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Immunity deals, primary threats, and it’s only Week 10

(Los Angeles Times)
(LAT)

A former senior White House official is seeking immunity from prosecution.

The president is threatening to mount primary challenges against conservative Republicans who defy him.

And yet another campaign promise — this one on trade — appears to be dwindling out of sight.

It’s hard to believe amid all the turmoil, but President Trump has been in office for only 70 days; 95% of his term is still ahead.

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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.

FLUNKING THE SMELL TEST

When House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) showed up at the White House last week declaring that he urgently needed to brief the president on new evidence indicating that some transition aides might have improperly been subject to surveillance, questions abounded.

One question, however, seemed easily dismissed by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

The suggestion by reporters that Nunes’ source might have been someone at the White House “doesn’t really pass the smell test,” he said. “It doesn’t really seem to make a ton of sense.”

Indeed.

The caper didn’t make much sense, and it didn’t pass anyone’s smell test. And now that White House aides have been identified as having set it up — primarily two lawyers at the National Security Council, one of whom used to work for Nunes’ committee — the administration finds itself in even more trouble.

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Spicer inadvertently identified the problem last week when he tried to brush aside the suggestion that Nunes was acting at the behest of the White House.

“I don’t know why he would come in to brief the president on something that we gave him,” he said.

The ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), supplied the most obvious answer: White House aides, he suggested Thursday, were “laundering information” and trying to “hide the origin of the materials.”

Nunes heads a committee that is tasked, in part, with investigating whether anyone close to Trump colluded with Russian officials in their efforts to influence the 2016 election.

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He now faces accusations even from some fellow Republicans that he has compromised himself by working hand-in-hand with the White House he’s supposed to be probing. And the White House now appears to have been trying surreptitiously to influence the House investigation.

All that, seemingly in order to provide some backing, however tangential, for Trump’s insistent belief that President Obama, or people working for him, had spied on him.

Whether the documents that Nunes says he saw actually show any impropriety remains unclear. White House officials on Thursday said they would allow Democratic lawmakers to see the documents, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

Nunes initially implied that the intelligence reports showed that aides to Trump had been swept up by U.S. intelligence surveillance during the transition. The surveillance was legal, but “troubling,” he said. He also suggested that the names of some of the transition officials might have improperly been “unmasked.”

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He later partially backed away from both of those assertions. Most, maybe all, of the intelligence reports may simply show foreign officials — ambassadors and others — talking about Trump aides, officials say. And Nunes now says that he could discern which transition officials the reports referred to, but has waffled on whether any of their names were disclosed.

If any of the intelligence reports did involve improper unmasking of names, that could be evidence that the rules designed to protect Americans from foreign intelligence surveillance need toughening.

But much to the chagrin of White House officials, that discussion has largely been overshadowed by the appearance that Trump aides tried to use Nunes to covertly influence the House investigation.

Meantime, the House investigation, itself, has been stalemated by a week of partisan wrangling. Nunes and Schiff met Thursday in an effort to get the process back on track. Whether that can happen remains to be seen.

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By contrast, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and the vice-chair Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), devoted much of a news conference on Wednesday to stressing the bipartisan nature of their work, David Cloud wrote. They’re also moving much more slowly.

Both committees apparently have been approached by the lawyer for retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, asking about a possible deal in which he would get immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony.

So far, neither committee has taken Flynn up on that offer, as Schiff made clear in a statement on Friday in which he said it was a “grave and momentous step” for a former national security advisor to ask for immunity. There is still “much work and many more witnesses and documents to obtain” before considering immunity requests, he wrote.

This graphic helps chart some of the links among people who have figured in the Russia story to date.

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THE FISSURE IN THE GOP

They helped drive John Boehner from the speaker’s chair and have bedeviled GOP leaders for six years. Now, the House Freedom Caucus is once again feeling empowered, Lisa Mascaro wrote.

That has gotten Trump’s ire up, and he lashed out at Freedom Caucus members in a tweet on Thursday, suggesting that he might try to back primary challengers against some of them in 2018.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt at the height of his political power failed when trying to unseat members of Congress from his own party who opposed him. From a president whose approval rating remains stuck at about 40%, the threat was audacious, but not noticeably intimidating, Mike Memoli reported.

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One key problem for Trump, Memoli noted, is that there aren’t a lot of actual Trumpists in Congress: The president took over the GOP, but hasn’t necessarily won over its elected officials.

Those divisions within the GOP have left Trump’s legislative agenda very much in question. After last week’s collapse of the effort to repeal Obamacare, Republicans are uncertain where to turn.

One possibility, Noam Levey wrote, is that the administration may feel compelled to fix some of the health law’s shortcomings rather than risk a collapse on its watch.

That might even open the way to some bipartisan agreements, Levey noted. House Speaker Paul Ryan seems to fear that possibility, warning against bipartisan outreach in an interview with CBS.

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With his legislative agenda stymied, Trump has been returning to political symbolism, Memoli wrote. One highly visible example this week: Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions showed up at the White House briefing room to describe to reporters what appeared to be a tough policy against so-called sanctuary cities.

But on closer look, the policy he talked about was one adopted last summer by the Obama administration. Any new Trump administration positions remain weeks, perhaps months, in the future, Justice Department officials conceded.

The one area where Republicans have been able to make progress is in repealing regulations that the Obama administration proposed in its final months.

The latest repeal came Thursday. Conservative states that want to restrict money for Planned Parenthood will now have an easier time as Congress wiped out a regulation that limited such efforts.

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But as Lisa Mascaro wrote, to win passage, Senate Republicans had to hurriedly bring Vice President Mike Pence to Capitol Hill to break a tie after two women Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against the measure.

Despite the legislative setbacks and the investigations, many Trump voters are standing by their man, Noah Bierman found in a trip to a key swing county in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state.

Trump, he noted, has dropped in virtually all polls, but that’s mostly because he has energized the Democratic opposition and alienated voters who were ambivalent. His own base has remained solid.

And then there are Trump supporters in deep-blue California. As Mark Barabak reported, they largely try to keep their heads down.

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TRADING POSITIONS ON NAFTA?

Trump’s vow to uproot the NAFTA trade agreement with Mexico and Canada was a central theme of his campaign. Now that he’s in office, reality looks very different.

A draft outline of the administration’s negotiating stand, sent to Congress, calls for incremental changes to NAFTA, not a complete overhaul, Don Lee reports.

The NAFTA climbdown is just one indicator of a deep split within the administration over trade policy, Lee wrote. Hard-line critics of past trade policies, notably Peter Navarro, the former UC Irvine professor who heads a newly created White House trade office, have been losing clout to more traditional Republicans with close ties to Wall Street, a group headed by Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic advisor, a former president of Goldman Sachs.

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REVERSING FIELD ON CLIMATE CHANGE

By contrast to the tepid steps on trade, the Trump administration has moved aggressively to reverse Obama administration policies on the environment. This week’s installment was a far-reaching order to begin overturning Obama’s policies on global warming.

The change could take years to play out — environmental groups will fight EPA chief Scott Pruitt in court, much as Pruitt fought the Obama administration when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. But in the meantime, the federal government’s decision to stop leading the charge against climate change will test the ability of California and other environmentally minded states to set national policy on their own, Halper wrote.

On another environmental issue, nuclear waste, the fight will be with Nevada officials, including the state’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval.

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With former Sen. Harry Reid now retired and no longer able to block policies he opposed, the Trump administration is making a serious effort to revive the long-stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear dump, Ralph Vartabedian reported. Nevada officials remain deeply opposed, but after 30 years of fending off the project, they may now be out of luck.

NEXT WEEK: DOES THE SENATE GO NUCLEAR?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky plans to bring the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the floor on Tuesday. Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York has threatened a filibuster.

As Mascaro wrote, that has set up a legislative game of chicken. If Schumer can hold 41 of the 48 Democrats to sustain a filibuster, McConnell has made clear he’ll change the Senate’s rules to eliminate filibusters for high court nominees, the next step in a process that Reid began in 2013 when he eliminated filibusters for other nominees.

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So far, 33 Democratic senators have committed to back the filibuster. Two, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, say they will oppose it. One, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has indicated doubts about filibustering.

MORE SECRECY ABOUT WARFARE

More American troops are fighting in the Mideast, but how many more remains a secret. The Pentagon has stopped telling the public about troop deployments, reversing an Obama administration policy, Bill Hennigan reported.

Meantime, the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria remains complicated by disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey over whether to provide arms and assistance to Kurdish militias. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Turkey this week, but failed to reach an agreement with Turkish leaders, who see the Kurds as a threat, Tracy Wilkerson and Umar Farooq reported.

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A CLINTON PRECEDENT

Trump remains the defendant in several lawsuits, including some by women alleging sexual harassment. His lawyers went to court in New York this week to try to have one such case dismissed, arguing the president should be immune from a suit in state court, David Savage reported. They cited the most unlikely of precedents, the case Bill Clinton lost to Paula Jones.

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.

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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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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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