What to Know in Washington: Trump Takes Victory Lap to Michigan

President Donald Trump has turned his focus to re-election in the days since he emerged unscathed from Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, mounting a fresh attack on Obamacare as he takes an extended victory lap.

With the weight of the 22-month investigation lifted, Trump today will hold his first political rally since Mueller submitted his final report. Before a crowd of supporters in politically critical Grand Rapids, Mich., he’ll undoubtedly assail Democrats and the media for the investigation he repeatedly demonized as a “witch hunt.”

“Will be talking about the many exciting things that are happening to our Country, but also the car companies, & others, that are pouring back into Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North & South Carolina & all over!” Trump Tweeted this morning.

Trump finds himself increasingly fighting for the spotlight with a growing crowd of Democrats vying for their party’s nomination to challenge him. Both sides have begun carving out positions on key policy issues, and few are likely to be more important to voters than health care and the future of Obamacare.

Trump’s first policy move since the release of Mueller’s findings was to wade back into health care. The Justice Department on Monday shifted its position on a lawsuit seeking to invalidate parts of the Affordable Care Act, agreeing with a federal judge’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional and should be scrapped entirely. Trump’s 2020 campaign slogan is “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” and the president appears aware that his failure to repeal Obamacare remains one of the most prominent pledges he hasn’t fulfilled.

“We are going to be the Republicans, the party of great health care,” Trump told reporters yesterday. “The Democrats, they let you down. They came up with Obamacare and it is terrible.”

Democrats have so far welcomed a fight over health care. It paid off for them in 2018 — voter concerns over insurance coverage helped the opposition party reclaim control of the House of Representatives in the November midterm elections. Read more from Shannon Pettypiece.

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
Trump at the White House on Wednesday.

Trump Targets FBI Agents: Meanwhile, Trump yesterday said former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page committed treason when they took steps to investigate his possible ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign. “They wanted an insurance policy against me,” Trump said in an interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, the president’s first since Attorney General William Barr announced on Sunday that Mueller had found no coordination between his campaign and the Russian government. “And what we were playing out until just recently was the insurance policy. They wanted to do a subversion. It was treason. It was really treason.” Read more from Justin Sink.

Barr Agrees to Testify: Barr has agreed to testify to the House Judiciary Committee on Mueller’s report, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said yesterday. Nadler said the attorney general told him in a phone call he would testify “reasonably soon.” However, Barr wouldn’t commit to releasing the full Mueller report, Nadler told reporters.

Trump Jr. Talks Political Future: Donald Trump Jr. said he wouldn’t rule out running for office himself one day and expressed happiness and relief about how Mueller’s investigation ended. The president’s oldest son said he remained focused on getting “the country back on track” and promoting the policies of his father around the country. “If I can be helpful and I can be a powerful voice for that, that’s my primary focus,” he said in an interview with Kevin Cirilli on Bloomberg Radio’s “Sound On” last night. “As for the future,” he added, “I never want to rule it out. I definitely enjoy the fight. I definitely like being out there and I love being able to see the impact and the difference that it makes on these people’s lives that I get to see all over the country.” Read more from Shahien Nasiripour.

Happening on the Hill

Moderate Democrats’ Plans: Moderate House Democrats are going on the offensive. For weeks, the swing-district Democrats most responsible for the party’s House majority have fretted that progressive lightning rods like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are distracting the party with proposals that will alienate independent voters.

Now centrist lawmakers, many of whom flipped GOP-held seats, are elbowing into the spotlight with policies aimed at building the bipartisan consensus necessary to become law. They’re focusing on issues like health care and climate change that are increasingly important to voters, offering measures that at the very least will put Republicans on the record regarding broadly popular solutions. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been protective of her moderate members, even as part of the Democratic base clamors for bolder progressive action. This week’s renewed policy focus on bills to shore up the Affordable Care Act, lower drug prices and reduce greenhouse gases allows more vulnerable members — especially freshmen — to get out of the shadow of controversial ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Read more from Erik Wasson and Ari Natter.

Disaster Aid Bill: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he’ll try to use a must-pass disaster aid package to force the Trump administration to release billions of dollars earmarked for Texas to address the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Texas was promised more than $4 billion in federal funds for flood mitigation projects after Harvey devastated the state in 2017 but so far the Department of Housing and Urban Development hasn’t made them available. Cornyn said he wants to tack language on to the new supplemental spending package to force HUD to finally release the funds.

Senate GOP leaders are trying this week to finish work on a $13.45 billion fiscal year 2019 supplemental package and send it to conference with the House. That measure would provide money for Gulf Coast states hit last year by other hurricanes as well as Midwest states that suffered more recent flooding. More money for Puerto Rico to recover from 2017 hurricanes also is included. Read more from Nancy Ognanovich.

Democrats Set Wage Discrimination as 2020 Agenda: House Democrats voted yesterday to strengthen wage discrimination protections in a move meant to mark Women’s History Month and bolster the party’s economic message ahead of the 2020 elections. “We know people are stuck in jobs that don’t pay them enough to live on nowadays and that’s our biggest economic challenge,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Democrats say the bill, which aims to protect employees from retaliation for discussing pay, would help address the wage gap between men and women. DeLauro has introduced a version of the measure in every Congress since 1997. Republicans, however, say the measure wouldn’t actually impose new substantial protections and would instead be a boon for trial lawyers while adding burdens to hiring. Read more from Emma Kinery.

Democrats See 2020 Advantage in Ethics Bill: Senate Democrats say they want to emphasize voting rights and the need to combat corruption as they try to regain control of the chamber. “This will be one of the defining issues in our election next year,” said Sen. Tom Udall(D-N.M.).

Udall is chief sponsor of the new Senate version of the sweeping elections and ethics overhaul measure that the House passed earlier this month (H.R. 1). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he doesn’t intend to schedule action on the bill, and the White House has said Trump won’t sign it if passed. Read more from Kenneth P. Doyle.

Tlaib Introduces Impeachment Resolution: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) introduced a resolution “directing the House Judiciary Committee to begin investigating” whether Trump “has committed any actions constituting impeachable offenses” since his inauguration. The resolution calls for the Judiciary Committee to begin hearings, take depositions and issue subpoenas around the issue of whether Trump violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause, as well as the issue of payments by Michael Cohen before the 2016 election and the special counsel’s report relating to obstruction of justice.

“We have a duty in this chamber to inquire about these acts, to investigate them, find out if there was any wrongdoing and seek accountability if any has been found,” Tlaib said in a statement. Read more from Chelsea Mes.

Movers & Shakeups

Shanahan’s Defense Bid Doubted: Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan’s prospects to head the Pentagon are increasingly at risk as Trump holds off on picking him and an investigation continues into whether he’s showed favoritism toward Boeing, his former employer. Yesterday, a key senator said he thinks the nomination — widely expected after former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis quit in December — may not happen at all.

“If he hasn’t done it until now — I’m not casting any accusations or even expressing how I personally feel — but if the president hasn’t done it by now, then apparently he’s not going to,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview yesterday. “That’s the only conclusion I can come to.”

While Trump has praised Shanahan, he’s also passed up opportunities to endorse him for defense chief, including during trips together over the last week to a tank factory in Ohio and to the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Read more from Roxana Tiron.

Interior Pick Set for Hearing: Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Senate confirmation hearing today to become permanent secretary is expected to be full of partisan sparring over his oil and gas industry ties, and to spotlight recent revelations on his efforts to block a report on pesticide risks. “You look at all the times when [Bernhardt] has sided with the special interests; this is not going to be a hearing for the faint-hearted,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters Tuesday.

Bernhardt is expected to be criticized by Democrats for his past work as a lobbyist for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, with oil and gas clients including affiliates of Noble Energy, a major oil producer, and Halliburton, the world’s largest oilfield services provider. Rebecca Kern previews the hearing.

Labor Pick Scrutiny: Trump’s pick for the top lawyer job at the agency that protects federal government workers’ union rights is part of a group accused of violating the labor rights of HHS employees. The White House announced Tuesday that Trump intends to nominate Catherine Bird, an HHS lawyer who oversees negotiations with the department’s employee union, to serve as the Federal Labor Relations Authority’s general counsel. If confirmed by the Senate, she would be responsible for prosecuting unfair labor practice c harges in cases involving government employees, unions, and agencies. Read more from Chris Opfer.

Moore Owes $75,000 to IRS: Stephen Moore, whom Trump said he’ll nominate for a seat on the Federal Reserve, owes more than $75,000 in taxes and other penalties, according to the U.S. government. A federal tax lien filed in the circuit court for Montgomery County, Md., where Moore owns a house, says that the government won a judgment against Moore for $75,328.80. The January 2018 filing said it was for unpaid taxes from the 2014 tax year and could accrue additional penalties and other costs. Read more from Christopher Condon and Joe Light.

Politics & Policy

Democrats’ Diverse Field: In a Democratic presidential field that reflects a diverse and female voting base, candidates who are white and male are grappling with issues of race and gender in new, and sometimes uncomfortable, ways. The result has been some earnest discussion of privilege, a few apologies and the occasional stumble.

Women and minorities are essential parts of the voting coalition that the eventual nominee will need to defeat Trump next year. Trump’s past comments about women and on race have helped drive female voters in particular toward Democrats. The result was a record number of women being elected to Congress in 2018 — overwhelmingly as Democrats — and a historically diverse pool of candidates seeking the party’s nomination for president in 2020. Read more from Arit John.

Harris Faces 2020 Fight at Home: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has strong support for her presidential bid in her home state of California, but she doesn’t have it locked up as her competitors aggressively campaign there. “Everybody’s been here,” Garcetti said in an interview, citing visits by Democratic candidates including Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Sanders’ rally on Saturday in front of the Los Angeles City Hall, for example, drew thousands of supporters. “California will very much be in play.” Read more from Christopher Palmeri.

Warren Calls for Breakup of Big Ag: Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) promised to break up big agricultural businesses to end their “stranglehold” over farmers and mount an antitrust challenge to reverse the merger of Bayer AG with seed and biotechnology company Monsanto. Corporate consolidation in agriculture is “leaving family farmers with fewer choices, thinner margins, and less independence,” Warren wrote in a Medium posting announcing her plan yesterday. Read more from Mike Dorning.

What Else to Know Today

High Court Could Tackle Chevron Doctrine: The U.S. Supreme Court justices appear primed to curtail administrative agencies’ regulatory power, but the court’s ultimate decision could lead to a much bigger conservative target: overturning the oft-maligned Chevron doctrine. Based on their comments in yesterday’s argument in Kisor v. Wilkie, it seemed likely that the justices — along party lines — would eventually overturn the Auer deference doctrine, which allows government agencies, not the courts, to determine the meaning of their own disputed regulations. Read more from Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson.

Consumers on Hook for $42B From Deregulation: A study released yesterday found three major rule rollbacks under the Trump administration are likely to cost Americans up to $42 billion in lost wages and higher prices. An examination of three proposed or final rule rollbacks by the Trump administration—affecting overtime pay, financial advice, and fuel economy standards— says consumers could pay $41.6 billion more a year than if the rules were left intact, according to a study released by the progressive-leaning Center for American Progress. Read more from Cheryl Bolen.

Trump Offers Housing Fix: Trump for the first time weighed in on reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But his outline fell far short of an actual proposal to free the mortgage giants from U.S. control, leaving unresolved the political challenges that have scuttled prior efforts. The widely anticipated presidential memorandum, released by the White House yesterday, is best described as a plan for a plan. It calls on the Treasury Department to write a proposal for ending federal conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie and increasing competition for the companies. Read more from Shannon Pettypiece, Jennifer Jacobs and Justin Sink.

Medicaid Work Requirements in Two States Blocked: A federal judge blocked Kentucky and Arkansas from implementing a White House policy allowing the states to require some Medicaid recipients to work, another legal setback for a plan other states are seeking to adopt. In parallel rulings, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington decided yesterday that work rules in the two states shouldn’t stand. He’d ruled against the requirements in Kentucky once before. Read more from John Tozzi and Andrew Harris.

EPA Ethanol Plan: After Trump promised Iowa voters he would unleash high-ethanol gasoline, his administration fast-tracked a plan to lift summertime restrictions on the fuel, forgoing studies of its potential price tag and hastily ending a review of the measure. At one point, the EPA even justified not conducting a deep environmental analysis of its proposal by arguing that allowing year-round sales of so-called E15 gasoline wouldn’t actually give a big market boost to ethanol, undermining a key political promise driving the initiative. The regulatory shift won’t “significantly alter the penetration of E15” and “we do not expect this action to significantly change overall ethanol use,” the EPA said.

The comments were included in documents from a White House-led inter-agency review of the measure, released this week. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Mario Parker.

U.S.-China Trade Talks: U.S. trade officials including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer landed in Beijing today for talks aimed at nailing down a deal with China, as an official there warned there are still many issues outstanding. Arriving at the Westin hotel in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, Mnuchin said he was “pleased” to be there and looked forward to “productive” meetings. Estimates of progress in the talks have veered in recent weeks between expectations of an imminent signing to pushing any finalization months down the line. Read more.

Ex-Trump Aides Probed for Job Deals: A liberal watchdog group is calling for a comprehensive review of the White House’s ethics program, citing a pattern of omissions about future employment on financial disclosure forms by aides to Trump. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said yesterday that seven former White House officials, including its top ethics lawyer, might have omitted information about their future employment arrangements from their disclosures. CREW said that the pattern raises “systematic concerns” t hat ethics rules aren’t being followed.

CREW asked the Office of Government Ethics for an investigation of the officials, in addition to the review of the White House ethics program. Ethics laws require disclosure of any agreements for private employment made while working for the government. Read more from Bill Allison.

With assistance from Brandon Lee.

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