Washington Brief: White House Sends Mixed Messages on Potential Tariff Exemptions

Top Stories

  • President Donald Trump suggested in a tweet that he would lift his proposed steel and aluminum tariffs if a “new & fair NAFTA agreement is signed,” but he did not specify whether a potential rollback would be applied only to Mexico and Canada. Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, later said that “at this point in time” there are no country exclusions. (CNN)
  • The Senate is slated to take an initial procedural vote this week on a bill that would exempt about two dozen financial companies from the highest levels of scrutiny by the Federal Reserve. The bill, which has bipartisan support, would be the most substantial weakening of the Dodd-Frank law enacted after the 2008 financial crisis since it was passed in 2010. (The Washington Post)
  • The grand jury investigating alleged collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign is seeking all documents involving Trump and several of his closest advisers going back to Nov. 1, 2015, according to a copy of a subpoena. The subpoena indicates special counsel Robert Mueller may be focused on what Trump knew, in addition to what his campaign aides knew, about hacked emails from Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign before the public found out. (NBC News)

Chart Review

Events Calendar (All Times Local)

Hudson Institute event on the U.S.-U.K. relationship 3 p.m.
Wilson Center event on Congress after Watergate 4 p.m.
Reps. Roskam, Levin, Schwartz participate in CQ Roll Call event on health care 8 a.m.
DOL’s Acosta testifies before House Appropriations subcommittee 10 a.m.
Treasury’s Mnuchin testifies before House Appropriations subcommittee 10 a.m.
Israeli Prime Minister speaks at The Economic Club of Washington 6:30 a.m.
Rep. Larsen participates in Brookings Institution event on U.S. engagement with China 9 a.m.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein participates in AHIP conference 10:35 a.m.
Council of Economic Advisers chairman testifies before Joint Economic Committee 2 p.m.
Ambassadors participate in Wilson Center event on the Trans-Pacific Partnership 2 p.m.
HHS Secretary Azar participates in AHIP conference 8:30 a.m.
Politico’s Future of Prosperity event 8:30 a.m.
Wilson Center event on women and the 2018 midterms 9 a.m.
Senate HELP Committee hearing on the opioid crisis 10 a.m.
The Federalist Society hosts National Student Symposium 6 p.m.

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DACA deadline arrives with diminished urgency
Elliot Spagat, The Associated Press

A program that temporarily shields hundreds of thousands of young people from deportation was scheduled to end Monday but court orders have forced the Trump administration to keep issuing renewals, easing the sense of urgency. In September, Trump said he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program but gave Congress six months to develop a legislative fix.

Exclusive: Congress requires many unpaid interns to sign nondisclosure agreements
Rachel Wolfe, Vox

For unpaid interns on Capitol Hill, secrecy is so much a part of the job that on their first day, many are required to sign sweeping nondisclosure agreements. Employment lawyers reviewed two Hill NDAs obtained by Vox and said they are written in a way that could discourage interns from speaking up about anything, potentially protecting members of Congress and their staff even in cases of harassment or abuse.

‘Like a pinball machine’: Lawmakers struggle to negotiate with an erratic Trump
John Wagner and Seung Min Kim, The Washington Post

President Trump began last week trumpeting his idea to arm teachers. A couple of days later, he alarmed fellow Republicans by embracing broader background checks and suggesting police should seize guns from mentally disturbed people without first going to court.

State Dept. Was Granted $120 Million to Fight Russian Meddling. It Has Spent $0.
Gardiner Harris, The New York Times

As Russia’s virtual war against the United States continues unabated with the midterm elections approaching, the State Department has yet to spend any of the $120 million it has been allocated since late 2016 to counter foreign efforts to meddle in elections or sow distrust in democracy. As a result, not one of the 23 analysts working in the department’s Global Engagement Center — which has been tasked with countering Moscow’s disinformation campaign — speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track the Russian efforts.

Ben Carson on His Vexing Reign at HUD: Brain Surgery Was Easier Than This
Glenn Thrush, The New York Times

Before Ben Carson accepted President Trump’s offer to become secretary of housing and urban development, a friend implored him to turn down the job to preserve the reputation he had earned as a brilliant neurosurgeon and lost, in part, as a politician. The confidant, Logan Delany Jr., who was the treasurer of Mr. Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign, described HUD as a “swamp” of “corruption.”


Trump says tariffs will come off if new NAFTA deal is signed
Maegan Vazquez, CNN

President Donald Trump on Monday dangled the possibility of lifting the new steel and aluminum tariffs he’s imposed if NAFTA is renegotiated to terms more favorable to the US. “We have large trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. NAFTA, which is under renegotiation right now, has been a bad deal for U.S.A. Massive relocation of companies & jobs. Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum will only come off if new & fair NAFTA agreement is signed,” Trump tweeted Monday morning.

Special counsel wants documents on Trump, numerous campaign associates
Katy Tur and Alex Johnson, NBC News

The grand jury investigating alleged collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has sent a witness a subpoena seeking all documents involving the president and a host of his closest advisers, according to a copy of the subpoena reviewed by NBC News. According to the subpoena, which was sent to a witness by special counsel Robert Mueller, investigators want emails, text messages, work papers, telephone logs and other documents going back to Nov. 1, 2015, 4½ months after Trump launched his campaign.

Mueller’s Focus on Adviser to Emirates Suggests Broader Investigation
Mark Mazzetti et al., The New York Times

George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman, has hovered on the fringes of international diplomacy for three decades. He was a back-channel negotiator with Syria during the Clinton administration, reinvented himself as an adviser to the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and last year was a frequent visitor to President Trump’s White House.

NK says US ‘should not misjudge’ its intention after Trump’s Gridiron remark
Kevin Bohn and Maegan Vazquez, CNN

North Korea says the United States “should not misjudge” its intention for dialogue following President Donald Trump’s comments Saturday night that Pyongyang had recently reached out about possible talks. In a statement released Sunday from North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, the country accused the US of “taking preposterous action by continuing to trumpet an insistence that it will not have dialogue unless a right condition is met and that it will keep watching if we have intention to abandon nuclear weapons and missiles and so on.”

Trump on China’s Xi consolidating power: ‘Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day’
Kevin Liptak, CNN

President Donald Trump bemoaned a decision not to investigate Hillary Clinton after the 2016 presidential election, decrying a “rigged system” that still doesn’t have the “right people” in place to fix it, during a freewheeling speech to Republican donors in Florida on Saturday. In the closed-door remarks, a recording of which was obtained by CNN, Trump also praised China’s President Xi Jinping for recently consolidating power and extending his potential tenure, musing he wouldn’t mind making such a maneuver himself.

Trump pushes Republicans to oppose crucial New York-New Jersey tunnel project
Mike DeBonis and Josh Dawsey, The Washington Post

President Trump is pushing congressional Republicans not to fund a crucial infrastructure project — a long-delayed plan to build a new rail tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey — setting up a confrontation that could complicate passage of a massive government spending bill this month. Trump personally appealed to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) this week to target federal funding for the $30 billion Gateway project, which would construct a tunnel into New York’s Penn Station to supplement two aging tubes that are at risk of failing in the coming years.


10 years after financial crisis, Senate prepares to roll back banking rules
Erica Werner and Damian Paletta, The Washington Post

The Senate is preparing to scale back the sweeping banking regulations passed after the 2008 financial crisis, with more than a dozen Democrats ready to give Republicans the votes they need to weaken one of President Barack Obama’s largest legislative achievements. Congress’s appetite for pulling back bank regulations shows the renewed clout of the financial sector in Washington, not just in the GOP but also among Democrats.

Manchin echoes White House in blaming China for new Trump tariffs
Mallory Shelbourne, The Hill 

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) on Sunday blamed China for President Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. During an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” Manchin argued that while China may not be high on the list of steel exporters to the U.S., much of the steel imported into the United States comes from Asian nation.

Former Obama chief of staff said top Senate Republican ‘watered down’ pre-election Russia warning
Karoun Demirjian, The Washington Post

A former chief of staff to President Barack Obama said Sunday that the Senate’s top Republican insisted that a bipartisan appeal for states to step up election security in the face of Russian aggression be “dramatically watered down” before it was issued in advance of the 2016 election. Denis McDonough said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was single-handedly responsible for downgrading the language in a letter “asking the states to work with us” to better secure election systems in light of intelligence indicating Russia was attempting to interfere in the election.

Republicans waiting out Trump on gun control
Alexander Bolton, The Hill

Republican lawmakers are waiting out President Trump in the gun-control debate, counting on him to change his mind or lose interest in the ambitious proposals he endorsed Wednesday that have little support in the Senate and House GOP conferences. Unlike during the recent tax and immigration debates, Republicans say they need to find consensus among themselves about what to do on gun violence, leaving Trump largely out of the equation.   

Vulnerable lawmakers answer a noisy gun debate with silence
Steve Peoples, The Associated Press

They crowded around the White House conference table this past week, lawmakers from California, Connecticut, Texas and Florida, eager to share their state’s painful experience with gun violence. One key state was not represented.


The battle for Congress kicks off in Texas
Elena Schneider, Politico

The opening primaries of the 2018 midterm elections on Tuesday feature the first critical test of national Democrats’ strategy for handling the crowded primaries that could threaten the party’s chances of winning control of the House next year. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t want Laura Moser as the party’s nominee for a House seat in Texas that the party sees as critical to its strategy to winning control of the chamber next year.

As Primaries Begin, Divided Voters Weigh What It Means to Be a Democrat
Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, The New York Times

When Representative Daniel Lipinski, a conservative-leaning Democrat and scion of Chicago’s political machine, agreed to one joint appearance last month with his liberal primary challenger, the divide in the Democratic Party was evident in the audience that showed up. Mr. Lipinski’s outnumbered supporters were the diminished lunch-pail Democrats that once dominated his Southside district.

Inside the $9.1 Million Effort to Bolster Republican Running in Trump Country
Joshua Jamerson, The Wall Street Journal

For Republicans, it’s all hands on deck to help Rick Saccone win a special election for a U.S. House seat that is deep in Trump country. GOP-affiliated groups—including the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm; the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan ; the Republican National Committee; and two pro-Trump PACs, 45Committee and America First Action—have poured about $9.1 million into the Pittsburgh-area race, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics.


Florida Senate says no to ban on assault weapons, yes to arming teachers
Dan Sweeney, Sun-Sentinel

All the kids wanted was for the adults to ban assault weapons — which caused such bloody devastation at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. And most of their teachers wanted to quash the notion of armed educators in Florida schools.

Washington Legislature approves ban on ‘conversion therapy’ for minors
The Associated Press

The Washington Legislature has passed a bill to ban licensed therapists from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation. The Senate agreed on changes made in the House to Senate Bill 5722 and passed it on a 33-16 vote Saturday.

Six teenagers are running for governor in Kansas, and suddenly this doesn’t seem so preposterous
Monica Hesse, The Washington Post

And now, a report from the Midwest, where a gangly hope has arrived in the form of children enrobed in various assortments of khakis and blazers, because six teenage boys are running for governor of the state of Kansas. The would-be boy governors of Kansas.

States mull ‘sanctuary’ status for marijuana businesses
Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press

Taking a cue from the fight over immigration, some states that have legalized marijuana are considering providing so-called sanctuary status for licensed pot businesses, hoping to protect the fledgling industry from a shift in federal enforcement policy. Just hours after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Jan. 4 that federal prosecutors would be free to crack down on marijuana operations as they see fit, Jesse Arreguin, the mayor in Berkeley, California, summoned city councilman Ben Bartlett to his office with a novel idea.

Democrats’ seek to help wealthy in response to tax changes
Geoff Mulvihill, The Associated Press

Resistance to the Republican tax overhaul comes with an ideological twist for some Democratic state officials: They’ve styled themselves as champions of the working class but are pushing hard for measures that would reduce taxes mostly for the wealthy. Democratic governors and lawmakers in a handful of high-income, high-tax states are promoting policies that are intended to spare their residents the pain of the new $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local taxes.


Trump’s Florida Fundraiser Flourishes as New Washington Lobbyist
Bill Allison, Bloomberg

A stranger to Washington has emerged as a winner in the ruthless world of lobbying in the nation’s capital, thanks in part to his ties to President Donald Trump. Brian Ballard, the Florida fundraiser often sought out by Republican presidential candidates, was best known in Tallahassee until election night 2016.

Dozens race to register as foreign lobbyists since start of Mueller inquiry, fearful of Manafort’s fate
Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times

No one knows how special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s sprawling investigation into Russian political interference and potential White House obstruction will end, but Mueller is already changing how the nation’s capital does business. His prosecutors have taken the rare step of pursuing some of President Trump’s former senior aides for failing to register as lobbyists for foreign governments, rattling the rarefied world of highly-paid professionals who advocate in Washington for traditional foreign allies, unsavory strongmen and other overseas clients.  

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Opinions, Editorials and Perspectives

GOP’s H.R. 620: Trading Civil Rights for Business Interests
Janni Lehrer-Stein, Morning Consult

If you thought it couldn’t get any worse in Congress, it just did. H.R. 620, or the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, passed the House 225-192 on Feb. 15. The bill may sound innocent, but it represents one of the biggest rollbacks in rights for disabled Americans since the bipartisan Americans with Disabilities Act was signed in 1990 by then-President George H.W. Bush.

Steel Tariffs Without Jobs
The Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal

The reaction against Donald Trump’s new steel and aluminum tariffs has been fast and negative, from foreign leaders to business groups to financial markets. As the President absorbs the damage to the economy and his political standing, we hope he also reconsiders the illusion that his tariffs will create new American jobs.

The Trump Steel Tariffs Are Economically Small and Symbolically Huge  
Neil Irwin, The New York Times

To understand why the worry about President Trump’s planned steel and aluminum tariffs goes so deep on Wall Street and in corporate America, don’t think of Thursday’s news as  being about a new tariff on steel and aluminum. Rather, think of it as a signal about the willingness of the president to ignore his most sober-minded advisers and put the global economy at risk to achieve his goal of better terms for American trade.

Research Reports and Polling

North Korea, Cyberterrorism Top Threats to U.S.
Jim Norman, Gallup

Eighty-two percent of Americans say North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons poses “a critical threat” to the United States’ vital interests. A similar percentage (81%) think cyberterrorism poses a critical threat to the nation, putting these two at the top of a list of six possible threats.