Washington Brief: Sessions Met With Russian Envoy Twice Last Year

Washington Brief

  • While he was a U.S. senator and a surrogate for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice with Russia’s ambassador to the United States (The Washington Post). Sessions, who didn’t disclose the meetings during his confirmation hearing, said today that if necessary he would recuse himself from investigating alleged ties between Trump associates and the Russian government. (NBC News)
  • The Senate voted 68-31 to confirm Rep. Ryan Zinke as head of the Department of the Interior. (Morning Consult)
  • Ben Carson is expected to be confirmed by the Senate today to serve as the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (The Associated Press)
  • Trump’s remarks about health care during Tuesday’s congressional address was welcomed by Republican leaders, but it was not enough to bridge internal divides over plans to repeal Obamacare. (The New York Times)
  • Trump voters follow the president’s lead when he publicly criticizes companies, according to new polling data. (Morning Consult)

Chart Review

Events Calendar (All Times Local)

Thursday
House Budget Committee “Members’ Day” hearing 10 a.m.
House Oversight Committee hearing on TSA transparency 10 a.m.
Friday
No events scheduled

 

General

Republican Unity on Health Care Is Elusive, Despite Trump’s Support
Thomas Kaplan and Robert Pear, The New York Times 

President Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday night buoyed House Republican leaders who were hopeful that his leadership would unite fractious lawmakers around a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. But fundamental disagreements still divide Republicans on one of the central promises of their 2016 campaigns: repealing the health law.

Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking
Matthew Rosenberg et al., The New York Times 

In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government. Former American officials say they had two aims: to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.

Joe Biden defends media, courts from ‘dangerous’ attacks
Meredith McGraw, ABC News 

Former Vice President Joe Biden offered a strong defense of the media and judicial branch on Wednesday night, calling attacks on both institutions “corrosive” and “dangerous.” While not mentioning President Trump by name, Biden’s remarks at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. — where he was accepting the Patriot Award for political courage and leadership from the Bipartistan Policy Center — were a thinly veiled reference to the new president’s comments and the current state of politics.

Syria Talks Face Hurdle—U.S. Disengagement
Yarolslav Trofimov, The Wall Street Journal 

Peace talks between Syria’s regime and opposition face a formidable obstacle: Until President Donald Trump’s administration decides how to approach the six-year war, it makes little sense for anyone to compromise. “It’s very difficult to reach any political solution if there is not a positive, active and serious role of the U.S.A.,” said Nasr Alhariri, head of the opposition delegation to the current round of talks now under way in Geneva.

Presidential

Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose
Adam Entous et al., The Washington Post

Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions’s confirmation hearing to become attorney general. One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions: ‘I Will Recuse Myself’ If Necessary
Tony Capra and Erik Ortiz, NBC News

Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied meeting with Russian officials during the course of the presidential election to discuss the Trump campaign, he told NBC News in exclusive remarks early Thursday. “I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign,” he said, “and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false. And I don’t have anything else to say about that.”

White House eyes plan to cut EPA staff by one-fifth, eliminating key programs
Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, The Washington Post 

The White House has proposed deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget that would reduce the agency’s staff by one-fifth in the first year and eliminate dozens of programs, according to details of a plan reviewed by The Washington Post. While administration officials had already indicated that they intended to increase defense spending at the expense of other discretionary funding, the plan spells out exactly how this new approach will affect long- standing federal programs that have a direct impact on Americans’ everyday lives.

Generals May Launch New ISIS Raids Without Trump’s OK
Kimberly Dozier, The Daily Beast

The White House is considering delegating more authority to the Pentagon to greenlight anti-terrorist operations like the SEAL Team 6 raid in Yemen that cost the life of a Navy SEAL, to step up the war on the so-called Islamic State, multiple U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast. President Donald Trump has signaled that he wants his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, to have a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions quickly, ending what U.S. officials say could be a long approval process under President Barack Obama that critics claimed stalled some missions by hours or days.

Trump Administration Sets Off Alarm Bells By Pulling Nominees To Regulatory Commissions
Sam Stein and Ryan Grim, The Huffington Post

The Trump administration has begun pulling pending nominees from various federal commissions in a manner that has left Hill Democrats concerned that the practice of bipartisan inclusion on regulatory panels will be upended. The administration’s efforts, these sources told The Huffington Post, could result in commissions tasked with overseeing trade enforcement, election law, and financial and energy regulation being stacked with nominees sympathetic to the president.

Trump’s team nixed ethics course for White House staff
Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey, Politico 

President Donald Trump’s team rejected a course for senior White House staff, cabinet nominees and other political appointees that would have provided training on leadership, ethics and management, according to documents obtained by POLITICO. The documents suggest the program could have better prepared officials for working within existing laws and executive orders, and provided guidance on how to navigate Senate confirmation for nominees and political appointees, how to deal with congressional and media scrutiny, and how to work with Congress and collaborate with agencies — some of the same issues that have become major stumbling blocks in the early days of the administration.

Trump administration has found only $20 million in existing funds for wall
Julia Edwards Ainsley, Reuters 

President Donald Trump’s promise to use existing funds to begin immediate construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border has hit a financial roadblock, according to a document seen by Reuters. The rapid start of construction, promised throughout Trump’s campaign and in an executive order issued in January on border security, was to be financed, according to the White House, with “existing funds and resources” of the Department of Homeland Security.

The State of Trump’s State Department
Julia Ioffe, The Atlantic

The flags in the lobby of the State Department stood bathed in sunlight and silence on a recent afternoon. “It’s normally so busy here,” marveled a State Department staffer as we stood watching the emptiness.

Senate

Senate Confirms Zinke as Interior Secretary
Jack Fitzpatrick, Morning Consult 

The Senate voted 68-31 to confirm Ryan Zinke as secretary of the Department of the Interior on Wednesday, wrapping up a non-controversial confirmation process for the head of the country’s public lands. All 51 Republicans who were present voted in favor of Zinke’s confirmation, plus 17 members of the Democratic caucus. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) did not cast a vote.

Next up in the Senate: Ben Carson, slated for HUD vote
Jennifer C. Kerr, The Associated Press

The next Trump administration Cabinet nominee up for a vote in the Senate is celebrated neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Approval is expected when senators vote Thursday on President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Senate Democrats Dubious of Trump’s Talk of Immigration Deal
Eli Yokley, Morning Consult 

Senate Democrats are open to compromising with President Donald Trump on an overhaul of the country’s immigration system, but they weren’t encouraged by his rhetoric during Tuesday’s joint address to Congress. “It was so funny he spoke to a bunch of cosmopolitan news anchors and mentioned maybe he will change his views on immigration and the media got into a buzz about that,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Senators wish Trump had stuck to honoring fallen Navy SEAL
Ali Rogin, ABC News 

Senators from both parties said President Trump should not have commented on the success of the January raid on Yemen during his address to Congress — instead simply honoring the Navy SEAL who died during the mission, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens. During Trump’s Tuesday address to a joint session of Congress, the president said that Defense Secretary James Mattis “reconfirmed” that the operation “generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.”

U.S. Senators draft bill to boost employee private stock ownership
Sarah N. Lynch, Reuters 

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Banking Committee are planning to introduce a bill that aims to entice private corporations to give their employees larger equity stakes in their companies and promote longer-term investing. The draft bill, titled the “Encouraging Employee Ownership Act,” is being rolled out by Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and will be made public as soon as Thursday, according to a spokeswoman for Warner’s office.

House

House Panel to Mark Up Obamacare Repeal Bill Next Week, Trump Ally Says
Jon Reid, Morning Consult 

A House panel is expected to vote next week on legislation that would gut the Affordable Care Act, a key congressional ally of President Donald Trump told reporters on Wednesday. Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, said a draft bill to repeal and begin replacing Obamacare would likely be made available to members of the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee for review on Thursday.

House panel to probe possible Russia-Trump campaign collusion: Democrat
Reuters 

The U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee will investigate allegations of collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, the top Democrat on the panel said on Wednesday. “We have reached a written agreement, the minority and the majority in the House intelligence committee, that we will investigate allegations of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign,” Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said on MSNBC.

GOP lawmaker: ‘Poorly dressed’ Democratic women wore ‘bad-looking white pantsuits’
Nolan D. McCaskill, Politico 

A Republican congressman who is potentially eyeing a Senate run mocked Democratic women on Wednesday for wearing white at President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress. Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said the “poorly dressed” Democratic women wore “bad-looking white pantsuits” in solidarity with failed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

States

Supreme Court says Virginia redistricting must be reexamined for racial bias
Robert Barnes and Gregory S. Schneider, The Washington Post

The Supreme Court on Wednesday told a lower court to reexamine the redistricting efforts of Virginia’s Republican-led legislature for signs of racial bias and gerrymandered legislative districts that dilute the impact of African American voters. The justices declined to take a position on that issue.

When Does Protest Cross a Line? Some States Aim to Toughen Laws
Mitch Smith and Michael Wines, The New York Times 

About an hour after some 200 police officers cleared the last demonstrators against the Dakota Access Pipeline from their sprawling encampment on the North Dakota prairie last week, Gov. Doug Burgum signed into law four bills aimed at making it easier to control such protests. With a few strokes of a pen, he placed the state in the vanguard of an emerging backlash by conservative forces against political and social advocates who see demonstrations — however unruly — as free speech protected by the Constitution.

Advocacy

Donald Trump’s Economic Policy Team Is Stacked With Lobbyists and Conflicts of Interest
Zaid Jilani, The Intercept 

Donald Trump’s personnel selections have made a complete mockery of his promise to “drain the swamp.” A newly-released list of White House staffers on his National Economic Council — which is helmed by former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn — is a case in point.

Harley-Davidson lobbyist warned against tariffs
The Associated Press 

A spokeswoman for motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson says the company is open to trade policies that address barriers to international growth. Pat Sweeney was responding to a question about a letter a lobbyist for Harley sent to the Office of the United States Trade Representative earlier this year.

A Message from the National Black Chamber of Commerce:

Did you know the Durbin Amendment has made big box retailers $42 billion in profit? These corporations promised they would pass on profits made from lower debit transaction fees to consumers. But they have not kept their word and in many cases are charging consumers more.

Opinions, Editorials and Perspectives

Donald Trump, Master of Low Expectations
Andrew Rosenthal, The New York Times 

First as a candidate, and now as president, Donald Trump has drawn fire for promising the moon and stars without giving the slightest hint of how he intended to obtain them. In fact, as Tuesday night’s speech to Congress demonstrated so clearly, the president is actually a master of the art of diminished expectations.

Where in the world is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?
Daniel W. Drezner, The Washington Post 

Over at Foreign Affairs, James Goldgeier and Elizabeth Saunders have an excellent essay analyzing why Trump’s approach to foreign policy is so problematic. In essence, good foreign policy isn’t flashy enough for Trump.

How Trumpism Can Bust the Medical Trusts
Clark Havighurst, The Wall Street Journal 

President Trump in recent days has declared ObamaCare a “disaster” and suggested “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” Yet more than a month after taking the oath of office he still hasn’t announced a detailed plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

RIP, Tea Party: 2009-2017
Kelly Jane Torrance, The Weekly Standard

Some heretofore-skeptical commentators are declaring that February 28 is the date Donald Trump truly became president of the United States. That might signal some good news, but it was closely followed by bad: March 1 could go down as the date of death of the Tea Party movement in America.

A Message from the National Black Chamber of Commerce:

Enactment of the Durbin Amendment has led to $42 billion in extra profit for giant retailers. These corporations said they would pass on the profits to consumers in the form of lower prices, but they’ve broken that promise, pocketed the money and in many cases are charging consumers even more.

Research Reports and Polling

Trump Voters Follow the President’s Lead on Which Companies to Dislike
Laura Nichols, Morning Consult

Consumers take note of companies that get associated with President Donald Trump, either as a result of his criticism or because they’re tied to his administration. And how someone voted in November appears to influence whether they have a positive or negative view of those businesses.

Daily Worry Up Sharply Since US Presidential Election
Alyssa Davis and Diana Liu, Gallup 

Americans’ emotional health has suffered since the 2016 election. The average percentage experiencing worry on any given day has increased 4.1 percentage points to 33.3% since early November.

Repeal & Replace = Repair & Repackage?
Heather Podesta + Partners 

Fifty-seven days since the 115th Congress was sworn in. Forty days since President Donald Trump took the oath of office. The clock is ticking on the Republican campaign promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and the solution is proving illusive as disagreements in the Republican conference surface.

Briefings

Washington Brief: Week in Review & What’s Ahead

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise – along with a House staffer, lobbyist and Capitol Police officer – “an attack on all of us.” In addition to the show of unity at the 56th annual Congressional Baseball Game, lawmakers raised concerns about their own security and that of their district offices.

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