With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: West Wing staffers always matter, but never more so than when the president they serve lacks deep ideological convictions. It is clearer than ever that whoever has Donald Trump’s ear controls the direction of the country.

-- Reflecting the declining influence of chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and the growing power of former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn, Trump broke Wednesday with several populist and nationalist positions that he espoused on the campaign trail:

1. The president  pledged his full support for NATO. “It was once obsolete; it is no longer obsolete,” he said during an afternoon press conference, after meeting with the organization’s secretary general. “I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change — and now they do fight terrorism.” Fact Checker Michelle Ye Hee Lee notes that, as recently as March 22, Trump called the trans-Atlantic alliance “obsolete, because it doesn’t cover terrorism.” He was incorrect: NATO has been involved in counterterrorism since 1980, and especially since 9/11. Nothing has changed, except his position.

2. He told the Wall Street Journal he will not label China a “currency manipulator.” As a candidate, he pledged to do so on his first day in office. Just last week, Trump called China “the world champion” of currency manipulation in an interview with the Financial Times. Yesterday, he changed his tune. “They’re not currency manipulators,” he told three Journal reporters in the Oval Office. Besides, he explained, talking about how they manipulate their currency could jeopardize his talks with Beijing about confronting the nuclear threat of North Korea.

3. He expressed openness to reappointing Barack Obama’s Federal Reserve Board chair. Last year, he said Janet Yellen should be “ashamed” of what she was doing to ruin the country. Yesterday, a Journal reporter asked if that means she is toast when her term ends next year. “No,” the president replied. “I like her. I respect her. It’s very early.”

4. He disavowed his position on interest rates. Trump told The Post in an interview when he was a candidate that the low rates might be creating “ a bubble where you go into a very massive recession.” During a debate in the fall, he attacked Yellen for keeping interest rates low to help Hillary Clinton win. Yesterday, he told the WSJ: “I do like a low-interest-rate policy, I must be honest with you.”

5. He recanted his call for closing the Export-Import Bank. “I don’t like it because I don’t think it’s necessary,” Trump told Bloomberg News during the campaign. “It’s sort of a featherbedding for politicians and others, and a few companies. … And when you think about free enterprise, it’s really not free enterprise.” Now that the president is in control, he promises to fight for it: “Instinctively, you would say, ‘Isn’t that a ridiculous thing?' ... But actually, it’s a very good thing,” he told the Journal. “It turns out that … lots of small companies are really helped!”

6. OMB director Mick Mulvaney said Trump’s promise to get rid of the national debt was never meant to be taken literally. “It's fairly safe to assume that was hyperbole,” he said during a CNBC sit-down that aired yesterday. “I'm not going to be able to pay off $20 trillion worth of debt in four years. I'd be being dishonest with you if I said that I could.”

Host John Harwood noted that Trump promised to take care of displaced workers in places like Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. “He didn't say, ‘I'm going to get rid of the Appalachian Regional Commission,’” the interview said. “Yeah, and my guess is he probably didn't know what the Appalachian Regional Commission did,” Mulvaney replied.

7. The administration is already watering down its lobbyist ban. High on the list of Trump’s promises in his “Contract with the American Voter,” released last October, was an ironclad “five-year ban” on White House officials becoming lobbyists after they leave the government. Bloomberg reported yesterday that the administration has “granted a waiver” so that senior White House budget adviser Marcus Peacock can leave to take a job as a top lobbyist for the Business Roundtable, even though he signed an ethics pledge that included the five-year ban. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon chairs the Business Roundtable. He’d been a favorite of the Obama White House, and he’s looking for ways to increase his juice with Trump.

8. Trump no longer believes the military is a disaster. During an interview with Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo that aired yesterday morning, Trump waxed poetic about U.S. military might. “It's so incredible. It's brilliant. It's genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five,” he said. “In terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.” The AP notes that, just a few months ago, the president bemoaned the state of the military and its equipment in his stump speech. “We're going to rebuild out military,” he said at a rally last April. “Our military is in shambles!”

Steve Bannon, feeling the heat, waits for Trump to speak at a White House event. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

-- You could be forgiven for coming down with a case of whiplash. It has been dizzying. Perhaps the president was a Manchurian Candidate of the U.S. Chamber all along?

-- In fact, the best way to understand all the shifts is that Bannon has lost his turf war with the president’s son-in-law and a coterie of super-rich New York bankers whose affirmation Trump yearns for. The former head of Breitbart News opposed intervention in Syria and privately sees these nods to Wall Street as a betrayal of the president’s core base of support that got him elected.

-- To be sure: Every president flip-flops or “evolves,” as they always prefer to put it. It’s also not necessarily bad to change with the times: Think about Barack Obama finally coming out for gay marriage. But none of Trump’s 44 predecessors changed his position so brazenly on so many issues so soon after an election. Today is his 84th day in office.

-- The D.C. establishment is, for the most part, giddy about Trump selling out his core supporters. Many country club Republicans are celebrating what they believe is a move toward “the mainstream.” (Translation: embracing the business community’s agenda.)

-- Markets thrive on certainty, though, and everything about Trump is uncertain, fluid and improvisational. The value of the U.S. dollar and Treasury bond yields both fell after the Journal quoted the president saying the greenback is too strong. “And partially that’s my fault,” he said, “because people have confidence in me.” Past presidents have typically refrained from commenting on the dollar, for fear of destabilizing global currency markets, and Federal Reserve policy, for fear of the perception that they were compromising the independence of the central bank. Trump has now broken with these norms several times, Wonkblog’s Ana Swanson points out.

A chair with a name tag for Bannon is seen prior to Trump's news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the East Room at the White House yesterday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

THE LATEST ON THE WEST WING INTRIGUE:

-- Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Robert Costa interviewed 21 of Trump’s aides, confidants and allies about Bannon yesterday: “The man not long ago dubbed the ‘shadow president’ — with singular influence over Trump’s agenda and the workings of the federal government — is struggling to keep his job with his portfolio reduced and his profile damaged … Some colleagues described Bannon as a stubborn recluse who had failed to build a reservoir of goodwill within the West Wing.”

Bannon did not learn that Trump minimized the role he played on the campaign and in the White House until he read the story in the New York Post: “The president’s comments were described by White House officials as a dressing-down and warning shot, though one Bannon friend, reflecting on them Wednesday, likened Bannon to a terminally ill family member who had been moved into hospice care.” To make matters worse, Trump told the Journal yesterday that Bannon is just “a guy who works for me.”

“For now, at least, Bannon may survive the turmoil, and he and other White House staffers are striving to be on their best behavior after their infighting earned them a scolding by the president over the weekend,” per our reporters.

The Trump family is always thinking about what will make them the most money: “Trump’s three oldest children — Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric — and Kushner have been frustrated by the impression of chaos inside the White House and feel that their father has not always been served well by his senior staff, according to people with knowledge of their sentiments. The Trump heirs are interested in any changes that might help resuscitate the presidency and preserve the family’s name at a time when they are trying to expand the Trump Organization’s portfolio of hotels. ‘The fundamental assessment is that if they want to win the White House in 2020, they’re not going to do it the way they did in 2016, because the family brand would not sustain the collateral damage,’ said one well-connected Republican operative … ‘It would be so protectionist, nationalist and backward-looking that they’d only be able to build in Oklahoma City or the Ozarks.’”

Bannon’s supporters believe he is an essential conduit between Trump and his nationalist, populist base: “The wealthy Mercer family, which has nurtured Bannon’s political rise and infused Trump’s campaign and allied groups with millions of dollars, is closely monitoring Bannon’s falling fortunes. Rebekah Mercer, who directs the family’s political activities, is unnerved and worried about losing her best link to a president her family takes credit for helping get elected but believes Bannon will be able to maintain his influence.”

-- Bannon’s affluent friends are discussing a post-White House future for him: “On Friday, his main political patron, Rebekah Mercer holed up in her office at Cambridge Analytica in New York, discussing possibilities for Mr. Bannon should he leave,” Maggie Haberman and Jeremy Peters report in today’s New York Times. “Bannon served on the data-mining firm’s board until last summer. And while the president has grown weary of directives from donors like the Mercers, he is mindful that they are among his major financial backers, and he is said to be conscious of the need to keep it that way.”

-- The Bannonites, as they’re known internally, refer to Cohn, the former Goldman president, as “Globalist Gary” behind his back. Their  nickname for him in text messages is CTC (“Carbon Tax Cohn”) or just an emoji of the globe, per Axios.

-- It’s not just Cohn. Other Wall Street guys are amassing more influence, as well. Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman sometimes talks with the president several times a week, covering everything from Chinese trade to tax policy to immigration. The two recently chatted at Mar-a-Lago about a possible reorganization of the White House, Politico reports this morning.

-- Another key narrative: Trump continues to empower people who didn’t work on his campaign at the expense of people who did. This has contributed to hard feelings among those who feel like the president wouldn’t be in the Oval Office without them. These tensions came to a head last week when more than 30 staffers gathered to discuss how the White House should try to spin Trump’s first 100 days. Communications director Mike Dubke, who did not work on the campaign, announced that they needed a “rebranding” to get Trump back on track. “There is no Trump doctrine,” Dubke declared.

Six of the 30 people who were invited to that meeting subsequently leaked his comments to Politico. It seems safe to infer from the blind quotes that most, or all, of those dumping on Dubke worked on the Trump campaign. “I think the president’s head would explode if he heard that,” one said. “It made me feel like I was back in fifth grade,” complained another. “It rubbed people the wrong way because on the campaign we were pretty clear about what he wanted to do,” said a third. “He was elected on a vision of America First. America First is the Trump doctrine.” Another lamented, “We’ve got a comms team supposedly articulating the president’s message [that] does not appear to understand the president’s message.”

-- A prediction: The Bannon Wing will never be completely vanquished, even if Bannon himself leaves. Trump will never let himself get boxed in. He prides himself on being ideologically flexible. He also likes competing power structures. Recall all the tension between Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort during the campaign. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, both Bannon allies, are devoted nationalists who do not look like they’re going anywhere.

-- The influence of Sessions, Miller and Bannon is a big reason Trump has continued to be such a hardliner on immigration. In fact, the administration is quickly identifying ways to build up the nationwide “deportation force” the president promised, according to an internal DHS assessment obtained yesterday by David Nakamura. The document offers an early glimpse of the department’s behind-the-scenes as it works to boost deportations and strengthen border enforcement: Staffers have already found 33,000 more detention beds to house undocumented immigrants, opened discussions with dozens of local police forces that could be empowered with enforcement authority and identified where construction of Trump’s border wall could begin. The agency is also considering ways to speed up the hiring of hundreds of new Customs and Border Patrol officers, including ending polygraph and physical fitness tests in some cases.

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Melania Trump walks through the White House Colonnade last week. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

GET SMART FAST:

  1. The Daily Mail apologized to Melania Trump and agreed to pay an “undisclosed” amount of money to settle a defamation lawsuit the first lady filed last fall. (Dan Morse)
  2. The Wall Street Journal’s deputy editorial page editor, Bret Stephens, is leaving for the New York Times. He’s been the most outspoken critic of Trump on the conservative board, so watch for the tenor of WSJ editorials to maybe move Trump’s direction a bit. Bret will get his own column inside the Gray Lady. (Politico)
  3. Chicago police have charged a suspect in the killing of a local judge, who was fatally shot outside his home on the city’s South Side earlier this week. Officials said his killing was “not a random robbery.” (Mark Berman)
  4. The number of Cuban migrants intercepted by authorities off the coast of Florida has plummeted since Obama ended the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy. The Coast Guard announced that it has detained fewer than 100 migrants since the last president ended the program in January -- compared to more than 10,000 who were detained off the Florida coast in 2016. (Dan Lamothe)
  5. Iowa lawmakers passed the state’s most expansive gun-rights bill ever, advancing legislation that would, among other things, allow citizens to use deadly force if they believe their lives are threatened and sue local government officials if they think designated “gun-free zones” have violated their Second Amendment rights. The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who has indicated he is likely to sign it. As soon as the legislative session ends, he'll become U.S. ambassador to China. (Kristine Phillips)
  6. Apple has employed a secret team of biomedical engineers to develop a device described as the “holy grail” of diabetes treatment. The project was first envisioned by Steve Jobs before his death and involves using sensors to non-invasively and continuously monitor blood sugar levels. (CNBC)
  7. A Sacramento police officer was suspended after video footage showed him stopping an unarmed black man for jaywalking – and then, inexplicably, pummeling the man with his fists more than a dozen times. (Cleve R. Wootson Jr.)
  8. Two Middle Tennessee football players were suspended over allegations of animal cruelty, after a video showed one of the men repeatedly striking a puppy as it yelped in pain. The heartbreaking footage was posted on Snapchat by his teammate. (Des Bieler)
  9. The artist behind Wall Street’s iconic “Charging Bull” sculpture is demanding removal of “Fearless Girl,” the statue of a girl posed with her fists on her hips nearby. Arturo di Modico says the girl is an “insult to his work” and violates his copyright. But city officials said they will keep the statue in place through at least 2018, and Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated his support: "Men who don't like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.” (New York Times)
People hold a flag with the national colors of Brazil during a protest against corruption at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

WHAT'S POPPING OVERSEAS:

  1. Brazil’s Supreme Court authorized an investigation of more than 100 of the country’s top politicians, implicating nearly a third of the president’s cabinet, five former presidents, and leaders from both chambers of Congress as part of a widespread bribery and corruption scandal. (Marina Lopes)
  2. Tens of thousands of people swarmed into South Africa’s capital city to demand the resignation of President Jacob Zuma, who sent the country’s currency spiraling after he fired a respected finance minister and eight other cabinet members. (Kevin Sieff)
  3. German authorities suspect “terrorist activity" in bomb explosions that targeted a Dortmund soccer club bus, saying letters that were uncovered after Tuesday’s explosion suggest the bombing could be linked to Islamist extremists. (Stephanie Kirchner)
  4. A professor in Uganda landed herself in a maximum-security prison on charges of computer misuse after she referred to the president in a Facebook post as a “a pair of buttocks.” (Max Bearak)
  5. Taiwan’s parliament approved a bill banning the slaughter of cats and dogs for human consumption – departing from a practice that, while controversial, remains popular in many Asian countries and remote areas of Switzerland. (Kristine Phillips)
Coast Guard boats patrol the lagoon outside Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

