With Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The GOP has become a more rural party than ever under President Trump. It’s been well established that this allowed Republicans to expand their majority in the Senate by knocking off incumbents in North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri, but it is also a key reason that the party could manage to win 20 of 36 governor’s races this year despite a suburban revolt that allowed Democrats to pick off 40 House seats.

The Republican Governors Association annual meeting at a resort here this week has put the party’s rural turn in stark relief. Several incoming governors in the Class of 2018 have highlighted their backgrounds in agriculture and attributed their victories to strength in sparsely populated areas. Meanwhile, the governors elected in 2010 are bidding adieu. That class included several people with suburban sensibilities like Scott Walker from Wisconsin, John Kasich from Ohio and Rick Snyder from Michigan. The RGA produced a lengthy tribute video, narrated by Haley Barbour, for these outgoing governors.

Tennessee Gov.-elect Bill Lee (R), who has a cattle ranch passed down from his grandparents and runs his family’s construction business, made a play for rural voters by driving a red tractor for 758 miles from the eastern edge of the state to the west, making 33 stops in small towns along the way. He says his wife drove behind him in a pickup truck and kept asking via walkie talkie whether he could drive the tractor any faster. Lee credited this approach with his upset in the GOP primary. He defeated Rep. Diane Black, the former chair of the House Budget Committee, and former state House speaker Beth Harwell. Both women represent suburban Nashville. He then easily bested former Nashville mayor Karl Dean in the general.

“I’m a rural guy who believes that rural Tennessee should be prosperous as well,” Lee said here Thursday. “We have a great economy in Tennessee, but we have 15 (rural) counties in poverty.”

Georgia Gov.-elect Brian Kemp (R) also credited his razor-thin victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams to a surge of support from small towns. “I’ve seen, quite honestly, the despair in many of our rural areas with kids moving away and not coming back,” he said. “I’m going to be a governor who is focused on that, and that was a central part of my campaign.”

In one of his ads, Kemp pointed a gun in the direction of a young man interested in dating his daughter. “I got a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself,” he said in another.

“The people from the left thought they could buy a change in our values,” he said here. “That was what I fought every day. I wasn’t fighting because I wanted to be governor. I was fighting because we’re in a battle for the soul of our state.”

Many of America’s biggest corporations, from insurers and pharmaceuticals to tech and oil giants, have flown executives and lobbyists here to cultivate relationships with these new governors. They’re getting access to the chief executives at receptions, during pull-asides and over meals at the Bourbon Steak location inside the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.

Because of their financial largesse, the RGA spent a record $165 million this election cycle, mostly on ads, including $60 million in the five target states of Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin. Democrats picked up seven governorships overall, including in three states Trump carried in 2016 (Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin). The Democratic Governors Association is holding a gathering for its donors, which will include representatives from some of the same corporations, this weekend in New Orleans.

Kemp has been on a charm offensive with the Fortune 500 types who are at the meeting. Many have spent the past year terrified that he will make Georgia a less hospitable place to do business to placate social conservatives. The business community favored his opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, in the GOP primary. I wrote a Big Idea about this dynamic last month after Kemp flip-flopped and supported giving a tax break to Delta Air Lines that he previously wanted to rescind at the urging of the National Rifle Association. (The NRA also has a lobbyist working the halls at the Fairmont, approaching new governors in between sessions to introduce himself.)

Wearing black cowboy boots during a panel discussion yesterday, Kemp regaled the crowd of suits with stories from the trail. He talked about how his daughter Lucy, who is in high school, would walk around his rallies with an empty diesel fuel can asking people to chip in for gas money for her dad’s bus tour. “We raised $150,000 in that fuel can,” he said.

Kemp was elected to the state Senate in 2002 and has been Georgia’s secretary of state since 2010. “I’ve been involved in farming, agriculture and manufacturing in rural parts of our state, and I ran for office the first time because I was literally frustrated with government,” he said. “I was frustrated with high taxes and too much government regulations. … That’s what’s still driving me today: frustration with government.”

Several other incoming Republican governors offered very similar origin stories. South Dakota Gov.-elect Kristi Noem has served in Congress since 2010, for example, including a stint in House GOP leadership. Before that, she was assistant majority leader in the state legislature. But when she introduced herself to the donors here, whose investment allowed her to narrowly win the most expensive governor’s race in her state’s history, she began by saying: “My background is as a farmer and rancher.” It was a sign of the times and a not-so-subtle nod to the enduring desire of this party’s base for outsiders.

Noem’s dad was a “cowboy,” she explained, who would wake her up before dawn to work the land by hollering, “Get up. More people die in bed than anywhere else.” But he was killed in a farm accident while she was away at school, and Noem says estate taxes almost forced her to sell the family farm. “We had land, we had machinery, and we had cattle, but we didn’t have any money in the bank,” she said. “So I came home from college, took over the operation and took out a loan to pay those taxes.”

That’s why she says she chose to run for office. “My dad told me not to complain about things but to fix them,” the 47-year-old said. “In 2010, there was a lot to complain about. So I ran for Congress. … I’ve been in D.C. for eight years now, so I know the biggest challenges the country faces can’t be fixed in D.C.”

Idaho Gov.-elect Brad Little, who has been lieutenant governor for a decade and served in the state senate for eight years before that, began his introduction just as Noem did: “I come from a background in cattle ranching,” he told the donors. “When I first started in ranching was during a tough time, we had a lot of debt and things were pretty tough. When we got our heads above water and paid our debt down, I started thinking” about running for office.

