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Politics

Trump finds a new friend in Paris, but not on Capitol Hill, where healthcare battle looms

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(LAT)

French President Emmanuel Macron put all the pomp and beauty of Paris to work this week in wooing President Trump — dinner at the Eiffel Tower, a military parade, honor guards in colorful uniforms.

At a news conference, the French leader downplayed differences and even offered a defense, in fluent English, of Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The one power at Macron’s disposal, however, that Trump might have most wanted is the French president’s ability to bypass the legislature and enact policies by executive decree.

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.

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HEALTHCARE FIGHT HEADS TOWARD A RECKONING

The more limited power possessed by an American president requires getting big policy changes through Congress, and that has been beyond Trump’s ability so far.

The Republican policy agenda faces crucial votes in the next couple of weeks, and Trump has largely been on the sidelines. That’s in part because of the news swirling around Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer in which he hoped to receive derogatory information about Hillary Clinton.

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But that’s only part of the problem.

More on Trump Jr. in a minute, but first, let’s catch up on the defining domestic policy issue of Trump’s first year as president — healthcare.

The Republican congressional leaders, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have gambled enormously on the healthcare issue.

The bill they are pushing would not only eliminate much of President Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, it would also roll back a large part of Medicaid, the federal safety net health program that currently covers about 1 in 5 Americans.

Winning would mark the biggest conservative policy victory in years, likely more consequential than the compromise over welfare reform struck by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Clinton in 1996, and probably the largest retrenchment of the social safety net since the Ronald Reagan administration.

Losing would not only keep Obamacare intact, it would set back multiple other aspects of the GOP agenda, complicating the already difficult path for tax reform and deepening the split that runs through the GOP’s congressional majority.

On Thursday, McConnell introduced the latest version of the healthcare bill. As Noam Levey and Lisa Mascaro wrote, it includes a few provisions designed to attract votes from centrist senators, but more to try to nail down the support of the GOP right wing.

Like the previous version, McConnell’s latest bill would dramatically reshape Medicaid. That’s cost him the support of at least one centrist Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. One conservative, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has also said he opposes the bill because it doesn’t go far enough. With 52 Republican senators, those two are all McConnell can afford to lose.

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McConnell is gambling that other Republicans with qualms about Medicaid cuts, including Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia, ultimately will all fall into line.

McConnell has tens of billions of dollars he can shift around in the bill in hopes of finding ways to win over those senators. Several, however, may be influenced by their states’ Republican governors. Govs. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Doug Ducey of Arizona and John Kasich of Ohio are among those who have criticized the Senate plan because of the impact it would have on Medicaid coverage in their states.

If the GOP bill fails, McConnell says he’ll be forced to negotiate with Democrats. Here’s what a slimmed down, bipartisan compromise might look like.

The key vote could come as early as the middle of next week.

Trump, who actively lobbied House Republicans when the healthcare bill was in that chamber, has been nearly absent in the Senate.

He sent out a couple of Twitter messages on Monday exhorting the Senate to act, and followed them with four more Friday morning.

“VP Mike Pence is working hard on HealthCare and getting our wonderful Republican Senators to do what is right for the people,” he declared in one of Friday’s tweets.

But Trump is unable or unwilling to make the kind of public case for the substance of the bill that might sway voters’ widespread negative opinions of it.

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Some senators say they don’t think he understands what the bill does. Even if he does, his ability to answer questions about the plan is limited because he can’t get out from under the Russia investigation.

DON JR. AND THE RUSSIAN LAWYER

White House officials thought they had gained some ground last week after Trump’s trip to Europe, especially the warm welcome he received in Warsaw.

Then the latest disclosures in the Russia case blew up. Here’s what we know so far:

In early June 2016, a friend of Donald Trump Jr.’s sent him an email saying that a Russian lawyer had “official documents and information” that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton “and be very useful to your father.”

Her information was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” according to the emails from Trump Jr.’s friend, Rob Goldstone, a music publicist. The lawyer, he said, was conveying information from Aras Agalarov, a Russian oligarch who has close ties to the Trump family and whose son, Emin is a pop singer.

As David Cloud wrote, the younger Trump showed no surprise at his friend’s reference to Russian government support for the campaign.

Instead, he set up a meeting with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya and invited his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

That all was confirmed by emails Trump Jr. released on Tuesday, just as the New York Times was preparing to publish them.

