August 24, 2019

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley dismissed rumors that she was being considered as a replacement for Vice President Mike Pence on President Trump's 2020 ticket, calling Pence a "dear friend" who has her "complete support." It's reportedly true that Pence and Haley are friends — multiple sources told Politico that the two have long had a "warm" relationship — but the rumored rivalry between their two camps is real, Politico reports.

The recent divisions between the two prominent Republicans, both of whom are being touted as potential future GOP presidential candidates, were seemingly fueled in part by rumors that Haley would be a possible replacement, only to be exacerbated by the fact that she took so long to address them. Some of Pence's top aides reportedly think that Haley or an ally were actually behind a June Wall Street Journal op-ed urging Trump to make the change.

The White House brushed off those suggestions publicly, and Pence has received support from the administration and Trump himself, who apparently privately told Pence that he was irritated by the article.

While it's unlikely there's any weight behind the vice presidential rumors, Pence's team is still convinced that Haley is already laying the groundwork for a future presidential bid, in which the vice president could become a direct competitor. Perhaps a showdown awaits. Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

8:26 a.m.

President Trump on Monday starts a three-day trip to join world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly. The trip comes as tensions swirl around Trump's relationship with Ukraine, a showdown with Iran following strikes against Saudi oil facilities, Trump's trade war with China, and frozen nuclear talks with North Korea. Trump said "nothing is ever off the table completely," ABC News reports. But he had no plans to meet on the sidelines with Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani as the U.S. pushes to build a coalition to confront Tehran over the attack in Saudi Arabia, which rattled the world oil market. Trump meets Wednesday with the president of Ukraine as Democrats press the Trump administration to release a whistleblower's complaint about a phone call Trump had with a foreign leader believed to involve Ukraine. Harold Maass

8:10 a.m.

So far, 18 House Republicans have announced that they are resigning, retiring, or seeking another office, including longtime GOP stalwarts, some of the few GOP congresswoman, and the lone black Republican congressman. And that just scratches the surface, The Washington Post reports. "All told, 41 House Republicans have left national politics or announced they won't seek reelection in the nearly three years since [President] Trump took office," dwarfing the 25 Democrats who retired between 2009 and 2013, "and Republicans privately predict this is only the beginning."

"The problem for the GOP is bigger than retirements," the Post reports:

Since Trump's inauguration, a Washington Post analysis shows, nearly 40 percent of the 241 Republicans who were in office in January 2017 are gone or leaving because of election losses, retirements including former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), and some, such as [Michigan Rep. Paul] Mitchell, who are simply quitting in disgust. The vast turnover is a reminder of just how much Trump has remade the GOP — and of the purge of those who dare to oppose him. [The Washington Post]

Most retiring or resigning GOP members of Congress cite their families, "but behind the scenes, Republicans say the trend highlights a greater pessimism about the direction of the party under Trump — and their ability to win back the House next year," the Post reports. Most are reluctant to criticize Trump on the record, but Mitchell isn't.

"We're here for a purpose — and it's not this petty, childish bulls--t," Mitchell, 62, told the Post in early September. He said his decision to retire started when Trump attack four Democratic congresswomen on Twitter, then solidified when no fellow Republicans would relay his concerns to Trump. "Did any member of this conference expect that their job would start out every morning trying to go through the list of what's happening in tweets of the day?" he asked. Read more at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

6:38 a.m.

Two weeks ago, President Trump announced that the Food and Drug Administration will soon ban flavored e-cigarettes, crediting first lady Melania Trump's advocacy for the ban. Very quickly, conservative groups and the vaping industry jumped into action, Axios reports, and now "conservative leaders are circulating data to White House staff" showing that "the number of adult vapers in key battleground states greatly outweighs the margins by which Trump won those states in 2016 — and they argue it could cost him reelection."

"While parents may be concerned about e-cigarettes, the people who genuinely care about vaping as a voting issue so far outweighs the number of people Trump needs to win in 2020 that they are royally screwing themselves by doing this," Americans for Tax Reform's Paul Blair tells Axios. An industry lobbyist added that suburban moms concerned about vaping "don't have the same voter intensity on this as adult vapers do." Trump was supposed to hold a listening session with vaping supporters, including lobbyists, last Thursday, but the meeting was canceled, Axios says.

There are reasons to doubt the arguments about vaping's effect on the election, Axios notes, including the iffy assumptions that significant numbers of vapers "are single-issue voters around vaping rights" and "wouldn't vape anymore if they couldn't get the flavors," but "the math can't be totally ignored, especially in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin where Trump's 2016 win margins were so narrow and the number of adult vapers is relatively high."

That said, maybe Trump has bigger issues than angry vapers. Peter Weber

5:48 a.m.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin really wanted to talk about "the real issue of the week," Iran, on CNN's State of the Union Sunday, but Jake Tapper insisted they first discuss a growing scandal involving President Trump pressuring Ukraine's president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Trump's interactions with Ukraine are reportedly at the center of an intelligence officer's whistleblower complaint.

Trump has acknowledged bringing up the Bidens with Ukraine's president in the context of "corruption" — there's no evidence Hunter Biden did anything illicit when he sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, nor that Joe Biden intervened to help his son — but the White House denies that Trump was using $250 million in U.S. military aid as leverage.

Mnuchin and Tapper went back and forth about what Trump may or may not have said to Ukraine's president, whether it was appropriate, and whether the public has a right to know. Finally, Mnuchin said that what he finds "inappropriate is the fact that Vice President Biden at the time's son did very significant business dealings in Ukraine," and he thinks that issue perhaps "should be further investigated."

Tapper followed up: "So it is okay for Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump to do business all over the world, it's okay for Ivanka Trump to have copyrights approved all over the world while President Trump is president, but while Vice President Joe Biden was vice president, his son shouldn't have been able to do business dealings?" Mnuchin said he didn't want to "go into more of these details," and Tapper cut in: "Well, you're just setting a precedent that the president is violating."

Mnuchin said he sees "a significant difference" between the two situations, and Tapper finally moved on to Iran. You can read the entire transcript at CNN. Peter Weber

4:48 a.m.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to a crowd of about 50,000 people in Houston's NRG Stadium on Sunday, and President Trump was his special guest. The "Howdy, Modi!" event, attended mostly by members of Houston's large Indian-American community, was reportedly one of the largest U.S. gatherings to celebrate a foreign leader who isn't a pope, and one of the biggest meetings of the Indian diaspora in history. Trump and Modi both lavished praise on each other, and each had something to gain from the event.

For Trump, "it was a chance to court Indian-Americans for the 2020 presidential election race, where Texas could emerge as a battleground state," and to increase his share of the Indian-American vote nationwide, says BBC News correspondent Brajesh Upadhyay, while for Modi, "a PR triumph and picture with the president of the United States may help him shrug off the criticism over his recent strong-arm polices at home," especially in the Kashmir region. Modi, in fact, "may face a frostier reception at the U.N. General Assembly" this week in New York, BBC News notes.

In Texas, though, "the foreign strategy of soothing tensions with the United States by stroking President Trump's ego was put into vivid effect here," says The Washington Post. Trump and Modi did not dwell on the trade tensions that started this summer, but both leaders are hoping to reach a partial deal they can each call a win. In his brief, scripted remarks, Trump praised Modi and Indian-Americans and compared the Kashmir region to the U.S.-Mexico border. Modi used both his and Trump's campaign slogans to laud Trump, adding that the U.S. president is "warm, friendly, accessible, energetic, and full of wit." Peter Weber

3:37 a.m.

President Trump's re-election campaign "is increasingly grim about a repeat performance" in Michigan, where Trump eked out a win in 2016, Politico reports. But the campaign isn't giving up on the state entirely — this weekend, Vice President Mike Pence made his third trip to Michigan this year, traveling this time to quaint Mackinac Island to speak at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.

In a state where every vote will count in 2020 and Republicans lost big in 2018, Pence's visit might not have been a net positive.

The eight heavily armored SUVs that transported Pence from his helicopter to the Grand Hotel, less than a mile away, on Saturday afternoon made up the first-ever motorcade on the island, which banned motor vehicles in 1898. The ongoing ban on cars — or even electric scooters and bikes — is one of the island's biggest attractions, along with its Victorian charm and its fudge. Most people walk, bike, or use horses — even VIPs.

Pence was the first sitting vice president to visit Mackinac, but President Gerald Ford made the trip in 1975 — and rode in a horse-drawn carriage. Former Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton also visited the island without using motor vehicles.

Pence had his defenders, like Michigan state Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R), whose district includes Mackinac Island and shrugged off the motorcade as "the nature of the security these days."

But the critics appeared to outnumber them. Former journalist and Michigan native Ron Fournier called Pence's motorcade "sacrilege" and "obscene," telling the Detroit Free Press: "No security expert would claim it's necessary." Former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren was also appalled, but Democrats hit harder. "Banned for a century people, and here comes the Trump Administration trampling all over it, like they do the U.S. Constitution," tweeted Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Peter Weber

1:37 a.m.

President Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and members of Trump's Cabinet are pretty open about wanting a scandal involving Trump personally pressuringpossibly extorting — Ukraine's president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner to challenge him in next year's presidential race, to be a story about Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and alleged "corruption." Reporters have been digging around for months, and there just doesn't seem to be much there.

The allegation from Trump and Giuliani is that Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a state prosecutor to quash an investigation into a Ukrainian oligarch, Mykola Zlochevsky, whose gas company Burisma hired Hunter Biden to sit on its board of directors in 2014. Some of that is true — Joe Biden has openly said he successfully pressured Ukraine in 2016 to fire the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, or lose $1 billion in U.S. grant money.

But the first problem for Trump's accusation, The Wall Street Journal reports, is that "Shokin had dragged his feet into those [Zlochevsky] investigations, Western diplomats said, and effectively squashed one in London by failing to cooperate with U.K. authorities." In fact, Shokin was widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective. "The whole G-7, the IMF, the EBRD, everybody was united that Shokin must go, and the spokesman for this was Joe Biden," says Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Zlochevsky's allies were "relieved" by Shokin's dismissal, The New York Times reports, because while "Shokin was not aggressively pursuing investigations into Mr. Zlochevsky or Burisma," he "was using the threat of prosecution to try to solicit bribes from Mr. Zlochevsky and his team." Zlochevsky has never been convicted of any wrongdoing, despite "a push by Obama administration officials for the United States to support criminal investigations by Ukrainian and British authorities, and possibly for the United States to start its own investigation, into the energy company, Burisma," and Zlochevsky, the Times adds. Biden never did anything to deter those efforts, his former colleagues say.

Hunter Biden, who has never been accused of wrongdoing in Ukraine, "is no longer on the Burisma payroll," The Washington Post notes. "In the Trump era, a different cast of characters is winning contracts in Ukraine. One of the players? Giuliani," who has "found ready clients in Ukraine, where people think that U.S. political wisdom can get results." Peter Weber

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