National Political Correspondent

With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.

THE BIG IDEA: John Neely Kennedy, a freshman Republican senator from Louisiana, complained three weeks ago that the White House was ignoring his concerns about the subpar quality of President Trump’s judicial nominees. “It’s like talking to the wind,” he told reporters.

Now that he has helped torpedo three of those would-be judges in just the past week, they’re paying attention. Trump himself called up Kennedy over the weekend after a video went viral of the senator humiliating his pick for a district court judgeship. During a confirmation hearing, Kennedy pressed Matthew Spencer Petersen, who is currently the chairman of the Federal Election Commission, on his lack of relevant experience and stumped him with a series of basic legal questions.

If you haven’t watched the cringeworthy clip yet, it’s worth five minutes (you can also read our annotated transcript of the exchange here):

The White House withdrew Petersen’s nomination on Monday. “I had hoped my nearly two decades of public service might carry more weight than my two worst minutes on television,” Petersen said. “However, I am no stranger to political realities, and I do not wish to be a continued distraction …”

“Just because you’ve seen ‘My Cousin Vinny’ doesn’t qualify you to be a federal judge,” Kennedy told the New Orleans TV station WWL, referring to the 1992 movie about an inexperienced New York lawyer who exonerates two men wrongfully accused of murder in Alabama. “And my job on the Judiciary Committee is to catch him. I would strongly suggest he not give up his day job.”

-- Bowing to opposition from Kennedy and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Trump also withdrew two of his nominees for district court judgeships late last week: Brett Talley, a former speechwriter for Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) who writes horror books and has participated in ghost-hunting activities but never tried a case, reportedly wrote a 2011 message board comment defending the Ku Klux Klan. Jeff Mateer, who was up for a judgeship in Texas, gave public speeches advocating discrimination against the LGBT community and called transgender children proof that “Satan’s plan is working.

-- What’s Kennedy play here? His spokeswoman told me that he was not available for an interview on Monday, so I asked several plugged-in observers in Louisiana and Washington why he’s doing this. Beyond genuine unease with less-than-stellar nominees, three theories emerged:

1) He’s exacting revenge against White House counsel Don McGahn.

Trump declined to nominate Kennedy’s first choice for U.S. attorney in New Orleans, defense lawyer Kyle Schonekas. That’s a process McGahn oversees.

Kennedy has also complained that he was not consulted before Trump picked Kyle Duncan for the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit. He said he found out about it only when McGahn called to tell him. This prompted a long delay in returning Duncan’s blue slip.

Petersen, the nominee Kennedy grilled during last week’s hearing, was mentored by McGahn at the Federal Election Commission. Talley, one of the other nominees Kennedy felled last week, is married to McGahn’s chief of staff. Earlier this year, Kennedy became the first Republican senator to vote against one of Trump’s judicial nominees when he opposed Gregory Katsas for a spot on the D.C. Circuit. Katsas was McGahn’s No. 2 as deputy White House counsel. (Kennedy said his work in the White House created conflicts of interest that “a first-year law student could see.”)

Making matters worse, when White House spokesman Hogan Gidley was asked Friday about Petersen wilting during his confirmation hearing, he suggested that Kennedy is one of “the president’s opponents” and said he was “trying to distract from the record-setting success the president has had on judicial nominations.”

Kennedy said Trump told him during their Saturday call that he did not personally interview Petersen and blamed his own staff for the crummy nominations. “He has told me, ‘Kennedy, when some of my guys send someone who is not qualified, you do your job,’” the senator told WWL Monday. (A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about the conversation.)

2) Kennedy, as a former Democrat, still has lots of trial lawyer friends.

The 66-year-old came to the Senate in January after 17 years as the state treasurer. He matriculated from Vanderbilt and got his law degree at the University of Virginia, where he was executive editor of the law review. Then he studied civil law at Oxford.

Kennedy was legal counsel in the 1980s to then-Democratic Gov. Buddy Roemer. After an unsuccessful bid for Louisiana attorney general in 1991, he went back into private practice. He became a partner in 1993 at Chaffe McCall, New Orleans’s oldest law firm, where he was a corporate and civil trial attorney.

