With Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Larry Hogan explained to his fellow GOP governors how he managed to secure a second term in Maryland by double digits. “We won women,” he said on Wednesday, beaming. “As a result, in spite of this huge blue wave, I became the second Republican governor reelected in the entire 242-year history of our state.”

Hundreds of major donors and lobbyists are at a resort here for the Republican Governors Association annual meeting, the first such gathering since Democrats picked up seven governorships in the midterms. Hogan spoke at an afternoon session alongside Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who was just reelected with 67 percent of the vote.

Hogan’s campaign built an early focus group of 110 women who liked him but disliked President Trump and were undecided about the governor’s race. Everyone was either unaffiliated or registered as a Democrat. Pollster Christine Matthews, who oversaw the project, asked all the women to keep journals, discuss events in the news and react to sample advertisements.

The campaign listened closely to what they said. Hogan began talking about “educational inequality” after women started using the term, among other things. Another key moment that Hogan’s team says moved the needle with the women was when his Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, dropped the f- bomb in response to Washington Post reporter Erin Cox’s question at a news conference about whether he identified as a socialist.

Exit polls showed Hogan pulled 50 percent of women to 48 percent for Jealous as he won overall by 14 points in a state that Hillary Clinton had carried by 26 points two years before.

Hogan emphasized that his record on economic issues was also important to wooing women, including cutting 850 regulations, eliminating 250 fees and reducing tolls for the first time in 50 years. “Four years ago, two-thirds of all people in Maryland thought we were heading in the wrong direction. This time, more than two-thirds thought we were heading in the right direction,” he said. “That’s why I am still sitting here.”

-- RGA strategists said their defeat in the Virginia governor’s election last November set off loud alarm bells internally because Ed Gillespie underperformed public and private polling. This was partly because of heavy turnout among suburban women in places like the D.C. suburbs, who broke hard for Democrat Ralph Northam. To minimize losses among married white suburban women who typically favor the GOP, the RGA quickly convened focus groups in Phoenix, Tampa and Denver. These sessions tailored their strategy, and operatives credit them with helping to keep the gender gap smaller in several gubernatorial races than federal elections in the same state.

-- One takeaway from all this research was to appeal very directly to female voters. The daughter of Hogan’s wife from her first marriage recorded a commercial over the summer in which she holds her infant daughter, Nora, as she touts two bills that the governor signed at the encouragement of women’s groups: one strengthened Maryland’s pay-equity laws and the other removed co-payments for birth control. Jaymi Sterling, a 37-year-old prosecutor, says to the camera: “When Nora gets older, I’ll make sure she knows that my dad, her pop-pop, stood up for her and every other woman.”

Hogan used an overwhelming fundraising advantage to swamp Jealous on the airwaves and put millions behind spots like this. Jealous attacked Hogan in his stump speech for having only six women in his 23-member Cabinet and promised to make his at least half female, but that was drowned out by the deluge of ads.

-- Up in Massachusetts, where he also won women, Baker talked a lot about how his late mother taught him to search for common ground. “My mom, God rest her soul, was a Democrat. My dad’s a Republican. They never voted for the same person. Ever. My mom wouldn’t even admit to voting for me in 2010,” Baker said. “But my mom and dad taught me at a very early age to be an active listener, and they were always debating means, but they weren't debating ends. I just don't buy into the whole notion that if somebody disagrees with you they're a flawed human being.”

Baker joked that he tried to be boring and bipartisan. “I’ve been called the most boring governor in the history of Massachusetts by the media in Massachusetts,” said Baker. “You know what? I think that’s great!”

The crowd laughed. “We were not going to engage in the kinds of partisan nitpicking that makes a lot of regular people pretty nuts about politics,” he continued. “You never know where your next coalition is coming from, and I never want somebody that I’m working with at the state or local level to choose not to work with us because of something someone on our team said or did that was inappropriate or out of line.”

The inroads Hogan and Baker made with females in their states is especially notable given how poorly House Republicans fared among women this year. The gender gap was a record 19 percentage points, with female voters favoring Democratic congressional candidates by a margin of 59 percent to 40 percent. Partly this is because GOP governors across the map were more easily able to separate themselves from Trump.

-- Gov. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.), who is the favorite to be elected as the next chairman of the RGA later this week, said he’s closely studying Hogan’s big focus group for women. But the broader impulse of almost every GOP governor here, including Ricketts, is to downplay the need for any substantive changes in the party’s approach to the issues. They believe they overperformed expectations in a terrible environment, and that tactical tweaks are what’s needed to ensure future success. “What we’re seeing is the natural check and balance in the system,” said Ricketts.

Democrats defeated incumbents in Illinois and Wisconsin and won GOP-held open seats in Michigan, Nevada, Kansas, Maine and New Mexico. But Ricketts noted that the GOP won 20 of the 36 governor’s races this year and picked up Alaska. Republicans will still hold 27 governorships next year while Democrats have 23. Ricketts emphasized that 11 of 13 GOP incumbents who were running for reelection won. (Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner were the exceptions.) He noted that Democrats lost more House seats during Barack Obama’s first midterm in 2010 than Republicans did this year.

The assembled GOP operatives, donors and elected officials are also celebrating that they came out on top in several of the cycle’s marquee matchups, including belated wins for Ron DeSantis in Florida and Brian Kemp in Georgia. Each defeated a primary rival who was more aligned with the establishment wing of the party, thanks to endorsements from Trump. But all wings of the party scored wins. The establishment favorite Mike DeWine won a comfortable victory in Ohio to succeed Republican Gov. John Kasich.

Republican women also won full four-year terms in Iowa, Alabama and South Dakota. The latter was unexpectedly tight and expensive. Both parties spent heavily. South Dakota Gov.-elect Kristi Noem, who has held the state’s at-large U.S. House seat for eight years, said it was so close because the Democrat ran as a conservative. “My opponent was competitive because he talked like a Republican,” she said.

Ricketts said his goal is for the RGA to again control at least 30 governorships two years from now. He said defeating Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is a top priority for 2019. And he said the committee will spend heavily to try wresting Montana and North Carolina from Democrats in 2020.

-- Hogan and Baker appeared on an afternoon panel with four other Republican governors who got elected in 2014 and won second terms this month.

“We messaged very strongly and very repetitively on human trafficking,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “That played very powerfully with women voters.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) got reelected by 14 points, even as Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win a Senate race in the state since 1988. He warned that the state will have competitive elections in 2020 and 2022, and he thanked the RGA — specifically singling out finance chairman Fred Malek — for providing a “firewall.” “This was an election cycle when the wind was in our face, and it was a challenge,” he said. “I’m a much wiser and smarter governor than I was four years ago.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) emphasized that he tried to be forward looking. “I spent one-third of my ad budget talking about what we’ve done,” he said. “But I was very careful to save two-thirds to talk about the future.”

-- Baker, who said voters rewarded him for staying focused on Massachusetts, ruled out a 2020 primary challenge against Trump, in many ways his temperamental opposite. “I ran three times, and I lost the first time,” he said. “I got smacked pretty good. When I ran a second time, I recognized that I might not win and that the first line of my obituary, no matter what I did for the rest of my life, would be something like, 'Charlie Baker, who ran for governor twice and lost both times, went on to find a cure for cancer blah blah blah.’ The voters just gave ... me ... this enormous statement of appreciation for the fact that we really spent four years focusing on them, and that's what I plan to do for the next four.”

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- ABC News reports that special counsel Bob Mueller has reached a tentative plea deal with Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen. Cohen appeared in federal court in Manhattan Thursday where he entered a guilty plea for misstatements to Congress in closed-door testimony last year about his contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign,” the network reports. “Cohen’s earlier plea deal with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York implicated President Trump in campaign finance felonies. Since then, Cohen has spent more than 70 hours in interviews with Mueller's team. The questioning has focused on contacts with Russians by Trump associates during the campaign, Trump’s business ties to Russia, obstruction of justice and talk of possible pardons …

Cohen’s anticipated agreement with Mueller also comes just two weeks before he is due to be sentenced in a separate case in federal court in New York, which burst into public view in April when federal agents raided his law office and residences. … Cohen remains free on bond in advance of a sentencing hearing scheduled for Dec. 12. He is facing a possible term of 46 to 63 months in prison and a potential fine of up to $1 million. Cohen’s voluntary cooperation with Mueller could earn him significant credit with the special counsel in advance of his sentencing date in the New York case.”

-- A new report released this morning by the CDC shows life expectancy in the United States DECLINED again in 2017 — for the third year in a row. “The data continued the longest sustained decline in expected life span at birth in a century, an appalling performance not seen in the United States since 1915 through 1918,” Lenny Bernstein reports. “That four-year period included World War I and a flu pandemic that killed 675,000 people in the United States and perhaps 50 million worldwide. Public health and demographic experts reacted with alarm…

Drug overdoses set another annual record in 2017, cresting at 70,237 — up from 63,632 the year before, the government said in a companion report. The opioid epidemic continued to take a relentless toll, with 47,600 deaths in 2017 from drugs sold on the street such as fentanyl and heroin, as well as prescription narcotics. That was also a record number, driven largely by an increase in fentanyl deaths. Since 1999, the number of drug overdose deaths has more than quadrupled. Deaths attributed to opioids were nearly six times greater in 2017 than they were in 1999. The geographic disparity in overdose deaths continued in 2017. West Virginia again led the nation with 57.8 deaths per 100,000 people, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

In a third report, the government detailed the ongoing growth of deaths from suicide, which has climbed steadily since 1999 and grown worse since 2006. Most notable is the widening gap between urban and rural Americans. Suicide rates in the most rural counties are now nearly double those in the most urban counties. Overall, suicides increased by a third between 1999 and 2017, the report showed. In urban America, the rate is 11.1 per 100,000 people; in the most rural parts of the country, it is 20 per 100,000.”

-- Last year, 15,482  of our fellow citizens died from heroin overdoses. As a point of comparison, under 3,000 Americans were killed in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. 

-- Here’s the rub: In most developed nations, life expectancy has marched steadily upward for decades — and that’s continuing. But not here. Not in America. Is this the new normal? Josh Sharfstein, the vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a former health secretary in Maryland, told Lenny that the most lamentable aspect of this crisis is that policymakers know which approaches make a difference, such as medically assisted treatment for drug abusers and increased availability of mental health services in states where they are badly lacking. He said the frustration many people in his field feel is that there are obvious things that could save many lives, but governments are failing to deliver.

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Adult-film actress Stormy Daniels said her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, filed a defamation lawsuit against Trump against her wishes. She added that she is considering parting ways with her smash-mouth attorney,  who is fighting domestic violence charges. Daniels also alleges that he launched a crowdfunding campaign in her name “without my permission or even my knowledge.” (Felicia Sonmez)
  2. Facebook once considered charging companies for continued access to user data. The move – which was not implemented but discussed in internal emails between 2012 and 2014 – would have marked a reversal from Facebook’s policy of not selling such information. (Wall Street Journal)

  3. Pilot groups said they were not warned about Boeing’s new 737 airplanes lacking a common override feature, which may have played a role in the Lion Air crash. The feature allows pilots to pull planes out of dangerous nose-dives, but Boeing’s new state-of-the-art 737 MAX 8 airplanes do not include it. (Craig Timberg, Aaron Gregg and Ashley Halsey III)
  4. The Supreme Court appears ready to rule that the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to state and local governments. The court is ruling on a case involving Indiana’s civil forfeiture laws, which allow authorities to seize property suspected of being involved in a crime. (Robert Barnes)
  5. The Social Security Administration is being sued for denying survivor’s benefits to same-sex couples who were married for less than nine months when one spouse died. The LGBTQ legal advocacy organization Lambda Legal argues the agency’s decision to impose the standard nine-month requirement on same-sex couples violates the surviving spouses’ equal protection and due process rights. (Samantha Schmidt)

  6. A California panel recommended Tony Hicks, who was convicted of killing Tariq Khamisa at 14, be paroled from prison. Hicks was one of the youngest people ever tried as an adult in California after he fatally shot Khamisa, a pizza deliveryman, in a botched robbery. Hicks’s grandfather and Khamisa’s father have since worked together to convince teens to avoid gang violence. (Tony Perry)

  7. Serial killer Samuel Little confessed to a murder that matches the description of a 1972 cold case in Laurel, Md. A slain Jane Doe was found in the woods by a hunter months after she was killed. Investigators hope Little’s memory of the crime will allow them to identify the woman 46 years after her death. (Lynh Bui)

  8. A man who says he suffered a heart attack after Hawaii sent out a false warning of a ballistic missile attack is suing the state. The complaint includes a statement from a cardiologist who asserted the false alert was a “substantial contributing factor in causing the heart attack and cardiac arrest.” (Eli Rosenberg)

  9. Author Margaret Atwood is writing a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “The Testaments,” which will be published in September 2019, opens 15 years after the conclusion of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and is narrated by three women. (Ron Charles)

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- Trump said in written answers to Mueller that, during the 2016 campaign, he wasn’t told in advance about WikiLeaks’s planned email dumps or the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer. CNN’s Dana Bash, Kara Scannell and Evan Perez report: “One source described the President's answers without providing any direct quotes and said the President made clear he was answering to the best of his recollection. … These two points — WikiLeaks and the Trump Tower meeting — are critical to Mueller's central mission: investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians during the 2016 campaign. The President's lawyers previously [said] the answers would match his public statements. Still, these written answers could be subject to criminal charges if false.”

-- Trump used to call Roger Stone late into the night during the campaign, a habit that has caught the attention of Mueller’s team. Manuel Roig-Franzia, Carol D. Leonnig, Rosalind S. Helderman and Josh Dawsey report: “Caller ID labeled them ‘unknown,’ but [Stone] said he knew to pick up quickly during those harried months of the 2016 presidential campaign. There would be a good chance that the voice on the other end of the line would belong to his decades-long friend — the restless, insomniac candidate Donald Trump — dialing from a blocked phone number. Those nocturnal chats and other contacts between the man who now occupies the Oval Office and an infamous political trickster have come under intensifying scrutiny as [Mueller’s] investigation bores into whether Stone served as a bridge between Trump and WikiLeaks as the group was publishing hacked Democratic emails.

Mueller’s keen interest in their relationship was laid out in a draft court document revealed this week in which prosecutors drew a direct line between the two men — referring to Stone as someone understood to be in regular contact with senior Trump campaign officials, ‘including with then-candidate Donald J. Trump.’ The inclusion of the president by name in the draft filing rattled his legal team … In recent months, the Trump Organization turned over to Mueller’s team phone and contact logs that show multiple calls between the then-candidate and Stone in 2016, according to people familiar with the material. The records are not a complete log of their contacts — Stone told The Washington Post on Wednesday that Trump at times called him from other people’s phones. Stone said he never discussed WikiLeaks with Trump and diminished the importance of any phone records, saying ‘unless Mueller has tape recordings of the phone calls, what would that prove?’”

-- Mueller’s prosecutors believe former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied to them about his business dealings with a former associate in Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal’s Aruna Viswanatha and Rebecca Ballhaus report: “Those statements — among those described by Mr. Mueller as ‘lies’ and Mr. Manafort as ‘truthful information’ in a court filing Monday — are what led the special counsel this week to take the unusual step of ending the former Trump campaign chairman’s plea agreement 2½ months after it was reached, the people said. The content of those statements don’t appear to be central to the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election that Mr. Mueller is investigating. It is unclear if prosecutors plan to accuse Mr. Manafort of additional lies.”

-- In his list of questions, Mueller also asked Trump about a change to the 2016 RNC platform about providing arms to Ukraine. ABC News’s John Santucci reports: “The platform revision occurred as the Republican National Convention got underway in Cleveland. On July 18, party insiders took the unusual step of watering down its formal position on whether the U.S. should help protect Ukraine from Russian incursions — a move viewed as a surprising concession to the Russian government at a time of tension in Ukraine. … Sources tell ABC News the president told Mueller he was not aware of the platform change to the best of his recollection. That would be consistent with his answer to a question about the matter … during the summer of 2016.”

-- Trump said a pardon for Manafort was “not off the table” during an interview with the New York Post. From the New York Times’s Sharon LaFraniere and Nicholas Fandos: “He said that prosecutors for the [special counsel] had poorly treated Mr. Manafort, who was convicted of eight felonies this summer and pleaded guilty to two more. … By leaving open the possibility of pardoning a former aide whose lawyer was a source of inside information about an investigation into Mr. Trump himself, the president showed a new willingness to publicly signal that he will intervene to protect people who are in the special counsel’s cross hairs.”

-- After retweeting an image of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a jail cell, Trump told the New York Post that he belongs behind bars because, “He should have never picked a special counsel.” From Felicia Sonmez: “Trump declined to answer a follow-up question on whether he intends to fire Rosenstein. Earlier Wednesday, Trump railed against the Mueller probe and retweeted several tweets in the morning from the Trump Train, a fan account. One of them showed 10 current and former government officials behind bars and asked: ‘Now that Russia collusion is a proven lie, when do the trials for treason begin?’”

-- In the same interview, the president threatened to declassify documents that would be “devastating” to Democrats if they “want to play tough.” The New York Post’s Marisa Schultz and Nikki Schwab report: “‘If they go down the presidential harassment track, if they want go and harass the president and the administration, I think that would be the best thing that would happen to me. I’m a counter-puncher and I will hit them so hard they’d never been hit like that,’ he said … The commander-in-chief said he could declassify FISA warrant applications and other documents from [Mueller’s] probe — and predicted the disclosure would expose the FBI, the Justice Department and the Clinton campaign as being in cahoots to set him up. ‘I think that would help my campaign. If they want to play tough, I will do it. They will see how devastating those pages are.’”

-- The FBI and the House Intelligence Committee are both investigating a letter that claims former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos said in the weeks after the 2016 election he was “doing a business deal with Russians which would result in large financial gains for himself and Mr. Trump.” The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand and Scott Stedman report: “The letter, dated November 19[,] … was sent to Democratic Representative Adam Schiff’s office by an individual who claims to have been close to Papadopoulos in late 2016 and early 2017. … The letter was also obtained by federal authorities, who are taking its claims ‘very seriously,’ said two U.S. officials …  If corroborated, the claims in the letter would add to an emerging portrait of Trump and his associates’ eagerness to strike backdoor deals with Russia even after the intelligence community concluded that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.”

-- Stone and Manafort played an essential role in creating the D.C. “swamp” that Trump has condemned. Manuel Roig-Franzia goes deep on their history: “The little shop that Manafort opened in Alexandria, Va., was envisioned as a political consulting business, like so many others in the capital. But in the coming months — as the candidate he worked for, Ronald Reagan, swept into the White House — Manafort had another idea to bounce off his two partners, Charlie Black and Roger Stone. They should be lobbyists, too. ‘I said, ‘Why in the hell would we want to do that? It’s boring as hell!’ ’ Black recalled in a recent interview. ‘Paul said it wasn’t at all boring.’ Manafort had one more thing to say: ‘It paid well.’ That caught Stone’s attention. ‘You bet,’ Stone recalled. ‘I’m interested in making a living!’

“None of them knew it then, but that one conversation, a chat among three ambitious young Reaganites — Stone was just 28 and Black only 33 — would have a transformative effect on the capital, nudging Washington into a generation-long evolution. Their business would morph into a then-unheard-of hybrid, a bipartisan firm that would help elect politicians — sometimes hedging by playing both sides in the same race — then lobby those same politicians. Radical, disruptive and frequently criticized as ethically unsavory at the time, the mix is de rigueur now. … The brash Reagan boys would become essential architects of the city Trump now dominates, a place where the line between the lobbyists and the lobbied is so blurred that some question whether it exists at all.”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

-- The Senate advanced a measure to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a decisive rebuke of Trump’s foreign policy. Karoun Demirjian, Carol Morello and John Hudson report: “The 63-to-37 vote is only an initial procedural step, but it nonetheless represents an unprecedented challenge to the security relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The vote was prompted by lawmakers’ growing frustration with Trump for defending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s denials of culpability in [the death of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi], despite the CIA’s finding that he had almost certainly ordered the killing. Their frustration peaked shortly before Wednesday’s vote, when senators met behind closed doors to discuss Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi and Yemen with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — but not CIA Director Gina Haspel, who did not attend the briefing.

Her absence so incensed lawmakers that one of the president’s closest congressional allies threatened not only to vote for the Yemen resolution but also to withhold his support from ‘any key vote’ — including a government funding bill — until Haspel was sent to Capitol Hill for a briefing. ‘I am not going to blow past this,’ said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). ‘Anything that you need me for to get out of town — I ain’t doing it until we hear from the CIA.’ … The pressure is now squarely on Trump not just to dispatch Haspel to the Hill but also to take concerted steps to hold Mohammed accountable before the Senate makes its next move, which is likely to come next week.”

-- Pompeo and Mattis told senators the White House had blocked Haspel from attending, a claim that was denied by the CIA. “While Director Haspel did not attend today’s Yemen policy briefing, the Agency has already briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Congressional leadership on the totality of the compartmented, classified intelligence and will continue to provide updates on this important matter to policymakers and Congress,” CIA spokesman Timothy Barrett said in a statement. “The notion that anyone told Director Haspel not to attend today's briefing is false.” (Daily Beast)

-- During his Tuesday interview with The Washington Post, Trump was asked why he believes MBS's denials about being involved with Khashoggi’s murder. The president’s response “neatly encapsulated Trump’s standard rules of engagement,” Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey explain. “Trump began his answer by equivocating about [MBS's] involvement. Then he bragged about badgering the Saudi leader over oil prices this summer. Next he claimed personal credit for a sharp drop in prices. And then he complained the Palm Beach Post published a story last week blaming him for the traffic jams caused by cheap gas. The only catch: The Florida newspaper’s front-page story last week about Thanksgiving travel did not attribute holiday traffic to the president. In fact, it did not mention Trump’s name.”

Why it matters: “He responds to questions with a torrent of words, digressions and self-congratulatory boasts. He makes humorous asides. He brushes away facts to spin his own reality. He sells his own accomplishments, no matter the question. And he tries to run out the clock with long-winded answers.”

Setting the scene: “As White House press secretary Sarah Sanders escorted two Post reporters and a Post photographer into the Oval Office, some of the government’s top officials, including Vice President Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, lingered in the outer office awaiting an event with the president. White House chief of staff John F. Kelly stood at the doorway. ‘Journalists,’ the retired Marine Corps general said, summoning the reporters and photographer to enter. He said little else. Seated in a high-back burgundy leather chair behind the Resolute Desk, which was clear of clutter, save for the Presidents’ Day planner and a glass of Diet Coke, Trump was a solicitous host.”

-- Trump’s advisers added a flurry of meetings with global leaders to his schedule for the G-20 summit this weekend. Anne Gearan and John Hudson report: “White House officials [previously] reached out to key allies and downplayed expectations that Trump would hold bilateral meetings with major European and Asian counterparts, according to diplomats with knowledge of the interactions. Until Tuesday, Trump’s only announced meetings were with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. … So it was a surprise this week when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and national security adviser John Bolton detailed Trump’s busy agenda, which includes the first joint meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. … On paper, the unconventional U.S. leader … is suddenly doing the kind of diplomatic box-checking that his recent predecessors have done at such summits.”

-- The Kremlin confirmed Trump and Putin would meet one-on-one during the summit. Amie Ferris-Rotman reports: “Trump previously cast the Buenos Aires sit-down into doubt, saying on Tuesday he might cancel seeing Putin after Russia seized Ukrainian vessels and crew over the weekend, sparking global condemnation and a sharp escalation in tensions between the neighbors. ‘We are expecting the two presidents to speak briefly at first, but everything is left to the discretion of the heads of state,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. ‘Washington has confirmed,’ he added. They will discuss strategic security, bilateral relations, disarmament and regional conflicts, Peskov said.”

-- A group of Chinese specialists is recommending the United States take a more skeptical view of relations with the country, after previously recommending engagement with Beijing. Ellen Nakashima reports: “‘Except for Russia, no other country’s efforts to influence American politics and society is as extensive and well-funded as China’s,’ the specialists say in a report to be issued Thursday by a working group convened by the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. The report — titled ‘Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance’ — pulls together a range of examples of Chinese operations, from legitimate activities such as lobbying to more ‘covert, coercive or corrupting’ behavior such as pressuring Chinese students studying in the United States to spy on their Chinese peers on American campuses.”

-- Trump is struggling to find a new U.N. ambassador now that two top candidates, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert and former deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, are out of the running. Politico’s Gabby Orr and Eliana Johnson report: “Nauert was once considered a lock but is now out of contention … Meanwhile, a raft of new candidates has emerged, but no one has grabbed the front-runner mantel, raising the possibility that [Trump] could tap someone at the 11th hour who has already been passed over. The White House Counsel’s office has not yet been asked to vet anyone for the role, further indicating the president may not have settled on a finalist. … Trump is now looking at John James, the Michigan Republican who lost his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, for the position.”

THE #METOO MOVEMENT — A PAST CASE REEXAMINED:

-- A bombshell investigation: While he was serving as Miami’s top federal prosecutor, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta helped multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein get a lenient sentence after he was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls. The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown reports: “Facing a 53-page federal indictment, Epstein could have ended up in federal prison for the rest of his life. … [But] a deal was struck — an extraordinary plea agreement that would conceal the full extent of Epstein’s crimes and the number of people involved. Not only would Epstein serve just 13 months in the county jail, but the deal — called a non-prosecution agreement — essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether there were more victims and other powerful people who took part in Epstein’s sex crimes, according to a Miami Herald examination of thousands of emails, court documents and FBI records. …

As part of the arrangement, Acosta agreed, despite a federal law to the contrary, that the deal would be kept from the victims. As a result, the non-prosecution agreement was sealed until after it was approved by the judge, thereby averting any chance that the girls — or anyone else — might show up in court and try to derail it. This is the story of how Epstein, bolstered by unlimited funds and represented by a powerhouse legal team, was able to manipulate the criminal justice system, and how his accusers, still traumatized by their pasts, believe they were betrayed by the very prosecutors who pledged to protect them. …

“The Herald also identified about 80 women who say they were molested or otherwise sexually abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006. … The women are now mothers, wives, nurses, bartenders, Realtors, hairdressers and teachers. One is a Hollywood actress. Several have grappled with trauma, depression and addiction. Some have served time in prison. A few did not survive. One young woman was found dead last year in a rundown motel in West Palm Beach. She overdosed on heroin and left behind a young son.”

What the girls said: “Beginning as far back as 2001, Epstein lured a steady stream of underage girls to his Palm Beach mansion to engage in nude massages, masturbation, oral sex and intercourse, court and police records show. The girls — mostly from disadvantaged, troubled families — were recruited from middle and high schools around Palm Beach County. Epstein would pay the girls for massages and offer them further money to bring him new girls every time he was at his home in Palm Beach, according to police reports. The girls, now in their late 20s and early 30s, allege in a series of federal civil lawsuits filed over the past decade that Epstein sexually abused hundreds of girls, not only in Palm Beach, but at his homes in Manhattan, New Mexico and in the Caribbean.” “Jeffrey preyed on girls who were in a bad way, girls who were basically homeless. He went after girls who he thought no one would listen to and he was right,” said Courtney Wild, who met Epstein when she was 14.

THE LEADERSHIP VOTE:

-- Democrats nominated Nancy Pelosi to become the next House speaker, but she will have to win over at least half of those who voted against her to retake the gavel in January. Mike DeBonis, Elise Viebeck and Paul Kane report: “She now has a month — plus an unmatched political network and a pile of potential chits — to chip away at the opposition. … ‘We go forward with confidence and humility,’ she said following the afternoon vote, dismissing her opposition: ‘Are there dissenters? Yes, but I expect to have a powerful vote as we go forward. Any other questions?’ Underscoring her clout, Pelosi won over a group of eight centrist Democrats in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus who had agitated for procedural changes and threatened to withhold their votes. In a carefully negotiated deal, Pelosi agreed to some but not all of their demands ...

“She remained at loggerheads, however, with a more intransigent group that has taken aim at the party leadership, calling for a shake-up of a top echelon inhabited by three lawmakers in their late 70s. Just before the vote was called, Pelosi met in her Capitol Hill office with three leaders of the group in a first round of negotiations but made no headway. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), one of the opposition leaders, called the talk 'not terribly productive' and said the 203-to-32 vote, plus three blank ballots and one absentee, demonstrated that Pelosi does not have the absolute majority — 218 if all 435 members vote for an individual — that she will need in January. …

“Besides nominating the 78-year-old Pelosi on Wednesday, Democrats also elected Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), 79, as majority leader and Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), 78, as majority whip. Both men ran unopposed and were elected on a voice vote. But Democrats also injected new blood into the lower tier of the party leadership, picking Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), 46, for the No. 4 position of assistant Democratic leader and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), 48, as Democratic caucus chairman, the No. 5 position. Both are now front-runners to succeed Pelosi as the top House Democrat. Jeffries defeated Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) — a 72-year-old, 10-term veteran with a strong following in the left wing of the party caucus — in a contest that ended on a sour note, with Lee suggesting that her age and gender played a key role in her 123-to-113 loss.”

-- Younger lawmakers’ victories in more junior leadership races could paint a picture of the future Democratic leadership team. Paul Kane reports: “Labeled ‘rising stars’ for several years now, these Democrats are grabbing the lower rungs of power in the new House majority as three elder statesmen cling to power on top of the caucus. In many ways, these leadership elections serve as the informal start in the next race for House speaker.”

-- Barbara Lee’s loss means that Pelosi will be the only woman in House Democrats’ top five leadership roles if she becomes speaker. From Elise Viebeck: “The showdown between [Lee and Jeffries] was celebrated for the guarantee that it would place another African American lawmaker in party leadership in addition to [Clyburn] … But for Lee and her supporters, the loss was a bitter outcome at odds with the record number of women of color poised to enter the new Congress in January and the often pivotal role of women of color in helping to elect Democrats.”

THE IMMIGRATION WARS:

-- Some members of the migrant caravan are considering returning home rather than waiting for months to apply for U.S. asylum. Kevin Sieff and Joshua Partlow report: “For migrants who spent two months walking and hitchhiking through Central America and Mexico, it is a dramatic reversal, a sign of how poor the conditions are here, and how surprised some families are when they learn details about the lengthy U.S. asylum process. … There are still more than 6,000 migrants from the caravan at the sports complex in Tijuana, and most of them intend to wait weeks or months to apply for asylum in the United States. But the number making other decisions — to stay in Mexico or to return to Central America — is slowly growing.”

-- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee delayed a vote on Trump’s pick to lead ICE, Ron Vitiello. Seung Min Kim reports: “The timing [is] critical because all nominations will expire at the end of the year if the Senate does not act on them. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the committee’s chairman, said the vote on Vitiello was being delayed so that senators could practice ‘due diligence’ regarding the concerns raised by unions representing [ICE] personnel. One issue they mentioned  ... is that Vitiello apparently shared an image of Trump on Twitter that compared the president to the cartoon character Dennis the Menace.” As I wrote in another Big Idea last week, the nominee also argued in 2015 that the Democratic Party should be renamed the “Liberalcratic party or the NeoKlanist party.” 

-- Baltimore sued the Trump administration for attempting to penalize immigrants who use public benefits. Erin Cox reports: “The lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration’s expanded definition of ‘public charges’ has had a chilling effect on the city’s immigrant community, which Baltimore officials see as key to its revival. Legal immigrants have stopped using school programs, food subsidies, housing vouchers and health clinics for which they are eligible, the lawsuit says, hurting the city’s mission to welcome immigrants and creating long-term expenses as Baltimore deals with a sicker and less-educated community.”

-- The suicide of an ICE detainee has revived questions over inmate safety in immigration facilities. Maria Sacchetti reports: “Mergensana Amar, a 40-year-old Russian citizen, showed up at a legal checkpoint on the U.S.-Mexico border last year and pleaded for protection in the United States. He spent the next year in immigration custody, fighting deportation. In August, he launched a hunger strike that nearly killed him. In October, his jailers in Tacoma, Wash., found a handmade rope under his bed and briefly placed him on suicide watch, according to federal documents reviewed by The Washington Post. On Nov. 15, he tried to hang himself and was placed on life support. Amar died Saturday, a spokeswoman for [ICE] said this week."

MIDTERMS FALLOUT:

-- Recent developments, including the victory of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) in the Mississippi runoff race, illustrate how the GOP has become “increasingly tolerant of racially divisive politics,” Matt Viser and Michael Scherer report. “The shift has been led by a president who in the final days of the Mississippi Senate race said the Democratic candidate, an African American who was born here to a well-known family, doesn’t ‘fit in.’ The approach has provided a measure of success where, in multiple races this year, black Democrats mobilized unusually high turnouts only to be defeated by white opponents who did the same among white voters. It has produced two vastly different American electorates that both parties are struggling to grapple with ahead of the 2020 presidential election.”

-- Case in point: The Republican Senate invoked cloture and advanced the judicial nomination of Thomas Farr, who has been criticized for zealously defending voting laws that allegedly target minority voters. Sean Sullivan reports: “But it was unclear whether [Farr] would have the necessary support to win confirmation. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the chamber’s only African American Republican, would not commit to supporting him, even as he voted to move the nomination forward. Vice President Pence cast a tie-breaking vote to help Senate Republicans move Farr, who defended voting laws that a court ruled were designed to disenfranchise minority voters, to a final roll call expected later this week. The vote was 51 to 50. … All 49 members of the Democratic Caucus opposed the nomination, as did Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is opposing all judicial nominees until he gets a vote on legislation to protect [Mueller’s probe]. All of the other Republican senators voted for Farr.”

-- North Carolina election officials are investigating possible irregularities in the 9th Congressional District’s House race. Kirk Ross reports: “Unofficial results show Mark Harris, a Republican, defeating Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of 282,717 cast. At a Tuesday meeting to certify statewide election results, the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement declined to certify that race even as it signed off on the state’s other congressional contests. The investigation appears to be focused on Bladen County, but an official in Robeson County said that county also has been contacted. State officials have given no other details.”

-- Democrat T.J. Cox claimed victory over Rep. David Valadao (R) in the California congressional race I wrote yesterday's Big Idea about. The AP reports: “Cox, who trailed in the vote tally until Monday, increased his lead to 529 votes out of about 113,000 cast, after updated numbers were released by Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties. The district also cuts through Kern County, which is expected to update its vote count by Monday. While votes still are being counted, the tallies have favored Cox in post-Election Day updates, prompting him to declare the race over. ‘I am elated to announce that we have won the election for California’s 21st Congressional District,’ he said in a statement.”

-- Many Mormon voters in Utah hope Mitt Romney will challenge Trump once he formally joins the Senate in January. The AP’s Hannah Fingerhut and Brady McCombs report: “[M]ost voters in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah — 64 percent — would like to see the senator confront the president, AP VoteCast found. About half of Romney’s supporters — including his Mormon supporters — said they would like to see the former Massachusetts governor stand up to Trump, while about as many indicated the senator should support Trump if elected. The new data reaffirms Trump’s struggle to gain widespread acceptance among Mormons despite the faith’s deep-rooted conservative leanings.”

THE REST OF THE AGENDA:

-- The Trump administration is expected to announce the official federal ban on bump stocks in the coming days. CNN’s Evan Perez, Laura Jarrett and David Shortell report: “Under the new rule, bump stock owners would be required to destroy or surrender the devices to authorities. Members of the public will be given 90 days to turn in or otherwise discard their bump stocks, according to a source familiar with the final rule.” The rule is expected to lead to court challenges given that it overturns an Obama-era interpretation of bump stocks as a gun accessory not subject to federal regulation.

-- The VA said it would not reimburse student veterans who received incorrect GI bill benefit payments. NBC News’s Phil McCausland reports: “The news conflicts with a promise VA officials made to a House committee earlier this month that it would reimburse those veterans who received less than the full amount they were due.”

-- White House aides are seeking alternatives to an independent Space Force proposed by Trump out of fear that it will not be approved by Congress. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reports: “A former senior defense official said Pentagon officials would be more comfortable with a space corps within the Air Force, but feel Trump’s comments that he wants a ‘separate but equal’ space force have given them little wiggle room. The four options, according to one of the officials, include: 1) an Air Force-owned space corps that includes only Air Force assets, 2) an Air Force-owned space corps that also takes space-related troops and assets from the Army and Navy, 3) an independent service that takes from the Air Force, Army, and Navy, and 4) an independent service that takes from the three services plus parts of the intelligence community.”

-- The Senate’s bipartisan criminal justice bill is dividing the chamber’s Republicans. Seung Min Kim reports: “[A] growing number of GOP senators, who now control the fate of the bill, are seeking changes, growing uneasy with it or raising outright objections. Though its supporters are claiming momentum behind the legislation that would mark a significant overhaul of U.S. sentencing laws, a large group of Senate Republicans are scrambling to get up to speed with one of Trump’s chief legislative priorities, even as they harbor private — and increasingly public — worries about the impact of the bill.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Trump complained about Mueller’s investigation on Twitter for the fourth consecutive day:

It was not immediately clear where Trump got the $40,000,000 figure, which is different than the cost he cited two days earlier:

Nancy Pelosi celebrated the results of the leadership vote:

The Congressional Black Caucus marked a milestone:

The next House minority leader mocked his Democratic colleagues' leadership team:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued for an end of the war in Yemen:

A White House aide said the Miami Herald's story about Alexander Acosta would affect the chances of him becoming attorney general, per a Politico reporter:

A new adviser to the secretary of state previously condemned Trump's foreign policy as “delusional”:

The acting EPA administrator couldn't name some of his agency's policies contributing to cleaner air, per a CNN executive producer:

A Daily Mail editor corrected a tweet that Trump shared about immigrants receiving government assistance:

A Time reporter provided some key context to another Trump retweet:

Trump attended the National Christmas Tree Lighting:

And he angered journalists by leaving the event without having his staffers inform the press pool. From a McClatchy reporter:

From an AP reporter:

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and the Democrat replacing him met on Capitol Hill:

A Democratic congressman presented a special flag to one of his future colleagues:

And Chuck Schumer became a first-time grandparent:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- New York Times, “‘If Bobbie Talks, I’m Finished’: How Les Moonves Tried to Silence an Accuser,” by James B. Stewart, Rachel Abrams and Ellen Gabler: “A trove of text messages details a plan by Mr. Moonves and a faded Hollywood manager to bury a sexual assault allegation. Instead, the scheme helped sink the CBS chief, and may cost him $120 million.”

-- Reuters, “Separated by travel ban, Iranian families reunite at border library,” by Yeganeh Torbati: “[Shirin] Estahbanati, like many Iranian students in the United States, has a single-entry visa and can’t leave the country without risking that she won’t be allowed back in. And her parents, as Iranian citizens, are blocked by [Trump’s] travel ban from visiting her in the United States. She didn’t want to miss her destination: the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. Estahbanati and her family had agreed to meet around 9 a.m. at the library, which through a historic anomaly straddles the U.S.-Canada border – and today has been thrust into an unlikely role as the site of emotional reunions between people separated by the administration’s immigration policies.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Data Shows Tucker Carlson Is The Daily Stormer’s Favorite Pundit,” from BuzzFeed News: “It’s no secret that Andrew Anglin, among the United States’ most prominent white supremacists, loves Tucker Carlson. … Anglin has described Carlson’s [Fox News] show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, as ‘basically ‘Daily Stormer: The Show'‘ — a reference to Anglin’s notorious website. … Now, new research shared with BuzzFeed News reveals just how obsessed the Daily Stormer is with the 49-year-old Carlson, who is the subject of hundreds of stories on the site over the past two years, far more than any other conservative pundit. An analysis by an independent researcher, who requested anonymity because he feared retaliation from Anglin and other neo-Nazis, found that Carlson had been featured in 265 articles on the Daily Stormer between November 2016 and November 2018.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Illinois House expunges lawmaker’s tainted water threat,” from the AP: “The Illinois House took the rare step Wednesday of erasing from its record a Democratic legislator’s remark suggesting she’d like to infect the water supply of a GOP colleague’s loved ones with ‘a broth of Legionella.’ Rep. Stephanie Kifowit apologized for the indelicate comment she made about Lombard Republican Peter Breen Tuesday during floor debate on legislation involving the deadly Legionnaire’s disease crisis at a Quincy veterans’ home. Legionella is the water-borne bacteria which, when inhaled, can cause the sometimes-fatal, flu-like malady of Legionnaire’s. Kifowit, a House member since 2013, initially said her words were mischaracterized. But Wednesday she asked to strike ‘the comments that were personally directed to Rep. Breen.’ The House voted 110-0 to clear the remarks from the record.”

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump and the first lady will travel to Buenos Aires today for the G-20 summit.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

Trump predicted he would be denied the Nobel Peace Prize, as he was denied the Emmy for “The Apprentice”: “Well, they’ll never give it to me. We should have gotten the Emmy for ‘The Apprentice,’ you know? … ‘Amazing Race’ got it because ‘Amazing Race’ was the establishment.” (New York Post)

 

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

-- Washington will see less wind today, but the cold from yesterday sticks around. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Some clouds hang around through at least the morning before sunshine becomes more dominant. Winds remain out of the northwest but at a manageable 5-10 mph. Highs only reach the low-to-mid 40s.”

-- The Wizards lost to the Pelicans 125-104. (Candace Buckner)

-- Darwin Martinez Torres pleaded guilty to capital murder, rape and other counts related to the death of 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen. From Justin Jouvenal: “Under the terms of [his deal with prosecutors], he will be sentenced to life in prison when he appears before a judge again in March. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said authorities still do not know a motive for the seemingly random attack, but they have found no evidence of what many feared: that Hassanen was targeted because of her Muslim faith.”

-- A dispute over D.C. water fees has set off a debate over race, gentrification and the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse scandal. Peter Jamison reports: “At issue are fees to help fund several massive tunnels being built beneath the nation’s capital to divert storm-water debris and sewage from the Anacostia and Potomac rivers — once among the nation’s most polluted waterways — and Rock Creek. The project was required under a 2005 federal consent decree. The District’s water utility board is now considering a $4 million relief package for nonprofit groups that say they’re unfairly burdened by the payments — with special treatment for religious organizations. Houses of worship would face much easier eligibility requirements than other nonprofit groups to get the grants. That has outraged critics, who say the District is bestowing a windfall on churches that are already exempt from most taxes.”

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Stephen Colbert made up a Christmas carol for Mueller:

Trevor Noah gave Manafort a new nickname — “resting snitch face”:

Ivanka Trump awkwardly walked back her insistence that her father never had said border officials could use lethal force against migrants if necessary:

The first lady defended the White House holiday decorations, which were mocked by some on social media:

And an inflatable Santa in England caused a traffic jam: