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►  For Trump and Ryan, a tortured relationship grows more so

It started out cold as ice, and then turned warm and friendly. Now the tortured relationship between Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan has gone cool again, with the Republican president making clear he has no qualms about bucking the GOP leader to cut deals with his Democratic foes.

The two men dined at the White House Thursday night and discussed legislative challenges ahead for the fall, a get-together that was scheduled over Congress’ August recess, long before the head-spinning events of this week. In a moment that stunned Washington, Trump cut a debt and disaster aid deal Wednesday with Congress’ Democratic leaders as Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell watched on helplessly, after lobbying unsuccessfully for much different terms.

The moment distilled the inherent tensions between Trump, 71, a former Democrat and ideologically flexible deal-maker, and Ryan, 47, a loyal Republican whose discomfort with Trump led him to withhold his endorsement for weeks last year.

After Trump was elected the two papered over their differences and even developed a rapport, talking frequently during health care negotiations earlier this year, as each understood they needed the other to advance individual and shared goals. But their phone calls have tapered off of late and Trump has expressed his frustration with GOP leaders on multiple fronts, culminating in the president’s decision to ditch them and join hands with the Democrats instead.

Trump exulted in his newly bipartisan approach Thursday, declaring it “a great thing for our country,” while Ryan mostly grinned and bore it.

“Yeah, I sort of noticed that,” Ryan said ruefully when an interviewer pointed out that Trump had overruled his strong objections to side with Democrats on a three-month debt ceiling increase instead of the much longer-term deal Republicans had supported.

But Ryan went on to defend the president, saying at a New York Times’ forum that with one massive hurricane on its way out of the U.S. and another headed in, Trump “just wanted this to be a bipartisan moment for the country.” The debt deal is set for House passage Friday along with $15 billion in disaster aid and a three-month government funding extension.

Indeed for Ryan, GOP reactions to the deal exposed some lurking threats to his perch atop a conference where unrest brews nearly ceaselessly among conservatives, and there have been recent rumblings of a possible coup.

Trump remains highly popular in the conservative districts occupied by many House Republicans, much more so than Ryan himself, who is scorned by many in the GOP base as an establishment sell-out. In a whipsawed moment, some House Republicans defended Trump’s handling of a deal they don’t like, while simultaneously criticizing Ryan, who had been overruled by the president. It also underscored the political pressure on Ryan to try to remain in the president’s good graces even when Trump is flirting with Democrats.

Representative Steve King, R-Iowa, said the message in his conservative district is that “congressional Republicans need to get behind the president.”

That sentiment “makes him weaker,” King said of Ryan.

Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona described Ryan as “very unpopular” in his district, while regard for Trump is “pretty high.”

As far as his constituents are concerned, Gosar said, they’d be happy if Ryan got the boot and Trump stayed. “That’s kind of the mantra in my district,” he said.

For his part, Trump has soured on the Republican congressional leadership in recent months, fuming to associates that they led him astray on their health care strategy, among other complaints.

The president has told those close to him that he regrets choosing to tackle the repeal and replace of Barack Obama’s health care law as his first legislative push. He has singled out Ryan for blame, saying the speaker assured him it would pass and instead handed him an early, humiliating failure, before ultimate House passage of a revived bill, according to three White House and outside advisers familiar with the conversations but not authorized to speak about them publicly.

GOP health care efforts collapsed in the Senate in July.

Trump has spoken to Ryan less frequently in recent weeks, particularly after the departure of his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who has deep Wisconsin ties to the speaker. Priebus would sometimes broker the calls and stress to each man their importance, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Those calls have occurred less often since John Kelly took over as chief of staff.

Ryan’s pleas last week for Trump not to end the program to aid immigrants brought to the country as children and living here illegally were ignored by the president, who tossed the issue to Congress to resolve in six months.

Though Trump has expressed particular anger at McConnell for the failed Senate health care vote and for not protecting him from the Russia investigation, he grudgingly has told associates that he is aware of the Senate leader’s grip on power. He has spoken less glowingly about Ryan’s own ability to lead due to the shorter House terms and the growing insurgency within the conservative Freedom Caucus.

Ryan’s position is seen as secure for now, if only because it is widely accepted that no other House Republican could garner the support needed to replace him. But even allies believe his tenure in the job could be finite, and might depend in part on the whims of a president with whom he has no real deep ties.

“I think any speaker is going to have a very difficult time in this environment,” said Representative Tom Reed, R-N.Y. “The nature of that job, I think, over time, they don’t last.”


►  Trump criticizes Republicans after deal with Democrats

Donald Trump is criticizing Republican lawmakers amid a rapprochement with Democrats.

On Twitter Friday, Trump referenced the GOP’s failure to pass health care legislation. He tweeted, “Republicans, sorry, but I’ve been hearing about Repeal & Replace for 7 years, didn’t happen!”

Trump complained about the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes to pass major legislation. He tweeted that the rule will “never allow the Republicans to pass even great legislation. 8 Dems control - will rarely get 60 (vs. 51) votes. It is a Repub Death Wish!”

The comment ignores the fact that Senate Republicans trying to pass the health care bill were working under rules that required a simple majority, not 60 votes.

This week, Trump overruled Republican leaders to cut a deal with Democrats on the debt ceiling.


►  Detachment about the president and his actions is rare among journalists

American journalism has suffered from many ailments at many different times, but every opinion on what ails it past, present and future is just an opinion, not science: just a proposition that cannot be proved, only found by any reader to be more or less persuasive.

The late Post columnist Michael Kelly often reminded my radio audience that journalism was a craft, not a profession. No licensing agency acted to credential “journalists.“ You take up the craft, practice it, got better at it (or not), flourish (or not). There aren’t any rules that bind, nor oaths or codes to take or break: just a craftsman’s pride in doing good work, occasionally recognized in ways that mattered by fellow craftspeople.

I have been part of this guild since 1989, in print, over the radio for Salem Media and on television, both for PBS and now for NBC. I’ve conducted more than 10,000 interviews and moderated hundreds of non-broadcast conversations.

My most recent interview of some note and much fun was with Henry Winkler, loved by those 50 and older for his “Happy Days” role as “The Fonz,“ by millennials for “Arrested Development’s” Barry Zuckerkorn and now the co-author along with Lin Oliver of the Hank Zipzer series of young adult and children’s novels about a dyslexic Manhattan boy, based on Winkler’s own life.

The reaction online to my interview with Winkler followed the now-standard bifurcation of American political discourse of 2017 into up or down, right or wrong. If you are a “core supporter” of Donald Trump, you hated the interview (and by extension Winkler). If you loathe Trump, your opinion of Winkler soared. The “Trump Effect” is to take any topic touching on the president, filter it through your Trump bias and conform it to a preexisting disposition.

I asked Winkler to talk politics as a test case for this proposition. He had weighed in for President Barack Obama in 2008, so I expected and received a negative take on Trump. What I wanted to see was whether his political views - athough I disagreed with them, they were presented with logic, reason and skill - would negatively or positively affect viewers’ impressions of Winkler the man. Judging from the anecdotal evidence, the answer is a resounding “Yes!“ Increasingly, people are basing their views on everything - including other people - upon those things’ relationship to Trump and those people’s views of him.

The media is not apart from this phenomenon. In fact, it may be the driver of it. And that represents a profound illness for the craft.

The medical condition most akin to what is happening to journalism generally and to Manhattan-Beltway-elite journalism in particular is glaucoma, a disease that takes vision gradually, with no early warning signs or painful symptoms. Journalists are losing the full scope of our collective vision, coming to see every story through the lens of Trump, often through a lens colored by hostility toward him. Detachment about the president and his actions - genuine objectivity - is rare and getting rarer. Tell me the “Trump subject” and the pundit or reporter speaking to it - and there is an increasingly small difference between those roles - and I am pretty good at predicting not just the response but also the decibel level and the precise adjectives.

This is new for the media. That Manhattan-Beltway media elites skew left on the American political spectrum is not a bulletin. What is new is the transparency of that bias and, with regard to the president, a celebration of “resistance” to him - indeed, contempt for him. “Journalists” want very much for their audiences to know where they stand on the president and all the president’s men (and women).

This is “virtue signaling,“ an exercise in thinking oneself on the “right side of history” and within what C.S. Lewis called the “The Inner Ring.“ The problem with this obsession of positioning vis-a-vis Trump is that it is blinding a large and talented segment of the guild to the real stories: North Korea is a run by a gangster whose only product worth buying will soon be nuclear weapons. Iran fleeced the Obama administration and combines the nascent production capability of North Korea with an “end times” philosophy of apocalyptic fervor. The Budget Control Act is crippling the military in perilous times when it needs not budget gimmickry but serious resupply over a decade. The immigration reform the country needs is obvious and within reach but cannot be described because it might credit the president’s demand for a border barrier. The “blue slip” is wreaking havoc on the judicial confirmation process.

Many in the craft are fond of saying something like “the presidency is broken,“ “the president’s conduct is unprecedented” or that we face a “constitutional crisis.“ Journalist, heal thyself. At a moment of peril on many fronts, the craft is collapsing into rote condemnation of a president who won a large majority of electoral college votes. Probably because of the deep and wide contempt for the media elites who have appointed themselves the guardians of a tradition they know little of and respect less: liberty.


►  Democrats can look on the bright side

On one level, things have never been worse for Democrats. They don’t have the White House, majorities in Congress or a reliable fifth vote on the Supreme Court. They hold governorships in only 15 states and hold just 42 percent of state legislative seats. But that in a sense is looking backward - how they did in past elections. Now, oddly, they are seeing some impressive successes, or at least defending successfully against defeats. And as of now, they have a healthy lead in generic congressional polling, giving them a decent change to take over the House majority.

Consider that it is entirely possible to end 2017 with Obamacare intact, no new tax plan with cuts for the super-rich, no border wall, no spending cuts tied to the debt ceiling increase and maybe even the Iran deal still in place (although we might very well go down the road of nonnuclear sanctions). They might - remarkably - get a GOP Congress to pass and a GOP president to sign permanent protection for “dreamers.“ Not all of that may pan out, but a great deal of it will. And that brings up the question: Why are Democrats winning more than they are losing? (Republicans are not tired of winning; they really have no wins to speak of other than one Supreme Court justice.)

Part of the explanation certainly is the jaw-dropping incompetence of the White House and the divisions on the GOP side, which force GOP leaders to come to Democrats for votes for the debt ceiling and government funding bills, thereby enhancing Democrats’ power. Part of their success (or at least avoidance of failure) has to do with the GOP’s shopworn, extreme agenda (e.g. cutting Medicaid) that put off voters and makes Democrats look like they are holding the line against the radical Republicans. And part of their winning strategy has been, candidly, a role reversal with Republicans. Republicans are now the revolutionaries with schemes to dramatically shake up the status quo while Democrats sound like moderates. (Could we just fix Obamacare? Maybe we shouldn’t, you know, destroy Medicaid.) In their newfound role as tinkerers and gradualists, they play to Americans’ fear of radicalism and the unknown.

In the broader sense, Democrats are making the case for sustained, activist government, a position much more in tune with Trump’s populism and the general electorate’s policy preference than the libertarian-ish philosophy of back-to-the-pre-New-Deal Republicans. They’ve made clear that the overwhelming majority of Americans have no stomach for “small government.“

Democrats have real evidence that we face a serious threat from white nationalism. They are not the worst purveyors of identity politics. They have found full voice in condemning visible racism and in appealing to Americans’ innate sense of fairness.

Democrats have also become more hawkish on defense, willing to get tough with Russia (because Trump wouldn’t) and course-correct on Iran (absent President Barack Obama, there is now strong support for nonnuclear sanctions).

But mostly, I would argue, they have succeeded not when they champion a specific policy but when they defend fundamental values such as the rule of law, religious inclusion, checks and balances, and scientific truth - all vital defenses against an overreaching and dangerously erratic president. In rediscovering the stabilizing effect these pillars of democracy can provide, Democrats have been able to transcend some ideological policy fights and find common ground with many independents and some disaffected Republicans.

Anthony Scaramucci, speaking about White House intrigue, complained, “There are people inside the administration who think it is their job to save America from this president.“ Actually, there are people outside the administration who think it is their job to save America from this president - and by and large they are Democrats.

Democrats are told they need an effective, affirmative economic message. Perhaps, but what they really need is to sustain their newfound image as the party of normalcy, democratic (small “d”) norms and sanity. If Republicans are willing to forfeit that intellectual ground, they’ll soon wind up back in the minority.


►  On Capitol Hill, Trump Jr. denies collusion with Russia

Donald Trump’s eldest son cast his meeting with a Russian lawyer last year as simply an opportunity to learn about Hillary Clinton’s “fitness, character or qualifications,” insisting to Senate investigators behind closed doors that he did not collude with Russia to hurt her campaign against his father.

Donald Trump Jr.’s description of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York, delivered in a statement Thursday at the outset of a Senate panel’s staff interview, provided his most detailed account yet of an encounter that has drawn close scrutiny from Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller.

He tried to dismiss concerns about one comment he made in emails leading up to the meeting. He said he was just being polite when he emailed “I love it” to Rob Goldstone, the publicist who was setting up the meeting with a Russian who was said to have election-season dirt on Clinton.

Trump Jr. said it was “simply a colloquial way of saying that I appreciated Rob’s gesture.”

Thursday’s interview at the Capitol was the first known instance of Trump Jr. giving his version of the meeting in a setting that could expose him to legal jeopardy. It’s a crime to lie to Congress.

Multiple congressional committees and Mueller’s team of prosecutors are investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the outcome of the election. A grand jury used by Mueller as part of his investigation has already heard testimony about the meeting, which besides Trump Jr., included the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Trump Jr. spoke to committee staff members for about five hours, leaving in the midafternoon, out of view of reporters. In a statement released afterward, he appeared to suggest he would not testify publicly before the committee, saying he trusted that “this interview fully satisfied” the panel’s inquiry.

In July, the committee’s chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said he wanted Trump Jr. to appear at a public hearing, though in recent days he’s declined to say whether that will still happen. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel, said Wednesday that she and Grassley had agreed in July to subpoena Trump Jr. if he wouldn’t appear willingly in public.

Trump Jr. and the Senate Judiciary Committee had negotiated for him to appear privately on Thursday and to be interviewed only by committee staff. Senators were allowed to sit in but not ask questions.

According to one person with knowledge of what was said, Trump Jr. told committee staff that he didn’t inform his father about the June 2016 meeting.

He also said he didn’t know or didn’t recall the details of any White House involvement in his response to the first reports of that meeting, the person said. The White House has said the president was involved in drafting a statement saying the meeting primarily concerned a Russian adoption program.

The person declined to be identified because the meeting was private.

In prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press, Trump Jr. did not address the drafting of the statement. Instead, he sought to explain the emails that showed him agreeing to the meeting, which had been described as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.

He said he was skeptical of the outreach by music publicist Goldstone but thought he “should listen to what Rob and his colleagues had to say.”

“To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out,” Trump Jr. said.

He said the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, gave vague information about possible foreign donations to the Democratic Party but then quickly changed the subject to a sanctions law, known as the Magnitsky Act, which the Russian government opposes.

On the day of the meeting, Trump Jr. said he didn’t know who would be attending because Goldstone didn’t give him a list ahead of time. He said Trump Tower security also didn’t keep a record. Goldstone was able to bring the “entire group up” by only giving his name to a guard in the lobby, he said.

“There is no attendance log to refer back to and I did not take notes,” Trump Jr. said.

He said he remembers seven people in the meeting, though eight have been publicly reported.

The attendees Trump Jr. identified were himself, Goldstone, Manafort, Kushner, Veselnitskaya, a translator and Irakli Kaveladze, who worked for a Russian development company headed by Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin, who partnered with Donald Trump to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.

He did not mention Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, who has told multiple news outlets, including the AP, that he attended the meeting at Veselnitskaya’s invitation. In recent weeks, Akhmetshin has testified about his recollection of the meeting before a Washington grand jury used by Mueller.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, California Representative Adam Schiff, released a statement responding to reports of the meeting and said Trump Jr.’s statement “raises more questions than it answers” and “highlights how significant the campaign viewed the promise of dirt on their opponent from the Russian government.”

Senator Chris Coons, D-Del., who briefly sat in on the interview, released a statement later containing the federal statute barring lying to Congress. The statement was addressed to “Interested parties” regarding “Donald Trump Jr. testimony today.”


►  U.S. not disputing NKorea’s claim to have tested H-bomb

Donald Trump reiterated Thursday that military action is “certainly” an option against North Korea, as his administration tentatively concurred with the pariah nation’s claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb.

A senior administration official said the U.S. was still assessing last weekend’s underground explosion but so far noted nothing inconsistent with Pyongyang’s claim.

If confirmed, that would mark a major advance in its demonstrated ability to build high-yield nuclear weapons. Hydrogen bombs have the potential to be far stronger than simpler fission bombs like those used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States at the end of World War II.

The nuclear test, North Korea’s sixth since 2006, came on the heels of its groundbreaking launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles in July that pushed it closer to proving an ability to achieve a long-cherished goal: to have a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike America.

“Military action would certainly be an option,” Trump told a White House news conference when he was asked about the possibility after meeting the leader of Kuwait. “I would prefer not going the route of the military, but it’s something certainly that could happen.”

Pressed on whether he could accept a scenario in which the isolated nation had nukes but was “contained and deterred,” Trump demurred. “I don’t put my negotiations on the table, unlike past administrations. I don’t talk about them. But I can tell you North Korea is behaving badly and it’s got to stop,” he said.

The long-standing objective of the U.S. and its allies, as well as China and Russia, has been to seek the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula although the chances of realizing that goal have diminished as the North has advanced its nuclear program. Pyongyang likely views its arsenal as a guarantee against its overthrow.

The administration official played down the significance of Trump not ruling out the possibility of a nuclear North Korea, saying it runs counter to his past views on the issue. The official said the comments reflected the president’s desire to keep his cards close to his chest on issues of national security.

The official, who was briefing reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration, said the United States remains focused on building international pressure on North Korea rather than seeking talks.

The United States is currently urging new and tougher U.N. sanctions, including a ban on all oil and natural gas exports to North Korea, in response to the nuclear test.

U.S. officials say such restrictions could have a major impact on North Korea’s military and industrial economy as it lacks its own oil resources. However, the main provider of the North’s oil, China, is likely to oppose such a restriction in the U.N. Security Council, where it wields a veto as it fears a regime collapse on its border.

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