THE BIG IDEA:

One main takeaway for Democrats from their loss in Georgia’s special election is that the party has not focused enough on issues that directly impact people’s lives.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told his colleagues during a private meeting yesterday that voters in the 2018 midterm elections will almost certainly be more motivated by an issue like health care than the escalating Russia investigation, and he urged lawmakers to keep their eye on the ball.

The shiny object which is Russia and the Trump administration is in many ways a smokescreen for Mitch McConnell and the Senate to do things they probably wouldn’t be able to get away with if the public and media were paying more attention,” Crowley explained in an interview last night. “We’re all guilty of that to some degree.”

The congressman added that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and Donald Trump firing James Comey as FBI director remain important. “But we need to walk and chew gum at the same time and recognize that the issues that really matter to people are the ones that affect their everyday lives,” he said.

While Republican candidate Karen Handel supported the House health-care bill in Georgia’s Sixth District, and Democrat Jon Ossoff opposed it, the issue was not front and center in the race

“The fact that we have spent so much time talking about Russia has been a distraction from what should be the clear contrast between Democrats and the Trump agenda, which is on economics,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” whether Ossoff’s defeat means the party should become more progressive, the senator responded that it’s more an issue of what they’re talking about. “When I'm back in Connecticut, I often get on a commuter bus and ride it for just an hour to talk to folks that don't normally call my office or write my office,” Murphy explained. “They are never talking about issues like Russia. They are not talking, frankly, about what's on cable news at night.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who as a member of the Intelligence Committee is constantly asked about the Russia investigation, worries that the health debate is not breaking through because Democrats aren’t talking about it enough. “When reporters ask me a question about Russia, I now say, ‘I’m happy to talk about it, but you’re going to have to listen to me talk about the health care challenge ahead first,’” he said during a press conference to talk about the opioid epidemic. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) lamented this dynamic when Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Intelligence Committee last week:

The Democratic polling firms Garin-Hart-Yang and Global Strategy Group conducted a national survey for Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC, last month that found the Comey news and concerns related to Russia are major liabilities for Republicans. But the pollsters found that the health-care issue is a significantly bigger driver of voter behavior. “A key imperative for Democrats and progressive organizations is to bring even greater attention to the health care issue in the weeks and months to come,” the pollsters said in a memo about their numbers. “Disapproval of the health care proposal transcends partisan lines. Furthermore, health care needs the added reinforcement since it is less dominant in the news compared to Russia, which has been the subject of new revelations for several weeks in a row. As a result, more voters say they’re closely following news about Russia right now than say the same about health care.”

Part of the struggle for Democrats is that have been trying for weeks to marshal opposition to a Senate bill that hasn’t been publicly released yet. “They have been forced to fight against a phantom,” Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin explain in today’s paper. “Until (the bill comes out today), Senate Democrats have tried to foment opposition to the impending bill by focusing on different constituencies who they say would be harmed. … Off Capitol Hill, leading groups that share Senate Democrats’ concerns about the GOP’s health-care ideas acknowledge the difficulty of trying to lobby without actual Senate legislation against which to rail. ‘It’s very challenging,’ said Dick Woodruff, the American Cancer Society’s senior vice president of federal advocacy. Without a Senate bill, members of his group continue to express concern about key elements of the House’s American Health Care Act.”

That dynamic won’t last, Democrats are quick to note. The Congressional Budget Office will score the Senate plan, and the numbers may be slightly better than the House version (or not) – but the toplines about how many fewer people will have coverage a decade from now will still look bad for the GOP.

Insurance companies, meanwhile, continue to pull out of exchanges for the coming year. Anthem yesterday announced that it will not participate in Wisconsin and Indiana’s Obamacare markets for 2018. The insurer pulled out of the federal exchange in Ohio earlier this month (a dynamic I wrote about from Columbus). Just as in Ohio, Anthem cited a “volatile” market and “uncertainty” about the future of the law emanating from Washington. 

 “We can debate over how many years Medicaid expansion is phased out, but people’s rates are going to go up in 2018,” said Lauren Passalacqua, the communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Insurance companies are raising rates and blaming Washington, which is controlled by a Republican President and Congress. … Your health care is always top of mind. Voters may not remember that the process was done in secret or how the House and Senate versions of the bill differed, but they’re definitely not going to forget that their coverage became more expensive and harder to get.

Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research for Demos, a liberal advocacy organization, said that focusing on pocketbook issues is the only way Democrats will win back working-class voters who defected from the party last year. She recently conducted focus groups with white working class voters in Columbus, Ohio, who voted for Barack Obama but switched to Trump. “People are desperate for some action to give them some real economic relief,” she said. “The kitchen table concerns are what keep them up at night and give them ulcers. Health care is clearly one of those.”

Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who has focused for the past few months on mobilizing opposition to repealing Obamacare, sees the Russia-related investigations as complementary to his cause. “There are few issues, if any, that will impact people as much as repealing health care. But I think it’s a bit of a false choice as to whether to focus on that more than Russia,” he said. “Because in the end, the scandal around Russia has raised so many doubts about the president’s ability to be honest. And that underlying damage to his credibility and character traits makes it even harder for him to sell people on his health plan. He can say he’ll reduce costs and improve care, but after the Russia scandal people don’t believe him. We will win or lose the midterms based on the bread-and-butter kitchen table issues. We may win the argument about those issues because the president has lost standing with the American people over the Russia scandal.

Ferguson, a cancer survivor, directed the independent expenditure arm of the DCCC in 2014 and worked for Hillary Clinton last year. So he understands how stories can play out in unexpected ways. “The contours of the Russia debate could change dramatically before we get to the midterms,” he said. “If Bob Mueller has cleared (Trump), it’s probably not as much of an issue. If conversely there are pending indictments, then it’s a totally different ball of wax. We just don’t know.” On the other hand, he noted, most House Republicans are already on the record voting for a politically-toxic bill, whether it becomes law or not.