President Trump and his allies insist that “nothing happened” as a result of Trump Jr.’s meeting. The president also says he didn’t find out about the meeting at Trump Tower until just a few days ago. Democrats find both of those statements deeply implausible.

White House credibility on the subject took another hit Friday, when the public learned two more facts that Trump had not previously disclosed:

A second Russian attended the meeting — Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist and dual Russian-American citizen who also happens to be a former Russian counterintelligence officer.

According to Akhmetshin, Veselnitskaya brought a memo with her to present to Trump. He said he didn’t know the memo’s contents.

And, according to a lawyer for Emin Agalarov, his client and Trump Jr. had a number of telephone calls in addition to the email exchanges. The emails, themselves, hinted at one such call.

To many Democrats, the emails conclusively proved that the Trump campaign had collaborated with Russian efforts to sway the election. They don’t.

The emails do, however, show that the highest officials in Trump’s campaign were open to collaborating with Russians. And they provide a long list of leads for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his investigators to follow.

What should a campaign do if approached with that kind of pitch involving a foreigner offering information about an opponent? Notify the FBI, said Trump’s nominee to head the bureau.

Christopher Wray, the nominee to replace James B. Comey, made that remark in answers to Senate questions. He also pledged independence and expressed his admiration for both Comey and Mueller.

What federal laws might have been violated by the contacts with the Russians? David Savage provided some important answers on what prosecutors would have to prove to bring a case.

As for Trump Jr., this may be the most consequential incident in which he created trouble for his father, but it certainly was not the first, Barbara Demick reported.

President Trump, in addition to insisting that nothing happened at the meeting, on Thursday floated the theory that Obama administration Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch might have been involved in letting Veselnitskaya into the country. Trump offered no evidence, and the accusation appears false.

On Capitol Hill, Mascaro reported, Republican lawmakers would greatly prefer to not talk about the subject.

Finally, in another odd twist to the Russia saga, Peter W. Smith, a longtime Republican donor who recruited people last year to try to obtain Clinton emails from Russian hackers, recently committed suicide, our colleagues at the Chicago Tribune reported.

He left a note declaring that his death was not the result of foul play, but because he was ill and a life insurance policy was about to expire, officials said.

ROADBLOCKS TO ENVIRONMENTAL DEREGULATION

Even as the healthcare fight continues, Trump’s high-profile efforts to reverse Obama-era environmental protections are starting to hit walls, Evan Halper reports.

The most recent loss came from a federal appeals court in Washington, which ruled that EPA chief Scott Pruitt could not short-circuit the process of regulating methane emissions from natural gas fields and storage facilities.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is also running into opposition over plans to revoke protections for some wilderness areas.

At the other end of the environmental policy spectrum, Gov. Jerry Brown is moving forward with a plan to extend the state’s cap and trade program, a key part of California’s fight against global warming. Melanie Mason has all the details.

Brown testified about the plan in Sacramento Thursday in dramatic fashion. But with negotiations ongoing, the vote was delayed until Monday.

SHRINKING THE WALL

For months, Homeland Security officials have been saying publicly that the Trump administration would not try to build a wall all across the southern border. The president finally got on the same page with them on Thursday.

Speaking to reporters as he flew to Paris, Trump said that 700 to 900 miles of border protection would be enough.

That’s a big change, since 600 miles of the border is already fenced. Trump left himself some wiggle room on how much of that existing 600 miles he would count toward his total. He also made clear that steel fencing, of the sort the Obama and George W. Bush administrations built in recent years, would be preferable to a wall of the sort he used to describe.

Trump also said that he, not subordinates, would make the decision about whether to continue Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields about 750,000 so-called Dreamers from being deported.

A SMALLER TRAVEL BAN

Grandma counts, a federal judge in Hawaii ruled.

When the Supreme Court ruled that the administration could implement part of its temporary ban on travel by nationals of six mostly Muslim countries, the justices said the ban could not be applied to people with close connections to U.S. residents.

The administration interpreted that as exempting parents and children from the ban, but not grandparents.

In a ruling late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson said that the distinctions the administration made violated “common sense” and did not meet the standard the Supreme Court had set. On Friday, the Justice Department said it plans to take the case back to the Supreme Court.

TRUMP’S AMBASSADORS

The White House got a very slow start on naming ambassadors, but has recently picked up the pace. So far, Trump has named 25 envoys. As Lauren Rosenblatt reports, they’re mostly big donors and loyal supporters.

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.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni 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

Twitter: @davidlauter


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