Like Lee in Tennessee, Little bested GOP Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, the House Freedom Caucus co-founder whose district includes Boise, in a hard-fought primary by focusing on rural areas that have been left behind by the strong national economy. “Today we’ve still got a lot of counties in Idaho where their unemployment rate has got a one in front of it,” he said.

The incoming governor said one of his priorities as governor will be stopping the flow of young people out of the state to pursue opportunities on the West Coast. But he boasted in the very next breath that Idaho is benefiting from older people who are immigrating from Oregon, Washington and California because of the high cost of living in those immensely more prosperous states.

“When I was on the campaign trail, everyone I talked to had just moved to Idaho from one of those three states,” he said. “They were fed up with the policies, the loss of liberty, the taxes and the regulation. That’s the best bait we have going for us in Idaho right now. … If the Democratic Governors Association keeps putting in those policies over there, we might have to build a wall around Idaho!”

That comment highlights one under-covered factor driving the ongoing national realignment that I’ve been chronicling in The 202 all year. Many millennials who might be more amenable to Democrats, especially on social issues, are gravitating toward blue states while older conservatives who like Trump and low taxes are migrating to red states. This sorting out fuels the polarization.

Trump activates rural communities in a way past Republicans, even Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Richard Nixon before Watergate in 1972, never quite could. Sparsely populated counties that Republicans have been winning handily for a long time have become meaningfully redder from coast to coast. Other places that used to reliably back Democrats are now Trump Country. Many rural counties voted more Republican than they did two years ago, with high turnout, and most suburban counties voted more Democratic. Rural America is central to Trump’s 2020 reelection strategy. The rub for Republicans is that the suburbs are growing, but many rural places continue to shrink.

Georgia may illustrate this trend as well as any other state. The number of votes cast for governor in Georgia this year exceeded the votes cast in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Tim Regan-Porter of McClatchy crunched the numbers for the Macon Telegraph:

In the 2012 election with a similar total turnout, Kemp improved upon Romney’s vote totals in 103 (or 74 percent) of the 140 predominantly rural counties (defined here as those counties with more than 20 percent of the population in areas that are not ‘densely developed’ according to the last census). Compared to 2016, an election with higher turnout, Kemp garnered more votes than Trump in 37 (26 percent) rural counties. However, when comparing county vote totals for Abrams with those for Barack Obama in 2012 (again, an election with slightly fewer total votes and with Obama losing the state), the results point to a surprising downturn of Democratic votes outside of the Atlanta area. Though her margins improved, Abrams received fewer votes than Obama in each of the major cities outside of the Atlanta and Athens areas that she carried

“Of the 19 predominantly suburban (or urban) counties, Abrams won 14, and of the 139 predominantly rural counties, Kemp won 125. The average margin for Kemp across all rural counties was 38 percent, which improved upon Trump’s rural margin of 36 percent and (Mitt) Romney’s of 29 percent. The margin for Abrams across all suburban counties was 17 percent, which improved upon (Hillary) Clinton’s 11 percent suburban margin and (Barack) Obama’s 5 percent. Compared with 2016, Kemp increased Republican margins in 116 of the 139 rural counties he carried, while Abrams increased Democratic margins in all of the suburban counties, including the five she did not carry.

Suburban counties represent 59 percent of Georgia’s population, and they are growing three times faster. Since 2010, suburban counties have grown an estimated 10.7 percent, while rural counties have grown 3.6 percent.”

Notably, Kemp’s 20-stop bus tour in the final weeks of the race skipped metropolitan Atlanta to focus on smaller towns. He visited many of the counties where Trump got his highest percentage finishes in 2016 in a bid to run up the score in rural Georgia. His goal was to juice his numbers enough out-state to offset the surge of votes he knew Abrams, vying to be the first African American female governor in U.S. history, would get from black voters and disaffected suburban whites.

RGA chair Bill Haslam, the outgoing governor of Tennessee, asked Kemp what he learned from the bitter race. “You just need to be who you are,” Kemp said during a panel discussion. “The national media was making fun of my ‘fake Southern drawl,’ and it is obviously not fake.”

Haslam replied, “They say you get in trouble when you quit sounding like where you’re from.”

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) sank Trump judicial nominee Thomas Farr after announcing his opposition because of concerns about Farr's role in an apparent effort to disenfranchise African American voters. Seung Min Kim and John Wagner report: “The decision from Scott, the Senate’s sole black Republican, came after the publication of a Justice Department memo in The Washington Post that Scott said raised concerns about Farr’s involvement in a controversial 'ballot security’ campaign. Farr was a lawyer for the campaign of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1984 and in 1990, when it mailed postcards that the department later said were sent to intimidate black voters from going to the polls.” Farr has denied he knew about the postcards. 

“Though Scott and (Jeff) Flake were the only Republicans on record opposing Farr, other GOP senators began signaling Thursday that they were reconsidering their support because of the information disclosed in the 1991 memo. Farr’s nomination advanced on a 51-to-50 procedural vote Wednesday, after Vice President Pence cast the tie-breaking vote. Scott, as well as Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), held a conference call with the author of the memo, Lee Rubin, to ask further questions about Farr’s involvement in the tactics of the Helms campaign and the North Carolina Republican Party. After the call, Rubio said he had yet to change his mind on Farr. But Murkowski was more circumspect.”

Farr had other problems. As Seung Min and John explain: “Republicans in control of the North Carolina General Assembly had hired Farr … to defend congressional boundaries approved in 2011. In 2016, a federal court struck down the map as racial gerrymandering. Farr also helped defend a 2013 voter ID law in North Carolina that was considered one of the strictest in the nation. A federal court ruled in 2016 that the primary purpose of the law wasn’t to stop voter fraud but to disenfranchise minority voters.”

Notably, this seat on the U.S. District Court for Eastern North Carolina has been vacant longer than any other judicial opening in the country. The reason? Senate Republicans refused to schedule hearings to consider Barack Obama’s two nominees — both African American  women.

Farr made it this far in the process because he had the muscular backing of Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a former speaker of the North Carolina House who was heavily involved in pushing through the 2011 and 2013 laws later struck down by the courts. Tillis is already one of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection in 2020, and Democrats hope to use his role in the Farr nomination to boost African American turnout.

-- Marriott said that a data breach may have compromised the information of up to 500 million guests. NBC News’s Erik Ortiz reports: “The world's largest hotel chain said it determined on Nov. 19 that an ‘unauthorized party’ had accessed the database as early as 2014. ‘The company has not finished identifying duplicate information in the database, but believes it contains information on up to approximately 500 million guests who made a reservation at a Starwood property,’ Bethesda, Maryland-based Marriott said in a statement. For about 327 million of the guests, it added, the information includes some combination of a name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date, and communication preferences.”

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. After George Soros criticized Facebook at the World Economic Forum, COO Sheryl Sandberg asked some of her colleagues to investigate whether the billionaire philanthropist stood to gain financially by attacking the company. The request indicates that Sandberg was directly involved in responding to Soros’s comments at the January forum, which led her staff to hire a GOP firm to circulate opposition research on him. (New York Times)

  2. The head of a U.S. government agency apologized to Soros for airing a program that promoted conspiracy theories about him and called him a “multimillionaire Jew.” John F. Lansing, chief executive and director of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, said in a letter that the program “made several false and negative assertions” about Soros and espoused “age-old tropes against the Jewish community.” (Felicia Sonmez)

  3. California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct. Party officials said an investigation would continue into allegations that Bauman sexually harassed and assaulted several staff members. (Felicia Sonmez)

  4. Federal agents raided the office of Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, who previously did some property-tax-appeal work for Trump. But a source said the raid was focused on new allegations and not past controversies, including Burke’s dealings with the president. (Chicago Sun-Times)

  5. Trump’s three wealthiest Cabinet members took in at least $148 million last year. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross earned the bulk of their income from selling assets. (Politico)

  6. The Office of Special Counsel warned that talking about impeachment or “the Resistance” constitute prohibited political activity for federal employees. Some ethics advocates warned that the guidance from the office, which is charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, went too far in limiting employees’ public speech. (Eli Rosenberg)

  7. Bloomberg Philanthropies will donate $50 million to states fighting the opioid epidemic. “What we think we can do with $50 million is show the way in these 10 states,” Michael Bloomberg said of the initiative. “If they do things that we think make sense, then we will help fund it.” (Lenny Bernstein)

  8. In an internal memo last week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg reassured employees about the safety record of the company’s planes after the Lion Air crash. Muilenburg described Boeing’s 737 commercial jetliner as “a safe airplane designed, built and supported by skilled men and women who approach their work with the utmost integrity.” (Aaron Gregg and Ashley Halsey III)

  9. A New Jersey man was charged in the deaths of his brother and the brother’s family after their house was set on fire. Authorities said Paul Caneiro shot and killed his brother, Keith Caneiro, before murdering Keith’s wife and two children. He then set the family’s mansion on fire in “a ruse to make it appear that the overall family was somehow targeted.” (Deanna Paul)

  10. Southwest apologized after one of its employees mocked a young girl whose name is Abcde. The girl’s mother said the employee posted a picture of her daughter’s boarding pass on social media to mock her name, which is pronounced “ab-si-dee.” (Lindsey Bever)

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- The latest guilty plea of Trump's longtime fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen proves the president has emerged as a major subject of interest in special counsel Bob Mueller’s Russia investigation. Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey report: “New evidence from two separate fronts of [Mueller’s] investigation casts fresh doubts on Trump’s version of key events involving Russia, signaling potential political and legal peril for the president. Investigators have now publicly cast Trump as a central figure of their probe into whether Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. Together, the documents show investigators have evidence that Trump was in close contact with his lieutenants as they made outreach to both Russia and WikiLeaks — and that they tried to conceal the extent of their activities.

On Thursday, [Cohen] pleaded guilty to lying to Congress when he insisted that Trump was not pursuing plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow after January 2016, casting Trump’s repeated claims that he had no business interests in Russia in a new light. A draft special counsel document revealed Tuesday also indicates that prosecutors are closely scrutinizing Trump’s interactions with a longtime adviser, Roger Stone, as Stone was allegedly seeking information about WikiLeaks’ plans to release hacked Democratic emails. Legal experts said it’s still unclear how much peril the president might face as a result of the new evidence Mueller has gathered about the Moscow project and WikiLeaks, but his prominence in the prosecutors’ papers puts the president in an awkward starring role. …

Trump, identified as ‘Individual 1’ in Cohen’s guilty plea, was said to have received direct updates from Cohen as he pursued a Moscow Trump Tower project with the Kremlin, up until June 14, 2016. … Trump has given slightly differing accounts of his Moscow business ties over time. In July 2016, he tweeted: ‘For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.’ A day later he claimed, ‘I have nothing to do with Russia.’ In January 2017, he told a reporter: ‘I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away.’ Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said Thursday that the president’s written answers to Mueller about the Moscow project, which he submitted just before Thanksgiving, conform with Cohen’s version of events. They discussed a project, starting in 2015, continuing into 2016, and it went nowhere, he said ... 

In public, Trump was defiant, telling reporters that Cohen was a liar and a ‘weak person’ who would do anything to save himself from fraud charges he faces related to his taxi business. Speaking before he stepped onto the Marine One helicopter for his trip [to Argentina], he also denigrated Cohen’s intelligence, calling him ‘not very smart.’ ‘He was convicted of various things unrelated to us,’ Trump said. ‘He’s a weak person, and what he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence. So he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it.’ He questioned the scrutiny of the Moscow project. ‘There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it,’ Trump said. ‘When I’m running for president, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business.’”

FOLLOW THE MONEY:

-- The Trump Organization planned to give Vladimir Putin a $50 million penthouse at Trump Tower Moscow, an unrealized offer that would have established a direct financial link between Putin and Trump. BuzzFeed News’s Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold report: “Two US law enforcement officials [said that Cohen] discussed the idea with a representative of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary. … The revelation that representatives of the Trump Organization planned to forge direct financial links with the leader of a hostile nation at the height of the campaign raises fresh questions about [Trump's] relationship with the Kremlin. The plan never went anywhere because the tower deal ultimately fizzled, and it is not clear whether Trump knew of the intention to give away the penthouse. But Cohen said in court documents that he regularly briefed Trump and his family on the Moscow negotiations.”

-- Mueller’s interest in the Moscow project has raised questions about Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr.'s involvement in the venture. Yahoo News’s Hunter Walker reports: “Multiple sources have confirmed … that [Ivanka and Don Jr.] were also working to make Trump Tower Moscow a reality. The sources said those efforts were independent of Cohen’s work on the project. One of the sources said Ivanka was also involved in Cohen’s efforts. And a separate source familiar with the investigation [said] that Mueller has asked questions about Ivanka and Don Jr.’s work on Trump Tower Moscow. … According to Mueller, one of the things Cohen lied about was that he ‘briefed family members’ of Trump’s who worked at the Trump Organization about the proposed Moscow skyscraper. … According to [one] source, Ivanka’s role was limited to recommending an architect and Don Jr. was only ‘peripherally’ aware of the plan.”

-- The efforts to get a Trump Tower in Moscow were largely led by Trump business associate Felix Sater, who was convicted in the 1990s on fraud. The New York Times’s Mike McIntire, Megan Twohey and Mark Mazzetti report: “To get the project off the ground, Mr. Sater dug into his address book and its more than 100 Russian contacts — including entries for [Putin] and a former general in Russian military intelligence. Mr. Sater tapped the general, Evgeny Shmykov, to help arrange visas for Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump to visit Russia, according to emails and interviews with several people knowledgeable about the events. For months, the felon, the former Russian intelligence officer and Mr. Trump’s lawyer worked to land the deal, speaking with a Putin aide, Russian bankers and real estate developers. But by July 2016, with Mr. Trump having secured the Republican presidential nomination and accusations of Russian election interference heating up, the project was abandoned, and neither Mr. Cohen nor Mr. Trump traveled to Moscow.”

-- Trump’s dream of building a skyscraper in Moscow dates back to the 1980s. Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger report: “Again and again Trump pursued his Russia project, traveling to Moscow and unveiling four ultimately unsuccessful plans to put his name on a building in the Russian capital before he announced he would run for president. ‘Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment,’ Trump said in a 2007 deposition. ‘We will be in Moscow at some point.’ … At the time, Trump repeatedly insisted that he did not have financial ties to Russia. … But his assertions belied years of Trump’s failed efforts in Russia.”

-- “It’s true that Trump had the right to do business in Russia during the time when he was a candidate, but the public also had a right to know where his true financial interests lay,” the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin explains. “It would have been highly relevant to the public to learn that Trump was negotiating a business deal with Russia at the same time that he was proposing to change American policy toward that country. Not only was the public deprived of this information but Cohen’s guilty plea indicates that voters were actively misled about Trump’s interests. That is what is so important about Thursday morning’s news — it says that while Trump was running for President, he was doing his private business, not the public’s business. Trump may believe that his interest is the national interest, but it wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.

INSIDE THE WEST WING:

-- One White House adviser said Trump was “totally caught off guard by the Cohen plea.” Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reports: “The fear in Trumpworld is that Mueller may have laid a perjury trap for the president, (a) former staffer said. Mueller waited until after Trump submitted written answers under oath to the special counsel’s office — some of which reportedly included responses to questions about Trump Tower Moscow — before revealing the evidence prosecutors had gathered to secure Cohen’s plea. … Indeed, Trump’s erratic responses suggest he was surprised by the news. At first, [Rudy Giuliani] released a blistering statement saying Cohen is ‘a proven liar who is doing everything he can to get out of a long-term prison sentence for serious crimes of bank and tax fraud.’ … But hours later, Giuliani changed tacks, (saying) Trump’s sworn answers to Mueller matched Cohen’s version of events. …

In the days leading up to Cohen’s plea, Trump’s legal team had grown increasingly annoyed with the special counsel’s office for stonewalling. Giuliani vented to a friend that Mueller’s office stopped communicating with him after he delivered Trump’s answers. ‘They’ve gone dark,’ the friend who spoke with Giuliani said. ‘Rudy is extremely frustrated. He thinks Mueller is acting like some junior U.S. attorney who’s got his panties in a wad and doesn’t want to talk to you.’ Giuliani also complained that Mueller is delaying submitting his report to the Justice Department until the Democrats have taken control of the [House] … Cohen’s plea also re-ignited fears that the president’s son, Don Jr., will be next to be indicted. ‘Don’s been telling people he’s very worried after today,’ a source said.”

-- Acting attorney general Matt Whitaker was given advance notice that Cohen would plead guilty, which could cause tension with Trump. Matt Zapotosky reports: “As acting attorney general, Whitaker is the nominal supervisor of [Mueller] … Justice Department policies and special-counsel regulations call for Whitaker to be notified of significant events … Importantly, though, the regulations do not require the attorney general to approve such steps. The attorney general can request that the special counsel explain a step that is being taken and can conclude that an action is ‘so unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.’ The attorney general is supposed to give ‘great weight’ to the special counsel’s views, and at the end of the case Congress is supposed to be notified of any proposed action that was vetoed. It was not immediately clear when the special counsel’s office notified Whitaker of Cohen’s plea, or how Whitaker reacted.”

-- Trump is considering nominating Makan Delrahim to be the next attorney general. CNN reports: “As a deputy to then-White House counsel Don McGahn, Delrahim helped shepherd the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch ... Two months after joining the Justice Department in September 2017 as chief of the antitrust division, Delrahim led the government's suit to block AT&T's takeover of Time Warner Inc. … A source familiar with the process tells CNN that the White House likes Delrahim's diverse background (he was born in Iran) and the fact that he's already been confirmed, which would make it harder to justify rejecting him should he come up for confirmation as attorney general.”

THE CONGRESSIONAL RESPONSE:

-- House Democrats are emboldened by the Cohen news, demanding that witnesses who testified before the House Intelligence Committee return to clarify their statements. While under GOP control, that committee released a controversial report stating there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Karoun Demirjian reports: “Cohen’s false statements go largely unchallenged in [the report from House Republicans]. After Cohen wrote in a letter to the Senate and House Intelligence committees that the attempt to establish a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January 2016, the Republicans stated in their report that ‘it appears . . . the project failed’ at that time. It is now known those efforts continued for many more months.”

-- House Democrats want to call Cohen to testify once they retake control of the chamber. Politico’s Kyle Cheney, Rachael Bade and Gabby Orr report: “Democrats think Cohen could be a linchpin in their upcoming efforts to spotlight Trump's relationship with Russia … They’re well aware of Cohen’s close connection to the president — and that he’s turned on Trump, making him a potential ally in their quest to uncover and highlight Trump’s alleged dirty laundry. … A Cohen redux at the Capitol would be a spectacle that could rival the Watergate hearings.”

-- Senate committees investigating Russian election interference are also reviewing testimony. NBC News’s Carol E. Lee, Kasie Hunt, Ken Dilanian and Garrett Haake report: “The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said Thursday that the committee had made multiple criminal referrals to Mueller, but added ‘we're not going to talk about any individuals.’ Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the intelligence committee ‘made referrals where appropriate. I am very glad the special counsel is pursuing those who mislead members of congress.’ The committee's chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., had a stern warning Thursday for witnesses appearing before Congress. ‘This is a reason people shouldn't lie when they're in front of a congressional investigation,’ Burr said.”

-- But, but, but: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continues to resist bipartisan pleas to hold an up-or-down vote on legislation to make it difficult for Trump to fire Mueller. Outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake is still vowing to oppose Trump's judicial nominations until the Senate votes on the special counsel bill, but he's the only Republican to do so. Politico’s Burgess Everett and Elana Schor report: “His vow to oppose all judges until he gets a vote shielding the special counsel from presidential interference has already frozen 21 judicial picks in committee and on Thursday helped derail [Farr’s nomination] on the Senate floor. And GOP frustrations are boiling over at Flake … But so far McConnell has been unwilling to bend to Flake and give him a vote — which might not pass the Senate anyway, given the number of Republicans resistant to the Mueller bill or Flake’s hardball tactics.”

-- Former FBI director Jim Comey has asked a federal judge to block House Republicans from forcing him to testify behind closed doors, seeking to make any appearance public. Matt Zapotosky reports: “In a forceful court filing Thursday, lawyers for Comey wrote that he was fighting the committee’s bid to force him to testify ‘not to avoid giving testimony but to prevent the Joint Committee from using the pretext of a closed interview to peddle a distorted, partisan political narrative about the Clinton and Russian investigations.’”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

-- Trump canceled his one-on-one meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit hours after the Kremlin confirmed it. Anne Gearan and John Wagner report: “In a tweet from Air Force One en route to Buenos Aires, Trump blamed the cancellation on Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian naval ships and sailors in the Black Sea over the weekend. Other top administration officials, including Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, had condemned Russia’s actions, but Trump had equivocated in recent days. Trump had signaled in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday that he might forgo meeting with Putin after Russia’s naval action sparked global condemnation and a sharp escalation in tensions between Russia and Ukraine.”

-- British officials have determined Putin likely approved a nerve-agent attack against a former Russian spy and his daughter. CNN’s Jim Sciutto reports: “British officials have warned allies that Russian intelligence agents risked killing thousands when they smuggled a perfume bottle packed with the deadly nerve agent Novichok into the UK to try to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian agent, according to two European intelligence officials. … Russia watchers, like former CIA officer John Sipher, who worked counterintelligence operations against Moscow, agree that Putin personally signed off on the operation because it had the potential to provoke a foreign policy backlash.”

-- Mueller’s investigation now hangs over Trump at the summit. Politico’s Andrew Restuccia and Gabby Orr report: “And some think that’s just the way Mueller wanted it. In a Thursday statement, [Rudy Giuliani] called it ‘hardly coincidental’ that Mueller made a dramatic legal move ‘just as the President is leaving for a meeting with world leaders’ … There’s no evidence that Mueller sought … to overshadow Trump’s travel. But the special counsel’s latest move has already forced Trump to denounce his former personal lawyer as a ‘liar’ in remarks to reporters before his departure — and obscured Trump’s upcoming sit-down with Chinese President Xi Jinping."

-- Trump’s hosts are working to keep him happy during the G-20. Anthony Faiola and Michael Birnbaum report: “At a conclave typically devoted to issues of trade and the environment, the Argentines have been trying to minimize topics during the summit that could trigger Trump’s Twitter finger — including protectionism, the Paris climate agreement and migration. In the declaration issued at the end of the meeting — in which leaders sum up their work and set priorities for their underlings — Argentina has been working hard to minimize U.S. embarrassment. … For leaders around the world, the question will be whether Argentina’s gentle approach can be more successful than that of Germany, whose G-20 summit last year in Hamburg was tough and confrontational.”

-- Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has earned praise back home for her handling of the renegotiated NAFTA deal, which was signed on the sidelines of the summit earlier today. Emily Rauhala reports: “Over the course of the talks, Freeland became, for some, a symbol of the split between nationalism and liberal multilateralism — and the growing political distance between Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the United States under Trump. To many in Ottawa, Freeland represents the best of what Canada can offer: quiet competence, a cooperative spirit and a stubborn sense of what is just.”

-- The signing of the trade deal represents a significant victory for Trump, even though it faces tough odds in Congress. David J. Lynch reports: “[F]or Trump, the signing looks set to be the highlight of the opening morning of the [G-20 summit], especially after the president’s abrupt cancellation of his meetings with [Putin] and the leaders of South Korea and Turkey. The agreement also offers a measure of vindication for Trump’s uncompromising ‘America First’ stance at a gathering associated with the elite globalism that he denigrates. The hard part awaits Trump back in Washington.”

-- The most closely watched world leader at the summit may not be Trump but Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. From Ishaan Tharoor: “Trump may be eager to absolve Mohammed of his role in the abduction and assassination of [Post contributing columnist] Jamal Khashoggi, but other leaders are less keen to sweep the whole episode under the rug. … But the G-20 may offer the crown prince a chance for redemption: He is set to meet Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron at the least. Both leaders have said they would raise Khashoggi’s death with Mohammed, but Saudi officials in the kingdom hope such meetings will help their leader restore some goodwill.”

-- The Trump administration is seeking to reassure European allies about its impending withdrawal from an arms-control treaty. Paul Sonne reports: “Among other steps, the administration is assuring allies that none of the missiles the United States would contemplate deploying after withdrawing from the Cold War-era pact would be armed with nuclear warheads, according to a senior U.S. official. That is one of the many points the United States has been making in consultations with foreign partners about its likely withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.”

THE IMMIGRATION WARS:

-- Congressional Democrats rejected a plan to fund Trump’s border wall, increasing the chances of a partial government shutdown after Dec. 7. Erica Werner and Seung Min Kim report: “The new Republican plan would deliver $5 billion for Trump’s long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall by dividing the expenditure over two years — $2.5 billion in 2019 and $2.5 billion in 2020. But Democrats, who have rejected the idea of spending $5 billion on a wall Trump claimed Mexico would pay for, said splitting the money up over two years did not make it more palatable. … This year, Senate Democrats and Republicans agreed on $1.6 billion for border barriers and security for 2019, and Democrats said that remained their position. Privately, Democratic aides said that it could be possible to negotiate a number higher than $1.6 billion — but that they would not agree to Trump’s $5 billion ask after a midterm election in which Democrats retook control of the House. But GOP House and Senate leaders who have met with Trump in recent weeks say the president is adamant about getting $5 billion.”

-- Some members of the migrant caravan are seeking asylum in Mexico rather than face the long wait and dangerous conditions at the southern border. Antonio Olivo reports: “Roughly 1,000 caravan participants have remained in Mexicali, concerned that drug cartel violence and living conditions in Tijuana, which was the final destination, would be unbearable. … At the same time, caravan participants have begun applying for a form of Mexican asylum that offers them permission to work — an outcome that incoming president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is likely to encourage as he seeks to increase economic development in the country.”

THE REST OF THE DOMESTIC AGENDA:

-- Congress reached a final farm bill deal that does not include the work requirements for food stamp recipients that Trump requested. Jeff Stein reports: “The House and Senate have been deadlocked over multiple issues in the bill, including provisions in the House bill that would add new work requirements for older food stamp recipients and for parents of children age 6 and older. But those provisions have been stripped in the compromise package, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, confirmed Thursday.”

-- Wisconsin’s work requirements for its food stamp recipients have become a model for the Trump administration. Amy Goldstein reports: “[A] large swath of poor Wisconsinites [need] to document that they are working or striving to get a job for at least 80 hours a month. … Wisconsin — with its work requirement set to expand next year and a focus on employment and training — is a role model for the Trump administration’s vision of food aid for poor Americans who could go hungry, ratcheting up what many of them are expected to do to get government help.”

-- Jenna Johnson traveled to Warren, Ohio, to talk to people affected by the GM plant closures, who did not seem to blame Trump for the cuts: “‘It’s a company. Why should the president of the United States be allowed to tell a company what to do?’ said Michael Hayda, 64, a former factory worker and a driver at the store who is registered as a Democrat and voted for Trump in 2016. … And even a customer who would like to see Trump impeached said he doesn’t fully fault the president. ‘There’s only one law we all obey, and that’s the law of supply and demand,’ said Paul Niemi.”

-- The EPA inspector general closed two probes into former administrator Scott Pruitt’s conduct due to his resignation. Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report: “The investigations focused on Pruitt’s use of staff members for personal purposes and a condo rental deal he made with a lobbyist. The office did not make a finding as to whether Pruitt violated federal law, according to its semiannual report, saying in each case that ‘the result of the investigation was inconclusive.’”

MORE FALLOUT FROM THE MIDTERMS:

-- Election officials in North Carolina continue to investigate fraud allegations in the 9th Congressional District race. Amy Gardner and Kirk Ross report: “The North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has no plans to certify Republican Mark Harris’s 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready, according to an agenda of a board meeting scheduled for Friday morning. The board is collecting sworn statements from voters in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, near the South Carolina border, who described people coming to their doors and urging them to hand over their absentee ballots, sometimes without filling them out. Others described receiving absentee ballots by mail that they had not requested. It is illegal to take someone else’s ballot and turn it in.”

The officials are also probing whether the district’s incredibly close GOP primary was tainted by fraud: “Investigators [are] scrutinizing unusually high numbers of absentee ballots cast in Bladen County, in both the general election and the May 8 primary, in which Harris defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger (R) by 828 votes. In the primary, Harris won 96 percent of all absentee ballots in Bladen, a far higher percentage than his win in the county overall — a statistic that this week is prompting fresh accusations of fraud. Another irregularity in both the primary and general elections is the high number of absentee ballots in some precincts that were requested but not turned in.”

-- Another House Democrat said he would vote against Nancy Pelosi’s speakership bid in January, complicating Pelosi's math as she attempts to flip nearly 20 votes to be successful. Mike DeBonis and Felicia Sonmez report: “Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who voted against Pelosi in 2017 but had remained mum on how he plans to vote next year, said Thursday that he will not support her in January and is unlikely to change his mind. … Despite opposition from some members, Pelosi’s allies remained confident that the math would work out in her favor Jan. 3. … Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a leader of the faction opposing Pelosi, said he expected the ‘vast majority’ of the 35 who voted against her Wednesday to oppose her on the floor. But he acknowledged that Pelosi has weeks to win support and that ‘nothing’s certain.’”

-- Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.) won the race to become the next chair of the DCCC, House Democrats’ campaign arm. From DeBonis and Sonmez: “The decision to elevate Bustos, a moderate lawmaker representing a district that voted for Trump, breaks with the traditional practice in both parties of choosing a member in a safe district to lead fundraising and strategy efforts. Bustos easily won reelection this month, but Republicans say that she could be vulnerable in a more favorable election cycle.”

-- A historic first: Two women will lead the House Appropriations Committee next year. Erica Werner reports: “The House GOP steering committee chose Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) on Thursday to be the top Republican on the panel, which is one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. She will join Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who has served as the committee’s top Democrat and will assume the chairmanship next year when Democrats take over control of the House.”

-- House Democratic leaders are expected to unveil today a political overhaul bill that they will take up early next year. Mike DeBonis reports: “Numerous outside groups aligned with Democrats have pushed the party’s House leaders to schedule a reform bill as their first order of business, and [Pelosi] announced before the election that the bill would be designated ‘H.R. 1’ — a symbolic title meant to emphasize its importance, even if it is unlikely to be the first piece of legislation to get a House vote in the new Congress. … Elements of the legislation … include new donor disclosure requirements for political organizations, a system to multiply small donations to political campaigns, mandating a new ethical code for the Supreme Court, ending most first-class travel for federal officeholders, and a broad effort to expand voting access and reduce partisan gerrymandering.”

-- California’s secretary of state criticized Paul Ryan after the House speaker described California’s system for counting ballots as “bizarre.” From Colby Itkowitz: “‘It defies logic to me,’ Ryan said in a wide-ranging interview with Washington Post reporter Paul Kane. ‘We had a lot of wins that night, and three weeks later we lost basically every contested California race. This election system they have, I can’t begin to understand what ballot harvesting is.’ … Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, rebuked Ryan in a tweet Thursday afternoon.” “@SpeakerRyan, in California we make sure every ballot is properly counted and accounted for. That's not ‘bizarre,’ that's DEMOCRACY,” Padilla wrote.

-- Former Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke was invited to the early primary state of New Hampshire as he mulls a 2020 bid. CNBC’s Brian Schwartz reports: “Since O'Rourke's loss earlier this month, Rob Friedlander, a senior advisor to the Texas Democrat's campaign, has received calls from the New Hampshire Young Democrats requesting that O'Rourke come to the Granite State, according to people familiar with the matter. The goal would be to have O'Rourke tour parts of the state and interact with voters.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Trump tried to downplay the revelations from Cohen's guilty plea:

A former Clinton campaign aide reflected on the latest Russia-related revelations:

From a former U.S. attorney in Birmingham (appointed by Obama) who is now a University of Alabama law professor:

The news even appeared to surprise those within the White House:

From a New Yorker writer:

The news appeared to have a negative effect on Trump's mood as he headed to the G-20 summit, per a CNN reporter:

A Forbes reporter made a dark joke about Trump and Putin's canceled meeting:

Trump also said he asked the RNC chairwoman to stay in her role:

The new DCCC chair celebrated her victory:

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said her proposal to move the United States toward more renewable energy sources is gaining momentum:

The DNC chairman, who formerly led the DOJ's civil rights division, tweeted this after Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) derailed the judicial nomination of Thomas Farr:

A Politico Magazine writer reflected on the attacks leveled against Scott:

Trump's former communications director suggested the Miami Herald “planted” a story about how Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta helped secure a lenient sentence for a serial sex abuser:

The reporter who wrote the Herald story replied:

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she would be having “more fun” on Twitter after her election loss:

And an indictment-themed ice cream truck appeared near the White House:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- New York Times, “Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the Reality,” by Erica L. Green and Katie Benner: “T.M. Landry, a school in small-town Louisiana, has garnered national attention for vaulting its underprivileged black students to elite colleges. But the school cut corners and doctored college applications.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Far-right activist Laura Loomer handcuffed herself to Twitter's NYC building; police removed her,” from NBC News: “Far-right activist Laura Loomer handcuffed herself to Twitter's New York City headquarters for about two hours on Thursday afternoon to protest the company's banning her from the social media platform, then asked police to remove her. Loomer attached herself to the building's front door, blocking the entrance to the building in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood in a protest that was livestreamed on Periscope, which began at about 3:45 p.m. ET. The video stream showed Loomer wearing on her chest a yellow Star of David such as many European Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust, and a sweatshirt that read on the back, ‘#STOPTHEBIAS.’”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“CNN fires Marc Lamont Hill in wake of remarks criticizing Israel and calling for a ‘free Palestine,’” from Eli Rosenberg: “CNN fired Marc Lamont Hill on Thursday after the longtime contributor made comments about Israel during a U.N. speech. Hill, a media studies professor at Temple University, had drawn scrutiny for calling for a ‘free Palestine from the river to the sea.’ The words drew criticism from some conservatives and staunch Israel advocates, who said such remarks echoed language used by Hamas and other groups that seek to eliminate Israel. … Some mainstream Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, expressed frustration with Hill’s remarks, which also included endorsing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.”

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump and the first lady are in Buenos Aires today for the G-20 summit. Trump has already met with Argentine President Mauricio Macri and participated in a signing ceremony for the USMCA trade agreement. He will attend the official G-20 welcome and hear opening remarks from Macri before his working luncheon and afternoon meetings with the prime ministers of Japan and India, as well as a “pull-aside” with the prime minister of Australia. Trump and the first lady will later attend an embassy meet and greet and the G-20 leaders’ dinner.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“We must face reality head-on: President Trump’s actions and instincts align with those of authoritarian regimes around the globe. He embraces dictators of all stripes. He cozies up to white nationalists. He undermines the free press and incites violence against journalists. He attacks the independence of our judiciary. He wraps himself in the flag and co-opts the military for partisan purposes — but he can’t be bothered to visit our troops in harm’s way.” — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seemingly gearing up for a 2020 bid in a speech at American University in Washington. (Felicia Sonmez)

 

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

-- It will be mostly cloudy with possible showers in the District today. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “There’s a small chance of something frozen early in the morning, but it’s pretty unlikely it does much. Showers are more likely midmorning into midday. A quick downpour is possible if you live north or west of town, although most folks won’t see a lot of rain from this event. Clouds hang tough and let through only peeks of sunshine. Low to mid-40s are about the warmest we get.”

-- Internal emails show Metro was willing to offer special treatment to “Unite the Right” rallygoers. Faiz Siddiqui reports: “Jason Kessler, the key organizer of the Aug. 12 ‘Unite the Right 2’ rally, asked for a contact at Metro to coordinate special accommodations for his group, and the transit agency complied, the emails show. … The emails suggest Metro understated its role in facilitating special accommodations for those who attended the Aug. 12 march at Lafayette Square.”

-- The murder trial for James Fields, who is accused of killing Heather Heyer with his car at the Charlottesville rally, got underway. Paul Duggan reports: “In May 2017, three months before he rammed his speeding Dodge Challenger into a group of counterprotesters during a violent white supremacists rally here, self-professed neo-Nazi [Fields] posted photos on Instagram of ‘a car running into a crowd of people,’ a prosecutor revealed in court Thursday.”

-- A group of legal experts and former elected officials is launching an effort to get Virginia to hand its redistricting process over to a nonpartisan commission. Laura Vozzella reports: “The effort to scrap how the state draws legislative and congressional districts comes as Republicans are fighting to preserve a House of Delegates map that a federal court has ordered redrawn to correct racial gerrymandering. … At a news conference Thursday, advocates for nonpartisan redistricting pointed to the latest twist in the extended court fight as proof that the state needs to try something new.”

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Late-night hosts reacted to Cohen's guilty plea:

This clip of Paul Manafort during the 2016 campaign recirculated in light of the latest Russia investigation news:

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was awarded two Pinocchios for his claims about the First Step Act, the Senate's criminal justice bill:

People in Scotland expressed apprehension about British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal:

And a Christmas ad in New Zealand includes a thinly veiled jab at Trump: