnell — that basically changed the Senate from what the Founding Fathers [intended],” Manchin told reporters on Wednesday. “And that’s why I was so concerned about what Harry Reid did.”

Manchin was referring to the former Democratic leader’s move in 2013 to unilaterally lower the voting threshold for all nominees except those to the Supreme Court from 60 to a simple majority.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) is one of the senators seeking a solution that would avoid the nuclear option, two Democratic sources said.

Coons is “open about his concern for preserving the filibuster and the impact this process may have on the Senate, and he has talked with both Republican and Democratic senators about that. At the same time, he remains concerned about the approach Judge Gorsuch would bring to the Court,” said spokesman Sean Coit.

Some Republicans are aware of the Democratic discussions. One GOP source said Democrats “definitely” are looking for a way to avoid a rules change down the road, but no offer has been presented to rank-and-file Republican senators.

In addition to talk of getting a GOP commitment on the next court vacancy, two other, less realistic options are also being discussed.

One would be an agreement to confirm Gorsuch in exchange for moving all judicial nominees back to the 60-vote requirement. Republicans are unlikely to agree, given that they are in the majority and have more than 100 lower-level vacancies to fill.

Another ambitious possibility: Some Democrats want to confirm Gorsuch only with an agreement that another justice retire and is replaced with Garland. The idea has almost no chance of success. But it’s being pushed by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who said that there’s too much “distrust” in the Senate to believe Republicans are willing to make a deal on a future vacancy, so they must make a deal now on Garland.

“I’m not there,” Udall said of seeking a commitment from Republicans not to change the rules. “I just hope someone does something.”

Notably, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware has warmed to Udall’s position. He’s viewed as one of the handful of Democrats who could support Gorsuch, but he has not even met with the nominee.

“It would be fair to say,” Carper said, “I’m interested in getting justice for Merrick Garland.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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Madison Street Capital Wins Prestigious Award

The M&A Advisor professional network recently announced the results of the 11th Annual Turnaround Awards in January. Among the firms honored at the event was investment banking company Madison Street Capital, which won the award for Restructuring Deal of the Year (Under $25MM). The award presentation is set to take place in Palm Beach, Florida, in March.


According to M&A Advisor’s President David Furgusson, the group has been recognizing the top firms in mergers and acquisitions, turnaround, and deal-making for several years. He added that Madison Street Capital was selected out of a pool of more than 300 member firms. Charles Botchway, CEO of Madison Street Capital, said that the team is honored to have been chosen out of so many companies, but is not surprised as Madison Street Capital is made up of the top professionals in the field.


The award presentation is part of a larger event called the 2017 Distressed Investing Summit. Opening night festivities will be at the Mar-A-Lago Club, and the Colony Hotel will host the conference, awards, and closing night party. The event will bring together leaders of the M&A and turnaround community from around the world. M&A’s mission is to recognize the top performers in the industry and to foster networking opportunities for professionals.


The award is a reflection of the Madison Street Capital reputation for quality and results. Madison Street Capital is an international investment banking company based in Chicago, Illinois, and with offices in Africa and Asia. The company focuses on emerging markets as a driver of growth for its clients. In addition to M&A and restructuring services, the company offers a wide range of tax planning, wealth management, and valuation services. In addition to their 2017 honor from M&A Advisor, the company was honored with four awards by the professional group in 2015 and 2016.

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Democrats crank up the heat on Gorsuch at marathon hearing

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch repeatedly brushed off Democratic attempts Tuesday to nail down his position on issues ranging from abortion to gun regulations to voting rights, while pledging that he would have no problem ruling against the man who nominated him, President Donald Trump.

Gorsuch also leveled his most significant rebuke of Trump yet when he repeated publicly what he had told senators privately: He was dismayed by Trump’s attacks on the judiciary.

“When anyone criticizes the honesty or integrity or motives of a judge, I find that disheartening,” Gorsuch told senators. “I find that demoralizing, because I know the truth.”

When pressed whether that included Trump’s comments, Gorsuch responded: “Anyone is anyone.”

Facing a marathon grilling session before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gorsuch dodged multiple questions by saying he didn’t want to compromise his impartiality should he be confirmed to the high court.

“The first thing I’m doing [by answering] is, I’m signaling to future litigants that I can’t be a fair judge in their case because those issues keep coming up,” Gorsuch said. “All these issues keep coming up. Issues around all these precedents will be continued to be litigated.”

When pressed again on a controversial topic — this time by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision curbing the Voting Rights Act — Gorsuch simply responded, “I admire the various ways” senators try to pin him down.

Gorsuch also dodged saying whether he would vote to uphold Trump’s controversial travel ban if the beleaguered executive order, now largely on hold, makes it to the Supreme Court.

