Trump says Obamacare will ‘go back and forth’ but ultimately pass

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President Donald Trump seemed to acknowledge that Thursday’s scheduled vote, which will fall on the 7th anniversary of Obamacare’s final approval. | AP Photo

A defiant President Donald Trump rallied support for the House’s Obamacare repeal and replacement bill, predicting that the bill will “go back and forth” in Congress but that the end result will be “great.”

Trump pressed his case with a friendly crowd at a campaign-style rally in Louisville. The audience roared as Trump touted the GOP’s health care bill as an opportunity to end the “Obamacare catastrophe.”

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“This is our long awaited chance,” he said. “We’re gonna do it. What’s the alternative?”

While Trump did tackle healthcare legislation, he did not comment on another major story in Washington: FBI Director James Comey’s Monday testimony in Washington. Comey said the FBI is investigating ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Comey also said there was no evidence to support Trump’s recent claims that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower.

Instead, Trump delivered red meat to a friendly audience. His focus was Obamacare — though it took him about 30 minutes of speaking time to hone in on the subject.

Trump said that many of his other priorities and campaign promises, including tax cuts and tougher trade deals, hinged on getting approval for healthcare:

“We want a very big tax cut but we can’t do that until we keep our promise to repeal and replace the disaster known as Obamacare,” he said.

Trump also seemed to acknowledge that Thursday’s scheduled vote, which will fall on the 7th anniversary of Obamacare’s final approval, will signal the beginning of the process, not the end.

“Remember. We’re going to negotiate. It’s going to go back and forth,” before ultimately passing, Trump said.

He also said that other elements — including efforts to bring down drug prices — will be passed later if they can’t fit into the initial bill.

Drug prices will be “way, way, way down,” he said, even if Congress has to work on separate legislation later.

Trump also used his perch to buck up Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky senator spoke before Trump — to a smattering of boos — but Trump called for McConnell to get a “nice hand, ‘cause he’s on our side.”

“We gotta take care of our people right? And he’s got a lot of power for the people of Kentucky!”

Trump then paused and asked McConnell from the stage, “We gonna be okay? Everything okay? We looking good?”

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Fox News pulls Napolitano after his Trump wiretap claims

Fox News has reportedly pulled Andrew Napolitano from the air indefinitely after he claimed that a British intelligence agency wiretapped Trump Tower.

Napolitano, a Fox News analyst, is not scheduled to appear on the network in the near future, the Los Angeles Times reported, according to people familiar with the situation.

Last week, Napolitano made the claim that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was spying on Trump at former President Obama’s behest.

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer then quoted Napolitano’s remarks while defending the president’s claim earlier this month that the former president had Trump Tower under surveillance before the presidential election.

“Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, ‘Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command,’ ” Spicer said during a daily press briefing last week.

“‘He didn’t use the [National Security Agency]; he didn’t use the CIA. … He used GCHQ.’ “

GCHQ rejected Napolitano’s claim that it helped surveil Trump for Obama in 2016.

“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then President Elect are nonsense,” said a spokesman for the agency, which rarely comments publicly on its operations.

The president last Friday praised Napolitano during a press conference as a “very talented legal mind.”

“We said nothing,” Trump said when asked about the former judge’s claim. “I didn’t make an opinion on it.”

“All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television,” Trump said.

“That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox [News]. And so you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”

Fox News host Shepard Smith also denied Friday that his network has information validating Napolitano’s remark, saying the network knows of “no evidence of any kind that the now-President of the United States was surveilled at any time in any way.” 

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Pence woos conservatives with anti-abortion adds to Obamacare repeal

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Vice President Mike Pence appealed to prominent anti-abortion lawmakers on Monday night to support the House Obamacare replacement bill, touting “pro-life” provisions in the bill as a reason to vote “yes.”

During a White House meeting with the GOP leaders of the congressional pro-life caucus, Pence pitched the group on some of the bill’s restrictions on abortion, including one major change to the bill expected to be announced Monday that pro-lifers say is essential to their support.

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His arguments, as well as the recent change to the bill, convinced some members like Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) to support the bill. But others in the meeting, like House Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), have yet to commit.

“I haven’t said how I’m going to vote one way or another; I’ve just said the way to get me to ‘yes’ is to assuage any concerns I have on pro-life provisions being eliminated … in the Senate,” Franks said, referring to a concern that the Senate parliamentarian will strike the language in the other chamber. “It’s a huge issue — one of the main concerns I have is to make sure we don’t lose the pro-life provisions in the senate.”

Pence, a social conservative, is know among the House rank-and-file for his strong anti-abortion views. It’s one of the reasons, in fact, that members like Franks admire him so much, something Franks reaffirmed Monday after the meeting — even if he has not yet backed the bill.

Hartzler told POLITICO she changed her vote to yes this weekend upon learning the latest on anti-abortion changes to the bill, which essentially ensure health care tax credits cannot be used for plans that cover abortions.

“I did share that as of this weekend I have decided to support it after I got some assurances from some pro-life provisions and other aspects being addressed,” she said. “We were there to appreciate his efforts to ensure the bill remains pro-life, so we had a good discussion about that.”

The meeting come just a few days after the National Right to Life announced that it was not only supporting the bill but would key vote it. The significance of that full-throated endorsement cannot be understated, as it carries a lot of weight with House Republicans, including Franks.

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THE MEMO: Five takeaways from Comey’s big day

FBI Director James Comey testified on Russia’s attempts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election Monday amid high drama on Capitol Hill. 

Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had been eagerly awaited. It lived up to its billing.

Here are the key points as the dust settles.

Comey did real damage to Trump

The FBI director inflicted a double blow on President Trump early on in the hearing.

He first confirmed that the bureau is investigating links between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government. 

And he stated flatly that he had “no information” to support the president’s assertion, first made on Twitter, that former President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaFlake on wiretapping claims: Trump should ‘apologize and move on’ Top intel Dem: Feds, president need ability to warn about hacking Palin: Comey is ‘tainted’ MORE had wiretapped him at Trump Tower.

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The media focus will next turn to whether the bureau will uncover evidence of outright collusion between Team Trump and Moscow.

On the accusation of wiretapping, Comey did not even provide a fig leaf for the White House. In addition to asserting that the FBI has no evidence to support the wiretapping charges, Comey noted, “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”

The one-two punch from the FBI director made for a rough day for Trump and his aides. 

On Twitter, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough called it “the worst day of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpColin Kaepernick donates K to Meals on Wheels Mellman: Red in the face? FBI Director Comey hearing a dud for Democrats MORE’s presidency.”

The White House was quick to create distance

White House press secretary Sean Spicer took to the lectern in the press briefing room in the afternoon as Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers were still testifying on Capitol Hill.

Spicer’s briefing was notable for the vigor with which he sought to put distance between the White House and the figures around whom speculation about Russian ties has swirled.

The effort was undermined, however, by Spicer’s insistence that one of those people, Paul Manafort, played “a very limited role” in Trump’s presidential bid. 

In fact, Manafort became campaign chairman in May last year and effectively ran Trump’s campaign between June and August.

Spicer’s assertion drew negative comments from a number of prominent reporters, both on Twitter and on cable news, where the networks covered the events intensely throughout the day.

Spicer also took a verbal swing at “hangers-on around the campaign,” which appeared to be a reference to Carter Page, whose level of involvement with Team Trump remains unclear. Page, sometimes described as a campaign adviser on foreign policy, took a trip to Moscow last summer. Concrete details are scarce, and speculation is intense about that trip.

Trump loyalists have long been scathing about Page, but the push against Manafort — and to a more modest degree against controversial GOP consultant and longtime Trump friend Roger Stone — has only set the media’s antennae twitching with the sense that something big is around the corner.

Republicans want to make leaks the real story

While Democrats pushed their belief that there was something nefarious going on between the Trump campaign and Russia, Republicans stuck equally ferociously to insisting that people with access to classified information were leaking it to damage the new administration. 

Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyFBI Director Comey hearing a dud for Democrats THE MEMO: Five takeaways from Comey’s big day Overnight Tech: FCC chief says media isn’t ‘the enemy of the people’ | Fallout from Comey’s testimony | Google apologizes for ads near extremist content | US preps electronics ban on some flights MORE (R-S.C.) was especially passionate on that topic. At one point, Gowdy appeared to suggest that reporters who published classified information should be prosecuted.

Even Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who is generally seen as a more moderate figure than Gowdy, asserted, “I’ve never seen such a sustained period of leaks.” 

Several Republican members of the panel seemed disquieted by how the controversy involving Michael Flynn came into the public domain. Flynn resigned after the shortest tenure ever as national security adviser when it emerged that he had misled Vice President Pence about the nature of phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

More broadly, however, there seemed to be an attempt to bolster the White House narrative that there is a “deep state” working to undermine the president. 

“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!” the president tweeted on Monday morning.

Comey won’t be easy to sully

The Trump administration can’t have been happy with Comey’s testimony, but so far it is resisting any impulse to go on an all-out attack against him.

The first question Spicer faced at his briefing — from Jonathan Karl of ABC News — was whether the president still had “complete confidence” in the FBI director.

“There’s no reason to believe he doesn’t at this time,” Spicer replied.

While hardly a rip-roaring endorsement, those words underline the trouble the White House faces.

Comey famously earned the ire of Democrats in the closing stretch of last year’s presidential campaign when he announced that the bureau was investigating newly discovered messages possibly related to its investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonLobbying World Top House Dem: Backers of GOP’s health plan putting their seats at risk Palin: Comey is ‘tainted’ MORE’s use of a private email server while secretary of State.

Some in Clinton’s orbit believe Comey’s announcement cost her the election. Whether that is true or not, Team Trump would have a near-impossible task in trying paint Comey as biased against it.

The White House is under a cloud

Near the end of the day’s proceedings, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told Comey he had put “a big gray cloud” over the White House.

Nunes, who worked on Trump’s transition team, appeared to be expressing dismay at that reality. But both parties would accept it as a fact.

The political dynamics have changed now that the FBI investigation is public knowledge. 

The White House can expect to face questions on a daily basis about the probe, while the media attention on what Comey’s agents are finding, and about whom, will be feverish.

The Memo is a reported column primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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Tillerson Bumbles Around Asia

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The Trump team’s early forays into Asia couldn’t have gone better. In early February, Defense Secretary James Mattis received high praise for his trip to Tokyo and Seoul, reassuring nervous allies that the Trump administration would continue decades of American leadership in Asia. A week later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe braved a visit to the White House and was rewarded with President Donald Trump reaffirming the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was poised to ride this momentum into Northeast Asia last week, but instead sustained a series of self-inflicted wounds. Before even departing Washington, he broke tradition by not inviting the State Department press corps on his plane, needlessly damaging relations with the media and forgoing the opportunity to better explain the contours of his mission. (“I’m not a big media press access person,” he said later, as if the only purpose of talking to reporters would be to serve his own agenda. “I personally don’t need it.”)

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He then decided against a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in what would have been a simple and routine gesture to thank his overseas diplomats for their hard work. On his next stop in Seoul, Tillerson reportedly snubbed his hosts by turning down a dinner invitation due to what a South Korean official later descried as “fatigue.” Even as the secretary dismissed this characterization—a day later, because there was no American press around to rebut the claim—the occurrence of such a misunderstanding at all between two close allies was itself remarkable.

All this would have been bad enough. But Tillerson’s final act in Beijing was the most controversial and potentially damaging. Before meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the U.S. secretary of state parroted well-known Chinese Communist Party slogans, avowing that the United States and China have “a very positive relationship built on non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and always searching for win-win solutions.” As if to underscore the point, he repeated them again after the meeting. The passages were nearly identical to President Xi Jinping’s own words standing aside President Barack Obama in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2014.

While it’s easy to dismiss these phrases as diplomatic pablum, you can be sure that China’s leaders took note. As U.S. diplomats know, terms like “mutual respect” and “nonconfrontation” are code in Beijing for U.S. accommodation of a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia, requiring that the United States back off and respect China’s demands over issues including Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea and regional dominance more broadly. As for “win-win,” there’s a well-known joke among China experts that what it really means is China wins twice.

No surprise then, that the populist state-run newspaper Global Times raved that Tillerson had shown “unprecedented positive tendencies,” moderating his tone on North Korea and rightfully prioritizing U.S.-China relations over other thorny issues. Tillerson may have been more pointed in private, but repeating these phrases publicly signaled to China—and, don’t forget, America’s nervous allies and partners throughout Asia—that the Trump administration was willfully or unintentionally bowing to Beijing’s conception of a China-led region. (When pressed at the State Department’s daily briefing on Monday, acting spokesperson Mark Toner said of Tillerson: “He was aware of his word choice.”) Chinese analysts were quick to point out that Tillerson’s comments “will undermine U.S. authority among its allies” by exacerbating a persistent concern in Asia that Washington will ultimately capitulate to China’s rise. This comes after other actions by the Trump administration—such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and remaining silent on Chinese provocations in the South China Sea—that are amplifying China’s influence at America’s expense.

Tillerson’s mishap also revealed ongoing deficiencies in the Trump administration, including a genuine lack of Asia expertise among senior officials that is being magnified by the perpetuation of skeleton staffs at key national security agencies. Secretary Mattis had a more successful maiden trip to the region in part because he conveyed continuity in U.S. policy, likely aided by his decades of government experience. Mattis has also been known to roam the halls of the Pentagon to get more details from mid-level career officials who penned his background briefings, while Tillerson is reportedly asking for rudimentary two-page memos and shunning his bureaucracy. To make matters worse, the State Department still has neither a deputy secretary nor an assistant secretary for Asia, the two most important posts covering the region in the Obama administration. Moreover, the lack of coordination and process inside the White House has exposed an administration that is far behind in developing a coherent approach to Asia, suffering instead from careless and contradictory messaging.

The good news is they will inevitably get another bite at the apple. Among Secretary Tillerson’s principal charges in Beijing was to lay the groundwork for President Xi to visit the United States in early April. The Trump administration still has the chance to define its own way forward for U.S.-China policy, which became overly tilted toward acquiescence in the final years of the Obama administration. Trump’s tough comments on the campaign trail suggest a president ready to reset the goalposts toward a policy less permissive of Chinese assertiveness and unfair trade practices. That could be a good thing.

But Tillerson’s flap in Beijing demonstrated that the administration remains ill-prepared to handle a leader-level meeting with China. As acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton acknowledged in her preview of the trip, it’s still “early days” in the Trump administration and much remains to be resolved on Asia policy. To avoid another damaging interaction with China, any such presidential summit should be postponed for at least another month until national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster—whose experience is primarily fighting wars in the Middle East—has had the chance to run a comprehensive interagency process to put America’s China policy in good order. As it stands, this simply isn’t possible without a deputy secretary of state or undersecretary of defense for policy. Narrow policy reviews on singular issues like North Korea and trade reciprocity cannot substitute for a comprehensive, coherent and coordinated approach to a massive subject like China. Until then, it is premature to welcome President Xi to the United States.

In addition, a senior U.S. official should give a major speech prior to any Xi visit outlining the administration’s approach to Asia. Keeping the region guessing about Washington’s intentions and priorities is leading to all sorts of unhelpful behavior as countries increasingly look to China in the face of a mercurial and unpredictable United States. Australia, one of America’s closest allies, is Exhibit A for the kind of troubling and unprecedented debates that are emerging about whether it is time to prepare for a China-led future, as Australia’s revered former ambassador to China argued last week in Sydney. Without greater explication, a highly scripted Trump-Xi meeting, as it assuredly would be, would only reinforce these trends.

If delaying the meeting proves impossible, it is imperative that the visit be confined to Washington, not held at Mar-a-Lago, as currently rumored. Hosting Xi in Florida would trade substance for fete, feed the narrative of U.S. obeisance to China, and hazardously shower Xi with prestige and legitimacy. This would constitute a far greater foul than anything Tillerson said in Beijing.

The Trump administration will get a do-over on China policy when Xi eventually visits. But this shouldn’t be rushed. Senior posts first need to be filled at State and Defense. Public statements have to be consistent and coordinated. A China strategy should be developed, embedded in a comprehensive approach to the region. The media has to be more effectively managed to shape and sell the message. And the administration needs to spell out its overall approach to Asia to build confidence that it knows what it is doing. As of today, Trump isn’t ready for Xi, and Tillerson’s rhetorical blunder should serve as a wake-up call that there’s still work to do on several fronts.

Ely Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He previously served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

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