Trump: Flynn ‘was approved by the Obama administration’

President Donald Trump on Friday shifted blame for the vetting of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn onto the Obama administration.

Trump, during an interview on Fox News, stressed that Flynn "was approved by the Obama administration at the highest level" for his prior stint in federal government, years before working in the Trump White House. The retired lieutenant general served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama until 2014.

"When he came into our administration, for a short period of time — he came in — he was already approved by the Obama administration, and he had years left on that approval," Trump added.

Flynn resigned from his national security post in the Trump administration in February amid growing scrutiny over his ties to foreign agents. In recent weeks, revelations of Flynn’s lobbying work for the Turkish government and his paid speeches in Moscow, which went undisclosed in his clearance renewal application in 2016, have drawn the ire of U.S. officials. Lawmakers have charged that Flynn’s omission likely violated the law.

The president, who previously said he felt "bad" for Flynn following his ouster, said he remained sympathetic to his plight.

"I do feel badly for him," Trump said. "He served the country. He was a general."

The president also criticized those questioning why Flynn didn’t receive more thorough vetting from the Trump administration for not leveling the same questions at the Obama administration.

"Now, if somebody’s approved at the absolute highest level by the Obama or a previous administration, I mean, does anybody ever ask about them?" he asked.

Trump, who has frequently returned to the campaign controversies of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton since taking office, additionally asked why Clinton’s campaign aides did not face a similar line of questioning as Flynn.

"Does anybody ask about why Bill Clinton was paid a fortune to make speeches in Russia? Does anybody ever ask about Podesta having a company with his brother in Russia?" he said.

EPA scrubs website of references to Obama climate plans

EPA is overhauling its website to remove “outdated language” referring to Obama-era programs President Donald Trump has targeted for elimination, including virtually all mentions of climate change, the agency announced late Friday.

The agency eliminated climate change from a drop-down list of “Environmental Topics” displayed on its front page and took down a separate page on the topic that had been up as recently as Monday.

The website changes had been expected, but environmentalists were unsettled.

“Cleansing has begun,” the Natural Resources Defense Council’s David Doniger wrote on Twitter. “Now only alternative facts.”

In a press release, EPA said it was removing references to the “so-called Clean Power Plan,” which the agency is reviewing in response to an executive order Trump signed last month. And it said it was reviewing content on the site related to climate change and regulations.

“As EPA renews its commitment to human health and clean air, land, and water, our website needs to reflect the views of the leadership of the agency,” J.P. Freire, an agency spokesman, said in a statement. “We want to eliminate confusion by removing outdated language first and making room to discuss how we’re protecting the environment and human health by partnering with states and working within the law.”

The announcement came ahead of Saturday’s scheduled climate march, when thousands of people are expected to gather in Washington and other cities to protest Trump’s policies and call for action to address climate change.

EPA maintained links to archived versions of the Obama-era versions of the pages it took down.

Trump on trade: Scrutinize NAFTA, other deals for ‘abuses’

President Donald Trump’s latest executive order on trade calls for review of all U.S. free trade agreements — including NAFTA and the World Trade Organization pact — and possible renegotiation of any deal to eliminate “violations and abuses,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Friday.

Trump plans to sign the order on Saturday, his 100th day in office, a milestone he will mark with a rally in Harrisburg, Pa. He had wanted to use the occasion to sign a different order — triggering a complete withdrawal from NAFTA — but turned away from that idea earlier this week amid backlash in Congress and the business community, the counsel of various members of his administration and phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Canada.

The report he’s ordering up will examine free trade deals the United States has with 20 countries, as well as the WTO agreement. Recommendations will follow in 180 days. Ross cautioned against any expectation that the report would recommend the U.S. withdraw from the WTO or any of the bilateral pacts, but he did not completely rule out that possibility if countries are unwilling to address problems contributing to the U.S. trade deficit.

“Withdrawal is the most extreme form of renegotiation,” Ross said in a briefing. “And so, to me, it would be really more of the last resort. … Now, it’s also possible some of the parties here will refuse to negotiate. And if they do, then that doesn’t leave you an awful lot of alternatives.”

The Trump administration, like no other in recent U.S. history, sees America’s trade deficit as a major problem that needs solving — and fast. It looks with suspicion on trade agreements negotiated by previous administrations. In his first week in office, Trump pulled out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, his predecessor’s effort to cement U.S. influence over Asia-Pacific trade.

Trump, who campaigned on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., signed an executive order in late March directing the Commerce Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to examine the causes of significant bilateral trade deficits. And in the past two weeks, he has directed Ross to expeditiously carry out investigations that could lead to restrictions on steel and aluminum imports on national security grounds.

Trump’s new trade review, according to a fact sheet put out by the White House, would evaluate trade agreements to “determine whether they are working for America and whether the predicted results, in terms of jobs and economic growth, are being achieved.” It said Trump “has been very clear that our trade agreements" must increase U.S. economic growth, contribute favorably to the balance of trade and strengthen the manufacturing base.

“This performance review will assess each agreement to determine if it is meeting that standard,” the fact sheet added.

Most economists believe the trade deficit’s root cause has less to do with trade policy than the fact the U.S. spends more than it saves and therefore draws in goods from abroad. But Ross indicated he believed the trade deficit is a result of inequities in trade agreements, particularly at the WTO, which he attacked in point after point.

“That’s really the grandparent of all trade arrangements that we have,” Ross said. “And as far as I can tell there has never been a systematic evaluation of what has been the impact of the WTO agreement on the country as an integrated whole.”

“The largest portion [of the overall U.S. trade deficit] is with the countries that are really just covered by WTO rules, as opposed to countries that are covered by individual free trade agreements,” Ross said, noting the U.S. has a free trade agreement with just one country — South Korea — that makes the top-ten list of its bilateral trade deficits.

The U.S.’s largest trade deficit in goods is with China, which totaled $347 billion in 2016, or about 43 percent of the total goods deficit of $750 billion. The U.S. and China do not have a bilateral free trade agreement.

Ross complained about a central tenet of the WTO, known as most-favored nation status, which prevents members from setting different tariffs for different countries, unless the two members have negotiated a separate free trade agreement.

“If we have a country that has big trade barriers against us, we should logically have similar trade barriers against them,” Ross said. “The only problem is the World Trade Organization has what’s called a most-favored nation clause, meaning of all the countries with which we do not have a free trade agreement, we must charge the same tariff on the same item to each of those countries.”

The U.S. has generally low tariffs as a result of decisions it made after World War II to jump-start the global economy. But economists argue that has helped make the U.S. the most powerful country on the planet, with the 11th-highest level of per capita income, at around $57,000.

“We benefited a lot from the contract we wrote [with other countries] at the start of the post-war period; that was a substantial benefit for the U.S. economy, as well as the world economy,” said Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It basically pulled the West out of a great big hole after World War II and created great prosperity. We wouldn’t have much trade if we didn’t have prosperous trading partners.”

As one-sided as the current system may seem, it’s unrealistic to think the U.S. can persuade other countries to lower their tariffs to the same level without offering something new in exchange, Schott said. In any renegotiation, developing countries would most likely demand cuts in sensitive U.S. sectors like agriculture, which is in the midst of a downturn.

“You know, the president has been complaining about Canadian dairy barriers, but other countries complain about U.S. dairy policy and our sugar policy," Schott added. "While we have a generally open market, we do have a few sensitive areas, and those are things other countries would want to see addressed.”

But Ross’ gripes about the WTO are many. He complained about how long it takes to resolve disputes and that its panels appear to be biased against the U.S. The Geneva-based trade body also doesn’t adequately deal with a number of other issues, he said, such as non-tariff barriers to exports, intellectual property theft and protections for digital trade.

Not done making his case, Ross took aim at WTO reports documenting the number of anti-dumping and countervailing duty cases, which have been rising in recent years. Ross said the WTO takes the side of countries dumping and subsidizing their exports, rather than countries that are imposing duties to keep out unfairly traded imports.

“There’s an institutional bias toward the exporters rather than toward people who have been beleaguered by inappropriate imports,” Ross said.

But the secretary predicted it was more likely the final report would suggest the U.S. seek changes to the WTO, which dates to 1995, rather than walk away from the agreement.

“Any entity that’s been going for a real long time needs to be updated," he said, making an argument the administration has also used against NAFTA. "I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think there’s also no question that we need some kind of arbiter of international trade. So at the 40,000-foot level, there’s a need.”

North Korea defies Trump

Hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for tough new action towards North Korea on Friday, the nuclear-armed dictatorship thumbed its nose at the Trump administration with the latest in a series of missile tests that Trump officials say could provoke a military conflict.

The test’s timing implied an act of calculated defiance by North Korea’s 33-year-old leader Kim Jong Un. It came a day before President Donald Trump’s 100-day mark and less than 24 hours after Trump warned of the potential for a “major, major conflict” over Kim’s expanding nuclear capability.

The message seemed to be that two weeks of saber-rattling — which included military deployments and a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to the North Korean border “so they can see our resolve in my face” — had failed to intimidate Kim.

The test, which was North Korea’s ninth since Trump took office, also underscores for Trump officials how hard it will be to halt and then reverse North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs before they can threaten the U.S. mainland. Despite the talk of potential U.S. military action against Pyongyang in recent days, Tillerson finished the week with an emphasis on diplomatic and economic efforts similar in kind to ones pursued by the Obama administration.

Presiding over a special session of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, Tillerson called for “a new approach” to the nuclear-armed dictatorship.

“In light of the growing threat, the time has come for all of us to put new pressure on North Korea to abandon its dangerous path,” Tillerson said.

But in broad strokes, much of what Tillerson said was familiar.

U.S. officials have long advanced a policy similar to Tillerson’s call for “increased diplomatic and economic pressure on the North Korean regime” paired with the promise of negotiations. Last February, then-U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power told the same body that forthcoming U.N. sanctions backed by Washington “would constitute a major increase in pressure” on Pyongyang.

Tillerson also asserted a “willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action if necessary,” while adding that “we much prefer a negotiated solution to this problem.”

That echoed remarks from his predecessor, John Kerry, who said in October that sanctions and diplomacy “are entirely preferable, obviously, to the military choice, which … is a last resort and only as a matter of defensive measure to protect our nations.”

Former Obama officials say the main difference in Trump’s approach so far is largely a matter of stagecraft. Trump summoned the entire U.S. Senate to the White House on Thursday, for example, for a briefing on North Korea that many senators called uninformative but which commanded media attention.

Underlying the theatrics, though, Trump’s strategy is mainly based on pressuring China to further constrict North Korea’s economy, something Obama also did — albeit cautiously, for fear of poisoning the U.S.-China relationship. (Beijing fears a sudden collapse of Kim’s neighboring regime and prefers negotiations to extreme pressure.)

"It appears from their more formal moves that the official strategy on [North Korea] is not all that different from the one pursued late in the Obama administration,” said Laura Rosenberger, a former Obama White House and State Department official who has worked closely on North Korea policy.

A Trump official said Thursday that the biggest shift is a change in priority for the issue: “Is it different from the Obama administration’s policy? I think it is in the sense that it’s the number one security challenge that we’re facing right now, according to the administration and the president,” said Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, at a Thursday Foundation for Defense of Democracies event.

But even a shift in rhetoric is a meaningful change, say Trump’s defenders.

“The effectiveness of some of the hard instruments of American power depend on its credibility — and that’s where the theatrics of the Trump administration in can be very useful in sending a message to Pyongyang,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told POLITICO after interviewing Thornton.

“So much of this is about psychology, not just diplomacy and sanctions and the use of other instruments of American power,” he added.

Skeptics say the rhetoric and actions of Trump officials has been too scattershot to intimidate Kim and may create an impression of strategic confusion in Washington.

“Their apparently uncoordinated blustery rhetoric, not attached to specific actions, raises questions about their ability to executed a coordinated strategy,” Rosenberg said.

It’s hardly a surprise that North Korea has moved up on President Donald Trump’s agenda. Outgoing President Barack Obama warned Trump in November that the country’s growing nuclear program should be his top national security priority.

Obama White House officials also handed off detailed options for Trump to address the North Korean crisis, though they are unsure whether top Trump aides—including Matt Pottinger and Alison Hooker, the national security council’s top aides for Asia and Korea respectively—have relied on them.

Despite Trump’s saber rattling — including his recent declaration that he had sent a naval “armada” towards North Korea (a statement that proved misleading) — the risks of even a precision strike on Pyongyang render it unlikely for now.

“People who are writing headlines about war have it wrong,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia security expert at the Center for a New American Security. “Kim Jong Un would see any attack on him as a regime-change strategy, and he would respond to an unacceptable degree.”

North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest military and is capable of devastating the South Korean capital of Seoul with a cross-border artillery bombardment. Even an all-out surprise U.S. attack on the North might not be able to prevent a catastrophic counterattack — including, possibly, a nuclear one — that could kill tens of thousands of South Koreans, and many of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the country.

“If you’re going to do pre-emption, you’d better get it all,” said one former senior Defense Department official.

Despite occasional reports of planning for a so-called “decapitation,” any strike that could take out Kim and his inner circle would have dangerously unpredictable consequences. Kim’s survival would guarantee all-out war, and his death would touch off a wild scramble for power.

“You could easily end up with a civil war on the inside,” Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in a Thursday talk at at the Center for the National Interest. “We’ll take our side and the Chinese will take their side, and that’s a scenario where the two could start fighting.”

Allison added that a military official in the region had told him Kim’s overthrow or demise would touch off a “vertical track meet” between U.S. and Chinese forces racing to secure the country’s nuclear weapons.

Obama officials studied the military option thoroughly, but concluded it to be impractical short of a dire situation like an imminent North Korean attack. These officials believe that Trump’s team has inevitably reached the same conclusion.

"This is getting hyped up to look like the prelude to the Iraq war,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a former national security council director for non-proliferation in the Obama White House. “People are over-interpreting the language from the Trump administration."

Some former Obama officials were struck by Tillerson’s acknowledging in Thursday NPR interview that he would consider direct talks with Kim’s government.

Tillerson was responding to a question and it was not clear whether he was reflecting considered policy.

Even if it did represent policy, it would not be unprecedented: An Obama administration special enjoy, Stephen Bosworth, held three rounds of talks with North Korean officials in Obama’s first term.

45 After Dark: Still In Business edition

President Donald Trump is closing in on 100 days in office. And Congress ensured the federal government stayed open for him to mark the occasion.

The House and Senate moved swiftly today to pass a stopgap spending bill that will keep the government open — with a hope that it will lead to a larger deal next week. In doing so, Congress spared Trump a potential embarrassment.

Of course, the House also denied Trump a potential victory this week, punting on another potential vote on his healthcare vote until next week, at least.

For now, the legislative fights give way to an opportunity to evaluate Trump’s effectiveness over his first 100 days. And, as this visual essay explores, his effect on a very different Washington.

Elsewhere in Trump’s orbit:

BLEAT THE PRESS: POLITICO’s annual survey of what it’s really like to cover President Donald Trump — a majority think that President Trump is the most anti press president in history.

COR PROBLEM: Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s firm now seems to be promising meetings with President

A PENCE FOR HIS THOUGHTS: Vice President Mike Pence has managed to avoid some of the early internal fights of the Trump administration. But he has also been a less visible presence than some would have thought.

MOOD MUSIC: The economy grew at it’s lowest clip in three years during the first quarter of 2017. (The Associated Press)

BYE, JIM?: Former South Carolina Sen. and controversial Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint is expected to soon leave the conservative think tank.

And there you have it. You’re caught up on the Trump administration. Happy Friday.

Trump: North Korea ‘disrespected the wishes of China’ with missile test

President Donald Trump said North Korea "disrespected" the Chinese government by launching another ballistic missile test Friday.

"North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!" the president said in a tweet.

North Korea launched a failed mid-range ballistic missile test, South Korea reported about 5 p.m. ET, which was widely condemned by Seoul and other U.S. allies.

Trump was briefed on the launch, according to a statement from the press secretary’s office.

The president on Thursday warned of a potential "major, major conflict" with North Korea during an interview with Reuters, while stressing that a diplomatic approach would be preferable.

During an interview on Fox on Friday, the president again stressed the importance of China’s role in resolving the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, while cautioning that more severe measures may be required for China to handle North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s regime.

“It may have to be a much more difficult ending, to be honest with you, but [Chinese President Xi Jinping is] trying,” he said.

Appeal could drag out Trump University settlement

A former student plans to exercise her right to appeal the approval of the $25 million Trump University settlement, likely delaying any payouts for a year or more — and keeping open the possibility that President Donald Trump might someday be forced into a public trial on the matter, her attorney said Friday.

Sherri Simpson, a Florida bankruptcy lawyer who claims she paid $19,000 in 2010 to learn Trump’s real estate investing secrets, will appeal a judge’s ruling last month denying her the chance to opt out of the settlement and pursue her own lawsuit, Simpson’s attorney Gary Friedman said.

"We’re going to file a notice of appeal on Monday," Friedman told POLITICO. "There’s going to be a lot entailed in prosecuting the appeal, but the decision of whether to file the appeal is not remotely difficult; the [judge’s] decision is clearly wrong."

Under the $25 million deal struck shortly after Trump’s election last November, Trump University attendees were expected to get 80 percent to 90 percent of their money back. U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel approved the settlement late last month, concluding that it provided an "extraordinary" recovery for the plaintiffs.

However, the money was still a fraction of the triple damages at least some of the students could, in theory, receive if the case went to trial. In addition, Simpson’s legal team noted that a passage in a court-approved 2015 notice about the suit indicated that there would be an opportunity for class members to opt out after a settlement was reached.

An attorney involved in leading the class actions suits, Jason Forge, reacted bitterly to the news that Simpson intends to appeal.

"She is standing at a crossroads of short term self indulgence and long-term self preservation," Forge said. "If she chooses to attempt to delay these payments to the students, costing some people the opportunity to receive their payment before they die, we’re going to do everything in our power to make her pay dearly for having done that."

Lawyers representing the class indicated in a court filing earlier this year that they planned to make Simpson post a bond with the court if she files an appeal. Forge said he still plans to ask the judge to require that, but would not specify how much he will seek to have her put up.

"We’ll assess the situation and make a request we deem appropriate," he said.

The initial decision on the bond will be made by Curiel, who had encouraged both sides to reach a settlement that averted the spectacle of a jury trial at which the president-elect was expected to take the witness stand as a defendant. During the presidential campaign, Curiel was the focus of racially charged rhetoric from Trump, who called the Indiana-born judge "Spanish" and insisted he could not be fair in the case because of his Latino heritage.

Official statistics say an appeal to the 9th Circuit typically takes about 15 months to be completed, but lawyers say many cases take substantially longer.

A lawyer for the Trump Organization, Alan Garten, did not respond to requests for comment on the planned appeal.

Trump personally guaranteed the $25 million settlement, which was paid into an escrow fund three days before his inauguration. Most of the money is supposed to go to class members in a pair of federal lawsuits pending in San Diego, but $4 million was set aside to resolve a separate case brought by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

It’s still possible the appeal could be headed off or abandoned through some kind of settlement with Trump, but Friedman indicated earlier that his client was intent on having a civil trial that would expose Trump University’s practices.

Attendees at the Trump University program typically paid about $1,500 for a three-day seminar up to $35,000 for a "gold elite" mentorship. The suits claim fraud because the program was advertised as involving instructors that were hand-picked by Trump and because some students may have been led to believe the seminars were part of a traditional university.

More than 3,700 claims were submitted under the settlement, with close to 3,000 of them considered valid.