GROSS:

-- Miami Herald, “Undercooled meat. Dangerous fish. Health inspectors zing Trump's Mar-a-Lago kitchen,” by Jose Lambiet: "Just days before the state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago … Florida restaurant inspectors found potentially dangerous raw fish and cited the club for storing food in two broken down coolers. Inspectors found 13 violations at the fancy club's kitchen, according to recently published reports - a record for an institution that charges $200,000 in initiation fees. Three of the violations were deemed 'high priority,' meaning that they could allow the presence of illness-causing bacteria on plates served in the dining room." As of their latest visit, Mar-a-Lago has been cleared by state inspectors.

Here are two of the items that would give any world leader some serious pause:  

  • Fish designed to be served raw or undercooked had not undergone proper parasite destruction – and staffers were ordered to either “cook them or throw them out.”
  • “In two of the club’s coolers, inspectors found that raw meats that should be stored at 41 degrees were much too warm and potentially dangerous: chicken was 49 degrees, duck clocked in a 50 degrees and raw beef was 50 degrees. The winner? Ham at 57 degrees.”

THE AGENDA:

-- Trump and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney pushed back plans to overhaul the tax code, changing course yet again as president said a renewed Republican effort to replace Obamacare must be prioritized before tax reform. Damian Paletta reports: “The comments from Trump and [Mulvaney] mark a sharp reversal from the administration’s approach just a few weeks ago. After they were dealt a stinging defeat when conservative Republicans refused to vote for a GOP health-care plan, Trump angrily said he was pivoting to tax reform and has been peppering [Gary Cohn] for details of their tax timeline ever since. Cohn and his team … have been hard at work trying to put together a tax overhaul blueprint.” But now, Trump says that effort will have to wait. “Health care is going to happen at some point,” Trump said in a Fox Business interview. “Now, if it doesn't happen fast enough, I'll start the taxes. But the tax reform and the tax cuts are better if I can do health care first.”

-- BUT: House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, who helped craft the failed GOP health care proposal, said that lawmakers may have to wait even longer to forge ahead on legislation. He said Republicans may need to wait to use a future budget measure to repeal Obamacare, Paige Winfield Cunningham reports from Oregon. “You could make an argument that says, ‘Okay, we couldn’t get it done now,’” Walden said in an interview. “We’ve had people tell us, why take this on first? You should have done infrastructure, you should have done tax reform. It may be where we end up.” He also noted that health care could be considered in next year’s budget bill: “I’m not saying this is gonna wait until next year, but you will have another budget next year.”

Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ahead of their bilateral meeting in Moscow. (EPA/State Department)

REX GOES TO RUSSIA:

-- The rift between the United States and Russia was laid bare Wednesday when Rex Tillerson held his first direct talks with Putin in Moscow. Sharp words and warnings were exchanged as Russia made it clear it will not roll back its alliance with the Assad regime.  Carol Morello and David Filipov report: “Hopes may never have been high [for the visit], especially after Russia sounded a defiant note before Tillerson arrived in Moscow. But if this was the chance to find common ground before the Trump administration attempts any new action on Syria, it has ended in failure. 

"'There is a low level of trust between our countries,’ Tillerson said in a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. ‘The world’s two primary nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.’ After Tillerson spent three hours talking with Lavrov and almost two hours at the Kremlin meeting with [Putin], Lavrov, sitting three feet from Tillerson, aired a long list of grievances with the U.S., some dating back many years. Lavrov seemed to delight in recalling U.S. attempts to oust dictators in Sudan and Libya. He mocked NATO’s military incursion in Kosovo in 1999 … [and] gleefully recalled the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction that led to the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq …’

  • Meanwhile, the only concession that Tillerson appeared to have extracted from the Russians was that Putin offered to restore a hotline aimed at avoiding accidents in the air over Syria, which it suspended after U.S. missile strikes last week. Even this tiny success was conditional, hinging upon whether the U.S. aims its firepower at terrorists instead of Assad’s regime.

The Russians used Tillerson’s visit as a chance to reassert Moscow’s firm stance on Syria: that it will not abide by any effort to remove Assad from power. “Just two weeks ago, Russia was in the driver’s seat in Syria, as the lead military and diplomatic player in a peace process [orchestrated by Putin]. But in an instant last week that all changed … [And since then, the Kremlin] has been fighting a rear­guard action aimed at dulling the Trump administration’s ultimatum that Russia must change sides or else.”

IN SUM: “There were many times when it must not have been easy to be secretary of state Wednesday,” our colleagues wrote. And Trump himself seemed to deliver the coup de grâce, declaring U.S.-Russian relations were at an 'all-time low.'”

-- Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove accused Trump of secretly borrowing from Russia to keep his sprawling business empire afloat during the financial crisis, a bombshell (and unverified) accusation from the ex-spymaster. From Prospect Magazine's interview: Dearlove also warned any shady deals could “come back to haunt”: “What lingers for Trump may be what deals—on what terms—he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the west apparently would not lend to him,” said Dearlove, who ran the agency until 2004. (Trump has denied wrongdoing, BUT he’s also refused to release his tax returns – which would help clear up some of these questions…) 

-- At his afternoon news conference yesterday, Trump was adamant: "I don't know Putin.” But in Nov. 2015, he bragged at a debate: "I got to know him very well because we were both on '60 Minutes,' we were stablemates, and we did very well that night." At another campaign event, Trump said he met Putin “a long time ago.”

-- Also in Russia this week is NBC News chairman Andy Lack, who has been trying to score an interview with Putin for the network. But which reporter would get coveted gig? Network insiders said it remains unclear, though some have speculated it could go to Megyn Kelly to debut her Sunday night show. (Page Six)

-- Meanwhile, Iran and Russia have stepped up challenges to U.S. power in Afghanistan -- seizing on the uncertainty of future U.S. policy to expand ties with the Taliban and carve out a bigger role in the country. Erin Cunningham reports: “The moves come as tensions have flared between the United States, Iran and Russia over the conflict in Syria, and officials worry that the fallout could hurt Afghanistan’s chances for peace. For years, Iran and Russia have pushed for a U.S. withdrawal. Now, as the Taliban gains ground and the White House appears to lack a clear Afghan policy, Iran and Russia have boosted support for insurgents and sidelined the United States from regional diplomacy on the war.” Russia has “begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban,” and recent Russian and Iranian actions in Afghanistan “are to undermine the United States and NATO,” the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan told Senate lawmakers earlier this year. He added that Iran and Russia “are communicating about the efforts” to support Taliban insurgents, and that Russia has become more “assertive” in recent months. Meanwhile, Russia is slated to host high-level talks on Afghanistan with Iranian, Pakistani and Chinese diplomats on Friday. The U.S. has not confirmed whether it will attend. 

Paul Ryan speaks to reporters at a press conference. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

-- And Paul Ryan will lead a bipartisan delegation to Europe next week to meet with leaders of key NATO allies, including Estonia, a nation seen to be on the front lines of Russian aggression toward the West. Mike DeBonis reports: “It will be the second foreign trip that Ryan has made as speaker, following a visit to Israel a year ago. During the trip to the United Kingdom, Norway, Poland and Estonia, the delegation will ‘meet with government officials and military leaders to review and discuss evolving security threats facing Europe as well as opportunities for greater economic cooperation,’ Ryan’s office said. It will come at a moment when U.S. tensions with Russia have been newly inflamed by [Trump’s] decision to strike a Syrian air base. … Estonian leaders have been particularly concerned about Russian aggression at their front door, including reports of airspace incursions and naval exercises conducted by the Russian military, and Trump’s conciliatory campaign stance toward Russia have only aggravated those concerns.”

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN:

-- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, has signaled that he plans to register as a foreign agent for his past work on behalf of political figures in Ukraine. From Tom Hamburger: “If he files, Manafort would become the second former senior Trump adviser in recent weeks to retroactively acknowledge the need to disclose foreign work. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former White House national security adviser, filed a disclosure last month saying he had done work on behalf of Turkish interests. A spokesman for Manafort said Wednesday that the longtime political consultant considered a new filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) after receiving ‘formal guidance recently from the authorities’ regarding work he and a colleague had performed on behalf of Ukrainian political interests. Manafort’s ties to Ukraine have been controversial because he worked for a political figure, Viktor Yanukovych, who became aligned with Putin. … Manafort expects to file any additional FARA disclosure amendments within the next 30 days.”

  • The Podesta Group announced yesterday that it is belatedly registering for work it did to help Manafort with a campaign to improve Ukraine’s image in the United States between 2012 and 2014: “The Podesta Group is led by Tony Podesta, the brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. In filing the FARA report, Podesta’s firm disclosed that it was paid more than $1.2 million by a Brussels-based group advocating for Ukraine.”
  • The involvement of the Justice Department creates a reminder of potential pitfalls for Manafort and others associated with the campaign who did work overseas: “It is a felony to fail to register under FARA. But legal experts said individuals typically avoid prosecution by cooperating with Justice Department recommendations.”

-- New York Times, “After Campaign Exit, Manafort Borrowed From Businesses With Trump Ties,” by Mike McIntire: “Aug. 19 was an eventful day for Paul Manafort. That morning, he stepped down from guiding [Trump’s campaign] ... But behind the scenes, he was busy with other matters. Papers were recorded that same day creating a shell company controlled by Mr. Manafort that soon received $13 million in loans from two businesses with ties to Mr. Trump, including one that partners with a Ukrainian-born billionaire and another led by a Trump economic adviser. They were among $20 million in loans secured by properties belonging to Mr. Manafort and his wife. The purpose of the loans is unstated in public records, although at least some of them appear to be part of an effort by Mr. Manafort to stave off a personal financial crisis stemming from failed investments with his son-in-law. The transactions raise a number of questions, including whether Mr. Manafort’s decision to turn to Trump-connected lenders was related to his role in the campaign, where he had agreed to serve for free.”

-- “Sean Spicer seems unlikely to be on the way out, for several reasons,” Paul Farhi reports. “For one, Spicer began multiple rounds of public apologies and self-flagellation that tamped down some of the outrage about his gaffe. … Spicer has plenty of critics in the press room — reporters privately grumble about his belittling and badgering of them during briefings — but he has powerful allies inside the White House. Since being named Trump’s press secretary, he has built a strong rapport with the president, insiders say. Another ally: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who worked with Spicer at the Republican National Committee … Trump might also have a practical reason for keeping his press secretary on the job: There’s no clear successor to Spicer in the White House’s press operation.”

-- German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said Spicer was wrong to compare Assad to Hitler. “Any comparison of current situations with Nazi crimes leads to nothing good,” Steffen Seibert told the AP in Berlin.

Trump greets EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. (Ron Sachs/EPA/Pool)

-- The Trump administration is seeking a 24/7 security detail for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. It's a pricey move that comes as part of the same budget proposal in which White House officials proposed whacking the agency’s budget nearly a third -- eliminating thousands of employees and scrapping dozens of programs. The Trump administration is spending heavily to provide large details for officials, including federal marshal protection for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Brady Dennis)

-- “A Who's Who List of Agencies Guarding the Powerful,” by the New York Times’s Nick Fandos: “In a city obsessed with the trappings of power, they are the ultimate status symbol: the wire-wearing, black S.U.V.-driving protective crews that come with high-level government service. Protecting top government officials, from the president to the head of the [EPA] involves a patchwork of more than a dozen federal agencies and offices. ... Specially trained agents from the Justice Department's F.B.I. provide constant protection for Sessions and [James Comey]. Mr. Sessions usually flies on a private government-provided plane as well. At the C.I.A., highly trained and carefully selected agency officers protect its director with a constant presence, even setting up quarters within or near the director's home. And at the Defense Department, special agents from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command ensure that the secretary, Jim Mattis, is kept safe domestically and as he travels the world visiting bases and installations."

-- Associated Press, “Government office investigating Trump's transition process,” by Julie Bykowicz: "A government office is investigating whether the transition team followed ethical guidelines, including a review if communications with foreign leaders and use of public money. The [GAO] agreed this month to probe the matter at the request of several Democratic lawmakers … [and said] it will have a draft of its report ready by June. In a letter, the GAO outlined its investigation objectives, which include: a review of what ethics guidelines apply to the transition process; how the Trump team was using public money provided for the transition, and how much it raised in private funds … and how, if at all, did the government work with the incoming Trump team to communicate with foreign governments. On the matters of conflicts and foreign communications, the GAO will compare the Trump transition with those of Obama in 2009 and Bush in 2001.”

Democratic House candidate Jon Ossoff speaks at a meet-in-greet in a northern suburb of Atlanta. (Kevin D. Liles/For the Washington Post)

THE MIDTERMS:

-- New York Times A1, “Suburban G.O.P. Voters Sour on Party, Raising Republican Fears for 2018,” by Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin: "Early missteps by [Trump] and congressional leaders have weighed heavily on voters from the party’s more affluent wing, anchored in right-of-center suburbs around major cities in the South and Midwest. Never beloved in these precincts, Mr. Trump appears to be struggling to maintain support from certain voters who backed him last year mainly as a way of defeating [Clinton]. These voters, mainly white professionals, say they expected far more in the way of results by now, given the Republican grip on power in the capital. In opinion polls, they consistently give Mr. Trump mediocre approval ratings, even as he remains solidly popular with lower-income whites…

“In the past, first-term presidents have suffered grievous losses in midterm elections, when their party’s voters have stayed home while the opposition party has marched to the barricades. [Obama] saw Democrats lose 63 House seats in 2010 … It is too early to say if the same dynamic is afflicting Mr. Trump. But already, Republicans have strained to prop up their candidates in a pair of special House elections in the areas around Atlanta and Wichita, Kan., both in districts that have voted overwhelmingly Republican in past congressional races. Should Republican voters remain so demoralized — and Democrats so fired up — it could imperil dozens of congressional seats that are usually safe.”

