‘Quit thinking like a New Yorker’: GOP smacks Trump on trade

Before President Donald Trump can get his new North American trade deal passed, he’s got to overcome stiff congressional opposition — from his own party.

Senate Republicans say that unless the president removes steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies, his NAFTA replacement isn’t going anywhere. And that’s assuming the president doesn’t follow through with his threat to impose new levies on foreign auto companies, many of which have factories in Southern GOP senators’ backyards.

“I don’t think there are going to be 51 votes to pass it with the tariffs still outstanding. So as a practical matter, that’s a reality we’re all going to have to deal with,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I also think the Mexico government and the Canadian government are unlikely to approve the deal with the tariffs still standing.”

The intraparty tension comes at an inflection point on Capitol Hill as the 2020 campaign ramps up and the appetite for legislating decreases. If the president wants his landmark trade agreement, he not only needs to cut a deal with House Democrats eager to strengthen labor laws, but he has to step way back from the protectionist tendencies that have unnerved the GOP.

“That makes a difference over here with some of our folks: You’ve got a lot of people in the auto states,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who suggested that no matter what happens, the president needs to relax his tariffs on allies in North America and Europe. “I don’t know how much it matters in the House, but I think it definitely matters for our vote count over here.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has been the tip of the spear of the effort to get the president to back down. Grassley, Thune, Cornyn and GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Tim Scott of South Carolina met with the president on Thursday afternoon to discuss the conflict between his tariffs and his chief legislative goal: the U.S.-Mexico-Trade Agreement.

“The president is on a cusp of a big victory. I mean USMCA is a big victory for him,” Grassley said ahead of the meeting. “All the president has to do is quit thinking like a New Yorker and think like Midwestern common sense.”

Trump eagerly brought up the new trade deal on Tuesday in a meeting with congressional Democrats, as he and economic adviser Larry Kudlow pressed party leaders on what it would take for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to put the deal on the floor. Yet Democrats said after the meeting that Trump spurned their entreaties to improve labor and environmental laws.

The president has been similarly resistant to the GOP’s pitch. On Thursday afternoon the Republican senators pressed the president on relaxing existing tariffs and avoiding new ones.

Isakson “warned the president that moving forward with tariffs on foreign automobiles will hurt the American economy,” a spokeswoman for the Georgia Republican said.

Grassley said in a statement that he urged Trump to work with Congress to move past the steel and aluminum tariffs, adding, “I’ll continue to work with my colleagues in Congress and the Trump administration to make sure the tariffs go so USMCA can replace NAFTA and become law this year.”

Yet there was no apparent breakthrough either, in the latest example of the stubborn dispute lingering for nearly a year.

“Tariffs are working,” Trump tweeted not long after the meeting. “USA Economy is BOOMING!”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she’s spoken to the president directly about dropping the tariffs and he refuses to back down. It’s an entirely unwelcome intraparty fight, especially when Democrats still haven’t even agreed to take up the new trade deal in the House.

“The tariffs are so problematic,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), before noting he has problems with provisions in the new North America trade deal regardless. “I’m not likely to support USMCA even in the absence of the tariffs on Mexico and Canada.”

The Trump administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs on allies, as well as his retaliatory tariffs on China, have been one of the most sensitive areas of disagreement between Senate Republicans and the White House. But the GOP has been reluctant to challenge the president over the issue, declining to hold votes on bills aimed at expanding Congress’ sway on tariffs.

Yet the power dynamics have changed significantly now that Trump needs the GOP on his side to get his new trade deal through. Though getting support from Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was always going to be difficult, Trump has undermined his chances of getting buy-in from his own party with his wide-ranging tariff regime.

“Tariff stuff is a real problem. I’m for the [USMCA],” said Isakson. “It’s good for Georgia, it’s a good thing to do. But I’m also against playing with the lives of my state, the backbone of economics in our state, particularly in automobile… Coca-Cola, aluminum cans, you go up and down on our list.”

Grassley brought the tariff dispute to the forefront by penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Sunday that declared the USMCA “dead” without tariffs lifted. Most other Republicans won’t go that far, but they don’t need to: Grassley chairs the Finance Committee and many other Republicans said they are following his lead.

“I think you got to listen to what Chuck Grassley has to say on that topic,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

For Trump, there’s little other hope of a major domestic achievement before the election if he can’t replace NAFTA.