“I’m not going to say anything that gives anybody any idea how I’d rule in any case like that that could come before my court,” Gorsuch told Leahy. “It’d be grossly improper to do that.“

His comments did little to mollify Democrats, who have been eager to dissect his lengthy legal record on the bench and as a top lawyer in the George W. Bush administration’s Justice Department where he worked on anti-terror policies.

Gorsuch’s views on judicial independence were also a hot topic early on and throughout the hearing, in light of Trump’s attacks on multiple judges during the campaign and in the White House.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) attempted to head off those criticisms from Democrats early on by asking Gorsuch about his independence and whether Gorsuch would struggle to rule against the president who picked him for the Supreme Court.

“That’s a softball, Mr. Chairman,” Gorsuch told Grassley. “I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party other than based on what the law and facts and the particular case require. And I’m heartened by the support I have received by people who recognize that there’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge. We just have judges.”

Gorsuch also testified that he has “offered no promises on how I’d rule in any case, to anyone” — adding that he would not find it “appropriate for a judge to do so, no matter who’s doing the asking.”

That point came into sharper relief when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked what Gorsuch would do if Trump asked for a commitment to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

“Senator, I would’ve walked out the door,” Gorsuch said forcefully. “Not what judges do.”

Still, Gorsuch declined to say whether Roe was correctly decided more than four decades ago, saying merely it is a “precedent” of the Supreme Court.

He echoed that line for multiple other high-profile Supreme Court decisions.

“I’m not in a position to tell you whether I’d personally like or dislike any precedent. That’s not relevant to my job,” Gorsuch in his exchange with Grassley. “To come in and think that just because I’m new or the latest thing I’d know better than everybody who comes before me would be an act of hubris.”

A few hours after he declined to weigh in on the merits of the court’s Citizens United decision, which loosened campaign finance restrictions, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pressed Gorsuch on why conservative groups have reportedly spent a total of $17 million in the past year blocking President Barack Obama’s candidate for the Supreme Court vacancy and now supporting Gorsuch.

“You’d have to ask them,” Gorsuch replied.

“I can’t because I don’t know who they are. It’s just a front group,” Whitehouse shot back.

Gorsuch did offer Democrats an olive branch by backing away from some of the most aggressive legal stances taken by the Bush administration in the war on terror, with the nominee declaring that he was in a camp of advisers who favored a less hawkish approach.

The committee’s top Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, had expressed concern with Gorsuch’s involvement as a Justice Department official on a signing statement Bush issued that seemed to narrow an anti-torture amendment authored by Sen. John McCain.

“Doesn’t it mean that, when you wrote this in an email you were condoning waterboarding as lawful?” she asked.

Gorsuch said the signing statement divided the administration and that he wasn’t a policy advocate. My “involvement in this process was as a lawyer. That’s all I was. I was a lawyer for a client,” the nominee insisted.

Gorsuch said, however, his views tended to the “gentler” side.

“There were individuals, in maybe the vice president’s office, who wanted a more aggressive signing statement along the lines you described and … there were others, including at the State Department, who wanted a gentler signing statement. And my recollection sitting here as best I can give it to you without studying the email is: I was in the latter camp.”

The 10th Circuit judge also defended a number of his rulings that have come under attack by Democrats, who say they show Gorsuch tends to favor corporations over individuals.

On his dissent involving a TransAm trucker who was fired after leaving his trailer in below-freezing temperatures, Gorsuch acknowledged, “This is one of those you take home at night.” Still, he stood by his opinion, arguing that the driver, Alphonse Maddin, would have been protected from wrongful-termination laws if he had refused to drive the vehicle altogether, but he did indeed drive the tractor while leaving behind the trailer.

Gorsuch also stood by his ruling in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, in which he sided with the craft store giant in its challenge of Obamacare’s contraceptives coverage requirement.

“If we got it wrong, I’m sorry,” Gorsuch said. “But we did our level best, and we were affirmed by the United States Supreme Court.”

And he refused to weigh in on whether Merrick Garland — Obama’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia for the vacancy Gorsuch now seeks to fill — was treated fairly by Senate Republicans last year when they refused to take up his nomination.

“I can’t get involved in politics,” Gorsuch told the committee. “There’s judicial canons that prevent me from doing that. I think it would be very imprudent of judges to start commenting on political disputes between themselves or the various branches.”

Gorsuch, described as having an “originalist” take toward the Constitution in his judicial philosophy, attempted to add nuance to his view by telling senators that he’s “not trying to take us back to quill pens and horse and buggies.”

Gorsuch also noted that he believes women can become president of the United States — even if the Constitution never describes the nation’s commander in chief as a female.

“Of course, women can be president of the United States,” Gorsuch said, getting animated. “I’m the father of two daughters. I hope one turns out to be president.”

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Tillerson's disdain for tradition leads to diplomatic dust-ups

When Rex Tillerson first took over as secretary of state, he told his new employees that he wouldn’t let “ineffective traditions” get in the way of successful outcomes.

Two months and a string of eyebrow-raising decisions later, people in and outside the State Department wonder if there’s any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping. Following President Donald Trump’s proposal to slash the diplomatic budget, some are even wondering how much of the State Department itself Tillerson plans to keep.

In the latest flap, Tillerson is planning to skip an April 5-6 gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels so that he can reportedly attend meetings between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The choice between the gatherings is a tough one, and the State Department said Tuesday morning that it had, following the news reports, offered some alternative dates for the NATO ministerial gathering.

Still, the initial decision alarmed people on left and right who pointed out that what makes it extra sensitive is that Tillerson plans to visit Russia later in the month. That means he would spend time with a NATO and U.S. rival before formally meeting with America’s NATO allies.

“At a time when questions are swirling about possible Trump administration collusion with Russia [during the 2016 election], and when our democratic allies are questioning the U.S. commitment to the alliance, skipping a NATO ministerial sends a terrible signal,” said Philip Gordon, a former top official in Barack Obama’s administration.

Republican Sen. John McCain also gently chided the secretary of state over potentially skipping the NATO session. “I regret that he could not be at that meeting. Maybe it’s an important meeting he’s having, but I would have preferred to see him here,” the Arizona senator said.

Through action and inaction, Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, has repeatedly rattled a foreign policy establishment that still hopes he will serve as a moderating influence on the brash new Republican president.

Tillerson traveled to Asia last week without the usual media cohort, a major break with tradition. Along the way, he suggested in starkly undiplomatic terms that South Korean officials had misled people about his schedule. And he appeared to partly parrot Chinese talking points on the U.S.-China relationship.

Tillerson has plenty of defenders, some of whom insist his words and actions are often taken out of context, and that he doesn’t get enough credit for some of the work he does behind the scenes.

For instance, Tillerson drew heat for not sitting in on a meeting between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli prime minister was in town in February. But Tillerson met with Netanyahu the night before, and he was heading to Europe for meetings there when Netanyahu held his session with Trump.

And yes, Tillerson may have stumbled in China when using a phrase such as “mutual respect,” which the Chinese often deploy as a way of saying the U.S. shouldn’t interfere in sensitive issues like Beijing’s role in Tibet. But the secretary also spoke of the need for Beijing to pressure North Korea on its nuclear program, and he said that the U.S. “will continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom.”

Foreign diplomats who have met Tillerson say he appears engaged and informed, and that he doesn’t simply listen but also makes America’s case. Some point out that Tillerson meets regularly with Trump, indicating that he has the president’s ear.

“The media coverage of him has been hysterical — it’s overly critical,” an ambassador from an Asian country told POLITICO. “He’s settling in and in the loop.”

But critics and supporters alike say the poor perceptions of Tillerson stem in part from his unwillingness to regularly engage with the media, which has let negative narratives about the still inexperienced diplomat fill the vacuum.

After Tillerson didn’t have dinner with South Korean officials during his trip to Asia last week, Korean media, citing Seoul officials, reported that he’d chosen to avoid a meal due to “fatigue.” Because Tillerson didn’t take a usual contingent of U.S. journalists with him — he took just one reporter, from the conservative Independent Journal Review, who was working on a longer story — the Korean narrative stood for hours without challenge or correction from U.S. journalists who would have the secretary in their sight. When Tillerson gave the IJR an interview, he implied his hosts had lied to protect themselves “optically” after never inviting him for dinner — talk that struck some as a diplomatic blunder toward an ally.

Tillerson also has failed to fill numerous vacant leadership positions at the State Department, including undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. Such staffers are key to coordinating with foreign capitals and the White House, including on scheduling. They can help avoid dust-ups such as the one facing Tillerson over the NATO ministerial. And they can be especially helpful in situations involving a country such as China, which places tremendous importance on protocol and would view Tillerson’s absence from the presidents’ meeting as a sign that he lacks influence.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said U.S. officials had on Tuesday morning put forth alternative dates for the NATO foreign ministers’ gathering — “The secretary certainly wants to be there if he can.” Reports the previous night indicated that Tillerson had rebuffed offers from NATO officials to reschedule, though Toner downplayed that characterization. Toner also noted that Tillerson will meet many of the same NATO members during a summit in Washington this week of the international coalition battling the Islamic State, although the agenda obviously will be different.

David Wade, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry, was sympathetic to Tillerson’s situation, saying that all too often “scheduling becomes substance.”

“The secretary of state is in demand like no other foreign minister on the planet and you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Wade said. “You benefit from hopefully having an early warning system of assistant secretaries in place who can help manage the calendar to avoid train wrecks, but even that’s no fail-safe.”

Instead, Tillerson is surrounded by a small group of White House-approved aides who carefully curate access to him. Margaret Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff, is said by sources in the department to be a bottleneck, hindering people’s ability to reach the secretary.

That has left large sections of the building still feeling cut off and adrift; State employees say they often find themselves with little to do because there’s not much policy guidance coming down and there are few people in permanent leadership positions to give them orders. Some worry that State, which many analysts say has been ceding influence to the National Security Council and other parts of the government for decades, could be rendered irrelevant in the new administration.

The staffers who have met Tillerson say they find him pleasant, direct and engaged, but they acknowledge he’s still learning the sensitivities of managing a public institution dedicated to diplomacy. During his recent stop in Japan, for example, he didn’t stop by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to greet his employees, another break with tradition that some saw as a snub.

Tillerson is reviewing the structure of the State Department, much of which may change even if the steep cuts envisioned in the president’s budget proposal never become a reality. Trump wants to cut roughly 30 percent of the budget for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Tillerson has indicated he’ll make it work if he must. In any case, State employees are preparing for significant restructuring, though not necessarily blaming Tillerson.

“As people who have been through this before, those of us who have recognize that there’s still a long way to go,” a State Department official said of the budget plans. “It has not reached a panic.”

For his part, Tillerson doesn’t appear too worried about the flare-ups his decisions are causing. In his interview with IJR, he responded to questions about his lack of engagement with reporters by casting it as a personality trait.

“I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it,” he said. But he also acknowledged that “the media is very important to help me communicate not just to the American people, but to others in the world that are listening.”

“When I have something important and useful to say, I know where everybody is and I know how to go out there and say it,” Tillerson further told the conservative outlet. “But if I don’t because we’re still formulating and we’re still deciding what we’re going to do, there is not going to be a lot to say.”

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Trump's penchant for vengeance casts shadow on health care vote

President Donald Trump didn’t have to issue his threat seriously — “I’m gonna come after you,” he said jokingly to a ringleader of House GOP hardliners opposing his health care bill — to be taken seriously by the 200 Republicans gathered in the Capitol basement.

For a president with a penchant for vengeance – who named “an eye for an eye” as his favorite biblical passage, who banned media outlets from campaign events when he didn’t approve of their coverage, who ousted a GOP state chairman after the election whom he viewed as disloyal, who reminded a GOP governor just last week who didn’t endorse him that “I never forget” – the roll call vote on the Republican health care plan, expected Thursday, will be the first accounting of who’s with him and who’s against him on Capitol Hill.

Those close to Trump describe his largely binary world view: you’re either on Team Trump or against Team Trump. “Get even with people,” Trump outlined his philosophy in a 2011 speech. “If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.”

The president may be ideologically flexible, even to the point of disinterest, on the particulars of the health care legislation. But Trump’s been clear and consistent about one message: He wants it done.

“I honestly think many of you will lose your seats in 2018 if you don’t get this done,” Trump warned House Republicans on Tuesday.

One senior administration official said that what the president was suggesting was “not revenge” – just simply political “reality.” But the combination of Trump’s history of score-settling, his offhand remark at Tuesday’s conference and the significance of the looming vote has created an undercurrent of fear of retribution in the House.

“There probably should be,” Rep. James Comer, who flew on Air Force One with Trump this week, said he’ll back the bill despite lingering concerns about how it will affect the large number of expanded Medicaid recipients he represents, because his constituents clearly want him to side with Trump. “In the members’ districts that are still on the fence or a no, he won their districts by huge margins. They’re mainly in the southern states. They’re in Republican, very pro-Trump districts. I think they’re going to think long and hard about ‘Do I want to vote against the president?’”

Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., supports the bill but said of his undecided colleagues, “It’s something I would definitely factor in if I were in their shoes.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer wouldn’t rule out Tuesday that Trump could seek to take out wayward Republicans in 2018 primaries. “Let’s get through the vote,” Spicer said, adding, “I’m not going to focus on the negative as much as the positive today.”

Both the president and vice president held recent rallies in Kentucky, the home state of Sen. Rand Paul, who has slammed the health bill as “Obamacare lite.” For now, Trump is playing nice. “I happen to like, a lot, Sen. Rand Paul. I do. I do. I like him. Good. He’s a good guy. And I look forward to working with him so that we can get this bill passed in some form,” Trump said Monday night in Louisville.

A House leadership aide said the two Kentucky trips have sent a loud enough message to bring some wavering GOP lawmakers off the fence and into the fold. A top Republican strategist with close ties to the leadership called fear of presidential payback a powerful “weapon in the armament” of Speaker Paul Ryan as he wrangles votes.

“I think it looms over these members and I don’t think any one of them wants to feel the horns,” the strategist said.

They’ve already seen what happens when Trump is crossed.

On the campaign, Trump’s first campaign manager Corey Lewandowski dubbed Trump a great “counter-puncher.” Trump rarely suffered a slight, or even a perceived slight, that he didn’t want to take a swing at.

He read Sen. Lindsey Graham’s personal cell phone number aloud on national television to get back at him, sued an estranged former campaign adviser for $10 million and threatened to sue the numerous women who accused him of groping them. He fought publicly with a Gold Star family who had lost their son in Iraq and a former Miss Universe whom he once called fat.

After the Access Hollywood tape came out last October in which Trump bragged of grabbing women unwantedly, one Republican operative who spoke with him at the time said Trump lit into the those Republicans who were abandoning him in an explicative-laden tirade about how he was going to “f—“ Republican after Republican who did so.

Bygones are simply not his style. Trump still ribs Vice President Mike Pence in public for first endorsing his primary opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz. He has warned he would personally fund a super PAC against Ohio Gov. John Kasich if he ever runs for office again after Kasich refused to endorse him, and Trump personally made phone calls to state party committee members after the election to oust Kasich’s hand-picked state party chairman, an unusually micro level of involvement for a president-elect.

Just last week, in Detroit, he pointed out to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder that he hadn’t endorsed him.

“I never forget,” said Trump, who has also blocked those who opposed him during the campaign from landing senior jobs as part of his administration in Washington.

Trump’s penchant for payback is not new. In 1992, after he went through bankruptcy, Trump told Charlie Rose about how he relished the chance to exact revenge on those who failed to come to his aid in tough times.

“I would have wiped the floor with the guys that weren’t loyal. Which I will now do. Which is great, you know, I love getting even with people,” Trump said, adding with a smirk, “You don’t believe in ‘the eye for the eye’?

Last Friday, Trump had some members of the conservative Republican Study Committee over to the White House and asked them, one by one, to pledge support for the bill. “Every single person in this room is now a yes,” he bragged afterward.

Among those who offered their backing was freshman GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana. He said fear of retribution wasn’t a factor for him. “Perhaps I’m an anomaly,” he said, “I’m not concerned about being tweeted at or any of the things that some of my colleagues might be concerned about.”

Trump has lashed out after setbacks since taking office — from judges’ rulings against his immigration executive order to stories about West Wing infighting — but a failure of his health bill on the floor would be the most serious yet.

At the House GOP conference meeting on Tuesday, Trump asked Rep. Mark Meadows, an early endorser who’s also the head of the House Freedom Caucus group that’s led the charge against the health bill, to stand. That’s when he issued his half-joking threat and predicted, in the end, that Meadows would “get on board.”

Meadows exited to a hallway where he told reporters he was still a no vote — for now.

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Trump, GOP leaders lack votes to pass Obamacare repeal

Despite a frantic lobbying effort, President Donald Trump and House GOP leaders are still short of the votes they need to pass their Obamacare replacement bill, just two days before the legislation is set to be taken up on the floor.

Conservative hard-liners from the House Freedom Caucus are threatening to derail the legislation, saying revisions announced on Monday night don’t go far enough. A handful of moderate Republicans are also balking at the Trump-backed measure. They’re worried about damaging themselves politically by voting for a proposal that will never make it through the Senate.

The upshot is that Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders are dealing with a legislative balloon — whenever they push on one side, it pops out somewhere else. Every concession or revision they make has the potential to cause more problems for the other end of the conference.

White House officials and Republican leaders remain optimistic that they will get the 215 votes they need, but it will be very tight.

Hours after being singled out by Trump over his opposition to the Republican health care plan, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said his group of conservatives still has the votes to block the bill. Freedom Caucus insiders say the group has 27 members who are firmly against it or leaning “no.”

House GOP leaders can afford to lose only 22 members on the bill.

Trump, eager to stave off an embarrassing defeat that could hobble his legislative agenda for the rest of the year, has dramatically stepped up his efforts to shift votes.

After personally calling out Meadows during a GOP Conference meeting Tuesday, Trump held a series of face-to-face meetings with lawmakers later in the day. At a bill-signing ceremony in the West Wing Tuesday afternoon, Trump pulled aside a number of Freedom Caucus members, including Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), to try to cajole them to support the package.

Later in the afternoon, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) escorted a group of more than 15 moderate members to the Oval Office to meet with Trump. And the president will continue to buttonhole GOP members at a high-profile fundraiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee Tuesday night.

“I think these group meetings are great,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “[Members] can explain, they get the one-on-one; members get to talk about what the concerns are. The president’s really become very versed in it. I was really impressed by it … He’s been very flexible with his time.”

Yet GOP leaders and White House officials privately admit they’re still short of the votes they need.

“We’re not there yet,” said a top House Republican. “I think we’ll get there, especially with Trump working it, but we’re not there right now.”

Freedom Caucus sources said the group is planning to hold a news conference early Wednesday to trumpet its opposition to the bill, despite Trump’s pleas for support. The group’s leaders hope to have all 27 members who oppose or are leaning against the measure show up, as well as ultraconservatives in the Senate who oppose it.

