Jonathan Swan
Featured

White House says Obama didn't call Kelly after his son's death

Trump and Kelly in the Oval Office. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

After President Trump essentially goaded reporters into asking the question, a senior White House official told Axios that Chief of Staff John Kelly "did not receive a call" from Barack Obama after his son was killed in Afghanistan.

Be smart: Trump is doubling down on a claim that is well outside the bounds of normal political attacks, and now he's bringing his chief of staff into it. Even after all his previous attacks on Obama, this is new territory for Trump.

Update: Kelly and his wife attended a 2011 White House event for Gold Star families, and sat at Michelle Obama's table.

Trump's comments

Defending his false claim that past presidents "didn't make calls" to families of soldiers killed in action, Trump told Brian Kilmeade on Fox News Radio Tuesday that reporters should ask Kelly whether Barack Obama made such a call to Kelly.

"To the best of my knowledge, I think I've called every family of somebody that's died," Trump told Kilmeade. "As far as other representatives, I don't know, I mean you could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?"

Kelly's son, Marine Second Lieutenant Robert Kelly, died after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010. John Kelly, now a retired four-star Marine general, was a lieutenant general at the time.

Featured

Midwestern senators to press EPA chief on ethanol

Scott Pruitt. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

A group of Midwestern Republican senators are meeting Tuesday with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to express their concerns about the agency's recent moves on ethanol, according to a spokesman for Sen. Grassley. The Iowa Republican lunched with Pruitt Monday to discuss the same issues.

Why it matters: Ethanol is one of the few energy issues that's controversial within the Republican Party, so expect this tension to wear on throughout President Trump's time in the White House. This meeting comes ahead of a November 30 deadline for EPA to issue final annual regulations as part of the federal ethanol mandate.

Behind the scenes: Pruitt has been frustrated with Grassley's aggressive intervention on the mandate, according to a senior government official with knowledge of the situation. Grassley, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee that has jurisdiction over judicial nominees and the Russian investigation, is one of the most powerful senators on Capitol Hill. Trump has made clear to Pruitt that he needs to work with Grassley to resolve their dispute over the mandate, according to the official. An EPA spokesman declined to comment on Grassley's role or Pruitt's perceived frustration.

The backstory: President Trump has supported ethanol, which comes mostly from corn and is thus important to senators from corn-rich states, like Iowa. Pruitt, in his former job as attorney general of Oklahoma, signed onto litigation opposing the federal mandate, also called the renewable fuel standard (RFS). Trump has aggressively supported the mandate and campaigned heavily on it while touring Iowa during the presidential campaign.

Gritty details: Grassley and a bipartisan group of roughly 30 senators sent a letter Monday urging Pruitt to increase the volumes of biodiesel it requires as part of the ethanol mandate, which mandates that EPA issue annual quotas for different types of biofuels. The agency in September took a rare step by proposing to reduce the levels of biodiesel and advanced biofuels the mandate would require. Grassley and other senators are also concerned about EPA's possible policy change regarding exported biofuels.

"Sen. Grassley will oppose any effort to reduce blending levels or otherwise undermine the RFS to help a handful of merchant refiners," a spokesman for Grassley said. "Those efforts are not necessary, and run contrary to the stated commitment of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt to maintain and defend the integrity of the RFS."

About that meeting: At least a half dozen GOP senators are expected to attend, including Senators Roy Blunt from Missouri and Joni Ernst of Iowa, according to spokespeople for their offices.

Featured

The art of the deal-breaker

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

It's hard to overstate how concerned free-traders on Capitol Hill are about the current state of the Trump administration's negotiations on two consequential trade deals: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the U.S.-Korean trade deal (KORUS.)

"We're all on collapse-watch," one knowledgable source told me. Capitol Hill aides who work on trade are asking "when" not "if" Trump sends a withdrawal notice for NAFTA.

Trump's top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, is playing such extreme hardball with the Canadians and Mexicans in his NAFTA negotiations, that sources close to the process say there's no chance of a compromise solution unless he changes tactics.

