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Beyond bluster, U.S., N. Korea in regular contact

Beyond the bluster, the Trump administration has been quietly engaged in back channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months, addressing Americans imprisoned in the communist country and deteriorating relations between the longtime foes, The Associated Press has learned.

It had been known the two sides had discussions to secure the June release of an American university student. But it wasn’t known until now that the contacts have continued, or that they have broached matters other than U.S. detainees.

People familiar with the contacts say the interactions have done nothing thus far to quell tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile advances, which are now fueling fears of military confrontation. But they say the behind-the-scenes discussions could still be a foundation for more serious negotiation, including on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, should President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un put aside the bellicose rhetoric of recent days and endorse a dialogue.

Trump refused to discuss the diplomatic contacts. “We don’t want to talk about progress, we don’t want to talk about back channels,” Trump told reporters Friday.

The diplomatic contacts are occurring regularly between Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s U.N. mission, according to U.S. officials and others briefed on the process. They weren’t authorized to discuss the confidential exchanges and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Officials call it the “New York channel.” Yun is the only U.S. diplomat in contact with any North Korean counterpart. The communications largely serve as a way to exchange messages, allowing Washington and Pyongyang to relay information.

Drowned out by the furor over Trump’s warning to North Korea of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressed a willingness to entertain negotiations. His condition: Pyongyang stopping tests of missiles that can now potentially reach the U.S. mainland.

Tillerson has even hinted at an ongoing back channel. “We have other means of communication open to them, to certainly hear from them if they have a desire to want to talk,” he said at an Asian security meeting in the Philippines this week.

The interactions could point to a level of pragmatism in the Trump administration’s approach to the North Korean threat, despite the president’s dire warnings.

On Friday, he tweeted: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.” But on Thursday, he said, “we’ll always consider negotiations,” even if they haven’t worked in the last quarter-century.

The contacts suggest Pyongyang, too, may be open to a negotiation even as it talks of launching missiles near the U.S. territory of Guam. The North regularly threatens nuclear strikes on the United States and its allies.

The State Department and the White House declined to comment on Yun’s diplomacy. A diplomat at North Korea’s U.N. mission only confirmed use of diplomatic channel up to the release of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier two months ago.

Trump, in some ways, has been more flexible in his approach to North Korea than President Barack Obama. While variations of the New York channel have been used on-and-off for years by past administrations, there were no discussions over the last seven months of Obama’s presidency after Pyongyang broke them off in anger over U.S. sanctions imposed on its leader, Kim. Obama made little effort to reopen lines of communication.

The contacts quickly restarted after Trump’s inauguration, other people familiar with the discussions say.

“Contrary to the public vitriol of the moment, the North Koreans were willing to reopen the New York channel following the election of President Trump and his administration signaled an openness to engage and ‘talk about talks,’” said Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a U.S.-based group that promotes U.S.-North Korean engagement.

“However, the massive trust deficit in Pyongyang and in Washington toward each other has impeded the confidence-building process necessary to have constructive dialogue,” he said.

The early U.S. focus was on securing the release of several Americans held in North Korea.

They included Warmbier, who was imprisoned for stealing a propaganda poster and only allowed to return to the U.S. in June — in an unconscious state. He died days later. Yun traveled on the widely publicized mission to Pyongyang to bring Warmbier home.

Despite outrage in the U.S. with Warmbier’s treatment and sharp condemnation by Trump, the U.S.-North Korean interactions in New York continued.

Yun and his counterpart have discussed the other Americans still being held. They include Kim Hak Song, a university employee detained in May accused of unspecified “hostile” acts; Tony Kim, a teacher at the same school, accused of trying to overthrow the government; and Kim Dong Chul, sentenced last year to a decade in prison with hard labor for supposed espionage.

But the American and North Korean diplomats also have discussed the overall U.S.-North Korean relationship. The two countries have no diplomatic ties and are still enemies, having only reached an armistice — not a peace treaty — to end the 1950-1953 Korean War. Twenty-eight thousand U.S. troops are still stationed in South Korea.

In its own convoluted way, North Korea has indicated openness to talks in recent weeks, even as it has accelerated the tempo of weapons tests.

