Inside Pyongyang, the Loneliest City in the World

In 2012, Dutch photographer Eddo Hartmann had just wrapped up a photography project about his family and was looking for something less personal for his next venture. Something had been bothering him about the photography he had seen coming out of North Korea: All the photos from the outcast kingdom seemed similar. Big parades, lines of military marching through the streets—and nothing about the daily life of citizens under the infamously repressive regime. He wanted to change that.

There was a reason for the lack of nuanced portrayals, of course. The North Korean government closely manages outside journalists’ access to every aspect of life in the country, something that Hartmann was about to find out for himself. He knew some documentary filmmakers who had some familiarity with reporting and recording in the country, so he knew the basics of going about getting permission to start his project. After he filed the first round of paperwork, he waited a year and a half, and, in 2014, he set out for the first of what would become four trips to North Korea.

Over next four years, as tensions with North Korea shook the United States and its regional allies, Hartmann detected a shift. “It was quite tense—it was difficult for me to take pictures and videos anymore,” he says. “There’s no single moment that you’re without the guides.”

Ultimately, though, his four visits yielded a glimpse into the country he thought was a valuable addition to the photography about North Korea and the depictions of the people there. “There are 122 million people there and they make the best of things,” he says. “They fall in love, have children, and they have to bring the kids to school, and they try to make a normal life within this situation.”

Above, an escalator guard in the Pyongyang Metro pictured in 2016.

Text by Katelyn Fossett.

Eddo Hartmann

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Why Israel Is Giving Syrians Free Spaghetti (And Health Care)

GOLAN HEIGHTS – In the middle of the night in early 2013, seven injured Syrians dragged themselves to the border fence separating Syria from Israel, pleading for help. Israel, after deliberations that reached the highest levels of the military and government, decided to take in and treat the Syrians; they wouldn’t have survived otherwise. What started with this one isolated event has, over four years later, expanded into a massive Israel Defense Forces operation providing thousands of Syrians across the border medical assistance, humanitarian aid, food and basic infrastructure. Israeli military officers are clear about the purpose of this largesse, dubbed the “Good Neighbor” policy: to assist desperate Syrians ravaged by years of civil war, and in the process stabilize the border region by showing this heretofore enemy population that Israel is not, in fact, the devil.

Since the Good Neighbor policy’s creation in June 2016, the IDF has deepened and expanded its outreach to the Syrian side: According to official figures, more than 200 humanitarian operations have been conducted, 44 in the past month alone. On any given night, the IDF is active on multiple points on the Syrian frontier, interacting with locals on the other side. More recently, this has also come to include the establishment of a medical clinic beyond the heavily fortified border fence, in territory that while still legally (de facto) Israel, is for all practical purposes inside Syria. The IDF, however, doesn’t operate the clinic; it only guarantees its security from afar. Rather, a little-known U.S. humanitarian NGO sent in volunteers to build and staff the place. U.S. citizens and devout Christians all, they believe they are doing God’s work – helping Israel by helping Syrians (and vice versa) – on the very edge of the closest thing to a modern-day hell.

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***

“Your neighbor could be closer to you than your brother,” read the blue sign in Arabic taped to the pallet of dry spaghetti boxes. “Those closest to God treat their neighbors well,” the sign went on, quoting from the hadith, or narrative of the Prophet Mohammed. The spaghetti filled most of one metal shipping container. On either side were yet more containers brimming with boxes of baby formula and diapers, warm clothing and blankets, school supplies and fuel jerrycans. This was the operations hub of the Good Neighbor administration, located inside the IDF’s regional division headquarters on the Golan Heights, a territory Israel conquered and later annexed from Syria after the 1967 war (the international community still considers it occupied territory). The aid would soon be trucked over to the border a few kilometers away for distribution.

The unit’s insignia next to the Arabic writing made clear Israel isn’t trying to hide its humanitarian involvement in Syria – quite the opposite. The commander of the Good Neighbor administration, Lt. Col. E (as he is identified per Israeli military guidelines), was eager to point out the Hebrew writing on all the goods. “That’s the point,” he told me. “They should know where it’s coming from.” In the most expansive interview he’s given, E, a fluent Arabic speaker and veteran of the IDF’s civil-military operations in the Palestinian Territories, went into great detail about his unit’s involvement in a war that, officially, Israel has refrained from entering.

