The Hill's Morning Report: 200 Days to the Election

Welcome to The Hill's Morning Report, which is replacing The Hill's morning Tipsheet each weekday. This comprehensive morning email, reported by Jonathan Easley and Alexis Simendinger, briefs you on the most important developments in politics and what to look for in the days and weeks ahead…

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The race is on to Nov. 6 and things look bleak for Republicans as they seek to protect majorities in the House and Senate. We asked veteran midterm-watchers to share what they’re seeing.

“The last time the Democrats won back the House was 2006, but back then, few were predicting a flip until the fall of that year when the Mark Foley scandal broke. Now, Democrats are publicly expressing confidence they will secure the majority and Republicans privately acknowledge the chances are better than 50-50. Still, there's one big caveat: the election is 200 days away." – The Hill editor in chief Bob Cusack.

The data for Republicans is harrowing:

  • More than three dozen GOP lawmakers have opted to retire, rather than seek reelection. Democrats only need to flip 23 seats to take back the House.
  • The party in power historically loses seats in a midterm election.
  • Democrats have an advantage in enthusiasm. More than 40 House challengers have outraised their GOP incumbents.

Some view the Senate as in play, although the map favors Republicans. There are 10 Democrats up for reelection in states President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE carried in 2016.

Shock poll: Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump walks tightrope on gun control State Department's top arms control official leaving Sanders NASA plan is definitely Earth first MORE (R) leads Democratic challenger by only 3 points in Texas.

“At this point the math still favors Republicans. But if a real wave develops – which won’t be known until fall – the Senate could be in play. ” – Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman and former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelIs war with Iran on the horizon? 3D-printable guns will require us to rethink our approach on gun safety The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Democrats set for Lone Star showdown MORE (D-N.Y.).

“Sure the Senate could flip. I’d still say more than likely it doesn’t, but absolutely it’s possible. It will be a good year for Democrats and a bad year for Republicans. The only question is how bad.”Chris Wright, GOP donor and oil industry executive.

More bad data for Republicans:

  • Democrats hold a 5.6 point lead in the House generic ballot. (RealClearPolitics)
  • President Trump’s historically low approval rating is a drag on the party.
  • Polls show Republicans are losing support among women, young voters, nonwhite voters and independents.

Some donors think the House is a lost cause and are considering whether they should shift their money to focus on protecting the Senate. They’re being more strategic, targeting specific House members in an effort to pull them across the finish line.

“You have to pick races where you think you can make a difference because the likelihood is that we’ll lose the House.” – GOP donor and investment manager John DeBlasio.

The Hill: House, Senate GOP compete for cash.

Some Republicans remain bullish, believing tax cuts and a growing economy will save them.

"At this time, and of course much can change, I believe the Republicans will continue to hold both the House and Senate.” – former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

Outside groups will provide plenty of cash, with the Koch Network, Republican National Committee (RNC) and leadership-aligned PACs pushing the election price tag past the half-billion-dollar mark.

The Hill EXCLUSIVE: Koch-backed group targets Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocratic senators quietly hope Biden wins over rivals GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson to resign at end of year Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment MORE (D) in Montana.

But…

“Republicans for years have been running against Obama … They’ve got to find their rhythm on this...It's not Trump versus Clinton … They're one-trick ponies. They're giving the same speech they've been giving before." – former National Republican Campaign Committee chairman and former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

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LEADING THE DAY

Highlights from Trump’s newsy presser with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida:

Trump says he won’t meet with Kim Jong Un if he believes a summit with North Korea won’t be successful. The president said he aspires to a fruitful meeting with the leader, but is ready to walk out or could decline to attend. A meeting date and location have not been announced. “I like always remaining flexible,” Trump said.

Bottom line: The president remains heavily invested in a summit, the ultimate negotiating challenge.

Reuters: South Korea’s Moon says North Korea seeks “complete denuclearization.”

The president did not rule out firing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerLewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation MORE or Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinLewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Nadler's House committee holds a faux hearing in search of a false crime House Democrats seeking Sessions's testimony in impeachment probe MORE (“those two gentlemen you told me about”) but he noted both are still in their jobs despite months of rumors that they’d be fired. He repeated his oft-heard assertion that no collusion took place with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election and called the investigation a “hoax.”

Trump: “Nobody has ever been more transparent than I have. … We are hopefully coming to the end.”

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump walks tightrope on gun control Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Trump: 'Great to see' Pelosi plan to lower drug prices MORE (R-Iowa) is moving forward on a bill that would limit Trump’s ability to fire Mueller, although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellToomey on gun reform: 'Beto O'Rourke is not helping' Election meddling has become the new normal of US diplomacy DC statehood push faces long odds despite record support MORE (R-Ky.) has said he will not bring the measure to the floor.

The Wall Street Journal: Michael Cohen would turn on Trump if charged, counselor warned the president.

The New York Times: Former Playboy model released from agreement; can publicly discuss alleged Trump affair.

U.S. and Japan agree to new bilateral trade talks during the Mar-a-Lago meeting. Trump and Abe announced talks aimed at “free, fair and reciprocal trade,” and reducing the trade deficit between the two allies. The president said tariffs the administration imposed on Japanese-made steel and aluminum will remain in place, but may be reviewed “some time in the future.” Abe said Japan poses no national security risk to the United States, a rationale for the U.S. tariffs, and he indicated his country seeks a waiver.

AP: Trade issues expose the limits of Trump-Abe ‘bro-mance.’ Still, they remain friendly — Abe says he had a cheeseburger on the golf course with Trump.

Cabinet criticisms: The White House, with help from GOP surrogates, is working overtime to bolster Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo: Countries should reject China's demands to repatriate Uighurs Trump says he will consider releasing transcript of Ukraine call White House officials, Giuliani come to Trump's defense on Ukraine allegations MORE’s chances for confirmation to head the State Department. Disclosing Pompeo’s role as Trump’s secret envoy to North Korea’s leader was an authorized leak to buff up the intelligence chief’s image as a statesman, Politico reports.

The RNC circulated praise for the director’s meeting with Kim Jong Un, The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel reports. Senators who voted last year to confirm Pompeo as CIA director are feeling pressured to reject him to lead the State Department, reports The Hill’s Jordain Carney.

Elsewhere in the Cabinet, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA moving ahead with science transparency rule by 'early next year' Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections MORE remains under fire:

Russian sanctions drama continues: Russian news agencies reported Wednesday that the Trump administration informed the Russian Embassy in Washington not to expect new economic sanctions tied to Moscow’s support for Syria and this month’s chemical attack on civilians near Damascus, Reuters reports

But a State Department official told The Hill that new sanctions remain under consideration.

Trump didn’t clear things up Wednesday: “Yeah, we’ll do sanctions. As soon as they very much deserve it ... that is a question,” he said while speaking in Florida. Translation: The new sanctions U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyJuan Williams: Why does Trump fear GOP voters? Can Carl DeMaio save the California GOP? Treasury: US deficit tops trillion in 11 months MORE described over the weekend do not appear imminent.

National economic adviser Larry Kudlow publicly admonished Haley, but he has since apologized and the ambassador says her relationship with the president is “perfect.”

White House reporter Jordan Fabian has the behind-the-scenes account here. (The Hill)

Meanwhile, similar confusion swirls in Moscow: Bloomberg reports President Vladimir Putin seeks to repair relations with Washington; Reuters reports he’s plotting “precise and painful” retaliation.

The Hill (op-ed): Russia outlandishly blames West as part of Putin provocation campaign, by Yuval Weber.


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IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

Turbulence for Comey – Former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyNadler's House committee holds a faux hearing in search of a false crime We've lost sight of the real scandal Former Obama officials willing to testify on McCabe's behalf: report MORE is getting rougher treatment from the media as he sells his new book.

Pundits and reporters are challenging Comey about whether he ceded the high ground by mocking Trump’s hair, skin and hand size, among other things.

“Did you enjoy taking those shots at the president?” NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked him Wednesday.

Comey said they weren’t insults, that he was merely describing the scene, honoring his editor’s advice to “bring the reader into the room.”

But the former FBI director said he hoped he had not “diminished himself,” and in a later interview with ABC News said he wished he’d deleted those portions from the manuscript.

The White House and RNC are coordinating a campaign to discredit Comey, including disseminating critical media coverage (RNC email subject line: “Savannah grills `Catty’ Comey”).

GOP lawmakers also put Comey in their sights. A group of 11 conservative House members wrote to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump reignites court fight with Ninth Circuit pick Democrats press Nadler to hold Lewandowski in contempt Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' MORE on Wednesday demanding he investigate Comey, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats go all out to court young voters for 2020 Pelosi: Whistleblower complaint 'must be addressed immediately' Election meddling has become the new normal of US diplomacy MORE and a handful of others at the FBI and Justice Department involved with investigations into Trump and Clinton (The Hill)

And the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said Wednesday he planned to subpoena the Justice Department to obtain memos Comey gave to an intermediary last year, with instructions to leak the information to The New York Times. (The Hill)

➔  Policy round-up:

  • EPA uses regulatory memos to reshape air pollution enforcement standards (The Hill)
  • FAA orders fan blade inspections after jet engine explosion (AP)
  • Senate repeals auto-loan guidance in precedent-shattering vote (The Hill)
  • Facebook moves to counter new EU privacy law (Reuters)
  • Republicans refuse to back opioids bill sponsored by vulnerable Democrat (The Hill)
  • Stable dollar keeps global markets from blowout (Wall Street Journal)
  • GOP presses for stiff work requirements for food stamps (The Hill)

OPINION

Trump’s tweets are ridiculous, but perilous to ignore, by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker. https://bit.ly/2EXBMiw

Pompeo in Pyongyang, by the editors, The Weekly Standard. https://tws.io/2EXODRv

WHERE AND WHEN

The Senate is in session and is expected to vote on the nomination of James Bridenstine to lead NASA. The House and Senate appropriations committee chairs plan to confer about fiscal 2019 spending measures, including allocation of $1.3 trillion in funding.

The House is in recess through the weekend.

President Trump will leave Mar-a-Lago to fly to Naval Air Station Key West to visit the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM before returning to his resort in the afternoon.

ELSEWHERE

> Close to Home”: The fourth article in a five-part series by The Hill’s Rachel Roubein about how the opioid epidemic affects Americans. Presented by Partnership for Safe Medicine, read today’s installment in which Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) describes her brother’s struggles with prescribed painkillers.

> New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) says he intends to restore voting rights to convicted felons on parole, a change that would add up to 35,000 people to the state’s rolls. (New York Times)

> U.S. territory Puerto Rico, home to more than 3 million people, experienced an islandwide blackout Wednesday, seven months after suffering extensive damage from Hurricane Maria. Nevertheless, the San Juan game between the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins took place, relying on generators to light the field. (Washington Post)

> The Castro era is coming to a close in Cuba. (Reuters)

THE CLOSER

Who says Congress can’t change its climate? The Senate passed a resolution that will allow Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthMissouri Republican wins annual craft brewing competition for lawmakers Democrats ignore Asian American and Pacific Islander voters at their peril Republicans grumble over Trump shifting military funds to wall MORE (D-Ill.) to bring her newborn, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, with her to the floor of the upper chamber. Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts Bipartisan group of senators urges FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately MORE (D-Ill.) said it would be good for lawmakers to see an occasional “diaper bag” next to the antique inkwells on their desks. Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeNegotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates House rejects GOP motion on replacing Pentagon funding used on border wall Republicans wary of US action on Iran MORE (R-Okla.) quipped, “They don't use diaper bags anymore. They're disposable diapers. I know because I've got 20 kids and grandkids." (The Hill)

Journos’ over-reliance on polling: The Associated Press updated guidance to staff this week: “[P]oll results that seek to preview the outcome of an election must never be the lead, headline or single subject of any story ... the 2016 election was a reminder that polls aren’t perfect.”  https://blog.ap.org/industry-insights/updating-our-polling-guidance

And finally ... for spring gardeners everywhere, here’s a short video highlight reel of Amsterdam’s famed tulips. Inspiration to wander outdoors!