“I serve at the will of 750,000 people in western North Carolina, and my primary job, more than anything else, is to serve them,” Meadows told reporters Tuesday. “I believe I am representing them in opposing this bill because it won’t lower premiums. And until it does I’m going to be a no — even if it sends me home.”

Meadows also met privately with Vice President Mike Pence after the GOP Conference meeting, but did not change his position. The lawmaker said Pence did not lean too hard on him.

“Was it brass knuckles or bare fists? No,” Meadows said afterward.

Scalise and other members of leadership met with Meadows again during the day but got nowhere.

Despite Trump’s victory in November, and their claims of fealty and support for the new president, Freedom Caucus members remain the key bloc of votes in the House GOP Conference. These recalcitrant conservatives have dogged Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for years, and if Trump can’t move them, the thinking is nobody can.

Influential Washington-based conservative outside groups — including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action — have come out against the final version of the bill and are pressuring lawmakers to vote against it.

Ryan and GOP leaders plan to take the bill to the floor Thursday regardless of what they expect the outcome to be, despite the problems that could occur if they lose, GOP lawmakers and aides told POLITICO. They’re hoping that Trump’s message to the GOP Conference Tuesday will sink in over the next 48 hours and persuade enough members to back the measure.

“We still have two days before the vote,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the chief deputy majority whip. “This did the right thing and helped move members. And it was the right thing for the president to come in and take ownership of this.”

McHenry insisted that Trump wasn’t threatening Meadows, despite the fact that the president had singled out the North Carolina Republican several times during the closed GOP Conference meeting.

“The president said publicly and privately he likes Mark Meadows, that Meadows is going to work with him, and Meadows has said likewise,” McHenry added. “I think [Meadows] will get to yes.”

Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), one of the few Freedom Caucus members who has a close relationship with GOP leadership, said Trump’s remarks at the Conference meeting — and the building pressure — just “steels my resolve.”

“The way it stands right now, no,” he would not vote for the bill, Blum told POLITICO. “Not because of the Freedom Caucus, but because I’m a free-marketer and I’m a businessman. … And the present bill doesn’t give us a free market. I want health insurance premiums to come down. … This bill doesn’t give us a free market.”

Blum’s position appears to be a significant problem for GOP leaders, since he’s seen as more willing to engage on potential compromises than other Freedom Caucus members.

Even one of Trump’s closest allies in the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, remains opposed to the GOP health care legislation. Trump tried to work the Tennessee Republican during a trip on Air Force One last week. Yet DesJarlais told him he was afraid a vote in favor would haunt him the way tax increases haunted President George H.W. Bush, according to a source familiar with their conversation.

“When we get it right, I’ll be there,“ DesJarlais said after leaving the GOP Conference meeting. “If he’s going to put his name on this,” the Tennessee Republican said of Trump, “we need it to work.”

Still, the entire Freedom Caucus is not opposing the bill, and the group hasn’t take a formal stance. GOP leaders have solidified the support of Reps. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) and Dave Schweikert (R-Ariz.), for instance, though Schweikert acknowledged that he is an “outlier” among his conservative colleagues.

More moderate Republicans remain a problem as well. They worry about efforts to cut off Medicaid for those who signed up under Obamacare, or the impact the GOP plan could have on the working poor.

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), after meeting with Trump on Tuesday afternoon, said he still intends to vote against the plan.

“[Trump] wanted to hear our concerns, and he certainly did hear our concerns,” Lance said. “I think we need to make sure health care policy is accessible to those who need health care policy, and I don’t think this legislation does that.”

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), probably the most high-profile moderate, declared he has just as many reservations about the bill after meeting with Trump as he did going into the Oval Office powwow.

And Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, one of Trump’s earliest and most ardent backers on Capitol Hill, announced on Twitter that he would vote against the American Health Care Act after Trump’s personal plea for passage.

“Due to my concern over lack of verification that tax credits won’t go to people unlawfully in U.S.,” Barletta wrote, “I can’t support AHCA in its current form.”

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Trump and the art of the health deal

President Donald Trump may be hands-off when it comes to health policy, but the task of corralling Republicans is right up his alley. His work to close the deal on the GOP bill to repeal Obamacare harks back his days as a developer who mixed hyperbole with weighty-sounding promises and/or threats to get what he wanted.

The sprawling amendment GOP leaders unveiled Monday night in a bid to win over wavering Republicans contained gifts for wary moderates and unruly conservatives, all wrapped in bare-knuckle rhetoric. The promise is big rewards or punishments — choose your own ending. But it’s still too soon to know whether Trump, who craves drama as much as he loves to look like a winner, comes out on top when the House votes Thursday.

Call it the art of the health care deal.

Here’s a look at five key elements:

1) Cover your back

The updated bill calls for additional tax credits for older Americans, which are meant to neutralize one of the most startling findings from last week’s CBO analysis — the dramatically higher costs projected for older people, a key Trump voting bloc. Poorer, older people were expected to be hit especially hard by the GOP health plan, thanks to far less generous aid and new insurance rules that would allow them to be charged five times more for coverage than younger people.

The boosted tax credits are aimed at winning over more persuadable moderates, who wanted reassurance that the funding preserves insurance for a few million additional people. GOP sources have pegged the cost of the increased aid at $85 billion.

Here’s the rub — the bill doesn’t actually include that pot of money. It instructs the Senate to build in the funding when that chamber gets to work on the measure. The idea was to give House conservatives who worry about spending a cleaner conscience, since they didn’t actually approve the funding. But a few conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus don’t sound as if they’re any happier.

2) Know when to buy off the opposition

Conservatives already were pleased with the how the repeal bill would end Medicaid as an open-ended entitlement and cap federal payments to states — a policy goal they’ve pursued for years. But the package of changes gives them even more, by allowing governors to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients and letting states convert their Medicaid programs into block grants. Both were long-sought policy changes: The Obama administration had rebuffed states who sought approval for Medicaid work requirements.

Heritage Foundation welfare expert Robert Rector notes the work requirements are largely symbolic and somewhat ironic, coming after the GOP largely failed to attach similar conditions on cash, food and housing aid for more than a decade. Moreover, it might be politically dicey to enforce a work requirement on a sick person who appears in a clinic or hospital emergency room. The manager’s amendment would provide extra federal money to help states do so, possibly by enrolling the sick person prospectively in Medicaid, then requiring participation in a workfare program or job search at some point in the future.

The block grants also sync up with the conservative argument that states are better positioned than the federal government to help their low-income residents. Florida Gov. Rick Scott this week argued for that approach for his state’s $26 billion Medicaid program, as he pressed for relief from a federal requirement that Florida retroactively cover health care costs for new Medicaid beneficiaries, among other things.

3) Offer more sweeteners, aka the ‘Buffalo Bribe’

The package contains language brokered by Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) designed to win the support of his state’s GOP representatives. It would transfer more of the burden of caring for Medicaid beneficiaries from counties to the state. Currently, New York’s Medicaid program relies on contributions from the federal, state and counties — and Collins argues the burden is greater on counties than in other states.

The so-called Buffalo Bribe (Collins’s congressional district more or less circles that city.) continues the tradition of trying to manipulate Medicaid payment policies to buy off votes. During the bitter fight over Obamacare, ex-Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) carved out a deal that came to be known as the “Cornhusker Kickback,” in the form of a permanent exemption from the state share of Medicaid expansion for Nebraska. The New York language played well with the likes of Rep. Claudia Tenney who represents an upstate district, but got panned by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

4) Let the holdouts know revenge is an option

Trump didn’t explicitly threaten House Republicans Tuesday he would work to unseat them if they opposed this bill, but his message seemed to contain a veiled warning.

“Many of you came in on the pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Trump said. “I honestly think many of you will lose your seats in 2018 if you don’t get this done.”

Trump has made clear that setbacks on health care threatened to delay or derail the rest of his agenda on taxes and trade, for instance. And as he recently told Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who didn’t endorse him during the campaign, he never forgets any slight.

At the same time, conservatives inclined to support Trump are facing competing pressure from an influential conservative group to oppose the repeal bill. Heritage Action and Club for Growth said the changes to the bill still don’t go far enough to repeal Obamacare.

5) Dangle something else before them

Trump has cast Thursday’s planned House vote on the repeal plan as precondition to moving onto other, bigger pieces of his agenda. At a rally in Louisville, Ky., Monday night, and in other appearances, he’s sounded more energized about taxes, trade, manufacturing and his “America First” foreign policy.

“We want a very big tax cut,” Trump said in Louisville, “but we cannot do that until we keep our promise to repeal and replace the disaster known as Obamacare.”

Trump also used the speech to circle back to drug prices — a potential carrot for the fence-sitters and a possible bipartisan rallying point in Congress. He repeated his pledge to bring the cost of prescription medicines “way, way, way down,” either by adding a drug-cost measure to the repeal bill or addressing the issue in subsequent legislation.

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FBI’s Trump-Russia probe knocks White House on its heels

The White House was knocked on the defensive Monday ahead of its biggest week yet on Capitol Hill as FBI Director James Comey confirmed the existence of an active investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, including whether there was any coordination with now-President Donald Trump’s team.

The dramatic revelation, made at a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, dragged the Trump administration yet again back into uncomfortable territory just as it had hoped to highlight the smooth rollout of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who began his confirmation hearings across the Capitol on Monday.

In another blow to Trump, Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers also publicly refuted his unsubstantiated claims on Twitter that President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower phones. The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had said last week that Trump’s allegations were untrue.

“I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said.

The White House scrambled to contain the fallout, deploying two simultaneous war rooms, according to two people familiar with the arrangement, one in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to monitor the Comey hearing and another in the Senate offices to keep tabs on Gorsuch.

But any hopes in the West Wing for a split-screen day were dashed with the revelation of an active probe into campaign associates of the president. At the White House, televisions in the press offices played the Comey hearing as it ran live on all the cable networks.

“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey said. “And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”

Comey said the probe will “include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

Comey himself tried not to overstate the investigation, and he drew laughter when pushed on whether talk of Trump’s ties to Russia was a form of “McCarthyism.”

“I try very hard not to engage in any ‘isms’ of any kind, including McCarthyism,” he said.

He also revealed that the FBI launched its investigation into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials back in July — a detail that enraged allies of Hillary Clinton, considering Comey chose to confirm the existence of the probe into her email arrangement but not the one into Trump’s campaign.

The White House tried to downplay Comey’s testimony, as Trump escaped to Louisville for a rally where he won a thunderous reception from an adoring crowd that cared not about whatever had been said on Capitol Hill earlier in the day.

“We’re in the heartland of America and there is no place I would rather be than here with you tonight,” Trump said.

Back in Washington, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer was peppered with questions as he insisted the FBI investigation would reveal no wrongdoing.

“As has been previously reported, Director Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating Russia’s role in interfering with the election,” Spicer said. “Following this testimony, it’s clear that nothing has changed. Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion. The Obama CIA director said so, Obama’s director of national intelligence said so, and we take them at their word.”

Spicer also repeatedly tried to cast former national security adviser Michael Flynn as the victim of illegal leaks, seeking to point reporters’ focus to the circumstances around which Flynn’s pre-inauguration phone calls with the Russian ambassador were revealed. It was a tactic followed by Republicans on Capitol Hill, who mostly ignored Russian interference in the election and opted to focus on leaks to the press.

Spicer said reporters needed to take “no” for an answer about collusion, and he said more attention should be paid to other issues, like leakers and any contact between Clinton’s campaign and Russia. He also sought to minimize the role in the campaign of some people who have been linked to Russia or WikiLeaks, including former campaign adviser Carter Page, longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone and former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort.

Spicer also expressed confidence that the FBI investigation would reveal no wrongdoing.

“As has been previously reported, Director Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating Russia’s role in interfering with the election,” Spicer said. “Following this testimony, it’s clear that nothing has changed. Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion. The Obama CIA director said so, Obama’s director of national intelligence said so, and we take them at their word.”

Spicer said reporters needed to take “no” for an answer about collusion, and he said more attention should be paid to other issues, like leakers and any contact between Clinton’s campaign and Russia. He also sought to minimize the role in the campaign of some people who have been linked to Russia or WikiLeaks, including former campaign adviser Carter Page, longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone and former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort.

Manafort played a “limited role” in the campaign, Spicer said, despite the fact that Manafort managed the campaign as chairman throughout much of the summer and through the Republican National Convention. Spicer said he is not aware of anyone currently serving in the White House who is a subject of the FBI investigation.

In addition to Gorsuch’s confirmation, the House is pushing for a floor vote Thursday on the plan of Speaker Paul Ryan and the White House to repeal and replace Obamacare. There was some hope that the focus on Comey and Gorsuch could allow House whips and Trump vote-counters a chance to round up support for the bill without the full glare of the media, but one senior White House aide dismissed the idea.

“I don’t think I’m clever enough to figure out how to use the Comey hearing to get votes for health care,” the official said.

Trump’s war room teams, meanwhile, offered a preview of what is likely to come as they cherry-picked elements from Comey and Rogers to make it seem as if Russia hadn’t meddled in the election.

“The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process,” Trump tweeted with a clip of the testimony from the official @POTUS account.

That is not accurate, or, at the least, is misleading. Comey and Rogers testified that Russia had not altered vote tallies, though they acknowledged they could not judge whether the Russian efforts had any influence on voters.

Trump himself began the pushback before the hearings even began, with a burst of morning tweets attacking the media, Clinton, polls and the Democratic Party. “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!” Trump tweeted.

Republicans on the Hill followed that lead, aggressively questioning how classified information had leaked while giving lighter treatment to the existence of the FBI investigation and its implications for the president.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) seemed to suggest that journalists should be prosecuted for printing classified information. He implored Comey to say leaks to The Washington Post and The New York Times were being investigated. (Comey declined.)

Meanwhile, Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said the Clinton Foundation and Clinton campaign need more examination regarding Russia ties. And Republican Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas tried to cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian interference aimed to help Trump.

The top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, tried to keep the focus on the newly confirmed FBI probe.

“If the Trump campaign, or anybody associated with it, aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history,” Schiff said.

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