On July 4, after the North test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially strike the continental U.S., leader Kim added a new caveat to his refusal to negotiate over its nukes or missiles. Instead of a blanket rejection, he ruled out such concessions “unless the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated.”

That message has been repeated by other North Korean officials, without greater specification. Nor have they offered an indication as to whether Pyongyang would accept denuclearization as the goal of talks.

Still, advocates for diplomacy, including some voices in the U.S. government, view the addendum as a potential opening.

“North Korea is assessing its options,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America think tank who participated in unofficial talks with North Korean officials in Oslo in May, where Yun also met with the North Koreans. “They recognize that at some point they have to return to the table to address what’s becoming a crisis. That’s what they are weighing right now: the timing of engagement.”

Any negotiation would face huge skepticism in Washington given North Korea’s long record of broken promises. The last serious U.S.-North Korea negotiations collapsed in 2012 when Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket that derailed an agreement of a North Korean nuclear freeze in exchange for U.S. food aid.

North Korea’s weapons program has developed significantly since then. As a result, its price in any such negotiation is now likely to be far higher. At a minimum, Pyongyang would renew its long-standing demands for an end to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises — which are set to resume this month — and an eventual peace treaty with Washington.

To date, the Trump administration has heavily concentrated its diplomatic energy on cranking up international pressure on North Korea’s government, in particular pressing China to lean on its wayward ally. Last weekend, the U.N. adopted its strongest economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

Trump has been widely accused of injecting a new element of unpredictability and even chaos into U.S. policy toward North Korea, especially with his tweets and proclamations this week. It’s unclear what effect they may have on the back-channel contacts being maintained by Yun.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Jack Latvala hires prominent GOP ad maker Fred Davis

While not yet official a candidate for Florida governor, state Sen. Jack Latvala has made a major hire: Fred Davis, who was once described as the “GOP’s most notorious ad man.”

Latvala tells Florida Politics that Davis has been retained by his Florida Leadership Committee.

Latvala has said he will announce his 2018 plans on August 16.

Hiring Davis is the clearest indication yet that the Pinellas Republican will enter the gubernatorial race. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is the only other declared major GOP candidate, although House Speaker Richard Corcoran and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis are considering running.

Davis, formerly chief media strategist for 2008 Republican Party presidential nominee John McCain, heads Hollywood-based Strategic Perception Inc. and is considered a guru of attention-grabbing political videos. He is also one of the most sought-after media consultants for conservative candidates, having worked with top GOP names such as George W. Bush, Jon Huntsman, Jeff Flake, Chuck Grassley, Ben Sasse, Rick Snyder and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One stat about Davis you’ll hear coming from Latvala’s camp is that the ad man’s clients went 12-for-12 in the previous non-presidential election cycle.

With a long resume, Davis is perhaps best known for producing McCain’s outrageous “Celebrity” ad – which compared Barack Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton – as well as the “demon sheep” spot for U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, credited for helping her win the 2010 California Republican primary.

McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt called Davis as the “most creative person in the business – period.” NPR also described him as “the closest thing political advertising has to an auteur. Unlike just about any political media guru out there, Davis embraces weirdness.”

Although he is very good at the positive ad, as he did for Elizabeth Dole in 2002, Davis is at his best when running negative. Strategic perception spots have included giant rats running loose in Atlanta, a massive hairpiece on the Illinois statehouse and even a “full-length Western cowboy song.”

Always courting controversy, Davis faced a strong backlash in 2012 after The New York Times published a 57-page document (commissioned by billionaire Joe Ricketts) for a $10 million campaign against Obama’s re-election.

“The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good,” tried to portray the president as “a metrosexual, black Abraham Lincoln,” suggesting Obama would respond to the ads by playing “the race card.”

Despite being initially approved by Ricketts’ Ending Spending Action Fund, the ads were later disavowed after the strategy leaked out to the press; the spots were never aired.

Nevertheless, the Ricketts incident only cemented Davis’ reputation as hard-hitting and unconventional.

“If every other ad is yellow, you do your ad red,” David once said. “If every ad is loud, you do yours soft.”

In other words, bringing on Davis would be the perfect move for a Republican gubernatorial candidate looking to enter a brutal, no-holes-barred Florida primary.

Donald Trump’s unprecedented hands-on messaging carries risks

For the third time in six months, President Donald Trump is on the hunt for a new communications director. But in practice, the job is filled.

It’s Trump who’s the White House’s leading expert and the final word on what and how he communicates with the public. Despite decrying most negative media coverage as “fake news” and personally insulting members of the media, he has inserted himself into the White House’s press operations in an unprecedented fashion for a president.

Trump has dictated news releases and pushed those who speak for him to bend the facts to bolster his claims. He has ignored the advice of his legal team and thrown out carefully planned legislative strategies with a single 140-character tweet.

His direct, hands-on style helped him win the White House and still thrills his supporters. It also, however, poses increasing political and potentially legal risks. The clearest example is his involvement in crafting a statement for son Donald Jr. about a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer. That declaration was quickly proven erroneous and raised questions about whether the president was trying to cover for his son.

Trump has struggled to find a communications adviser that meets his approval.

His first, Mike Dubke, stayed behind the scenes and never clicked with Trump, leaving after three months. Then Sean Spicer, Trump’s oft-beleaguered press secretary, took on the communications director job as well. He resigned both posts last month when Trump brought in hard-charging New York financier Anthony Scaramucci. Scaramucci lasted only 11 days before being fired in the aftermath of an expletive-filled interview.

A fourth candidate for the post, campaign spokesman Jason Miller, was named to the job during the transition but turned it down days later, citing a need to spend time with his family.

More recently there have been some informal internal conversations about an increased communications role for White House aide Stephen Miller, according to an administration official who was not authorized to discuss private talks by name and requested anonymity. Those talks are still seen as preliminary. Miller recently clashed with some reporters over immigration policy at a contentious press briefing.

This past week, as White House staffers readied a statement accompanying Trump’s signature on legislation approving toughened sanctions on Russia — a bill Trump criticized — word came down that the president wanted to add some off-topic language into the statement. That’s according to two officials familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly talk about internal discussions.

“I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars,” the new section read. “That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As president, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”

That personal and boastful rhetoric is a far cry from the formal language normally found in presidential statements. It also appeared aimed at angering the same lawmakers he will need if he wants to pass any major legislation.

“All presidents are their own best messengers,” said Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush. Fleischer said that Bush, too, would at times get involved with the White House press shop.

Fleischer noted there was always a safety net of advisers at work. That does not appear to exist around the current president — particular around his Twitter account.

“The lesson for this president is that it’s perfectly fine to be involved and to, at times, go around the mainstream media with Twitter,” Fleischer said. “But he needs to tweet smarter.”

Corralling the president’s impulses is a challenge that now falls to new White House chief of staff John Kelly, a four-star Marine general tasked with straightening out an unruly West Wing. But many Trump allies don’t believe he’ll alter his ways.

“The reality is President Trump is sitting in the Oval Office,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign staffer. “And before that, he was a mogul with a business that spanned continents. He did it his way. He’s not going to change. It got him where he is and it will keep him where he is.”

Trump has long considered himself his own best spokesman and cares deeply about his public perception.

While a budding real estate magnate in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, he was known to call reporters to plant anonymously sourced scoops about himself. He vaulted to national stardom with “The Apprentice” and micromanaged aspects of his appearances, including his hair and lighting.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump was known to obsess over single images in a commercial or the font for an ad.

As president, he frequently has raged about his communications staff, blaming them for White House’s stumbles while almost never taking responsibility himself.

An avid consumer of cable news, Trump scolds surrogates when he thinks they are not adequately defending him on television. His frequently shifting positions also challenge his staffers, who have grown to be fearful of answering basic questions about the president’s beliefs for fear of later being contradicted, according to more than a half dozen White House officials and outside advisers speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

And the president has pushed staff to defend untruths, including when he ordered Spicer, in Spicer’s first White House briefing, to claim that the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd was larger than his predecessor’s, according to three White House officials and outside advisers familiar with the encounter.

More untruths have followed. In March, Trump tweeted without evidence that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. And soon after firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump tweeted a warning that Comey had better hope there were no tapes of their White House conversations. There weren’t.

Another statement has received bipartisan condemnation and could face scrutiny from investigators probing possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

As news broke last month that Trump Jr. had met with Russians in June 2016, the president’s eldest son released a statement — which was in part crafted on Air Force One by the president and a small group of aides while flying home from a summit in Europe — that claimed the meeting was about adoptions. But within days, Trump Jr. had to revise his story several times before eventually acknowledging that he was trying to procure damaging, Russia-produced information about Hillary Clinton.

“This was a bad decision by the president,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “When you get caught in a lie about one thing, it makes it hard to just say let the other stuff go.”

Press secretary Sarah Sanders said last week that Trump “weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump’s fundraising prowess keeps Republican Party close

Republican senators are bucking President Donald Trump’s calls to revive the health care debate. And Trump just ousted his only top White House aide with deep links to the Republican Party.

But the president and his party won’t be calling it quits anytime soon. They remain tightly linked by a force more powerful than politics or personal ties: cash.

Trump’s fundraising prowess is the engine of the Republican National Committee and a lifeline for every Republican planning to rely on the party for financial help during next year’s congressional races. Leaning heavily on Trump’s appeal among small donors, the party has raised $75 million in the first six months of the year, more than double what the Democratic National Committee had raised by the same point in President Barack Obama’s first year.

“The president is somebody who absolutely is an asset when it comes to fundraising,” RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said. Trump resonates with a base of Republicans who have been more willing this year than ever before to chip in. The party says it collected more cash online in the first six months of the year than in all of 2016.

In late June, Trump played star and host of a fundraiser for his re-election campaign and the RNC. The event at the Trump International Hotel, just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, raised $10 million to be divided between Trump and the party, the kind of bounty usually reserved for the final months before an election.

The fundraising numbers help explain why more Republicans — particularly those facing re-election next year — aren’t openly distancing themselves from a president whose approval rating hovers below 40 percent and whose White House has been wracked by public back-biting and legislative stumbles.

And while Trump hasn’t hesitated to call out Republicans who defy him, he’s largely come to appreciate the permanence the RNC offers a White House that has had to quickly staff up from nothing — a task that hasn’t always gone smoothly.

Trump’s dismissal last week of chief of staff Reince Priebus prompted a rush of concern from Republican lawmakers who’d gotten to know Priebus during his nearly six years as party chairman. Some wondered if Trump was losing his only link to the Republican Party.

Yet the well-funded RNC has been reformatted for the Trump era.

“The president likes the fact that the party is structured to help his agenda, and there’s not a question that this RNC is 100 percent loyal to him,” said Brian Ballard, one of the party’s lead fundraisers. “It’s not like the RNC he inherited as the party’s nominee; it’s his now.”

Party employees have led communication at key points of the investigations into whether the Trump campaign had anything to do with Russian interference in the presidential election.

And the RNC, realizing how important television is to this particular White House, has added employees to help book Trump proponents on cable shows.

There are awkward GOP moments, to be sure. Just this week, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, in his new book, called out Trump for his “seeming affection for strongmen and authoritarians.” Trump over the weekend on Twitter ridiculed Senate Republicans for not passing a health care bill, saying Democrats were laughing at them and they “look like fools.”

McDaniel said the president has “every right” to engage with Republicans however he sees fit. “The American people put him in office to accomplish his agenda,” she said. She’s backed him up on Twitter: “I run into people every day who are hurting across the country under Obamacare,” she wrote recently. “Giving up is not an option.”

Priebus and others at the RNC were squeamish about their presidential nominee at various points during the 2016 campaign, but few if any detractors remain at its headquarters on Capitol Hill, where the hallways are lined with portraits of Trump and blown-up snapshots of him.

The RNC voted McDaniel in as party chair on Trump’s recommendation. As the Michigan GOP head, she’d been a staunch Trump supporter even as her uncle, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, expressed his own reservations about Trump during the campaign.

Trump also tapped Bob Paduchik, his campaign’s Ohio director, to serve as a deputy to McDaniel. The two remain close, and Paduchik traveled with Trump last month for a rally in Youngstown.

Trump’s family, including son Donald Trump Jr. and daughter-in-law Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife, are involved in the RNC’s strategy and fundraising and have grown close to McDaniel. Longtime Trump friend Steve Wynn, a fellow billionaire businessman, is the party’s chief fundraiser; the president’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, is among the RNC’s principal fundraisers.

His campaign’s trusted data and digital director, Brad Parscale, joined the board of Data Trust, the party’s data vendor, which keeps its voter files up to date.

Trump heaped praise on the RNC’s leadership team during the June fundraiser, calling them stars and winners. Bill Stepien, the White House’s political director, said relations between the party and the president are as good now as they were in the mid-2000s, when he worked at the RNC while George W. Bush was president.

Stepien said the White House and the party have “a strong relationship” and that Trump’s aides view the RNC as an “essential component” of his success.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Hillary Clinton lost, but Republicans still want to investigate her

Democrat Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to President Donald Trump, but some Republicans in Congress are intensifying their calls to investigate her and other Obama administration officials.

As investigations into Russian meddling and possible links to Trump’s campaign have escalated on both sides of the Capitol, some Republicans argue that the investigations should have a greater focus on Democrats.

Democrats who have pushed the election probes “have started a war of investigative attrition,” said GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Several officials from former President Barack Obama’s administration and Clinton’s campaign have appeared before or been interviewed by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees as part of the Russia investigation, along with Trump campaign officials. The GOP-led committees are investigating whether Trump’s campaign had any links to Russian interference in last year’s election.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has continued a separate investigation into whether Obama administration officials inappropriately made requests to “unmask” identities of Trump campaign officials in intelligence reports.

The House Judiciary Committee, which has declined to investigate the Russian meddling, approved a resolution this past week to request documents related to the FBI’s now-closed investigation of Clinton’s emails. In addition, Republican on that committee wrote the Justice Department on Thursday and asked for a second special counsel, in addition to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, to investigate “unaddressed matters, some connected to the 2016 election and others, including many actions taken by Obama administration.”

“The American public has a right to know the facts — all of them — surrounding the election and its aftermath,” the lawmakers wrote.

Republicans want to investigate the unmasking issue and also Clinton’s email scandal that figured prominently in the campaign. They also frequently bring up former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony that she told him to call the Clinton email investigation a “matter” instead of an investigation during the campaign.

Nunes wrote his own letter to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats last week, saying that his committee has learned that one Obama administration official had made “hundreds” of the unmasking requests.

Even though he remains committee chairman, Nunes stepped back from the Russia investigation earlier this year after he was criticized for being too close to the White House. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, took over the leading role.

The committee has conducted bipartisan interviews of witnesses; Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner appeared on Tuesday, a day after talking to Senate staff. But partisan tensions have been evident.

GOP Rep. Pete King of New York, who’s on the House Intelligence Committee, said after the Kushner interview that the committee investigation into Russian meddling is a “sham.”

“To me there is nothing to this from the beginning,” he said of his committee’s own probe. “There is no collusion … it’s the phoniest investigation ever.”

Both the Senate and House committees have interviewed or expressed interest in interviewing a series of Democratic witnesses, including Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan Rice, and former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power — both of whom Republicans have said may be linked to the unmasking. Rice met with staff on the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month, and Power met with the panel Friday.

“Ambassador Power strongly supports any bipartisan effort to address the serious threat to our national security posed by Russia’s interference in our electoral process, and is eager to engage with the Senate and House committees on the timeline they have requested,” Power’s lawyer, David Pressman, said in a statement.

Dennis Ross blasts GOP Senate in wake of ACA debacle

A day after an attempt by Senate Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act crashed and burned, Lakeland GOP Congressman Dennis Ross blasted members of his own party, saying he’s “sick of the excuses.”

“The Senate has failed the American people and abandoned voters who were promised that they would repeal and replace the disastrous Obamacare. The House did its job. We honored our pledge and passed legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare in early May. There is no need to sugar coat this: I’m very upset with the Senate,” Ross said Wednesday.

Referring to the fact that Congress has been in session for nearly seven months with little to show for their efforts, Ross said both he and the American people “are sick of the excuses from Senators.”

Like Rand Paul, Ross says he doesn’t understand why 52 GOP Senators were willing to vote on a bill to straight up and repeal the ACA in 2015, but now suffer from cold feet now that they know Barack Obama isn’t going to veto that bill.

Regarding the upcoming August summer break, Ross says that the Senate should stay in the nation’s capital for “all of August, September, October and however long it takes to pass legislation that repeals and replaces Obamacare.”

“If they don’t repeal and replace Obamacare, like they promised and were voted to do, they are going back on their word and have some serious explaining to do when they go back home and face those who sent them to Washington to protect and help them. They will be held accountable,” Ross vowed. “When premiums and deductibles continue to skyrocket, when more and more insurers flee the exchange, when increased health care taxes and mandates shut down local businesses and leave Americans with nothing to keep their families afloat, the Senate will be taking the blame. Not the House, and not the President.”

POLITICO reported Wednesday that Texas businessman Doug Deason, a backer of President Donald Trump, said he and other major GOP donors were warming to the idea of funding primary challenges to senators who had opposed the health care bill.

In a text message referring to three senators who played a role in sinking the bill — Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Shelley Moore Capito — Deason ripped “the spineless Republican members from Maine, Arizona and West Virginia who seem to believe that Obamacare is actually succeeding.”

Ross was an enthusiastic supporter of the American Health Care Act, the GOP House bill to repeal the ACA which was not very popular with the public. As Senior Deputy Majority Whip, his job was to corral the votes to support the measure, which was no easy feat. “If we don’t pass this out of the House, this is the beginning of the end for us as a Republican Party,” Ross told the Tampa Bay Times Alex Leary back in May.

The Lakeland Republican has not faced a serious challenge in his Polk/Hillsborough/Lake County seat since being elected in the Tea Party-wave election of 2010. Five Democrats and one Republican have filed to run against him in 2018.

Analysis: Donald Trump unlikely to avoid blame for health care loss

It was a far cry from “The buck stops here.”

President Donald Trump, dealt a stinging defeat with the failure of the Republican health care bill in the Senate, flipped the script from Harry Truman’s famous declaration of presidential responsibility and declared Tuesday, “I am not going to own it.”

He had tweeted earlier, “We were let down by all of the Democrats and a few Republicans.”

This is the same president who thundered night after night on the campaign trail that it would be “so easy” to repeal and replace the Obama health care law on Day One of his administration.

Try and tweet as he might, Trump can’t now avoid a share of the blame for the stall-out of that repeal effort.

It’s a president’s burden to shoulder the nation’s problems whether they are inherited or created in real time. Barack Obama took office with the American economy facing its worst crisis since the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy accepted responsibility for the failure of the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, ordered on his own watch.

“That’s the nature of being elected president: You own the policies, the economy and the government,” said presidential historian Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University. “You own the positives and negatives of the job whether you think it’s your fault or not. You live in the White House: You can’t disassociate yourself from what happens if you don’t like it.”

Trump took office armed with Republican control of both houses of Congress and an ambitious agenda that would begin with the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. Six months later, the collapse of the GOP plan was a sharp rebuke for the president, who was unable to cajole or threaten Republicans to stay in line and who exerted little of his diminished political capital to see through a promise that had been at the core of his party since Obamacare became law seven years ago.

The president’s disjointed support for the health care plan did little to persuade Republicans to support it, and the fact that his approval ratings had dropped below 40 percent didn’t help either.

Trump never held a news conference or delivered a major speech to sell the bill to the public. He never leveraged his popularity among rank-and-file Republican voters by barnstorming the districts of wavering GOP senators. And he never spearheaded a coherent communications strategy — beyond random tweets — to push for the plan.

“The best way to motivate members is talk to their constituents and at no point did he try to talk to Americans about health care reform in any sort of serious way,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “His attention seems to drift with whatever is on cable news on any given moment as opposed to what is on the Senate floor any given week.”

Sounding almost like a bystander during his brief Oval Office remarks Tuesday, Trump six times expressed “disappointment” that the Republican effort had failed. And he insisted the fault rested with Democrats and suggested Obamacare should be left to fail on its own.

“I’m not going to own it,” Trump insisted. “I can tell you that Republicans are not going to own it.”

Democrats blasted Trump’s blame game, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer saying his refusal to accept responsibility demonstrated “such a lack of leadership.”

“That is such a small and petty response,” Schumer said. “Because the president, he’s in charge. And to hurt millions of people because he’s angry he didn’t get his way is not being a leader.”

Despite Trump’s efforts to shift blame across the aisle, the White House made little effort to court Democrats.

Instead of initially pursuing an infrastructure plan — which would have likely received support from unions and blue-collar workers, making it hard for Democrats to oppose — Trump opted to tackle the far more polarizing issue of health care first. He outsourced most of the work to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It became a strictly Republican effort which, due to the party’s slight advantages in the House and Senate, had little margin for error. And it was conservatives from Trump’s own wing of the Republican party who thwarted him.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus defied him and ignored his Twitter threats. The two senators who withdrew their support Monday night, effectively killing the bill, didn’t even give the White House a heads-up before announcing their decisions. And even though Trump allies have threatened to aid primary challengers to a pair of on-the-fence senators — Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada — the Republicans did not cave, potentially setting a worrisome precedent for the White House as it tries to move ahead with the rest of its stalled agenda.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump adviser, believes that both Congress and the White House share blame after seemingly forgetting that “opposition parties pass press releases that get vetoed, while governing parties pass bills in which every paragraph gets scrutinized.”

“I hope the president learns that do something really, really big, you need to be disciplined and focused and sort out your communications program,” said Gingrich. “So far, they are clearly not capable of doing that.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Six Florida congressional Democrats now support single-payer health care system

As Senate Republicans return to Washington this week, looking to salvage their attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, support grows among Democrats for a single-payer health care system.

The co-sponsor count for Michigan Democrat John Conyers‘ “Medicare for All” bill now stands at 113, nearly twice as many as last year. One of those new Democratic co-sponsors is Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor.

Castor signed on to the legislation in April, joined by five other Florida Democrats this year: Alcee Hastings, Frederica Wilson, Al Lawson, Darren Soto and Ted Deutch. 

In a brief interview Monday after speaking with health care officials in Tampa on the opioid epidemic, Castor said that while she knows that such legislation won’t be passed anytime soon in a Republican-controlled Congress, she thinks now is the time to look for alternatives to bring down escalating costs of health care in America.

Under a single-payer system, all Americans would have health coverage, while the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates 22 million people would become uninsured under the Senate GOP health care plan.

Republicans believe support for the issue can hurt Democrats at the polls.

Although Florida Senator Bill Nelson doesn’t support such a plan, the fact that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren does was enough for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to run a Facebook ad last week linking the two lawmakers.

Citing Warren’s recent comments on getting behind a single-payer plan, the ad’s narrator says such a system “would be absolutely devastating for Florida families and businesses.”

Castor noted that she has previously supported a government public-option plan.

The idea of a public option is to create a separate, government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers offering coverage through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders included versions of the public option in their proposals in 2009 when they first began working on health care reform. But they dropped the idea relatively quickly.

Democrat Patrick Murphy embraced the idea during his unsuccessful Senate run last year, as has current gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham.

Support for a single-payer health care system has never been higher.

In the June Kaiser Health Tracking poll, 53 percent of respondents now favor such a system, with 43 percent opposing.

That’s the highest level of support in the 19 years since Kaiser began polling on the issue. However, Kaiser Health officials point out that “a prolonged national debate” on the issue could easily shift the public’s attitudes.

According to the Kaiser Health website“For example, when those who initially say they favor a single-payer or Medicare-for-all plan are asked how they would feel if they heard that such a plan would give the government too much control over health care, about four in ten (21 percent of the public overall) say they would change their mind and would now oppose the plan, pushing total opposition up to 62 percent.

“Similarly, when this group is told such a plan would require many Americans to pay more in taxes or that it would eliminate or replace the Affordable Care Act, total opposition increases to 60 percent and 53 percent, respectively.”

 

Rick Scott on GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare: ‘They can’t stop’

Gov. Rick Scott said federal lawmakers need to keep their word, and continue their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

“They can’t stop,” said Scott following a stop in Fort Myers on Monday. “They all promised they were going to repeal and replace Obamacare, and they got to do it.”

The Naples Republican’s comments come as Congress returns to an unresolved debate over GOP proposals to roll back much of former President Barack Obama’s health care law. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called off a pre-recess vote on the Senate’s measure, when it appeared it would fail.

Scott has been vocal in his opposition to the current health care law, and has made several trips to Washington, D.C. to talk with federal lawmakers about repealing and replacing the law. He was last in the nation’s capital to talk with lawmakers about health care on June 27, the same day McConnell announced he would be delaying a vote on the bill.

“The way I always look at it is … until you get results, you’re just working hard every day,” said Scott when asked whether he thought his discussions with federal lawmakers were productive. “It’s like the legislative process this session. We worked hard to get the money for Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida, the money for schools. You work every day. Until it’s all done, you always wonder.”

The future of the GOP health care plan remains unclear. The Associated Press reported that at least 10 Republican senators have expressed opposition to the initial bill, drafted by McConnell. Republicans hold a 52-48 majority, and Democrats are united against the bill. That means just three Republican votes against it will doom it.

Last week, McConnell said he would introduce a fresh bill in about a week, but he also acknowledged that if the broader effort fails, he may turn to a smaller bill with quick help for insurers and consumers and negotiate with Democrats.

The governor said what is important to him is that “Florida is treated fairly” under whatever legislation ultimately clears Congress. Scott also said it’s important that, whether someone has a pre-existing condition, they have the right to buy the plan they want.

The state, he said, should also have “flexibility in our Medicaid program to figure out our own benefits, reimbursement rates and things like that.” The federal government also needs to “reduce the amount of regulations” states need to deal with.

David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said criticized Scott’s call for lawmakers to pass a bill, saying Scott is “only ever looking out for himself.” Scott is largely believed to be mulling a 2018 U.S. Senate run.

“First Scott bragged that he helped craft the toxic GOP health care plan that spikes costs by 20 percent, imposes an age tax on older Floridians and strips coverage for pre-existing conditions — all to give himself a big tax break. Now he’s demanding to ram this unpopular plan through Congress, even though the consequences for middle-class Floridians would be expensive and horrific,” said Bergstein in a statement. “It’s just another reminder that Scott is only ever looking out for himself — while Floridians who actually work for a living are paying the price.”

_The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine to hold re-election fundraiser in Sarasota July 23

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine visits Florida this month for a fundraiser in support his 2018 re-election bid.

Kaine will hold a cocktail reception beginning 5 p.m. Sunday, July 23, at The Francis, a special event venue in downtown Sarasota. Tickets for the cocktail reception start at a suggested contribution of $250, going up to $5,400 for a spot as event chair.

The former Democratic National Committee chair was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016 on a ticket that won Virginia by a larger margin than Barack Obama did in 2012. After Clinton’s loss, Kaine has remained a popular figure in state politics, previously serving as governor and mayor of Richmond. Since 2012, he has represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

Kaine serves on the Armed Services; Budget; Foreign Relations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees.

Since the election, Kaine has been outspoken figure against Donald Trump, particularly on issues of education, climate change, and LGBTQ rights. He has referred to some of Trump’s antagonistic relationships with U.S. allies as “amateur hour stuff,” and decrying the president’s proposed Muslim travel ban as ineffective in easing America’s tensions with Iran and Iraq.

Last month, Kaine accused Trump of being “jealous” of former President Obama’s accomplishments, citing that as the reason he pulled out of the Paris climate accord.

“Why did Trump really walk away from #ParisAgreement? He’s surrounded by science deniers and fossil fuel junkies,” Kaine tweeted. “POTUS jealous of Obama accomplishments. But in the end, American innovative spirit is stronger than his insecurities.”

On Thursday, the Virginia Democrat was one of nearly 30 senators signing a letter to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson, urging him to reinstate resources that protect LGBTQ people from housing discrimination. Those resources, which the Trump administration recently cut, help ensure enforcement of HUD nondiscrimination policies.

While Kaine’s popularity in his home state is holding firm — with a comfortable lead in most polling — he could face any one of several possible Republican contenders, including local and national figures such as former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, former Gov. Jim Gilmore and former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Last weekend, state’s divided Republican Party narrowly voted to select Kaine’s Senate challenger through a primary process, which is friendlier to centrist voters, instead of what the Richmond Times-Dispatch called “a rowdier convention driven by conservative activists.”

RSVPs for the Sarasota event are with Renzo Werner at rwerner@cornerstone-strategic.com or (305) 308-8878. The Francis is at 1269 N Palm in Sarasota.

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