The Hill's Morning Report - More talk on guns; many questions on Epstein's death




Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report. Happy Monday! Our newsletter gets you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, plus trends to watch. Co-creators are Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver (CLICK HERE to subscribe!). On Twitter, find us at @asimendinger and @alweaver22.

More than a week after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, sparked yet another nationwide conversation about how best to combat gun violence, the next steps are uncertain.


Congress remains unlikely to return to Washington until early September and President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE is a wild card in the discussion. There are many loose threads on what happens next, including what Congress will do, the timing and what the major players will do in the coming weeks and months. 


As Scott Wong writes, there are a number of factors in play, including timing. Days or a week can feel like a decade in the Trump era, presenting a challenge for lawmakers who want to maintain momentum, even after a full month away from the nation’s capital. It’s why Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiKlobuchar shuts down idea a woman can't beat Trump: 'Pelosi does it every day' Budowsky: Trump destroying GOP in 2018, '19, '20 On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' 2020 Republicans accuse Schumer of snubbing legislation Schumer: Leadership trying to work out competing surprise medical bill measures MORE (D-N.Y.) pushed the president to encourage Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Fireworks on health care expected at Dem debate | Trump FDA pick dodges on vaping ban | Trump to host meeting on youth vaping Friday | AMA calls for immediate vaping ban GOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal MORE to bring senators back to work, an idea the Kentucky Republican rejected. 


Another factor is public sentiment, which Pelosi repeatedly refers to as a necessity to get anything done in Washington. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) endorsed background checks and “red flag” legislation a day after a crowd of fed-up mourners at a vigil repeatedly shouted at him to “Do something! Do something!” Gun control advocates are boosted by polls showing that roughly 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks, a topic up for discussion nationally and at the state level.  


Meanwhile, Trump and McConnell are central to getting anything done. The two Republicans have signaled a renewed openness to look at background checks, as the Senate did in 2013. Despite recent remarks from the two, Democrats remain wary that they will support any legislation in the end given that they are both up for reelection in 2020 and are banking on conservative voters to win. 


Niall Stanage: Trump's gun pledge met with skepticism.


Paul Kane: Congress’s August recess turns into a political cudgel in gun debate.


Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham: Report on alleged surveillance abuse in 2016 to be released Dec. 9 McConnell hopes Senate impeachment trial 'not too lengthy a process' Hillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack MORE (R-S.C.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are sponsoring a “red flag” measure that would give grants to states that pass such laws. Their approach was also introduced in the last Congress.


As for Trump, who remains the focus of possible impeachment proceedings by House Democrats, one lawmaker who would almost certainly be involved in bipartisan talks on guns is House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerMaloney wins House Oversight gavel House Judiciary Committee approves landmark marijuana legalization bill Maloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman MORE (D-N.Y.), whose committee has jurisdiction over federal gun laws. 


Nadler’s likely involvement has raised additional questions about whether the president, who has a penchant for lashing out at his critics, would be willing to hammer out a deal on guns with top Democrats trying to remove him from office.


As for what legislation may ultimately reach the president’s desk, lawmakers are looking at a host of potential actions. While members have already introduced more than 100 bills that mention guns, Jordain Carney examines the handful of proposals lawmakers may realistically pursue.   


Universal background checks sit atop the list, given that the president and McConnell mentioned them as a possibility, but still has a steep hill to climb to make it through the Senate. However, Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) and Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPolitical purity tests are for losers Former coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda MORE (D-W.Va.) are making another push to pass their more narrow background check bill aimed at all commercial sales, including at gun shows and over the internet. 


“Red flag” laws are back on the nation’s radar after Congress discussed but failed to come up with a deal after last year’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. There are two bills in the Senate on the topic from Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action McConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping GOP senator wants Violence Against Women Act passage by year end MORE (D-Calif.) which would incentivize states to enact red-flag laws and let family members petition the courts to temporarily prevent someone from buying or owning a gun. However, Democrats say this action is not enough and are pushing for more. 


The New York Times: Op-Ed by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE: Banning assault weapons works.


NBC News: Democratic candidates have never been more united on gun control.


NPR: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE's (D-Mass.) new plan on guns has a goal: Reduce gun deaths by 80 percent.


The Associated Press: Gun control backers concerned about changing federal courts.


The Hill: Gun control activists set to flex muscle in battle for Senate.





CONGRESS: Over the weekend, lawmakers from both parties demanded answers from the Justice Department about how Jeffrey Epstein, jailed in the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges, apparently killed himself before being found unresponsive in his cell early Saturday.


Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseTrump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Trump has officially appointed one in four circuit court judges Senators press NSA official over shuttered phone surveillance program MORE of Nebraska, a member of the Judiciary Committee and a Republican who has occasionally been a Trump critic, wrote a scathing letter to Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrGOP rep predicts watchdog report on alleged FISA abuses will find 'problems' Barr defends Trump's use of executive authority, slams impeachment hearings GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse MORE. Barr promptly called for investigations by the FBI and inspector general into Epstein’s death (The Hill). “Heads must roll,” Sasse wrote.





The disgraced financier was not on suicide watch at the time of his death, multiple people familiar with the investigation told NBC News. His removal from the watch would have had to be approved by both the jail’s warden and the facility’s chief psychologist, the Associated Press reported. Eleven days before his death, Epstein was found curled up on the floor of his cell with bruises on his neck. Nevertheless, guards did not check on him for “several hours,” violating protocol (The Washington Post).


The New York City medical examiner began an investigation and an autopsy was performed (The Washington Post).


Two guards assigned to Epstein’s jail unit were working overtime shifts to make up for staffing shortages at the Manhattan jail at the time of the inmate’s death, according to The Associated Press. Epstein was supposed to have been checked by the two guards in the protective housing unit every 30 minutes, but that procedure was not followed, according to The New York Times


Epstein’s death sparked unfounded conspiracy theories online suggesting the well-connected millionaire was murdered to keep him from incriminating others. Some of his accusers have described being sexually abused by Epstein’s famous friends and acquaintances. On Sunday, there was no evidence to counter officials’ determination of suicide.


Epstein, 66, who pleaded not guilty to the federal criminal charges he faced, spent years cultivating a social circle that included influential politicians, business executives, innovators and academics. Over the years, he befriended Trump, former President Clinton, Britain’s Prince Andrew and retail billionaire and CEO Leslie Wexner of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, among others.


Trump on Sunday retweeted some baseless conspiracy conjecture, fueling a new wave of criticism from Democrats about his judgment and behavior. Democratic presidential contenders Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE of New Jersey slammed the president for making a difficult situation worse, especially for the women who have accused Epstein of victimizing them (Reuters).


Lawyers for several women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein plan to file lawsuits this week against his estate (Reuters). The financier’s vast estate, estimated to be worth at least $559 million, is likely to take years to settle (South Florida Sun Sentinel).


> Impeachment: Nadler is hitting the gas on Democratic efforts to impeach Trump. His argument that his panel effectively began an impeachment inquiry without officially voting to launch one sent a clear signal that the committee intends to decide for itself whether to send impeachment articles to the full House, while beating back liberal criticisms that the panel has been too timid in its investigative approach (The Hill).




POLITICS & CAMPAIGNS: Questions are surrounding Biden after a gaffe-filled weekend, headlined by comments on back-to-back days that raised questions about his viability as the Democratic standard-bearer even though he remains solidly atop the field in polling.


On Friday, Biden raised eyebrows when he told a Des Moines, Iowa, crowd that poor children are “just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” A day later, Biden said that he was vice president when the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., took place even though it happened more than a year after he left office. On both occasions, he clarified himself quickly. 


However, the pair of gaffes were noteworthy as Biden remains the solid front-runner nearly four months after he launched his bid, with his poll numbers remaining static while there has been moving and shaking beneath him amongst the field. 


“He has been durable,” David AxelrodDavid AxelrodKrystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren David Axelrod: Bloomberg entry 'not exactly a vote of confidence' in Biden Trump thanks Reid for warning Democrats not to underestimate him MORE, a longtime political strategist for former President Obama, told The Associated Press. “The question is whether that durability is because we aren’t fully geared into the race or whether there are inherent strengths there.”


As the rhetorical stumbles have come with frequency, so have the barbs from Trump, who has mocked him in recent days for having “lost his fastball,” adding soon after that the former vice president is “not playing with a full deck.” 


The Wall Street Journal: Biden’s gaffes fuel questions about his potency against Trump.


The Hill: Biden faces challenge from Warren in Iowa. 


Niall Stanage: Warren emerges as Biden's most dangerous rival.


The Associated Press: Warren wows in Iowa as candidates’ sprint to caucuses begins.


Dan Balz: Iowa is awash in candidates but don’t expect clarity until the very end.


The Washington Post Magazine: The poignant but complicated friendship of Joe Biden and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Debate gives Democrats a chance to focus on unaddressed issues of concern to black voters Is Joe Biden finished? MORE (Plus: the article quotes from The Hill’s coverage!).


> September debates: More than a dozen Democratic presidential candidates are at risk of missing their party’s third primary debate in mid-September and are facing a key 2 ½-week stretch to make the cut ahead of a fast-approaching Democratic National Committee (DNC) qualifying deadline on Aug. 28. 


Nine candidates know they’ll be on the stage in the fall debates, with two others getting closer. But for the other 13, the prospects appear increasingly dim. None have met the 130,000-donor benchmark set by the DNC and only three have at least one qualifying poll to their name, needing four to qualify with polling. With less than three weeks to go, those who haven’t qualified are scrambling for a spot onstage, acutely aware of the risks from failing to make the debate (The Hill).


> Castro vs. Trump donors: Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroHillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Minority lawmakers call out Google for hiring former Trump DHS official Castro tweaks brother's beard: 'If I knew it'd look like that I wouldn't have suggested it' MORE (D-Texas) is taking heat for publishing the names and business interests of dozens of donors to the Trump reelection campaign, with some of those named facing harassing calls and remarks in the immediate aftermath.


A Trump donor who owns a piping business in San Antonio told The Hill he’s received harassing phone calls and messages from people calling him a racist and a white supremacist. Another said that he had donated to both Trump and the Castro brothers. Critics say that Castro, the twin brother of presidential candidate Julián Castro, went too far by calling out private citizens at a combustible moment in U.S. politics after two mass shootings.


The names of donors who give more than $200 to a candidate are public and can be found online for anyone to see, and Joaquin Castro says he wanted to draw attention to those in his district he said were aiding the spread of hateful rhetoric against Hispanics by helping to fund the Trump campaign (The Hill).


The Hill: Health care fight among 2020 Democrats shifts to taxes.


WHITE HOUSE & ADMINISTRATION: White House national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonFive bombshells from explosive Sondland testimony Chris Wallace: Sondland testimony 'took out the bus and ran over' Trump, top aides Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption MORE, who arrived in London on Sunday, plans to press the United Kingdom to adopt a tougher stance on Iran and Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei (Reuters).


> North Korea: Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Harris accuses Trump of being 'punked' by North Korea Kamala Harris: 'Donald Trump got punked' by North Korea MORE’s continued short-range missile tests, which rattle Japan and South Korea, are getting a pass from Trump, who hails messages hand carried to him from Pyongyang.


The president on Saturday tweeted: “In a letter to me sent by Kim Jong Un, he stated, very nicely, that he would like to meet and start negotiations as soon as the joint U.S./South Korea joint exercise are over. It was a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive [military] exercises. It was also a small apology for testing the short range missiles, and that this testing would stop when the exercises end. I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un in the not too distant future! A nuclear free North Korea will lead to one of the most successful countries in the world!” (The Associated Press).


> National intelligence: Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, is on a list of contenders who could be nominated to be the next director of national intelligence (DNI), Olivia Beavers reports. Trump on Friday praised Hoekstra, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (The Hill). Joseph Maguire last week became the acting director of national intelligence.


> Department of Homeland Security: Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of Homeland Security, told NBC News on Sunday that in hindsight, the timing of raids last week conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Mississippi poultry plants were “unfortunate” on a day when Trump was trying to comfort families in El Paso who are grieving over the deaths of 22 people gunned down in a Walmart near the border by a shooter who told police he wanted to kill “Mexicans.” 


McAleenan said the mass arrests of undocumented workers was planned for more than a year. Despite criticism that the government’s raids left children of those arrested in limbo and confusion overnight, some forced to sleep in a school gymnasium, McAleenan said the roundups were conducted “with sensitivity” (The Hill). Trump says he wants Central American migrants to learn about the raids and get the message they should apply through the legal immigration system to seek employment in the United States.


> Home-grown terror: Inside DHS, action to address domestic terrorism have been fraught for at least a decade. The department  is responsible for collecting data on and analyzing threats to the United States. A closer look at two administrations shows how political considerations have constrained efforts to give the problem more prominence and develop policies to counter it (The New York Times).  




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Joe Biden needs to watch out for Elizabeth Warren as her campaign picks up steam, by Douglas SchoenDouglas SchoenUkraine scandal shows that foreign influence is a bipartisan affair Trump taps Monica Crowley to be Treasury spokeswoman The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Deadline approaches for 2020 Dems MORE, opinion contributor, The Hill.


Why Democrats’ demonizing of Trump supporters destroys accurate polls, by Kristin Tate, opinion contributor, The Hill.


Hill.TV’s “Rising” at 9 a.m. EDT features Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price, who analyzes the 2020 candidates’ at the outset of the Iowa State Fair; Dennis Prager, founder of PragerU, talking about online censorship and extremism; and journalist and author Anna Clark, with her take on Michigan in her book, “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy.” Find Hill.TV programming at or on YouTube at 10 a.m.


The House and Senate continue to meet in pro forma sessions but are not scheduled to return for votes until Sept. 9.


The president is on a working vacation in Bedminster, N.J., and has no public schedule today.   


Farming: The latest United Nations climate report calls for a massive transition in how the globe manages its lands, but the brunt of such a change would largely fall to one group — farmers (The Hill). … Farmers back Trump’s tariffs fight, but don’t think it helps them (NBC News). … The trade war’s casualties include Minnesota farmers, who are fighting for their livelihoods. Meet the Krocak family, chronicled through seasons in a rich photographic narrative: “Everywhere you turn there's a new battle. I'm pretty sure God doesn't like farmers this year" (The Washington Post).


Hong Kong: One of the world’s busiest airports canceled more than 100 flights today as demonstrators swarmed the transportation hub in Hong Kong — a crucial link throughout Asia (The New York Times). 


Privacy options: Journalist Joel Stein explains how he experimented with ways to hide from Silicon Valley using a pile of privacy gadgets (including gizmos to thwart facial recognition) (Bloomberg Businessweek).


Tax withholding - a checkup: The IRS updated its online “Tax Withholding Estimator,” which helps workers gauge the correct amount of federal taxes that should be withheld from their paychecks in 2019, to avoid the dreaded misalignment that created unhappy surprises in many households last spring. It’s not too late to recalibrate! Find the IRS calculator HERE (The Washington Post).


Cannabis: K Street is rushing to capitalize on the cannabis boom. Example: The highest-grossing firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, launched a new "Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Industry Group (The Hill). 





And finally …  FBI Special Agent Troy Sowers got a surprise from his Knoxville, Tenn., colleagues during his recent retirement party honoring 22 years of government service. In walked U.S. Marine Cpl. Stewart Rembert, who was rescued as a newborn by Sowers in 1997 when a woman posing as a nurse kidnapped Rembert from a hospital and left him in a cardboard box next to a dumpster. 


Stunned to see Rembert, Sowers recounted how he and other law enforcement officials convinced the kidnapper to lead them to the abandoned baby. For Rembert, who never knew the details of his own kidnapping and rescue, the reunion was eye-opening. 


"I'm glad [to see] what you've done with your life,” a delighted Sowers told the corporal after the two men embraced. “Pass it on" (NBC News).