News, Straight to the Point

Republicans in Congress and President Trump are actively exploring a new target in their ongoing campaign against the Affordable Care Act: the individual mandate.

For weeks, Trump has been pushing GOP legislators to include a provision repealing the mandate in their already-unwieldy tax reform package, and while the policy is not yet in the text of the bill, Republicans in the House and Senate are fighting to insert it. Should that fail, the Trump administration reportedly has an executive order in the works to dismantle as much of the mandate as possible—though he wouldn’t be able to completely eliminate it with a stroke of his pen.

Regardless of whether mandate is undermined by legislative or executive action, doing so would further roil the Affordable Care Act’s individual marketplace, which has already been kneecapped by a host of budget and policy changes this year. It would sow more chaos in an open enrollment period already hampered by misinformation public confusion.

Here are five points to keep in mind as the mandate becomes the next piece of Obamacare to come under fire:

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The full transcript of Carter Page’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee released Monday night sheds some new light on his contacts with Russian officials and how he relayed those conversations to the Trump campaign.

Though much of what Page discussed had previously been leaked to the press or discussed by other Trump campaign advisers, the 243-page transcript yielded some key new information.

For the first time, Page acknowledged that he had a “private conversation” with Russia’s deputy foreign minister during a July 2016 trip to Moscow. He also told lawmakers that he communicated with members of the Trump campaign about what he would say in a speech he delivered during that visit, contradicting previous statements about making the trip in his capacity as a private citizen.

The transcript of Page’s testimony, which was made public by his request, also lays bare the frustration felt by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who tried to keep the questioning on track.

Some highlights from Page’s meandering, nearly eight-hour-long interview are below.

Page confirmed Trump campaign altered Ukraine platform

The Trump campaign has quibbled about the extent of its involvement in softening the language on Ukraine in the GOP platform during the Republican National Convention, but Page confirmed that staffers were directly involved.

“As for the Ukraine amendment, excellent work,” Page wrote in a July 14, 2016 email to fellow Trump aide J.D. Gordon and several others.

Page said the email reflected his “personal opinion” and denied personally having any involvement in the change, which removed language promising that the U.S. would provide “lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian military intervention. The revised text instead offered “appropriate assistance.”

Though Gordon and others on the campaign have strenuously denied involvement, Texas delegate Diana Denman previously told TPM that he halted the national security committee’s discussion of her original amendment to “clear it with New York.” Denman said this was the only amendment set before the committee that she recalled Trump staffers intervening to table.

Like Papadopoulos, Page seemed to overstate his insider knowledge

Like George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian connections, Page seemed to overstate his insider knowledge about Russian politics.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) pressed Page to account for an email he sent after his July 2016 trip to deliver a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School promising campaign staffers “some incredible insights and outreach” he received from “a few Russian legislators and senior members of the Presidential administration here.”

It turns out those “insights” were gleaned from watching TV.

Page told Schiff that all he meant to convey in that email was that he would pass on “general things that I learned from listening to speeches” and “watching Russian TV in my few days in Moscow.”

Schiff replied, “This is not what you conveyed to the campaign.”

Page also notified campaign staffers that he would “speak alongside the chairman and CEO of Sberbank,” one of Russia’s largest financial institutions, during that visit. He told the committee that the Sberbank CEO “didn’t actually show up at all.”

Page proposed having Trump travel to Russia

In another similarity to Papadopoulos, Page thought it would be a good idea for Trump to travel to Russia in the middle of the campaign, despite scrutiny of the GOP candidate’s friendly rhetoric towards Russia.

In a May 16, 2016 email to Gordon and fellow campaign adviser Walid Phares, Page suggested that Trump could “raise the temperature a little bit” by traveling to Russia in his stead, and that he would be “more than happy to yield this honor to him.”

Page told the committee he did not know that Papadopoulos was separately pushing a Trump trip to Russia, and that he was “envisioning” a visit akin to Barack Obama’s well-received 2008 trip to Germany as a Democratic presidential candidate.

Lawmakers from both parties seemed frustrated by the rambling conversation

Throughout the interview, Page repeatedly provided more information than lawmakers requested or insisted that he’d had no contact with a certain individual only to double-back and say he may have actually met them in passing. These rhetorical tics seemed to grate on his questioners.

Schiff, in particular, repeatedly told Page that he was “not asking” for the answers he provided. He chided the former Trump aide for responding to questions about his Russia contacts with answers about Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and Page’s own writings on lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) was similarly withering in an exchange in which he asked Page to define the words collusion, coordination and conspiracy. When Page replied that all seem to refer to “things you shouldn’t be doing,” Gowdy cracked that “you can coordinate lunch,” and continued to push the point until Page provided straight answers.

CNN reported that lawmakers described Page’s testimony as occasionally confusing and contradictory.

The campaign tried to distance itself from Page

Towards the end of his marathon testimony, Page revealed that the Trump campaign and transition tried to sever ties with him early this year as the FBI investigation was ramping up.

Page divulged that he received letters in January from the campaign’s law firm, Jones Day, instructing him not to “give the wrong impression that you’re part of the administration or the Trump campaign.”

Page said he had never misstated his relationship to the campaign, and only spoke to the media “to try to clear up this massive mess which has been created about my name.”

Trump staffers apparently tried to cut off these conversations with the press. Page said he had his first and only conversation with Steve Bannon in mid-January, when the former White House chief strategist contacted Page to tell him it was “probably not a good idea” for him to appear on MSNBC.

Page told lawmakers he understood Trump staffers’ concerns and lamented that he was “the biggest embarrassment surrounding the campaign.”

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House Republicans unveiling their 429-page tax reform bill Thursday morning promised it would bring simplicity and prosperity to all.

“On net, everyone’s better off,” Rep. David Brat (R-VA) enthused to reporters in the hallway outside the room where lawmakers were briefed on the bill.

But like the current tax system, the House GOP plan would have winners and losers.

The draft released Thursday lowers the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent, nearly doubles the standard deduction, and keeps a loophole for hedge fund managers that President Trump had promised to eliminate. 

To partially make up the cost, the proposal gets rid of a host of deductions—including those for medical expenses, moving expenses, hiring veterans, investing in poor neighborhoods, alimony, employee achievement awards, adoptions, the interest paid on student loans, most electric cars, and state and local taxes—while putting new limits on several others, like the interest paid on home mortgages.

Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY) urged his colleagues and the press not to sweat these details. “I’m looking at the plan overall,” he said. “If you pick out a part and only look at one thing, one thing could look great, but the elimination of other things might diminish the importance of that. Or something might look bad, but when you see the other benefits people get, it could be okay.”

Yet a firestorm of criticism began to ignite as soon as details of the plan began to leak out earlier this week, with major outside organizations on the left and right announcing their opposition to the bill. Here are the five most controversial provisions tucked into the text that could doom Republicans’ top legislative goal.

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There’s been a steady drip-drip-drip of information over the past 24 hours stemming from correspondence that the Trump Organization was turning over to investigators on the House Intelligence Committee, which is probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. New details about a development proposed by the Trump Organization in Moscow first appeared to leak to the Washington Post, then to the New York Times and Bloomberg.

The day-long stream of new details, which gel with some of TPM’s reporting from earlier this summer, show more clearly than ever before the extent of the contacts between President Donald Trump’s business associates and the intertwined worlds of Russian real estate and government.

Trump associates explored the deal right up until the first presidential primaries

TPM reported earlier this month that Felix Sater, a business associate of Trump’s who’d been secretly convicted of securities fraud in the late 1990s, was trying to find a way to build a Trump Moscow tower as late as November or December 2015, six months into the U.S. presidential campaign.

Plans for a Trump Moscow project ultimately fell through, however; Sater told TPM it was because Trump became President, but emails between Sater and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and frequent press surrogate, reportedly say that the deal stalled out in January 2016 over land permits.

Michael Cohen was the lead negotiator on the prospective deal

Per the Washington Post, Cohen was the most important figure on the Trump Organization’s side of the Trump Moscow equation. Sater’s projects with Trump through his erstwhile firm, Bayrock Group, were often ephemeral—the Trump Fort Lauderdale and Trump SoHo failed spectacularly, while the Trump Phoenix Plaza never materialized all.

But Trump had been saying for years that he wanted a Moscow tower. It’s probably one of the reasons he held Miss Universe 2013 in Moscow with the sponsorship of Azeri billionaire Aras Agalarov, with whom a separate attempt to build a Trump project in Russia fell though.

In his capacity spearheading the Moscow exploration, Cohen went so far as to email the Kremlin directly to ask for help reviving the deal after it stalled in late 2015. “As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance,” Cohen wrote to Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, according to the Washington Post. “I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals. I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon.”

It’s unclear who the “appropriate individuals” Cohen wanted to contact were.

All the while, on top of his duties at the Trump Organization, Cohen was appearing on television and in print media regularly to speak on campaign-related matters.

Sater thought a Moscow deal would help “our boy” get elected

Sater, one of Cohen’s acquaintances from the pair’s teenage years, was very enthusiastic about getting Putin’s help to elect Trump.

“Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote to Cohen in an email that has been turned over to congressional investigators, according to the New York Times. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

That is probably the most normal sentence from the email. “Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin,” it continued, as quoted in the Times.

He also felt that he and Cohen were the two men for the job: “We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done,” Sater wrote.

He is not a man with modest aspirations. In one of several interviews with TPM this summer, Sater said that if he had to do it all over again, he would still try to pull off the audacious plan for a ceasefire deal between Russia and Ukraine that he attempted to get to the White House with Cohen’s help in January.

Trump repeatedly discussed the Moscow plans with Cohen

As reported by Bloomberg, Cohen spoke three times with Trump about the prospective Moscow tower. Again, it was something Trump wanted very much to bring about—in 2005, he and Sater had tried to build the tower on the site of a closed pencil factory along the Moscow River, as reported by the Times.

In a statement to congressional investigators, Cohen said he talked to Trump about the project on three separate occasions. He said that the Trumps were not involved in the decision to quash the project, however, and denied that the prospective business deal had anything to do with the campaign in the first place.

“I did not ask or brief Mr. Trump, or any of his family, before I made the decision to terminate further work on the proposal,” Cohen said in the statement, as quoted by Bloomberg. “The Trump Tower Moscow proposal was not related in any way to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.”

Trump signed a letter of intent with a mysterious Moscow-based entity

Citing Cohen’s statement, both the Washington Post and Bloomberg list a Moscow-based business entity called I.C. Expert Investment, which doesn’t at press time show up on Google in any other context than today’s news articles, as the developer the Trump Organization planned to work with.

Trump himself signed a letter of intent with the company on Oct. 28, 2015, according to the Post, making official the agreement to begin developing the property. The Trump Organization then began exploring further financing and soliciting architectural blueprints.

It’s not clear who would have constituted the company; where its financing came from; or why a Moscow-based business would need Cohen to ask for intervention from “appropriate individuals” who knew Putin’s press secretary.

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From its inception in January, unified GOP control of Washington has been anything but unified.

But over the last few months, as back-biting and finger-pointing between the executive and legislative branches has escalated, Republicans in Congress have taken several concrete steps to wrest power away from the president and protect both domestic and foreign policy from Donald Trump’s meddling.

“You’re seeing a whole series of public statements and actions by an increasingly wider range of Republican senators to push back on this White House,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told reporters last week. “This is part of a broader theme about more and more questions being raised about the path forward about the separation of powers.”

From health care to national security to the federal budget, here are the ways Congress is clawing back power from the executive branch, and shoring up the guardrails to contain Trump.

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Thursday will be a deja vu moment on the Senate-side of the Capitol. Senate Republicans will gather in a private room off the Senate chamber to go over a freshly unveiled health care bill they hope they can pass to fulfill their years’ long promise of dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

Just like they did in June.

But, like the morning they went through this exercise a few weeks ago, deep disagreements remain among the conference over how to replace Obamacare and whether that effort should include a gutting of Medicaid. There’s been no sign yet that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has hit the sweet spot. He needs to win 50 out of 52 Republican votes to pass the legislation. Yet he has previewed a quick turnaround time between unveiling his revisions to the Better Care Reconciliation Act and a vote on the bill, with a Congressional Budget Office score coming as early as Monday, and an initial procedural vote also next week.

Here are the five big unknowns going forward:

Did McConnell change enough to get rid of the old bill’s stench?

It was obvious that McConnell didn’t want to send members home for the July 4 recess without taking a vote on the legislation, and last week, while they were home, it became clear why. Very few Republicans aggressively promoted the legislation—many spent their recess in hiding—and those who did make public appearances distanced themselves from the effort.

Rank-and-file Republicans like Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and John Hoeven (R-ND) came out against the old draft, and high-profile defectors like Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Susan Collins (R-ME) defended their opposition.

Now, whether they can come back around will depend on if the revised bill at least looks different enough for them to justify supporting it. So far though, the sense is there hasn’t been a major overhaul—beyond Obamacare taxes for high-earners being preserved and extra funding for opioid programs.

“I don’t think there’s going to be that many dramatic changes,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) admitted to reporters Wednesday, after a Senate GOP lunch.

What the hell is going on with the Cruz amendment?

Perhaps the most substantive change to the legislation on the table is a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to let insurers sell unregulated plans as long as they offer an Obamacare-compliant plan as well. Cruz, however, could not tell reporters Wednesday when the CBO would be done scoring the provision, if it would be included with the legislation being unveiled Thursday or even when the text of his proposal will be made public.

Nonetheless, he indicated that he’d vote against advancing the bill, including on the first procedural vote, if it wasn’t part of the base legislation.

Other Republicans have raised concerns about Cruz’s idea, because it would likely to gut pre-existing protections many GOP lawmakers vowed to protect. The insurance industry agreed with their sentiments, in a statement bashing the Cruz proposal Wednesday.

Thus, other Republicans like Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA)  have been suggesting tweaks to Cruz’s proposal to make it more workable. Here again, the details are sparse. It’s unclear how far along they are in writing adjustments to Cruz’s amendment, whether those tweaks would solve the major policy problems, or how making those adjustments would fit in the aggressive timeline McConnell has laid out for passing the legislation.

Will moderates swallow big Medicaid cuts?

Enough Republicans opposed the draft bill’s deep Medicaid cuts to kill it. Yet, it’s expected that those provisions — which both scale back the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and gut the traditional program — will remain largely unchanged in the latest version.

Its passage, thus depends at least three of the following—Sens. Capito, Collins,  Dean Heller (R-NV), or Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)— flip-flopping on their previous requests that the cuts be softened.  Rounds suggested that tweaks to the Medicaid formulas could be made in the amendments process known as vote-a-rama that will occur on the Senate floor some time after next week’s expected procedural vote on the bill. There’s some skepticism, however, as to whether that would really result in substantive changes to the bill, since McConnell will still tightly control the process. (Hence, Cruz’s insistence that his proposal be included in the base text.)

“A fully amendable bill after the motion to proceed should give everyone a sense that they’ll have an opportunity to make whatever point they want to make,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), a member of the GOP leadership team, said.

Can they get the bill past the first hurdle?

We could know as soon as Tuesday whether the GOP repeal effort is doomed. McConnell has been insistent that a vote on the motion to proceed—which advances it procedurally to consideration, before a final vote—will come some time next week.

Some Republicans are arguing that, despite their or other GOP lawmakers’ reservations, they should at least vote for this initial step.

“I just can’t imagine not voting to proceed to a bill when you’ve got an open amendment process and you can offer any amendment you wish and you still have a vote at the end of the process,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said Tuesday.

Already one Republican, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), has said he’ll vote against it there, so it would only take two more GOP members to kill next week’s motion, perhaps if they see no point in taking politically tough votes during the vote-a-rama. The prospect of a failed motion to proceed was what McConnell was facing when he delayed a vote last time.

Is the timeline just too fast?

Which brings us to the next unknown: what happens if the votes aren’t there next week, but there’s a path to securing them in the future. McConnell has already delayed the August recess by an extra two weeks. Though he has said health care is still an agenda item for next week, there still is that extra time as a fallback. And by keeping some of Obamacare’s taxes on high-earners, McConnell has some money to work with to try to make things work. Will an extra two weeks be enough to settle on a version of the Cruz amendment that the broader GOP conference is willing to swallow? Or to make some adjustments to Medicaid provisions that expansion state senators can claim as their victory?

Or will McConnell decide that if he can’t draft a deal on health care now, a deal on health care is just not possible?

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The Senate returns to D.C. Monday evening after a week-long recess, and on the surface they appear to be even further from a deal to pass a health care bill than when they canceled a planned vote in late June.

Existing ideological divisions were exacerbated over the break as lawmakers were hit from all sides—hounded by constituents at town halls, hammered with attack ads, and pressured by GOP leaders and President Donald Trump to pass something in the few short weeks before their August recess.

But despite some Republicans declaring the effort “dead,” a flurry of activity—including backroom negotiations and new data from the Congressional Budget Office—could bring the bill back to life. Some GOP leaders are even saying that a vote could happen as early as next week.

Here are the things to watch as the debate unfolds:

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The CBO score released Monday on the Senate health care bill rained down what must have been the worst nightmare—or close to it—for the GOP senators squeamish about the bill: blockbuster coverage losses just about as bad as the House version’s, Medicaid provisions that kick off even more people from the program than the House bill and average premium reductions that come at the cost of making insurance inaccessible for many low income people.

Already, it appears Senate Republicans don’t have enough votes to advance the legislation, and it will be a scramble to get that number up to 50 for Senate Republicans to pass the bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, this week, as planned.

Lawmakers will only have a day, maybe two, to analyze the report before GOP leaders are expected to move forward with a procedural vote to advance the legislation Tuesday or Wednesday, with the goal of a final vote by the end of the week. Before the score was released, a handful of conservatives and two moderate Republicans had signaled opposition to the draft legislation, though the conservatives said they were mostly open to negotiations. About a half dozen more moderate Republicans, and particularly those from Medicaid expansion states, are in the hot seat to make up their mind about supporting the bill, and the CBO score only turns up the temperature.

Here are 5 points on how Monday’s score affects GOP leaders’ ability to find 50 votes in favor of the legislation:

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Ousted FBI Director James Comey’s riveting testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week characterized President Donald Trump as a habitual liar who made wildly inappropriate demands, but the President and his allies immediately seized on what they saw as a victory: Comey confirmed publicly that Trump personally had not been under investigation as long as he was at the bureau.

Trump declared “complete vindication” following the hearing, despite Comey stressing that the question of whether the President was under investigation could change in the future, and dropping several telling hints that special counsel Bob Mueller was likely examining Trump’s conversations and actions since taking office. That victory cry sounds even more ridiculous in light of the Washington Post’s revelation Wednesday night that Mueller is, in fact, looking into whether Trump tried to obstruct justice—a criminal inquiry triggered by the President’s very decision to fire Comey.

Here are five people who beclowned themselves by triumphantly boasting too soon that the President was out of the legal woods:

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