In sole German TV debate, Schulz struggles to close gap on Merkel

Journalists watch a televised debate between German Chancellor and leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s social democratic SPD party and candidate for chancellor | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

The Social Democrat challenger’s blows bounce off veteran conservative chancellor.

BERLIN — Center-left challenger Martin Schulz attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis and her dealings with Turkey in a TV debate Sunday that was widely seen as his last big chance to win back the momentum ahead of the German election on September 24.

Judging by polls taken after their sole one-on-one debate of the campaign, Schulz’s blows largely bounced off Merkel, with viewers judging her to have been more credible and more likable, though Schulz’s man-of-the-people appeal won him some points.

Broadcast live on four German TV channels, the showdown billed as Das Duell was mostly a very polite debate — inevitably, since Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD) have propped up Merkel’s conservatives in a “grand coalition” government since 2013.

Schulz, a former European Parliament president, has a big gap to close if he is to oust Merkel as chancellor. Three weeks ahead of the election, Merkel’s conservatives polled 14 percentage points ahead at 38 percent in the latest survey by Emnid, which put Schulz and the SPD at 24 percent.

He attacked Merkel for her fateful 2015 decision to throw open Germany’s borders for asylum seekers stranded in Hungary, which prompted some Eastern European leaders to refuse to take in refugees under a European Union quota system.

“The mistake not to involve our European partners in advance, but present them with a fait accompli instead, has allowed people like Hungarian Prime Minister [Viktor] Orbán or Polish party leader [Jarosław] Kaczyński to shuffle out of responsibility and to let us Germans down,” Schulz said.

Unimpressed, Merkel shot back: “In the life of a chancellor, there are moments when you need to make decisions,” adding that the humanitarian plight of the refugees left her with no other choice.

Turkey tension

In one of his harshest attacks, Schulz took direct aim at Merkel’s dealing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, amid growing tension between Berlin and Ankara over the arrests of German citizens in Turkey, where 12 Germans are currently being held as political prisoners, according to the government in Berlin.

“The only language understood by the government in Ankara is ‘That’s enough!’” Schulz said, adding that if he was elected chancellor, he would push for breaking off Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union.

“Careful,” Merkel snapped back, stressing that an election campaign should not be a contest over geopolitical questions such as how to deal with Ankara.

“I agree with you that keeping your mouth shut is the last thing you need when it comes to dealing with someone like Erdoğan,” she added. “But if you want to get German citizens [imprisoned in Turkey] free, we still need to continue talks.”

With many Germans still undecided, Schulz and his SPD had hoped the prime-time TV debate could help them revive their campaign. According to a survey last week, it was likely to influence the voting decision of almost 7 million of the 61.5 million Germans eligible to vote.

Although polls taken afterwards showed Merkel had prevailed, Schulz’s efforts weren’t entirely wasted: Before the debate, 60 percent of respondents in a poll for broadcaster ZDF said they would rather have Merkel as chancellor, compared to 33 percent for Schulz. After the debate, 53 percent supported Merkel and 39 percent backed Schulz.

When asked who performed better in the debate, 32 percent said Merkel, 29 percent said Schulz and 39 percent said there was no difference between the two. In another poll for ARD television, Merkel emerged as the clear winner — 55 percent of respondents said she was the more convincing, while only 35 percent held that view about Schulz.

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China says Trump’s trade threat over North Korea ‘unacceptable’

Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off U.S. trade with countries that deal with reclusive North Korea “in addition to other options.” | Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

BEIJING — China on Monday criticized President Donald Trump’s threat to cut off U.S. trade with countries that deal with North Korea and rejected pressure to do more to halt the North’s nuclear development.

Trump issued the threat after North Korea on Sunday exploded a thermonuclear device in its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. The threat was seen as a warning to China, North Korea’s main trading partner and only major ally.

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A foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, criticized Trump’s stance as unfair to Beijing.

“What is definitely unacceptable to us is that on the one hand we work so hard to peacefully resolve this issue and on the other hand our interests are subject to sanctions and jeopardized,” Geng said at a regular news briefing. “This is unfair.”

Such an approach would be drastic if applied to China, from which the United States imports goods worth about $40 billion a month.

Trump said it was under consideration “in addition to other options.”

Asked whether Beijing would support tougher U.N. sanctions such as cutting off oil supplies to North Korea, Geng didn’t mention oil but said whatever happened would depend on discussions among council members. Geng said China, one of five permanent Security Council members with power to veto U.N. actions, would take part in a “responsible and constructive way.”

Geng expressed frustration at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s comment that Beijing had a responsibility to influence North Korea due to its status as the North’s main trading partner.

“We keep stressing that we cannot solely rely on China to resolve this issue,” said Geng. “We need all parties to work in the same direction.”

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Russia probes kick into high gear

The congressional Russia investigations are entering a new and more serious phase as lawmakers return from the August recess amid fresh revelations about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In the coming weeks, both intelligence committees are expected to conduct closed-door interviews with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign, and potential witnesses could include Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr.

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The two panels are also looking at possibly holding public hearings this fall.

In addition, Trump Jr. is set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is conducting its own parallel investigation into President Donald Trump and his associates’ alleged ties to Moscow.

The return of the congressional Russia probes also means the return of a phenomenon that has reportedly enraged Trump and caused him to lash out at GOP leaders: constant headlines about the latest incremental developments in these sprawling and unwieldy investigations.

There will be the daily, sometimes hourly, leaks about new witnesses, new lines of inquiry. There will be ominous cable news footage of lawmakers and witnesses disappearing into classified briefing rooms. And there will be grandstanding and bickering among members of Congress in both parties, many of them trying to capitalize on the Russia investigations to further their own political ambitions.

There will also be competition between three committees investigating many of the same issues and seeking testimony from the same witnesses — and doing very little to coordinate their efforts.

“They’re doing their thing and we’re doing our thing,” said an aide on one of the Senate committees, speaking of the other congressional panels.

In some cases, lawmakers asked their staffs to hold off on scheduling high-profile interviews while they were gone for the August recess — only to get annoyed when another committee then swooped in and scheduled their own interviews in the interim.

Over the summer, the respective probes bumped up against each other even more often than usual.

House Intelligence Committee investigators traveled to London in July to attempt to find and interview former MI6 operative and Trump dossier author Christopher Steele, either not knowing or not caring that Steele’s lawyers were already engaging with the Senate Intelligence panel.

Officials on the Senate panel were irked when the Senate Judiciary Committee announced its own open hearing with several witnesses — including Trump Jr. and Manafort — that the intelligence committee was also working to arrange interviews with. Neither Trump Jr. nor Manafort ended up testifying at the open hearing, and the committees are now separately seeking to arrange closed-door interviews with them.

Cohen, meanwhile, is set to appear for a closed-door interview with the House panel. The Senate committee is also expected to seek testimony from Cohen, a longtime Trump confidant and lawyer for the Trump Organization who is under scrutiny because of his outreach to Russian officials about a since-abandoned proposal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Of the three congressional panels, the one with the best record for bipartisan cooperation is the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia have forged a close relationship, often holding joint press conferences and issuing joint statements about their efforts. The Senate panel also includes several Republicans who’ve been highly critical of Trump and expressed a willingness to get to the bottom of his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, regardless of the political consequences. They include Marco Rubio of Florida, Susan Collins and Maine and James Lankford of Oklahoma. Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of Trump’s chief GOP critics, is an ex-officio member of the committee.

The House Intelligence Committee has been beset by internal bickering over witnesses and strategy. The panel’s controversial chairman, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), stepped back from the probe in April after the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating his handling of classified information. Since then, the investigation has been led by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who has sought to repair relations with the committee’s Democrats.

Top Democrat Adam Schiff of California has repeatedly said the committee’s goal is to produce a single, bipartisan report detailing Russia’s efforts to sway the presidential election, whether the Trump campaign was involved, and what can be done to stop future efforts by foreign powers to influence U.S. elections. But Schiff earlier this week expressed doubts about whether the committee can accomplish this goal, suggesting that it could end up producing separate Republican and Democratic reports.

If that happened, he told USA Today, “then Americans will have to read both reports and decide which one to believe. And that is far less than ideal.”

For its part, the Senate Judiciary Committee got a late start in its Russia investigation but has had a big impact.

In June, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and top Democrat Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced a deal to investigate two issues: the circumstances behind the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and whether the Obama administration improperly interfered with the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Since then, Grassley and Feinstein have sought testimony from key witnesses, including Manafort and Trump Jr., using the threat of subpoenas to secure interviews. Their panel has also received about 20,000 pages of documents from the Trump campaign.

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Summer employers hired American amid Trump visa squeeze

President Donald Trump’s harsh criticism of immigration programs and Congress’ refusal to lift a cap on work visas meant many seasonal businesses had to hire American this summer — and pay their workers more.

That’s good news for Trump, for U.S. workers, and for supporters of Trump’s “American First” agenda, but business groups complain that increased spending on wages will ultimately cost jobs and sap company profits. Across the country, enterprises ranging from oyster shuckers to landscapers say they were forced to give up contracts and forgo revenue because they just couldn’t find enough workers to do the jobs this summer.

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“There were a lot of businesses that lost a lot of revenue,” said Laurie Flanagan, co-chair of the H-2B Workforce Coalition, a lobbying group with a membership that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Trump has blasted programs that allow foreign guest workers to take jobs in the U.S. legally. “Widespread abuse in our immigration system is allowing American workers of all backgrounds to be replaced by workers brought in from other countries to fill the same job for sometimes less pay,” he told workers in Wisconsin in April. “This will stop.”

The Trump administration hasn’t moved specifically against the visas for summer workers — known as H-2Bs. His own companies use H-2B workers, especially at his Mar-a-Lago resort, which recently requested H-2B visas for 70 cooks, housekeepers and servers to start in October. But an executive order that Trump signed in April put the federal government on notice that he intended to tighten restrictions on guest-worker visas, and created a chilling effect.

The U.S. had 66,000 slots this year for foreign workers to staff non-agricultural seasonal businesses — landscapers, hotels and seafood processors among them. By March, these slots were all filled. In previous years, Congress often dealt with such shortages by extending the guest workers’ H-2B visas. But this year Congress ignored employers’ pleas, putting the decision in the hands of the administration. In response, the Department of Homeland Security added 15,000 visas in what then-DHS Secretary John Kelly called a “one-time increase.” Even that somewhat grudging gesture didn’t occur until mid-July, when nearly one-third of summer was already past.

The Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit, a seaside village in southeastern Maine, didn’t receive the eight H-2B visas it requested to supplement its summer housekeeping staff. To make ends meet, owner Sarah Diment recruited college kids through her Facebook network and cobbled together part-time shifts, some filled by American students and some by foreign students here on cultural exchange visas. In the past year, Diment estimates she had to boost housekeeping wages roughly 10 percent to keep employees.

Diment could continue to increase wages, but the higher staffing costs, she says, would make it difficult to keep the business open year-round. “Raising wages is good in theory, until you put it into practice,” she said.

North American Midway Entertainment, a large traveling-amusement-park company headquartered in Indiana, requested roughly 400 H-2B workers this year, a quarter of its total seasonal workforce. But the Department of Homeland Security reached its 66,000-visa cap before the company could secure the guest workers. Company President Danny Huston said he had to skip three fairs and contract out some ride operations because of the visa shortage. In total, he estimates that North American Midway may have lost as much as $800,000.

But the company was able to cover about one-third of the vacancies by hiring American through job fairs, newspaper advertisements, and social media. “We even set up a job fair in Puerto Rico,” Huston said.

Other employers say hiring American just isn’t an option.

Michael Martin owns a Maryland-based landscaping company. Roughly 40 percent of his workers — and the majority of those performing manual labor — hold H-2B visas, he told POLITICO. Martin received his H-2B workers on time this year, but he knows other landscapers who didn’t, and lost clients as a result. “It affects people, their bottom line,” he said, “whether they’re still in business, whether they’re going to make it next year.”

The H-2B program requires employers to first seek out U.S. workers before they bring in guest workers. But Americans, Martin says, just won’t take landscaping jobs. He paid $2,500 for a two-week want ad that ran in the Baltimore Sun (print and online) and on social media. The jobs Martin was advertising paid more than $14 an hour, slightly above the average wage for the job in his area. Even so, he got no applicants. “No parents in Maryland are raising their kids to swing a pickax,” Martin said.

Not everyone agrees with that view. Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said the recruitment standards for the H-2B program aren’t sufficient to give U.S. workers a real crack at the job.

“The requirements aren’t that onerous, and the DOL isn’t really checking all that much,” Costa said. H-2B employers are required to offer a so-called prevailing wage — defined as the average wage paid to people in a similar role in the same area — but Costa said the benchmark should be higher. A rider inserted in a 2016 spending bill, and re-upped again this year, allowed employers to use their own private wage surveys rather than Labor Department data to calculate prevailing wages. “There’s always some sort of loophole,” Costa said.

If H-2B workers had skills that were hard to find in the U.S., one might expect H-2B wages to be rising faster than those of other workers. But in a recent report, Costa found the opposite: Wage growth over the past decade in nine of the top 10 H-2B occupations was slower than wage growth for all workers, and some occupations actually lost ground. (Waiters and waitresses were the exception, with 20 percent wage growth from 2004 to 2016.)

Some employers say they can’t raise wages substantially without pricing their products out of the market. Raz Halili is an owner of Prestige Oysters, a seafood processing outfit with operations in Louisiana and South Texas. He says he lost $3.5 million in sales this year because he got only one-third of the 150 H-2B workers he needed to shuck oysters. Prestige Oysters posted the H-2B worker positions at $9.64 an hour, according to data provided to the Labor Department. That’s $2.39 above the state minimum wage, but $2.63 below the national 2016 average hourly wage for “meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers,” according to EPI.

“You raise wages, and then you raise the prices of your crab meat,” says Jack Brooks, president of Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. Customers will pay more for domestic crab meat, he says, but if the price goes high enough, they’ll buy from “the guy down the street who’s using Chinese crab meat.”

EPI’s Costa disagrees with that logic. “It’s true that you can only raise [wages] so high,” he said. “I’m not saying that you should be paying $30 to $40 to people picking crabs.” But more modest increases — from $9 to $12 an hour, for instance — could bear different results, he said. “If you don’t have a business model that requires you to pay a decent wage,” Costa said, “then you have to think about your business model.”

One reason guest-worker wages tend to be low, quite apart from questions about the scarcity of their skills, is that the workers are by definition vulnerable as temporary guests of the U.S. government. “This is a controllable and compliant workforce,” said Art Read, general counsel with Philadelphia-based Friends of Farmworkers. “A U.S. worker with a family may miss a day of work.”

But many employers say the jobs that H-2B workers perform are so miserable that few Americans would take them, even at substantially higher pay. Of oyster shucking, Prestige Oyster’s Halili says, “It’s a dirty, gritty job that most people just don’t want to do. They’ll do it for a few days or they’ll do it for a week, and then they just won’t show up.”

Meanwhile, despite the high demand, the 15,000 H-2B visas that DHS added to the pile in August are not yet exhausted — a bit of a surprise given the intense lobbying efforts by business groups and members of Congress. The H-2B Workforce Coalition’s Flanagan chalks it up to how late in the fiscal year the visas were made available.

“I think that it’s the timing,” she said. “It would have been a different story if we saw visas released earlier in the process.”

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Jeh Johnson, Cautious Lawyer, Speaks Out About Trump

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Much of America’s fourth-largest city is still underwater, as the drowning of Houston rapidly becomes the costliest disaster in U.S. history. President Trump is threatening a major confrontation with Congress over funds to build his proposed border wall with Mexico. He has reportedly decided to end an Obama-era program allowing 800,000 children who were brought to the U.S. illegally to work and live here. The Secret Service, taxed by Trump’s weekend jaunts and big family to protect, is just about out of money.

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But more than a month after naming John Kelly, the head of the massive department that deals with all those problems, to be the new chief of staff in his tumultuous White House, Trump has yet to name a replacement as secretary of Homeland Security. Not only that, he appears nowhere close to doing so and has not even interviewed any candidates for the job.

Big mistake, argues Jeh Johnson, who served as the Obama administration’s DHS chief until Trump’s inauguration in January. In a new interview for The Global Politico, Johnson says, “We need to have a Senate-confirmed secretary of Homeland Security; we need to have somebody occupying that office full time, 24/7, to keep his or her eye on aviation security, border security, cybersecurity, maritime security, FEMA, the Secret Service, and all the other things that DHS covers.”

In particular, he cited the Secret Service’s empty coffers and Trump’s failure to address America’s vulnerable election infrastructure a full year after the Russian tampering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election as crises where having a permanent secretary in place really matters.

“We’re spending a lot of time, energy, effort talking about this, but I’m afraid that we’re no less vulnerable to a cyberattack on election infrastructure than we were a year ago,” says Johnson. He designated election systems part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure” over GOP objections in the waning days of the Obama administration this January, but says the Trump administration has not taken needed follow-up steps and won’t, without a secretary or DHS cybersecurity czar in place. “One way or another, we need to make it a national imperative to harden the cybersecurity around our democratic processes.”

As President Trump has threatened to gut, revise or outright reverse many of the Obama administration’s security policies, Johnson has spoken out increasingly in recent months, appearing on Sunday talk shows and op-ed pages more than almost any other Cabinet-rank official from the Obama era.

Only the fourth person to serve as secretary of Homeland Security, Johnson ran for much of Obama’s second term the massive agency of 22 separate fiefdoms and more than 230,000 employees, an unruly behemoth created in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to put the U.S. government’s sprawling domestic security apparatus under one Cabinet department. (“There were indeed many days where I felt like I had one-third of the federal government to manage, and two-thirds of the problems,” he jokes in our interview.)

Johnson, now back at the New York office of the high-powered law firm of Paul, Weiss, retains the cautious demeanor of a corporate lawyer and tends not to criticize Trump personally. But the sheer range of issues he’s called to comment on today is a striking illustration of how much Trump’s agenda is all about blowing up Obama’s entire concept of homeland security.

Consider the wide array of controversies Johnson covered in the course of our hour-long interview last week, from a national flood insurance program that is “broken” and “going bankrupt” amid the devastation of Hurricane Harvey to Trump’s Secret Service budget-busting (“a very serious problem”) and Muslim travel ban (“bad facts made bad law”) to the intelligence agencies’ decision to blame Russia for the election hacking. “It was a clear case, in my lawyer’s judgment,” he says of the hacking, despite Trump’s public questioning of the spy chiefs’ conclusion. “The proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Many of the controversies involve pledges made by Trump the candidate to jettison the policies and programs Johnson championed at DHS: Will Trump really scrap the Obama decision to allow the so-called Dreamers to gain legal status to live and work in the U.S., a move slated to be announced as early as tomorrow that Johnson said would be “unprecedented” and drive hundreds of thousands of people “into the shadows? Will Trump build his wall on the border with Mexico at a time when, Johnson argues, more “surveillance” is needed, not the thousands of additional agents Trump has promised?

Illegal immigration is already dropping, as Johnson observed, but he credited the Obama administration with setting that in motion and said the post-Trump downturn is more a reflection of Trump’s threatened actions and tough rhetoric. “The analogy I think of when I see these lower numbers is you know that there is a sinking ship over the horizon,” he says, “but you see fewer lifeboats coming at you, so is that necessarily a reason to celebrate?”

On counterterrorism, Trump has shifted away from the Obama emphasis on “countering violent extremism,” Johnson argues, in favor of an outdated post-9/11 concept that “terrorism is something that would be exported across our borders into the United States.” Already, he notes, the Trump administration has scrapped funding for outreach to Muslim communities targeted by online recruiters from the Islamic State and al Qaeda—and even for a program to reach Americans targeted by homegrown U.S. white supremacists and neo-Nazis, news that came out in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville over the summer.

“That is going to atrophy, and that’s not good news,” Johnson says. “That’s not good news for homeland security.”

***

The Charlottesville violence—and Trump’s inflammatory response to it, insisting on condemning protesters “on both sides” and even claiming there were some “fine people” who turned out for the white supremacists’ protest against the taking down of a Confederate monument—led many to call on Johnson’s successor John Kelly and other top Trump officials to resign.

But Johnson, perhaps surprisingly, took a different approach. Johnson, one of the most senior African-Americans in the Cabinet of America’s first African-American president, spoke publicly in the wake of Charlottesville about his view as the great-grandson of a slave who was born in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. He says he believes Confederate monuments are increasingly “national security threats” as they become rallying points for a new generation of white extremists, and should be treated accordingly—even if they shouldn’t necessarily all be taken down.

But he did not join other Democrats in calling for John Kelly or other senior figures to quit serving Trump in protest at the president’s remarks. Not only that—he reiterated in our conversation that he believes both Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, two generals who fell out with the Obama administration in which Johnson served, should remain in their jobs.

“Somebody has got to be the custodians of our national security, and these are people who I have a lot of faith in to be custodians of our national security,” Johnson says.

In other words, he seems to imply without at all saying it, someone has to defend the homeland—against the president.

And so DHS remains without a leader, while Kelly settles in as White House chief of staff, managing self-generated presidential disasters instead of natural ones.

Susan B. Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist. Her new podcast, The Global Politico, comes out Mondays. Subscribe here. Follow her on Twitter @sbg1.

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