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Inside Alabama’s Strange Senate race

Luther Strange’s tenure in the Senate is not even four months old, having been handed his Alabama seat by a scandal-plagued governor who resigned on the cusp of impeachment by lawmakers in Montgomery. But Republicans in Washington are going all out to rescue Strange in his campaign this year, treating him like a beloved Senate veteran.

The multimillion-dollar push in a state that Democrats have almost no chance of winning is intended to help Strange muscle through a crowded primary field that includes two bomb-throwing conservatives apt to cause Mitch McConnell some major headaches should they defeat the appointed senator.

The Senate Leadership Fund, the powerful super PAC with close ties to the majority leader, has already reserved $2.65 million in TV airtime and is pledging up to $10 million in the conservative state. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has warned political consultants about working for Strange’s competitors. One of Strange’s challengers is already complaining that McConnell is stifling his fundraising.

And influential GOP senators are sending not-so-subtle signals that they aren’t eager to have anyone but Strange return to the Senate after the Aug. 15 primary and a potential runoff in September.

“I won’t mention any names,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), also a two-time NRSC chairman. “But we do need people who are interested in being constructive, because obviously we have a razor-thin margin of 52 [votes] and we can’t go backwards. We need to go forward.”

The rally behind Strange, a former Tulane University basketball player whose 6-foot 9-inch profile is befitting of his “Big Luther” moniker, is in one respect unsurprising: The GOP conference has a longstanding policy of defending its incumbents. That standard will play out in other states this cycle where Republicans are facing primary threats, such as Arizona and Mississippi.

“The message needs to be sent that we protect our incumbents,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “Before there’s ever a discussion about other potential races [where] we may want to pick up a new seat, first and foremost we have to make sure that our colleagues understand that they’re a priority.”

But it’s also true Strange’s two most formidable opponents in the Alabama GOP primary — Rep. Mo Brooks and Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice — would inject some uncertainty to an already balky Senate majority by taking hardline social positions and potentially obstructing their agenda. It doesn’t hurt that Strange is polished, predictable and low-key, in addition to having existing relationships with many Republicans from the South.

Meanwhile, Brooks and Moore are attempting to capitalize on Strange’s establishment backing. In Brooks’ view, the support coalescing behind Strange is merely another example of the Washington “swamp” that Donald Trump pledged to drain on the campaign trail.

“For these Republican swamp critters to spend millions upon millions of dollars protecting an appointed placeholder, appointed by a disgraced governor, I just don’t get it,” Brooks said in a recent interview from the Capitol. (In response, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, noted of the four-term lawmaker: “He’s part of that swamp, though. When did he get elected?”)

Other Strange allies say Brooks is plenty swampish himself, having received donations from the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as the political action committees of former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his successor, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. He was also a leadership-backed “Young Gun” in 2010.

Moore argued that the influx of cash and resources into the Alabama race will ultimately matter little.

“The people of Alabama don’t buy this sort of political approach,” he said in a phone interview. “To spend up $50 million on a candidate that hasn’t been elected and was appointed by a governor that was impeached? That seems to be strange.”

Moore then corrected himself: “I should say, unusual.”

The conservative jurist is currently leading in the polls, but national Republicans hope to push Strange at least to the primary runoff on Sept. 26 and then win there. Moore has strong name identification from his time on the state Supreme Court, although Strange himself has won two statewide races as attorney general and also ran for lieutenant governor.

Brooks and Moore could siphon support from each other, while Strange backers were relieved when Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh — who could’ve plucked votes from Strange — said earlier this month that he would not run for the seat.

Establishment Republicans also believe they have a straightforward strategy to taking down Moore and Brooks: Hammering them as reluctant Trump supporters in a state where the president is still deeply popular. Brooks, who endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the GOP presidential nomination, previously called Trump “destructive” and complained of his “gutter-mouth tendencies.” Moore’s wife, Kayla, also backed Cruz in the primary.

“I’ve always been supportive of President Trump and his agenda and that’s what people in the state that I talk to care about,” Strange said in an interview. “My two opponents, I haven’t looked at their record but I don’t think they were supportive of President Trump.”

And Strange, who replaced Jeff Sessions when he was confirmed as attorney general, embraces the backing from fellow Republicans in Washington.

“I’m really proud to have the support of my colleagues. They, more than anyone, knew and worked with Jeff Sessions and for them to find me the worthy successor to Sen. Sessions is very encouraging,” Strange said. “I feel very comfortable being compared to Sen. Sessions.”

The support for Strange is not unanimous. Cruz — whose old presidential campaign manager, Jeff Roe, is now working for Strange — notably declined to endorse Strange when asked by POLITICO, saying he still abides by his practice of staying out of primaries involving incumbent senators.

For his part, Brooks — who has also faced attacks from the Senate Leadership Fund that he’s been an ineffective lawmaker — argues that he was “instrumental in my communications” with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in crafting the House’s bill to repeal Obamacare and ultimately muscling it through the chamber. And Moore also says he’s supportive of Trump’ agenda.