  • The uncompromising message: Trump wants what he wants. In this latest NAFTA round he's demanding things the Canadians and Mexicans simply won't accept‚ including 50 percent American-made parts in cars crossing the border tariff-free and a "sunset" clause that would force the trade deal to be reassessed every five years. (A Lighthizer spokeswoman declined to comment when asked about this.)
  • Washington's pro-trade community isn't feeling any more cheerful about the Korean talks. Trump believes to his core that the deal is a scam.

Administration sources don't deny Trump and Lighthizer have been discussing the six-month withdrawal notice, and other methods of gaining leverage over their negotiating partners. But they caution us that just because Trump often discusses withdrawing from these deals — and sometimes with burning urgency in Oval Office meetings — that doesn't mean he's nanoseconds away from doing so.

  • Trump will likely only send the NAFTA withdrawal notice when he feels the negotiations are in their final stage. They're not there yet.
  • And Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn has told the president that withdrawing from NAFTA while he's trying to pass tax reform would be a terrible idea. It would cause a riot on Capitol Hill and alienate Republicans whose votes they desperately need.

Why this matters: Between NAFTA and KORUS you're talking more than $1 trillion in annual trade in goods and services. Withdrawal would do far more than simply roil the U.S. markets; it would profoundly alter U.S. alliances, test a crucial national security partnership in Asia, and could result in the election of a hard core leftist (and no friend to the USA) in Mexico.

  • Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told me that pulling out of TPP, and now potentially NAFTA, "is a direct strategic hit to the U.S. in the area we are most vulnerable: determining economic standards for the world going forward ... Our allies in Asia and Latin America have a choice (in a way that they don't militarily) — China.
  • "In both cases, our allies have expended a great deal of domestic political capital because they believed the U.S. could be relied on to follow through on our international commitments. When that turns out not to be true it causes serious long-term damage to the relationships."

The big picture: A former longtime Hill aide emailed after Trump's Iran speech with the subject line "deal breaker in chief?" ... "Despite claiming to be a great deal maker, I can't think of a single deal President Trump has concluded," he writes. Trump has exited deals (Paris and TPP); chipped away at them (Iran); and unilaterally signed a lot of EOs. "He has endorsed bills (like ACA repeal) or outlines (like tax reform) without himself negotiating details. And he suggested a Chuck & Nancy deal on DACA, but pulled back as soon as it was criticized."

  • "I'm looking for something he bargained," the former aide continues, "where he got less than his 100% position, to see how he could defend a less than perfect deal."

What's next? The next couple months will be crucial because Trump's patience — and Lighthizer's uncompromising asks — have struck immovable objects in Mexico, Canada, and South Korea. Something's gotta give.

Featured

The Kirstjen Nielsen backstory

Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

A lot of people were surprised on Wednesday when word got out that President Trump would appoint Kirstjen Nielsen as the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Those surprised included just about the entire leadership of the department, including the Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke.

Duke emailed senior DHS staff around noon on Wednesday and told them she wanted to do a conference call because General Kelly had just informed her that the president had picked a new DHS Secretary. There was silence on the call when she told them it was Nielsen.

Nielsen is not a beloved figure at DHS; just as she wasn't inside the White House. She has a very sharp-elbowed approach to doing business and doesn't command anywhere near the respect that her predecessor, Kelly, did, according to more than half a dozen sources who've worked with her.

  • Two sources familiar with the situation told me that the reaction inside DHS has been widespread shock at her appointment. There are only a few senior staff at the agency who are loyal to Nielsen. They include Elizabeth Neumann, who was Nielsen's deputy when she was chief of staff at DHS under Kelly, and Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the agency.

The backstory:

  • Nine months ago it would be unimaginable to senior DHS staff that Nielsen would run their agency. She wasn't even Kelly's first choice for the chief of staff job. The former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, a good friend of Kelly's, had highly recommended he retain Alan Metzler, an Obama holdover. Kelly liked the idea and submitted his name to the White House.
  • The White House explained to Kelly why Metzler was not a good pick. He accepted their advice and appointed Nielsen.
  • Three sources familiar with the situation said Nielsen was torn between whether she wanted to be Kelly's chief of staff or whether she wanted to run the DHS's powerful cyber wing, the National Protection and Programs Directorate.
  • Kelly interviewed a lot of people for the NPPD undersecretary job and ultimately submitted Nielsen's name.
  • The White House personnel office agreed with the appointment and President Trump signed off on it. But then nothing happened.
    • Why this matters: The president never announced her nomination — leaving the crucial role, with responsibilities for protecting critical U.S. infrastructure from cyber threats, unfilled. It's one of the most critical and visible faces of cyber security for both the private sector and federal networks."
  • In the meantime, Trump appointed Kelly as White House chief of staff and he brought Nielsen over as his deputy. She had broad control of the policy process inside the West Wing.
  • Nielsen withdrew her name from the NPPD position when she was already at the White House. The widespread understanding inside DHS was that she withdrawing to be principle deputy chief of staff at the White House.

The response: Asked to comment for this story, the top DHS spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman said: "Ms Nielsen was a highly effective and well respected chief of staff to the department before and we expect that she will be a highly effective and well respected Secretary of Homeland Security if confirmed."

Featured

Axios Sneak Peek

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. I'd love your tips and feedback: jonathan@axios.com. And please urge your friends and colleagues to join the conversation by signing up for Sneak Peek.

1. big thing: the art of the deal-breaker

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

It's hard to overstate how concerned free-traders on Capitol Hill are about the current state of the Trump administration's negotiations on two consequential trade deals: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the U.S.-Korean trade deal (KORUS.)

"We're all on collapse-watch," one knowledgable source told me. Capitol Hill aides who work on trade are asking "when" not "if" Trump sends a withdrawal notice for NAFTA.

Trump's top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, is playing such extreme hardball with the Canadians and Mexicans in his NAFTA negotiations, that sources close to the process say there's no chance of a compromise solution unless he changes tactics.

  • The uncompromising message: Trump wants what he wants. In this latest NAFTA round he's demanding things the Canadians and Mexicans simply won't accept‚ including 50 percent American-made parts in cars crossing the border tariff-free and a "sunset" clause that would force the trade deal to be reassessed every five years. (A Lighthizer spokeswoman declined to comment when asked about this.)
  • Washington's pro-trade community isn't feeling any more cheerful about the Korean talks. Trump believes to his core that the deal is a scam.

Administration sources don't deny Trump and Lighthizer have been discussing the six-month withdrawal notice, and other methods of gaining leverage over their negotiating partners. But they caution us that just because Trump often discusses withdrawing from these deals — and sometimes with burning urgency in Oval Office meetings — that doesn't mean he's nanoseconds away from doing so.

  • Trump will likely only send the NAFTA withdrawal notice when he feels the negotiations are in their final stage. They're not there yet.
  • And Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn has told the president that withdrawing from NAFTA while he's trying to pass tax reform would be a terrible idea. It would cause a riot on Capitol Hill and alienate Republicans whose votes they desperately need.

Why this matters: Between NAFTA and KORUS you're talking more than $1 trillion in annual trade in goods and services. Withdrawal would do far more than simply roil the U.S. markets; it would profoundly alter U.S. alliances, test a crucial national security partnership in Asia, and could result in the election of a hard core leftist (and no friend to the USA) in Mexico.

  • Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told me that pulling out of TPP, and now potentially NAFTA, "is a direct strategic hit to the U.S. in the area we are most vulnerable: determining economic standards for the world going forward ... Our allies in Asia and Latin America have a choice (in a way that they don't militarily) — China.
  • "In both cases, our allies have expended a great deal of domestic political capital because they believed the U.S. could be relied on to follow through on our international commitments. When that turns out not to be true it causes serious long-term damage to the relationships."

The big picture: A former longtime Hill aide emailed after Trump's Iran speech with the subject line "deal breaker in chief?" ... "Despite claiming to be a great deal maker, I can't think of a single deal President Trump has concluded," he writes. Trump has exited deals (Paris and TPP); chipped away at them (Iran); and unilaterally signed a lot of EOs. "He has endorsed bills (like ACA repeal) or outlines (like tax reform) without himself negotiating details. And he suggested a Chuck & Nancy deal on DACA, but pulled back as soon as it was criticized."

  • "I'm looking for something he bargained," the former aide continues, "where he got less than his 100% position, to see how he could defend a less than perfect deal."

What's next? The next couple months will be crucial because Trump's patience — and Lighthizer's uncompromising asks — have struck immovable objects in Mexico, Canada, and South Korea. Something's gotta give.

2. Trump's four justices

They swear he's not joking. Sources who've spoken to the president about the Supreme Court say he tells them he thinks he'll have appointed four justices by the end of his first term.

"It's all about the numbers for him," one source said.

Asked how he comes to that jaw-dropping number, Trump mentions the obvious: he's already replaced Antonin Scalia with Neil Gorsuch, and there are rumors Anthony Kennedy will retire.

"Ok," one source told Trump, "so that's two. Who are the others?"
"Ginsburg," Trump replied. "What does she weigh? 60 pounds?"
"Who's the fourth?" the source asked.
"Sotomayor," Trump said, referring to the relatively recently-appointed Obama justice, whose name is rarely, if ever, mentioned in speculation about the next justice to be replaced. "Her health," Trump explained. "No good. Diabetes."

Sotomayor has opened up about her struggles with type-1 diabetes, but she's managed it successfully since childhood.

The White House and spokespeople for the Supreme Court didn't respond to requests for comment.

3. The Kirstjen Nielsen backstory

Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

A lot of people were surprised on Wednesday when word got out that President Trump would appoint Kirstjen Nielsen as the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Those surprised included just about the entire leadership of the department, including the Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke.

Duke emailed senior DHS staff around noon on Wednesday and told them she wanted to do a conference call because General Kelly had just informed her that the president had picked a new DHS Secretary. There was silence on the call when she told them it was Nielsen.

Nielsen is not a beloved figure at DHS; just as she wasn't inside the White House. She has a very sharp-elbowed approach to doing business and doesn't command anywhere near the respect that her predecessor, Kelly, did, according to more than half a dozen sources who've worked with her.

  • Two sources familiar with the situation told me that the reaction inside DHS has been widespread shock at her appointment. There are only a few senior staff at the agency who are loyal to Nielsen. They include Elizabeth Neumann, who was Nielsen's deputy when she was chief of staff at DHS under Kelly, and Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the agency.

4. Sneak Peek diary

President Trump's schedule:

  • Monday: Cabinet meeting in which they're expected to discuss tax reform, immigration, and disaster relief. Trump will have lunch with Mitch McConnell at the White House. Here's Mike Allen's latest take on the Trump/McConnell relationship.
  • Tuesday: Trump to speak on tax reform at the Heritage Foundation. And the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, visits the White House.
    • Flashback: In 2016, Tspiras said of Trump: "Of course what this nomination marks, the ideas it represents, the appeal it reaches, and the threat to become even President – I hope we will not face this evil."
  • Wednesday: Senate Finance Committee members — who are crucial to passing tax reform — visit the White House to meet with Trump.

The House is on recess.

The Senate's week will be consumed by trying to pass the Budget — the essential first step to passing tax reform. Here's how the week is expected to play out:

  • Monday: Senate has its comeback vote to confirm Callista Gingrich to be ambassador to the Vatican.
  • Tuesday: Senate votes to start debate on the budget. Then has 50 hours of debate, followed by a marathon process of amendments known as "vote-a-rama."
  • After they deal with the budget, Senate leaders will move on to pass a $36.5 billion disaster relief package. It's the bill the House passed last week to help communities harmed by recent hurricanes and wildfires.

5. The moron monologues

Jake Tapper had a striking interview with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this morning on CNN's "State of the Union."

  • The splashy moment: Tillerson, stunningly, again refused to deny that he called President Trump "a moron." The State Department spokeswoman and Defense Secretary James Mattis, have denied the incident on Tillerson's behalf, but Tillerson himself still refuses to correct the record.
    • "I'm not gonna deal with that petty stuff," he said, when Tapper asked him whether he called Trump a moron.
  • The consequential moment: Despite Trump saying that Tillerson's diplomatic efforts in North Korea were a waste of time, Tillerson said: "Diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops."
    • Why this matters: While Trump has said publicly that he won't allow North Korea to develop nukes that can hit America, that's exactly what Kim Jong-un is doing. This is leading many national security analysts to conclude that the Trump administration might not be saying it out loud but is actually heading towards a policy of containment or deterrence. (I.e.: accept that the costs of stopping North Korea from having this nuclear capability are too high; but assume that Kim Jong-un is not suicidal and therefore won't fire at America.)
  • A light moment: Tapper asked Tillerson whether it bothered him that his friend Sen. Bob Corker said publicly that Trump had castrated him. "I checked," Tillerson replied dryly. "I'm fully intact."

6. The shows

Sunday show highlight reel, with national security threats left and right, and a good deal of intrigue:

  • General H.R. McMaster, the White House National Security Adviser, spoke ominously about Iran and North Korea on Fox News Sunday. Host James Rosen, who was sitting in for Chris Wallace, asked McMaster about the military options for North Korea.
    • "All of our armed forces are getting to really a high, high degree of readiness for this mission," McMaster said, "if it's necessary."
  • Nikki Haley, the UN Ambassador, told Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press" that President Trump has full confidence in Tillerson and that "if there's a problem, that's really a question for Secretary Tillerson. That's not anything for the rest of us to answer."
  • Ohio Gov. John Kasich didn't rule out running for president in 2020. "I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow," he told Chuck on "Meet." "You know, I will tell you this. The other day, with all the chaos going on, my wife said to me one morning, she said, 'You know, John, I wish you were president.' That's how I knew the country was in trouble."
  • GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, with a cheery outlook to John Dickerson on CBS' "Face the Nation": "If we don't cut taxes and we don't eventually repeal and replace Obamacare, then we're going to lose across the board in the House in 2018. And all of my colleagues running in primaries in 2018 will probably get beat. It will be the end of Mitch McConnell as we know it."

7. 1 unchained thing: How Michael Grimm won Steve Bannon's heart

Photo: Michael Grimm's Twitter account, @RealMGrimm

Holding court at the dining table at the Breitbart Embassy on Capitol Hill, Steve Bannon is having some colorful conversations as he searches for candidates to upset Republican leaders in the 2018 elections.

Bannon's strangest candidate interview so far: Former New York congressman Michael Grimm, who was a moderate when he served in the House and who recently spent time in prison for tax evasion. (He also famously threatened to throw a reporter "off this f-----g balcony" and when the reporter asked another question, Grimm replied: "I'll break you in half. Like a boy.")

I digress. The fact of Bannon's meeting with Grimm is well-known, given Grimm proudly tweeted a picture of the two together. But I can share the moment from the meeting in which Bannon seemed to connect with Grimm.

A source familiar with the meeting told me that when the subject of Grimm's less-than-conservative voting record came up, Grimm said, "I know there were some votes I took that were bad. I was trying to please some people but now I've got no one to answer to. If I'm elected you'll get the real deal Michael Grimm. I don't give a f---."

Featured

Scoop: Trump privately predicts he will appoint four justices

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

They swear he's not joking. Sources who've spoken to the president about the Supreme Court say he tells them he thinks he'll have appointed four justices by the end of his first term.

"It's all about the numbers for him," one source said.

Asked how he comes to that jaw-dropping number, Trump mentions the obvious: he's already replaced Antonin Scalia with Neil Gorsuch, and there are rumors Anthony Kennedy will retire.

"Ok," one source told Trump, "so that's two. Who are the others?"
"Ginsburg," Trump replied. "What does she weigh? 60 pounds?"
"Who's the fourth?" the source asked.
"Sotomayor," Trump said, referring to the relatively recently-appointed Obama justice, whose name is rarely, if ever, mentioned in speculation about the next justice to be replaced. "Her health," Trump explained. "No good. Diabetes."

Sotomayor has opened up about her struggles with type-1 diabetes, but she's managed it successfully since childhood.

The White House and spokespeople for the Supreme Court didn't respond to requests for comment.

Featured

Trump to decertify but stay in Iran deal (for now)

Trump at the CPAC political conference in February. Photo: Alex Brandon / AP

President Trump will announce Friday that he'll refuse to certify Iran's compliance with Congress' law overseeing the nuclear deal; but he will not withdraw America from the deal, per sources familiar with the speech's contents.

Bottom line: Trump isn't withdrawing but he's setting the Iran deal on a perilous course and giving a huge opening to Iran hawks on Capitol Hill to ultimately destroy this agreement.

Trump's speech will focus very little on the certification question and much more on the Trump administration's big picture strategy to deal with Iran. Trump will focus on Iran's non-nuclear misbehavior — its funding of terrorist outfits like Hezbollah, export of foreign fighters, and broader malign activities in the Middle East such as trying to overthrow the government in Yemen.

By refusing to certify Iran's compliance with the deal, Trump leaves Congress three options:

  1. Do nothing; don't apply new sanctions and leave the existing law in place. The upshot: Trump will have strained relations with Iran and European allies but nothing will have substantively changed. Obama's nuclear deal remains intact.
  2. Snap sanctions back on Iran. The upshot: America tears up the nuclear deal.
  3. "Fix" the deal: This is the option Trump is likely to push. Domestically, fixing/strengthening will be done either through Congress; or by executive order if Congress can't or won't pass legislation that toughens the deal.

The Corker-Cotton deal is important because these two GOP senators, who are influential on foreign policy, had differing opinions about what should be included in this legislation but they figured it out behind closed doors. Still going to be a huge lift to get to 60 votes. Unlikely they'll receive much Democratic support.

What's new: As far as the international arena goes, White House officials explained to outside experts yesterday that they believe they can work with the Europeans or go it alone to set benchmarks that the Iranians will be forced to follow or else risk being completely cut-off from the international system. This is designed to address concerns that any fix will require cooperation from the Russians and Chinese — something nobody thinks will happen.

  • A source who was briefed on the conversation explained to Axios that the Americans and Europeans can decide among themselves to condition Iran's continuing access to the global financial system on Iran not exploiting the sunset clauses in the current deal to get a nuke.
Featured

Trump's Iran speech will focus on its non-nuclear activities

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo / AP

President Trump will give a speech tomorrow afternoon in which he's expected to announce the administration's new Iran strategy and signal his intention to refuse to certify the Iran nuclear deal.
Sources familiar with the speech's contents say the president is likely to largely focus on Iran's broader non-nuclear activities and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of Iran's armed forces.
One source tells me: "This is going to be a harsh speech. It's going to be about Iran attacking us."
The Trump administration is required to extend an Executive Order about sanctioning terrorists to the entire IRGC.

Why this matters: The IRGC already has all its assets frozen under another executive order (regarding ballistic missile proliferation) but this is a huge deal because it allows Trump to go to the Europeans and say "you're dealing with terrorists."

Details on the policy review:

  • The speech will blame the IRGC for everything from human rights abuses in Iran to spreading terrorism to taking U.S. hostages.
  • The Trump administration will carve out a category called "asymmetric threats." That will include terrorism, cyber, ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles (can be used to block energy shipments through the Persian Gulf), and support for proxies for Hezbollah and the Houthis.

The backdrop: Although the speech will be at the White House, originally they brainstormed holding it in front of the shuttered Iranian embassy in Washington, D.C., and then were considering various areas that highlight Iran's attacks on U.S. Marines — like the "Raising the flag on Iwo Jima" memorial outside of the Arlington Cemetery.

What's next: Attention turns to Capitol Hill, where a good number of members are eager to work with the Trump administration to make the Iran deal tougher. Should Congress pass new legislation - which would be a heavy lift - it would likely set up a situation in which Congress sets tougher benchmarks on Iran, and would have the excuse of snapping back sanctions if Iran violates these new benchmarks.
Featured

GOP Rep. defends Korean trade deal Trump has threatened to end

Rep. Reichert. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

A Republican House leader on trade gave a full-throated defense of the U.S.-Korean trade deal on Wednesday, as anxiety rises in Washington that President Trump is on course to sink the deal. Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA), who chairs the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, said in his opening remarks at an Asia-Pacific trade hearing: "I am convinced that KORUS, our trade agreement with Korea, has been a great success for both the United States and Korea."
Why this matters: Only Congress has the constitutional authority to slow — or stop — Trump from tearing up trade deals. (It's the subject of hot legal debate whether Congress can prevent the president from withdrawing unilaterally.) Regardless: members like Reichert will be crucial defenders of these deals as Trump and his top negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, continue down a path that many believe ends with the destruction of two major agreements — KORUS and NAFTA.
  • Reichert's remarks stand out because in the populist climate following Trump's election it's rare to hear members of Congress speak up about the benefits of America's trade deals.
  • Many on Capitol Hill are realizing that now is an urgent moment as the fourth round of NAFTA negotiations began Wednesday and all signs point to peril for the deal.
  • Trump has trashed the Korean trade deal, publicly and privately, and in late August was poised to withdraw the US from KORUS until top advisers intervened to slow down the process and ensure he was properly briefed on the economic and national security consequences of withdrawal.
  • In a Sep. 5 Oval Office meeting Trump told Lighthizer to tell the South Koreans he was so crazy he might withdraw from the deal any minute. (But he then told his advisers that he actually might, suggesting this was no bluff.)
What Reichert said about KORUS:
  • "KORUS has been in place only five years, and some of the tariff reductions are still being phased in, especially for sensitive agricultural products, so we can expect even greater gains in the future. Even still, we have seen the benefits of KORUS throughout the United States, and particularly in my home state of Washington. Among other success stories, we have nearly doubled our cherry exports to Korea...
  • "At the same time, Korea's implementation of certain portions of the agreement has been very disappointing, and I know some tough conversations are ongoing to address those problems. The best way to resolve these issues and instill confidence in both countries about the future of the agreement is to use the committee structure set up under KORUS.
  • "When we have a trade agreement in place, we can work to enforce the agreement and push our trading partner to live up to its side of the bargain. But our limited number of trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region greatly reduces our leverage relative to competitors in other countries that have been more aggressive in negotiating trade agreements.
Featured

Trump nominates Kirstjen Nielsen as DHS secretary

Nielsen boards Air Force One. Photo: Alex Brandon / AP

President Trump has nominated Kirstjen Nielsen — Chief of Staff John Kelly's deputy at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security — to be the next Secretary of Homeland Security.

The backdrop: Elaine Duke has been serving as acting secretary since Kelly stepped down to take the White House gig in July. Nielsen, who is a cybersecurity expert, was Kelly's pick to run the department.

Why Nielsen? Nobody in the White House is closer to Kelly. And Michael Allen, a respected GOP national security figure who worked with Nielsen on the White House Homeland Security Council under George W. Bush, encapsulated the case for Nielsen in an email to Axios: "No learning curve. No one else has same policy expertise in cyber, aviation security, FEMA. She takes it to the hoop. Moved to DC from Texas after 9/11 to help stand up TSA. Takes tough jobs, co-authored Katrina Lessons Learned Report which made FEMA better."