Trump administration weighs last-minute Obamacare replacement changes - Axios
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Trump administration weighs last-minute Obamacare replacement changes

Alex Brandon / AP

Trump administration officials are seriously considering whether to make substantive last minute changes to the House Obamacare replacement bill to convince Freedom Caucus members to vote for it.

Two sources with direct knowledge — working on the side pushing the bill — tell me that the White House is debating making some changes to how the House bill trims Obamacare's insurance regulations and its "essential benefit" requirements before putting the bill on the floor. One source said failure was not an option. In one source's view it's not realistic to think that the bill can be kicked into next week and that something might miraculously change.

Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows has made it clear he can't vote for the current bill and won't unless more is done to lower premiums. He's demanded the House bill repeals more Obamacare insurance rules.

Why it matters: Republicans are still looking for votes. In the White House meeting today the team pushing the bill suggested to the Freedom Caucus that they could get changes made in the Senate version. But the Freedom Caucus folks made it clear they don't trust the Senate. Leadership's view is that the changes aren't possible under the rules for the budget "reconciliation" bill that's being used for repeal, since everything in it has to affect spending or revenues. But there appears to be growing openness within the White House to testing that proposition.

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My 6 Big Things: Cecile Richards shares a worthy part of her morning routine

I chat with industry leaders about their quirks and life hacks for Axios' My 6 Big Things series. This week features Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, tells us a worthy part of her morning routine.

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Scoop: Mueller obtains "tens of thousands” of Trump transition emails

Photo: AP

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has obtained “many tens of thousands" of Trump transition emails, including emails of Jared Kushner, transition team sources tell Axios.

  • Trump officials discovered Mueller had the emails when his prosecutors used them as the basis for questions to witnesses, the sources said.
  • The emails include 12 accounts, one of which contains about 7,000 emails, the sources said.
  • The accounts include the team's political leadership and the foreign-policy team, the sources said.

Why it matters: The transition emails are said to include sensitive exchanges on matters that include potential appointments, gossip about the views of particular senators involved in the confirmation process, speculation about vulnerabilities of Trump nominees, strategizing about press statements, and policy planning on everything from war to taxes.

  • “Mueller is using the emails to confirm things, and get new leads," a transition source told me.

How it happened: The sources say Mueller obtained the emails from the General Services Administration, the government agency that hosted the transition email system, which had addresses ending in “ptt.gov," for Presidential Transition Team.

Taking fight public: Charging "unlawful conduct," Kory Langhofer, counsel for the transition team, wrote in a letter to congressional committees Saturday that "career staff at the General Services Administration ... have unlawfully produced [transition team] private materials, including privileged communications, to the Special Counsel's Office."

  • The seven-page leter, obtained by Axios, says: "We understand that the Special Counsel's Office has subsequently made extensive use of the materials it obtained from the GSA, including materials that are susceptible to privilege claims."
  • The letter says this was a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
  • "Additionally, certain portions of the [transition] materials the Special Counsel's Office obtained from the GSA, including materials that are susceptible to privilege claims, have been leaked to the press by unknown persons."

The Special Counsel's office said: "We will decline to comment."

The transition sources said they were surprised about the emails because they have been in touch with Mueller's team and have cooperated.

The twist: The sources say that transition officials assumed that Mueller would come calling, and had sifted through the emails and separated the ones they considered privileged. But the sources said that was for naught, since Mueller has the complete cache from the dozen accounts.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with details from the Langhofer letter to congressional committees.

Get more stories like this by signing up for our daily morning newsletter, Axios AM.

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Pope vs. Fake News

Pope Francis. Photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Pope Francis warned journalists about committing the "very serious sin" of sensationalizing the news and providing one-sided reports, per AP:

"You shouldn't fall into the 'sins of communication:' disinformation, or giving just one side, calumny that is sensationalized, or defamation, looking for things that are old news and have been dealt with and bringing them to light today."

Why it matters: The Pope is planning to dedicate his annual communications message to "fake news," the AP reports. This is one of several instances of Trump's "fake news" message making its impact around the globe.

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North Korea sanctions are keeping food, medicine from citizens

Pyongyang citizens gathering to mourn in front of a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at the Pyongyang Gymnasium. Photo: KCNA / AFP / Getty Images

Sanctions against North Korea could increase cases of acute malnutrition among children, and hamper humanitarian efforts, according to a Washington Post report.

Why it matters: While sanctions were enforced with the intent of punishing the regime for its nuclear threats and missile launches, an American neurosurgeon who operates in North Korea, Kee Park, told the Post "they're hurting the wrong people."

  • The U.K. announced last month it would cut off aid to North Korea.
  • South Korea hasn't "delivered on its September pledge to give $8 million to the World Food Program and UNICEF for children and pregnant women," the Post reports.
  • The U.N. resident coordinator in Pyongyang, Tapan Mishra, wrote to U.N. officials that "crucial relief items, including medical equipment and drugs, have been held up for months...they are not on the list of sanctions items."
  • A humanitarian worker in Pyongyang told the Post said Chinese suppliers "have decided that it's not worth the exposure or the risk of their reputations" to continue sending supplies, despite not sending anything already banned by sanctions.
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Inside the Pentagon's multi-million dollar program to explore UFOs

An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. Photo: AFP staff / Getty Images

The Pentagon has officially confirmed the existence of its $22 million program to investigate unidentified flying objects (UFOs), reported by Politico and the New York Times almost simultaneously today.

Why it matters, per Politico's Bryan Bender: "The revelation of the program could give a credibility boost to UFO theorists, who have long pointed to public accounts by military pilots and others describing phenomena that defy obvious explanation, and could fuel demands for increased transparency about the scope and findings of the Pentagon effort, which focused some of its inquiries into subjects such as next-generation propulsion systems."

The details of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program:

  • Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader requested the program's funding in 2007. Much of it came from Robert Bigelow, the billionaire behind an aerospace program who currently works with NASA.
  • Bigelow said on CBS last May that he was "absolutely convinced" that UFOs have visited Earth and that aliens exist.
  • Pilots and various military personnel have claimed to see UFOs that "maneuvered so unusually and so fast that they seemed to defy the laws of physics."
  • One UFO sighting collected by the program is documented in "footage from a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet showing an aircraft surrounded by some kind of glowing aura traveling at high speed and rotating as it moves," per NYT.

The program's funding ended in 2012, though some of the program's backers say it continues to operate. A Pentagon spokesman, Thomas Crosson, told NYT: “It was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding, and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a change."

Why now: Luis Elizondo, a military intelligence officer who helped run AATIP, resigned in October because he said there wasn't sufficient time and effort put into the UFO investigation, according to his resignation letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis.

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The crackdown on college fraternities

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house at Ohio State University. Photo: Dake Kang / AP

"[A]mid worries about endemic binge drinking, sexual assault and a startling spate of deaths, schools are going beyond the old practice of shutting down individual [fraternity] houses to imposing broad restrictions on all Greek life," the N.Y. Times' Anemona Hartocollis reports atop column 1:

  • "Activities like fraternity parties and initiations have been suspended or curtailed at colleges including Ball State, Indiana University, Ohio State and the University of Michigan, as well as at least five where deaths have occurred this year: Florida State, Louisiana State, Penn State, Texas State and Iowa."
  • Why it matters ... Tracy Maxwell, founder of HazingPrevention.org: "There is definitely this moment in time where society is not willing to accept behavior that in the past has been acceptable."

Go deeper: The state of college Greek life.

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Americans loathe Washington, but like home

Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images

Americans are pessimistic about Washington and think the country is on the wrong track (69%), but are optimistic about their local communities.

That's the encouraging finding of an AP-NORC (University of Chicago) poll:

  • 9% think the country has become more united under Trump, while 67% think the country is more divided. (44% of Americans said in a poll last year that Obama's presidency had further divided the country.)
  • Even Republicans think Trump has divided America more than uniting it, 41% to 17%.
  • But, but, but ... "[P]essimism about the president and national politics doesn't extend to local communities. ... [A]bout half of Americans said they feel optimistic about their local communities" — 55% of Ds and 50% of Rs.
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The next battle: Trump to take on China

The Tianzi Hotel with the shape of Chinese deities. Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

As part of an assertive "America First" national security strategy that President Trump will unveil Monday, he will accuse China of "economic aggression," the Financial Times' Demetri Sevastopulo and Shawn Donnan scoop:

  • One person familiar with the strategy says it is "likely to define China as a competitor in every realm. Not just a competitor but a threat, and therefore, in the view of many in this administration, an adversary."
  • What it means: This is "a strong sign that he has become frustrated at his inability to use his bond with China’s President Xi Jinping to convince Beijing to address his trade concerns."
  • Why it matters ... Michael Allen, a former Bush official, now a Beacon Global Strategies managing director: "The national security strategy is the starting gun for a series of economic measures against the Chinese ... the Rosetta Stone for translating campaign themes into a coherent governing document.”

Winner: Steve Bannon. When I texted him the FT article, he replied: "#winning."

  • Flashback: This is what Jonathan Swan forecast when he reportedthat the National Security Strategy will "explain how Trump's 'America First' mantra applies to the vast range of threats America faces, including Chinese economic competition, Russian influence operations, and the weaponization of space."

Losers: Several top officials within the Trump adminstration's national-security apparatus, who opposed adding what one called a "political lens" to the strategy.

  • A senior Trump national-security official tells me: "This was added to be one of the headlines of the Strategy, for domestic political audiences."
  • The official added: "The Trump China trip didn't reflect this policy, both the public reported comments and the private conversations. ... If we truly believe China is 'aggressor,' there is a while suite of policy shifts that would need to correspond" that aren't currently planned."

CFR President Richard Haass — author of "A World in Disarray" (paperback out Jan. 2) — tells Axios from in-flight Wi-Fi that slapping Beijing could be costly:

  • "There are legit criticisms of China's trade policy ... But starting a trade war would leave both countries worse off. U.S. exporters would pay a significant price. Whatever Chinese inclination exists to work with us re North Korea would diminish."
  • "Why did this administration withdraw from the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership]? It provided the basis for a regional trading system that either would have isolated China, or forced it to accept much more stringent terms if it wanted to be a full participant in regional trade. In short, there appears to be a serious disconnect between the NSS and Administration policy."
  • "The use of the word 'aggression' is a questionable choice. Unfair trade practices, for sure. But aggression is a serious escalation on our part. Hard to see how it paves the way to a compromise, or does not contribute to an overall deterioration in the relationship at a time we need it re NK."
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Mexico grants military more power in fighting drug war

Soldiers from the Mexican Army and Mexican Marines patrol along Acapulco's coastline. Photo: AFP photo/ Francisco Robles/Getty Images

The Mexican military will be granted more control in the fight against the country's drug war, which has increasingly become more violent under President Enrique Peña Nieto, after a law passed in Mexico's Congress yesterday.

Why it matters: Critics of the law — including United Nations officials and human rights groups — argue that it would "will vastly expand military authority without checks and balances and offers no exit strategy to cede eventual leadership of the campaign to combat drugs to an effective police force," per NYT.

Why now: Violence from Mexican drug cartles has gotten worse under President Peña Nieto's tenure — NYT notes that 2017 has been "the deadliest in two decades." And since troops were first sent to combat the drug gangs in 2006, "more than 200,000 people have been killed in the drug war and 31,000 people have gone missing," according to official statistics cited by NYT.

The changes:

  • Mexico has maintained civilian control over their army for nearly the past 100 years, which has ultimately given local law enforcement officers complete jurisdiction over their areas. This law would give the government and the military more control.
  • The Mexican military currently operates in 27 of 32 states around the country — they were only in six states when Peña Nieto became president five years ago.
  • Peña Nieto would have to issue a public executive order detailing his reasons for sending in more troops to different areas. That EO would last a year.
  • The military will have more authority to carry out investigations on their own terms, thus breaking from the civilian control under which they've previously operated.
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White House paper suggests solar tariff support

Workers seen by solar panels of the Isyangulovo solar power plant in Zianchurinsky District, the Republic of Bashkortostan. Vadim Braidov/TASS Photo: Vadim Braidov\TASS via Getty Images

A White House document circulating within the Trump administration lays out a case for imposing new trade restrictions on imports of solar panel equipment from Asia, according to a report in Politico.

Why it matters: It's the latest sign that President Trump's hawkish trade stance toward China will soon lead to tariffs that U.S. solar energy developers fear will sharply drive up costs and curtail new project development.

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) concluded in September that low-cost imports — many of which come from Chinese owned companies operating in Asia — were a cause of "serious injury" to domestic panel manufacturers.

The finding came in response to a petition from two financially distressed manufacturing companies, Suniva and SolarWorld.

What's next: The White House is slated to make a decision as soon as next month on whether to impose tariffs or perhaps some other forms of solar trade restrictions.

In November the ITC recommended tariffs that are less aggressive than what the petitioners sought. But the White House has wide latitude to decide what form of penalties, if any, to impose.