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►  Trump Says Military Options “Locked, Loaded” on North Korea

Donald Trump delivered another warning to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday that the U.S. is ready with a military response to any attack after a week of rising tension that has roiled global markets.

“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely,“ Trump tweeted on Friday. In a subsequent retweet, Trump highlighted the presence of U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers stationed on the Pacific island of Guam, which have flown joint missions with Japanese and South Korean fighter jets in recent days.

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency accused Trump earlier of “driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war.“

Trump has been increasing pressure on North Korea as the isolated regime in Pyongyang has continued to develop and refine its nuclear bomb and missile technology to pose a risk to the U.S. The president has vowed to unleash “fire and fury” on Kim’s regime, which has threatened to fire missiles toward Guam, a U.S. territory about 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) south-east of Pyongyang that is home to a strategic air and naval base.

But there were no immediate signs that Trump’s tweet signaled a change in the U.S. military posture. While the U.S. has long had the resources in the region to strike North Korea at short notice, it does not appear to be sending in more military hardware or troops as might be expected if preparing for a conflict. There has been no notice to U.S. civilian personnel to leave the region, and top military and diplomatic officials have continued with previously scheduled trips and meetings.

A White House national security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the Pentagon has contingency plans for any crisis that are updated constantly to provide the president with options and that there was nothing new about the U.S. readiness stance.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday he’s ready to present Trump with military options “if they be needed,“ but the U.S. is “gaining diplomatic results and I want to stay right there, right now.“

After a week of tumult, financial markets began to stabilize. The S&P 500 Index rebounded from its steepest drop since May, the CBOE Volatility Index lost 7.2 percent, after Thursday’s 44 percent rise and Treasuries slipped .

The crisis has gripped much of the region. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Friday his government would back the U.S. if North Korea attacked. Japan moved missile interceptors into position after the Guam threat, the Nikkei newspaper reported. China, North Korea’s only major ally, called on both countries to avoid the “old road” of escalating hostilities.

“China hopes that related parties will speak and act with caution, doing more to alleviate the tense situation and enhance mutual trust,“ Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement on Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday “the risks are very high” of war between the U.S. and North Korea. Russia and China have presented “proposals that seek to prevent the most serious conflict with a huge number of victims,“ Lavrov said. “Unfortunately, the rhetoric in Washington and Pyongyang is starting to go too far.“

In the U.S., support for Trump’s tough talk on North Korea broke down along party lines.

Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who is now the Republican governor of Missouri, said Friday on Fox News, “I’m very, very glad to see the president and Secretary Mattis standing up strongly to these threats.“

Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said that while he doesn’t mind the escalating rhetoric, he believes Trump needs to more clearly lay out for the American people why it was in the U.S. interest to be concerned about the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and how American defense systems were being deployed.

He said on MSNBC that he’d heard about constituents who had canceled a Hawaii vacation over concerns about a nuclear war breaking out, and suggested Trump address the country from the Oval Office.

“This is a moment the president needs to be very serious,“ Kinzinger said, cautioning Trump not to be distracted by some other “shiny red ball of the day.“ In the past several days, Trump has been in a public spat with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky over lawmakers’ failure overhaul the nation’s health-care system.

On Thursday, 64 congressional Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that Trump’s statements on North Korea were “irresponsible and dangerous” and calling upon the administration to “publicly declare its agreement with the constitutional requirement that any preemptive attack on North Korea must be debated and authorized by Congress.“

Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell of California chastised Trump on CNN on Friday for remaining on a working vacation at his New Jersey golf course during the crisis. “He would be well served to go back to the White House to assemble his team, to talk to our allies—we are going to need a lot of allies if we’re going to engage in military conduct with North Korea—and also to continue to engage with China,“ Swalwell said.

Some analysts expect the tensions to escalate in the coming days as both North and South Korea celebrate the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

The U.S. and South Korea are due to start joint military exercises from Aug. 21, while Japanese and U.S. military personnel have begun drills on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido that run through Aug. 28.

This most recent crisis was sparked, in part, by the Aug. 5 unanimous vote in the United Nations Security Council to impose new sanctions on the Kim regime in response to its nuclear and missile tests.


►  Trump says he does not rule out ‘military option’ to deal with strife in Venezuela

Donald Trump said Friday that he would not rule out a U.S. “military option” for dealing with ongoing strife in Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has cracked down on nationwide protests against his increasingly dictatorial government with widespread arrests and deaths at the hands of security forces.

“We have troops all over the world in places that are very far away,“ Trump told reporters at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club after a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Venezuela is not very far away. . . . We have many options, including a possible military option if necessary.“

Asked whether he was talking about a U.S.-led operation, Trump said: “We don’t talk about it. But the military option is certainly something we could pursue.“ He did not elaborate.

It has been years – including Haiti in 2004 and Panama in 1989 and 1994 – since the last direct U.S. military interventions in Latin America. Such action would probably cause uproar in the region and would be questionable under international law.

Vice President Pence leaves next week on a trip to South America, where he will visit Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama.

The upheaval in Venezuela has not posed a discernible threat to U.S. security, although some regional experts have warned of an exodus of Venezuelans to this country if the situation worsens. Until now, the United States has advocated a regional response, through the Organization of American States.

Asked last week whether he anticipated outside military intervention in Venezuela, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who also attended the New Jersey meeting with Trump and Tillerson, said, “No, I don’t. I don’t think so. I think what’s really required is for everyone to have one voice about the need to protect the rights and the safety of the Venezuelan people.“

Late last month, despite nationwide strikes and demonstrations, Maduro pushed through a vote on a new constituent assembly that replaced the opposition-majority parliament and increased his power. In response, the Trump administration imposed a new round of sanctions.

Maduro followed by jailing top opposition leaders. The administration has warned of new economic measures against the government, including a possible embargo on oil shipments from Venezuela, the United States’ third largest foreign supplier of oil.

While an embargo would cripple Venezuela’s oil industry – whose near-collapse is part of an economic disaster that has left food, medicine and other necessities in short supply there – it would also probably increase the price of energy in the United States.


►  Trump suggests Senate GOP leader must deliver or step aside

Donald Trump escalated a stunning feud against his top Senate partner Thursday, suggesting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have to think about stepping aside if he doesn’t deliver on the president’s agenda of health care, taxes and infrastructure.

Trump called McConnell’s failure to pass an “Obamacare” repeal last month “a disgrace.“ Asked if McConnell should consider stepping aside or retiring, an outcome some conservatives are openly clamoring for, the president’s response was far from a vote of confidence.

“Well I tell you what, if he doesn’t get repeal and replace done and if he doesn’t get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn’t get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure, if he doesn’t get them done, then you can ask me that question,“ the president told reporters in Bedminster, New Jersery, where he is in the midst of a 17-day break from Washington.

Trump later added that he is “very disappointed in Mitch” but would be the first to praise him if legislation begins moving, once again presenting himself as a passive observer in the process rather than a dealmaker with the presidential pulpit.

There was no immediate response from McConnell’s office.

A sitting president openly turning on a Senate majority leader of his own party in such a fashion is practically unheard of — yet another norm destroyed since Trump’s rise on the political scene. And while the fighting words might elate Trump’s core supporters, they can only hurt broader Republican efforts to move major legislation this fall on taxes and spending while preparing for congressional elections next year where energized Democrats are rallying to retake the House. Republicans control both chambers, but the Trump factor in many races remains a mystery.

Trump’s comments came after he spent two days slamming McConnell on Twitter, writing Thursday morning that after “screaming” about repealing and replacing “Obamacare” for seven years, McConnell “couldn’t get it done.“ Several hours later, the president’s tone took a motivational turn as he exhorted McConnell to “get back to work” and pass bills. “You can do it!“

The presidential megaphone amplified the McConnell-bashing that’s been snaking through conservative media: Breitbart News, Fox News’ Sean Hannity and radio host Rush Limbaugh are among those who have vilified the leader after the Senate’s failure on health care late last month. They represent a segment of the Republican electorate, including some major donors, who are out to punish what they see as a “do-nothing Congress” that has hampered the president’s goals.

McConnell is “a coward who leads from behind,“ ‘'spineless,“ and a lifelong “political animal” of the sort Trump wants to eject from Washington, said Doug Deason, a major donor based in Texas. Deason said he decided months ago not to give money to any Republicans up for re-election next year unless they can pass Trump’s priorities.

Trump and his supporters love such political brawls, and the McConnell flare-up potentially shores up the president’s base at a time when it is showing signs of weakening support. But other Republicans saw Trump’s moves as counterproductive.

Even Newt Gingrich, a Trump backer and informal adviser who formerly served as speaker of the House, criticized the dispute.

“You saw Mitch McConnell say something, you saw Trump say something, when it’s obviously better for them to learn not to do that,“ Gingrich said. “They have to work together. Governing is a team sport.“

After the failure on health care, McConnell and other Republican leaders, including top White House economic officials, are determined to move on to overhauling the tax code with the hope of passing cuts by the end of the year — a daunting challenge. McConnell has made clear he has little interest in revisiting the health care fight.

Trump, 71, and McConnell, 75, have never been easy allies, even though the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao, is the president’s transportation secretary. McConnell only met Trump for the first time in 2013, when he made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower in New York to ask the businessman for campaign money.

But McConnell quickly boarded the Trump train once the mogul secured the GOP nomination, and unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan and others, he never wavered. He’s paid numerous visits to the White House and traveled with Trump in March to Louisville. That Trump rally predated all of Congress’ attempts to redo health care, and the president urged the crowd to “be nice” to McConnell.

Fast forward to August, with the Senate on recess after the collapse of the GOP health care bill.

McConnell touched a nerve by telling an audience in his home state that Trump had “not been in this line of work before” and had “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.“

What followed was a “tense” phone call between the two men, according to a person familiar with the exchange but not authorized to speak publicly about a private discussion, and then a presidential Twitter screed.

Brent Bozell, a longtime McConnell detractor and president of the conservative social media group For America, said the Senate leader had made a ridiculous argument that will haunt him.

“By calling Trump a political neophyte, McConnell is saying that Trump doesn’t understand that Congress doesn’t keep its promises,“ Bozell said. “This is exactly why Trump won — to shake up Washington, and that includes Republicans.“

And yet, in opening a door he might want to try to shove McConnell out of, Trump once against demonstrated his naivete in Washington’s ways. A Senate majority leader is elected by members of his own conference, and McConnell has plenty of support within his, regardless of anything Trump may say about it.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a senior lawmaker and vocal Trump backer, said on Twitter that McConnell “has been the best leader we’ve had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him.“


►  Why GOP may drop filibuster in the end

As if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., weren’t miserable enough over his failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, Donald Trump has been badgering him on Twitter about eliminating the 60-vote Senate filibuster.

According to Trump, this procedural relic was to blame for stalling his legislative agenda in Congress: “Republicans in the Senate will NEVER win if they don’t go to a 51 vote majority NOW. They look like fools and are just wasting time . . . “

As is often the case, Trump did not entirely grasp the relevant nuances: McConnell tried to pass an Obamacare repeal under a special “reconciliation” rule requiring just 50 votes plus Mike Pence’s, but couldn’t even muster that many due to defections in his own caucus. The majority leader thus seemed understandably exasperated with the president Wednesday, citing his “excessive expectations.“

And, of course, McConnell shows no signs of agreeing to the rule change Trump impatiently favors.

Still, there is a reasonable case to be made that it would be in the GOP’s interest to do what Trump says – if not immediately, then certainly if the Republicans manage to overcome Trump’s declining approval numbers and do well in the 2018 midterm elections.

GOP senators have made two main arguments against such a power grab: It would be bad for the Senate, and hence the country, to convert the “world’s greatest deliberative body” into the plaything of shifting majorities. And it would be unwise for the Republicans to risk a rule change that the Democrats could turn to their advantage by regaining control of the chamber, possibly in as little as two years.

However, the second of those two arguments may be getting less compelling for the GOP: It’s eminently foreseeable that not only the gerrymandered House but also the Senate will remain in GOP hands for at least the next half-decade – and maybe longer.

This is due not only to the fact that the 2018 Senate electoral map favors Republicans, in that they only have to defend eight of the 33 seats at stake, while 25 Democrats are up for reelection, 10 in states Trump carried in 2016.

Even more striking is the developing and seemingly durable GOP edge in rural states, which have two Senate seats each just like the heavily populated coastal states that Democrats dominate.

Republican Trump carried 26 states (that’s 52 senators’ worth) with a share of the vote at least five percentage points larger than his national vote percentage, according to an analysis by Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

By contrast to these deep-red strongholds, there are only 14 states (with 28 senators) in which Democrat Hillary Clinton beat her national share by at least five points. Wasserman counts 10 remaining “swing” states (20 senators).

Overall, the statistical “pro-GOP bias” of Senate races is at its highest level since the direct election of senators became the law of the land in 1913, Wasserman notes. And the 2020 map looks only slightly less favorable to the GOP than the 2018 one.

The temptation to do away with the legislative filibuster could therefore prove irresistible if 2018 produces another GOP majority of fewer than 60 votes, especially if Republicans also retain the House.

Certainly Trump might see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform a whole host of policies – taxes, spending, regulation, immigration – in ways Democrats could not reverse until that far-off day when they manage to capture both houses of Congress and the executive branch.

To be sure, this scenario depends on a long series of assumptions, the most important of which is that public dissatisfaction with Trump, or some Trump-triggered crisis, doesn’t drag the whole GOP down to defeat in the midterms.

It would also depend on McConnell’s willingness to repudiate declarations of high principle he and other members of his caucus have made, seemingly sincerely, to the effect that the filibuster protects minority rights and fosters compromise. Democrats certainly made that easier for him by eliminating the 60-vote threshold for judicial and executive branch nominations when they were last in the majority.

Then the decision would come down to what McConnell’s gut tells him about the state of national politics and the likelihood of a Democratic comeback in Washington.

By nature, McConnell is “not optimistic,“ Senator Bill Cassidy, R-La., recently told U.S. News & World Report. “He’s not pessimistic. He’s a poker player.“

For the majority leader, abandoning the filibuster could be the ultimate partisan gamble – high risk, but also, under the right circumstances, high reward.


►  Bloom is off the rose with Jared, Ivanka

Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were the golden couple destined to dazzle Washington and shape the administration of Donald Trump. That glitter is gone, replaced by policy failures, poor judgments and ethical embarrassments.

The president’s daughter and son-in-law have not brought a contemporary generational sensibility to the White House, as they once proposed to do, and instead have created significant problems.

Kushner, devoid of government experience or diplomatic expertise, was given major foreign-policy assignments. He has made bad relations with Russia worse, and in the process has drawn the attention of the special counsel investigating links between Moscow and Trump political and business interests. He played a role in the administration’s bungled intervention in a feud between American allies in the Persian Gulf, and is in over his head in his involvement in the Mideast peace process.

As a senior White House aide, he advocated firing James Comey as FBI director, which resulted in the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. The Trump-Kushner couple advocated hiring Anthony Scaramucci, the filthy-mouthed fool who lasted 10 days as White House communications chief. Kushner was caught failing to file required financial disclosures, omitting millions of dollars of holdings and having to file dozens of amended forms. His holdings continue to pose potential conflicts of interest.

The Kushner family real estate empire has some sizable debt; right after the election the Kushners tried, unsuccessfully, to cut a deal with a Chinese investor on one of their properties. It’s not known whether there have been subsequent efforts. “The conflict is not so much what they own as to what they owe and who may be bailing them out,“ said Richard Painter, the ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration.

Ivanka Trump told the New York Times in May that she wanted to act as a moderating force within her father’s administration, focusing on climate change, family leave, immigration and gay and transgender rights. Since then the president has moved to the right on most of these matters.

She has generated several embarrassing situations. At the July meeting in Germany of world economic powers, she was out of place sitting in briefly for her father at a gathering of heads of state. She won trademarks for her clothing and jewelry lines in China as she was seated next to Chinese President Xi Jinping at a dinner hosted by her father in Florida. She made millions of dollars this year, while a White House aide, from her outside businesses.

“They are in a position to have enormous influence over a range of policies that affect their financial interests,“ said Painter, now vice chairman of the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Kushner won praise in conservative circles after he testified last month before congressional committees on his dealings with Russians last year. But questions persist, for the public and for Mueller.

One involves a June 2016 meeting with a politically connected Russian lawyer that Kushner attended with his brother-in-law Donald Trump Jr. and campaign manager Paul Manafort; the lawyer had promised to provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

After the election, Kushner met with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergei Kislyak, and suggested opening a secret communications channel through the Russian embassy. He also met with a leading Moscow banker with close ties to the Kremlin. And early this year in getting national security clearance, he failed to disclose these Russian contacts.

Kushner insists that the meetings were benign and the reporting lapses honest oversights. To critics, it’s a pervasive pattern of dubious dealings with a regime that tried to interfere with the U.S. elections.

He has close ties to leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But this connection, State Department officials say, played a counterproductive role when the president publicly sided with U.A.E. and the Saudis in their feud with Qatar, where the U.S. has a strategic military presence. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are trying to straighten out the mess.

This fall, the once-golden couple is scheduled to go to China at the invitation of that government, to help plan a forthcoming presidential trip. In the past, that’s the kind of task that fell to luminaries like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.


►  Beyond bluster, U.S., NKorea in regular contact

Beyond the bluster, the Trump administration has been quietly engaged in back channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months, addressing Americans imprisoned in the communist country and deteriorating relations between the long-time foes, The Associated Press has learned.

It had been known the two sides had discussions to secure the June release of an American university student. But it wasn’t known until now that the contacts have continued, or that they have broached matters other than U.S. detainees.

People familiar with the contacts say the interactions have done nothing thus far to quell tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile advances, which are now fueling fears of military confrontation. But they say the behind-the-scenes discussions could still be a foundation for more serious negotiation, including on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, should Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un put aside the bellicose rhetoric of recent days and endorse a dialogue.

The contacts are occurring regularly between Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s U.N. mission, according to U.S. officials and others briefed on the process. They weren’t authorized to discuss the confidential exchanges and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Officials call it the “New York channel.” Yun is the only U.S. diplomat in contact with any North Korean counterpart. The communications largely serve as a way to exchange messages, allowing Washington and Pyongyang to relay information.

Drowned out by the furor over Trump’s warning to North Korea of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressed a willingness to entertain negotiations. His condition: Pyongyang stopping tests of missiles that can now potentially reach the U.S. mainland.

Tillerson has even hinted at an ongoing back channel. “We have other means of communication open to them, to certainly hear from them if they have a desire to want to talk,” he said at an Asian security meeting in the Philippines this week.

The interactions could point to a level of pragmatism in the Trump administration’s approach to the North Korean threat, despite the president’s dire warnings.

On Friday, he tweeted: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.” But on Thursday, he said, “we’ll always consider negotiations,” even if they haven’t worked in the last quarter-century.

The contacts suggest Pyongyang, too, may be open to a negotiation even as it talks of launching missiles near the U.S. territory of Guam. The North regularly threatens nuclear strikes on the United States and its allies.

The State Department didn’t immediately comment on Yun’s diplomacy. The White House also had no comment. A diplomat at North Korea’s U.N. mission only confirmed use of diplomatic channel up to the release of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier two months ago.

Trump, in some ways, has been more flexible in his approach to North Korea than President Barack Obama. While variations of the New York channel have been used on-and-off for years by past administrations, there were no discussions over the last seven months of Obama’s presidency after Pyongyang broke them off in anger over U.S. sanctions imposed on its leader, Kim. Obama made little effort to reopen lines of communication.

The contacts quickly restarted after Trump’s inauguration, other people familiar with the discussions say.

“Contrary to the public vitriol of the moment, the North Koreans were willing to reopen the New York channel following the election of Trump and his administration signaled an openness to engage and ‘talk about talks,’” said Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a U.S.-based group that promotes U.S.-North Korean engagement.

“However, the massive trust deficit in Pyongyang and in Washington toward each other has impeded the confidence-building process necessary to have constructive dialogue,” he said.

The early U.S. focus was on securing the release of several Americans held in North Korea.

They included Warmbier, who was imprisoned for stealing a propaganda poster and only allowed to return to the U.S. in June — in an unconscious state. He died days later. Yun traveled on the widely publicized mission to Pyongyang to bring Warmbier home.

Despite outrage in the U.S. with Warmbier’s treatment and sharp condemnation by Trump, the U.S.-North Korean interactions in New York continued.

Yun and his counterpart have discussed the other Americans still being held. They include Kim Hak Song, a university employee detained in May accused of unspecified “hostile” acts; Tony Kim, a teacher at the same school, accused of trying to overthrow the government; and Kim Dong Chul, sentenced last year to a decade in prison with hard labor for supposed espionage.

But the American and North Korean diplomats also have discussed the overall U.S.-North Korean relationship. The two countries have no diplomatic ties and are still enemies, having only reached an armistice — not a peace treaty — to end the 1950-1953 Korean War. Twenty-eight thousand U.S. troops are still stationed in South Korea.

In its own convoluted way, North Korea has indicated openness to talks in recent weeks, even as it has accelerated the tempo of weapons tests.

On July 4, after the North test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially strike the continental U.S., leader Kim added a new caveat to his refusal to negotiate over its nukes or missiles. Instead of a blanket rejection, he ruled out such concessions “unless the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated.”

That message has been repeated by other North Korean officials, without greater specification. Nor have they offered an indication as to whether Pyongyang would accept denuclearization as the goal of talks.

Still, advocates for diplomacy, including some voices in the U.S. government, view the addendum as a potential opening.

“North Korea is assessing its options,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America think tank who participated in unofficial talks with North Korean officials in Oslo in May that were also attended by Yun. “They recognize that at some point they have to return to the table to address what’s becoming a crisis. That’s what they are weighing right now: the timing of engagement.”

Any negotiation would face huge skepticism in Washington given North Korea’s long record of broken promises. The last serious U.S.-North Korea negotiations collapsed in 2012 when Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket that derailed an agreement of a North Korean nuclear freeze in exchange for U.S. food aid.

North Korea’s weapons program has developed significantly since then. As a result, its price in any such negotiation is now likely to be far higher. At a minimum, Pyongyang would renew its long-standing demands for an end to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises — which are set to resume this month — and an eventual peace treaty with Washington.

To date, the Trump administration has heavily concentrated its diplomatic energy on cranking up international pressure on North Korea’s government, in particular pressing China to lean on its wayward ally. Last weekend, the U.N. adopted its strongest economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

Trump has been widely accused of injecting a new element of unpredictability and even chaos into U.S. policy toward North Korea, especially with his tweets and proclamations this week. It’s unclear what effect they may have on the back channel contacts being maintained by Yun.


►  Poll: Most say time to stop trying to repeal ‘Obamacare’

Message to Donald Trump and congressional Republicans: Stop trying to scuttle the Obama health care law, and start trying to make it more effective.

That’s the resounding word from a national poll released Friday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey was taken following last month’s Senate derailment of the GOP drive to supplant much of President Barack Obama’s statute with a diminished federal role in health care.

Around 4 in 5 want the Trump administration to take actions that help Obama’s law function properly, rather than trying to undermine it. Trump has suggested steps like halting subsidies to insurers who reduce out-of-pockets health costs for millions of consumers. His administration has discussed other moves like curbing outreach programs that persuade people to buy coverage and not enforcing the tax penalty the statute imposes on those who remain uninsured.

Just 3 in 10 want Trump and Republicans to continue their drive to repeal and replace the statute. Most prefer that they instead move to shore up the law’s marketplaces, which are seeing rising premiums and in some areas few insurers willing to sell policies.

Flying in the face of that, hard-line conservatives launched an uphill bid Friday to force a fresh House vote to revoke Obama’s law without an immediate replacement. The House Freedom Caucus filed a petition to force a vote if it is signed by 218 lawmakers, which seems unlikely because of GOP divisions and Democratic opposition.

Ominously for the GOP, 6 in 10 say Trump and congressional Republicans are responsible for any upcoming health care problems since they control government. That could be a bad sign for Republicans as they prepare to defend their House and Senate majorities in the 2018 elections.

And by nearly 2-to-1, most say it’s good that the Senate rejected the GOP repeal-and-replace bill last month.

Trump has been publicly browbeating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to continue trying to pass legislation tearing down Obama’s 2010 overhaul. After using Twitter to blame McConnell for last month’s Senate failure despite years of GOP vows to repeal it, Trump suggested Thursday that McConnell should perhaps step aside if he can’t push that and other legislation through his chamber.

On three separate attempts in late July, McConnell fell short of the 50 GOP votes he needed to pass legislation scrapping Obama’s law. With a 52-48 GOP majority and Mike Pence available to cast a tie-breaking vote, McConnell has said he’s moving onto other matters unless “people can show me 50 votes for anything that would make progress.”

With the Kaiser survey consistently showing clear overall public support for retaining Obama’s law, the numbers help explain why some centrist Republicans who rely on moderate voters’ support opposed repeal or backed it only after winning some concessions.

Strikingly, while large majorities of Democrats and independents back efforts to sustain the statute, even Republicans and Trump supporters lean toward saying the administration should try making the law work, not take steps to hinder it.

But in other instances, Republicans and Trump supporters part company with Democrats and independents and strongly back the president’s views. For a White House that often seems more concerned with cementing support from Trump’s loyalists than embracing the political center, that might help explain the president’s persistence on the issue.

For example, 6 in 10 Republicans and Trump backers want the GOP to continue its repeal and replace drive in Congress.

And around two-thirds from those groups want Trump to stop enforcing the tax penalty Obama’s law levies on people who don’t buy coverage. Analysts say that would roil insurance markets because fewer healthy people would buy policies, leaving them with greater proportions of expensive, seriously ill customers.

Trump has frequently tried pressuring Democrats to negotiate on health care by threatening to halt federal subsidies to insurers. While around 6 in 10 overall say Trump should not use such disruptive tactics, a majority of Republicans back that approach.

The companies use the money to trim out-of-pocket costs for deductibles and copayments for around 7 million low- and middle-income people. Since insurers are legally required to reduce those costs, they say blocking the subsidies would force them to increase premiums for millions who buy private insurance, including those whose expenses aren’t being reduced.

The poll found that 52 percent have a positive view of Obama’s law, a 9 percentage point increase since Trump was elected last November.

The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll was conducted August 1-6 and involved random calls to the cellphones and landlines of 1,211 adults. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3 percentage points.


►  Trump-McConnell escalating feud undercuts stalled agenda

Donald Trump’s escalating feud with his top Senate partner undercuts the president’s stalled agenda on tax overhaul and budget while prompting swift pushback from Republican senators who have lined up squarely behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump launched a barrage of criticism at McConnell over the collapse of the seven-year GOP campaign to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and even suggested on Thursday that the Kentucky Republican might have to rethink his future as leader if he doesn’t deliver on the president legislative lineup.

“Well, I tell you what, if he doesn’t get repeal-and-replace done and if he doesn’t get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn’t get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure, if he doesn’t get them done, then you can ask me that question,” the president told reporters in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is in the midst of a 17-day break from Washington.

Trump on Thursday called McConnell’s failure to pass an “Obamacare” repeal last month “a disgrace.” On Friday, Trump retweeted headlines from “Fox & Friends” about his verbal assault on McConnell and possible fallout for GOP senators who criticize the president.

There was no immediate response from McConnell’s office. But members of the Republican caucus praised McConnell.

“Passing POTUS’s legislative agenda requires a team effort. No one is more qualified than Mitch McConnell to lead Senate in that effort,” tweeted Texas Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.

“From health care to tax reform to infrastructure, tough issues to tackle this fall and none better than @SenateMajLdr to get a good outcome,” tweeted Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

A sitting president openly turning on a Senate majority leader of his own party in such a fashion is practically unheard of — yet another norm destroyed since Trump’s rise on the political scene. And while the fighting words might elate Trump’s core supporters, they can only hurt broader Republican efforts to move major legislation this fall on taxes and spending while preparing for congressional elections next year against energized Democrats who are rallying to retake the House. Republicans control both chambers, but the Trump factor in many races remains a mystery.

Trump’s comments came after he spent two days slamming McConnell on Twitter, writing Thursday morning that after “screaming” about repealing and replacing Obamacare for seven years, McConnell “couldn’t get it done.” Several hours later, the president’s tone took a motivational turn as he exhorted McConnell to “get back to work” and pass bills. “You can do it!”

The presidential megaphone amplified the McConnell-bashing that’s been snaking through conservative media: Breitbart News, Fox News’ Sean Hannity and radio host Rush Limbaugh are among those who have vilified the leader after the Senate’s failure on health care. They represent a segment of the Republican electorate, including some major donors, who are out to punish what they see as a “do-nothing Congress” that has hampered the president’s work.

McConnell is “a coward who leads from behind,” ″spineless,” and a lifelong “political animal” of the sort Trump wants to eject from Washington, said Doug Deason, a major donor based in Texas. Deason said he decided months ago not to give money to any Republicans up for re-election next year unless they can pass Trump’s priorities.

Trump and his supporters love such political brawls, and the McConnell tussle potentially shores up the president’s base at a time when it is showing signs of weakening support. After all, he is picking on a part of government with lower approval ratings. But other Republicans saw Trump’s moves as counterproductive.

Even Newt Gingrich, a Trump backer and informal adviser who formerly served as speaker of the House, criticized the dispute.

“You saw Mitch McConnell say something, you saw Trump say something, when it’s obviously better for them to learn not to do that,” Gingrich said. “They have to work together. Governing is a team sport.”

After the failure on health care, McConnell and other Republican leaders, including top White House economic officials, are determined to move on to overhauling the tax code with the hope of passing cuts by the end of the year — a daunting challenge. McConnell has made clear he has little interest in revisiting the health care fight.

Trump, 71, and McConnell, 75, have never been easy allies, even though the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao, is the president’s transportation secretary. McConnell only met Trump for the first time in 2013, when he made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower in New York to ask the businessman for campaign money.

But McConnell quickly boarded the Trump train once the mogul secured the GOP nomination, and unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan and others, he never wavered. He’s paid numerous visits to the White House and traveled with Trump in March to Louisville. That Trump rally predated all of Congress’ attempts to redo health care, and the president urged the crowd to “be nice” to McConnell.

Fast forward to August, with the Senate on recess after the collapse of the GOP health care bill.

McConnell touched a nerve by telling an audience in his home state that Trump had “not been in this line of work before” and had “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”

What followed was a “tense” phone call between the two men, according to a person familiar with the exchange but not authorized to speak publicly about a private discussion, and then a presidential Twitter screed.

--> Saturday, August 12, 2017
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