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For Trump and the GOP, a bruising week and a painful setback

For Trump and the GOP, a bruising week and a painful setback
  (Los Angeles Times) (Los Angeles Times)

When Monday morning brings an announcement from the FBI that your presidential campaign is under investigation for possibly cooperating with a hostile foreign power — and things go downhill from there — you know you've had an epically bad week.

That was President Trump's experience over the past seven days. How will he respond?

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Trump is hardly the only president who has ever suffered a truly bad patch. Some have learned from their errors, changed course and gone from defeat to victories. We'll now see if Trump is capable of following that pattern.

Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.

REPEAL AND REPLACE WHOM?

The failure to pass a healthcare bill has done damage to Trump's agenda, which is hard to overstate. Much of Trump's image is built around the idea that he's a master negotiator, able to forge complex deals.

Even as Trump's popularity has been dropping, polls have, until now, shown that Americans were more likely to believe he can work with Congress to achieve results than they were to rate him highly on other aspects of presidential leadership.

Democrats are counting on Trump's unpopularity to help them capture control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, Mark Barabak reported. (Democratic strategists believe they have a better shot at the House than the Senate because very few Republican-held Senate seats are at stake in 2018.)

The Republican decision to pull their health bill from the House floor rather than have it formally defeated won't be decisive in a midterm election 20 months from now. But failure to fulfill a major campaign promise does demoralize a party's supporters, and to the extent that lasts, it will hurt.

Moreover, losses leave a bitter aftertaste for those who participate in them. Already, the battle over repealing the Affordable Care Act has tested the bond between Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — a shotgun marriage that may have been seriously damaged, Mike Memoli and Noah Bierman reported.

Some of Trump's advisors seem eager to blame Ryan for the stumble. Congressional aides, in turn, have pointed fingers at the White House, saying Trump's lack of understanding of policy complicated the negotiations over the bill.

During the campaign, Trump responded to setbacks by firing top aides and bringing in new ones. He could repeat that pattern now, at the risk of further debilitating an administration already riven by competing factions.

He could also lash out at members of Congress who defied him — a step that would run the risk of alienating votes he will need in the future.

Trump repeatedly has said he is eager to move on to tax reform. But the failure to pass a healthcare bill will complicate that effort. In part that's because Ryan and his allies were hoping to use the Medicaid cuts in the healthcare bill to, in effect, offset the cost to the Treasury of reducing taxes.

More importantly, tax reform divides Republicans much the way healthcare does. The precise fault lines differ, but the general problem of members who are unwilling to compromise their ideological purity for the sake of getting legislation passed will continue to plague the White House.

Trump's inability to unite the GOP on repealing Obamacare — an issue that Republicans have run on for seven years — doesn't bode well for an effort to rewrite the tax code.

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What was expected to be the final round of healthcare negotiations began in earnest on Monday, when House leaders unveiled a series of amendments designed to make the bill more attractive to conservatives. But, as Noam Levey and Lisa Mascaro reported, all week long, their efforts to attract votes on the right cost them votes from the party's more centrist members.

Thursday night, Trump threatened that he would leave Obamacare in place if the bill failed to pass the House. That promise, too, may now come back to haunt him.

Trump has said in the past that if he just left Obamacare alone, the law would collapse, and Democrats would take the blame for it. Many Republicans believe the first part of that statement, few are willing to bet on the second part.

To avoid the political damage that would result from millions of Americans losing their health coverage, Trump will now probably be stuck in the ironic position of having to keep Obamacare afloat despite his repeated predictions that the law was doomed.

In truth, the law's state is not as parlous as Trump has said. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said earlier this month that the law's marketplaces were basically stable. And even as Republicans drive to repeal the law, some cities around the country have been using it to transform how they deliver healthcare to their poorest residents. Levey took a look at one of the most advanced programs, in Denver.

FBI CALLING

Trump's bad week began, of course, with dramatic testimony before the House Intelligence Committee by FBI Director James Comey, who publicly confirmed that his agents were investigating the possibility that some people in Trump's campaign had "coordinated" with Russian efforts to shape the 2016 election.

As yet, no one has offered any public evidence of coordination. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the Intelligence panel's ranking Democrat, who has emerged as his party's point person on the issue, has said the evidence he has seen is the sort that a prosecutor would use to start an investigation, not finish one.

"It's not the evidence that you would present at trial, to a trial jury, to prove [guilt] beyond a reasonable doubt," he told David Cloud and David Willman. "But it's the kind of evidence you would put forward when you're beginning an investigation."

Politically, of course, even that much is damaging to the administration.

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Schiff and the intelligence committee's chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) managed to keep Monday's hearing from running into partisan shoals. But, perhaps not surprisingly, given the stakes, the spirit of at least partial bipartisanship did not last long.

On Wednesday, Nunes announced that he had been informed that several officials from Trump's transition team, and perhaps the president, himself, had been mentioned in intelligence reports based on foreign intelligence surveillance. As Cloud, Memoli and Brian Bennett reported, Nunes said the surveillance was legal, but "troubling."

He hinted that the evidence might suggest that Trump or his associates had been targeted for surveillance.

On Thursday, Nunes partially backed away from that claim. His spokesman said the chairman could not be sure if any of the Trump aides had actually been overheard by U.S. surveillance or if their names had simply been mentioned by others whose calls were being legally monitored. He also apologized to his committee colleagues for having briefed Trump on his findings before he told them.

After Nunes first announced his findings, Trump said he felt "partially" vindicated for his claim that Obama had wiretapped him at Trump Tower before the election. Nunes had specifically said that "did not happen."

The surveillance he suspected was not based on wiretaps, was legal, happened after the election and wasn't at Trump Tower.

Trump's allegation against Obama, launched in a series of tweets, grew out of conspiracy theories and rumors on right-wing media, Mark Barabak and Michael Finnegan reported.

Here are some of the many unanswered questions that the allegations raise.

SUPREME CONFIDENCE FOR COURT NOMINEE

Not all the news for Trump has been grim. Neil Gorsuch, his nominee for the Supreme Court, opened his confirmation hearings on Monday with a confident tone, David Savage reported. By the time the hearings ended on Thursday, little had happened to change that.

Gorsuch did suffer one setback, Savage reported. While his hearing was going on, the high court unanimously rejected the legal standard he had adopted in an important ruling on schooling for disabled children.

And Democrats made clear that Republicans will have to overcome a filibuster to approve his confirmation. That will probably mean changing the Senate's rules to eliminate filibusters on Supreme Court nominations and allow justices to be confirmed by majority vote, a step that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky seems prepared to take.

Gorsuch proved adept at not answering questions on his views — much to the frustration of Democratic senators. But the hearings did shed some light on where he stands, as Savage reported.

TRAVEL BAN TO REMAIN ON HOLD

Back in January, the administration said that national security depended on its ban on travel to the U.S. from seven mostly Muslim countries going into effect immediately. Nearly two months later, with the list now pared to six countries, the ban remains blocked by a series of court orders.

And it will remain on hold for at least a couple more weeks, a federal appeals court said on Thursday. The administration has asked the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va., to overturn the order of a federal district judge in Maryland who blocked the revised version of the ban from going into effect. The appeals court said it would consider the government's motion to lift that order, but gave the two sides until April 5 to file briefs.

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S TWEETS

Twitter has long been Trump's favored means of pushing his message. We're compiling all of Trump's tweets. It's a great resource. Take a look.

SOMEONE ELSE HAD A WORSE WEEK

The House Ethics Committee revealed on Thursday that the Justice Department has a criminal investigation underway against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine). He's accused of having misused tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions for personal expenses, Sarah Wire and Morgan Cook reported.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Sarah Wire will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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