The Syrian civil war upended nearly four decades of relative calm, if not peace, on the Golan Heights: The Assad regime in Damascus kept the frontier quiet, while United Nations peacekeepers verified the limited deployments of Israeli and Syrian forces across a demilitarized ceasefire line. “We understood that something was changing on the other side of the border” once the civil war started, E said. It wasn’t only the chaos that would be unleashed by the potential fall of Bashar al-Assad as his army lost ground to rebel forces, but rather the encroachment of Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives up to the Israeli border that concerned the IDF. And indeed, in the early years of the Syrian war, cross-border rocket and small arms fire, as well as roadside bombs, were not uncommon, seriously injuring a number of Israeli soldiers and killing one civilian. Israel reportedly responded with a few targeted airstrikes, killing several senior Iranian and Hezbollah commanders attempting to set up a terrorist base on the Syrian side of the Golan.

Israel also responded in more subtle ways: with the Good Neighbor policy, a “hearts and minds” campaign meant to dissuade the local population from cooperating with such unsavory elements. In addition to the residue of the Syrian regime and its allies, Israel also faces a complicated array of other armed groups on this front – “fifty shades of black,” as one IDF officer described it last year, ranging from a local Islamic State franchise to al Qaeda-affiliated militants to more moderate Syrian rebels. “I’m not so noble or righteous,” E said matter-of-factly. “There is a clear operational interest for Israel” to be doing all of this.

There was also, to be sure, a moral imperative. While not anything like the devastation in Aleppo or Idlib, the destruction visited upon southwest Syria and the Quneitra province bordering Israel has been significant in its own right. A third of the population of over 200,000 has been internally displaced; medicine, food, basic goods and electricity are scarce to nonexistent; and 70 percent of doctors in the region, Israel estimates, have either fled or been killed. As the daily sounds of gunfire and plumes of mortar smoke can attest, the fighting is still ongoing.
The trickle of injured Syrians seeking help in 2013 was the start of what is now a flood, formalized and growing. More than 4,000 have been admitted into Israeli hospitals. The vast majority of these, said Col. Noam Fink, a cardiologist and chief doctor in the IDF’s Northern Command, have been male and relatively young, suffering from “multi-trauma injuries” consistent with warfighting. Israeli officers make clear they “do not check IDs” to see if these injured are rebel fighters; after a patdown at the border, everyone is admitted and given medical care (despite the fact that Sunni jihadists have also reportedly been among the injured).

E and his small team coordinate these evacuations to Israeli hospitals, as well as more routine day-long checkups, especially for children in need of specialists: eyes, ears, epilepsy, emotional care and the like. According to the IDF, two dozen children and their adult chaperones are bused in at a time, sometimes daily. “For a five year old who has only known war, that day in Israel might be the best of their lives,” E said. “And no one can accuse me of helping terrorists. At the end a child is a child. They see that the Jews treat them with respect. They’re my ambassadors.” (E denied a recent Wall Street Journal report that Israel actually funds Syrian rebels. “I give them millions [in aid] but not one dollar or shekel,” he said, repeating other similar Israeli denials.)

Flowing in the opposite direction, Israel has moved into Syria everything from the spaghetti and baby formula to fuel, generators and piping for water wells. The level of detail is in some cases astonishingly granular: flour in small bags for one village, snakebite antivenom delivered to another, with the Good Neighbor administration managing the medical files of several hundred Syrian children requiring follow-up care. While official numbers are classified, the scale of the operation appears extensive, reaching 14 kilometers into Syria and in some cases farther afield to Daraa province. Twelve heavy trucks a week move supplies from the division headquarters to the border. How is all this coordinated? E held up his phone.