-- Nearly $14 million has already been spent to air ads in Georgia’s Sixth District ahead of the special election to replace Tom Price, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, with Democrat Jon Ossoff – who has far outraised Republican candidates – spending more than $5.3 million on radio, TV and cable ads since late February.  

United CEO Oscar Munoz visits New York. (AP/Richard Drew)

WAPO HIGHLIGHTS:

-- “United CEO Oscar Munoz: The rise and fall of a ‘Communicator of the Year,’” by Avi Selk: “Not quite a full month ago, before #LeggingsGate and Dragging-gate and the accompanying public scorn, United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz put on a bow tie and ascended a stage in New York for the self-styled ‘Oscars of the PR world.’ Munoz had just been named PRWeek's ‘Communicator of the Year’ — an honor he shared with … Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani activist who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban for championing women's rights. Munoz had not done anything like that. But he had, PRWeek explained, rehabilitated the image of an airline once tangled in image crises — unpopular with employees and customers alike. Recruited from a railroad company, Munoz's challenges were huge, by all accounts. A month into the job, [he] had a heart attack. And yet, before and after an extended hospital stay, he built a reputation as an open, communicative chief executive. ... On Tuesday —before Munoz issued United's fourth statement on the passenger dragged off a plane, PRWeek's editor in chief wrote a scathing assessment of the honoree: 'If PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz,' he said."

-- “Tim Kaine is back at his old Senate job. It’s never seemed more important,” by Monica Hesse: “The week after the Clinton-Kaine ticket fell, Hillary Clinton retreated to Upstate New York, removing herself from public life except for an occasional woodsy sighting by an intrepid hiker. … But Kaine was back in the Senate. Old office. Old shirt sleeves. Old routines: the Monday morning drive from Richmond to Washington, and the questions from fans about his harmonica collection. Kaine was back there for all of it … bearing witness as the new order unfurled. ‘I’m sorry you’re not vice president, but senator’s still important,’ a fourth-grader wrote to Kaine recently. ‘Can you please stop my classmates from being deported?’

“‘Sometimes I wake up and think this isn’t happening,’ the senator says. ‘This,’ of course, is this: Russia, hacking, leaking, tapping … A new uproar every week, a new headline every hour, a succession of columnists writing about how it all might signify the end of the world …’ [But that is] what it is like to be Tim Kaine now: You could have won, but you didn’t, and there’s nothing to be done about it now, because the country that you tried to warn went and did the opposite thing anyway.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

-- During an interview on Fox Business, Trump recounted his decision to authorize missile strikes in Syria while he was eating dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. “I was sitting at the table,” he said. “We're now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it. And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded. … And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way. And I said, Mr. President, let me explain something to you — this was during dessert — we've just fired 59 missiles.” Trump mentioned “dessert” or “cake” five times while telling the story, Aaron Blake notes. (Read the annotated transcript of the full interview here.)

Social media lit up over the chocolate cake reference:

More from that Fox Business interview:

Ron Wyden tries to get in on the challenge by Wendy's to a Twitter user to get 18 million RTs for a year's worth of free chicken nuggets. But Wyden wants Trump's tax returns:

Ben Carson got stuck in an elevator:

From this Black Lives Matters leader:

And a conservative ex-congressman:

Twitter has somehow found a way to combine the latest scandals:

Obama's last social secretary threw a welcome party for Trump's new one:

And Bernie joins the podcast craze:

-- In his cartoon for today’s paper, Tom Toles imagines Trump as a wolf in sheep’s clothing: 

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- The Hollywood Reporter, “Anchor Roundtable: Savannah Guthrie, Jake Tapper and More on Fake News, Fairness and When Trump Calls Your Phone,” by Marisa Guthrie: “For TV news anchors, the Trump era has turned the workplace into a minefield of combative interviews, ‘alternative facts,’ Twitter mobs and out-of-the-blue calls from the Oval Office. ‘At what point, when a White House [official] or a member of Congress refuses to accept reality, do you say, 'You're not allowed to come on [our show] anymore'?’ asks George Stephanopoulos … ‘We put them on, we challenge them, but then you're also facing the question of: Is this really serving [our viewers] by allowing falsehoods to propagate?’ The situation in Washington has made ‘every day feel like Monday,’ says Jake Tapper … When Tapper and Stephanopoulos joined [Bret Baier, Savannah Guthrie, and Gayle King], Trump's penchant for ad hominem attacks was a recurring theme. And as some of the most prominent voices of their besieged profession, these leaders acknowledged that the stakes are only rising as ‘fake news’ proliferates and ‘the price for making a mistake now is incredibly high …’”

-- New York Times, “John Dean, Who Worked for Nixon, Sizes Up Trump,” by Laura M. Holson: “Wherever Mr. Dean goes, talk of Watergate is never far behind … [and while he visited Manhattan], the news of the day — with its talk of investigations and wiretaps — seemed an echo of the Watergate era. Amid investigations into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, the president had accused … [Obama] of wiretapping the phones at Trump Tower. Surreptitious recording is something Mr. Dean knows all too well: Mr. Nixon taped 37 of their conversations in the White House. ‘That’s the silliness of Trump’s tweet saying Obama tapped him,’ Mr. Dean said. ‘He could find that out within one phone call.’” Following Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the scope of presidential authority became more limited – something that changed in the aftermath of 9/11, he said, as the Bush administration reclaimed many of those powers. “Presidents don’t give up powers once they get in there,” he said. And that is what troubles him most about Trump and his top political advisers: “I’m not sure Trump, or Bannon, or whoever is guiding that place, has figured out all their powers,” he said. “The incompetence is the only thing giving me comfort at the moment.”

-- Wall Street Journal, “In Arkansas, Executioners Face a Job Unlike Any Other,” by Joe Palazzolo: “Each state follows its own procedures for carrying out death sentences, but one rule seems to apply universally. ‘If anyone ever comes to you and volunteers to be on the death team, that is the last person you want,’ said [former prison warden] Ron McAndrew … [Now], the scheduled executions of seven men over 10 days in Arkansas has drawn more attention than usual to the executioners, how they were selected and how they will cope with their grim task after the state’s 12-year break from the death penalty.” Dozens of former corrections officials asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson to reconsider his decision to rapidly compress the execution schedule before the expiration date of the state’s lethal injection drugs, saying in a letter that putting so many people to death in such a short period would “impose extraordinary and unnecessary stress and trauma on the staff.”

Some said that even if the executions were successful, the mental toll on executioners would “reveal themselves” over time. “Years from now when this governor has already retired,” McAndrew said, “these officers are going to lay down in bed at night and hope they don’t see the people they killed.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“North Carolina GOP Lawmaker Calls Abraham Lincoln a 'Tyrant' Like Adolf Hitler,” from Time Magazine: “Larry Pitmann, a representative in the North Carolina General Assembly, said Lincoln was the ‘same sort of tyrant as’ the Nazi dictator. … Pittman, was responding to comments on Facebook criticizing him for introducing a bill in the North Carolina legislature that would render the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage inapplicable in his state. ‘You aren't fit to hold public office … if you don't respect the Supreme Court and the Constitution,’ one Facebook user wrote. Pittman replied, ‘And if Hitler had won, should the world just get over it? Lincoln was the same sort if tyrant, and personally responsible for the deaths of over 800,000 Americans in a war that was unnecessary and unconstitutional.’”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Muslim rugby player removes logos on team uniform that ‘conflict’ with his beliefs,” from Marissa Payne: “New Zealand rugby star Sonny Bill Williams looks like any other member of his team — as long as you don’t look too closely. While Williams wears the same colors as his Auckland Blues teammates, his uniform lacks advertising patches from banks, alcohol brands and gambling companies thanks New Zealand Rugby’s decision to ‘accommodate’ a request he made on the basis of ‘conscientious objection.’ Williams’s request was made on account of his Muslim faith, which he said, prevents him from doing sponsorship work for companies related to alcohol, tobacco, gambling and banks. (Under Islamic law, collecting interest on loans is prohibited.)”

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump will sign H.J. Res. 43. Later, he will meet with I-85 bridge first responders before departing for Mar-a-Lago. Pence has no scheduled events. Congress is on spring break.

The Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidates debate tonight at 7 p.m. at Liberty University. You can watch a livestream on the school’s web site. (Laura Vozzella has a curtain raiser here.)

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“Bannon is a brilliant pirate who has had a huge impact,” said Newt Gingrich. “But White Houses, in the end, are like the U.S. Navy — corporate structures and very hard on pirates.”

 

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

-- Today’s forecast gets yet another “Nice Day” stamp from the Capital Weather Gang: “An occasional band of clouds may break up the sunshine today, but only briefly. Highs reach the upper 60s to lower 70s and breezes are light from the north.”

-- The Nationals lost to the Cardinals 6-1.

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Jimmy Kimmel has exclusive footage of Carson stuck in an elevator:

"You're the darkness," Kellyanne Conway is told:

This Indian news anchor was on air when the station reported the news of her husband's death: