What to Know in Washington: Trump an Obstacle in Border Talks

Republican lawmakers negotiating a border security deal to avoid another partial government shutdown are running into an increasingly familiar obstacle: President Donald Trump.

With two weeks left to pass funding bills that keep federal agencies open, Trump is making comments that appear to foreclose possible compromises by saying anything short of a wall is a waste of time — even as Democrats suggest they’re open to spending billions more on border security and new fencing.

“It obviously makes it more challenging,” said Rep. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “We keep talking and try to understand where he is and try to work it out.”

At stake is the possibility of another government shutdown, and Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Congress last week voted to reopen the government temporarily — after a partial shutdown lasted five weeks — to give lawmakers on a House-Senate conference committee time to negotiate a border security plan.

Two years into his term, Trump has built a track record of killing congressional deals.

Last year, he blew up a bipartisan agreement to provide deportation protections for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents in exchange for $25 billion in wall funding, demanding that controversial cuts to legal immigration be added. In December, he precipitated the shutdown by withdrawing support for a two-month stopgap spending bill that the Senate had already passed.

At times, Trump has appeared willing to accept some new fencing as a resolution to his demand for $5.7 billion for the wall. At other times, however, he says he will only accept a wall. Making matters more complicated, the president has described existing fence and levee projects on the border as a wall. Trump has also floated the idea of declaring a national emergency and bypass Congress to get funds for the wall.  Read more on the state of talks heading into the weekend from Erik Wasson and Laura Litvan.

Happening on the Hill

Presidential Tax Returns Hearing: House Ways and Means Committee members will meet next week to discuss presidential tax returns, the first public insight into how House Democrats may proceed in requesting them from Trump. The hearing, scheduled for Thursday, will be led by Rep.  John Lewis (D-Ga.), who presides over the committee’s oversight panel.

Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) has the legal power to request private tax information of any taxpayer, including the president. House Democrats have been consulting lawyers on how to request that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin release the documents, Laura Davison reports.

SOTU Preview: Trump is telling conservative allies he wants to incorporate firm anti-abortion language into his State of the Union address, Politico  reports, citing four unidentified people familiar with plans. Trump potentially wants to include an anti-abortion figure among his list of invitees. It’s unclear whether Trump will directly mention a Virginia bill or New York abortion law and to what extent he’ll broach the topic. Two people who recently spoke with Trump told Politico that the president will call out Virginia governor Ralph Northam for comments on abortion.

Tax Extenders: Tax writers are under pressure to renew temporary tax breaks, called extenders, as businesses and individuals seek certainty with tax-filing season underway. Many of the temporary tax breaks expired after 2017, meaning Congress would need to make the renewal of the provisions retroactive to 2018. Expired provisions include a railroad track maintenance credit under tax code Section 45G as well as breaks for biofuels and mortgage insurance premiums.

These temporary tax breaks are almost a rite-of-passage for Congress, especially at the end of the year, and can be a chance for lawmakers to slip in perks that are popular in their districts. The Senate failed to take up a House-passed bill at the end of 2018.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) on Wednesday highlighted a must-pass spending bill as one option for moving an extenders package. But a day later, he said it is unlikely that extenders will be able to hitch a ride on the February spending bill. “I don’t anticipate that happening,” Thune told reporters Jan. 31. “Right now I would say it’s more likely than not that the scope of this current discussion stays fairly narrow.”Read more from Allyson Versprille.

Also from Thune, the Senate Finance Committee may resume work on legislation to retool the IRS. Read more from Versprille.

Politics & Elections

Trump’s War Chest: Trump’s re-election committee finished 2018 with $19.3 million in the bank after spending more than $23 million during the fourth quarter, according to afiling made yesterday with the Federal Election Commission. The campaign raised more than $21 million during the fourth quarter through both direct contributions and donations raised by its joint fundraising committees with the Republican National Committee, according to a statement.

“Midway through the first term of his presidency, President Donald Trump continues to deliver on his campaign promises to the American people and they continue to demonstrate their support for him in contributions to his re-election campaign,” Michael Glassner, the campaign’s chief operating officer, said in the statement. Read more from John McCormick.

Warren Readies Announcement: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is expected to formally declare her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on February 9,  AP reports. Warren is telling supporters she will make a big announcement that day.

Meanwhile, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) yesterday started calling fellow lawmakers to tell them he is running for president, the Hill reports, citing three unidentified people. Senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Booker is a member, received the calls, according to the Hill.

Trade Talks

China Trade Talks: China promised to “substantially” expand purchases of U.S. goods after the latest round of trade talks, and both sides planned further discussions to reach a breakthrough with only a month to go before the Trump administration is set to ratchet up tariffs.

The two sides made important progress during talks that were candid, specific, and fruitful, according to a statement published by China’s Xinhua News Agency today. China agreed to increase imports of U.S. agriculture, energy, industrial products and services, it said, without providing details. The countries also agreed to strengthen cooperation on intellectual property rights and technology transfer, Xinhua said.

In a statement, the White House didn’t list any new commitments by either side, saying only that progress had been made and “much work remains to be done.” The White House reiterated its threat to raise tariffs by March 1, unless a “satisfactory outcome” is reached.

Trump yesterday called China’s recent purchases of U.S. soybeans a “fantastic sign of faith,” Shruti Date Singh reports. China, usually a top buyer of American soybeans, slapped retaliatory tariffs on U.S. supplies last year, after which U.S. exports of the crop to the Asian country plummeted while shipments from Brazil surged. China resumed purchases with a few million metric tons after Trump met with Xi in Argentina in December.

Meanwhile, Trump is dispatching top trade negotiators to China following the two days of talks in Washington. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will travel as the team has continuous negotiations with China, the pair told reporters in the Oval Office yesterday.  Read the latest on the talks form Saleha Mohsin, Jennifer Jacobs, Andrew Mayeda and Shawn Donnan.

USDA Awards Trade Promotion Funds: The Agriculture Department announced yesterday it’s providing 57 agriculture commodity organizations with a total of $200 million to grow export markets. The Agriculture Trade Promotion Program (ATP) is one of three USDA programs created to mitigate the effects of the tariffs levied by China and other countries in response to trade penalties initiated by Trump, Teaganne Finn reports.

“This infusion will help us develop other markets and move us away from being dependent on one large customer for our agricultural products,” said Secretary Sonny Perdue in a press release. The ATP provides cost-share assistance to eligible U.S. organizations for activities such as consumer advertising, public relations, point-of-sale demonstrations, participation in trade fairs and exhibits, market research, and technical assistance.

Defense and Foreign Policy

Trump and Venezuela: Venezuelan leader Juan Guaido’s representatives assumed all the trappings of an official government in Washington this week, meeting with lawmakers, seeking control of their country’s assets and speaking against the backdrop of their nation’s flag. Their effort was met with the full embrace of the Trump administration, which endorsed Guaido on Jan. 23, minutes after he declared himself the country’s interim president. In the week since then, the U.S. has taken an array of diplomatic and economi c steps to shore up the 35-year-old engineer turned politician.

Together, the moves amounted to the biggest challenge yet to what the U.S. now calls the “defunct” government of socialist President Nicolas Maduro. Yet it’s very much unfinished business, as Maduro vows he won’t quit and Venezuela’s military command stands by him as the leader of a nation in economic collapse. “Pressure on the Maduro regime is working, and we have to maintain it, increase it,” said Carlos Vecchio, a Guaido ally who introduces himself as Venezuela’s ambassador in the U.S. “The m oment is now.” Read more on the last week of developments from Anna Edgerton, Margaret Talev and Nick Wadhams.

U.S. to Withdraw from INF Treaty: Trump will suspend U.S. obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a 1987 pact with the former Soviet Union that became a pillar of international arms control, as it prepares to pull out entirely, two people familiar with the matter said last night. The Pentagon sent a notification to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the administration planned, under terms of the treaty, to withdraw in six months, according to one of the people. Both people requested anonymity to dis cuss the shift in policy.

The notification came before a Saturday deadline for Russia to destroy all of its ground-launched cruise missiles known as 9M729s, associated equipment and launchers. The suspension represents another flashpoint in U.S.-Russia relations and another repudiation by Trump and his aides of international agreements. Read more form Nick Wadhams and Margaret Talev.

North Korean Enrichment Facilities: North Korea has promised to destroy all its facilities for making nuclear-bomb fuel, the top U.S. negotiator said, in a sign that Trump is seeking clearer disarmament steps from his upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un. North Korea has committed “to the dismantlement and destruction” of all its uranium- and plutonium-enrichment facilities in talks with both Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and South Korean leaders, Stephen Biegun, the U.S.’s special representative for North Korea, said in a speech yesterday. The pledge goes beyond the Yongbyon nuclear plant, which Kim has previously offered to demolish, Biegun said at Stanford University in California.  Read more from Nick Wadhams.

U.N. Void: China sees a widening void at the United Nations, thanks to Trump’s “America First” policy. Trump’s skepticism of global bodies and alliances — his top diplomat recently singled out the U.N. as an organization that needs to be “reformed or eliminated” — means Beijing has freer rein to impose its own vision of globalism on the body. This year China surpassed Japan as the U.N.’s second-biggest donor and analysts say it is using its growing clout to undermine human rights positions, sponsor resolut ions that reflect its worldview, and stamp out criticism of its more controversial policies back home. Read more from David Wainer.

Trump Reverses Criticism of Intel Team: Trump said his intelligence team told him “what they said on Tuesday at the Senate Hearing was mischaracterized by the media – and we are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc.”

“Happily, we had a very good meeting, and we are all on the same page!” Trump said in a second tweet. Trump on Wednesday tweeted that his intelligence team was naive and weak on several foreign policy issues.

DOD Considers Wall for D.C’s Navy Yard: The Navy is considering erecting a 14-foot flood wall around the Washington Navy Yard to protect the historic complex along the Anacostia River from rising sea levels, internal Department of Defense documents show. Military engineers proposed the wall in a study, obtained by Bloomberg News through a public-records request, that describes a structure as long as 1.5 miles, to protect three dozen buildings at a cost of as much as $20 million. It’s the latest example of a federal agency getting read y for climate change, despite the Trump administration’s public dismissal of the threat. The department has been considering a wall at the sprawling complex — which sits on a revitalized waterfront in the nation’s capital — since at least September 2016. Read more from Christopher Flavelle.

What Else to Know Today

Trump to Curb Drug Rebates: The legal status of drug-plan rebates that the Trump administration has blamed for helping keep prices high would be limited under a proposal U.S. health officials rolled out yesterday. The proposal comes ahead of Trump’s State of the Union address scheduled for Tuesday, handing him a potential win on drug pricing to tout. The measure, released by the Health and Human Services Department, would roll back so-called safe-harbor protections for such rebates, which kept them from running afoul of fe deral antikickback laws. The plan isn’t final and will be subject to a 60-day period for public comment. Read more from Anna Edney.

Abortion in Court: Abortion opponents may be about to collect their first dividends from the appointment of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The court will decide in the next few days whether to temporarily block a Louisiana law that requires abortion doctors to get admitting privileges at a local hospital. The measure is almost identical to a Texas law the court struck down in 2016 as imposing an undue burden on women seeking abortions. The question is whether a change in the court’s composition since then — with Kavanaugh replacing swing Justice Anthony Kennedy — will lead the justices to let the Louisiana law take effect. Read more from Greg Stohr.

Net Neutrality: The fight over net neutrality rules is set to go another round. For the fourth time an appellate court is being asked to weigh some aspect of this question: What policies — if any — should the federal government adopt to ensure internet traffic flows without interference? The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington is set to hear arguments today on whether the Federal Communications Commission was correct in 2017 when it gutted an Obama-era rule that barred broadband providers from interfering with web traffic. Read more from Andrew Harris and Todd Shields.

Disaster Aid: Trump declared that a major disaster exists in North Carolina and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local recovery efforts in areas affected by Tropical Storm Michael in October, the White House said in a statement. He also declared “a major disaster” exists in Alaska and ordered aid to help state, tribal, and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by a Nov. 30 earthquake, the White House said.

Sexual Assault Rule: The conditions under which college students accused of sexual assault may face their accusers was one of several flashpoints in the more than 100,000 comments that flooded the Education Department in response to a new proposed rule. The department received in excess of 102,000 comments, which officials are required to read and respond to as part of finalizing the regulationaddressing how colleges must deal with allegations of sexual attacks. Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Records Requests: The Interior Department’s proposed rule allowing it to ignore certain “burdensome” Freedom of Information Act requests drew 65,000 comments, many questioning its legality. The proposed rule, issued Dec. 28, was met with broad opposition from government watchdogs and environmental groups saying it violated the Freedom of Information Act. The biggest concern was that the Interior Department could ignore FOIA requests that are “extremely broad or vague” or involve an “unreasonably burdensome” sear ch, thus limiting decisions and material that are made public. Read more from Rebecca Kern.

Facebook Probes: Facebook has become the target of at least three more state probes into the alleged mishandling of user data, expanding the number of government agencies investigating privacy-violation claims against the company, according to people familiar with the matter. The state probes are coalescing into two main groups scrutinizing the social-media company’s data-protection practices, said the people, who declined to be named because the inquiries are confidential. Read more from Erik Larson, David McLaughlin and Sara Forden.

Shutdown-Idled Safety Board Restarts: It’s been four weeks since a van carrying children from a Louisiana church to Disney World in Florida collided with a swerving tractor-trailer, igniting diesel fuel and killing seven people in a fiery crash. Now, federal crash investigators — sidelined during the longest government shutdown in history — are finally headed to the scene to study how to prevent such accidents in the future. It was one of 97 transportation accidents that occurred during the shutdown that kept the NTSB from performi ng preliminary examinations. In 21 of the cases so far, including 15 aviation accidents that killed a total of 21 people, the safety board is opening belated inquiries.  Read more from Alan Levin and Ryan Beene.

Trump Campaign Says Former Aide Violated NDA: Trump’s campaign formally accused former staffer Cliff Sims of violating a non-disclosure agreement with the publication this week of his tell-all book detailing his time in the West Wing. In an arbitration claim filed yesterday, the campaign said Sims violated the agreement by disparaging Trump in the book and in media appearances to promote the memoir, titled “Team of Vipers.” The campaign also said that Sims violated portions of the agreement by taking and keeping notes during his time in the White House, and emailing himself confidential information.  Read more from Justin Sink.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com;Giuseppe Macri at  gmacri@bgov.com