In 2004, Kennedy ran as a pro-John Kerry Democrat against Republican David Vitter for the Senate seat he now holds. It was open because of John Breaux’s retirement. (For a fun walk down memory lane, here is the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s opposition research file on him from that time.)

After getting whipped, Kennedy decided to become a Republican. The national GOP rallied behind him when he challenged then-Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2008, but she beat him by six points. He stayed on as treasurer through all of this and became increasingly vocal in his criticisms of Bobby Jindal as the then-governor’s approval rating slipped. After Vitter ran for governor in 2015 and said he wouldn’t seek another term in the Senate, Kennedy jumped into the race.

But he’s still got a lot of his old friends, and they don’t like the ideological edge of Trump’s picks.

3) Kennedy wants to run for governor in 2019, and he thinks this may help him.

“One very important thing to know about Kennedy is that everyone thinks he’s running for governor,” said Robert Mann, who teaches political communication at Louisiana State University and writes a column for the Times-Picayune. “It’s assumed, and he’s not done anything to tamp down the speculation that he’s coming back. Everything he does in Washington has got to be viewed through that lens. … It’s an office that he’s wanted for a long time, and running for governor would be a free shot for him. If he loses, he’s still got the Senate seat.”

Kennedy would face John Bel Edwards, a moderate Democrat who has an approval rating just above 50 percent. To pick off some of those voters, he’d want to establish his independent bona fides. He might also see the writing on the wall that this will be a bad environment for Republicans after Roy Moore’s loss in last week’s Alabama special election.

Kennedy has looked for other areas to establish some independence, as well: He was one of two Republicans to defect when the Senate voted to repeal the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rule that made it easier for Americans to sue their banks and credit card companies when they are wronged — instead of being forced into an arbitration process that’s tilted in favor of financial institutions.

Fueling speculation, he’s been wading into state-level issues back home that would typically be outside a senator’s purview. Last week, for example, Kennedy demanded that the former state police superintendent reimburse the state government for the nine years that he lived rent free at the state police compound. In doing so, he also took a whack at the governor for raising taxes. “Sen. Kennedy is not one to pass up an opportunity to get a headline,” Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo told the Baton Rouge Advocate.

-- Bigger picture, the most consequential legacy of Trump’s first year will be packing the courts. Republicans have literally changed the rules of the Senate related to filibusters and broken with century-old precedents related to blue slips to ram through a record number of judges, several of whom would never have passed muster to get nominated in normal times. In addition to a Supreme Court justice, the Senate has confirmed 12 circuit court judges and six district court judges this year. Several more are in the pipeline.

The White House has prioritized picking younger candidates (these are lifetime appointments) who have demonstrated loyalty to Trump (and fealty to his agenda). Multiple nominees have been rated Not Qualified by the nonpartisan American Bar Association, yet they got confirmed on party-line votes anyway.

Kennedy has voted for almost all these candidates, including a pivotal vote to put John Bush on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Bush was a Kentucky blogger who quoted from alt-right “birther” websites, disparaged gay rights and compared Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery. He made it through only because of his longtime loyalty to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom ambitious Republicans are always terrified to cross.

Another Trump pick, Damien Schiff, called Justice Anthony Kennedy a “judicial prostitute” on his blog.

-- The failure of three nominees in the last week may slow the breakneck pace and deter the administration from sending over so many controversial picks with so little courtroom experience. At the very least, the guys Trump is putting up for these crucial posts — 15 of the 19 judges who have been confirmed are men — might start preparing more earnestly and boning up on the kind of basic legal knowledge you’re supposed to learn during the first year of law school. “There are still lots of other nominees in the pipeline who deserve the same intense scrutiny that made those nominees’ flaws glaringly apparent,” said Marge Baker, vice president of the liberal group People For the American Way.

-- Scoop: Trump considered rescinding Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination this spring after the judge distanced himself from the president's attacks on the judicial branch. Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Robert Barnes report: “Trump, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions, was upset that Gorsuch had pointedly distanced himself from the president in a private February meeting with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), telling the senator he found Trump’s repeated attacks on the federal judiciary ‘disheartening’ and ‘demoralizing.’ The president worried that Gorsuch would not be ‘loyal,’ one of the people said, and told aides that he was tempted to pull Gorsuch’s nomination — and that he knew plenty of other judges who would want the job . . .

“It is unclear whether Trump’s ‘explosion,’ as another administration official described it, truly put Gorsuch’s nomination in jeopardy or whether the president was expressing his frustration aloud, as he often does. But at the time, some in the White House and on Capitol Hill feared that Gorsuch’s confirmation — which had been shaping up to be one of the clearest triumphs of Trump’s tumultuous young presidency — was on the verge of going awry. This account is based on interviews with 11 people familiar with the episode[.]

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- At least three people were killed when an Amtrak train derailed in Washington state, spilling onto a busy highway and leaving some rail cars dangling in midair. Officials estimated that 100 others were injured. The train was traveling at a speed of about 80 mph when it crashed, and 13 rail cars jumped the tracks. Authorities still don't know what caused the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board deployed 20 investigators to the scene. (Rodika Tollefson, Luz Lazo and Ashley Halsey III)

-- Trump immediately took to Twitter to criticize “crumbling” railways, which he suggested could have been fixed by an infrastructure plan he hasn't actually proposed. “The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, Wash., shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly,” he wrote. “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

  • But, but, but: Trump’s budget blueprint actually slashes federal aid for the nation’s rail systems and long-distance Amtrak routes. As our colleagues reported earlier this year, his proposal called for a $630 million reduction in subsidies for certain Amtrak routes and severely limited funds to expand existing lines and build new ones.
  • The accident also didn't actually happen on a crumbling railway, but rather on a brand new section of track, which “had just been upgraded as part of a $181 million project for a new, faster route,” the AP reports. 

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Puerto Rico’s governor has ordered all federal agencies to initiate a recount of certified deaths stemming from Hurricane Maria after independent analyses suggested the storm’s death toll could be as high as 1,000 — far exceeding the official count of 64 people. (Arelis R. Hernández)
  2. Charlottesville’s chief of police resigned just 17 days after a report harshly criticized the response of his department to the white supremacist rally held there in August. The 207-page report concluded Alfred Thomas's department was “ill prepared, lacked proper training,” and “had a flawed plan” for managing the hundreds of neo-Nazis who attended the “Unite the Right” rally. (Joe Heim)
  3. Twitter has begun implementing new rules meant to crack down on abusive content. A number of accounts associated with extremist groups were “purged” as the social media company aims to remove content explicitly advocating violence or promoting hate. (Craig Timberg and Hayley Tsukayama)

  4. Georgia’s leading power provider is facing questions over how the Atlanta airport experienced a massive power outage. Georgia Power officials said the fire-related outage may have been caused by a failed switchgear in an underground facility. (Lori Aratani)

  5. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reportedly had his office swept for surveillance bugs earlier this year. The agency paid a private company $3,000 to “sweep for covert/illegal surveillance devices” in Pruitt’s office shortly after he arrived at the EPA, but the search didn’t turn up anything. (The Hill)

  6. More details emerged about the arraignment of Sarah Palin’s oldest son, Track, who was charged with assault and battery for “repeatedly” hitting his father in the head at the family’s home in Wasilla. According to court documents, Sarah Palin phoned police Saturday evening saying her son was “on some type of medication” and had broken into the house after his father refused to let him pick up a family truck. (Alaska Daily News
  7. Critics are blasting drug companies for the zigzagging price of Daranide, a drug used to treat periodic paralysis, after prices jumped from $50 per bottle to more than $15,000. (At one point, the drug was completely free!) Officials say the trajectory shows just how much freedom pharmaceutical companies have when it comes to selling drugs for rare diseases. (Carolyn Y. Johnson)
  8. ESPN president John Skipper resigned, saying he has decided to seek treatment after a years-long battle with substance abuse. “I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem,” he said in a statement. (Politico)
  9. Animatronic Trump will make his official debut today at Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. The attraction, which was closed for refurbishment, features the president’s actual voice extolling the virtues of the American spirit and the U.S. Constitution. (Orlando Sentinel)

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- As White House lawyers prepare to meet with Robert Mueller’s team, they’re seeking assurances that Trump will soon be cleared in the sprawling Russia investigation. But insiders say such assurances are unlikely — and warn the meeting may ratchet up tensions between the special counsel and an increasingly frustrated Trump. Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig report: “People with knowledge of the investigation said it could last at least another year — pointing to ongoing cooperation from witnesses such as [George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn], as well as a possible trial of two former campaign officials [Paul Manafort and Rick Gates]. The special counsel’s office has continued to request new documents related to the campaign, and members of Mueller’s team have told others they expect to be working through much of 2018, at a minimum. The meeting’s outcome could deepen tensions as many Trump supporters question Mueller’s credibility and Democrats express fear that the president will seek to fire the special counsel.”

  • White House lawyers, who have told Trump he could be exonerated as early as the beginning of 2018, plan to ask Mueller’s investigators if they need more information before concluding that the probe “as related to Trump,” is complete: “When pressed by two advisers to take the matter more seriously and asked why he is so confident in his lawyers, Trump brushed off the concerns. ‘He is living in his own world,’ the person said, predicting that Trump would erupt at some point in 2018 if the probe continued to drag on.”
  • But those familiar with the probe have expressed “widespread skepticism” that it's drawing to a close — noting that Mueller’s team was asking questions about Trump’s firing of James Comey as recently as last week.
  • Legal experts note that Mueller has no incentive to clear Trump or other senior aides while he is seeking more information from witnesses: “I think it’s possible Mueller’s team could give them an idea of how much longer they anticipate their investigation will last,” said former deputy special counsel Peter Zeidenberg. “I would be shocked if they have a timeline anything similar to what we’ve heard coming from the White House.”

-- Some of Trump’s close aides worry that, if he is not quickly exonerated, the president could experience a “meltdown.” CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Sara Murray and Manu Raju report: “The President seems so convinced of his impending exoneration that he is telling associates Mueller will soon write a letter clearing him that Trump can brandish to Washington and the world in a bid to finally emerge from the cloud of suspicion that has loomed over the first chapter of his presidency[.] … [This account] depicts a president genuinely convinced of his innocence and advisers preparing for him to explode early next year if the probe doesn't end as neatly as Trump expects.”

-- Weeks after securing the Republican nomination, Trump was warned by FBI counterintelligence specialists that Russians would try to infiltrate his campaign. NBC News’s Ken Dilanian, Julia Ainsley and Carol E. Lee report: “[The] briefings, which are commonly provided to presidential nominees, were designed to educate the candidates and their top aides about potential threats from foreign spies. The candidates were urged to alert the FBI about any suspicious overtures to their campaigns, the officials said . . . Trump was ‘briefed and warned’ at the session about potential espionage threats from Russia, two former law enforcement officials [said]. By the time of the warning in late July or August, at least seven Trump campaign officials had been in contact with Russians or people linked to Russia, according to public reports. There is no public evidence that the campaign reported any of that to the FBI.”

-- The undermining of Mueller’s credibility by some Republicans could be an attempt to provide Trump enough leverage to issue pardons. Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn reports: “[T]he goal is to sow public doubt about Mueller and his prosecutors in advance of upcoming criminal trials — and to give the president political cover if he wants to start issuing pardons to any current or former aides swept up in the Russia scandal.”

-- FBI Agent Peter Strzok has reportedly argued his mention of an “insurance policy” in a text message was referring to the need to conduct a robust Russia investigation. The Wall Street Journal’s Del Quentin Wilber reports: “The agent didn’t intend to suggest a secret plan to harm the candidate but rather address a colleague who believed the [FBI] could take its time because [Hillary Clinton] was certain to win the election, [people familiar with his account] said. … His text was meant to convey his belief that the investigation couldn't afford to take a more measured approach because Mr. Trump could very well win the election, they said. It would be better to be aggressive and gather evidence quickly, he believed, because some of Mr. Trump’s associates could land administration jobs and it was important to know if they had colluded with Russia.”

MEANWHILE, ON CAPITOL HILL:

-- The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating Jill Stein’s presidential campaign for possible “collusion with the Russians” — a sign that its investigation is also far from over. Karoun Demirjian reports: “Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told reporters Monday that the [panel] has ‘two other campaigns that we’re just starting on,’ in addition to the panel’s ongoing probe of alleged ties between the Trump administration and Kremlin officials. One of those he identified as Stein’s; Burr has indicated previously that the committee is also looking into reports that the [DNC] and the [Clinton] campaign paid for research that went into [the infamous Trump dossier]. Stein was present at a 2015 dinner in Moscow that was also attended by [Michael Flynn] … Flynn and Stein were photographed at the same table as [Vladimir Putin], who sat next to Flynn and across the table from Stein.”

-- Top Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee appear prepared to bring their Russia investigation to an end soon, saying they have largely completed all interviews “relevant to the narrow scope of inquiry.” NBC News’s Mike Memoli reports: “The committee has conducted interviews with key witnesses almost daily this month, sometimes seeing multiple witnesses on a single day, as they eyed the finish line. Though Democrats say they have requested as many as 30 additional interviews with new witnesses, none have been scheduled beyond the end of this month. Rep. Trey Gowdy [said] it is in the public’s interest to finish as quickly as possible so that they can issue a final report.”

-- Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) suggested FBI Director Christopher Wray should replace his deputy, Andrew McCabe, who is scheduled to testify today before the House Intelligence panel. Bloomberg’s Steven T. Dennis and Billy House report: “Grassley has questioned whether McCabe has a conflict of interest and is biased against [Trump]. McCabe’s wife in 2015 ran for a state Senate seat in Virginia, backed in part with money from associates of [Clinton] . . . Such concerns with McCabe have increased among Republicans with the recent release of text messages [from Strzok].”

THE TAX CUTS COMETH:

-- The final GOP bill will move to the House floor today after passing the Rules Committee last night — as a new analysis found it will cut taxes for most Americans, even as the wealthy receive disproportionate benefits. Jeff Stein reports: “The GOP bill would lower taxes for 95 percent of Americans in 2018, but on average the cuts for the highest earners far exceed those of people making less, according to the Tax Policy Center. … In the final version of the bill, lawmakers reduced the tax rate on income above $1 million, but they also added new benefits for low- and middle-income families seeking to take advantage of a newly expanded child tax credit.”

-- The plan picked up the formal endorsements of Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mike Lee (Utah). Collins and Lee were widely expected to support the plan, but their public endorsements bring the bill that much closer to becoming law. (LA Times)

-- Nonetheless, Vice President Pence delayed a planned trip to Egypt and Israel until next month, citing the need to remain in Washington to preside over the passage of tax legislation. But the move also comes amid uproar in the Middle East following Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Jenna Johnson reports: “‘The largest tax cut in American history is a landmark accomplishment …’ Pence press secretary Alyssa Farah said. ‘[He] is committed to seeing the tax cut through to the finish line.’”

-- Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) addressed questions over why he flipped his vote after a last-minute provision was added that would financially benefit him. The New York Times’s Alan Rappeport reports: “In an interview on Monday, Mr. Corker dismissed those theories and said he faced a wrenching decision as a Republican lawmaker with deep concerns about the country’s mounting debt and a strong desire to overhaul the tax code. In the end, he said, he put his fiscal principles aside on the assumption that the nation would be better off with the tax cuts than without. … [Corker added,] ‘I just felt like this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity and if I looked at myself as the deciding vote, did I feel like our country was better having it in place or not better having it in place?’

-- Corker’s fellow Republicans backed up his claim that he didn't lobby for the last-minute change. Politico’s Seung Min Kim reports: “In a letter released Monday, [Sen. Orrin] Hatch [R-Utah] said it was ‘categorically false’ that Corker sought the provision or that the language was inserted into the final tax legislation at the last minute. The Finance Committee chairman said he was ‘disgusted’ at news reports that characterized it as otherwise. … House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady also tried to rebut the charges. ‘To claim that Sen. Corker had anything to do with it, in my view, is baloney,’ the Texas Republican told reporters Monday. ‘This was a provision that we have fought for, we thought was important and is important to the ultimate pass-through approach.’”

-- Demonstrators once again descended upon Capitol Hill to protest the tax plan. David Weigel reports: “[T]he GOP’s tax cut package has spurred protests in Washington and around the country. There have been sit-ins (and sleep-ins) at congressional offices, rallies on the lawn outside the Capitol, and daily arrests outside of the rooms where the tax bill has been voted out. The likely passage of the bill, however — both parties expect it to slide through Congress this week — has already sparked a discussion of why the opposition failed.”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

-- Trump outlined his national security strategy in a speech, declaring his “America First” doctrine as the organizing principle for U.S. foreign engagement and warning of a “great power competition” with China and Russia. Anne Gearan and Steven Mufson report: “In a year-end, campaign-style speech, the president emphasized his view that the United States has been cheated and taken advantage of abroad while its citizens were ill-served at home — a situation he said his security plan would seek to reverse. ‘For many years, our citizens watched as Washington politicians presided over one disappointment after another; too many of our leaders — so many — who forgot whose voices they were to respect, and whose interest they were supposed to defend,’ Trump said.” The strategy is viewed as an important policy document, but its release is usually pretty low key — Trump is believed to be the only U.S. president to present the congressionally mandated plan with a speech.

-- Trump’s homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed formally accusing North Korea of carrying out the WannaCry cyberattack. “The attack was widespread and cost billions, and North Korea is directly responsible,” Bossert wrote. “We do not make this allegation lightly. It is based on evidence. We are not alone with our findings, either. Other governments and private companies agree. The United Kingdom attributes the attack to North Korea, and Microsoft traced the attack to cyber affiliates of the North Korean government.”

-- “As a result, the administration will be calling on ‘all responsible states’ to counter North Korea’s ability to conduct cyberattacks and to implement all ‘relevant’ United Nations Security Council sanctions,” Ellen Nakashima adds. “[Bossert] is expected to issue a public statement Tuesday morning. North Korea was widely suspected to have created the virus, paired with ransomware that encrypted data on victims’ computers and demanded money to restore access. Until now, the U.S. government had not publicly stated as much.”

MEN BEHAVING BADLY:

-- Alex Kozinski, the federal appeals judge facing an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct, announced he would resign effective immediately. Matt Zapotosky reports: “In a statement provided by his lawyer, Kozinski apologized, saying that he ‘had a broad sense of humor and a candid way of speaking to both male and female law clerks alike’ and that, ‘in doing so, I may not have been mindful enough of the special challenges and pressures that women face in the workplace.’ He added, ‘It grieves me to learn that I caused any of my clerks to feel uncomfortable; this was never my intent. For this I sincerely apologize.’ Kozinski, 67, said.”

-- A request from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) for information on workplace misconduct claims in Congress, which he promised to make public if obtained, has been denied. Politico’s Elana Schor reports: “The Virginia Democrat sought details Dec. 6 on the taxpayer-funded settlements that [Capitol] Hill's Office of Compliance approved for Senate employers, adding that he would release the broad outlines of the data in the interest of transparency as Congress considers an overhaul of its own harassment system. The compliance office's Monday decision to decline his request is particularly notable given that the office provided the House Administration Committee details on taxpayer-funded settlements processed in that chamber one day after they were requested.”

-- Former staffers to Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), whose longtime aide was recently accused of sexual misconduct, recounted a toxic work environment in which employees would not feel comfortable reporting harassment. McClatchy’s Emily Cadei reports: “‘Congressman Sherman showed zero interest in the personal well-being of his staffers and there’s no reason to believe he would have cared or taken any action if a complaint was made,’ said one former staffer. [Matt] Dababneh, who is resigning from the [California state] Assembly in the wake of several allegations against him, including sexual assault, was known to be one of Sherman’s closest and most trusted employees. While no one suggested the 11-term congressman was aware of Dababneh’s alleged conduct, three former staffers doubted he would have responded well to criticism of his onetime district director.”

-- After Tavis Smiley accused PBS of making a “huge mistake” by suspending his talk show because of his alleged sexual misconduct, the broadcaster shot back that Smiley “needs to get his story straight.” Kristine Phillips reports: “[Smiley] admitted he has had consensual sexual relationships with subordinates, but he said those relationships were neither prohibited nor coerced. He also denied firing or threatening employees with whom he had a relationship. … Pressed by [‘Good Morning America’] host Paula Faris about how he could be certain the women with whom he had relationships weren’t in fear of losing their jobs, Smiley said he neither showed favoritism nor promoted and demoted anybody. … A PBS spokeswoman said Smiley’s latest comments contradict a previous Facebook post in which he said he had just one relationship with an employee.”

THE REST OF TRUMP'S AGENDA:

-- A debate erupted within the HHS over the “words to avoid” in the upcoming budget process. Juliet Eilperin and Lena H. Sun report: “HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd said Monday that employees had misinterpreted the guidance. ‘HHS and its agencies have not banned, prohibited or forbidden employees from using certain words,’ Lloyd said . . . ‘Recent media reports appear to be based on confusion that arose when employees misconstrued guidelines provided during routine discussions on the annual budget process. It was clearly stated to those involved in the discussions that the science should always drive the narrative.’ Officials who have been briefed on the budget guidance, however, said the message was clear[:] ‘It was interpreted as 'you are not to use these words in the budget narrative,'’ said one person who received a briefing last week. ‘The idea that it's all a misunderstanding is laughable.’”

-- A federal judge has cleared two more immigrant teenagers in U.S. custody to receive abortions, but the administration has already sought to overturn the decision. Ann E. Marimow reports: “Within an hour of the judge’s ruling, the administration had simultaneously asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court to intervene. The individual cases are part of a broader lawsuit challenging the government’s new policy of discouraging, and even blocking, undocumented teens in custody from terminating pregnancies.”

-- Trump has asked supporters about the health of their 401(k)s to tout the stock market’s recent gains, but the majority of Americans don’t have 401(k)s. Bloomberg’s Toluse Olorunnipa reports: “Trump is trying out a new campaign slogan: ‘How’s your 401(k) doing?’ … Trump has tested out the line this month at a fundraiser, a campaign rally and in a White House meeting, predicting that the rising U.S. stock market will help him win re-election. But only about 45 percent of private-sector workers participate in any employer-sponsored retirement plan, and the lower-income workers in Trump’s political base are the least likely to hold money in such an account, according to the Government Accountability Office.”

-- House lawmakers unveiled their $81 billion disaster aid package, nearly double the White House request and the largest single relief request in U.S. history. Politico’s Sarah Ferris and John Bresnahan reports: “If approved, Congress will have spent more than $130 billion on a spate of deadly hurricanes and wildfires this fall, outpacing the total amount of aid after both Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The funding bill is split among Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as states ravaged by wildfires.”

-- The White House has temporarily shut down the website housing petitions, which the Trump administration has conspicuously ignored since taking office. The AP’s Zeke Miller reports: “The Trump administration said the platform, used extensively by critics and less frequently by allies, will be removed at midnight Tuesday and return in late January as a new site. A White House official said all existing petitions and responses will be restored next year, when petitions that reach the required 100,000 signatures will begin receiving responses. The Trump administration has yet to respond to any of the 17 petitions that have reached that threshold since Trump took office[.]”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Washington state's senators sent prayers to their constituents following the Seattle train derailment:

Trump's call for an infrastructure package immediately following the accident sparked criticism. From conservative commentator Erick Erickson:

From the communications director of the Obama-aligned group Organizing for Action:

From the former chief of staff to Joe Biden:

Putin-friendly Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a top Democratic target in 2018, announced he would vote against the GOP tax plan:

The Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee attacked the tax plan:

Wall Street said the legislation will be good for Wall Street:

From a Bloomberg editor:

The communications director of C-SPAN unearthed footage of Trump speaking out against the 1986 tax overhaul:

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) defended Robert Mueller, retweeting this message from May:

Flake added this yesterday:

The MSNBC host analyzed Trump's national security speech:

Rex Tillerson dismissed a question about his possible resignation, per a CNN reporter:

Betsy DeVos encountered a protest while delivering a commencement address at the University of Baltimore, per a BuzzFeed News reporter:

Anti-Trump conservative professor Tom Nichols posed this thought experiment (his whole thread is worth reading.):

Twitter's new rules on abusive content affected the anti-Muslim videos Trump tweeted last month:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) looked forward to his Washington return:

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) demanded answers on false net neutrality comments:

Our colleague David Fahrenthold visited Trump Tower:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- The New York Times, “Deliverance From 27,000 Feet,” by John Branch: “Some numbly treated the body as an obstacle. Others paused to make sense of what they saw — a twisted man still affixed to the rope, reclined on the slope as if he might continue climbing after waking from his awkward slumber. Apparently abandoned at his time of greatest need, he was a mute embodiment of their worst fears. One climber stepped on the dead man and apologized profusely. Another saw the body and nearly turned around, spooked by the thought of his own worried family back home. Another paused on his descent to hold a one-sided conversation with the corpse stretched across the route. Who are you? Who left you here? And is anyone coming to take you home?”

-- Vox, “The single biggest reason America is failing in its response to the opioid epidemic,” by German Lopez: “Over 2017, I committed to focusing as much of my reporting time as possible on the opioid epidemic. I had seen the overdose death toll grow year by year, and, frankly, I didn’t think any major media outlet had given it adequate, consistent coverage. … With the year coming to a close, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned. I keep going back to those emails and what they represent: the stigmatization of addiction not as a disease but as a moral failure. Before this year, I just didn’t appreciate how much stigma towards addiction still colors America’s approach to drugs. That’s not because I didn’t know that stigma plays a big role, but because I didn't expect stigma to be nearly as all-consuming as it really is.”

-- Politico Magazine, “‘He Would Probably Be a Dictator by Now,’” by Susan B. Glasser: “Two charter leaders of the #NeverTrump movement assess Year One.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“George Zimmerman Threatens To ‘Beat’ Jay-Z Over Trayvon Martin Docuseries,” from HuffPost: “Jay-Z’s forthcoming docuseries on the life and death of Trayvon Martin has sparked notice from the man who killed the unarmed 17-year-old in 2012. George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in Martin’s death, is now threatening the music mogul and Michael Gasparro, the project’s co-executive producer . . . Zimmerman said the series’ production team made unannounced visits to his parents’ and uncle’s homes to get them on camera. He said the team ‘harassed’ his family, but didn’t go into detail [about how]. … Zimmerman [said] he would ‘beat Jay-Z,’ adding that ‘anyone who [f---] with my parents will be fed to an alligator.’ He referred to Martin’s shooting, saying, ‘I know how to handle people who [f--] with me, I have since February 2012.’”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Dow rises 5,000 points in a year for the first time ever,” from CNBC: “The Dow Jones industrial average just did something it has never done in its 121-year history. The 30-stock average is now up more than 5,000 points in a year, marking its biggest annual-points gain ever. This following a 140-point rally Monday which sent it to an all-time high. The Dow also notched a record close for the 70th time this year, which is another milestone. To put that into perspective, it means that about one of every four trading sessions this year has been a record close for the index. The Dow, along with the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq composite, has had a banner year, rising 25.5 percent. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq are up 20.2 percent and 29.9 percent, respectively.”

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump has a morning meeting with Jim Mattis.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

Former director of National Intelligence James Clapper said of Trump’s relationship with the Russian president, “I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that's what he's doing with the president.” Clapper added he was using the term asset “figuratively” given Putin’s background as a KGB officer. “That's what they do. They recruit assets,” Clapper said. (Washington Examiner)

 

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

-- D.C. will see the highest temperatures of the week today. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Very pleasant winter’s timeout today with mostly sunny skies as highs travel to the upper 50s to low 60s with a few warmer spots possible.”

-- Progressives criticized Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) for comments he made about the funding of a Medicaid expansion. Gregory S. Schneider reports: “Northam said in an interview published Sunday in The Washington Post that he supports outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to expand Medicaid, but he said that the system faces spiraling costs and that he would like to see ‘managed care’ reforms to make it more efficient. He also pledged to work with Republicans to design that system, as part of an overall sentiment of bipartisanship[.] … The suggestion that the new governor might tie that expansion to efforts to rein in costs, something Republicans have undertaken in other states, was anathema to many in his party’s progressive wing.”

-- Nicholas Young, a former police officer for the D.C. Metro system, was found guilty of trying to help ISIS. The verdict makes Young the first police officer in the country to be convicted in a terrorism case. (Rachel Weiner)

-- A new study found that schools in D.C.’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods saw decreased racial segregation. (Valerie Strauss)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Trevor Noah looked back on 2017 and the “paradox” of Trump's presidency:

Seth Meyers questioned Trump's assertion that “everybody” is criticizing the FBI:

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro’s recent comment that there is a “criminal cabal” in the FBI and the Justice Department drew attention to her other controversial remarks:

Washington state residents lined up to donate blood to the victims of the train derailment:

And thousands of Santas in Mexico participated in a charity run to buy presents for children from low-income families: