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Trump signs sanctions bill against Russia as relations worsen

Here’s our look at the Trump administration and the rest of Washington:

Trump called him “my African-American.” But he has few kind words for the president.

(Mark Z. Barabak/Los Angeles Times)

On the day that changed his life, Gregory Cheadle almost stayed in bed.

He was tired — he traveled a lot in his long-shot bid for Congress — but asked himself: How often does a candidate for president come to the far reaches of Northern California? And why pass up a crowd and the chance to hand out more fliers?

So Cheadle roused himself that June 2016 morning and secured a spot up close when Donald Trump swooped in for a rally at Redding’s municipal airport.

It was hot, the atmosphere was loose and Trump’s patter seeming more stand-up comedy than campaign spiel. He went into one of those sidelong digressions, about protesters and an African American — “great fan, great guy” — and, by the way, whatever happened to him?

It was then, Cheadle said, he raised his hand and jokingly shouted, “I’m here.”

Trump looked and pointed, his voice a throaty rumble. “Look at my African-American over here!” he exclaimed. “Are you the greatest?”

In the days and weeks that followed Cheadle was attacked on social media and harassed by people who dug up his phone number and email address. For a time he stayed home, too nervous to venture outside.

All, he said, because the media portrayed him as something he was not and never has been: a Trump sycophant.

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Trump quietly signs Russia sanctions bill

President Trump quietly signed legislation Wednesday that imposes new sanctions on Russia and limits his ability to remove them, according to two White House aides.

Trump signed the bill without cameras or an immediate press release. He had opposed imposing new sanctions on Moscow but had little choice after a nearly unanimous Congress approved the bill, guaranteeing they would override a veto.

The bill, which also imposes new sanctions on Iran and North Korea, prevents American companies from investing in many energy projects that are funded by Russian government interests.

It also prevents Trump from unilaterally lifting the sanctions. It thus marked an unusual move by Congress to tie the president’s hands on foreign policy.

Trump did not want to give up that leverage.

But the vote in Congress was a strong sign that lawmakers do not trust Trump to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has repeatedly praised, and the widening federal investigation into possible coordination last year between his presidential campaign and Moscow.

Passage of the sanctions bill already has sparked a harsh reaction in Moscow.

Putin announced last week that the United States would need to shed 755 personnel, including U.S. diplomats, from its embassy and consulates in Russia. President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats, said to be spies, from the United States last December.

A White House aide said a statement would be issued later Wednesday.

Senior GOP senators serve notice: No action on healthcare at this point

Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
(Associated Press)

Trump administration officials continue to push the Senate to take another run at healthcare legislation, but on Monday senior Republican senators pushed back, making clear that they’re done with the topic for now.

“There’s just too much animosity and we’re too divided on healthcare,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the head of the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview with Reuters.

“I think we ought to acknowledge that we can come back to healthcare afterward, but we need to move ahead on tax reform,” Hatch said.

His remarks were quickly followed by others in GOP leadership positions.

“I think it’s time to move on to something else,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri told CNN. “If the question is do I think we should stay on healthcare until we get it done, I think it’s time to move on to something else.”

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota also chimed in. “Until someone shows us how to get that elusive 50th vote, I think it’s over,” he told reporters.

The remarks seemed a coordinated effort to respond to administration officials, including budget director Mick Mulvaney and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who said over the weekend that they wanted the Senate to keep working on healthcare.

Last week, the Senate defeated several different Republican plans to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act. The votes made it clear that with unified Democratic opposition to repeal, and divisions among Republicans, the campaign to overturn the law has stalled out, at least for now.

Congress faces several other pressing issues that will be demanding lawmakers’ attention, including deadlines at the end of September to raise the federal debt ceiling and fund government agencies for the coming fiscal year. And the administration is eager to move on tax proposals, with officials rather optimistically saying they hope to see votes by November on a tax package that is not yet written.

Good news for Atty. Gen. Sessions: Trump has ‘100% confidence’ in Cabinet

President Trump has called Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions “beleaguered” and even “VERY weak,” but Sessions seemed to get good news from the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on Monday.

Trump has “100% confidence” in all of his Cabinet secretaries, Sanders said in response to a question about Sessions’ job status during the daily White House briefing.

Last week, when speculation about Sessions was rife, Sanders repeatedly declined opportunities to provide assurances that the attorney general enjoyed the president’s full confidence. Trump himself said “time will tell” when he was asked last week about Sessions.

The willingness to tamp down speculation about Sessions may reflect the arrival Monday of retired Gen. John F. Kelly as the new White House chief of staff. He is tasked with restoring order to the administration.

Sanders also batted down reports that the White House was discussing moving Sessions to another post, as secretary of Homeland Security. That job became vacant Monday after Kelly was sworn in as Trump’s new chief of staff.

Sanders said the White House has had “no conversations” about any Cabinet members switching jobs.

Republican senators have publicly opposed firing Sessions, and a couple have objected to shifting him to another post as well, given that it could appear that Trump is trying to affect the investigations of himself and his campaign in the context of Russia’s election interference.

Trump has said publicly that his frustration with Sessions, once among his closest allies, stems from Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, an act that led to the appointment of a special counsel.

Can Trump really cut health insurance payments for members of Congress and their staff? It would be easy

Reeling from the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Trump now threatens to block federal funding that lawmakers and their staff rely on to help buy health insurance.

Trump’s threats are not empty. The administration could simply stop the payments -- which are provided to Capitol Hill lawmakers and staff much the way many employers help pay employees’ monthly insurance premiums -- by dashing off new federal regulation.

But the easy attack on lawmakers skims over what many say was a complicated, but fair-minded, compromise made during the Obamacare debates several years ago.

Under Obamacare, if lawmakers want insurance through their employer - the federal government - they are required to buy policies through the ACA exchanges.

There had been great criticism at the time, largely from opponents of the healthcare bill, that lawmakers and congressional staff should not be exempt from the law. The argument was they should have to live under it. So they did.

Usually those buying individual insurance on the exchanges can apply to see if their income and geographic area allow them to qualify for a federal subsidy. For lawmakers, though, that was prohibited. Instead, they get the regular employer contribution they did before, much in the same way other workers do when their companies buy insurance.

For federal workers, the government covers about 70% of the costs, about the same paid by employers in the private sector, according to Kaiser Family Foundation.

The administration affirmed that federal support for lawmakers and their staffs in an Office of Personnel Management regulation issued in 2013.

To cut those funds off, Trump administration could simply reverse course, and issue another regulation changing the rules.

Trump appeared ready to do so in a series of weekend tweets.

“Why should Congress not be paying what public pays,” Trump tweeted over the weekend. “If a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly, BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon.”

But such a move would likely cause an uproar in Congress. It’s not just members of Congress, but also their staffs, who would have to pay full price for their insurance.

Stopping Trump’s action, though, seems tough. It would require Congress to pass legislation ensuring the federal payments would continue to be made. Few lawmakers would likely take up that cause. And even if Congress were able to pass a bill protecting the payments, it seems doubtful Trump at this point would sign it into law.

U.S. hits Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with sanctions

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro celebrates the results of Sunday's election in Caracas.
(Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has hit Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with financial sanctions.

The move comes after Venezuela held a weekend election that will give Maduro’s ruling party virtually unlimited power in the South American country.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced the sanctions against Maduro in a brief statement on Monday, a day after the Venezuelan vote to elect a constituent assembly that will rewrite the constitution. A longer explanation from the White House was also expected.

The administration imposed sanctions on more than a dozen senior current and former Venezuelan officials last week, warning the socialist government that new penalties would come if Maduro went ahead with Sunday’s election for the assembly.

Watch live: Anthony Scaramucci’s removal addressed at White House news briefing

Anthony Scaramucci is out as White House communications director

Anthony Scaramucci, the brash New Yorker who was announced little more than a week ago as President Trump’s White House communications director, was ousted Monday before he had even officially taken the job.

John F. Kelly, the newly sworn-in White House chief of staff, told Scaramucci around 9:30 a.m. EDT that he was going to be replaced, according to a person close to White House.

In a statement officially announcing the move, the White House said Scaramucci “felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team.”

While Scaramucci’s time at the center of the president’s circle was short, it was consequential, prompting the resignations of first Sean Spicer as White House press secretary and then Reince Priebus as chief of staff.

The most notable firings and resignations in the Trump administration >>

A former hedge fund executive on Wall Street, Scaramucci, who enjoyed media attention, also had come on strong stylistically, highlighted by a profane tirade against colleagues Priebus and Trump strategist Steve Bannon in an exchange last week with a New Yorker reporter.

The abrupt shift in Scaramucci’s status seemed to reflect Kelly’s mission to bring order to the chain of command within the chaotic administration.

In getting Scaramucci to leave, Kelly was undoing Trump’s own hiring decision. Scaramucci had told reporters when he was hired that he would be reporting directly to the president at Trump’s request, bypassing the normal chain that would have the communications director -- like all staff -- report to the chief of staff.

Scaramucci’s unusually short tenure reflects a moment of extreme turbulence in the White House, which has been embroiled in infighting as it confronts low poll numbers for the president, a floundering legislative agenda and the investigations involving Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.

After word spread of Scaramucci’s ouster, Spicer, who resigned when Scaramucci took over but was still working in the White House, walked out of his office to a throng of reporters.

“Is this a surprise party?” he asked.

UPDATE

12:15 p.m.: This story has been updated throughout with additional details and background.

This article was originally published at 11:49 a.m.

Trump swears in John Kelly, says ex-secretary of Homeland Security will do ‘an even better job as chief of staff’

President Trump swore in his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, on Monday morning, formalizing a shake-up in his top ranks that was announced Friday evening with word of the resignation of Reince Priebus.

“We look forward to - if it’s possible - an even better job as chief of staff,” Trump said to Kelly, formerly the secretary of homeland security.

“I’ll try, sir,” Kelly replied.

Trump is hoping that Kelly, a retired general, will retool and bring order to a White House that has struggled with low poll numbers, staff infighting, a faltering legislative agenda and an investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion and obstruction of justice.

Yet Trump said the administration “has done very well” after a reporter asked what would be different under Kelly. He cited the unemployment rate, the thriving stock market and unnamed polls that, he said, show high business confidence.

“We’re doing very well. We have a tremendous base,” he said.”The country is optimistic. And I think the general will just add to it.”

Trump praised Kelly’s performance at the Department of Homeland Security, where Kelly focused on immigration issues at the southern border, as “record-shattering,” with “very little controversy.”

There was no word on whom the president might name to replace Kelly at the department. Trump reportedly has considered moving Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions there from the Justice Department, reflecting his unhappiness with the attorney general, but Republican senators preemptively have signaled their opposition to such a move.

Risky investigation, stalled agenda — Trump’s in trouble, so here’s his strategy

(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Hosts of Southern California’s “Morning Answer” radio show were wrapping up a two-hour live broadcast from a white tent just outside the West Wing last week and marveling at their access to Cabinet secretaries and prominent administration figures.

“If you’re a Trumpkin,” host Brian Whitman told his listeners on AM 870, “this is like fantasy camp.”

The White House’s daylong hospitality for Salem Radio Network, a nationwide chain of Christian and conservative stations, underscored President Trump’s continued courtship of — and increased dependence on — core supporters as he confronts a stalled agenda and increasingly perilous investigations into whether his campaign colluded with Russia and he subsequently sought to obstruct the inquiries.

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Obamacare vote isn’t the only sign of GOP resistance to Trump

(Mike Cardew / TNS)

In the year since Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, party leaders have been reluctant to challenge a man who has formed a tight bond with conservative voters, even when he upset party orthodoxies and norms of presidential behavior.

But that reticence is breaking down. A convergence of contentious issues, as well as embarrassing infighting and shake-ups at the White House, have a number of Republicans suddenly in open resistance to Trump on a number of fronts.

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Trump ousts Reince Priebus as chief of staff in latest White House shake-up

John Kelly
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

President Trump ousted his beleaguered chief of staff, Reince Priebus, naming Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly to replace him Friday in the latest White House shake-up as the administration struggles to emerge from bitter staff infighting and a stalled legislative agenda.

Trump announced the abrupt reshuffle in three posts on Twitter hours after the Senate killed his latest plans to rewrite President Obama’s signature healthcare law, dealing another harsh blow to the White House.

The tweets, sent as Trump was returning on Air Force One with Priebus after a speech on gang violence in New York, caught Capitol Hill and others off guard even though Priebus’ stature in Trump’s inner circle has been in sharp decline for some time.

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Putin’s spokesman accuses U.S. of ‘political schizophrenia’

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attends a meeting in Moscow on June 21.
(Sergei Karpukhin / EPA)

Russia urged the United States on Monday to show “political will” to mend ties even as it ordered sweeping cuts of U.S. embassy personnel unseen since Cold War times.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it will take time for the U.S. to recover from what he called “political schizophrenia,” but added that Russia remains interested in constructive cooperation with the U.S.

“We are interested in a steady development of our ties and are sorry to note that we are still far from that,” he said.

Peskov’s statement followed Sunday’s televised comments by Putin, who said the U.S. would have to cut 755 of its embassy and consulate staff in Russia, a massive reduction he described as a response to new U.S. sanctions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry had previously said that the U.S. should cut its embassy and consular employees to 455, the number that Russia has in the United States. Along with the caps on embassy personnel announced Friday, it also declared the closure of a U.S. recreational retreat on the outskirts of Moscow and warehouse facilities.

Moscow’s action is the long-expected tit-for-tat response to former President Obama’s move to expel 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two Russian recreational retreats in the U.S. over reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

White House urged to refrain from Obamacare ‘sabotage’ as Trump mulls subsidy cutoff

A pair of prominent lawmakers urged President Trump on Sunday not to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, in the wake of failed Republican efforts to scrap his predecessor’s signature legislative achievement.

But Trump urged GOP senators to try again to push through some version of repealing and replacing the law, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week it was time to move on to other matters.

Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway said the president would decide in coming days whether to block subsidies that are a crucial component of the existing healthcare law.

“He’s going to make that decision this week, and that’s a decision that only he can make,” Conway said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Two of the lawmakers who blocked the Senate GOP repeal plan last week, however, criticized the administration’s continued efforts to overturn the law.

Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who steadfastly rejected a series of GOP healthcare measures last week, blamed the Trump administration for encouraging instability in the insurance markets by continuing the uncertainty over whether the subsidies – cost-sharing payments that reduce out-of-pocket healthcare costs for poorer Americans – would continue.

“I’m troubled by the uncertainty that has been created by the administration,” Collins said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” She contested Trump’s characterization of the payments as an “insurance company bailout.”

“That’s not what it is,” she said, calling the reduction payments “vital assistance” to low-income Americans.

And Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said further action on healthcare should be done in a bipartisan manner and not rushed.

“You cannot do major entitlement reform singlehandedly, and you wouldn’t do major legislative initiatives singlehandedly,” she told reporters in Alaska.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) echoed Collins’ criticism of Trump’s threat to stop making the cost-sharing payments.

“You know, I really think it’s incomprehensible that we have a president of the United States who wants to sabotage healthcare in America, make life more difficult for millions of people who are struggling now to get the health insurance they need and to pay for that health insurance,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Prior to heading out for a day at his Virginia golf property, Trump tweeted that Republican senators should press ahead with efforts to scrap Obamacare -- a day after he tauntingly exhorted them not to be “quitters” in the quest for a legislative victory for him.

The White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said it was official Trump administration policy that the Senate should keep working to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, eschewing an August recess if necessary.

Senators, he said, “need to stay, they need to work -- they need to pass something.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, while acknowledging a responsibility to “follow the law” -- Obamacare -- also signaled that Trump was not accepting defeat in efforts to get rid of the measure.

“Our goal…as well as the president’s goal, is to put in place a law, a system, that actually works for patients,” he said on “Meet the Press,” adding, “You can’t do that under the current structure.”