“Abu Yakub,” as E is known to the locals, was personally in contact with Syrians on the other side – village elders, heads of local councils, professionals. “I can’t say we’re a consensus yet among the people there,” E admitted, “but they see that the aid really helps their villages.” The ultimate proof for this policy is that, other than one clash with the Islamic State late last year, the Syrian rebels – moderate, jihadist, or other – have yet to fire on Israel in anger.

There have, however, been instances where Israeli foodstuffs have been lit on fire and the video uploaded to social media; a play by regime elements, E claimed, to show that Israel was still the enemy. And to be sure, no one knows what will happen if Assad and his allies continue racking up victories in the war, possibly turning their attention back to the southern Golan front. “If we weren’t doing this, someone else would be,” E said, alluding to the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah. “There’s no such thing as a vacuum in this region.”

***

Though its future is as uncertain as the Syrian civil war, the Good Neighbor administration seems to be making more permanent plans. At a makeshift crossing on the border, the IDF recently erected a small white brick hut – with blast walls and metal detectors – to better vet the incoming Syrians (suicide bombings are a concern). There’s also the new medical clinic. Built on the site of an abandoned IDF post, the clinic sits on the other side of the heavily fortified border fence: still technically Israeli territory since the fence was built at a relative remove from the official ceasefire line, yet inside Syria for all practical military purposes.

On a recent visit to the clinic, the first by a journalist, a small convoy of IDF vehicles drove down the access road that runs parallel to the fence until it reached a massive metal gate. Through that gate, and then another two smaller ones, lay Camp Mazor Ladach (biblical Hebrew for “assistance to the unfortunate”), run by a Louisiana-based Christian humanitarian NGO called Friend Ships Unlimited. As the name suggests, the group runs aid ships to various conflict zones around the world. This was, apparently, both its first land-borne mission as well as its first in Israel; the connection was made through long-standing personal relationships with Israeli officialdom. The money, equipment, and supplies for this elaborate operation reportedly came from the group’s traditional donor channels (private and corporate, according to its website), the massive international NGO donor base that supports the Good Neighbor administration, as well as the Israeli government (including logistical support from the IDF and, of course, the physical location).

Opened this past August, the camp consists of several massive big-top tents joined together in a tight circle, with internal pathways leading from one room/tent to the other. A food tent teeming with crates of canned goods (with the ubiquitous Hebrew writing) disbursed to patients upon their release led into a common room with playpens, toys and stuffed animals, which led into a clinic tent with several partitioned examination rooms not unlike a normal doctor’s office (examination table, desk, stethoscope). This was one of three planned clinics, and the only one so far operational. When I visit, the camp was still not yet finished: The largest tent intended as the reception hall was bare save for a few fold-out tables and one solitary wheelchair; the next room over, the real playroom, was empty, with staff pointing out where the inflatable bouncy house, ice cream and cotton candy stands, and a discreet nursing station for mothers would be set up.

The idea of Syrian kids eating cotton candy less than a mile away from a war may seem incongruous, but the crew from Friend Ships Unlimited was, if anything, almost nonchalant about it all. Two doctors, older women from Mississippi and North Carolina, had seen nearly 80 patients earlier that day: ear infections, rashes, arthritis, fractures, hypertension. “Pretty much what you see back home,” said Patty, a general practitioner from North Carolina. She, like the rest of the nearly 20-member crew, was a volunteer, and was staying for two weeks. The crew slept in the camp, in living quarters, venturing back to Israel with an IDF escort twice a week. (The patients, for their part, return home every evening after clinic visiting hours end at 6 p.m.)

Roma, an internal medicine specialist from Mississippi, told me it was “such a privilege to work with Israelis in whatever way we can.” She added: “We feel very privileged, and very secure.” This was a recurring theme among the volunteers I met: not just the idea of coming to a war zone to aid Syrians and to do God’s work, but to also do good for Israel. “By doing one you’re helping the other,” said Sheray, a 66-year-old nurse’s assistant and the lead crew member at the camp.

Yet this was still Syria. Only a week earlier, during a visit to the camp, a pastor from New York was hit by a bullet. This did not seem to ruffle anyone. It was a freak incident, the IDF maintained, a stray bullet from the nearby fighting that somehow found a mark. Fortunately for the pastor, he was wearing a flak jacket at the time and wasn’t seriously injured. “Truly a higher power,” Sheray said, “but it did reinforce caution and not to hang out by the fence at night.” The pastor was apparently trying to catch a glimpse of some wild jackals who roam the Golan plains that sweep out in every direction, flat, craggy, and brown. The sounds of war are easily heard from the camp, breaking the usual desolate quiet. “Last night was a real ‘boomy’ night,” Sheray observed.

Despite the caution and the darkness beginning to envelop the camp, the crew and visiting IDF officers stood around not too far from the fence, chatting; no one seemed concerned, least of all Tamir, an adopted black mutt, tail wagging, who jumped from one visitor to the next. The camp appeared, for all the world, lightly defended; it has a slight fence and some barbed wire defending its perimeter. On the camp’s eastern flank, which opened out to the rest of Syria, a high stone berm and guard tower rose up from the ground, with an underground bunker system – a relic of the old IDF position – now serving as a safe room of sorts. The crew did have their own security team, American volunteers as well, who in addition to guard duty also made the incoming Syrians pass through a metal detector. Nevertheless, an IDF detail had swept the camp prior to our arrival, in case one of the patients “had left something” for the senior officers visiting. A handful of other IDF soldiers in full combat gear had escorted E and his team in, taking up positions on the perimeter.

Was all this enough, though, to ensure the security of the camp once the IDF left?

“There are measures in place that you can’t see,” E said cryptically, and in general the Friend Ships Unlimited team was in constant radio contact with the IDF.

There was a clear humanitarian as well as operational reason for the clinic’s location on the other side of the fence. At capacity, 12 doctors can live in the camp, each treating 20 to 30 patients a day—meaning that around a thousand Syrians could receive regular medical care every week without the stain of crossing into Israel and being tarred a collaborator. It is also more cost-effective than evacuating individual patients to Israeli hospitals. The camp is expecting a future shipment of X-ray machines, incubators and other equipment for minor surgeries.

There was, however, the nagging sense that nothing could stop a well-placed mortar round from changing such calculations. A few nights after my visit, Hezbollah is believed to have deliberately fired several rockets into Israel, drawing IDF strikes against Syrian army positions. This past week, the front pages of every Israeli daily were adorned with the picture and biography of Hezbollah’s new commander in the area, a previously anonymous operative. It was a not-too-subtle message by Israeli intelligence: We know who you are and what you’re up to. Camp Mazor Ladach is the logical extension of Israel’s Good Neighbor policy, which is itself an extension of the reality of a disintegrated Syria: a battle for hearts, minds and influence between Israel and its enemies – Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah – in a border region that may soon be an actual battlefront. In the event, the clinic would almost assuredly have to be evacuated.

Driving back from the camp on the two-lane country road that runs near the border, E looked to his left and then right, pointing out the difference between the lights emanating from Israeli hamlets and the pitch darkness on the Syrian side. “I’m not doing all this for a Nobel Prize,” he said. “I’m an officer in the IDF, and my job is to protect the State [of Israel]. But I do believe there is such a thing as win-win situations – even in the Middle East.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist based in Tel Aviv and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Trump finds golf isn’t the way to Congress’ heart

One weekend in early June, President Donald Trump tested out his golf course diplomacy with Sen. Bob Corker, making the Tennessee Republican one of his first congressional partners at his Northern Virginia country club.

The pair shared a cart and partnered up in a match that included former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. They discussed both politics and policy – “a little of it all,” Corker recalled in an interview earlier this week – and there wasn’t much in the way of the trash talking that Trump is known for on the green.

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“Honestly, it was enjoyable,” Corker told POLITICO. “You learn a lot about him personally.”

But that springtime round hasn’t stopped Corker from undercutting Trump since then, firing off a series of blistering attacks in media interviews and Twitter against a president who he characterized as in need of “adult daycare.”

Trump also didn’t have much luck with another recent golfing partner: Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul. Just days after the former 2016 GOP presidential primary rivals played at the president’s members-only Virginia golf course, Paul sided against Trump on a critical budget resolution vote that the president hopes can pave the way for a wider measure cutting taxes.

The president found some early success using golf to his advantage in office, inviting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to play with him at two of his South Florida courses in February to cement their personal relationship – a favor Abe is planning to repay by hosting a golf game when Trump visits Tokyo next weekend. But it has worked less well in Washington, where the president hasn’t been able to leverage his nearby golf club into close relationships on Capitol Hill.

Trump’s other recent golfing partner has been South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said in an interview that his two rounds with the president over back-to-back October weekends have helped pave the way for him to be critical of the White House in a way that can ultimately advance his agenda.

“I said I want to beat you on the golf course,” Graham said in an interview. “But the best thing I can do for you is tell you what I think and be respectful about it. Here’s the one thing about playing golf, and you’re getting to know someone, you’re far less likely to take gratuitous shots because you’ve spent time with them.”

Graham hasn’t missed a beat in playing this role. He recently praised Trump for assembling a strong national security team that’s “good for the Republican party.” And after a recent visit to South Carolina together aboard Air Force One, Graham jumped at the president’s offer of a helicopter ride back to the White House.

But Graham remains a critic on one of the biggest White House sore spots: the Russia investigations. The senator a few weeks before his first golf outing with Trump issued a scathing warning to the president over the notion of firing special counsel Robert Mueller, saying it “could be the beginning of the end” of his administration. Last weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Graham said Trump continues to have “a blind spot on Russia I still can’t figure out.”

Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt – a member of GOP leadership who cautioned that he’s “not in the club championship ranks” of golfing ability – said it wasn’t clear whether the president’s recent overtures on the golf course have been productive in building support for Republican policies.

“I don’t think it hurts,” Blunt said. “Anything that builds relationships is generally helpful, though I’d like to see…more specific votes that respond to the investment of time.”

Trump is likely at the tail end of his weekend golf trips this year to his Washington-area course. He leaves on Friday for a 12-day, five-nation Asia trip, and he won’t have many warm weekends left in 2017 by the time he returns to the capital.

Meantime, the president’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach beckons. It will open again for the season around Halloween, and Trump has his pick of three South Florida golf courses with his name on them, including one that’s a short motorcade ride from his beach home.

Trump’s bid to connect with lawmakers through golf is limited in no small part by a lack of people who play at his level. Former House Speaker John Boehner was the last congressional leader known to seriously golf. But he retired two years ago, and the current ranks of House and Senate leadership are bare when it comes to the type of quality player Trump prefers. The field of good golfers among rank-and-file members is small, too.

“I would not call it widespread at all,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who is both a member and property owner at the president’s semi-private golf club in Ireland.

By all accounts, Trump is a top-notch player. Golf Digest in January ranked him No. 1, ahead of John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford among the 16 most recent presidents who played the game. But his skills – and desire to keep a round moving – also can work against him when it comes to finding playing companions from the political ranks.

“It’s almost that he’s too good,” said Mike Sommers, a former Boehner chief of staff. “You can’t see him driving through the rough helping someone find their ball.”

Chris Ruddy, a Trump friend and Mar-a-Lago member, said Trump only likes golfing with people around his same skill level. “He doesn’t enjoy playing with real amateurs. He likes to move around quick. Someone who isn’t great is slower,” said Ruddy, the CEO of the conservative website Newsmax.

Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative Freedom Caucus founder, said he plays golf on some weekends back home with his brother-in-law. But he said he’d fall into the category of amateur golfer who would suggest that Trump – should he ever offer an invitation – try looking elsewhere.

“He wouldn’t enjoy playing with me because I’m nowhere near that handicap level,” Jordan said. “If the president asks you to do something you’d consider that. But I’d also tell him, ‘Mr. President, I’m not very good. You might want to play with someone else.’”

Another obstacle for Trump to forge golfing connections in Washington: his schedule. Playing as often as he does on Saturdays and Sundays doesn’t match up well with members of Congress who make it a point to go back to their states and districts on the weekends.

Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican ranked by Golf Digest last year as the best golfer among members of Congress, said he had just discussed playing 18 holes with Trump when the president visited the Capitol for a GOP luncheon earlier this week.

“I’ve been invited for sure,” Perdue said. But Perdue said that finding a date in recent weeks has been challenging because of his commitments back in Georgia.

While Perdue said he expected to talk political shop when he does finally play golf with Trump, he also expected the round to be heavy on the social side.

“I’m not sure he’s using it as a tool,” Perdue said. “It’s a personal thing to do. This man has friends and uses it that way. He uses it to get relaxation. He uses it to think.”

Ruddy said he also didn’t see Trump as trying to use golf to win allies or policy converts. “The idea that somehow you get an inside track just because you play golf is just a nonstarter,” he said. “Trump uses it as a good way to understand people and hear them out.”

Trump repeatedly disparaged President Barack Obama for golfing as much as he did during eight years in office. But Trump has ended up playing even more golf than his Democratic predecessor.

In his first 40 weeks in office in 2009, Obama played 23 rounds of golf. Trump, during that same period of time this year, has played at least 32 rounds that have been confirmed by either the White House, social media reports or journalists traveling with the president. There have also been another 28 times where Trump was known to be at one of his country clubs and seen as likely playing golf, according to data compiled by the website Trump Golf Count.

Trump and Obama have also followed similar paths in eschewing fellow politicians as their playing partners. Obama often filled out his golfing foursome with longtime staffers and close friends. In fact, just 5 of the 333 rounds that the Democratic president played over his two terms were with members of Congress, according to a tally kept by CBS News reporter Mark Knoller. Obama only played golf three times with foreign leaders.

For Trump, the playing partners he’s had who have been publicly named have included longtime friends like New York real estate executive Richard Levine and professional athletes, including Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and PGA professional Rory McIlroy.

Golf during Trump’s life prior to politics – and Washington — was all about making money. He frequented the links with his fellow golf-obsessed Manhattan billionaires and CEOs. His name is also attached to 12 courses in the U.S., including the iconic “Blue Monster” Doral in Miami, and five more abroad in Dubai, Ireland and Scotland.

Partisanship also wasn’t a factor in who Trump teed off with. In 2012, for example, former President Bill Clinton in a CNN interview – conducted by guest host Harvey Weinstein, standing in for Piers Morgan – volunteered this about Trump: “I love playing golf with him.”

But 2012 is not 2016. And the idea of hitting the links with the president is hardly seen as a smart career move for a Trump critic – especially in the smart phone era where club members and guests frequently post video and pictures of Trump whenever he’s at one of his courses.

“I’m not sure there’s a lot of Democrats who’d want to go out and spend four hours with him,” said Yarmuth, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a serious golfer who plays at about the same level as the president.

Asked if he’d entertain playing golf with Trump, Yarmuth hedged. He waited nearly six years before finally getting out on a course with Obama — at Joint Base Andrews in suburban Washington in 2015.

“That’d be a very tough call for me,” Yarmuth said. “I say it because I so cherish my one presidential golf experience. I don’t want to necessarily tarnish it. I’d like to keep it as my only presidential golf memory because it was so good.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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2020 hopefuls dodge Iowa and New Hampshire

In the early run-up to 2020, would-be candidates are skipping Iowa and New Hampshire for a new set of must-stop destinations: big battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Michigan.

Wary of planting a Trump-sized target on their backs so far out from the election, many potential 2020 hopefuls are avoiding headline-drawing trips to traditional primary-season destinations like Des Moines, Manchester, Columbia and Las Vegas. Instead, at least half a dozen Democrats with the potential to become serious contenders — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — have been quietly visiting battleground states that will likely be front-and-center in the next presidential election.

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The official purpose of the trips is almost always to raise money for colleagues up for reelection in 2018. But the visits also provide White House wannabes an easy way to build in-state credibility and ties to local power-players and contributors who may prove influential three years down the line.

“It’s smart politics because electability is going to be such a big factor in this primary: Are you going to be able to beat Donald Trump? And do well in these big battlegrounds? So they’re going to build support in Florida and Ohio and Virginia. They’re going to grow their networks there,” said Democratic operative Scott Arceneaux, the Florida Democratic Party’s former executive director.

“It’s the nationalization of our politics: You don’t have to go to Des Moines to be on TV in Des Moines,” he added. “You can do a rally in Philly and be seen on MSNBC in Manchester.”

Not everyone is playing coy with their travel. Seeing little reason to skate under the radar, the two best-known potential 2020 contenders — former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — have both repeatedly visited early voting states like New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina this year. A range of little-known long-shots have barnstormed them as well, in bids to increase their own recognition.

But for the collection of statewide officials whose political profiles fall somewhere in between, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Richmond have provided less fraught venues for building political capital. Among the top destinations, according to itineraries reviewed by POLITICO: states that Trump famously flipped from Democratic hands in 2016 and which now have Democratic senators facing tough challenges.

Warren and Booker have visited Michigan and Wisconsin, where Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Tammy Baldwin are up for reelection and Democrats are aiming to take back the governorships. Ohio, home to both Sen. Sherrod Brown’s reelection effort and another open gubernatorial race, has also played host to the pair, as well as to Harris and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — another possible candidate and the next Democratic Governors Association chairman — also recently swung through Ohio and met with local party leaders, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is due to speak at a state party dinner in Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday before the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls’ debate.

Florida, another top battleground state with tough Senate and gubernatorial races in 2018, has also seen an influx of potential presidential candidates: Biden and Booker both dropped by earlier this year; McAuliffe visited for a Palm Beach County Democrats fundraising dinner this month; former Housing Secretary Julián Castro swung by for a state party conference on Friday; and Harris scheduled a series of fundraising events in the state next month.

While McAuliffe has been closely involved in this year’s race to elect his successor in Virginia, and Biden has stepped in to back Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, others are now getting involved, as well: Harris is appearing on the trail in Richmond and Glen Allen on Sunday.

With upward of 40 Democrats considering presidential runs, trips to politically potent states that don’t usually host presidential hopefuls so early can help potential contenders break through the crowded landscape, said strategists who’ve worked on previous campaigns. Plus, at a time that Democratic officials are eager to be seen as helping to rebuild the party, scheduling local fundraisers is an easy way to gain national-level goodwill as well as connections to local donors, activists and elected officials.

Nonetheless, the frequent travelers consistently insist the trips have nothing to do with 2020. Booker opened a recent fundraising email by declaring, “I’m in Wisconsin today for one reason, and her name is Tammy Baldwin.”

The idea is to help Democrats in what’s shaping up to be a brutal midterm season, the lawmakers say. Many of them have also visited more reliably Democratic states like Washington and New Mexico on behalf of colleagues, and some have gone out of their way to send checks to vulnerable fellow lawmakers without fanfare.

There was little national notice when Warren sent a fundraising email for Rep. Jacky Rosen, running for Senate in early state Nevada, for example. And in a recent note carrying the subject line, “Why I went to Ohio and Wisconsin,” Warren told backers her latest trip was all about 2018.

Even behind the scenes, the potential candidates are wary of the potential appearance of running precampaigns. After watching with horror as Trump unleashed on Hillary Clinton for two years during the past election cycle, none of them are eager to become the president’s next punching bag more than two years before voting even begins.

“Even when we call people to give them credit, they say it’s not about ’20 — they haven’t wanted to make it about that, they’ve made it clear,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “The reason they’re here in states like Ohio, given what happened last year, is if we’re going to win in ’18 and ’20, we need to do well here.”

The traditional early states certainly haven’t lost their relevance: Several lesser-known Democrats are fanning out across Iowa and New Hampshire. Local and national operatives still expect the gubernatorial races in each of the four earliest-voting primary states to become highly visited contests once 2018 actually begins.

“People can be a lot more obvious than they used to be about these things, the rules have changed,” said Democratic strategist Dave Hamrick. “No one bats an eye anymore about politicians going to Iowa and New Hampshire.”

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GOP tax bill shrouded in secrecy

Rank-and-file House Republicans are increasingly alarmed by the secrecy shrouding the massive tax bill their party leaders plan to ram through Congress next month.

Just days ahead of the legislation’s release, GOP members of the House Ways and Means Committee are still in the dark on numerous details being ironed out by the powerful tax-writing committee’s chairman, Kevin Brady (R-Texas), and his staff. And they’re blaming the panel’s top-down approach for the uncertainty.

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“There are a lot of open issues,” said Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), echoing comments made by several of his colleagues on the committee.

Heading into the weekend, question marks remained on at least two high-profile proposals to offset the cost of slashing individual and business tax rates: curbing federal deductions for state and local taxes and business interest as well as potential changes to taxing retirement savings.

The uneasy feeling among members extends to their tax aides, who’ve been excluded from a recent series of hours-long member meetings with Brady and his tax counsels.

Several personal office tax staffers to committee Republicans indicated that they’re grappling with how to brace their bosses for the coming lobbyist wave. Well-funded special interests are ready to pounce on the tax bill when Brady brings it out Nov. 1; aides are worried about the onslaught, particularly over any surprises in the legislation.

“You could potentially see some bombs in there,” one aide said.

Part of the logic behind restricting access to the text stems from an eagerness to keep lobbyists at bay for as long as possible. There’s also precedent; former Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp introduced tax reform legislation in 2014 after keeping final language under tight wraps until soon before the now-retired Michigan Republican released it. (And when he did, the bill bombed.)

But lawmakers, even those on the tax-writing committee, simply don’t always have the same level of understanding of the issues in play as their professional staff, the same aide said on condition of anonymity because of sensitivities around the talks.

Aides aren’t expected to join the next series of Ways and Means Republican meetings, which are scheduled for Monday afternoon and all day Tuesday. Brady has said he plans to introduce the tax bill on Wednesday, and begin considering it in committee the following week.

“Chairman Brady and Ways and Means members will meet next week to discuss final details before they introduce the tax reform text,” said a spokeswoman.

Aides have been told they’d receive a briefing before the bill emerges, but that huddle could come as late as Tuesday night, another Ways and Means staffer said.

Even President Donald Trump’s chief tax negotiators haven’t been fully briefed, though Treasury Department officials were supposed to get looped in a bit more over the weekend, a Ways and Means aide said.

The approach by House Republicans stands in stark contrast to the other end of the Capitol, where top Senate Republicans want to ensure all GOP senators feel they have buy-in from the start — a desire to avoid retracing the steps that led to their failed Obamacare repeal attempt.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has convened meetings with Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and a handful of key Republicans on the Senate’s tax-writing panel, as well as GOP senators not on the committee, to gauge their needs, aides said.

“It’s so complex and there are so many moving parts,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “We’ve tried to learn our experience on health care and do better on taxes.”

Republicans on the Finance Committee have paired up with other GOP senators in a buddy system of sorts to ensure all GOP senators are included in the process. For instance, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Senate Republican who sits on the Finance Committee, has been in touch with Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who in turn has been lobbying to include her paid leave tax credit proposal in the overall GOP blueprint.

Sen. Bob Corker, the retiring Tennessee Republican who has repeatedly raised concerns about the potential deficit-busting impact of a GOP tax bill, has also met privately with McConnell and Finance Committee Republicans to lay out his priorities, a spokeswoman said. Corker has also spoken with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Senate GOP leaders will also ensure their tax proposal, expected to be released sometime after House Republicans unveil their legislation next week, gets considered by the Senate Finance Committee — another marked difference from the botched health care process.

Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican, sketched out an ambitious goal of passing its tax legislation by Thanksgiving — giving GOP senators just under four weeks to move legislation overhauling the tax code even though the actual bill has not been released.

“We can be up and running in a day. We know where we want to go,” insisted Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the Finance Committee. Still, Hatch added of the GOP conference-wide lobbying effort: “Everybody wants something. They’re all over us on what they want.”

House and Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have been almost completely shut out of the discussions.

Republicans plan to use powerful budget reconciliation procedures that circumvent Democratic filibusters, so broad bipartisan support won’t be required.

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