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HOWDY, MODI!: President Trump heads to Harris County, Texas this weekend to a major rally ahead of next week's United Nations General Assembly — for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The website for the “Howdy, Modi” rally boasts that the “live audience will be the largest gathering for an invited foreign leader visiting the United States other than the Pope”: Some 50,000 people, many from Houston's large Indian diaspora, are expected to turn out.
It's eye-popping that leaders of the world's two biggest democracies are appearing together at such an event — let alone that this particular American president will be holding court in the epicenter of Texas's blue wave and the most diverse city in America.
You're not wrong if you think that doesn't sound like friendly territory for Trump. But that's a strong political reason for him to go: Democrats are making a big play for Texas in 2020 and Republicans are growing concerned. The rally for Modi, who is hugely popular in India, provides Trump with access to a potential pool of Indian American voters that could turn out to be critical in next year's presidential elections.
- “Texas is a battleground,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) said at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor last week. “The far left is pissed off. They hate the president and that's a powerful motivator.”
- There's perhaps no place that hates the president more in Texas than Harris County, which “completely inverted in 2016" from red to blue. Trump lost the county by 12 percentage points in 2016 — and former Congressman Beto O'Rourke followed up with a 17 point win over Cruz in their 2018 Senate race.
- And it's an important county, Republicans acknowledge: “Well, they say if you lose Harris County, you lose Texas … That’s the deal,” Charlotte Lampe, a Cypress precinct chairwoman involved in the county's Republican Party for decades told the Texas Tribune's Abby Livingston. “If this turns, so follows Texas because we’re a big concentration of conservative voters.”
Not-so-strange bedfellows: Trump and Modi are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth — right-wing populist leaders that stir huge crowds with big personalities, who have faced been criticized for polarizing their country's electorates. But it's a big gamble for Trump to bet Modi's popularity at home — and among diaspora communities abroad — will translate to support for Trump.
- “Part of what makes it complicated for Indian-Americans is that they don’t like Trump for the most part and yet they like Modi,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside and the director of AAPIData.com, a policy research and data firm that focused on Asians and Pacific Islanders, told Power Up. “They bristle against the kind of nationalism that Trump represents here in America, but then they still support Modi regardless of what he is doing in India. So, there is some ideological inconsistency there, but that is the kind of complicated world that we live in.”
- Ramakrishnan predicts the joint appearance “probably helps blunts some of the narrative that Trump is a racist president” held among many Indian Americans: “I don’t know how successful he will be in changing that narrative, but it at least changes the picture a little bit.”
But Texas Democrats are not optimistic that Trump's message will resonate. “I don't think the crowd will be very receptive to what he has to say,” Abhi Rahman, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, told Power Up.
- Key quote: “The Indian-American community thoroughly rejected Trump in 2016 and will do so again in 2020,” added Rahman, who is of Indian descent, “as the Indian community values inclusion and diversity and the ability to make something of yourself in this country, whereas Trump has incited hate and racial division.”
- Challenge for Trump: Asian Americans — the fastest growing major racial or ethnic group in the U.S.-- since the 1990s have usually voted Democratic. And Indian-Americans tend to be some of the most progressive. “A majority of Indian Americans are Democrats: 77 percent of the diaspora, which has a median income of more than $100,000, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016,” per Foreign Policy.
- Yikes: In the most recent poll to have a large enough Indian-American sample, conducted before the midterms, only 28% approved of the job Trump was doing.
Trump's campaign, however, is undeterred. A campaign spokesperson said Trump's visit falls squarely into the campaign's Texas strategy: “The Indian American community has a great entrepreneurial business spirit, which falls in line with President Trump’s job-growth agenda.”
- Richard Rossow, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that the Indian diaspora audience is actually an ideal target for Trump: “For Trump, it's a growing, affluent demographic — they rank at or near the top of the list in terms of wealthiest groups in the U.S. and Indian companies are investing more and more in the U.S. … There are lots of reasons it's not a bad crowd for the president to go get in front of.”
- Trump, who loves big crowds, can also hitch to the crowd's support for Modi: “We have to acknowledge what a spectacle this is,” Milan Vaishnav, who heads the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told our colleague Joanna Slater.
More on the political picture in Texas: The last Democrat to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976 but the Democratic Party of Texas, bullish on their prospects after a spate of recent statewide victories, released its plan to turn the state blue in 2020 at the beginning of the month.
- Trump's appearance this weekend comes after a number of consecutive polls have shown him losing to a Democratic presidential candidate in the state. Per a Quinnipiac Poll released last week, 50 percent of voters in the Lone Star state disapprove of Trump and 48 percent of Texans surveyed say “they would definitely not vote for Trump if he was the Republican nominee.”
A special gesture by @POTUS, signifying the special friendship between India and USA!— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 16, 2019
Delighted that President @realDonaldTrump will join the community programme in Houston on the 22nd.
Looking forward to joining the Indian origin community in welcoming him at the programme.
IN TERMS OF GLOBAL POLITICS: Trump's appearance alongside Modi nods to the importance to the U.S.-India relationship.
“The U.S. relationship with India has sort of been on a broad upward trajectory for about 15 years now,” Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “Really, President Trump’s first year and a half in office and really most Prime Minister Modi’s first term were remarkably productive for U.S.-India relations. Trade has grown significantly and a number of moves have been made to cement the strategic and defense partnership.”
There's also the personal rapport between the world leaders who have similarly fashioned themselves as outsiders to politics: “They feel they have better connections with large disaffected groups of people,” CSIS's Rossow told us. “And they don't feel attached to policymaking. That's exhibited itself in unique and different ways … but the base, and who they think they are speaking to, is similar.”
But for all the love between the two leaders, there have been tensions over the past year. The U.S. failed to reach a trade deal with India earlier this year and imposed tariffs on Indian steel and aluminum imports. The Trump administration also weighed the possibility of imposing sanctions for India’s use of Iranian oil and additional penalties for purchasing Russian military equipment. Smith says it is a sign of “how far the relationship has matured” that the countries have avoided a breaking point despite all these “friction points.” India has since effectively cut off Iranian oil.
The joint appearance also suggests that the two sides are nearing a trade deal: “I don't believe they have a final package sewed up yet but there's a reasonable chance they will have some deliverables in Houston or maybe when the two meet in New York,” Rossow told us.
- “People briefed on trade talks between the United States and India said negotiations were fluid,” the New York Times's Ana Swanson, Ben Dooley, and Vindu Goel report. “But India had previously appeared willing to remove some restrictions on American farm products and limit its 20 percent tariff on imported electronic goods to a maximum of 5,000 rupees, or about $70. That would help American companies like Apple, whose iPhone XR now sells for about $600 in the United States, but more than $800 in India.
- “In return, India is seeking to restore a special trade status for developing countries that Mr. Trump revoked at the end of May. That program had allowed billions of dollars of Indian products, including apparel and auto parts, to come into the United States duty free.”
MORE BOMBSHELL DETAILS ABOUT THE WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT: “A whistleblower complaint about [Trump] made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch,” our colleagues Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris, Greg Miller and Carol D. Leonnig scooped. The intelligence community's watchdog told members of Congress behind closed doors that the complaint also concerns more than just one conversation.
- Trump also weighed in: “Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself,” he wrote on Twitter. “Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially 'heavily populated' call.”
We still don't know:
- What “promise” Trump apparently made in communications with a foreign leader.
- Other details of the complaint. (The whistleblower is currently being blocked from speaking about his complaint to Congress, our colleagues report. Democratic lawmakers have vowed to go to court if necessary.)
Take a step back: “Two and a half weeks before the complaint was filed, Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky,” our colleagues write. House Democrats were already probing that call over allegations that Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani were trying to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping the president's reelection campaign.
- Around the time of the call, the U.S. was holding up $250 million in military aid Congress had passed to help Ukraine fight back against pro-Russian separatists back by Moscow. (On Sept. 12, the administration finally released the aid.)
- While the aid was being held up, Democratic lawmakers were raising concerns that Zelensky's aides were fielding requests from Trump's reelection campaign. These concerns were based on reports that Giuliani was trying to persuade the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, specifically allegations that Biden abused his power during the Obama administration to help his son Hunter.
🚨: Giuliani appeared to step in it Thursday night by confirming that he asked for an investigation into the Biden allegations. His apparent admittance came during a heated and bizarre interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo.
- A Democratic senator explained just how much pressure was on Ukraine: “Zelensky did not explicitly connect the two in our meeting, but he was VERY concerned about the cut off aid, and VERY aware of the conversations that Rudy Giuliani was having with his team,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote on Twitter of a recent meeting with the Ukrainian president.
.@ChrisCuomo: "So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?"@RudyGiuliani: "Of course I did"— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) September 20, 2019
President Trump's attorney says he had spoken with a Ukrainian official about Joe Biden's possible role in that government's dismissal of a prosecutor who investigated Biden's son. pic.twitter.com/FTaLGBV1zO
HOW TRUMP COULD TRY TO GET MORE MONEY FOR HIS WALL: No, it doesn't involve Mexico paying for it. "Senior Trump administration officials are considering a plan to again divert billions of dollars in military funding to pay for border barrier construction next year, a way to circumvent congressional opposition to putting more taxpayer money toward the president’s signature project, according to three administration officials," our colleagues Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey scoop.
- The details: The administration wants to build 509 miles of barrier at the average cost of more than $36 million per mile, according to documents our colleagues obtained. Since much of land is held privately, the government would either need to purchase or use eminent domain for nearly 200 miles worth of land.
- The Pentagon's piggy bank: The White House wants $5 billion for the wall in 2020. House Democrats are opposed to such funding. So, our colleagues report, the plan is to cut into the Pentagon's construction budget again for another $3.6 billion.
- That means Trump will have defied Congress and diverted "a total of $7.2 billion of Defense Department funds over two years, money that would otherwise pay to repair or upgrade U.S. military installations."
WILL CONGRESS ADDRESS DRUG PRICES?: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled Democrats' long-awaited plan to lower prescription drug prices. Hours later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it would go nowhere. But then Trump, who pledged to lower drug prices during his 2016 campaign, signaled that perhaps something could be accomplished after all, writing on Twitter, "I like Sen. Grassley’s drug pricing bill very much, and it’s great to see Speaker Pelosi’s bill today. Let’s get it done in a bipartisan way!"
- The details: "Designed to help Democrats address voter concerns about drug prices and replicate their 2018 success winning House control by championing health care concerns, the measure faces wide opposition from congressional Republicans," our colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb and Mike DeBonis report. "However, President Trump’s strong desire to address prescription drug costs before the 2020 election is a potential wild card that could affect the bill’s fate."
- Pelosi's plan would, among other things, "require the Health and Human Services secretary to negotiate the prices of up to 250 drugs in Medicare that do not have competitors and would impose severe financial penalties on drug companies that failed to come to an agreement," our colleagues write. "The negotiated prices would be available to all purchasers, not just Medicare beneficiaries."
- Progressives have expressed concern that the bill does not go far enough. House Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to it.
The takeaway: Those who have followed the space for years have long mused that Trump's views combined with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) could create a moment in area where Republicans have traditionally viewed most ideas skeptically at best. If nothing else, our colleagues write, Pelosi has provided more ammunition for future Democratic campaigns and answered a key plank of the platform she promised before the midterm elections.
Elsewhere on the Hill: The House passed a short-term spending bill avoiding another shutdown fight until at least November, our colleague Erica Werner reports. The Senate is expected to follow suit next week and Trump is expected to sign it into law.
ZUCKERBERG GETS GRILLED: Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, in a rare Washington trip, “heard an earful from lawmakers about the need for his company to better protect the data it collects and guard against political interference in the 2020 election, members of Congress later revealed,” our colleague Tony Romm reports. “Democrats and Republicans also raised competition concerns about Facebook and its sprawling empire, which includes WhatsApp and Instagram, at a moment when state and federal regulators are conducting antitrust probes.”
- Key quote: “I think he was a little taken off guard,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told our colleague of Zuckerberg's reaction to his urging that Facebook sell WhatsApp and Instagram. “I think that he felt it was not a great idea.”
- Zuckerberg also conceded a major point about Libra: He "told lawmakers in a private meeting this week that his company’s controversial digital currency would not be launched anywhere in the world until it receives the backing of regulators in the United States," Tony writes.
- He did appear to have a better time at the White House: Bloomberg reports that senior adviser Jared Kushner and Dan Scavino, the president's social media director, were also present.