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The return of a less compromising, more familiar Trump: Taking a hard line on North Korea and Obamacare repeal

The return of a less compromising, more familiar Trump: Taking a hard line on North Korea and Obamacare repeal
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This week answered one question: When it comes to Democrats and their ideas, President Trump is happy to flirt but reluctant to marry.

For two weeks, Trump has boggled his own party's leaders by cutting deals with Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the Democratic leaders, on the federal budget and the debt ceiling. He also indicated a willingness to work with them on a moderate solution to the fate of immigrants who entered the country illegally as young children.

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This week: the break-up. This week brought back the Trump of insulting nicknames — "Rocket Man," he called the leader of North Korea — and of his "America First" priorities, both unleashed at that symbol of globalist thinking the president campaigned against, the United Nations. On the domestic front, the week saw a Trump who pushed hard for a new healthcare plan that would dismantle the insurance program built by President Obama, the Democratic predecessor whose legacy Trump appears intent on eradicating.

Hello, I'm Cathleen Decker, filling in this week for David Lauter. 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.

One theme of Donald Trump's presidency has been his uncomfortable adjustment, a political disrupter taking on the ultimate in straight-jacketed roles. He has bridled at the norms of the White House and expressed frustration at the slow pace of his agenda in arenas where a flourish of the thick marker he brandishes on executive orders doesn't do the trick.

Trump's appearance at the U.N.'s General Assembly forced him into the most establishment of roles. He sat for pictures before an endless series of meetings with individual presidents and prime ministers, as chief executives before him have. He announced new economic sanctions against Kim Jong Un's regime in North Korea, showing continued pursuit of non-military solutions to crimp the Asian nation's efforts to build increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons.

But there was no mistaking: Trump wasn't a typical president. Take his warning to Kim: "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime," Trump said, leading some in the U.N. audience to gasp.

A return to a more bellicose Trump was evident when it came to healthcare. After failing to repeal Obamacare in July, the Senate rushed this week to push through a new measure sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Trump, who has criticized Republicans for failing to pull off a 7-year plan to replace Obamacare, put pressure on party leaders to finish the job.

"Graham-Cassidy is GREAT! Ends Ocare," he tweeted at one point.

"I would not sign Graham-Cassidy if it did not include coverage of pre-existing conditions. It does! A great Bill. Repeal & Replace," he added. (According to fact-checkers, Trump is wrong. The measure would in fact allow the denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions if states apply for a waiver giving insurers more latitude over what and who they cover.)

On both the foreign policy and domestic fronts, Trump was returning to familiar positions and the approach he's used for the bulk of his eight-month presidency. The trouble for him: His recent turn toward bipartisanship has coincided with small improvements in his popularity.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday found that 43% of Americans approved of the job Trump was doing, up 3 points in a month. Fifty-two percent disapproved.

But his agreement with Pelosi and Schumer was wildly popular: 71% of Americans said they favored it, to 8% who did not — a ratio rarely seen during any president's tenure, much less an unpopular one.

That suggests one question for Trump to ponder this weekend: Who will he be next week?

TRUMP TAKES ON THE U.N.

Outside of the marble-clad halls of the United Nations, the U.N. General Assembly is usually dreaded. It snarls already difficult Manhattan traffic; protesters and police often face off. But the drama this year was on the inside.

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Trump's four-day visit served to define his foreign policy more acutely than Trump had previously. As Noah Bierman and David Lauter explained, Trump defined globalism narrowly, emphasizing the need for countries to tighten their borders and work independently until they are confronted by a rebellious threat.

"Our government's first duty is to its people, to our citizens, to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights and to defend their values," Trump said. "As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first."

(Here is his annotated speech.)

Trump's sentiment was entirely in keeping with his past negative views of the U.N. But as the president often does, he varied the script. On Monday, he implied that the U.N. had never been great. But the next day, at a lunch with leaders after his speech, he allowed that "there can be no better forum" than the U.N. to solve the world's problems.

It was not clear, as Brian Bennett and Tracy Wilkinson reported, what impact the new U.S. sanctions against North Korea would have. Under Trump's executive order, the U.S. could blacklist any individuals or firms doing work with North Korea — a move made to force other nations to choose between the countries. The measures, he said, were aimed at several industries against which sanctions had already been deployed.

Although the president was confident the sanctions make it harder for North Korea to finance its nuclear program, Kim Jong Un was publicly unbowed. Trump's comments about the option of destroying North Korea, Kim said, demonstrated "mentally deranged behavior."

Trump's other target during the U.N. gathering was Iran; the president strongly suggested that he favored withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Trump's saber-rattling drew criticism both internationally and at home. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said the president "missed an opportunity to present any positive actions the U.N. could take with respect to North Korea and he launched a diatribe against Iran, again offering no path forward."

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The president's assertive behavior at the U.N. did offer something else, however: A reminder of the promises he'd made throughout his campaign for president. As I wrote, the U.N. speech was part of a Trump effort to blunt any concern among his loyalists about his two-week foray with Democrats. Fueled by Trump's big presence on social media and aided by allies, the strategy is meant to keep in thrall the voters who sided with Trump in November, and who have provided sustenance during his months of struggle.

ANOTHER BRUTAL HEALTHCARE FIGHT

One of the struggles, of course, has been healthcare, and the inability of the president to make good on his repeal-and-replace agenda. He has been openly pushing Republicans on Capitol Hill to make another attempt before the Sept. 30 lapse of a budgeting device that allows approval by 51 votes instead of 60. Noam Levey laid out the pressures that brought healthcare back to the table after many Republicans in the Senate had expressed the desire to move on.

"Our bill takes money and power out of Washington and gives it back to patients and states," Graham said this week.

On part of that, both sides could agree. The measure would shift to the states responsibility and money — at least temporarily — for patients now covered by the Medicaid program. States could draft insurance plans as they saw fit, but with less money over time than the federal government currently sets aside for such care. The result could be as many as 50 different systems, which would all have to be set up by 2020 when the program would take effect. Here is a more expansive primer on what the Graham-Cassidy plan would do.

The resurrection of an effort to erase Obamacare set up the same response as occurred in July during the last round. Patient groups, doctors and insurers all came out forcefully against the plan, asserting that it would strip tens of millions of their insurance coverage and affect even those covered by employer plans by erasing the guaranteed benefits under Obamacare and reimposing lifetime coverage limits for the ill. (Analysts said the critics were right.)

A bipartisan group of governors came out against the measure, Lisa Mascaro reported. On Capitol Hill, Republican senators who had voted against the last GOP plan — John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — had their arms twisted more than most others.

But the most caustic feud leading up to next week's expected vote featured Cassidy and a new nemesis, television comedian Jimmy Kimmel. During the summer debate, Cassidy had pledged that he would only back a measure that would protect children born with medical problems, regardless of their parents' ability to pay. He coined it "the Jimmy Kimmel rule" during a televised conversation about Kimmel's infant son, born with heart disease.

This week, with Cassidy's plan offering no such protections, Kimmel laced into him for three nights running. Cassidy pleaded his case on morning news shows, but found himself with little backup.

CALIFORNIA: STILL NOT TRUMP COUNTRY

The Republican healthcare plan had a notable theme: By changing the formula for federal payments to the states, it would punish Democratic states that expanded healthcare coverage under Obamacare, and reward Republican states that had not.

The biggest victim: California. That made the healthcare bill another battle in a war between state and nation dating back to the Trump inauguration.

Not that the other battles eased. California Gov. Jerry Brown blistered Trump's views on climate change, saying the president's reversal of efforts to blunt global warming meant he was "riding a very dead horse."

As Joe Tanfani reported, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions continued his assault on sanctuary cities and on a California measure that would offer some protection to those in the state without proper papers. The attorney general has repeatedly cast California's immigration position as having boosted crime and gangs--although his assertions contradict the facts in some cases.

"The bill risks the safety of good law enforcement officers and the safety of the neighborhoods that need their protection the most," Sessions said, asking Brown to veto the measure.

Brown brushed him back: "We're not soldiers of Donald Trump or the federal immigration service." The California measure, Brown said, was a reaction to "this kind of xenophobia we see coming out of Washington."

Another immigration skirmish continued, this one over Trump's desired wall on the Mexican border. California sued the administration, Patrick McGreevy and Jazmine Ulloa reported, but that is not likely to be the end of it.

The feuds are meant to push back on the administration on matters of policy, but Democrats also hope that keeping alive a sense of animosity toward the president will help spur their success in coming elections. To recapture the House — considered the easier of the two challenges ahead for Democrats in 2018 — the party out of power would need to flip nearly two dozen seats now held by Republicans. Seven of the most contested seats are in California, but as Christine Mai-Duc reported, it will take some doing for Democrats to achieve their goals.

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COMING SOON TO A COURT NEAR YOU

One week after his inauguration, Trump issued a ban on travel by visitors from six Muslim-majority nations, prompting nationwide protests and lawsuits. According to Joe Tanfani, get ready for a redo. He reported that the Department of Homeland Security sent a classified report to the White House last week that outlined security information about countries around the world, not just the six original nations. That could inform the expanded travel ban that Trump has repeatedly said he would like to invoke.

The original ban expires Sunday, so Trump may swiftly decide whether to keep the original in place or toughen it.

Several states already are working through the courts to block some other Trump endeavors. Another now looms over an administration plan to alter the size and usage of national monuments, Evan Halper reported. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's plan for 10 monuments leaked this week; it would downsize six and allow more active use in protected lands at four others.

Zinke has said that the administration has the authority to make unilateral changes, but environmental groups and others have vowed a court fight.

A TEST OF TRUMP'S STRENGTH… IN ALABAMA?

Presidents use a host of weapons, and one of them is fear — fear that he will exact punishment, and fear that the president's loyal voters will exact revenge.

The special election for a Senate seat in Alabama next Tuesday is serving as a marker of Trump's power to keep his own partisans in line. In the running for the seat that Sessions once held are the appointee, Luther Strange, and the state's extremely conservative former chief justice, Roy Moore.

A host of Trump supporters, including former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and Trump's former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, have lined up behind Moore. Trump has boosted Strange in a series of tweets and on Friday night is scheduled to appear at a rally in Huntsville.

A Trump victory would extend the president's winning streak in a series of special elections this year. A Trump defeat would call into question whether Republicans will spend part of 2018 embroiled in bitter primary fights. Millions have already been spent in pursuit of victory, Lisa Mascaro reported, and no one is quite sure whether Trump's appearance will help or hurt his favored Republican candidate.

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. 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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Cathleen.decker@latimes.com

@cathleendecker

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