“I agree with him on many things. Not because I know him, but because I know things need to be changed on our health care, education, military, foreign relations,” Moore said. “I support the president’s attempt to change things.”

Moore would certainly be an outlier in the Republican conference and proudly brags about being “not part of the establishment.” He was removed as the state’s chief justice in 2003 for opposing the removal of a Ten Commandments statue from the state Capitol, but was later elected again, before then being suspended for not enforcing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. He maintains that anti-gay marriage position today and says the Supreme Court had “no authority” to legalize it.

Brooks, meanwhile, has argued in the past that Democrats have declared a “war on whites” and has made his mark in the Capitol for his hardline stances on immigration.

Both Brooks and Moore declined to say whether they would support McConnell as Republican leader.

“I don’t know Sen. McConnell,” Moore fumed. “Obviously he doesn’t support me. He called up consultants and made it very difficult to raise money.”

Strange will have his own questions to answer. The biggest liability is likely the circumstances in which Strange was tapped by former Gov. Robert Bentley, who was embroiled in a lurid sex scandal before he resigned earlier this year. Last November, Strange — then the attorney general — asked a House committee investigating a potential Bentley impeachment to hold off while his office conducted “related work.”

Brooks says he professes “no judgment one way or the other” about Strange’s history with Bentley. And Strange himself has argued that there was no impropriety, saying last month shortly after Bentley’s resignation that “everything I did was working with and on the advice of the best public corruption team in the United States in America.”

Democrats have no illusion that they can flip the Alabama Senate seat, and they have no plans for now to get behind a candidate in their field. But the chaotic GOP primary has nonetheless prompted them to peer one eye down south.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the campaign arm is “following the developments in Alabama very closely.”

Indeed, the battle in Alabama appears likely to get nasty, expensive and unpredictable.

“I can’t second-guess the primary,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s senior senator. “I don’t know. It’s Aug. 15, that’s a long time. You kidding me?”

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Kushner’s alleged Russia backchannel attempt would be serious break from protocol

Jared Kushner’s alleged discussions with Russia’s ambassador about potentially establishing backchannel communications during the transition would have been viewed as not only highly improper but possibly even illegal, according to former national security officials.

President Donald Trump’s team on Saturday tried to downplay reports from the Washington Post and others that ambassador Sergey Kislyak told his superiors that Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, made the proposal during an early December meeting and suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities for the clandestine communications. It appears the backchannel was never set up.

“We have backchannel communications with a number of countries,” Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told American reporters traveling with Trump at the G7 summit in Sicily. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”

Former national security officials who spoke with POLITICO on Saturday were not so dismissive.

Many said that while presidents often set up backchannel communications with various countries, it’s neither wise nor normal for a president-elect to set up such continuing contact before the inauguration, despite likely pressure from foreign countries.

Also, the idea of using the equipment of a foreign country, especially an adversary such as Russia, would be acutely alarming.

“If candidate Trump, a private citizen, had a backchannel that would be very serious,” said Bill Smullen, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell in the administration of George W. Bush. “He had no business.”

A former senior State Department official said there’s a high likelihood that the Russians pushed Trump’s transition team to set up clandestine communications — and that Trump’s aides should have said no.

“Invariably, foreign governments will try to establish a continuing contact with a new president-elect as soon as the November election result is in,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the official’s past communications with Trump’s team. “My advice has been to respond ‘Thanks a lot, we look forward to being in touch with you after January 20th.’”

The new allegations add to the deepening scandal regarding Trump and ties between his campaign and Russian leaders, who have been accused by U.S. intelligence officials of trying to tip the election Trump’s ways.

While much of the attention has been on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, increased scrutiny is being placed on Kushner, who reportedly failed to disclose the extent of his contacts with Russian officials during and after the campaign.

But the allegation that Kushner — with Flynn in the room — discussed setting up clandestine communications with Russian officials during the transition marks some of the damaging accusations to date.

National security officials who worked in the Obama administration were particularly concerned by the reports, which indicate Trump’s aides were trying to avoid having Obama officials overhear their conversations with the Russians.

“What could the Trump transition team not have the U.S. government hear them saying?” said Ned Price, a former CIA officer and National Security Council spokesman in the Obama administration. “Obviously this is improper and may have been illegal. … You don’t have an innocuous explanation for this. You can’t attribute this to carelessness.”

“The fact that they would want to hide it not just from the U.S. public but the U.S. government is unusual, and then they would want to embed the channel inside the Russian intelligence apparatus, if true, is entirely shocking and unprecedented,” said Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia under the Obama administration. “It’s beyond improper.”

It’s unclear what the consequences could be for Kushner and others if the reports are proven true. At a minimum, the allegations pose a major political problem that could endanger Kushner’s White House role and could fuel impeachment talk for Trump.

On the more severe side, such communications could test the Logan Act, a largely dormant statute that bans private citizens from interfering with U.S. diplomatic relations.

In general, backchannel communication between heads of state and their surrogates has a long history, but what sets this situation apart is that the discussions allegedly took place before Trump took office and were meant to circumvent the official channels of the administration that remained in power.

“Back channels are a tried and true form of secret diplomacy,” according to Peter Kornbluh, a researcher at the National Security Archive at George Washington University and co-author of the recent book Back Channel to Cuba.

For example, “Bobby Kennedy became personal and trusted emissary of his brother President Kennedy probably at the most critical and dangerous time in modern history,” during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union, he said. “President Nixon used one in the opening to China. There were back channels to [Communist leader] Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. Every president from Eisenhower to Obama used a back channel to approach Fidel Castro in Cuba and his brother Raul.”

But the key question in this case is when Trump or his aides may have discussed such communications with Putin and other Russian leaders, Kornbluh and others said — and for what purpose.

“What distinguishes Trump is he wasn’t president when they tried to set it up,” Kornbluh said. “With the cloud of the Russian scandal hanging over his head, it is not clear why he would want to cut everybody out. The question that is not being posed much by the press so far is whether Kushner and Flynn were acting alone. Usually the president has known about these back channels because he initiated them.”

Smullen, Powell’s former chief of staff, agreed with that analysis.

“Backchannels are very common. People have used them all the time. They can be a safety valve for things that can be explosive,” said Smullen, who recalled such efforts with the Soviets when he was an aide to Admiral William Crowe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Cold war.

Smullen added that President Trump has every right to have a backchannel, but President-elect Trump would not.

Still others urged caution, saying this latest controversy could be part of a more advanced Russian plot, especially because the Washington Post report cited intelligence reports in which Kislyak talked with his superiors about Kushner’s alleged proposal.

“Typically, the Russian clandestine subversion specialists, being the best in the world in this demonical art form, operate in double, triple and sometimes multiple tactical plot lines,” said the former State Department official. “For example, in the media report … that the U.S. has intercepted a message from Kislyak to the Kremlin saying that Kushner had proposed a backchannel connection during the transition period, it has to be understood that Kislyak knows perfectly well that all his communications are being intercepted by the U.S.”

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Russia scandal casts uncertainty over Kushner’s future role

Once the untouchable son-in-law in a White House where top aides jockey for the president’s ear, Jared Kushner has now been cast in a new role: reassuring people that he’s not going to resign, while colleagues question whether he can survive politically.

Any victory lap Kushner hoped to enjoy after pulling off a successful presidential foreign trip to the Middle East was cut short after the Washington Post reported that during the transition he discussed setting up a secret backchannel with the Russian Ambassador. He also failed to disclose earlier phone calls with Russian officials, according to a Reuters report.

The backchannel was never established. But the news puts Kushner squarely in the middle of a wide-ranging FBI investigation into whether Trump campaign advisers were working with Russian operatives to influence the results of the 2016 election.

And it means that the main architect of Trump’s visit to the Middle East is now the lead distraction that will greet the president, who was flying home from nine days abroad on Saturday, returning from what was seen as overall a successful foreign trip.

“It’s clear that Jared Kushner will be under intense scrutiny at a time when his father-in-law has named him everything but Chief Cook and Bottle Washer,” said Democratic strategist David Axelrod, a former top White House adviser to President Barack Obama. “It’s bad for the prospects of calm at the White House.”

Kushner’s allies are quick to point out that he hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, and his lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, has said he volunteered to share with Congress anything he knows about meetings with the Russians. People familiar with the matter also speculated that Kislyak may have exaggerated Kushner’s role in his version of events.

A senior administration official said there was widespread concern, predating the foreign trip, that Kushner was in trouble – but “no one that I know has been asked to provide documents” and that it wasn’t talked about openly in the White House or staff meetings.

“No one knows what to make of it because he’s there every day, making decisions, in the Oval,” this person said. “So everyone just tries to act normal.”

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

But outside of Kushner’s small circle of trust – a group that includes Kushner’s wife Ivanka Trump, and advisers Hope Hicks, Josh Raffel, Dina Powell, Gary Cohn, Chris Liddell and Reed Cordish – many West Wing advisers are simultaneously rattled by the backchannel revelations, and feeling a sense of schadenfreude.

The focus on a family member also brings the Russia-related heat closer to Trump. Kushner has risen so quickly in the White House that his colleagues grumble about “principal confusion” — when a staffer thinks that the reflected spotlight of the boss is actually shining on him. Colleagues have rolled their eyes that Kushner has hired a communications adviser to work on his own portfolio. That aide, Raffel, traveled abroad with him to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Rome.

Kushner, who some say has sealed himself off from the competing White House power centers, may now be in a position of needing allies. And the pool of people in New York City eager to come to his defense has shrunk.

Internally at the White House, according to multiple sources, there is a feeling of resentment among people about Kushner’s special status as a family member, and a feeling that it’s about time for him to have a turn under the gun.

There is also a sense of uncertainty about how long Kushner and Ivanka Trump – who associates say likes, but doesn’t love, Washington – are planning to stick it out. Some have noted that they rent their Kalorama mansion, which allows them to keep their options of moving back to Manhattan more open.

But for now, according to a person familiar with the situation, Kushner isn’t going anywhere.

On Friday, a White House official said, Kushner was back in his West Wing office and had a working lunch with chief of staff Reince Priebus to recap the trip.

Kushner, who flew home from Rome commercial on Thursday with his wife, Ivanka, after deciding a week earlier to cut his trip short, is not easily ruffled, this person said. His plan moving forward is to keep his head down and focus on his work, including turning his attention back to building his Office of American Innovation now that the foreign trip is behind him.

The news about Kushner, whose face blanketed cable news on Saturday, overshadowed Trump’s foreign trip on its final day.

At a press briefing in Taormina on Friday, White House officials were peppered with questions about Kushner’s role, and tried to downplay the significance of the alleged backchannel plan.

“We have backchannel communications with a number of countries,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner so I’m not concerned.”

Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, a close Kushner ally, added: “We’re not going to comment on Jared.”

Another official noted that it was Kushner’s conversations with foreign officials during the transition that allowed him to form relationships with the Saudis and pull off a successful first foreign trip for Trump. They also pointed to the good relationships with China and Mexico, that they credited to “backchannel” style relationships Kushner developed with those countries during the campaign.

But many outside observers pointed to Kushner’s naiveté in understanding the need for caution when it comes to handling relationships with Moscow.

The spotlight on Kushner’s involvement with the Russians comes at a time when the powerful son-in-law has been telling associates that he is frustrated with his job.

Two associates who have spoken to Kushner in recent weeks described him as “unhappy” and “miserable,” in part because he has not been able to make the changes he wants to under his father-in-law. Kushner, the source said, has recently seemed resigned to the fact that the internal dysfunction that has defined the first months of Trump’s administration is unlikely to pass. “He’s still trying to tell people it will improve but he seems like he was trying to convince himself,” the source said.

Others, however, said there’s a healthy recognition that this is what it’s like to be in the Trump White House: a successful foreign trip one week, drowned out by negative headlines the following.

Meanwhile, Democrats said they are planning to make Kushner a focus in the coming weeks.

“There is no way Jared Kushner should have a top-level security clearance right now,” said Brian Fallon, who served as press secretary to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and before that as a spokesman for the Department of Justice. “In light of what we now know he discussed with Kislyak, it is impossible to believe Kushner’s omission of that secret meeting from his clearance application form was an accident. His clearance should be stripped at least until the FBI gets to the bottom of this.”

He added: “If Republicans will not join in demanding this of the White House, Democrats would be more than justified in grinding the Senate to a halt and opposing any new Trump nominees.”

And Senate Democrats said that they were planning to use the latest Russia-related crisis to increase pressure on attaching Russia sanctions to the Iran sanctions bill that passed the Foreign Relations Committee last week. One source on the Hill said many Democrats don’t want that bill to move without Russia sanctions bill alongside it, and that pressure will now only increase.

Kushner’s attorney, Gorelick, said she was not available to speak on Saturday. On Friday, she said in a statement that Kushner had “no recollection” of the calls reported by Reuters but did not respond directly to reports concerning the backchannel communications.

Tara Palmeri contributed reporting.

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Trump's foreign trip: 5 takeaways

President Donald Trump ended his first overseas trip on a buoyant note Saturday, telling a crowd of American sailors at a naval base in Sicily: “I think we hit a home run.”

But aside from closing a $110 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia on the first day of his nine-day tour, it wasn’t entirely clear what concrete goals the president achieved.

Trump made it through the grueling trip without a major diplomatic incident—despite a close call in Israel, where he volunteered to reporters that he’d never uttered the country’s name as the source of intelligence he reportedly shared with Russian officials during an Oval Office visit.

And he succeeded in putting off allies who were pressuring him to keep the U.S. in the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, buying himself the space to make a diplomatically awkward decision that will please his base at home.

Now, Trump returns home to deepening scandals related to his aides’ ties to Russia, having shown his ability to represent the U.S. on the world stage in true Trump fashion.

Here are POLITICO’S five takeaways after traveling with the president through five stops:

Trump prefers one-on-one meetings to big multilateral summits

Trump seemed to enjoy the first leg of his trip, with visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. His time in Saudi Arabia was dominated by a celebration in a gilded palace where Trump mingled among royalty. Along with the dealmaking in Saudi, the first half of the tour was dominated by talk about security and terrorism, both favorite Trump topics.

But in Brussels and Sicily, Trump found counterparts who were largely unified against him—and decided not to give them what they wanted, whether it was a public commitment to NATO’s mutual defense clause or assent to staying in the Paris climate deal.

The optics were the message

Trump glowed as he placed his hands on an illuminated orb alongside King Salman at the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Trump was reverent and peaceful as he touched the wall with a yarmulke on his head. At the Vatican, Trump grinned alongside his black-clad wife and daughter while Pope Francis glowered.

In Europe, Trump had more awkward encounters that telegraphed his attitude. The photo of him tightly gripping the hand of French President Emmanuel Macron and video of him appearing to push past the prime minister of Montenegro out of his way made headlines. At the G7 summit family photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked away while standing next to Trump, who was looking down.

Trump’s ‘home-run’ accomplished very little – perhaps by design

Privately, some U.S. officials called the jaunt “completely useless.” Very few decisions were made in the summit meetings, while Trump played to his base with an “America First” approach to foreign relations. But the president got away without making any promises that would be hard to keep back in Washington—and managed to reverse positions taken by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, without causing major diplomatic rows.

EU Council President Donald Tusk called this weekend’s gathering “the most difficult G7 summit,” because Trump arrived seeking to reverse prior positions held by the United States. Co-signers, desperate to keep the agreement together, have privately accepted that they may have to higher emissions levels for the U.S. to keep them in the pact, which Trump could eventually tout as a win, according to a U.S. diplomat.

The end result for the G7 was a watered-down communiqué, in which six of the seven members reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to the Paris accord on climate change. Trump has said he’ll make a final decision as soon as next week.

But Trump finally took a position on Russia

While the G7 allies weren’t able to nail down Trump’s stance on the Paris climate accord, they did get some more clarity on the administration’s position concerning sanctions against Russia.

Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn initially suggested in Brussels that the White House didn’t yet have a position on sanctions stemming from Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, but then told reporters on Friday, “We’re not lowering our sanctions on Russia. If anything, we would probably look to get tougher on Russia.”

The final G7 communiqué maintained a hard line on Russia.

Trump hoped for a reset, but at least he got to avoid his trouble at home for a week

President Donald Trump did not give a single press conference on the trip, breaking with tradition of speaking with reporters during major trips to promote the White House narrative.

While the other six leaders that attended the G7 summit held press conferences Saturday at the conclusion of the event, Trump took off for a U.S. naval base, where he thanked his wife, Melania, for joining him, and touted his “truly historic week.”

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Mattis: Trump is 'wide open' on Paris climate deal

President Donald Trump is “wide open” on the Paris climate accord as “he takes in the pros and cons,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in an interview to air Sunday.

“We’ve obviously got a discussion going on about our policy in this regard,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I was sitting in on some of the discussions in Brussels, by the way, where climate change came up, and the president was open. He was curious about why others were in the position they were in – his counterparts in other nations – and I’m quite certain the president is wide open on this issue as he takes in the pros and cons of that accord.”

Trump on Saturday wrote on Twitter that he would make his final decision next week on whether the U.S. would remain in the climate accord, an international agreement to curb carbon emissions. Throughout the campaign, Trump had pledged to withdraw from the pact.

Mattis, however, said the U.S. position on climate change is “not inside my portfolio.”

“Obviously we deal with the aspects of a warming climate in the Department of Defense, and to us, that’s just another one of many factors we deal with which we call the physical environment,” he continued.

During the interview, Mattis also said Trump’s message on NATO is “a consistent message” that the U.S. has given allied nations in the past.

During remarks at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, Trump criticized “23 of the 28 member nations” for not paying enough for their national defense.

“Having been a NATO officer, under President Bush and President Obama, and then having been back there in Brussels representing the Department of Defense under President Trump … this is a consistent message that we have given the NATO nations,” Mattis said.

“They get the best defense in the world, the NATO countries, and we’ve all got to be willing to deal with it like a bank: if you want to take something out of it you’ve got to put something into it.

“And the bottom line is that nations are spending more on defense now than they were five years ago or ten years ago,” he said.

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Senate Dems eyeing 2020 tell Trump ‘hell no’

Six Democrats have positioned themselves as the staunchest Trump opponents, according to an analysis of votes on the president’s nominees.

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Clinton launches new campaign against Trump 

She didn’t beat him, and now she’s suggesting he might be impeached.

Hillary Clinton is still running against Donald Trump — against what she says he represents about the worst in America, against his twisting of the truth, against his priorities and against his personal attacks on her.

Friday morning, she was back at Wellesley College, her alma mater, delivering her third commencement speech there—the first was at her own graduation, the second as first lady.

She was talking to the graduates about their future. But she was focused just as much on her own past, and the hardest, fullest case against Trump she’s made since last November.

“In the years to come, there will be trolls galore, online and in person,” she said, urging the graduates not to let themselves get beaten down. “They may even call you ‘a nasty woman.'”

When she was getting her diploma in 1969, Clinton said, “We were furious about the past presidential election of a man whose presidency would eventually end in disgrace with his impeachment for obstruction of justice,” pausing to soak up the cheers and applause from a crowd who knew exactly what she was talking about, and approved.

Just in case anyone missed the point, she leaned in a little further, reminding students and attendees of the private women’s liberal arts school in Massachusetts that Richard Nixon had gone down “after firing the person running the investigation into him at the Department of Justice.”

“But here’s what I want you to know. We got through that tumultuous time, and once again, we began to thrive as our society changed laws and opened the circle of opportunity and rights wider and wider for more Americans,” Clinton said.

Clinton has been struggling nonstop over the past six months with her loss, but she’s also been struggling with her public role. People close to her, many of whom share her insistence that a race she ran well was stolen out from under her by Russian involvement and by a surprise October letter from that same now-fired FBI director, are frustrated that she hasn’t been more in demand for a central role in the Trump resistance.

Many other Democrats, though, would like to see her fade into history, angry that she does not seem to be accepting her full responsibility for her loss, and frustrated that she’s keeping the party trapped in a Clinton versus Trump loop that they’ll never escape.

Clinton has started a political action group, Onward Together (playing off her campaign slogan, complete with a logo that uses the same font and arrow that was all over last year). She’s popped up at events, taking questions from moderators, giving short remarks. She’s taken a few digs at Trump, enough to stir a few passing conversations among diehards and observers, ranging from “Is she maybe running again?” to “She’s not really thinking about running, right?”

But never has she delivered as detailed a case against the man who beat her, whom she spent last year feeling it was her duty to keep out of the White House, and scared that she wouldn’t be able to.

There’s a deeper problem in society of people forgetting about facts, she said, and she urged the graduates to tackle that, both in being more sophisticated consumers and by being more aggressively involved.

But she centered it in an attack on Trump and his aides, whom she said are engaged in a “full-fledged assault on truth and reason.” She called them people who are “denying things we see with our own eyes — like the size of crowds, and then defending themselves by talking about ‘alternative facts.'”

All last year, Clinton campaigned by saying Trump wasn’t what America should be. In a sense, that was a lighter charge than what then-President Barack Obama said on her behalf: that Trump’s election was, essentially, a threat to the republic.

That’s where Clinton landed on Friday.

“When people in power invent their own facts and attack those who question them — it can mark the beginning of the end of a free society,” she said. “That is not hyperbole, it is what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done.”

She went deep in on Trump’s budget, calling its proposed cuts to programs “an attack of unimaginable cruelty on the most vulnerable among us.”

Listing some of the cuts specifically, she tied the budget to the White House’s lack of commitment to accuracy and facts — in this case, with not offering any real explanation for the $2 trillion gap in how they’d pay for what they’re pitching.

“Let’s call it what it is — a con,” she said.

And that’s about more than fuzzy math, Clinton charged.

“If our leaders lie about the problems we face, we will never solve them,” she said.

On Twitter, her former campaign aides lit up, putting up quotes, pushing back on criticism.

Responding to one reporter who wondered about the difference between whoever wrote Friday’s speech and the people behind her campaign speeches, Nick Merrill — her traveling press aide before and during the campaign, and one of the few who’s still on Clinton’s payroll — sarcastically shot back, “Same shitty team!”

They weren’t the only ones going right into it.

“HILLARY STILL COUGHING …” read a predicable tweet from the consistently anti-Clinton Drudge Report after she stopped for some water and it took about 20 seconds for the raspiness to leave her throat.

“BLAMES ALLERGIES …” came the next tweet.

The Republican National Committee even put out a statement about the speech, calling it “a stark reminder why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.”

“Instead of lashing out with the same partisan talking points, Hillary Clinton would be wise to look inward, talk about why she lost, and expand the dwindling base of Democrat Party supporters — we won’t hold our breath though,” said RNC chair Ronna McDaniel.

While warning about the grave danger facing the nation, Clinton insisted the dramatic rhetoric wasn’t about bitterness.

“You may have heard that things didn’t exactly go the way I planned,” Clinton said at the outset of her speech. “But you know what? I’m doing OK.”

But, she insisted, the White House really wasn’t on her mind: “I couldn’t think of anyplace I’d rather be this year than right here.”

She urged the graduates to register to vote, to get other people to register to vote, maybe to run for office themselves. Get involved, she said. Fight back. Don’t let Trump and what he represents break you, she said.

“It’s often,” Clinton said, “during the darkest times where you can do the most good.”

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State, local leaders circle wagons to save tax break from Trump

Elected leaders from both parties are mounting a fight against one likely provision in President Donald Trump’s tax-overhaul plan — the elimination of the 104-year-old deduction for state and local taxes.

Wiping out the prized deduction could reap more than $1 trillion for the federal treasury during the next decade, while furthering Trump’s goal of eliminating “targeted” breaks and simplifying the tax code. But it would burden residents in cities and states that have high property or income tax rates, some of whom could end up paying thousands of extra dollars per year.

The one-page tax plan that the White House released in April doesn’t explicitly call for eliminating the deduction, but Trump’s top economic advisers say it’s on the chopping block. So local and state officials from California to Maine are girding for battle, along with many of their House members and senators. The backlash transcends party lines, a rare occurrence so far in the national tax reform debate.

“I don’t think that will go anywhere,” Republican House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said during a telephone town hall in his district in New Jersey, the state with the nation’s highest property taxes. “You’ll find most members of Congress in the Northeast, the high property tax states, will continue to support that deduction.”

But the Trump administration seems determined.

“We don’t think it’s the federal government’s job to be subsidizing states,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at a recent economic conference. “Some states have zero income taxes, some have high income taxes. … For people like me who live in California, you’re going to be stuck with higher taxes that you can’t deduct.”

Lawmakers who oppose the tax break have tried and failed to abolish it before, notably in 1986 when the effort threatened to upend that year’s entire tax reform initiative, the last major overhaul on the books.

Many Democratic state and local officials believe Trump has painted a bull’s-eye on their backs because of their largely blue locales. Beyond raising their constituents’ tax bills, local officials fear that ending the deduction would put pressure on them to slice taxes or cut services.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called the proposal a “direct attack” by the federal government that would hit blue states harder than others.

“It is not an economic policy, it is political vindictiveness,” Cuomo wrote in the New York Daily News in March. “States that prioritize spending on societal goods are prominently Democratic and this would directly reduce those states’ ability to compete with other states.”

But many Republicans share Cuomo’s ire, in New York and elsewhere. Just hours after Trump released his one-page tax blueprint in April, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) publicly condemned the potential elimination of the deduction.

“I hope we can preserve this,” Lance said in an interview. “I want a full analysis of how this would affect residents in New Jersey.”

Some Washington lobbyists who work for state and local officials say they are guarding against double taxation of wage income. They call it disingenuous for Trump to turn a blind eye to that principle while fighting to end double taxes on investment income.

Supporters are mobilizing more than just letter-writing campaigns to defend the deduction.

The National Association of Counties is leading efforts to put together a coalition that includes other government groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Conference of State Legislatures and some private-sector interests, including the real estate sector. They plan to host an event on Capitol Hill next month to lobby members of Congress and their aides about the deduction, which has existed since the federal income tax was codified in 1913.

Advocates are already pounding on lawmakers’ doors, according to a congressional aide.

“Tax reform is a marathon, not a sprint,” said David Parkhurst, the National Governors Association’s staff director and general counsel. “We’re not late to the party.”

Big money is at stake.

According to IRS data from 2014, New York state residents itemized $20.2 billion of property taxes and $47.3 billion in income taxes. The governor’s budget office estimates that 3.3 million New Yorkers will save $5.2 billion writing off property taxes and $12.1 billion deducting local income taxes this year — meaning their federal income taxes would rise between 20 and 44 percent if the deductions were eliminated.

In New York City, roughly a third of the city’s 4 million taxpayers claim itemized local income tax and property tax deductions on their federal returns, worth a total $32 billion in 2014. Eliminating the deduction could add roughly $8 billion to residents’ federal tax liability each year.

“As a tax principle, we don’t understand it,” said Dean Fuleihan, the head of New York City’s Office of Management and Budget. “We don’t understand the point of taxing the income twice. It doesn’t seem to be consistent with what’s supposed to be the guiding principle of these tax policies.”

Eliminating the deduction could have the biggest impact on those making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, said George Sweeting of the city’s Independent Budget Office. If tax brackets were to remain as they are now, taxpayers earning between $50,000 and $75,000 a year would probably pay $1,600 more per year in taxes without the deduction, and those earning between $75,000 and $100,000 a year would see a $2,200 increase in their tax bill.

But the Trump administration is also looking to overhaul the current tax brackets, making it difficult to predict the exact impact.

In the neighboring Garden State, eliminating the deduction could be particularly crushing because residents there pay the highest property taxes in the nation. According to the Tax Foundation, four out of 10 residents itemize the state and local tax deduction in New Jersey. Another think tank, the Tax Policy Center, estimated that cutting the provision would increase the average tax bill for a New Jersey resident by more than $3,500 per year.

“Our taxes are already way too high here at the local level and it’s causing us to lose good people,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “We simply can’t afford to eliminate this.”

If a tax change of this magnitude were to go into effect, voters would be likely to press even harder for property tax cuts, said Michael Hayes, assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University.

“It’s going to put more pressure on state and local governments to try and cut spending and put more limitations on the growth of property taxes,” he said.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a longtime friend and close adviser to Trump, took a more measured stance on the tax proposal than other state officials. The Republican governor said he wants to see Trump’s plan in its entirety and gauge whether this hike could be offset by reductions in the income tax.

“I am not ready to yet declare that the plan is good or bad for New Jersey,” Christie said at a press event. “I’m concerned about it because we are a higher tax state at the local and state level, but we have to see what offsetting cuts in rates the president makes to help higher per-capita-income states like ours.”

California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Democrat, said taxpayers could benefit from elements of Trump’s tax proposal, including increasing the standard deduction and eliminating the estate tax. But he added: “Everyone knows President Trump loves double talk, but apparently he likes double taxation too.”

It’s not just populous states that could be hit. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she has concerns about the potential impact in her high-tax state.

“I would want to see data on that, and whether or not the increase in the standard deduction that I gather the president’s going to propose would be sufficient to offset that,” she said in an interview.

More pointed criticism came from a former governor of the state, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who said Trump’s proposal would amount to a “shift and shaft” for Maine.

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Trump brings his solo act to Europe

TAORMINA, Sicily — Days before President Donald Trump embarked on his first foreign trip, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the administration’s message to allies would be: “America first” does not mean “America alone.”

But over the course of the nine-day trip, which wraps up Saturday with a stop at a U.S. naval base in Italy, Trump has seemed happiest when the focus is on him — like the red carpet rollout for his arrival in Riyadh, followed by a sword-dancing display in his honor.

In Europe, where he’s attended group meetings with other world leaders — first in Brussels at the European Union and NATO and now at the G-7 summit in Sicily — Trump has appeared less at ease.

While he avoided any major gaffes or serious diplomatic breaches, Trump’s lack of rapport with European leaders raises serious questions about his ability to effectively team up with critical U.S. allies.

“Like when there’s a new strange kid in the class nobody likes,” said a senior EU official who was briefed on the closed NATO meetings in Brussels. “You behave civilly when teachers [media] watch but don’t spend time with him in private because he’s so different.”

Trump’s discomfort has been particularly obvious in comparison to European leaders, who move easily in a pack. At NATO or at the European Council, they routinely attend dinners with 30 leaders around the table. They have posed for countless “family photographs.” Attending joint news conferences and sharing the spotlight are old habits.

By contrast, Trump at one point was caught on camera apparently pushing past the prime minister of Montenegro during the NATO gathering to be at the front for the group photograph.

Trump has been at his best in one-on-one sessions, like his bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-7 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spent a weekend at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and spoke glowingly in Sicily about his “close partnership and collaboration, and friendship” with the new president.

Another senior EU official said Trump did fine in a smaller meeting with the bloc’s top leaders, Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “He was very pleasant, he was very easygoing,” this official said. “He was welcoming everybody, greeting everybody. ‘Thank you all guys, you did a great job.’ Very sort of American.”

Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, said Friday that Trump had made a concerted effort to engage with his fellow leaders at the G-7.

“He offered the opportunity to open up the conversation, he yielded to all of the leaders in the room, wanting to hear their opinions on trade,” Cohn told reporters. “He literally let all of the leaders go around the room at least once, some of them spoke multiple times before he talked about his views on trade.”

But even some of the individual meetings had their awkward moments, like when Trump, standing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, volunteered that he hadn’t specified Israel as the source of secret intelligence he was reported to have shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a recent Oval Office visit.

In his meeting with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump effusively praised him for his victory over far-right contender Marine Le Pen. The American president went so far as to say that he’d been rooting for Macron, according to French reports — though Trump said days before the first round of of the French election that he thought Le Pen was the “strongest” candidate on border issues and terrorism.

The Middle East leg of the trip may have been easier for Trump because many of the nuts and bolts were nailed down in advance. Before he stepped off the plane, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that was formally announced on the trip.

On the Europe leg, allies wanted answers from Trump on questions like whether the U.S. would stay committed to the Paris accord on climate change. They also were unable to come up with a deliverable, say on increasing NATO’s counterterrorism efforts, that Trump could celebrate as clearly as the Saudi arms deal.

While Trump dodged a commitment on the Paris agreement before the G-7 and complained about Germany’s advantage on trade, he charged into the NATO conference with a clear message: pay up. He accused the Europeans of being “unfair” to U.S. taxpayers, opting to make a pitch to his base in the U.S. over building new friendships with allies.

Efforts by some of the Europeans to smooth over the divide seemed to fall flat, such as when European Council President Tusk, tried to joke that the U.S. was lucky not to have two presidents like the EU.

Instead of laughing, Trump replied: “I know.” On his way out, Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland who is still working to perfect his English, tried some idiomatic English on Trump, saying, “See you on the road in Taormina.” He might just as well have said “Do widzenia.”

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Boehner: Trump has been a 'complete disaster'

Former House Speaker John Boehner said earlier this week that Donald Trump’s presidency so far has been “a complete disaster” and that the billionaire-turned commander in chief is still learning the job.

“Everything else he’s done [in office] has been a complete disaster,” Boehner said during a question-and-answer session at a conference in Houston on Wednesday. “He’s still learning how to be president.”

The former GOP speaker, whose remarks were initially reported by the energy-sector publication Rigzone, said he and Trump had been friends for 15 years and that the two had played golf together multiple times. Still, Boehner said he “never envisioned him” becoming president.

Pressed further about Trump’s still-nascent administration, Boehner praised the president for his handling of international affairs and foreign policy, especially his aggressive stance toward the Islamic State.

Boehner also tamped down talk of impeachment, calls for which have grown among House Democrats amid the swirling controversy of multiple investigations into the possibility of collusion between the Russian government and individuals with ties to Trump.

“Talk of impeachment is the best way to rile up Trump supporters,” Boehner said. “Remember, impeachment is not a legal process; it’s a political process.”

The former speaker said the president “did what he could” on legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, perhaps the president’s most prominent campaign promise, but added Trump should have instead sought to repair his predecessor’s signature health care legislation.

Talk of tax reform, another legislative priority for Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, is just “happy talk,” Boehner said. “I was a little more optimistic about it early in the year; now my odds are 60/40.”

The former speaker seemed content with his life as a retired politician and was quick to shoot down any talk of a future presidential bid.

“I wake up every day, drink my morning coffee and say hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah,” Boehner said. “I don’t want to be president. I drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. I golf. I cut my own grass. I iron my own clothes. And I’m not willing to give all that up to be president.”

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