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Inside McConnell’s plan to repeal Obamacare

As Mitch McConnell unveiled the Senate’s long-anticipated Obamacare repeal bill at a closed-door briefing Thursday morning, he urged GOP senators to withhold statements announcing outright opposition to the proposal and remain flexible, according to people familiar with the matter.

About four hours later, a quartet of McConnell’s most conservative members said in a joint statement that they are “not ready to vote for this bill.”

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But notably, GOP Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz left themselves plenty of room to eventually support it after further negotiation and persuasion — a critical nod to the Senate majority leader’s request.

The Kentucky Republican still has much work to do to get his health care overhaul across the finish line and may have to offer those senators some concessions that move the bill to the right. And somehow while doing so, he also must keep on board a pair of moderates and a half-dozen stalwart defenders of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

Right now, McConnell is far away from having a commitment for the 50 votes needed for passage, according to senators who spoke on anonymity to discuss internal politics of the 52-member caucus. But no one on Capitol Hill seems to be betting against the wily majority leader as he plans for one of the most critical roll call votes of his career next week.

“He is extremely talented in cobbling together coalitions of people who disagree,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate Republican skeptical of the GOP’s direction. “I never underestimate his ability to pull something off.”

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McConnell’s strategy has been a slow burn, allowing his members to vent in private party discussions while gradually writing a bill that takes in their considerations over the past six weeks. He’s had more than 30 meetings with his members about taking down the 2010 health law, intended to give his members more input and get them comfortable with the product.

Johnson, for example, doesn’t even serve on the two committees who oversee healthcare policy, so the process has empowered him more than he might have been through regular order. People close to McConnell believe Lee’s staff has been read in more than any other member on the chamber’s complicated parliamentary procedures that constrain what is possible under reconciliation.

“He believes that given the amount of input we’ve had from everybody, we’ll get to 50. Because everybody’s had a seat at the table,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a close McConnell ally in leadership. “If you get 80 percent of what you want in a circumstance like this, it’s going to have to be a victory because we’re not going to get 100 percent.”

The most immediate concern is certainly the four Republicans who’ve banded together to enhance their negotiating position.

Republican

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EPA staffers, Trump official clashed over new chemical rules

The Trump administration released the nation’s most important chemical-safety rules in decades Thursday — but only after making a series of business-friendly changes overseen by a former industry advocate who holds a top post at the EPA.

Career agency employees had raised objections to the changes steered by EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Nancy Beck, who until April was the senior director of regulatory science policy at the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s leading lobbying group. Those include limits on how broadly the agency would review thousands of potentially hazardous substances, EPA staffers wrote in an internal memo reviewed by POLITICO.

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Such limits could cause the agency to fail to act on potential chemical uses "that present an unreasonable risk to health or the environment,” EPA's top chemicals enforcement official argued in the May 23 memo.

The rules are meant to implement last year’s landmark rewrite of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, a major bipartisan achievement in a deeply divided Congress. Both parties agreed that the law needed an update — the original version didn't even allow EPA to ban asbestos, a known carcinogen, and some states had begun to step in and create their own patchwork of regulations for chemicals.

But the Trump administration’s steps to implement the law, and Beck’s role in particular, are drawing alarm from environmental groups and congressional Democrats.

Melanie Benesh of the Environmental Working Group called Beck the "scariest Trump appointee you've never heard of," and pointed to a 2009 Democratic congressional report that accused Beck of working to delay and undermine EPA's chemical studies during her previous tenure at the OMB.

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New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, argued in a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Wednesday that Beck's appointment "has the potential to undermine the scientific integrity of EPA's TSCA implementation and the consumer confidence we sought to build with a reformed TSCA." Pallone is seeking information about Beck's involvement with the chemicals rules and the issues she is ethically allowed to work on.

Beck told POLITICO that she has been "very involved" with the rulemaking for the past two months at EPA. She also defended the changes in the rules.

“The development of a rule when you go from proposal to final, or even as you develop a rule, it just evolves over time,” she said in an interview Wednesday, before the rules came out. “So I think that this has been a moving target, and will continue to be a moving target until it gets through the OMB review process.”

A statement from EPA's senior ethics counsel said Beck did not need to recuse herself from working on the TSCA rules because they are "matters of general applicability." The counsel added that Beck was

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Black Appalachia

The conventional portrayal of people who live in Appalachian coal country, a part of the United States that has ballooned in the national consciousness after its support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, has generally focused on a few key characteristics: Rural, mostly poor and mostly white. Lynch, Kentucky, might fit the bill for the first two—but its racial diversity stands in stark contrast to the popular perception of Appalachia.

In the early 20th century, when the coal industry was booming across Appalachia, coal companies used labor agents to recruit a racially and ethnically diverse labor supply for the mines. Those efforts weren’t exactly progressive: For the companies, a demographically diverse workforce and the racism that likely followed hindered the formation of strong unions. So labor agents looked abroad to southern Europe and southward to Alabama, where they made arrangements to sneak poor black sharecroppers off their land and ferry them to the heart of coal country. Now, after a decades-long decline in the coal industry, many of those black families have left for urban centers on the coasts, leaving behind shells of former coal towns. Lynch, Kentucky, with its mere 800 residents left behind from the collapse of coal and the resulting out-migration, is one such community.

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A scholar who focuses on Lynch, Kentucky, and other communities like it invited Sarah Hoskins, a photographer with experience documenting black communities in Kentucky, to visit the town of Lynch last year, and Hoskins came away with a picture of Appalachia that was much more complicated than what she had heard and read about the region. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were black people in Appalachia,’” she says.

All photos by Sarah Hoskins.

Sarah Hoskins

Lynch is located in far southeastern Kentucky on the border with Virginia and was founded in 1917 by the U.S. Coal and Steel company. The company bought 19,000 acres for the town and built everything from houses and stores to a hospital and baseball field. At its peak, Lynch had about 10,000 residents, but is down to below 1,000 today. Above is a side road in Lynch.

Sarah Hoskins

Ever since Trump put on a hard hat and pretended to mine coal at one West Virginia rally, his promises to coal miners became a proxy for his promises to the newly scrutinized white working class. But coal miners have never been a racially homogeneous group. The Eastern Kentucky Social Club has long been at the center of African-American life in Lynch, and since 1970, it has hosted meetings for former and current black residents of the town to reunite and honor the contributions of black coal miners. As many as 1,500 people come to the annual meetings, held in Lexington. Above, a sign hangs outside of the club in Lynch.

Sarah Hoskins

Lynch's schools and entertainment venues were segregated until the late 1960s. Black and white miners worked together, but until a 1970 lawsuit,

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Six-week ‘tapes’ saga comes to a very un-Trumpian end

President Donald Trump prides himself on being a master of suspense, conspiracy theory, counter-attack and self-promotion.

But when it came time to end the six-week long mystery about whether or not he recorded “tapes” of his conversations with former FBI director James Comey in the Oval Office — the day before a House Intelligence Committee deadline to produce any such tapes — the president deflated the balloon in a very non-Trumpian way.

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There was no drawn-out press conference in the lobby of the Trump Hotel, for instance, like the one he staged during his presidential campaign to announce he was finally dropping his false, five-year-long conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama’s birthplace.

Neither was there any stoking the coals of news to come, keeping the guessing game going, as he has done with other much-anticipated White House announcements. “I will be announcing my decision on the Paris Accord over the next few days. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” he tweeted on May 31, three full days before his Rose Garden statement.

And there was no blurting out news in the heat of the moment at a rally – like he did when he made the surprise announcement in the middle of a campaign-style rally in Cincinnati last December that he was choosing James Mattis for defense secretary. Trump kept his mouth closed about the status of the alleged “tapes” even though he had the opportunity Wednesday night to break his news in front of a roaring crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Instead, he put the “tapes” saga to bed in a pair of carefully worded Tweets that were uncharacteristically reviewed by White House officials before being blasted out to his 32.7 million Twitter followers.

“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey,” the president tweeted. “But I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”

Trump, according to people familiar with his thinking, often enjoys the theater of the mini-scandals he sets off with his Twitter feed, and throughout his career has enjoyed keeping everyone around him off balance. He sees the fog of confusion he creates as a winning negotiating tactic, according to some of his longtime associates. And his aides have compared his “tapes” tweet to the keep-them-guessing strategy he favors when it comes to foreign policy.

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Even among his top White House aides, many were kept in the dark about the status of potential tapes of the conversations Trump had with Comey before deciding to fire him in May, sources said.

But many Republicans close to the Trump White House see the original May 12 tweet – “James Comey better hope that there are no

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Ex-CIA officer charged with spying for China

Ex-CIA officer charged with spying for China

The case would represent one of the most brazen acts of espionage for China carried out by a veteran of the CIA and other government agencies. | Getty

Prosecutors allege a brazen effort to trade U.S. secrets for cash.

By Josh Gerstein

06/22/2017 08:10 PM EDT

A former Central Intelligence Agency officer is facing charges that he sold top-secret U.S. government documents to China.

Kevin Mallory, 60, was arrested by the FBI at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, on Thursday and brought to federal court in Alexandria to face preliminary charges of espionage and lying to federal officers.

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While the sensitivity of the information disclosed remains unclear, if the government can prove the charges, the case would represent one of the most brazen acts of espionage for China carried out by a veteran of the CIA and other government agencies.

Court filings claim that during a trip to China in March and April, Mallory accepted some kind of secure communication device from a Chinese national. Mallory later told the FBI that he was “trained to use it specifically for private communications” with the Chinese citizen, court papers say.

Mallory allegedly acknowledged to the FBI in an interview last month that he had provided unclassified “white papers” to the Chinese person in exchange for about $25,000 in cash, but he denied providing any classified information.

An affidavit from FBI agent Stephen Green says that as Mallory demonstrated the device to the FBI, he “expressed surprise” when the secure message history began to appear. One message said: “I can also come in the middle of June I can bring the remainder of the documents I have at that time.”

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Green said the FBI later found incriminating messages on the device. One allegedly said: “Your object is to gain information, and my object is to be paid for.” Another exchange cited by Green said: “The black was to cross out the security classification (TOP SECRET//ORCON??...I had to get it out without the chance of discovery....You can send the funds broken into 4 equal payments over 4 consecutive days....If they we [sic] looking for me in terms of State Secrets, and found the SD card..., we would not be talking today. I am taking the real risk as you...and higher up bosses know.”

The FBI said the same device, which was not described in detail, contained three classified U.S. government documents: one top secret and the other classified as secret.

The court papers do not mention the CIA but say Mallory worked as a diplomatic security agent for the State Department from 1987 to 1990 and then for “various government agencies, for U.S. cleared defense contractors, and on U.S. Army active duty deployments.” He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, the FBI says.

A U.S. official confirmed

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