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Presidents typically acknowledge no ghostwriters. Even when the wordsmith was clearly visible, White House officials in previous administrations have insisted that the president wrote the initial draft or crafted the final version of his major speeches.
One of the many unique characteristics of the Trump White House is that it has largely dropped that fiction.
Instead, President Trump’s major speeches, like the one he delivered in Warsaw on Thursday, get treated more like those of a reigning monarch: The government writes them, he delivers them. They become policy because he’s spoken them, not necessarily because he has adopted the words as his own.
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.
Warning of terror as a threat to the West
Thursday’s speech on terrorism had some of the now-familiar hallmarks of Trump’s scripted speeches:
Unlike the exuberance he sometimes shows in his extemporaneous rally speeches, the delivery was wooden, somewhat halting, like a person reading a text with which he’s not entirely familiar.
As is often the case, there was an unscripted side remark when he hit a particularly vivid passage. (“That’s tough,” he said, after reading a sentence about Poland being attacked in 1939 by the Nazis from the west and the Soviets from the east).
And, like his Inaugural address, which also was largely written by his policy adviser Stephen Miller, the tone was dark and foreboding, warning that the unique civilization of the West faces attacks from “the South or the East” that threaten to undermine its “will to survive.”
As Brian Bennett and I wrote, the speech framed the fight against terrorism as a clash of civilizations, an approach that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both had carefully avoided.
The extent to which that view captures Trump’s own thinking is hard to know — he’s not a person who has exhibited a consistent ideology — but it does encapsulate the views of the administration faction that includes Miller and White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
The Bannon wing of the White House has lost some fights in recent months over policy issues, including trade. And Bannon for a time appeared to be locked in a no-win battle with Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
But the terrorism speech served as a reminder that the nationalist, populist part of Trump’s administration remains powerful, especially because of its ability to shape what the president says in public.
Kushner at home
Speaking of Kushner, he’s become politically toxic in a place where his family’s real estate company has a lot of money at stake — Jersey City — Barbara Demick reports. The city’s mayor, Steve Fulop, recently withdrew his support for a tax abatement the Kushners were counting on for a major new development project.
It’s all an example of the two-sided nature of Trump’s entanglement of his political life with the families’ business dealings. The Trump and Kushner families appear to have benefited in some ways from the presidency but have lost in others.
The most intensely watched part of Trump’s trip — indeed, one of the most carefully scrutinized moments of this phase of his presidency — was always going to be his initial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Several hours before the meeting, Trump tweeted an odd comment about Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager, John Podesta: “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!” he wrote.
The “everyone here is talking” part was almost certainly untrue — it’s hard to imagine that more than a handful of people in Hamburg, Germany, for the G-20 economic summit had Podesta on their minds. Clearly, however, as he prepared to meet with Putin, Trump did. [Several other parts of the tweet involve apparent confusion on Trump’s part — Podesta had nothing to do with the Democratic National Committee server, nor did the CIA].
When the two leaders sat down, shortly after 4 p.m. local time, they exchanged routine pleasantries. The two met for two hours and 16 minutes, far longer than the typical Trump meeting. Check back on our Essential Washington blog for details as they become available. Whether anything more comes of the meeting may not be known for days, weeks or even longer.
Healthcare still hanging by a thread
With the Senate on recess, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky continues to call Republican lawmakers to see whether there’s a path forward to a deal that would get 50 votes on the healthcare overhaul. So far, there isn’t.
At stake is the health coverage for millions of people, many of them children.
The potential impact on kids has not gotten much attention in this year’s healthcare debate. But as Noam Levey wrote, children would be hit hard by the steep reductions in Medicaid that the Senate plan would bring about.
The political paradox is that many of the places that would feel the most impact are rural areas that supported Trump, Levey wrote. In 780 counties nationwide, Medicaid and the related Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, provides the coverage for more than half the children. Most of those counties are rural and majority white; most voted for Trump in the last election.
Republican conservatives have used the drive to repeal Obamacare as a vehicle for achieving a long-sought goal of rolling back Medicaid. But the scale of the potential loss of coverage to children is one reason why a number of Republican senators from places like West Virginia, Ohio and Maine have balked at the bill.
McConnell still has time to negotiate a deal, perhaps two more weeks before he would have to give up, Senate aides say. Lots of ideas have been floated, including the revival of a plan to simply repeal the Affordable Care Act and promise a replacement later. As Lisa Mascaro wrote, that idea has been pushed for months by groups funded by the Koch brothers.
But as McConnell feared, the healthcare plan is not getting any more popular the longer it sits in public view. This week, at least one more Republican lawmaker, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, said he did not support the bill, at least as it is currently written.
Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who previously had said he did not support the bill, said in a town hall in his state that “there are people who tell me they are better off” under the Affordable Care Act, “and I believe them.”
McConnell, himself, in brief remarks to a Rotary Club lunch in Glasgow, Ky., hinted that the GOP might have to negotiate a bipartisan agreement with Democrats to stabilize healthcare markets, rather than continue its effort to repeal Obamacare.
“If my side is unable to agree on an adequate replacement, then some kind of action with regard to the private health insurance market must occur,” he said, according to the Associated Press, which covered the speech. “No action is not an alternative.”
Vice President Mike Pence didn’t have much in common with Trump when he was picked as the No. 2 on the Republican ticket. His influence within the administration remains in question.
But as Noah Bierman wrote, Pence has adopted a consistent strategy for coping with the turbulence of the Trump White House: Insist that everything is normal.
The risks for Pence in the role of total loyalist, are clear, Bierman writes, but at least he gets points for consistency.
States repudiate Voter Fraud Commission
Trump’s commission to investigate possible voter fraud has been controversial since the moment it was created, largely in response to Trump’s false claim that he lost the popular vote in 2016 only because of millions of illegally cast votes.
The panel’s vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is a lightning rod for Democrats, who fear the commission will become an excuse for Republicans to push bills to make voting harder.
So when the commission asked states to turn over data on voters, fights with Democratic states were pretty much guaranteed, even though most of what the panel asked for already was public information.
The surprise is that many Republican state officials also have pushed back. So far, 44 states have said they would withhold at least some of the data the commission has requested. Republican officials from places like South Carolina and Mississippi have denounced the panel’s request as an example of federal overreach.
A missile test and a not so realistic defense
North Korea’s test this week of a new missile booster that appears to be capable of propelling a projectile as far as Alaska marked a big step forward for that country’s nuclear weapons program. And that’s a big problem for the Trump administration.
Even before he took office, Trump promised that North Korea would not be allowed to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile on his watch. Seems like they’ve now achieved that goal.
So far, Trump’s main strategy has been to hope that China would solve the problem for him. That’s not worked.
As Barbara Demick wrote, however, the administration does have steps it could take — notably, measures to toughen international economic sanctions against the North Koreans. The existing sanctions aren’t nearly as tough as those the Obama administration imposed on Iran, for example.
Winning international agreement for similarly tough sanctions on Pyongyang would be a big test of the administration’s diplomacy.
Meantime, another sort of test — of an anti-missile defense system — appears to have accomplished less than touted.
At the end of May, the military staged a test of a missile-defense system, shooting down a mock warhead high above the Pacific. The head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency proclaimed the test a realistic success.
“This is exactly the scenario we would expect to occur during an actual operational engagement,” Vice Adm. James D. Syring said at a news conference.
Well, only if the scenario includes being able to place a large radar array directly under the path of the oncoming warhead, David Willman reported.
What the military described as a realistic test was actually a carefully scripted challenge that doesn’t provide much confidence that a missile shield would work under adverse conditions, Willman found.