-- Frustrations have been bubbling up for months among some liberal commentators that party leaders are spending too much time chasing the Russia story at the expense of protecting Obamacare.

“The Russia Scandal Is Distracting Democrats From Trumpcare,” New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer complained in a widely shared piece last week. “For all the attention the scandal deserves, it is also, from the point of view of resisting the Trump agenda, counterproductive and politically demobilizing. The Russia story is high political theater (but) there’s very little room in this drama for activists. At best, if the Senate or some other branch of the government is seen as failing to do its duties, protestors might play a role in raising a stink. But on the whole, the Russia investigation is one where the system proceeds according to its own rules, while the public looks on. The battle over health care, by contrast, requires enflaming mass passions.” 

“Democrats Should Focus More on Jobs, Less on Russia,” progressive writer Robert Borosage urged his compatriots in a column for The Nation back in March. “Democrats are railing about the Russians and the last election, while Trump is talking jobs, law and order, protecting our borders, and health care. We know which of these speak to the challenges Americans face. Worse, the Democratic attack targets Trump individually, removing the right-wing Republican Congress from the picture. This simply distracts from the real deal.”

DRIVING THE DAY—WHAT THE NEW SENATE BILL DOES:

-- Paige Winfield Cunningham, author of our Health 202, obtained a copy of the “discussion draft” that McConnell is going to unveil today: “The Senate GOP leadership plan would roll back the ACA’s taxes, phase down its Medicaid expansion, rejigger its subsidies, give states wider latitude in opting out of its regulations and eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood for one year…

“The bill largely mirrors the House measure that narrowly passed last month but with some significant changes: While the House legislation pegged federal insurance subsidies to age, the Senate bill would link them to income as the ACA does. The Senate proposal cuts off Medicaid expansion more gradually than the House bill, but would enact deeper long-term cuts to the health-care program for low-income Americans. It also removes language restricting federally-subsidized health plans from covering abortions, which may have run afoul of complex budget rules.”

The bill’s contents are far from final: “Aides stress that the plan is likely to undergo more changes … to pass … Even if the Senate measure does pass the upper chamber, it will still have to pass muster with the more conservative House before any legislation could be enacted.”

FOUR FLASHPOINTS:

-- The Senate Majority Leader, who can only afford two defections among his 52 members, has struggled to placate the opposite ideological ends of his caucus. Just because a draft is finally emerging does not mean those disagreements have been resolved. Paige Winfield Cunningham, Juliet Eilperin and Sean Sullivan report: “On the eve of the bill’s release, [McConnell still] faced the prospect of an open revolt from key conservative and moderate GOP senators ... Republicans familiar with the effort said Senate leaders have more work to do to secure the 50 votes needed … with Vice President Pence set to cast the tiebreaking vote.”

  • “Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), whose state expanded Medicaid and has been pushing for a more gradual unwinding of that initiative than many conservatives prefer, said she is waiting to scrutinize what is released. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Capito have also been pushing for the inclusion of a $45 billion fund to treat and prevent opioid addiction. As of early Wednesday afternoon, the opioid money was not included in McConnell’s proposal.
  • “Moderates who are on the fence about whether to support the Obamacare overhaul are likely to be pleased at the bill’s approach to insurance subsidies because they would be based on financial need, potentially preserving coverage for more people who got insurance under the ACA. Subsidies are currently available to Americans earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level. Starting in 2020, that threshold would be lowered to 350 percent under the Senate bill.”
  • “In a move that is critical to insurers, the Senate measure would continue to fund for two years cost-sharing subsidies that help 7 million Americans with ACA plans.”
  • “McConnell has told Republican senators that he wants to maintain protections for people with preexisting conditions under the law. But it was not clear to some lawmakers Wednesday what that would entail.”

-- Any way you cut it, insurance companies are winners in this proposal. Republican leaders briefed insurers yesterday afternoon before they briefed their own membership (at 9:30 a.m. today). The bill text will post for the public to read around 11 a.m. A Politico reporter spotted a top health insurance lobbyist in McConnell’s office last night. From a Vox health reporter:

From a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation:

THE SECRECY NARRATIVE CEMENTS:

-- More rank-and-file Republican senators, concerned about political blowback back home, are complaining about the lack of transparency and the rushed timeline. The Wall Street Journal’s Stephanie Armour, Kristina Peterson and Louise Radnofsky report: “Some Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), are calling the timetable too rushed to ensure their support. ‘I would find it hard to believe I will have enough time,’ Mr. Johnson said. ‘I’ve made leadership well aware of the fact that I need information to make a final decision, and if I don’t have the information to justify a yes vote, I won’t be voting yes.’ … Several senators said they were frustrated because they would apparently have a week to review the bill before leadership asks for a vote, raising the possibility that the vote could be pushed into July. ‘The whole process is not satisfactory,’ Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said. ‘I feel terrible about it.’

-- Rand Paul, McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian, just reintroduced a resolution that would require one day to pass for every 20 pages in a bill or amendment before it could be brought up for consideration on the floor. “Legislation is too often shoved through Congress without proper hearings, amendments, or debate, as the secrecy surrounding the Senate’s health care bill and the pressure to vote for it with little time to fully evaluate the proposal once again remind us,” the Republican said in a statement. 

-- The covert nature of the negotiations is particularly ironic given Senate Republican attacks on the ACA seven years ago. Karen Tumulty, who covered that fight closely, explains: “Hypocrisy has always been a vital lubricant to making the gears turn in Washington. … Rarely, however, has the double standard been so flagrant as now, when Republicans are scrambling to keep their promise to ‘repeal and replace Obamacare.’ Exhibit A: Mitch McConnell, who is set to produce a draft of a bill to be voted on next week. Back when the Affordable Care Act passed on a party-line vote in 2010, the then-minority leader was full-throated in his denunciation of ‘the partisan route’ that majority Democrats had taken and of the ‘closed-door sweetheart deals that were made to gain the slimmest margin for passage of a bill that’s about their health care.’”

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- The president traveled to Iowa for a rally last night and reentered campaign mode, promising to crack down on illegal immigration and use solar panels to pay for a border wall. John Wagner and Jenna Johnson report: “During a meandering speech, the president, saddled in Washington with sagging job approval numbers, seemed to draw on the energy of his supporters as he made the case that his administration has made ‘amazing progress’ in its first five months. Despite early setbacks, Trump pledged that he would make good on marquee campaign promises to revamp the Affordable Care Act, cut taxes and spur $1 trillion in new spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure … Trump also told the crowd that he is contemplating putting solar panels on the wall that he has pledged to build on the U.S.-Mexico border. ‘The higher it goes, the more valuable it is,’ Trump said. ‘Pretty good imagination, right?’”

  • Trump’s reelection campaign committee staged the rally, the first since his trip to Pennsylvania on his 100th day in office. The rallies have served as a way for the president to get out of Washington and hear from supporters in swing states he won, as John Wagner and Ashley Parker reported this week.
  • Trump made an odd promise to the 6,000 audience members present: “Trump said he will soon introduce legislation that would bar immigrants to the United States from being on welfare for their first five years in the country … It wasn’t immediately clear how Trump’s proposal would differ from existing practice. Under a 1996 welfare law signed by President Bill Clinton, legal immigrants must live in the United States for a minimum of five years to become eligible for social aid programs.” 

-- A car bomb exploded in Afghanistan outside a bank where people waited to collect their monthly salaries, killing 29. Sayed Salahuddin reports: “The car detonated in the parking lot of the New Kabul Bank in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, where dozens of people, both civilians and security personnel, were waiting to collect their salaries. Governor Hayatullah Hayat said by phone that most of those killed were civilians and at least 60 people were wounded.”

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. The FBI and local police are investigating a stabbing attack on an airport police officer in Flint, Mich., as a possible act of terrorism. Police said the male suspect was apprehended after he stabbed the officer in the neck, and they are continuing to probe any “nature and motive” behind the attack. Authorities said the incident appears to be isolated, and had no information to suggest a broader security threat to Flint. (Devlin Barrett and Mark Berman)
  2. An attempted terrorist bombing at a central Brussels train station “could have been far worse,” Belgian authorities said, describing what was a nail-packed bomb that failed to fully detonate. Police identified the suspect as a 36-year-old Moroccan known to authorities but had no previously-discovered terrorist ties, and said they found materials in his home suggesting sympathy with the Islamic State. (Michael Birnbaum)
  3. As South Korea gears up to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, Seoul’s sports minister is considering a highly controversial proposal: asking North Korea to help host some of the events. The overture comes as part of a broader effort by newly elected President Moon Jae-in to engage with Pyongyang, particularly through sports – but it’s unclear how that will play in the rest of the world. (Amanda Erickson)

  4. Islamic State militants blew up a historic mosque in Mosul on Wednesday, reducing to rubble yet another iconic landmark as Iraqi forces seek to regain control of the city. Officials said the militants blew up both the 800-year-old mosque and its minaret as Iraqi forces advanced within 50 yards of the building, and published a video that appeared to back up its claim. (Loveday Morris)
  5. Nearly one week after a catastrophic fire ravaged London’s 24-story Grenfell Tower, displacing hundreds of low-income residents and killing 79 people, some survivors learned they will be moving to one of the most luxurious apartment complexes in the city. The new complex is less than two miles from the burned-out shell of their former building and provides access to a 24-hour concierge, swimming pool, spa, and private cinema. (New York Times)
  6. The Congressional Black Caucus declined an invitation to meet with Trump. The caucus’ chairman wrote in a letter that the meeting would not be “productive” given that their past stated concerns “fell on deaf ears.” (NBC News)
  7. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing with federal immigration authorities on preventing the violent street gang MS-13 from targeting undocumented youths for recruitment. According to a Post investigation, 14 young people placed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement have later become involved in MS-13 violence. (Michael E. Miller)

  8. The parents of a North Carolina teen who died last year after contracting a rare “brain-eating” amoeba during a white-water rafting trip are suing the U.S. National Whitewater Center, claiming that the park failed to properly chlorinate water or train its employees to eliminate or reduce dangers of the virus. The Naegleria fowleri is rare but extremely deadly -- out of the 140 individuals known to have been infected in the United States, just four have survived. (Herman Wong)  
  9. Uber board member Arianna Huffington wants Sheryl Sandberg to take over as CEO. But that doesn’t mean Sandberg is prepared to leave her role as COO of Facebook. (New York Post)

  10. A Florida college official prompted outrage after suggesting women make less money than their male counterparts because genetically they might lack the skills to negotiate for better pay. (Kristine Phillips)
  11. President Trump commended two high-school students whose positive references to the president were removed from their yearbook. Trump wrote on Facebook, “Thank you Wyatt and Montana — two young Americans who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in.” (Lindsey Bever)

  12. Several CIA contractors have been kicked out of the agency for stealing thousands of dollars of vending machine snacks. A newly declassified report charges them with taking part in a months-long “theft scheme,” with at least one employee using his vast knowledge of computer networks to mastermind the hack. (Buzzfeed News)

THERE'S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- Russian government actors tried to hack election-related computer systems in 21 states last year, a top DHS official testified Wednesday, providing further information on the scope of Moscow’s efforts to impede the U.S. electoral system. Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian report: “Samuel Liles, the [DHS’s] acting director of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis Cyber Division, [told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee] that vote-tallying mechanisms were unaffected and that the hackers appeared to be scanning for vulnerabilities — which Liles likened to walking down the street and looking at homes to see who might be inside. But hackers successfully exploited a ‘small number’ of networks, Liles said, likening the act to making it through a home’s front door ... Officials in Arizona and Illinois had previously confirmed that hackers targeted their voter registration system, though news reports suggested the Russian effort was much broader.”

Meanwhile, former DHS secretary Jeh Johnson testified in a separate House Intelligence hearing Tuesday that Russia’s meddling was “unprecedented” in both scale and scope. “In retrospect, it would have been easy for me to say I should have brought a sleeping bag and camped out in front of the DNC in the late summer," Johnson testified. He said the severity of the efforts persuaded him to sign an Oct. 7 statement publicly blaming the Kremlin for hacking and engineering the release of emails from the DNC and Clinton’s campaign. “I think the larger issue is it did not get the public attention that it should have, because the same day the press was focused on the release of the Access Hollywood video,” he said.

And FBI Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Bill Priestap testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians also pushed false news reports and propaganda online, using amplifiers to spread their message. “The Internet has allowed Russia to do so much more today than they’ve ever been able to do in the past,” Priestap said. 

-- Two top intelligence officials told Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate last week in separate meetings that Trump asked them to publicly deny any collusion between his campaign and Russia. CNN’s Dana Bash, Evan Perez and Manu Raju report: “Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers described their interactions with the President about the Russia investigation as odd and uncomfortable, but said they did not believe the President gave them orders to interfere … Both men told Mueller's team they were surprised the President would suggest that they publicly declare he was not involved in collusion, sources said. Mueller's team, which is in the early stages of its investigation, will ultimately decide whether the interactions are relevant to the inquiry.”

-- The White House is trying to convince the House to water down new Russia sanctions that passed the Senate last week. The New York Times’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Matt Flegenheimer report: “The effort is designed to head off an awkward and politically damaging veto fight between the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress on Russia at a time when Mr. Trump is laboring under the shadow of multiple investigations about his campaign’s potential collusion with Moscow. House Republicans, normally hawkish on Russia, face a choice between demonstrating a hard line against Moscow in the face of its misconduct and sparing their own president a potentially embarrassing confrontation. On Tuesday, Representative Kevin Brady ... lodged a procedural objection that effectively halted the measure in the House, and could force it to be redrafted.”

-- Democrats on the House Oversight Committee are pressing the White House to release documents related to Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn’s security clearances. AP’s Chad Day and Stephen Braun report: “In a letter Wednesday, 18 members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said they have ‘serious concerns’ about how the White House is handling classified information and who is being allowed access to such sensitive material. The letter, citing press reports, singles out Kushner for failing to disclose numerous contacts with foreign officials on his security clearance questionnaire. It also questions why the White House allowed Flynn to have access to classified information after learning that he had misled administration officials about the content of conversations with a Russian diplomat.”

-- After meeting with Mueller, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that it would proceed with its Russia probe. The Hill’s Jordain Carney reports: "‘We appreciate Special Counsel Mueller’s willingness to meet with us, and both parties have committed to keeping an open dialogue as we proceed,’ [committee members] said in a joint statement after the meeting. They added that they had a ‘very productive discussion’ on how their respective investigations ‘can proceed without impeding the other’ … Mueller has been meeting with lawmakers this week to map out boundary lines of the several ongoing investigations.”

-- Russian diplomat Vladimir Voronkov was named the United Nations’s new under secretary general for counter-terrorism. Karen DeYoung reports: “Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, who is about to leave Washington after serving here since 2008, had expressed interest in the job. Although the Russian government had made informal soundings on him, it did not formally propose him for the job. Kislyak, who met with a number of officials in now-President Trump’s campaign and transition, has become a central figure in the investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election and possible coordination with Trump officials.”

-- Time Magazine puts the special prosectutor on its cover with the headline: "The Lie Detector. Someone's not telling the truth." From the story by David Von Drehle: “Trump has traded the anguished Hamlet Comey for the adamantine Marine Robert Mueller, the Justice Department ramrod who remade the FBI after 9/11. As special counsel appointed in the wake of the Comey firing, Mueller has one job, no deadline and bottomless resources, and he is assembling an all-star team of veteran prosecutors whose expert backgrounds go beyond counterintelligence to include money laundering, corporate fraud and the limits of Executive Branch power … Mueller must be careful and measured and honest and open. If he finds offenses, he must lay them out clearly, with every t crossed. If he finds none, he must issue equally clear and compelling exonerations. America is hungry for fair dealers: Mueller can do his part by proving himself to be one.”

THE FOURTH ESTATE:

-- The Wall Street Journal fired chief foreign affairs correspondent Jay Solomon on Wednesday after he was found to be involved in prospective commercial deals with an international businessman and key source – including a deal involving arms sales to foreign governments. The AP’s Jeff Horwitz, Jon Gambrell, and Jack Gillum report: “[Solomon] was offered a 10 percent stake in a fledgling company, Denx LLC, by Farhad Azima, an Iranian-born aviation magnate who has ferried weapons for the CIA. It was not clear whether Solomon ever received money or formally accepted a stake in the company.” (Azima was also involved in a plan to help stage a coup in Kuwait.)

 “The emails and texts reviewed by the AP … included more than 18 months of communications involving the apparent business effort. Some messages described a need for Solomon’s Social Security number to file the company’s taxes, but there was no evidence Solomon provided it. In an April 2015 email, Azima wrote to Solomon about a proposal for a $725 million air-operations, surveillance and reconnaissance support contract with the [UAE] that would allow planes to spy on activity inside nearby Iran. Solomon was supposed to ferry the proposal to UAE government representatives at a lunch the following day, the email said. ‘We all wish best of luck to Jay on his first defense sale,’ Azima wrote to Solomon, Bernsten and Modell. Under the proposed UAE deal, Azima’s firms were to manage specially equipped surveillance planes to monitor activity in Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In October 2014, Solomon wrote to Azima in a text message: ‘Our business opportunities are so promising …’”

GEORGIA IS ON WASHINGTON'S MIND:

-- Democrats grappled with the results of two narrow House special election losses on Wednesday, pondering anew whether party leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, could adversely affect their chances in midterm elections. “With yet another example of Republicans successfully using Pelosi as a political foil, some Democrats wondered Wednesday if it is approaching time for the 77-year-old leader and her deputies to step aside,” Robert Costa, Elise Viebeck, and Karen Tumulty report. “The question tends to divide members of the House Democratic Caucus into two groups: the majority that hail from liberal districts and are loyal to Pelosi, and the minority in moderate or GOP-leaning areas that see her as a liability.”

  • Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an outspoken critic of caucus leadership, said Wednesday that Democrats need “a new generation of leadership — one focused on the future.”
  • And Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) went even further, saying in a CNN interview: “It’s time for Nancy Pelosi to go, and the entire leadership team.”

“Inside a House Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill, Pelosi labeled the loss as ‘clearly a setback,’” Mike DeBonis reports: “Pelosi noted that Trump selected his Cabinet appointees from ‘deep-red’ Republican districts to guard against Democratic pickups. ‘But we gave them a run for their money,’ According to multiple attendees, [DCCC Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Luján] emphasized that the party’s candidates in the recent special elections have outperformed expectations and that Democrats have a real chance of retaking the [House] majority … But the now-familiar refrain of ‘close but no cigar’ has worn on rank-and-file House Democrats who want to see concrete results. ‘Look, we need to win. Everything else is bulls---,’ said Rep. Sean Maloney, who led an independent examination of the House Democratic performance in 2016. ‘I come out of the sports world, and it’s like, you either win or you lose, you know?’ he said. ‘I don’t like moral victories. I like victories.’”

And while a senior Democratic aide in attendance said Tuesday’s result “doesn’t help” Pelosi in the next election cycle, that person played down the possibility of any immediate attempts to remove her. “Despite the complaints, most of the open dissent came from Democrats who had already broken with Pelosi after the November elections,” DeBonis reports. “Even her doubters respect her ability to raise money and manage a fractious caucus, and she maintains a strong base of support within it. ‘I don’t think people got up in the morning and said, "Boy, I’m going to make it though this rainstorm so I can vote against Nancy Pelosi,’’ said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a close ally of the Democratic leader. ‘I don’t think that’s what motivates people. I really don’t.’”

-- Republicans are elated by Karen Handel’s victory – but their celebration may be short-lived as lawmakers shift their sights from the conservative Atlanta suburbs and back to Capitol Hill, where they're dealing with a slew of controversial proposals. Robert Costa, Elise Viebeck, and Karen Tumulty report: “Health care is far from the only debate with potential pitfalls for Republican incumbents. [Tax reform] is in limbo on Capitol Hill. And the investigation … into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump tried to obstruct justice is a variable that keeps Republicans on edge. Trump’s priorities remain largely stalled on Capitol Hill and Tuesday’s result, due to a unique set of circumstances, provides only a faint road map to either party as they strategize for next year’s midterm elections ..."

KEEPING IT IN PERSPECTIVE: THREE SMART TAKES:

-- “For all the money spent and the endless pre-election analysis about the meaning of it all, the special congressional election in Georgia’s 6th district produced a status quo result," Dan Balz writes. “Any House race that generates $50 million in spending — it was the costliest in history — is hardly a generic laboratory and therefore the results are subject to over interpretation.  The Georgia contest drew attention because the district fit the narrative of the Trump era. It’s highly educated electorate seemed ideal to test what was seen in 2016, which was strong support for Trump among non-college educated white voters but significantly less among college-educated whites. Even with that, the Democratic brand did not prove attractive enough in a suburban southern district … [Still], in the fevered atmosphere that surrounded this contest in suburban Atlanta, it’s easy to lose sight of fundamentals. That meant, when stripped of all the hype, the odds always were, narrowly, in Handel’s direction.”

-- “The divergent results in GA-06 and SC-05 prove saturation-level campaigns can backfire on the party with a baseline enthusiasm advantage -- in this case, Democrats,” Dave Wasserman writes in the Cook Political Report. “The GA-06 election drew over 259,000 voters—an all-time turnout record for a stand-alone special election and an amazing 49,000 more than participated in the 2014 midterm in GA-06. The crush of attention motivated GOP voters who might have otherwise stayed home, helping Handel to victory. Second, overhyped special elections can often be lagging -- rather than leading -- indicators. In June 2006, Republicans retained a San Diego seat in a very expensive special election five months before losing the House. In May 2010, Democrats held an ancestrally Democratic seat in southwestern Pennsylvania six months before losing their majority. For a moment, tradition held. Today, both those seats are represented by the opposite party. Third, believe it or not, GA-06 wasn't the only special election held this year. Although it's true Democrats have agonizingly yet to capture a red district, they have outperformed their ‘generic’ share of the vote significantly [in] their districts … by an average of eight points in the past five elections …”

-- New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait largely agrees with this analysis, characterizing the Democratic “freak-out” as massively overhyped: “It’s certainly true that Jon Ossoff’s underperformance of the polls … should incrementally adjust one’s view of the Democrats’ prospects,” he writes. “But the reason the party has lost all four special elections is glaringly simple. It is not some deep and fatal malady afflicting its messaging [or] platform ... Republicans have won the special elections because they’ve all been held in heavily Republican districts. The special elections exist because [Trump] appointed Republicans in Congress to his administration, carefully selecting ones whose vacancy would not give Democrats a potential opening. It feels like Democrats somehow can’t win, but that is entirely because every contest has been held on heavily Republican turf.”

CASHING IN ON THE PRESIDENCY:

-- Trump is holding a reelection fundraiser at his Washington hotel next week – a location which campaign officials cited as “convenient,” but one that also raises major ethics concerns for the real-estate developer-turned-president. The AP’s Julie Bykowicz reports: “Kathleen Clark, a former ethics lawyer for the District of Columbia, said that while not illegal or even unusual for Trump, it’s a bold example of self-dealing that deeply concerns some Americans. ‘It’s another example of him trying to get a twofer, promoting his brand through his campaign or his government work,’ she said. Norman Eisen, who served as [Obama’s] lead ethics attorney, said Trump is ‘becoming more and more brazen in his efforts to monetize the presidency.’ "

PERSONNEL IS POLICY:

-- Just months before Sebastian Gorka joined the White House as a senior Trump adviser, he was fired by the FBI for anti-Muslim diatribes. The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman reports: “Law enforcement officials attending an August 2016 lecture from Gorka, whose academic credentials and affiliation with a pro-Nazi group have recently come under fire, were disturbed to hear a diatribe against Muslims passed off as instruction on the fundamentals of counterterrorism. Gorka told attendees at the Joint Terrorism Operations Course, an introductory-level class for participants in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, that all Muslims adhere to sharia law, which he said is in conflict with the U.S. constitution and American democratic values. Officials familiar with his lecture said Gorka taught law-enforcement officials there is no such thing as mainstream Muslims -- only those radicalized and those soon to be radicalized.”

-- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Wednesday detailed plans to slash 4,000 employees from his department’s sprawling workforce – moving to cut what amounts to nearly 8 percent of his full-time staff in accordance with Trump’s budget proposal. Lisa Rein reports: “Zinke, testifying before a Senate panel … said he would rely on a combination of attrition, reassignments and buyouts to make the cuts. Depending on how fast and effective those strategies work, the department ‘will determine the need for further action to reduce staffing,’ [he said]. In back-to-back hearings Tuesday and Wednesday … Zinke offered no additional details on whether the cuts will be concentrated in some offices or spread across Interior’s nine agencies — or whether he hopes to make them over a year or a longer period. But one agency, the Bureau of Land Management — which manages hundreds of wilderness areas, two dozen national monuments and other protected areas in addition to issuing leases for livestock grazing and oil and gas extraction — would lose 1,000 jobs …”

-- Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has chosen the chief executive of a private student-loan company to oversee the department’s $1.3 trillion student-loan system. The Hill’s Max Greenwood reports: “A. Wayne Johnson ...  is the founder and chief executive of Reunion Financial Services, a company that originates and refinances student loans. That credential is notably absent from the Education Department's release on Tuesday announcing Johnson's appointment … Johnson will be appointed to take the place of James Runcie, who abruptly resigned last month over a dispute with DeVos. Just before he stepped down, the former student aid COO refused to testify before the House Oversight Committee about the agency's rising levels of improper payments for federal student aid programs.”

-- Kenneth Juster, a senior official on the White House’s National Economic Council, is slated to be named U.S. ambassador to India, Josh Rogin reports: “[Juster] currently serves as the international deputy to NEC Director Gary Cohn. His exit from the White House has been rumored for weeks, amid reports that he clashed with other senior White House officials on trade and economic issues. But now, senior administration officials say his impending appointment to represent Washington in New Delhi is a consensus pick that places a top notch India expert in a crucial diplomatic post.”

-- Steve Scalise is continuing to make good progress after being felled by a gunman who opened fire last week on a GOP baseball team practice. A Wednesday statement from Washington MedStar hospital, where Scalise is being treated, said the House majority whip is now listed in fair condition, and is beginning an “extended period of healing and rehabilitation.”      

-- Meanwhile, federal officials released additional information on the gunman, saying during a Wednesday news briefing that 66-year-old James Hodgkinson had a local storage locker with more than 200 rounds of ammunition that he visited “daily,” including less than an hour before he opened fire on the team. Ann E. Marimow and Dana Hedgpeth report: “A list containing the names of six members of Congress also was found on the gunman … but FBI agent [Timothy Slater] said he would not characterize it as a ‘hit list’ or as individuals being targeted. The FBI gave updates on the investigation of the attack … and said it still was not clear what motivated the unemployed home inspector from Illinois to travel to the Washington area where he spent months living in his van in Alexandria before launching the shootings. [Federal] officials described Hodgkinson as a desperate man who was unemployed, running out of money, taking prescription drugs, having anger issues and was in what the FBI said was a troubled marriage. Hodgkinson was ‘struggling in all kinds of different ways,’ said Slater.” Authorities characterized the shooting as more of a “spontaneous” event, and said Hodgkinson had acted alone. 

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

-- Russian officials said Wednesday that a NATO F-16 fighter approached and then was warned away from a plane carrying Moscow’s defense minister -- marking the latest in a string of aerial incidents increasing tensions between the West and Russia. Andrew Roth reports:The incident occurred over the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe … in international airspace crowded with Russian and NATO jets testing one another’s nerve in sometimes dangerously close proximity. But no incidents yet had involved aircraft with high-ranking Russian or U.S. government officials on board. NATO confirmed the intercept, saying in an emailed statement that ‘three Russian aircraft, including two fighters’ had been tracked over the Baltic Sea. ‘As the aircraft did not identify themselves or respond to air traffic control, NATO fighter jets scrambled to identify them, according to standard procedure,” the statement read. ‘NATO has no information as to who was on board. We assess the Russian pilots’ behaviour as safe and professional.’”

-- Jared Kushner arrived in Jerusalem Wednesday for his first trip as an envoy, joined by Trump’s former real-estate lawyer as the two attempt the ambitious mission of restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. William Booth reports: “Few voices in Jerusalem or Ramallah sounded very hopeful as the untested Kushner [and Jason Greenblatt] came for preliminary talks with [Benjamin Netanyahu] and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But they are hedging their bets. That’s mostly because Trump is so out-of-the-ordinary, so grandiose and mercurial, that the players here wonder whether he just might make progress … Past efforts to broker peace are strewn with failure, overseen by veteran American diplomats with years of experience in the region, who were all sent packing. [Still], as a point man, Kushner’s inexperience in the Middle East is duly noted but may not be fatal.”

  • “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have two people with no experience. Others who have had a lot of experience haven’t done so well either. They all failed,” said Jerusalem-based analyst Nathan Thrall. Still, he warned, that has its limits: “Both the Israelis and Palestinians are pros at wearing down envoys with endless details,” he said. “They’ve done it to the most experienced negotiators.”

--  “Trump administration officials, anticipating the defeat of [ISIS] in its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, are planning for what they see as the next stage of the war[:] a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.” Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe report: “To some extent, that clash has already begun … As regime and militia forces have begun advancing eastward, senior White House officials have been pushing the Pentagon to establish outposts in the desert region. The goal would be to prevent a Syrian or Iranian military presence that would interfere with the U.S. military’s ability to break the Islamic State’s hold on the Euphrates River valley south of Raqqa and into Iraq ... effectively inserting the United States in Syria’s civil war, after years of trying to stay out of it, and risking direct confrontation with Iran and Russia."

-- Chinese and South Korean officials have pressured the Trump administration to open negotiations with North Korea for a temporary freeze on their missile tests in exchange for a lessened U.S. military presence in the peninsula. The New York Times’ David E. Sanger and Gardiner Harris report: “Versions of the proposal, floated by Beijing for several months, have been revived several times this week, first by South Korea’s newly installed president and then by China’s foreign minister and one of its top military officials in talks on Wednesday with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But White House officials say they are not interested in any proposal that would require the United States to lift military or economic pressure on the North, even in return for a moratorium on tests. Instead, Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis publicly pressed the Chinese to exert more diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang.”

-- Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (R) said Wednesday that he secretly met with North Korea’s delegation to the U.N. – taking an exceedingly rare step for a U.S. lawmaker as he attempted to lobby for the release of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier. The Columbus Dispatch’s Jessica Wehrman reports: “In a coffee with constituents Wednesday, Portman spoke emotionally about Warmbier, mentioning that he secretly visited with the North Korean representatives in December [in an encounter] that had been closely coordinated with the U.S. State Department. Portman brought photos of Warmbier to the meeting in New York, and urged the North Korean government to allow the Swedish ambassador to North Korea — the U.S.′ main contact with that government — to meet with Warmbier. Portman said in the months after that New York meeting, he continued to reach out. His efforts, he said, were futile. ‘I feel like I did not succeed in getting him home’ safely, he told the constituents at the coffee.”

WAPO HIGHLIGHTS:

-- “In this part of the Midwest, the problem isn’t China. It’s too many jobs,” by Danielle Paquette: “Each day at Zimmer Biomet headquarters, machinists on one robot-assisted factory floor churn out about 3,000 metallic knee parts. But the artificial-bone giant is [also] grappling with a steep downside of the nation’s low unemployment rate: It is struggling to find enough workers, despite offering some of the region’s best pay and benefits. With the U.S. unemployment rate at a 16-year low …  employers across the country are dealing with a dearth of potential hires. But the shortage is particularly problematic in places such as Kosciusko County, where the unemployment rate rests at 2 percent. This region — a land of clear lakes, duck farms and medical device makers — escaped the industrial decline that rocked other communities throughout the Rust Belt … [and] proved largely immune to competition from China and Mexico. But without more people to grow Warsaw’s business, the chances of companies relocating is ‘extraordinarily high,’ said [labor economist] Michael Hicks … ‘That would devastate the area,’ he said. ‘We need to figure out how to bridge this rural place to the future.’”

-- “Gun owners are outraged by the Philando Castile case. The NRA is silent,” by Avi Selk: “The organization had been quick to defend other gun owners who made national news. Castile had a valid permit for his firearm, reportedly told the officer about the gun to avoid a confrontation, and was fatally shot anyway after being told to hand over his license. So some NRA members were furious when the organization released a tepid statement more than a day after the shooting that merely called it ‘troublesome’ and promised that ‘the NRA will have more to say once all the facts are known.’ A year later, the investigation is over, and many more facts are known … And still the NRA has nothing to say.”

-- “Philippine police use chaos of Duterte’s drug war to extort families in distress,” by Emily Rauhala: “When investigators from the Philippine Commission on Human Rights arrived at Police Station No. 1, nothing seemed amiss. But as they surveyed the office of the local anti-drug unit, things looked normal: desks, two sofas, a bookshelf.  Officers assigned to the station kept glancing at the bookshelf. With news cameras rolling and police looking on, an investigator knocked on it. Someone knocked back. When the false door was finally opened, investigators found a dozen people packed into a small concrete cell, one bloodied, one with a swollen jaw, [who were being held for ransom]. A year after [Duterte] won the presidency … an estimated 9,000 people are dead, either shot in police raids [or killed by assailants on motorbikes] …  Less well-documented is how Philippine police are capitalizing on the chaos. The investigative raid on Police Station No. 1, reconstructed based on previously unreleased footage from the scene, provides the closest look yet at how officers allegedly use illegal detention and violence to extort cash — and how tough it is to stop them.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Cedar Rapids had a message for the president before his speech yesterday:

The speech itself was filled with memorable moments:

Senate Democrats demanded that the health-care bill be brought out from the shadows:

An update on Trump’s nominee for FBI director:

Jared Kushner met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

Ivanka Trump met with lawmakers to discuss paid family leave:

Eric Trump held an event at Mar-a-Lago:

Capitol Hill held a blood drive in honor of the Arlington victims:

Crystal Griner, one of two Capitol Police officers injured at last week’s shooting, threw out the first pitch at the Congressional Women’s Softball game yesterday:

U2’s Bono, in D.C. for a concert, visited Rep. Steve Scalise’s staff and signed a “get well” card:

Sen. Claire McCaskill’s grandsons gave a long-distance greeting:

Second lady Karen Pence showed off the family’s new pets:

And the L.A. Times issued a minor correction:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- New York Times, “Putin-Era Taboo: Telling Why Some Soviets Aided Nazis,” by Andrew Higgins: “As a former Soviet factory director, Vladimir Melikhov survived the brutal business turf wars of the 1990s to make a fortune in construction. Now he devotes his energy and money to what, in the Russia of [Vladimir] Putin, has become a truly risky enterprise: digging into Russian history. Mr. Melikhov has founded a private museum that is devoted to the memory of the ‘anti-Bolshevik resistance’ and that delves into a singularly taboo topic — why many Cossacks and other persecuted Soviet citizens welcomed, at least initially, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. As a result, he has been denounced on state television as a traitor, Russian border guards have defaced his passport to prevent him from leaving the country, and he has faced a string of seemingly trumped-up criminal charges … [including] illegal weapons possession …”

-- Buzzfeed News, “What happened to Black Lives Matter?” by Darren Sands: “Donald Trump’s election and presidency has inspired the biggest outpouring of liberal activism in more than a decade. But Black Lives Matter seems less visible than a year ago. After a meteoric rise to prominence, the movement is struggling mightily with sharp disputes over direction and leadership.”

-- New York Times, “Psychologists Open a Window on Brutal C.I.A. Interrogations,” by Sheri Fink and James Risen: “Fifteen years after he helped devise the brutal interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects in secret C.I.A. prisons, John Bruce Jessen, a former military psychologist, expressed ambivalence about the program. He described himself and a fellow military psychologist, James Mitchell, as reluctant participants in using the techniques, some of which are widely viewed as torture, but also justified the practices as effective in getting resistant detainees to cooperate. ‘I think any normal, conscionable man would have to consider carefully doing something like this,’ Dr. Jessen said in a newly disclosed deposition. ‘I deliberated with great, soulful torment about this, and obviously I concluded that it could be done safely or I wouldn’t have done it.’”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Video shows woman demanding ‘white doctor’ for her son in waiting-room rant,” from Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: “As the woman stormed through the Canadian medical facility, she was adamant: She wanted a white doctor to treat her son — not a brown one and not one with an accent. ‘So you're telling me that my kid has chest pains, he's going to have to sit here until 4 o'clock?’ she told an employee at the walk-in clinic in Mississauga, Ontario. ‘Can I see a doctor please that's white, that doesn't have brown teeth, that speaks English?’ The employee responded that the facility couldn't suddenly summon a Caucasian pediatrician. But the angry mother was steadfast. ‘You're telling me there's not one white doctor in this entire building?’ she continued. ‘Well, what's the closest that you have to speaking English?’ The episode has sparked outrage throughout Canada.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT

“Texas congressman says remarks on Clintons, Vince Foster were ‘a step too far,’” from the Texas Tribune: “[U.S. Rep. Pete Olson] on Tuesday walked back comments he had made on local radio in which he accused — without evidence — former President Bill Clinton of admitting to the murder of a deceased aide and of threatening [Loretta Lynch]. In discussing a now-infamous episode from last year in which Clinton had a tarmac meeting with Lynch, Olson speculated on local radio that in that conversation, Clinton admitted he was a party to the 1993 death of [Vincent Foster] and essentially threatened some similar form of retribution against Lynch if she did not drop an investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's email server.” When asked if Olson had new evidence to suggest the death was not a suicide, he provided the following statement: “The personal wreckage suffered by many people during the Clinton years is well documented. However … I took the accusations a step too far. I regret my choice of words.”

 

DAYBOOK:

President Trump will participate in an event on “emerging technology” in the morning and meet with the International Olympic Committee in the afternoon before hosting the Congressional Picnic tonight.

The vice president will give two speeches today: one for the Associated Builders and Contractors and another at the Wilson Center. He and the second lady will then join the president at the Congressional Picnic.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

During his Iowa speech on agriculture, the president said, "I'm not a farmer, but I'd be very happy to be one. It's a very beautiful world, and it's a truly noble American profession."

Because it's Thursday, a throwback to when an overalls-clad Trump sang the “Green Acres” theme song with Megan Mullally at the 2006 Emmys:

 

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

-- D.C. will see a lot of sun in the morning, some clouds in the afternoon and intense heat all day, the Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “The morning should see a good deal of sun while mainly high clouds increase in the afternoon. That does not help much in holding down the heat, with highs mainly in the lower 90s. An isolated shower can’t be ruled out, but most should stay out in the mountains.”

-- The Nationals lost to the Marlins 2-1, Chelsea Janes reports.

-- The Capitals lost defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights in last night’s expansion draft, Isabelle Khurshudyan reports.

-- A huge crowd of mourners gathered to remember Nabra Hassanen, the 17-year-old Virginia girl who was killed while walking to her mosque. Julie Zauzmer reports: “The brutal assault has alarmed the surrounding Muslim community and reverberated nationally with calls for a hate-crime investigation. A vigil in Dupont Circle in the District on Tuesday night drew hundreds, and hundreds more — many of them young — attended a vigil in Reston on Wednesday night.”

-- The Prince William County School Board approved anti-discrimination protections for LGBT students and employees yesterday, Antonio Olivo and Moriah Balingit report.

-- The Fairfax County School Board approved a $50 million cut in education spending, likely forcing larger class sizes and freezing teachers’ salaries, Moriah Balingit reports.

-- The Rockville City Council narrowly approved an ordinance that restricts police officers from cooperating with federal immigration forces or asking suspects about their immigration status, Bill Turque reports.

-- Starting next week, D.C. will offer a gender-neutral “X” identifier for driver’s licenses and ID cards, Rachel Siegel reports

-- As she approaches re-election next year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser remains largely popular with residents of the District, Peter Jamison, Scott Clement and Rachel Chason report.

-- Ben’s Chili Bowl unveiled its new mural. Perry Stein reports: “Bill Cosby is no longer featured on the Ben’s Chili Bowl mural, but more than a dozen black luminaries and cultural figures have a spot on the massive public painting.”

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Stephen Colbert addressed Senate Republicans’ “frantic scramble” to pass health-care reform by July 4:

Samantha Bee lamented the death of words’ significance:

In Iowa, President Trump explained why he doesn't "want a poor person" for certain economic positions in the administration:

The Post's Glenn Kessler explains how Democrats got Obamacare passed:

Queen Elizabeth addressed Brexit and counterterrorism efforts while opening a new session of Parliament yesterday:

An Australian senator breast-fed her daughter while advancing a motion in the chamber:

Dogs filling 40 cages were reportedly saved by an animal rights group while they were en route to an annual dog meat festival in China:

D.C. staple Ben's Chili Bowl unveiled a new mural: