Trump widens search for new FBI director

President Donald Trump is seeking new candidates to replace fired FBI Director James Comey, broadening the search after at least two rounds of interviews with more than ten contenders for the post, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

Administration sources had previously described former Sen. Joe Lieberman as the leading prospect for the high-profile job, but he ran into resistance from Democrats who questioned the wisdom of installing a former politician as FBI director, particularly as the agency grapples with a politically sensitive probe into possible ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign.

Lieberman is no longer considered the frontrunner, an official said. CNN first reported that Trump was resetting his search for someone to replace Comey, who was fired as he led the probe into Trump’s associates.

It was not immediately clear whether the expanded FBI director search was due to dissatisfaction with those interviewed, hurdles related to specific candidates, or several candidates taking themselves out of contention.

The interview process had been unusual, with eight candidates braving a media gauntlet at the Justice Department on a Saturday for interviews with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. Among those interviewed were Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich), former homeland security adviser Fran Townsend and New York state judge Michael Garcia.

A few days later, it appeared Trump was looking at different candidates. The White House announced the president was meeting with Lieberman, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, former FBI official Richard McFeely, and current FBI acting director Andrew McCabe.

A number of candidates took themselves out of the running, including Cornyn and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.

Trump had hoped to hire someone before leaving last week for his first foreign trip as president, but that effort stalled when Lieberman faced pushback. The administration also is dealing with the DOJ’s decision to appoint a special counsel to look into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign, which has slowed the FBI hiring process.


House Intelligence Committee to subpoena Flynn

The House Intelligence Committee will issue subpoenas to Michael Flynn, Rep. Adam Schiff said.

Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he hoped the subpoenas to President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser would go out this week. The Senate Intelligence Committee has also subpoenaed Flynn, who has so far refused to comply.


Head of Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid resigns

The head of the Education Department’s student financial aid office has suddenly resigned after more than seven years on the job following an apparent dispute with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over his scheduled testimony before the House Oversight Committee.

James Runcie, chief operating officer of the Office of Federal Student Aid, “submitted his resignation to the department last night,” effective immediately, the agency said in a press release. Runcie had been slated to testify on Thursday before the House Oversight Committee regarding the department’s rising improper payment rate for federal student aid programs.

An Education Department official, who declined to be named, said Runcie’s resignation came abruptly at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday after DeVos directed him to testify before the House oversight panel. The department official said Runcie also refused requests to testify made by the committee and Jim Manning, the department’s acting undersecretary.

Runcie’s name is included on a committee witness list for the hearing. The Education Department’s Inspector General and the head of a group representing financial aid administrators are also slated to testify. A committee spokesperson did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The department official said Runcie said he wasn’t the correct person to testify about the issue, but department leadership indicated they didn’t understand his reasoning and are baffled by why he refused to testify.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” the official said. “We don’t know.”

Runcie’s deputy, Matthew Sessa, will lead the office “until further notice,” the department said in a statement.

An email from a department official that circulated to Office of Federal Student Aid staffers and obtained by POLITICO said that Runcie “felt it was time to give an opportunity to someone else to provide leadership under a new Secretary of Education.”

The Office of Federal Student Aid runs the federal government’s massive $1 trillion student lending operation, disburses Pell grants and regulates colleges and universities.

The resignation also comes as DeVos has proposed an overhaul of how the department collects student loan payments and has reportedly scaled back its enforcement of for-profit colleges.

Runcie was most recently re-appointed by former Education Secretary Arne Duncan to a new five-year term starting in December 2015. The role is not a political position; the FSA chief can only be removed from his post for cause.


Trump praises Duterte for ‘unbelievable job’ cracking down on drugs in the Philippines

President Donald Trump congratulated his Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, during a phone call last month for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem” in the Philippines, where the government has sanctioned the extrajudicial killing of suspects.

A transcript of the April 29 conversation published online by The Intercept and reported by multiple media outlets, including The New York Times, comes from the Office of American Affairs in the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs. The transcript is preceded by a coversheet marked “confidential” that lays out security procedures for the document.

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Duterte, according to the transcript. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”

According to the State Department’s 2016 Human Rights Report, which was last updated in March, police and vigilantes in the Philippines had killed more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers since July, the month after Duterte took office. An “apparent governmental disregard for human rights and due process” was among the State Department’s “most significant human rights problems” in the Philippines.

While Trump began his conversation with Duterte by congratulating him on his approach to dealing with his nation’s drug problem, the two men spent the bulk of their call discussing North Korea and its dictator, Kim Jong Un. Duterte told Trump that Kim is “not stable” and that he seems to be “always laughing” when he has a “dangerous toy in his hands which could create so much agony and suffering for all mankind,” a reference to North Korea’s efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and a missile capable of delivering it.

Trump disclosed that the U.S. has stationed two nuclear submarines in the area, which he called “the best in the world,” but cautioned that he did not want to have to use them.


TRUMP meets the Pope — THEIR GIFTS to each other — ANNIE KARNI on Trump’s good trip… so far — MNUCHIN’s Freedom Caucus huddle — SCOOP: Big ad buy to help Senate Ds

Listen to the Playbook Audio Briefing on iTunes the online home of Playbook

Good Wednesday morning. BULLETIN — AP at 5:35 a.m.: “MANCHESTER, England (AP) – Manchester police say they have made three more arrests over pop concert bombing.”

EXCHANGE OF THE DAY, from President Donald Trump’s trip to the Vatican, per pooler Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal: “The pope asked Melania Trump, referring to POTUS: ‘What do you give him to eat, pizza?’ She repeated ‘pizza.’ … Per Vatican pool the pope and Melania were actually talking about potizza, which apparently is a Slovenian treat. Not pizza.”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP had a busy morning. He went to the Vatican, met the pope and then headed to Villa Taverna to meet with Italian Prime Minister Pablo Gentiloni.

— SCENES FROM THE VATICAN: From Carol Lee’s pool report: “The first person pool saw POTUS introduce to Pope Francis was Rex Tillerson. ‘This is my secretary of state,’ POTUS explained. H.R. McMaster was next. POTUS introduced him by name. When POTUS introduced Hope Hicks to the pope, your pooler believes he told him she has worked for him for a long time. Then Dan Scavino, Brian Hook, Keith Schiller and others.

TRUMP MEETS THE POPE — PHOTOS! — The handshake … The pair sitting at a desk ON THE POPE, per a pool report from Carol at the meeting with the prime minister: “He is something. We had a fantastic meeting.”

THE EXCHANGING OF THE GIFTS — Trump gave the Pope a case of books from Martin Luther King Jr. The Pope gave Trump a medal by a Roman artist that he said is an olive, which is a symbol of peace. “We can use peace,” Trump said, per pooler Carol Lee. The Pope also gave Trump three books he regularly sends to Catholics “on the topics of family, the joy of the gospel and ‘care of our common home, the environment.’” The pope gave Trump Laudato Si, his encyclical on climate change and the environment. White House printout on Trump gift

ANNIE KARNI IN JERUSALEM (she’s now with POTUS in Rome now) — “How Trump’s aides pulled off Middle East tour”: “Trump’s relatively successful swing through the Middle East was due to the fact that, for the most part, he didn’t get in his own way. It was also the result of months of careful planning. A decision was made early on to visit a part of the world where Trump is venerated and feared, and to pack his schedule so that he mostly stayed on message and, according to one aide, ‘didn’t have time to tweet.’ But a key factor was the role played by Dina Powell, H.R. McMaster and Jared Kushner, who brought a combination of government experience and understanding that Trump wanted to get some negotiated wins on the board.

“Kushner had been in talks with the Saudis about a possible visit since the early days of the transition. … The trip served as something of a public capstone to Powell’s quick rise in a White House she joined as a domestic economic adviser primarily focused on helping Ivanka Trump navigate the role she wanted to play on women’s issues. Now Powell serves in a dual role. … Powell has been quietly elevated on the National Security Council for months, but her growing power was on full public display in the Middle East. … Powell, according to an administration official, was also instrumental in helping to craft the language Trump used in his Sunday speech on Islam, with a particular interest in his use of language about women’s rights.”

— BUT, BUT, BUT… “If Kushner has a Mideast peace plan, it’s a secret so far,” by Reuters’ Jeff Mason and Luke Baker: “To demonstrate its fairness, the Trump administration invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House weeks before Trump’s trip to Israel. Kushner and Greenblatt had a two-hour breakfast in Washington with Abbas before Abbas met with Trump, according to a source familiar with the meeting. … [B]oth sides have to be cautious about how they deal with Kushner. Nobody will want to insult someone so close to the president by dismissing a proposal out of hand, said Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel for six years under President Barack Obama.”

HOT MICS! — “In Trump’s private moments, it’s small talk and compliments,” by AP’s Josef Federman and Aya Batrawy in Jerusalem: “What do world leaders talk about when they are alone? Not much, it seems. President Donald Trump spent part of his two-day visit to Israel with open microphones nearby, giving the world a small glimpse into his private banter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu between official appearances. They chatted about paint on the walls, their wives and where to stand during a ceremony. And they exchanged compliments — lots of compliments. This presidential small talk provided just some of the memorable moments of Trump’s swing through the Middle East, the first stop on his first overseas trip as president. There was an awkward Saudi sword dance, an airport selfie with a pushy Israeli lawmaker and a possible snub by Melania Trump.”

CLICKER – “Trump in Israel and the West Bank: The top photos from his trip,” curated by Kristen East — 37 pix

PLAYBOOK EXCLUSIVEThe Senate Majority PAC’s affiliated nonprofit Majority Forward is dropping an initial $3.5 million in TV and digital ads in six states this week. Both groups are designed to bolster the Senate Democratic leadership. The ads are running in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota. The spots, which are individually tailored to each state, do not mention Trump. “This is an opportunity to let working families know what their senator is doing to make a difference,” said JB Poersch, president of Majority Forward. “While some falsely harangue of a culture of ‘fake news;’ working families deserve to know the facts.” The ads in Missouri Dakota

INSIDE MNUCHIN’S FREEDOM CAUCUS HUDDLE — TREASURY SECRETARY SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN has been all over the Hill recently. He’s met with the Tuesday Group, Ways and Means members, members of leadership and just about anyone who will listen. But, perhaps his most significant meeting was Tuesday afternoon when he huddled with the House Freedom Caucus and other conservatives. THE MAIN MESSAGES: Mnuchin threw cold water on the border-adjustment tax, a tax on imports favored by Speaker Paul Ryan. Mnuchin thinks tax reform can happen by the end of 2017 (PAGING RICH RUBIN!) And the Freedom Caucus seems willing to work with the Trump administration to expedite tax reform — if the White House drops the BAT.

COMING ATTRACTIONS — “NATO rolls out the red carpet, buffs its image for Trump,” by AP’s Lorne Cook in Brussels: “NATO is not only rolling out the red carpet for U.S. President Donald Trump in Brussels Thursday, but the military alliance — which Trump has declared obsolete — has been busy repackaging its image and is ready to unveil a new headquarters worth 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion).

“In recent months, member nations have strained to show they are ramping up defense spending as Trump has demanded. And while they agree with the chief of the alliance’s most powerful member that NATO can do more to fight terrorism, they say it can be achieved with more of the same; training and mentoring troops in Afghanistan, and equipping local forces in Iraq so they can better fight the Islamic State group themselves. …

“Indeed, as part of the repackaging to be announced during Trump’s 24-hour visit to the city he branded a hellhole,’ NATO is likely to agree to join the 68-nation international coalition fighting IS. The move is symbolically important, especially since the group claimed responsibility Tuesday for a deadly explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. An anti-terror coordinator may also be named, but most changes will be cosmetic.”

THIS WEEK’S BIG POLITICAL STORY — “Republicans: Montana special election ‘closer than it should be’,” by Elena Schneider and Gabe Debenedetti in Great Falls: “Republican Greg Gianforte’s closing motivational speech to voters ahead of Thursday’s special House election in Montana is the same thing GOP strategists are whispering in private: ‘This race is closer than it should be.’

“It’s a recurring nightmare of a pattern for Republicans around the country, as traditional GOP strongholds prove more difficult and expensive for the party to hold than it ever anticipated when President Donald Trump plucked House members like Ryan Zinke, the former Montana Republican now running the Interior Department, for his Cabinet. Gianforte is still favored to keep the seat red, but a state Trump carried by 20 percentage points last year became a battleground in the past few months.

“Democrat Rob Quist, a folk singer and first-time candidate, has raised more than $6 million for his campaign, including $1 million in the past week alone as energized Democratic donors pour online cash into political causes this year. Quist hopes that enthusiasm also contributes to an outsize turnout — as it did in special elections in Kansas and Georgia earlier this year — for the oddly scheduled Thursday election, happening just before a holiday weekend.”

— WHAT REPUBLICANS WILL SAY IF THEY LOSE: Gianforte was a weak candidate in a challenging environment. WHAT THE GOP WILL SAY IF THEY WIN: We won a seat Democrats poured money into in a tough political environment with a president with flagging approval numbers. We’re well positioned for next November. THE TRUTH: People make more of special elections than they should.

FOR YOUR RADAR — “Manchester suicide bomber likely did not act alone, Britain says,” by Reuters’ Michael Holden and Andy Bruce in Manchester, England: “The Manchester suicide bomber who killed 22 people at a pop concert venue packed with children likely did not act alone, a minister said on Wednesday as soldiers were being deployed to key sites to help prevent further attacks. The official threat level in Britain was raised late on Tuesday for the first time in a decade to its highest level, ‘critical’, meaning an attack could be imminent.

“Interior minister Amber Rudd said up to 3,800 soldiers would be deployed on Britain’s streets, taking on guard duties at places like Buckingham Palace and Downing Street to free up police to focus on patrols and investigatory work. … She also said Abedi had been known to security services before the bombing. Abedi was born in Manchester in 1994 to parents of Libyan origin …

“Asked about reports that Abedi had recently returned from Libya, Rudd said she believed that had now been confirmed. French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said British investigators had told French authorities Abedi had probably traveled to Syria as well and that he had ‘proven links’ to the Islamic State militant group.”

–“Who are the victims of the Manchester terror attack?” by The Daily Telegraph’s Helena Horton

NEW POLITICO/MORNING CONSULT POLL — “Poll: Voters back Russia special prosecutor,” by Steven Shepard: “Voters are applauding the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and any connections to Donald Trump’s campaign. But, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, voters aren’t ready to begin the constitutional process of impeaching the president and removing him from office.

“Nearly two-thirds of voters, 63 percent, either ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ agree with the Justice Department’s decision to appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia probe, the poll shows. Only 21 percent of voters disagree with the decision to appoint a special counsel. The vast majority of Democratic voters, 80 percent, support the decision to appoint an outside prosecutor — but so do half of Republicans and 58 percent of independents.

“On impeachment, 38 percent of voters want Congress to begin the process of removing Trump from office. A plurality, 46 percent, do not want impeachment proceedings against Trump. Sixteen percent of voters don’t know or have no opinion. Most Democratic lawmakers have discounted the possibility that Congress will work actively to remove Trump, at least given the current state of the investigation.

“But Democratic voters are more eager to move forward, the poll shows: More than two-thirds, 68 percent, want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings now. Comparatively, only 12 percent of GOP voters and 33 percent of independents want Congress to launch impeachment efforts.”

INSIDE THE ROOM — “Trump calls Kim Jong Un a ‘madman with nuclear weapons,’ according to transcript of Duterte call,” by WaPo’s David Nakamura and Barton Gellman: “President Trump labeled North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a ‘madman with nuclear weapons’ during a private phone conversation with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte last month, just days before stating publicly that he would be ‘honored to meet with Kim.

“In the April 29 call, Trump sought Duterte’s input on whether Kim is ‘stable or not stable’ and expressed some satisfaction in North Korea’s recent failed missile tests, noting that ‘all his rockets are crashing. That’s the good news,’ according to a transcript of the conversation made by the Philippines government on May 2 and obtained Tuesday by The Washington Post. Duterte responded that Kim is ‘playing with his bombs, his toys’ and offered that ‘his mind is not working well and he just might go crazy one moment.’ That prompted Trump to point out that the United States has ‘a lot of firepower over there,’ including ‘two nuclear submarines’ sent by the Pentagon to the region last month.”

— NYT GETS DETAILS — LEAD OF THE DAY: “President Trump praised President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines in a phone call last month for doing an ‘unbelievable job on the drug problem’ in the island nation where the government has sanctioned gunning down suspects in the streets. … Mr. Duterte responded that drugs were ‘the scourge of my nation now, and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation.’ Mr. Trump responded that ‘we had a previous president who did not understand that,’ an apparent reference to President Barack Obama, ‘but I understand that.’”

–“Read the Full Transcript of Trump’s Call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,” by The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill, Alex Emmons and Ryan Grim:

— AP alert at 5:03 a.m.: “MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says ‘we are in state of emergency’ and skirmishes with militants are continuing.”

NEW POLICY — FOR RAND PAUL AND JUSTIN AMASH’S REVIEW — “Proposed Rules Would Allow U.S. to Track and Destroy Drones,” by NYT’s Charlie Savage: “The Trump administration is asking Congress to give the federal government sweeping powers to track, hack and destroy any type of drone over domestic soil with a new exception to laws governing surveillance, computer privacy and aircraft protection, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. … The draft bill’s language would authorize the government to summarily track, seize control of and use force to destroy any unmanned aircraft it determines may pose a security threat to an area designated for special protection.”

–“Trump advisers call for privatizing some public assets to build new infrastructure,” by WaPo’s Michael Laris: “The Trump administration, determined to overhaul and modernize the nation’s infrastructure, is drafting plans to privatize some public assets such as airports, bridges, highway rest stops and other facilities, according to top officials and advisers. In his proposed budget released Tuesday, President Trump called for spending $200 billion over 10 years to ‘incentivize’ private, state and local spending on infrastructure. Trump advisers said that to entice state and local governments to sell some of their assets, the administration is considering paying them a bonus. The proceeds of the sales would then go to other infrastructure projects.”

BUDGET DREAMLAND — “Trump’s Path to a Balanced Budget Paved With Accounting Gimmicks,” by Bloomberg’s Erik Wasson, Steve Dennis and Justin Sink: “Presidents have long used budget gimmicks to create the illusion they’re reducing the deficit. Donald Trump’s $4.1 billion spending plan harnesses nearly all the greatest hits. The White House said Trump’s request for fiscal 2018 would generate a fiscal surplus by 2027 after $3.6 trillion in spending reductions and $2.1 trillion in economic growth-induced revenue increases. Those conclusions rely on phantom tax increases, phony spending cuts and unrealistic growth assumptions. In other words, Trump’s budget avoids making hard choices that would be needed to get anywhere near a balanced budget.”

–“Donald Trump’s Balanced Budget Goal Rests on Questionable Assumptions,” by WSJ’s Nick Timiraos:

— REMEMBER: Congress has to pass a budget. If they don’t, tax reform can’t happen. Health care is already stalled. That’s a tough message — and reality — for the GOP.

DAN DIAMOND GETS RESULTS! “White House dials back cuts to drug control office,” by Politico Pulse author Dan Diamond: “The White House has backed down from its controversial proposal to virtually eliminate funding for the federal drug control office amid a nationwide opioid epidemic. The administration was originally eyeing a 95 percent cut to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, POLITICO first reported earlier this month. … But after facing pressure from Republican and Democratic lawmakers — especially those in states ravaged by the opioid epidemic — the White House is proposing $369 million for the office in 2018, amounting to a 5 percent cut.” to Politico Pulse

JOSH ROGIN in WaPo, “Graham: Trump’s State Department budget could cause ‘a lot of Benghazis’”: “The Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 State Department budget proposal irresponsibly cuts diplomacy and diplomatic security in a way that could cause ‘a lot of Benghazis,’ according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the State Department and foreign operations. He promised that Congress would reject the cuts. ‘If we implemented this budget, we’d have to retreat from the world and put a lot of people at risk,’ Graham said … Overall, the Trump administration is proposing to cut the budget for the State Department and USAID, from the $54.9 billion estimated total in fiscal 2017 to $37.6 billion in fiscal 2018 — a reduction of $17.3 billion, or 31 percent.”

THE RESISTANCE — “Progressive activists to unveil new $80 million network,” by CNN’s Gregory Krieg: “The anti-Trump ‘resistance’ movement is growing — and getting richer. At their spring gala Tuesday night, the Center for Popular Democracy Action will unveil a new $80 million effort to coordinate the work of dozens of smaller progressive groups from around the country. The activist organization’s new initiative — which, as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit political organization, is not required to disclose its donors — arrives as part of a broader effort on the left to channel anger at the Trump administration into a lasting power base, with the ability to influence policy debates within the Democratic Party while boosting candidates on the local, state and federal levels.

“The growing network spans 32 states, with 48 local partners, as part of concentrated effort to mobilize new voters — pushing back on voter ID laws and partisan gerrymandering efforts while pumping up campaigns for automatic voter registration programs — ahead of the 2018 midterms and 2020 general election. Organizers say they are also targeting six state legislatures they believe are ripe to flip to Democratic control.”


— FIRST IN PLAYBOOK: NATE GATTEN has been hired as SVP of government affairs for American Airlines. He will be based in D.C. and is expected to start later this summer. He currently is managing director and head of global government relations for JPMorgan Chase. He also is an alum of American Capitol Group, Fannie Mae, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) and the Senate Banking Committee. NOTE: Both Delta and United Airlines are still looking for new heads of their D.C. federal government affairs operations.

— THE NATIONAL RETAIL FEDERATION is bringing 20 executives today to D.C. to pressure Congress and the administration to drop the BAT tax. They’ll meet with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and two dozen members of Congress.

–PENNY PRITZKER, former Obama commerce secretary, spoke last night at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Global Leadership Awards Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel, where she focused on the economic costs of Trump’s policies: “[C]onsider the costs of the Administration’s approach to trade. The president and his team are fixated on reversing our trade deficits. It has become an obsession—one that is fundamentally misplaced. Indeed, any economist will tell you that trade deficits are not a good measure of the strength of an economy, and they are an even worse measure of whether a trade agreement is working.” Read her full remarks

SHOT — “Melania Trump Snubs ANOTHER Of Donald’s Attempts To Hold Her Hand” — HuffPost

CHASER — “Obama’s White House photographer [Pete Souza] trolls the Trumps’ hand-holding failures on Instagram,” by WaPo’s Amy B Wang:

IF YOU WATCH ONE THING – Last night PBS’ “Frontline” premiered a new documentary called “Bannon’s War”: “The inside story of Trump adviser Stephen Bannon’s war — with radical Islam, Washington and White House rivals.” The film include cameos by Bob Costa, Peter Baker, Emily Bazelon, David Bossie, Alex Marlow, Joel Pollak, Abigail Hauslohner, Dan Balz, Ben Shapiro, David Urban, Josh Green, Kurt Bardella, Uri Friedman, Marc Fisher, Matt Viser, Jane Mayer and Ann Hornaday. Bannon did not participate. The full doc

UPDATE — “Sheriff David Clarke says he’s unsure if Trump administration will still hire him after plagiarism report,” by CNN’s Nathan McDermott and Andrew Kaczynski:

TRUMP’S LEGAL TEAM — “Trump set to tap longtime lawyer Kasowitz to lead legal fight,” by Josh Dawsey: “President Donald Trump plans to select Marc Kasowitz — his longtime, New York-based lawyer — to lead his outside legal team as an investigation of Russian election interference heats up, an administration official said. Kasowitz has represented Trump in legal matters for decades and is considered to have the president’s trust. He has a well-established rapport with Trump and has spoken to him regularly since Trump was sworn into office.

“In selecting Kasowitz, Trump once again is turning to a person with extensive experience working with him — rather than a seasoned, Washington-based operator — to deal with a high profile challenge. While Kasowitz is expected to take the lead on Trump’s outside legal team, the administration source said it is not yet clear how large an operation that will be. Administration officials are still not certain of the scope of the work but expect intense action over the summer, as the probe led by FBI special counsel Robert Mueller heats up.”

FLASHBACK – BuzzFeed, March 23, “Trump’s Longtime Lawyer Is Defending Russia’s Biggest Bank: Marc E. Kasowitz, who has represented Donald Trump for more than 15 years, was recently named a lead attorney in a federal civil lawsuit against Sberbank, which is majority-owned by the Russian government,” by Anthony Cormier, Jeremy Singer-Vine and John Templon:

WHAT BRAD BAUMAN IS READING — “We’re Seth Rich’s parents. Stop politicizing our son’s murder,” by Mary Rich and Joel Rich in WaPo: “Seth’s death has been turned into a political football. Every day we wake up to new headlines, new lies, new factual errors, new people approaching us to take advantage of us and Seth’s legacy. It just won’t stop. The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable. With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.”

— “Hannity steps back from DNC staffer conspiracies,” by Cristiano Lima: “Fox News host Sean Hannity said on Tuesday he would step back from discussing the murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich, hours after the slain staffer’s family made an emotional public plea for media figures to ‘stop politicizing our son’s murder.’ Hannity, who has devoted numerous segments of his program in recent weeks to an unproven conspiracy that Rich, a former staffer for the [DNC], had been murdered as retaliation for leaking documents to WikiLeaks, said he would not continue discussing the matter out of respect for Rich’s family.

‘’Out of respect for the family’s wishes for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time,’ Hannity said on his program. The Fox News host said he made the decision to reign in his coverage of the killing that after speaking directly with Rich’s brother. ‘My heart, my soul, my prayer goes out to them during this very difficult time,’ he said.

“Hannity’s retreat came hours after the Fox News personality seemed content to double-down on conspiracies surrounding Rich’s 2016 murder. The WikiLeaks retaliation theory has been widely debunked, and on Tuesday Fox News retracted a May 16 online article on the investigation surrounding Rich’s murder – an article Hannity heavily-promoted on his primetime cable news show.”

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN in POLITICO Magazine, “Trump Is America’s Most Honest President: He just can’t help himself from blurting out the truth—even when it’s self-sabotage”: “[W]e’re accustomed to thinking of Trump as chronically deceptive and flat-out wrong, and he commonly is—about crowd sizes, illegal voting, his “fine-tuned machine” of an administration, the Iraq War, 9/11 cheering, the list is endless. But someone must be putting truth serum in Trump’s second scoop of ice cream these days. No matter the stakes, he doesn’t have even a White House junior aide’s gift for circumspection, spin or truth-shading. Lately, in fact, Trump can’t shut up even when almost everything is at stake. In a town of snakes and double-agents, the president’s extreme emotional transparency would be admirable, a sign of vulnerability, sincerity, guilelessness—that is, if it weren’t so self-incriminating.”

DEEP DIVE – BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK’s new cover story — “When the Patient Is a Gold Mine: The Trouble With Rare-Disease Drugs,” by Benjamin Elgin, Doni Bloomfield, and Caroline Chen: “With a flagship treatment that helps fewer than 11,000 people, how is Alexion making so much money?” cover

HOLLYWOODLAND — FOR CHRIS LICHT — “Stephen Colbert Wins 2016-17 TV Season In Late-Night, Taking On Donald Trump,” by Deadline’s Lisa de Moraes: “Colbert’s CBS Late Show will win the 2016-17 TV season in total viewers – CBS’ first win over NBC’s The Tonight Show in overall audience with a season-long host since the 1994-95 TV season.”

–“Jon Stewart and HBO Cancel Animated Shorts Project,” by NYT’s John Koblin: “Mr. Stewart, the former host of ‘The Daily Show’ on Comedy Central, was brought on in November 2015 to create digital shorts that would appear on the network’s digital apps like HBO Now and HBO Go. But 18 months after signing the deal, the two have agreed to shelve it, saying that the project was significantly more complicated than both sides expected. Mr. Stewart signed a four-year contract, and he will remain at HBO to pursue other efforts.”

SPOTTED Bob Woodward and frequent New York Times writer Alyson Krueger yesterday at the Watergate Hotel — pic … President Obama’s former LGBT liaisons — Brian Bond, Gautam Raghavan, Aditi Hardikar, and Raffi Freedman-Gurspan — at dinner last night with Valerie Jarrett at Kapnos Taverna — pic … Scott Pruitt talking yesterday to the American Iron and Steel Institute and Steel Manufacturers Association at the Four Seasons … newlywed David Brooks yesterday afternoon in a blue suit dragging his suitcase down Louisiana Ave., NW, in the direction of Union Station

OUT AND ABOUT — SPOTTED last night at the Harvard Kennedy School retirement party at the Graham Allison Dining Room for “soft power” professor Joe Nye, hosted by David Gergen: Ban Ki Moon, Iris Bohnet, Marshall Ganz, Richard Parker, Molly Nye and their 3 sons: Ben, John, and Dan, John Deutsch, Graham Allison, Gary Samore, Doug Elmendorf, Jeanne Marasca, Holly Sargent, granddaughter Sage Nye, Juliette Kayyem, Joe and Marina McCarthy.

TRANSITIONS — Carolyn Fiddler has her last day on Friday at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee as national communications director. On June 5, she joins Daily Kos as political editor and senior communications adviser, bringing her state politics expertise to the organization as it increases its focus on state legislative elections ahead of the next round of redistricting. … Andrew Malcolm is joining Exelon’s public advocacy team after seven years with Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), most recently as deputy chief of staff. …

… Let America Vote, a voting rights organization started by Jason Kander, has tapped Abe Rakov, Kander’s former campaign manager, to be executive director. Bernie 2016 alum Brendan Summers will be campaigns director. Sylvia Ruiz, former director of Hispanic paid media at Hillary for America, will be political director. Austin Laufersweiler, former deputy press secretary for Kander’s campaign, will be press secretary.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD – Heather Hunter, executive producer for WMAL Radio in DC and contributing writer at the Daily Caller and Lifezette, and Derek Hunter, radio host on WBAL Radio in Baltimore, columnist at and contributing editor at the Daily Caller, post on Facebook: “At 11:18 pm [Monday] night, my husband Derek Hunter and I welcomed Quinn Carol Elizabeth Hunter into the world. She is 7 pounds, 2 ounces. Special thanks to my parents for quickly flying up after my water broke during a commercial break on my radio show at 5:30 am [Monday] morning. … She’s finally here and adorable.” Pics

BIRTHDAYS OF THE DAY: independent consultant Giovanna Gray Lockhart. How she’s celebrating: “Joe is taking me on a surprise dinner date tonight and then over the weekend we’ll have a gathering with close friends.” Read her Playbook Plus Q&A: Hunt, NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent. How she’s celebrating: “Dinner with my husband at Tyber Creek Wine Bar, the newest restaurant near our house in Truxton Circle DC. Then Nats baseball on Friday with our friends Carrie Dann and Luke Dickinson and cake with my parents and sister over the weekend!” Q&A:

BIRTHDAYS: Rory Cooper, managing director at Purple Strategies and the pride of Franklin, Mich. … Eric Schwerin, president of Rosemont Seneca Advisors … Bob Dylan is 76 … Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) is 68 … Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) is 57 … Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) is 63 … Politico alum Sara Olson, now senior manager of corporate affairs at Molson Coors in Denver … Randall Baker Whitestone III, principal and director of comms. for the Americas at Carlyle (h/t Keil) … NPR’s Tom Bowman … Ben Milakofsky, chief of staff at The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, is 33 … Mark Bescher, Unilever’s manager of federal gov’t relations and external affairs … Chelsea Koski, EVP at Signal Group … Uber’s Emily Holman …

… Bob Franken … former CT. Gov. John Rowland — in prison again — is 6-0 … Deborah Hart Strober, co-author of histories of the Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan presidencies (h/t Gerald) … UFCW’s Meredith Ritchie … Madeleine O’Connor, director of comms at the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research … Henock Dory … Fred Duval … Bloomberg’s Alisa Parenti … Tom Maher … Rana Abtar of Al Hurra … Natasha Lawrence … Jane Mosbacher Morris … Debbie Goldberg, director of development at Schwarzman Scholars … Daniel Zingale … Jim Atwood … Kevin Tierney (h/ts Teresa Vilmain) … Priscilla Presley is 72 … Rosanne Cash is 62 (h/ts AP)


Poll: Voters back Russia special prosecutor

Voters are applauding the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and any connections to Donald Trump’s campaign.

But, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, voters aren’t ready to begin the constitutional process of impeaching the president and removing him from office.

Nearly two-thirds of voters, 63 percent, either “strongly” or “somewhat” agree with the Justice Department’s decision to appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia probe, the poll shows. Only 21 percent of voters disagree with the decision to appoint a special counsel.

The vast majority of Democratic voters, 80 percent, support the decision to appoint an outside prosecutor — but so do half of Republicans and 58 percent of independents.

On impeachment, 38 percent of voters want Congress to begin the process of removing Trump from office. A plurality, 46 percent, do not want impeachment proceedings against Trump. Sixteen percent of voters don’t know or have no opinion.

Most Democratic lawmakers have discounted the possibility that Congress will work actively to remove Trump, at least given the current state of the investigation. But Democratic voters are more eager to move forward, the poll shows: More than two-thirds, 68 percent, want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings now.

Comparatively, only 12 percent of GOP voters and 33 percent of independents want Congress to launch impeachment efforts.

“The Democratic base is not taking allegations against President Trump lightly,” said Morning Consult Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer Kyle Dropp. “Sixty-eight percent of Democrats think Congress should begin impeachment hearings. Furthermore, 48 percent of Democrats think that investigating Trump and Russia should be the number one priority for Congress.”

The poll, conducted last Thursday through Monday, comes after a string of negative press coverage for Trump — with much of it surrounding the Russia investigation and Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Voters are recoiling at some of these scandals, the poll shows. A 56-percent majority calls Trump sharing highly classified national security information with Russian government figures in the Oval Office “inappropriate,” while only 19 percent say Trump’s disclosure was “appropriate.”

Following Trump’s intelligence disclosure, voters have limited faith in his ability to “handle highly classified national security information,” according to the poll. Only 43 percent feel “very” or “somewhat” confident in Trump’s ability to handle classified information, while 51 percent say they are “not too confident” or “not confident at all.”

The poll also shows voters tilting against Trump firing Comey: 33 percent say his decision was appropriate, while 41 percent say it was inappropriate — roughly equal to a week ago.

Trump and his aides have provided different explanations for why the president dismissed Comey, but more voters believe he “wanted to hinder the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 presidential election” (47 percent) than think Trump “no longer believed … Comey was fit to lead the FBI” (34 percent).

“Our latest polling finds that Americans are not only divided in how to react to the latest news out of Washington, they’re divided over what the news is,” said Dropp. “For example, 76 percent of Democrats think President Trump fired FBI Director Comey to hinder the Russia investigation, while just 17% of Republicans agree.”

The poll was conducted prior to Monday’s bombing of a pop music concert in England, but it does show voters divided sharply on Trump’s ability to “keep the country safe from terrorism.” Forty-eight percent say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident in Trump, but 47 percent are “not too confident” or “not confident at all.”

Views of Trump’s ability to keep Americans safe from terrorism fall along partisan lines. Eighty-five percent of Republicans are very or somewhat confident in Trump, but only 17 percent of Democratic voters are. Among independents, 44 percent are very or somewhat confident, and 49 percent are not too confident or not confident at all.

The poll does show a slight bump in Trump’s approval rating, which ticked up to 45 percent from 41 percent late last week. But half of voters still disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president.

The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll surveyed 1,938 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Morning Consult is a nonpartisan media and technology company that provides data-driven research and insights on politics, policy and business strategy.

More details on the poll and its methodology can be found in these two documents — Toplines: | Crosstabs:


Trump meets with Pope Francis: ‘We can use peace’

VATICAN CITY — President Donald Trump and Pope Francis, two leaders with contrasting styles and differing worldviews, met at the Vatican on Wednesday, setting aside their previous clashes to broadcast a tone of peace for an audience around the globe.

Trump, midway through a grueling nine-day, maiden international journey, called upon the pontiff in a private, 30-minute meeting laden with religious symbolism and ancient protocol. The president, accompanied by his wife and several aides, arrived at the Vatican just after 8 a.m. local time. The president greeted Francis in Sala del Tronetto, the room of the little throne, on the second floor of Apostolic Palace.

Upon completing their meeting, the pope gave the president a medal featuring an olive branch, a symbol of peace, among other gifts.

“We can use peace,” the president responded.

The visit began with a handshake after each man arrived, Trump in a lengthy motorcade, Francis in a Ford Focus. The president could be heard thanking the pope and saying it was “a great honor” to be there. They posed for photographs and then sat down at the papal desk, the pope unsmiling, as their private meeting began.

It ended a half hour later when Francis rang the bell in his private study. The pontiff was then introduced to members of Trump’s delegation, including his wife Melania, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as aides Hope Hicks and Dan Scavino.

Smiling for the staff, Francis had a light moment with the first lady, asking via translator, “What do you give him to eat, potizza?” referring to a favorite papal dessert from her native Slovenia.

The first lady said “Yes.” She and Ivanka covered their heads in a sign of papal respect, a gesture they did not partake in Saudi Arabia.

As is tradition, the pope and president exchanged gifts. Trump presented the pontiff with a custom-bound, first-edition set of Martin Luther King Jr.’s works, an engraved stone from the King memorial in Washington and a bronze sculpture of a flowering lotus titled “Rising Above.”

“I think you’ll enjoy them. I hope you do,” Trump said.

The pope presented Trump with the medal, a message of peace and three bound papal documents that to some degree define his papacy and priorities, including the family and the environment. The pope told Trump he signed the message “personally for you.” Trump said he would read the books.

When Trump departed, he told the pope: “Thank you, I won’t forget what you said.”

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had a private audience with Francis at the Vatican in 2014 that lasted 50 minutes. But the timing Wednesday was tight as Francis had his weekly Wednesday general audience. The thousands of pilgrims on hand forced Trump’s motorcade to enter Vatican City from a side entrance rather than the grand entrance through St. Peter’s Square.

The meeting, which concluded Trump’s tour of the world’s largest monotheistic religions, comes after the president and pope collided head-on early last year, when Francis was sharply critical of Trump’s campaign pledge to build an impenetrable wall on the Mexican border and his declaration that the United States should turn away Muslim immigrants and refugees.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said at the time. The pontiff has been a vocal advocate for aiding refugees, particularly those fleeing the violence in Syria, deeming it both a “moral imperative” and “Christian duty” to help.

Trump then called Francis “disgraceful” for doubting his faith.

Though both Trump and Francis are known for their unpredictability, papal visits with heads of state are carefully arranged bits of political and religious theater that follow a specific program, with little room for deviation or unwanted surprises. Trump, the 13th president to visit the Vatican, was also given a tour of the Sistine Chapel.

In recent days, Francis and Trump have been in agreement on a need for Muslim leaders to do more against extremists in their own communities. But there are few other areas where their views align.

The president’s prior anti-Muslim rhetoric — including his musing that Islam “hates” the West — is the antithesis of what the pope has been preaching about a need for dialogue with Muslims. Francis also differs sharply with Trump on the need to combat climate change and economic inequality. And he could react to events this week, including the release of Trump’s budget, which would dramatically cut funding to programs that help the poor, and the president’s agreement to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s visit to the Eternal City comes after two stops in the Middle East where he visited the cradles of Islam and Judaism. In Saudi Arabia, he addressed dozens of Arab leaders and urged them to fight extremists at home and isolate Iran, which he depicted as menace to the region. And in Israel, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to strong ties with the nation’s longtime ally and urged both the Israelis and the Palestinians to begin the process of reaching a peace deal. No details or timetable have yet to be established for negotiations.

But while Trump received extravagantly warm welcomes in Riyadh and Jerusalem, the reception could grow much cooler now that he’s reached Europe, site of widespread protests after his election. Climate change activists projected the words “Planet Earth First” on the massive dome of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Tuesday night and protests are expected later in the week when Trump travels to Brussels for a NATO meeting and Sicily for a G-7 gathering.


Townsend: Trump team approached me for FBI director

Fran Townsend, the former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, confirmed to POLITICO that the Trump administration has approached her about replacing ousted FBI Director James Comey.

In this week’s episode of the Women Rule podcast, Townsend revealed her thoughts about being thrust into the middle of the controversial job search after President Donald Trump abruptly fired Comey earlier this month.

“I’ve talked to folks in the administration about it,” she told POLITICO’s Carrie Budoff Brown about the role.

A woman has never led the investigative agency, and Townsend noted that her candidacy for the job is itself “history-making.”

“The fact that women are in that mix says a lot about how far we’ve come. That hasn’t been true before,” she said. “Regardless of whatever decision is made, we have begun to shatter a glass ceiling about what is the population of people who are qualified and competitive to hold such a position.”

Townsend was not the only woman to make the short list, either. While former Sen. Joe Lieberman has emerged as the frontrunner for the post, former Justice Department Criminal Division Chief Alice Fisher was briefly a contender, before she pulled her name from consideration last week.

As for whether she’d take the job if offered, the former Bush official demurred: “You know what? I learned in the White House I don’t do hypotheticals,” she said, “but I will say I was quite honored and quite flattered to be approached.”

This week’s Women Rule episode dives deep into the experiences of Townsend and two other prominent women in the Bush White House, Candi Wolff, assistant for legislative affairs, and Julie Cram, deputy assistant and director of the Public Liaison Office. The three women reflect on their stints in the executive branch and offer up advice for the current Republican administration.

Here are the highlights:

2:17 Ten years removed from their posts in the Bush administration, the trio reflect on their stints in the White House.

Townsend says she doesn’t miss being “right in the middle of every crisis.”

Even though “serving was an absolute privilege,” the former Homeland Security adviser says her time in the administration was like “hitting yourself in the head with a hammer – you don’t know how much it hurts until you stop.”

4:45 Wolff discloses how she knew it was time to leave the White House.

“I was exhausted. I didn’t have the creativity. I felt like I wasn’t offering my best,” Wolff says. “The president deserved the best, and he deserved the best of me.”

6:40 The three discuss whether the women in the Bush White House had any strategies to support one another.

“There’s a sisterhood, right?” Cram says of the women in the administration.

But Wolff notes that “most of it was implicit” and that where it showed through most was in supporting the younger women in the White House.

“I would be more cognizant of, you know, making sure that everybody was heard and diversity of folks at the table and really kind of helping them find their way,” she says.

12:15 Townsend recalls how being a woman sometimes benefited her in the international security arena.

President Bush, she says, “understood quite well how to use the fact, in foreign policy, that I was a woman to his advantage.”

15:11 The three former Bush officials discuss how women differed from their male counterparts working in the executive branch.

“Women’s willingness to be collaborative – to share authority, to share ideas, and then to share credit for the outcome, it’s not the same sort of competitiveness that oftentimes I’ve seen among male colleagues,” Townsend says.

Cram adds: “I think frequently it is the women who are able to kind of keep the ball moving and not take care so much about the credit.”

19:50 Wolff and Cram deliberate how to navigate the pressures of Washington’s after-hours social culture and balance it with family life.

“Part of our job is knowing and talking – and in addition to the substance, there’s a networking element and that is hard to juggle,” Cram says. “And I think you just have to be clear. You’ve got to set your time frame.”

23:40 The gaggle of Bush administration officials offer up their own advice to young women still starting off their careers.

“You need to learn to delegate and share responsibilities the whole way,” Townsend counsels. “And it gets easier the more senior you get.”

Wolff also advises to “take the risk and opportunities when they’re presented to you,” and Cram adds that you have to “trust your instincts and continue to learn how to act on that more quickly.”

29:30 Wolff, Cram and Townsend give their recommendations to the new Republican president in the White House, especially now that there’s an investigation into Trump aides’ ties to Russia.

Townsend notes that having special counsels investigating a president’s inner circle “is not, regrettably, so uncommon in Washington.”

“We were in the White House when Pat Fitzgerald was the special prosecutor,” she recalls, referencing the inquiry into the Valerie Plame leak. “Just as we did when we were in the White House, they are going to have to sort of compartmentalize that. Put it aside.”

34:13 Townsend recalls working with Robert Mueller, the recently appointed special prosecutor investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. She praised his detail-oriented focus and said he wouldn’t tolerate any leaks of the investigation.

Asked what happens if you leak under Mueller, Townsend responds: “You get fired. If you don’t get indicted, you get fired.”

37:22 The former homeland security adviser confirms that she has been approached by Trump’s administration about the open FBI director position and comments on the historic nature of that consideration.

“The fact that women are in that mix says a lot about how far we’ve come,” she says. “I think the history-making part is I, Alice Fisher, bring the same skills as someone as respected and admired as Bob Mueller brought to that job.”

Townsend explains her past criticisms of Trump last year, defending them as coming early in the primary process.

The former Bush official, who was also considered for Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, says she doesn’t believe she has to “overcome” it in the administration’s eyes.

“They invited me in, and so obviously they didn’t think this was an issue,” she says.


GOP turns to familiar foil amid Trump woes: Pelosi

House Republicans are turning to a reliable villain to rev up their listless base: Nancy Pelosi.

Afraid of the ripple effect of President Donald Trump’s early scandals, the GOP is looking to motivate conservative voters by painting all Democratic candidates with Pelosi’s “San Francisco liberal values.” It’s an old standby for Republicans, which they’re testing out again in special House elections in Montana and Georgia, where Democrats are running unexpectedly strong in GOP-friendly districts.

“I think we’ll see if it works. I believe it still works,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers of Ohio said of the GOP focus on Pelosi.

Pelosi remains a deeply unpopular figure among GOP voters. She has only a 14 percent favorability rating with Republicans, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday. And she doesn’t do much better with independents — just 20 percent of those voters view her favorably.

But in what’s shaping up to be a tough environment for Republicans driven by Trump’s tumultuous administration, some Democrats are starting to think, or at least hope, that the Pelosi-bashing trick might be growing old.

“A national campaign, using her as the boogeyman, I don’t think it’s going to work anymore,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “It’s a playbook that worked for them. And people tend to stay with what works until it doesn’t. … But I think it’s a hopeful smokescreen on their part that maybe [they think] will deflect from Trump.”

Republicans have long demonized Pelosi, even before she won the speaker’s gavel in 2006, in a strategy that her supporters say reeks of sexism. But the plan for the most part has been wildly successful, with the GOP controlling the House since 2010 and likely for the foreseeable future. And with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gone but Pelosi still House minority leader, she’s Republicans’ primary Democratic punching bag.

This time, Republicans aren’t the only ones tuning in to see whether vilifying Pelosi is still a winning strategy. Pelosi’s caucus, restless after years in the minority under her leadership, is watching what happens now more than ever. And some are already privately demanding change if Democrats don’t pick up one of the special election seats up for grabs.

“There’s a real widespread sense if the Republicans’ only attack on us is Nancy Pelosi, why are we leading with our chin?” said one House Democrat. “There’s a greater and greater sense that it’s time for a change in leadership.”

Pelosi’s advocates say any talk of a change in leadership is minor at most and completely unrealistic. And, they argue, Republicans are only targeting her because they have nothing to show for having all the power in Washington.

“The GOP brand is in tatters, and their top legislative priority, Trumpcare, polls at 17 percent,” said Jorge Aguilar, executive director of Pelosi for Congress. “The tired, rehashed strategy of attacking Pelosi doesn’t work and demonstrates just how bankrupt of ideas House Republicans are.”

While the special election for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s old seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District pits Republican Karen Handel against Democrat Jon Ossoff, Republicans in Georgia and Washington have tried to shove Pelosi front and center, peppering mentions of her name and her picture into paid ads for months.

Republicans have used the Pelosi strategy so frequently that many Democratic strategists working on House races now bake in an assumption that they’ll have to defend against that attack into their initial game plan. And that pattern has continued in the closing days of the race for Montana’s at-large district, which was vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

A recent spot run by the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC affiliated with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for example, closes by placing pictures of Democratic candidate Rob Quist and Pelosi next to each other.

“Quist doesn’t stand with you, and in Washington Quist would stand with Nancy Pelosi and her liberal, out-of-touch agenda, not Montana,” the narrator says. “You wouldn’t trust Pelosi with your vote. Why trust Rob Quist?”

In a new robo-call running in the state, Vice President Mike Pence also gets in on the action, urging voters, “Don’t let Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Democrats take this seat out of Republican hands.”

One sign outside of Helena even included the words: Quist + Pelosi = GUN CONTROL.

Pelosi has appeared far more than any other national figure in Republican advertising in the two marquee special election races — even though Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spent the past weekend in Montana campaigning for Quist, and Pelosi’s personal involvement has been minimal. The ads paint her as too liberal and too out-of-touch for the voters in the districts.

And that’s been a cause for consternation among Democrats involved in both campaigns, as well as for those thinking about the party’s broader strategy as it looks to win over the kind of Republican-leaning and independent voters it will need to seize the House in 2018.

Several rank-and-file Democrats said there have been quiet, small-group discussions recently about whether there should be a leadership shakeup ahead of the 2018 midterms, and, if so, when.

Still, it seems unlikely that House Democrats, long publicly resistant to the party change that many privately say is needed, would choose now to turn their caucus upside down.

Even members who say it’s time for a fresh leadership slate — Pelosi and her deputy, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have led the caucus since 2003 — say the intracaucus tensions aren’t as discernible right now. And they’re generally happy with the way Pelosi has challenged Trump, called attention to his potential ties to Russia and united the caucus to fight GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare.

But there is an increasing awareness within the caucus, lawmakers and operatives say, that Pelosi’s image could haunt them in ways it never has before. If Democrats have a real chance to take back the House by making the midterms a referendum on the president — a luxury they didn’t have in the Obama era — could Pelosi stand in the way?

“Watching these specials, I’ve thought the name Nancy Pelosi could be the finger in the dike that prevents a wave from taking over,” said one long-time Democratic consultant. “And I think Democrats are silly not to think that’s an issue.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declined to comment.

To hear Republicans tell it, using Pelosi as their main cudgel is an obvious play. After Pelosi was reelected Democratic leader, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tweeted, “What a relief. I was worried they had learned from the elections & might be competitive and cohesive again.”

And since Pelosi is not perceived as a “resistance” figure in the same national way that Obama or Sanders are, tying Democratic candidates to her doesn’t lend them the kind of anti-Trump feeling that might appeal to some women and independents in these suburban districts, according to national operatives and pollsters.

Many Democratic strategists dismiss the idea that Pelosi’s image is a serious drag on the party, noting that Trump is far better known and more controversial, and that Republicans have been running on an anti-Pelosi line long enough that they’ve figured out how to combat it.

“This is what Republicans do because they’re pathetic little frat boys who don’t have policies to run on,” said one Democratic aide.

But within the House Democratic Caucus, some members have grown concerned that Republicans see a chance to replicate their success from previous midterm cycles — chatter that only grew last month after Ossoff missed a chance to avoid a runoff in his race by 2 percentage points, after months of being hammered as a Pelosi lackey.

“We should all be concerned,” said one House Democrat, “that this could be a political liability for us to pick up seats.”

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.