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First day of school... 10th grade, here I come! (Can it be that much harder than covering the current political climate?)
Trump, McConnell Deny Reports of Rift
The offices of both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and President Donald Trump issued statements on Wednesday seeking to prove that their working relationship remains intact, despite reports to the contrary.
"The President and I, and our teams, have been and continue to be in regular contact about our shared goals," McConnell said, adding that they are "working together" on a long list of priorities, including tax reform, infrastructure, health care, and other issues. "We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we are committed to advancing our shared agenda together and anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly not part of the conversation."
In a statement hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "President Donald J. Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell remain united on many shared priorities," listing similar goals, and adding that "they will hold previously scheduled meetings following the August recess to discuss these critical items."
Their statements come after a New York Times piece on Tuesday titled, "McConnell, in Private, Doubts if Trump Can Save Presidency," which reported that the Trump-McConnell relationship had "disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises." The Times called their alliance a "feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility," which has now spilled from "angry phone calls and private badmouthing" into the public eye, as McConnell defends Republican senators against Trump's broadsides.
The President has not been shy about attacking members of his own party, particularly on Twitter. Last week, he seemed to endorse a primary challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a leading Trump critic. "Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate," the President tweeted. "He's toxic!" At his Phoenix rally on Tuesday, Trump said he would listen to his advisers' pleas and not speak about Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) or Flake by name, instead referring to them as "one vote away" (a clear reference to McCain's rejection of the Republican health care bill) and "your other senator, who's weak on borders, weak on crime." Trump added of Flake, "Nobody knows who the hell he is."
Politico reported on Wednesday that Trump met backstage before his rally with state Treasurer Jeff DeWitt (R-AZ) and former Arizona GOP chairman Robert Graham to discuss either of them potentially challenging Flake. He also invoked Flake's name the morning after his rally, apparently no longer listening to his aides. "Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!" Trump repeated.
McConnell has ignored Trump's attacks on Flake: according to the Times, he will host the Arizonan and two other Senate Republicans in Kentucky on Friday for a $1,000-per-person fundraiser. And the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with close ties to McConnell, released a web ad on Tuesday labeling Ward as "Chemtrail Kelli," attempting to portray her as a fringe conspiracy theorist. According to CNN, Trump did not intend for his supportive tweet to be an endorsement of Ward, who he would not back if Dewitt or Graham made a run for the seat.
The Senate Majority Leader has also been on the receiving end of President Trump's fury in recent weeks, after saying in a speech that Trump's legislative agenda has stalled due to "excessive expectations." Trump hit back on Twitter: "Senator Mitch McConnell said I had 'excessive expectations,' but I don't think so. After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?" In private, McConnell reportedly has unloaded Trump for his lack of understanding of Senate rules (Trump repeated on Tuesday a call to end the legislative filibuster) and was frustrated with him after the Charlottesville debacle.
The Times also reported on an August 9 phone call between the two which "quickly devolved into a profane shouting match," adding that Trump was infuriated by the health care loss, as well as McConnell's failure to "protect him" from the Russia investigations. According to CNN, the two have not spoken since that profanity-laced call. A Politico report detailed Trump phone calls with two other GOP senators, Bob Corker (R-TN) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), in which the President blew up over Russia, frustrated with Corker's support of a Russia sanctions bill and Tillis' sponsorship of legislation protecting special counsel Robert Mueller.
And the Times reported on additional instances of the Trump Administration's frosty relationship with Republican senators, pointing to threats made to Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) during the health care debate. Murkowski's charge that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened to pull federal funding for her state if she voted against the health care bill is now being investigated by the Interior Department general counsel.
Some in the Senate GOP have recently returned Trump's fire, also making public comments on their party's leader: Corker said last week that Trump has failed to "demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence" of his predecessors, while Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told a reporter on Monday that she was uncertain that Trump would be the Republican presidential nominee in the next election.
--- LATEST FRONT The next test for the Trump-McConnell relationship will be the funding fights facing Congress in September. At his Tuesday rally, Trump threatened to shut down the government over his proposed border wall; Huckabee Sanders said at a Wednesday press gaggle that Trump is "committed to making sure it happens." However, House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Wednesday that he does not think a shutdown is "necessary"; notably, the White House statement on McConnell mentioned working together on "constructing a southern border wall," a priority McConnell ignored in his statement.
--- TOP QUOTE McConnell's former chief of staff Billy Piper to NYT: "The quickest way for [Trump] to get impeached is for Trump to knock off Jeff Flake and [Nevada senator and Trump target] Dean Heller and be faced with a Democrat-led Senate.
--- COMING TODAY While Trump stays quiet, McConnell will speak at the Kentucky Farm Bureau's annual ham breakfast, per CNN. Whether he addresses his rift with Trump remains to be seen.
The President's Schedule: Quiet Day
After three days in a row of delivering closely-watched speeches President Trump has no public events today. He is scheduled to receive his daily intelligence briefing at 10:30am in the Oval Office, before meeting with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster at 11am, and then meeting with budget director Mick Mulvaney and his legislative affairs staff at 11:45am. In the legislative affairs meeting, Trump will likely discuss the busy month ahead on Capitol Hill: Congress must raise the debt ceiling to avoid a default by September 29 and must pass a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown by September 30, despite having just twelve legislative days scheduled next month.
Drip, Drip, Drip
The Russia investigation continues, and has now ensnared yet another Trump aide, according to a CNN report on Wednesday. The outlet reported that congressional investigators have found a June 2016 email to Trump campaign officials from Rick Dearborn, who now serves as White House deputy chief of staff, "relaying information about an individual who was seeking to connect top Trump officials with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin."
At the time, Dearborn was chief of staff to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, a top Trump surrogate-turned-Attorney General. The email came around the same time as a recently reported Trump Tower meeting between Russian officials and Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The Washington Post also reported earlier this month on Trump adviser George Papadopoulos' repeated attempts to set up a meeting between Russian leaders (including Putin) and the Trump campaign.
--- Fusion GPS testimony Also developing this week: Glenn Simpson, founder of the firm Fusion GPS (which hired British agent Chris Steele to craft the famed Trump dossier, which includes salacious allegations on information Russia holds against Trump), testified for 10 hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee staff on Tuesday. Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Wednesday that the panel will hold a vote on whether to release a transcript of Simpson's testimony.
ABC reported this week that Steele provided names of his sources in the dossier to the FBI.
--- More to come? CNBC's Steve Kopack tweets after Trump's Phoenix rally: "Pres. historian Meacham predicts on MSNBC that Trump went after media so aggressively tonight because of coming news (known or unknown)"
- Trump moving forward with transgender military ban The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday evening that the White House plans to send guidance to the Defense Department in the coming days "on how to implement a new administration ban on transgender people in the military." The memo gives the Pentagon six months to prepare to implement the ban, which Trump announced via Twitter last month.
- Zinke to present national monuments review Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is set to present to President Trump today a review of 27 national monuments instituted by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Zinke will present his recommendations to Trump on which monuments should be kept and which should lose federal protection. The Washington Post reports on the monuments on the chopping block.
- State Department science envoy resigns Another resignation landed on President Trump's desk on Wednesday: that of State Department science envoy Daniel Kammen, who left the government after two decades due to Trump's response to Charlottesville. The first letter of each paragraph in Kammen's letter spelled out "IMPEACH," following the mass resignation letter from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which spelled out "RESIST."
- Clinton book first look MSNBC's "Morning Joe" aired a first look at Hillary Clinton's forthcoming memoir, "What Happened." In the clip, Clinton is heard reading a section from the book describing the famed October debate with Trump in which he stood behind her. Clinton recounts it making her "skin crawl."
- Can Kelly turn the White House around? White House chief of staff John Kelly is getting a lot of press this morning for his efforts to manage the previously unmanagable Trump White House. Three stories from this morning:
- AP: "Kelly seeks to restore White House order ahead of Key fights"
- Bloomberg: "General Kelly Commands the White House, But He Can’t Control Trump"
- Politico: "Kelly moves to control the information Trump sees"