Trump: I want to pass health care before doing tax reform

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“We’re going to have a phenomenal tax reform, but I have to do health care first,” President Donald Trump said. | Getty

President Donald Trump still wants to pass a health care bill before he turns to tax reform.

“We’re going to have a phenomenal tax reform, but I have to do health care first,” Trump said, according to an excerpt of an interview with Fox Business Network released Tuesday and set to air Wednesday. “I want to do it first to really do it right.”

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A House Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama’s 2010 health care reform law, failed last month in what amounted to a huge setback for the White House, which had backed the bill.

After House leaders were forced to pull the bill from the floor when it became clear they lacked the votes to pass it, Trump said he was ready to move on from health care and pursue an overhaul of the tax code. Lawmakers and administration officials have since offered conflicting signals, with some saying they are not yet ready to give up on health care.

Trump told Fox Business he did not want to “put deadlines” on either legislative goal, but he insisted that “health care’s gonna happen at some point” and said that passing health care legislation could save money and make it easier to pass a tax overhaul afterward.

Still, the president suggested that he was not fully committed to that chronology.

“Now, if it doesn’t happen fast enough, I’ll start the taxes,” Trump said. “But the tax reform and the tax cuts are better if I can do health care first.”

Maria Bartiromo’s interview with Trump is scheduled to air at 6 a.m. Wednesday on Fox Business.

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‘Apprentice’ contestant disputes Trump immunity claim

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Donald Trump, seeking contestants for “The Apprentice” television show, is interviewed at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles on July 9, 2004. | AP Photo

A former “Apprentice” contestant who is suing President Donald Trump for denying her claims that he kissed and groped her is disputing Trump’s assertion that he is immune from her defamation lawsuit while serving as president

Lawyers for Summer Zervos said in a court filing Monday that Trump is still subject to the suit over the matter, even though he now holds the country’s highest political post .

“Precisely because Defendant’s underlying tortious behavior has nothing to do with his current duties or office, and because it occurred before he took that office, he does not have immunity from suit,” Zervos’ attorneys wrote. “No person is above the law in this country and that includes the President of the United States.”

Before last year’s election, Zervos publicly claimed that Trump repeatedly kissed her on the mouth, grabbed her breast and thrust his genitals at her in 2006, when she was a contestant on “The Apprentice.” Trump flatly denied the claims.

Three days before the inauguration, Zervos filed suit against Trump, contending that his denials were false and damaged her reputation.

In a court filing last month, Trump’s lawyers argued that Trump is immune from the suit because it was filed in a state court — in this instance in New York City.

Trump’s legal team noted that a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that rejected President Bill Clinton’s claims of immunity against a sexual harassment suit brought by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones was explicitly limited to federal lawsuits, leaving open the question of whether presidents are immune from suit in state and local courts.

The issue of whether Trump is or isn’t immune from Zervos’ suit is yet to be joined in court. At the moment, the two sides are jockeying over Trump’s request that the immunity issue be decided before any other legal issue related to the case.

“Given that this fundamental threshold issue on the President’s entitlement to immunity needs to be resolved before this case can proceed, it would be a waste of judicial resources for this Court to entertain briefing on issues which this Court lacks the power to even hear,” Trump’s lawyers wrote.

Josh Gerstein is a senior reporter for POLITICO.

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Mattis: U.S. Syria policy is still to defeat ISIS

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“Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,” James Mattis said during his first news conference at the Pentagon since taking the helm in January. | AP Photo

The campaign in Syria to defeat the Islamic State is unchanged by the U.S. missile strikes against the Assad regime, which should not be seen as a prelude to U.S. participation in the Syrian civil war, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday.

“Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,” Mattis said during his first news conference at the Pentagon since taking the helm in January.

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He also reiterated the warning from an earlier statement that the Syrian government would be “ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons.”

“If they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price,” Mattis said Tuesday.

While the U.S. has been operating against the Islamic State in Syria since 2013, Thursday night’s strikes using 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airfield was the first U.S. operation targeting the Assad regime and, Mattis said, was in direct response to a chemical weapons attack the Syrian government on April 4.

The purpose of the U.S. strikes was to discourage the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again, but is not the start of a broader effort to intervene in the Syrian civil war, Mattis said, adding the U.S. “couldn’t stand passive” as the regime broke international law, but that the strikes should not be taken as a sign that the U.S. could enter “full bore” into the “complex” civil war.

“The intent was to stop the cycle of violence,” he said, with Army Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of the U.S. Central Command that oversees the Middle East at his side.

Asked if he believes the U.S. should implement a no-fly zone or other protections for civilians as a result of the use of chemical weapons, Mattis said that he saw no upcoming policy change, but acknowledged that the military always plans for all contingencies.

“The rest of the campaign stays on track exactly as it was before Assad’s violation,” he said.

The Assad regime, as well as the Russians who are working with them, have denied the Syrian government was behind the use of chemical weapons in the April 4 attack, but Mattis said he had personally reviewed the intelligence and had “no doubt” the Syrian regime was responsible.

The White House also released an unclassified rundown of the intelligence it had collected on Tuesday that it said proved the Syrians were behind the chemical weapons attack.

As the U.S. operation in Syria against the Islamic State continues, it’s unclear how open a line of communication is between the U.S. and Russia to ensure its pilots remain safe in shared airspace as both countries conduct strikes over Syria. Russians said after the U.S. strikes on Shayrat airfield that it was closing the communication line, which has been used daily. But U.S. officials said the two countries were still speaking to each other on Friday morning.

Votel would not discuss whether the deconfliction line was still being used on Tuesday, but Mattis said the “operation goes on, it’s well deconflicted.”

Mattis went on to say that it would be of no benefit to Russia to make its relationship with the U.S. any worse.

“It will not spiral out of control,” Mattis declared.

“I’m confident the Russians will act in their own best interest, and there’s nothing in their best interest to say they want this situation to go out of control,” he added.

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White House and Kremlin escalate feud over Syria

The U.S. and Russia slammed each other Tuesday in a rapidly intensifying war of words over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, with the White House press secretary using a bungled Hitler analogy and Russia’s president bringing up the futile U.S. hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The verbal showdown was the latest sign that President Donald Trump’s administration is stepping back, for now, from its hopes of improving U.S.-Russian relations following Trump’s decision to stage a missile strike on Syria’s regime because of its alleged use of chemical weapons. The heated rhetoric also further raised the stakes for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he meets with officials in Moscow, where he landed Tuesday.

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The White House demanded that Russia stop disputing the reality of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s recent use of poison gas to kill dozens, and it warned Assad not to make any more such moves. At one point, White House press secretary Sean Spicer cast Assad as being worse than Adolf Hitler, who, Spicer claimed incorrectly, had never used chemical weapons.

“In this particular case, it’s no question that Russia is isolated. They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran, and that is not exactly a group of countries you are looking to hang out with,” said Spicer, who, after being questioned, acknowledged he’d misspoken about the Nazi ruler.

Earlier in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the U.S. accusation that Assad used chemical weapons to its futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Putin also said Moscow had information that some Syrian elements were planning to stage chemical attacks to provoke more U.S. missile strikes against Assad’s regime. America needs to be careful about overreacting to false flags, the Russian president warned.

In 2003, “a military campaign started in Iraq, and it ended with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the emergence of the Islamic State terrorist organization on the international scene, no more and no less,” Putin said, Russian media reported. “The same is happening now.”

But U.S. officials said Tuesday they are increasingly certain that the Assad regime was behind the recent gas attack, and that they also believe they have identified the strategic rationale behind the move.

In a document provided by a senior White House official, the U.S. estimates that between 50 and 100 people, many of them children, died in the chemical weapons attack, and that hundreds more were injured.

“The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib Province on April 4, 2017,” the document states. “We assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure … Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack.”

The White House also warned that further chemical weapon attacks will be met with a severe response.

“The Assad regime’s brutal use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and poses a clear threat to the national security interests of the United States and the international community,” the document states. The U.S. and its allies “must demonstrate…that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons will not be permitted to continue.”

Without giving details, the document also promised that “the United States intends to send a clear message now that we and our partners will not allow the world to become a more dangerous place due to the egregious acts of the Assad regime.”

The assessment in the document and sharp words from the White House were the latest in a remarkable turn for the Trump administration, which took office hoping to find common ground with Russia, especially when it came to fighting the Islamic State terrorist network. Trump himself had, during his presidential campaign, said the U.S. should stay out of the Syrian conflict between Assad and rebel forces trying to oust him.

But Assad’s decision to use chemical weapons rattled Trump, who authorized last Thursday’s missile strike on a Syrian airbase after being taken aback by images of children suffering from the gassing. While the Republican president himself has stayed largely quiet about Russia’s role, his aides have slammed Moscow repeatedly in the days since. To a degree it has given the Trump administration a bit of political breathing room amid allegations that Russia interfered with the 2016 election to help Trump, who, throughout the campaign, spoke warmly of Putin.

Assad has been fighting rebels since early 2011, a conflict that has left an estimated half-million people dead and given space for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State to flourish on Syrian territory.

Russia, along with Tehran, has militarily backed the Syrian regime for years, while using its veto on the U.N. Security Council to shield Assad from international reprisals. In the most recent case, Russia has refused to accept that Assad’s forces dropped the gas bombs on Idlib, alleging instead that rebel forces had stored the chemical weapons in a warehouse struck by regime bombs.

But the Trump administration has dismissed that theory.

“Russia’s allegations fit with a pattern of deflecting blame from the regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents,” said the document provided by the White House official. “Moscow’s response to the April 4 attack follows a familiar pattern of its responses to other egregious actions; it spins out multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusions and sow doubt within the international community.”

Putin said Russia wants an international investigation into the Idlib attack. Past international investigations into such chemical attacks have laid most of the blame on Assad, but Russia has downplayed the findings and shielded him from U.N. sanctions.

The Syrian regime began using chemical weapons during the presidency of Barack Obama. Despite having a “red line” on the use of such weapons, Obama ultimately decided not to pursue a military strike against Assad. Instead, the Obama administration and Russia helped orchestrate a 2013 deal that was believed to have removed most — though possibly not all — of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

Trump administration officials have criticized Russia, which promised to serve as a guarantor of the agreement, for not keeping Assad in line on it. Several of the chemical attacks reported in Syria since 2013 involved chlorine, whose status under that deal is a bit murky. But the attack in Idlib province is believed to involve sarin, which was supposed to have been removed.

The chemical attack drew international outrage, while Trump’s decision to rain missiles on a Syrian airfield in retaliation last Thursday garnered tremendous support. Aside from Russia, however, Iran and North Korea criticized the U.S. move.

Tillerson is due to meet Wednesday morning with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It was not clear if he would meet with Putin at all. If the Russian president decides not to meet with Tillerson on what is his first trip to Moscow as secretary of state it would break tradition and could further deepen the U.S.-Russia turmoil.

Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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Obama fingerprints at DNC?

Former President Obama’s White House political director is informally providing strategic advice to leaders at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). 

David Simas, who is now CEO of the Obama Foundation, is close with DNC Chairman Tom Perez and has been in regular contact with Sam Cornale, a top adviser to Perez.

A source who has been involved in the transition said Simas has provided strategic advice on hiring decisions.

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The new chairman has asked for resignation letters from most DNC staff as he begins the process of building his own team, although so far the DNC has only unveiled its communications team.

The talks with one of Obama’s most prominent political aides underscore the delicate line walked by the DNC as it charts a way forward after a divisive presidential primary battle last year.

Any conversations between Perez and political figures who are viewed as being part of the establishment can be greeted with suspicion by liberal Democrats, who want to see the DNC stocked with progressives after the organization tilted the scales in favor of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton: ‘We don’t need to be building walls’ CNN’s Acosta spars with Breitbart reporter over Trump coverage Is Trump’s presidency the patriarchy’s last gasp? MORE and against Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersClinton campaign plagued by bickering Republican wins Kansas special election, fending off upset Obama fingerprints at DNC? MORE (I-Vt.) last year during the presidential campaign.

Perez, Obama’s Labor secretary, was seen as the former president’s favored candidate in the race for the chairmanship earlier this year. Progressives were disappointed when he defeated Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who ran with the support of Sanders.

A spokesperson for the DNC downplayed the conversations, saying Simas is not advising in any official capacity and that talks with Perez represent just a small part of the input the chairman is taking from Democrats across the country as he seeks a path forward for a party devastated by its loss of the White House in 2016. 

“Hundreds of people from across the country have given input, volunteered their time, or sat down with Tom and other DNC officers to help rebuild the party,” DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement. 

Some liberals also say they’re not concerned about the conversations — as long as the DNC changes its operation.

“Tom Perez can talk to whoever he wants,” said progressive activist Jonathan Tasini. “The more critical measure is looking at whether he will clear the decks and purge the party of the whole class of consultants and self-promoters, from the sleazy David Brocks to the various people pocketing big bucks who shake down campaign committees and super PACs, all of whom have failed miserably over a decade if you look at the party’s woeful state at every level.”

Others argued that it makes sense that Perez, a former Obama administration official who has no formal electoral experience of his own, would seek advice from seasoned political hands.

“They’d be smart to listen to folks who have experience with this sort of stuff,” said a former DNC official.

But other liberals expressed concern that former Obama officials could have too much influence over the DNC’s direction.

“Hopefully it’s just Perez taking advice from as many sources as possible, but it also looks like the DNC did not learn any lessons from 2016 that the party needs to be rebuilt by grassroots liberals, not from the top down,” one progressive told The Hill. 

Perez, Ellison and the DNC have gone to great lengths to signal the party is coming together after last year’s divisive primaries.

Perez tapped Ellison, a progressive favorite and rival DNC chairman candidate, to be his deputy chairman. Perez and Ellison have already hit the road together for campaign-style events seeking to capitalize on liberal energy ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Perez will venture out with Sanders later this month on a nine-state tour to push progressive policies that the former Democratic presidential candidate championed during his campaign. 

Liberal groups have been happy to see Perez attend their resistance events, as he did last month when MoveOn rallied outside the White House against President Trump’s ban on immigrants coming from Muslim-majority countries.

“The Perez-Ellison team has been more real than I thought it would be,” the former DNC official said. “I think they’re serious about fully integrating the Democratic Party.”

There have been stumbles along the way.

Last month, progressive groups aired their frustrations with the DNC after it announced a 30-member transition advisory committee, believing the roster needed more liberals. 

But some Democrats believe the left was well-represented on a committee that included labor activist Ai-jen Poo, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), union activist Brian Weeks, Black Lives Matter figure DeRay McKesson, former American Federation of Teachers aide LaToia Jones, and former DNC chairman candidates Pete Buttigieg, Sally Boynton Brown and Jehmu Greene.

That has frustrated some mainstream Democrats, who believe no amount of concessions to the left will ever be enough.

“I think there’s some groups where the advocacy is not a means to an end; it’s a means in perpetuity,” one well-connected Democrat told The Hill. “They’re just contrarian, and nothing you can ever do will be enough.”

Perez has since met personally with representatives from Progressive Change Campaign Committee, as well as several other liberal groups, like MoveOn and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

“The lines of communication are open and we’ve had initial conversations with chairman Perez about what a win-win partnership with grassroots liberals might look like, as opposed to top-down outreach,” said Kait Sweeney, the spokesperson for PCCC.

“He is committed to rebuilding our state parties and we hope that process respects the millions of liberal activists taking action in the Trump era,” she continued. “They’re engaged now and they don’t wake up thinking about the DNC. These people have to be brought into the party and we hope the DNC will genuinely engage with progressives groups that have experience mobilizing millions because that would be a win for everybody.”

— This story was updated at 11:31 a.m.

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