A deal made in principle with Democrats on $2 trillion in infrastructure spending is already fraying over GOP skepticism; the two parties have gotten nowhere on immigration in the past two years; and a bipartisan agreement to reduce prescription drug prices continues to be elusive.

But trade deals can conceivably pass under the right conditions. There’s still a bloc of pro-trade Democrats and Republicans that can garner bipartisan majorities in each chamber, which is all Trump needs to win.

Yet now the president needs to make major changes to satisfy skeptics in both parties.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who met with Trump earlier this week, said the president “got the message” from Democrats that they need stronger labor and environmental protections to consider a trade deal.

Scott argued the “House’s strong desire for a reset of the labor conversation” may be more problematic that the GOP revulsion over tariffs.

Still, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), “There’s definitely a feeling that with the tariffs in place makes it much, much more difficult.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Senators near deal on disaster aid with Trump ‘on board’

Top senators negotiating a disaster aid deal are closing in on a compromise that could get a Senate vote as early as next week to unlock more than $17 billion in assistance to ailing communities.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Thursday they are nearing an agreement after Senate Republicans laid out a new offer behind closed doors this week to increase Puerto Rico’s access to federal recovery cash. Progress comes with tempered expectations as the two work to win support from other congressional leaders and President Donald Trump on one of the most politically fickle issues of the year. But they say all parties are feeling the urgency now to get aid out to communities that are trying to recover from hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and extreme flooding.

“A lot of pressure, a lot of pressure,” Shelby said, adding later that “timing’s everything right now.”

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who has been one of Congress’ main go-betweens with the president throughout months of heated negotiations on the aid package, H.R. 2157 (116), said Trump called him early Thursday about disaster aid.

"He’s on board,” Perdue said about Trump’s support for the offer Republicans made earlier this week, noting the president will still need to decide whether he backs the final language Leahy and Shelby are hashing out.

“I will just tell you this: He called me this morning at 6 o’clock,” the Georgia Republican said about the president. “This man is involved. This man is engaged. He talked to several members very late on this issue. He is very engaged in this. He wants to get it solved."

Stipulations are still in flux, however, on aid to Puerto Rico — the very debate that collapsed negotiations last month as the White House campaigned for less cash and Trump tweeted insults at Puerto Rico’s leaders, calling them “grossly incompetent” politicians who “spend the money foolishly or corruptly” and “only take” from the United States.

Shelby and Leahy said Thursday they are still trading feedback and making tweaks to language regarding aid to Puerto Rico after GOP lawmakers offered up $300 million more this week in rebuilding assistance through grants the Department of Housing and Urban Development provides, as well as extra rules on how the territory can use the cash so it won’t be “squandered,” as Shelby put it.

Both the chairman and his Democratic counterpart said they hope a final compromise will be ready for a Senate floor vote next week. “We have to tug along our caucuses and the White House,” Leahy said. “But we’re getting closer.”

Shelby expressed similar exasperation about the tall order of rallying final support in both chambers and the White House around an aid package that has so deeply divided the parties while disaster-hit communities throughout the country languish without extra federal support.

“We’ve got to get what’s palatable to us, what’s palatable to the Democrats, and the president, so we’ve got a three-pronged deal,” Shelby said, later scoffing jokingly that “Leahy and I could work it out … but his caucus won’t let him and mine won’t let me either.”

While the chairman said conversations on the aid package are “trending” in the right direction, “toward a resolution,” he said “breakthrough” is “still a strong word.”

Some lawmakers have suggested adding the White House’s new $4.5 billion emergency funding request for border security to the disaster aid bill, commingling two of the most contentious legislative tasks before Congress right now, Shelby said. But he and Leahy are both fighting that suggestion, concerned that such an addition would put prospects for the disaster aid package on even shakier ground.

“Listen, money attracts money — attracts ideas,” Shelby said. “We’re just trying to stay on course.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump formally nominates Kelly Craft for U.N. ambassador

President Donald Trump on Thursday formally nominated U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft to be his next United Nations ambassador, a job without a permanent owner since the end of last year.

Craft is likely to face a bruising Senate confirmation process, despite staunch backing from a fellow Kentuckian, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She is expected to endure questions about her family’s extensive business interests and her knowledge about international issues at a time when the U.S. faces geopolitical challenges ranging from Russia to China. Her husband, Joe Craft, is a billionaire coal executive with close links to the White House.

Craft would replace former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who left the U.N. post at the end of 2018. The position is almost certain to be less powerful than it was under Haley, given indications that Trump, a skeptic of multilateral international organizations, will take it out of the Cabinet.

If confirmed, Craft’s new position would put her in close proximity to international climate talks that directly impact her husband’s business interests. Craft stumbled in her first Canadian TV interview when asked about the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris climate accord, saying it was important to listen to “both sides” of the science.

As America’s top diplomat in Canada, Craft has had an important but relatively easy diplomatic position compared with the U.N. role. She managed to maintain a good relationship with Ottawa while Trump imposed punishing steel and aluminum tariffs, threatened to withdraw from the NAFTA trade deal and criticized Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

But Senate Democrats have said they will show no mercy during her confirmation process for the U.N. role. They plan to press Craft on thorny geopolitical issues, from Iran to North Korea to Venezuela.

The scene will be far different from Craft’s relatively breezy hearing for the Canada post. However, Craft did stumble over one question during the gathering on whether she believed Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. She said “that it looks as if yes,” but that she’d “have to investigate this further or learn more points on this.”

One lawmaker’s vote she can count on is Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, whom she supported in 2016 before Trump and who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Haley’s foreign policy experience also was limited before she became U.N. ambassador, but she impressed lawmakers from both parties by taking a tough stance on Russia, praising international alliances like NATO and calling out human rights violations in countries like the Philippines. She was confirmed on a 96-4 vote.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Democrats channel their Trump outrage on Barr

Democrats are unwilling to impeach President Donald Trump for now, so they’re throwing all their pent-up fury at the next best target: Attorney General William Barr.

House Democrats have transformed the conservative GOP legal fixture into their all-purpose political foil. They’ve subpoenaed Barr, are preparing to hold him in contempt of Congress, want to battle him in court, have called for his resignation or impeachment, suggested fining him and are even musing about criminally referring him to his own Justice Department.

“All options are on the table,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who noted the irony of referring the attorney general, effectively, to himself for criminal proceedings.

The all-of-the-above attack on Barr is an outlet for Democrats who are furious with Trump but unprepared to impeach the president himself. Their anger with the attorney general is mostly rooted in Barr’s handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, which laid out a methodical case that Trump attempted to obstruct his investigation repeatedly.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has worked to contain impeachment fervor, told colleagues Thursday she believes Barr committed “a crime” when he testified to a House committee last month, opening a new line of attack that House Democrats eagerly embraced. Pelosi intends to defer to committee leaders about how to handle Barr, aides say. But the allegation has rank-and-file Democrats increasingly saying Barr should face criminal sanctions for his behavior.

The allegation prompted a sharp retort from a Justice Department spokeswoman, who called Pelosi’s comment “reckless, irresponsible and false.” Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, was investigated by Mueller for potential perjury to Congress during his confirmation hearing, though the special counsel concluded he couldn’t prove Trump’s first attorney general was “willfully untruthful.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) has indicated he intends to give Barr "one or two" days to consider complying with Democratic demands — a proposition the Justice Department all but ruled out in a harsh rebuke of the committee on Wednesday. A contempt citation could be considered by the committee as soon as May 8.

"We must do all we can in the name of the American people to ensure that when the Trump administration ends we have as robust a democracy to hand to our children as was handed to us," Nadler said.

House Democrats say Barr has led what amounts to a cover-up, publicly ruling that Trump did not obstruct justice while keeping Mueller’s detailed evidence secret for nearly a month. On Wednesday, Barr snubbed a Democratic subpoena for Mueller’s unredacted findings and underlying evidence, and he skipped a Thursday hearing meant to discuss those findings, complaining about Democrats’ plan to use committee counsel to question him.

“What we are witnessing is the slow loss of our democratic republic and we can either allow it to happen or we can stand up against it,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, of Barr. “We are not going to allow the notion of a presidential dictatorship to take hold.”

The White House has mounted a campaign to aggressively combat House Democrats — both by defending Barr and repeating calls for Nadler and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff to resign.

Steven Groves, a deputy press secretary handling oversight issues for the White House, held a conference call with Trump surrogates after Barr finished testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, claiming that no Democrats managed to “lay a glove on him,” according to a person familiar with the call.

Trump also went on television Wednesday night to praise Barr’s performance, saying "he did a fantastic job" and dismissing calls for his resignation. "He’s an outstanding man, he’s an outstanding legal mind," Trump told Fox Business. "He performed incredibly well today."

Legal experts — even those who are no fans of Barr — cast doubt on the notion that he could be nailed for perjuring himself to the House.

“The Attorney General’s testimony yesterday, with his flagrant obfuscations and open contempt for his questioners, shamed the office he holds,” said Sam Buell, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Duke University. “However, as a legal matter, it can be miles from obfuscation to provable perjury, and from displaying contempt for one’s questioners to being held in contempt.”

“It is going to take more to dislodge him, if that is what the Democrats in the House are after,” added Buell, who worked with Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann on the case against Enron executives.

Sol Wisenberg, a former deputy on Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton, called it “suicidal” for Democrats to consider impeaching Barr and said there’s no conceivable way his remarks to the House could be construed as perjury.

“It’s total bulls—,” Wisenberg said. “In fact, it’s unmitigated bulls— … It’s not a misleading statement. It’s not even Clintonian.”

Still, Democrats are scouring their history books in search of ways to hold Barr accountable. Some have even floated the notion that they could dust off a little-used congressional power known as “inherent contempt," the ability of lawmakers to fine and even jail officials deemed to be in contempt of Congress.

“We haven’t used it since Teapot Dome, doesn’t mean we can’t. I’m all for reviving it," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, referring to the Warren Harding administration bribery scandal from the early 1920s. "We have, as you know, jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, and they have a beautiful jail with plenty of room. So I think that would be just perfect for some of these people to contemplate their actions.”

Anita Kumar contributed to this story.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Dreamer bill stalls amid Dem divisions

House Democrats have shelved plans to advance legislation protecting “Dreamers” next week, delivering a setback to the caucus on a top legislative priority.

The bill is stalled because of an intraparty fight over providing citizenship to undocumented immigrants with criminal records, multiple lawmakers and aides said Thursday, and a likely committee vote is now delayed.

“Always issues when it comes to immigration, but we’ll get through it,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in a brief interview after attending a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Thursday. “I hope it’ll get to the floor.”

The legislation, known as the Dream Act, is now on hold, with Democrats scrambling to draft language that can secure enough votes in committee and on the floor without exposing further divides within the caucus on the thorny issue.

“Within the party there are moderates and progressives and we all have different opinions. I’ll just leave it like that,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat who represents a district along the U.S.-Mexico border. “We intend to put something on the floor so I’m definitely supportive of that. But if we have to work any language out, we’ll work that language out.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said earlier this week that it’s possible the Dream Act could hit the floor this month. But that timeline is influx amid ongoing issues with the bill, which would provide a path to citizenship for more than 2 million undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.

Hoyer said Thursday there are some “obvious differences of opinion” but believes it will ultimately pass the House.

“I think this is getting a lot of consideration, a lot of discussion,” Hoyer said in an interview. “The objective, obviously, will be to report a bill favorably out of committee, and then on the House floor.”

The House Judiciary Committee had not formally announced that it would be voting on the bill next week, and it could still consider it, if immigrant-rights advocates indicate their support for changes to the legislation.

Some Democratic sources downplayed the delayed Judiciary markup, pointing out that the committee has had a busy schedule as it handles the fallout from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

But senior Democrats are also worried that Republicans could weaponize the Dreamers bill on the floor and force immigration votes on amendments that could be tough for swing-district Democrats to oppose.

Those GOP amendments, known as motions to recommit, have plagued Democrats since they took back the House in January. Democratic leaders are particularly sensitive to the possibility of Republicans scoring a procedural win — and sowing further conflict within the Democratic Caucus — on one of their marquee pieces of legislation.

“We want to see the bill go through as written, and not get distracted by sideshows,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We’re just trying to get people to understand what the MTR is and not have us get lost in the details.”

Republicans took a similar approach in February on a gun control bill that succeeded in dramatic fashion. GOP leaders forced Democrats to vote on an amendment that would have notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement if an undocumented immigrant tried to purchase a firearm.

Twenty-six Democrats broke rank to support the GOP’s language, depriving the party of a total political victory on the day that they passed universal background checks.

“You know you’re going to lose members on immigration right now but who and how you do it is important,” said a Democratic aide.

The bill, authored by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), would allow undocumented immigrants to commit three misdemeanors before they’re disqualified from seeking citizenship.

But some Democrats worry the language in the bill is too broad and want to consider changes so that committing only certain misdemeanors would allow people to remain on the path to citizenship.

The prospect of further narrowing access to citizenship, however, has inflamed immigrant-rights supporters and some liberal lawmakers.

This issue came to a head at a meeting of Judiciary Democrats Tuesday where Rep. Pramila Jayapal said it would be hard for her to back the bill if changes are made that are opposed by immigrant-rights groups, according to multiple sources.

Jayapal’s office disputed that, with an aide saying, “She is not publicly or privately threatening to pull any kind of support.”

Now lawmakers are waiting to hear from prominent advocacy groups, including United We Dream, on what tweaks they could support to allow the bill to move forward.

Bruna Bouhid-Sollod, a spokesperson for United We Dream, said the group “wholeheartedly” supports passage of the bill but did not comment on whether the group would support potential tweaks to the current bill to make it more palatable to moderate Democrats.

Roybal-Allard also declined to comment on potential amendments under discussion, but said in a statement she was committed to bringing the bill to the floor.

“I am looking forward to the Judiciary Committee’s consideration of my bill, when every committee member will have the opportunity to express their views about the bill and suggest revisions,” Roybal-Allard wrote in a statement, adding that her bill would be “a historic victory” for Dreamers and for Democrats.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Wynonna Judd working with White House on criminal justice reform

Country music star Wynonna Judd, who has worked closely with groups that help inmates transition back into society after incarceration, is partnering with the White House on a new criminal justice reform project, according to two administration officials.

Judd’s 22-year-old daughter, Grace Pauline Kelley, received an eight-year prison sentence last June for violating the terms of her probation stemming from a drug-related conviction the previous year. In the months since her daughter’s sentencing, the former Las Vegas headliner has worked closely with Hope for Prisoners, a nonprofit group that aims to reduce recidivism rates by educating and training inmates.

“Now I have a personal investment,” she told a local Vegas news station last month.

During a White House event Thursday for the National Day of Prayer, Judd told reporters that she was “really using this time to speak out for the unloved [and] people who feel forgotten.” Her project with the White House marks “the beginning of a new chapter,” she added.

Judd, who declined to disclose details of her partnership, met with Brooke Rollins, a senior staffer in the White House Office of American Innovation, on Wednesday to discuss criminal justice reform and ways the administration can continue to enhance re-entry programs for inmates and curb the return-to-prison rate. A White House official confirmed the meeting to POLITICO. Judd also spoke briefly with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, but did not participate in formal meetings with either.

The partnership with Judd is the latest instance of the president and his team working closely with celebrity figures on key agenda items, like criminal justice reform. Trump and Kushner have previously engaged reality TV star Kim Kardashian and her husband, rapper Kanye West, on the issue of prison reform.

Trump has also elevated celebrities to senior administration roles, such as Omarosa Manigault, a former “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant who went on to serve as communications director for the White House Office of the Public Liaison before being fired last year, and WWE co-founder Linda McMahon, who recently left her position as head of the Small Business Administration to lead a pro-Trump outside group.

Judd’s work with the White House follows Congress’ passage of the First Step Act in December, a bipartisan bill that eases punitive sentences for nonviolent offenders and aims to help inmates prepare for life after prison. She said Thursday she was invited to the White House to discuss the issue and planned to meet with Trump, whom she’s known for more than three decades, at some point in the near future.

“I’m coming back,”she said. “You’ll be seeing me and I’ll talk more. I’m excited about what’s coming.”

Judd, who was arrested and charged with driving under the influence in November 2003, has never faced incarceration herself. Her daughter is scheduled for release in 2025.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh resigns

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has resigned amid an intensifying scandal and multiple investigations into the lucrative sales of her self-published children’s books.

Steven Silverman is Pugh’s attorney. He announced Pugh’s resignation at a news conference Thursday afternoon. He said it will take effect immediately.

Reading from a written statement from Pugh, Silverman quoted her as saying, "Baltimore deserves a mayor who can move our great city forward."

The decision comes exactly one week after FBI and IRS agents raided the mayor’s home and City Hall offices.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and numerous Democrats have pressed for Pugh’s resignation.

Pugh has been in self-imposed seclusion for a month. She initially announced that she was taking a leave of absence to recover from pneumonia.

At issue is the roughly $800,000 Pugh received through the years from a hospital network, insurance carriers that did business with the city and a financier for bulk copies of her "Healthy Holly" children’s books.

The first-term Democrat became mayor in late 2016.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine