Trump signs sanctions bill against Russia as relations worsen

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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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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U.S. hits Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with sanctions