Caitlin MacNeal

Caitlin MacNeal is a News Writer based in Washington, D.C. Before joining TPM, Caitlin interned and wrote for the Huffington Post, the Sunlight Foundation and Slate. She is a graduate of Georgetown University.

Articles by Caitlin

Pundits and the national media have framed the upcoming runoff in the special U.S. House race in Georgia as a referendum on President Donald Trump. But the candidates themselves don’t spend much time praising or attacking the President, and they have been silent on most of the Trump news items du jour.

Because Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, located in the suburbs of Atlanta, only voted for Trump by a one-point margin in November, the race is seen as Democrats’ best chance to flip a congressional seat before the 2018 midterm elections. Both Republicans and Democrats have poured record-shattering sums of money into the closely-watched race.

Under that national spotlight, Democrat Jon Ossoff and, albiet to a lesser extent, Republican Karen Handel have avoided talking Trump during the campaign. So it’s an open question how often the President and national issues will be raised when they debate each other for the first time on television Tuesday night.

“Every federal special election since the beginning of time has a federal component to it. This race has a federal component on steroids,” Chip Lake, a longtime Republican strategist in Georgia, told TPM. “And so there’s no real reason I don’t think for either candidate to go out of their way to mention the President because that narrative and that dynamic is already well-developed.”

Handel welcomed Trump for an April fundraiser, and the President sent a fundraising email on her behalf. Handel also praised Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord and said his firing of former FBI director James Comey was “probably overdue.” But she has not incorporated the President into her campaign messaging with the kind of zeal that Greg Gianforte, the Montana Republican who adopted Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign message and aggressive attitude toward reporters for his successful bid for an at-large House seat last month, did.

Ossoff, for his part, has pulled back from the anti-Trump energy that characterized the launch of his campaign. He ran ads explicitly pitching himself as a check on Trump when he first jumped into the race, but the Ossoff campaign has since focused its message and ads on local issues, painting the Democratic candidate as someone who will work across the aisle to bring jobs to Georgia.

Political strategists in the Peach State say it’s not surprising that Ossoff has focused on issues other than the ones plaguing Trump’s young presidency, arguing that news reports offer plenty of reminders for district voters about Trump’s time in office.

“He’s actually made a smart pivot to ensure that his ads tell the people in the sixth district what he’s for and what he’ll do when he’s in Washington as their member of Congress,” Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who has worked for several Georgia lawmakers, told TPM.

Johnson said that Ossoff’s focus on local issues also helps him appeal to the “disaffected Republicans that live in the district.”

Jesse Ferguson, a former campaign aide to Hillary Clinton, said that it makes sense for a candidate new to voters like Ossoff to “introduce yourself and let voters know who you are and who you stand for, before you can credibly critique the Republican President and his candidate.”

As Ferguson noted, Ossoff hasn’t managed to avoid Trump completely during his campaign. He issued a statement last week condemning the President’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, followed up by a press email calling out Handel for not immediately publicizing her view on the consequential move. But the campaign doesn’t often try to nail down Handel’s position on national issues, instead zeroing in on her history in Georgia and her time at the Susan G. Komen foundation, where she pushed to stop funding Planned Parenthood.

And when asked about Trump during interviews with the national media, Ossoff often demurs. CNN host Chris Cuomo asked Ossoff during an interview last week if he felt like he was running against Handel or against Trump.

“I prefer to think about what I’m running for,” Ossoff replied. “And what I’m running for is greater accountability in Washington, the ability to work across the aisle to get things done to develop metro Atlanta’s regional economy so we can become an economic powerhouse. I think we have too much running against things in this country. We need to be finding common ground, finding areas to work together.”

Ossoff also avoided talking about Trump on the occasion of the April 18 special election, when he fell just short of winning the race outright and secured the top spot in the June 20 runoff against Handel.

“This race is about local economic issues here and values that unite people in the community in Georgia before it’s about the national political circus,” he said at the time when asked if he thought the race was a referendum on Trump. “Everyone’s looking for national implications, but all politics is local.”

He shies away from mentioning the President on his own at campaign events, too, addressing Trump only when faced with a question from a supporter or member of the media, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Lake, the Georgia Republican strategist, told TPM that it makes sense for Ossoff to let Trump’s actions speak for themselves.

“If you’re Jon Ossoff, you’re already getting the benefit of being anti-Trump,” Lake said, adding that it makes sense for Ossoff to “reap the benefits but not have to make it a defining theme of your campaign so that you don’t alienate people that you don’t need to alienate.”

Lake said Handel’s approach to her party’s standard-bearer also was fitting, since “the only reason that this race is competitive is because Donald Trump is President of the United States.” Handel is slated to welcome Vice President Mike Pence to the state before the runoff, which Lake believes is a smart move that could help rally the Republican base in the area.

For her part, Handel has tried to tie Ossoff to national Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and outside liberal groups. Her campaign has also relentlessly attacked Ossoff’s resume, arguing that he inflated his credentials as a congressional staffer.

Sacha Haworth, Ossoff’s communications director, told TPM that the campaign has not changed its approach to Trump (Handel’s campaign did not respond to TPM’s interview requests for this story). She did say that the campaign has focused on local issues going into the June 20 runoff, however.

“This race is and should be about local issues, and that’s what Jon is talking about every day,” Haworth told TPM.

Ossoff and Handel are scheduled to face off in the runoff’s first debate Tuesday night on Atlanta TV station WSB. It’s unclear whether the Democratic candidate will make his opponent answer for her appearance with the President: Haworth said Ossoff plans to charge that Handel “has put her own personal agenda ahead of what’s best for the people that she works for, whether it’s as an elected official, secretary of state, or when she was working on the board at Susan G. Komen.”

TPM composite by Christine Frapech.

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The White House pushed for easing sanctions on Russia well after the ouster of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, floating the idea as recently as late March, according to a Daily Beast report published Monday night.

The National Security Council specifically asked the State Department to consider lifting sanctions on the Russian oil industry, arguing that the sanctions on that sector could hurt the U.S. economy, anonymous former U.S. officials told the Daily Beast.

The State Department had to inform the White House that easing those sanctions would actually hurt the American oil industry, according to the report. A State Department official also told the White House that lifting sanctions on the Russian oil industry would reward Russia without getting anything in return, according to an email reviewed by the Daily Beast.

The March request came from NSC strategist Kevin Harrington, according to the report. An anonymous Trump official told the Daily Beast that Harrington only was analyzing the economic impact of lifting sanctions.

“He did an economic analysis of what the Russian sanctions are doing. He said according to his analysis, they weren’t causing any significant pain,” the official said. “His view was, if these sanctions are harming our economy without putting any pressure on Russia, what’s the point?”

The report follows a story from Yahoo News last week that the Trump administration had pushed the State Department to ease sanctions on Russia soon after Trump took office. But the Daily Beast shows that the push to lift sanctions continued past Flynn’s departure and into March, after Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster began work as the national security adviser.

Flynn reportedly spoke to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about lifting sanctions soon after the Obama administration implemented additional sanctions on that country over its interference in the 2016 election.

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The Trump International Hotel received about $270,000 from a lobbying campaign tied to the government of Saudi Arabia last year, according to a filing submitted to the Justice Department last week.

The filing from the MSLGroup, a public relations firm, shows that the group spent about $270,000 at the Trump International Hotel while conducting lobbying efforts on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government. MSLGroup was helping Saudi Arabia with several lobbying efforts, including opposing the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which allows the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia.

An executive with MSLGroup, Michael Petruzzello, told the Wall Street Journal that the payments to the Trump hotel were made by a subcontractor, which was reimbursed by Saudi Arabia. The payments were part of a campaign to bring veterans to Capitol Hill to lobby against JASTA, Petruzzello told the Wall Street Journal. He said that the payments were made between November 2016 and February 2017, and were made for the most part before Trump took office.

The Trump Organization told the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus that it would transfer profits from the payments linked to Saudi Arabia to the U.S. Treasury Department by the end of the year.

A watchdog group filed a lawsuit against Trump in January, arguing that by owning the hotel, he is violating the Emolument’s Clause of the constitution, which prohibits government officials from accepting payments from foreign governments. And Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, has said that the Trump Organization has not been actively tracking payments from foreign governments.

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Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs, acknowledged on Monday evening that the Russia probe has distracted the administration from its legislative agenda.

“There’s no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda, detracts from what we’re trying to deliver for the American people,” he told reporters, according to Politico.

But he said that the investigation has not completely derailed the administration’s policy plans, according to the New York Times.

Short also indicated that Trump will push hard for some of his budget priorities, like including funding for a border wall and increasing military spending, per Politico.

“Look, I don’t think that anybody is in favor of a government shutdown. I think that what the president is expressing is the frustration that a lot of Americans felt, and there are certain priorities that he campaigned on, the American people want,” Short told reporters, according to Politico. “And so you will see him very engaged this fall and continuing to push for funding for our border security as well as rebuilding the military.”

“And I think that he views it as all options for leverage are available, but that doesn’t mean that’s something he wishes for or that it’s great. We all believe that a government shutdown is not ideal,” Short added, per Politico.



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Sen Richard Burr (R-NC), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Monday indicated that former FBI Director James Comey will be permitted to discuss his conversations with President Donald Trump during a public hearing on Thursday.

“He can’t talk about anything that’s classified in an open session, but I haven’t gotten any indication that he is constrained in any way, shape, or form as a public citizen,” Burr told CNN.

Asked if Comey would be able to talk about his conversations with Trump, Burr replied, “I feel certain that he can.”

Burr also said that he believes Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the Russia probe, did not bar Comey from talking about anything the FBI director had planned on revealing during the hearing.

“They’ve talked, but I understand that special counsel has not fenced him off on any way shape or form from the items he intends to talk about,” Burr told CNN when asked if Mueller had prohibited Comey from discussing the Russia probe.

The White House announced on Monday that Trump would not invoke executive privilege to block Comey from testifying on Thursday.

The senator also told CNN that former national security adviser Michael Flynn turned over some documents to the committee responding to a subpoena issues by the committee.

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President Donald Trump’s national security team was blindsided last month when he strayed from a speech they’d approved that affirmed the United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the NATO alliance, according to a Monday report in Politico.

Three of Trump’s top advisers and cabinet leaders—National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—had all worked on the address Trump was to deliver at NATO headquarters in Brussels, and they included language reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Article 5, the provision in the NATO treaty about collective defense, per Politico.

And they were not told that Trump wouldn’t mention Article 5, only finding out as he delivered the address on May 25, Politico reported.

National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton did not deny this account, according to Politico.

“The president attended the summit to show his support for the NATO alliance, including Article 5. His continued effort to secure greater defense commitments from other nations is making our alliance stronger,” he told Politico.

It’s unclear whether Trump removed the section of the speech himself or if he was persuaded to do so by his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, per Politico.

European leaders were surprised that Trump did not reaffirm his commitment to Article 5, especially since the New York Times had reported that the President would use the address to endorse that provision in the NATO treaty.

The omission left Trump’s advisers scrambling to ensure that the United States is committed to Article 5.

“I think it’s extraordinary that there would be an expectation that the President would have to say explicitly that he supports Article 5. Of course he does,” McMaster told reporters after Trump’s speech.

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During a Saturday morning town hall, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) faced a raucous crowd of about 500 people pressing him on President Donald Trump and on health care.

The crowd cheered and jeered at times as Issa, who could face a tough re-election battle next year as his district trends to the left, attempted to answer his constituents’ questions.

John Mathews, a Republican voter in Issa’s district, asked the congressman to be more of a check on Trump.

“I want to know when you and the Republican Party are going to stand up, use your political capital, and recognize that our democracy is under attack from an adversary,” Mathews said, according to Politico. His comment was met with cheers from the audience.

Issa replied that he is tough on Russia, prompting jeers from the crowd and shouts of “Stand up,” according to Politico.

The congressman also said that he would continue to support Robert Mueller, the special counsel now tasked with the Russia probe, and defend his ability to conduct the investigation.

“I want him to have the freedom and the funds to do it. And that last part, I can tell you, is where I have more power,” Issa said, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Issa also faced questions on health care. When one member of the crowd criticized Issa for supporting the House GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, the congressman did not back down from his decision to vote for the legislation, according to Politico.

The congressman did say he didn’t agree with Trump’s decision to pull out from the Paris climate agreement, however.

“I am disappointed in the tactic the president took,” he said, according to the Ocean County Register. “I would have preferred he renegotiate from that position of strength.”

Asked after the town hall if he was concerned about re-election, Issa told Politico he wasn’t worried.

“Not a bit,” he said.

“I got more votes in the last election than I did in any previous election. But there was an 83 percent turnout,” he continued. “That’s not duplicatable in an off year. It’s not even normally duplicatable in a presidential year.”

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During an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly that aired Sunday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that Russia meddled in the 2016 election in the United States and claimed to be unaware of any interactions Russian officials had with members of Trump’s campaign.

Putin told Kelly that he has “no idea” if Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., met with any members of Trump’s team before inauguration.

“Do you think that from all over the world or from the United States the ambassador reports to me every day who he meets with or what they discuss there? That’s complete nonsense,” he said.

Asked if Jared Kushner tried to set up a secret line of communication between the Trump transition team and Russia, Putin said “no proposal like that came to me.”

And when asked about the 2015 dinner in Moscow during which he sat next to Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, Putin claimed that he did not know who Flynn was until after the dinner.

“I didn’t even really talk to him,” Putin told Kelly.

The Russian leader also denied that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election in the U.S. and suggested that U.S. intelligence services could have fabricated Russian interference.

“There’s a theory that Kennedy’s assassination was arranged by the United State intelligence services,” he said. “So, if this theory is correct and that can’t be ruled out, then what could be easier, in this day and age, than using all the technical means at the disposal of the intelligence services, and using those means to organize some attacks and then pointing the finger at Russia?”

When asked if he had damaging information on Trump, Putin dismissed the question as “just another load of nonsense.”

“Where would we get this information from? Why, did we have some special relationship with him?” Putin asked.

“There was a time when he used to come to Moscow,” he continued. “But you know, I never met with him. We have a lot of Americans who visit us.”



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President Donald Trump on Monday morning lashed out at his own Justice Department for offering a “watered down” version of the executive order barring travel to the United States from certain majority Muslim countries after courts blocked the administration’s initial order.

Trump’s tweets about his so-called travel ban came after he promoted his executive order in a Sunday morning series of tweets about the weekend terror attack in London.

In the Monday morning tweets, Trump said that he wished his administration had fought for the original executive order and called on the Justice Department to seek a “much tougher version” of the travel ban. He also notably described the order as a “travel ban,” a term that his administration has dismissed.

Trump’s revised travel ban has been held up in federal courts despite the administration’s effort to craft a new executive order that courts might allow to proceed. The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court last week to reinstate the travel ban order.

Court orders staying both the initial and the revised travel bans have cited Trump’s comments, including those he made on the campaign trail, about a Muslim ban. In its decision upholding a block on Trump’s initial order, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that states raised “serious allegations” about religious discrimination and indicated that courts could use Trump’s past comments to determine the administration’s intentions in crafting the executive order.

In its ruling late last month upholding a block on Trump’s revised travel ban, the chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that the executive order “drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” The court wrote that it’s possible states could prove, using past comments from Trump and his aides, that Trump wrote the executive order with a Muslim ban in mind.

The President’s Monday morning tweetstorm followed more tempered remarks about the London terror attack on Sunday night. Speaking at the Ford’s Theatre Annual Gala, Trump offer his support to the United Kingdom and said that the United States would try to help “bring those that are guilty to justice,” according to the White House pool report.

“We renew our resolve, stronger than ever before, to protect the United States and its allies from a vile enemy that has waged war on innocent life. And it has gone on too long. This bloodshed must end. This bloodshed will end,” Trump said, per the pool report. “As president I will do what is necessary is to prevent this threat from spreading to our shores.”

This post has been updated.

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White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer would not say whether President Donald Trump would invoke executive privilege in a bid to block former FBI Director James Comey from testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week.

“That committee hearing was just noticed, and I think obviously it’s got to be reviewed,” Spicer said at the daily press briefing Friday when first asked if Trump would try to block Comey from testifying.

“So that’s not a ‘no?'” the reporter pressed. In response, Spicer added that he has not yet spoken to the White House counsel about the issue and was unsure how counsel would respond.

The former FBI director will testify before the Senate intelligence panel Thursday, and he is expected to detail how Trump asked him to drop the bureau’s probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to CNN.

Kellyanne Conway on Friday morning also left open the possibility that Trump could invoke executive privilege.

“The President will make that decision,” she said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” when asked if the White House would try to block Comey from testifying.

Legal experts say that Trump certainly could try to invoke executive privilege, but that he may not have the strongest case, since the President himself has made public statements about his private conversations with Comey.

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