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The Trump White House's War Within

Last week, President Trump’s senior Cabinet officials and top national security advisers met for a contentious meeting to finally agree on a new strategy for America’s longest war. After months of wrangling, they would ask Trump for a modest troop increase and a more intense commitment to the seemingly endless struggle in Afghanistan.

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But the session of the National Security Council Principals Committee, described by two sources briefed on it as a “s*** show” that featured what a third source, a senior White House official, confirmed was a heated debate where “words were exchanged,” proved no more successful than months’ worth of previous Afghan policy debates.

Trump refused to sign off on the plan they approved, the sources said, instead sending it back to his national security team demanding more work. And on Tuesday, the president made clear just how dissatisfied he was. In what were pretty much his first public comments on Afghanistan during his six months in office, he told reporters before a White House lunch, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.” On Thursday, headed into a Pentagon meeting, he was similarly cagey. Asked about more troops for Afghanistan, he replied only, “We’ll see.”

Trump’s equivocation reflects the difficulty of figuring out what to do about an unceasing war that is once again at an impasse without an influx of new troops. “We are not winning in Afghanistan,” Defense Secretary James Mattis testified last month.

But the president’s hesitation is also, according to multiple current and former senior U.S. officials I’ve spoken with in recent days, a striking vote of no-confidence in his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who has been trying and failing for months to sell the president on a new plan for Afghanistan.

McMaster has made a major policy review of America’s long, failed war there his personal mission, according to the sources, and he pushed hard to get a new strategy that would include the relatively modest troop increases and a commitment to at least another four-year timeline approved in advance of Trump’s May summit with NATO allies.

But instead, the sources said, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson teamed up with Mattis to block McMaster’s initial version, which they believed Trump and political advisers wary of the war, notably chief strategist Steve Bannon, would not support without clearer markers of success. “Tillerson says, ‘I’m not selling this to the president,’” a senior administration official who was present recalled. “They believed McMaster was not reading the West Wing very well,” added another former senior U.S. official briefed on the process.

After the initial rebuff of McMaster, the review was broadened to cover policy toward Afghanistan’s neighbors India and Pakistan as well. But debate has continued since – including as recently as last Monday’s contentious Principals Committee gathering– and Trump soon sent back the plan that had been approved at the meeting. “It is accurate to say he is reluctant” about increasing troops and not yet committed

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Laurel Miller: The Full Transcript

Susan Glasser : I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. Our guest again this week is Laurel Miller who has just completed her service as the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s a big mouthful of a title, as the State Department is wont to create, the SRAP as it’s known. And I imagine we’ll refer to that in this conversation. But I’m really glad to be speaking with her this week. It’s a very timely conversation about just what is America’s policy towards Afghanistan these days.

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The Trump administration has been undertaking a review of it. There are reports any day now we’ll see an increase of new troops being sent to the region. It’s almost an eerie echo of the very beginning of the Barack Obama administration. Laurel Miller, yesterday Donald Trump said—and it was almost one of those unintentionally revealing comments—“I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.” So what’s the answer? Why have we been in Afghanistan for 17 years?

Laurel Miller: Thank you, Susan. I’m very happy to be here. You know, that’s a harder question to answer than you think it might be. And it’s a fair question to ask. It’s not unusual for any new administration to want to and need to pause and reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing in an area of the world where we’ve been devoting so many resources -- financial resources, human resources -- as we have in Afghanistan. And, as I said, it’s not as easy a question to answer as you might think.

Why we went into Afghanistan at the end of 2001 is clear and is well known. Since that time, you have the accretion of one decision after another that takes you down a path, a path that’s led us today to a point where we still have one of our largest overseas commitments in the world of troops, of financial resources, of diplomats, of development personnel, and yet it’s a place that clearly the new administration is not keen to be actively engaged in. It has not been a topic of public conversation during the campaign and really since then, from the highest levels of our government.

I think one of the reasons we’re still in Afghanistan relates to why we went in in the first place, which is our concerns about terrorist groups that thrive in a region that does not have strong government control and our concern about the risk of groups that have transnational ambitions. It is not clear that the kinds of threats that emanate from Afghanistan or, perhaps better said, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, are of the same caliber and degree of risk as they were to us in the past given the very significant degradation of Al Qaeda in that region and other associated terrorist groups.

Glasser : And yet here we are all these years later talking about more troops once again.

Susan

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How to Take Down Kim Jong Un

At my Senate confirmation hearing a few years ago, I made a promise to the panel deciding my fate: never to use the phrase “there are no good options.” After all, if there were obvious solutions to the hardest—and most interesting—problems we face in the world, they would already have been found. Our job in the U.S. government—I served in the State Department as an assistant secretary focused on human rights—was not to make excuses in such situations, but to use whatever inherently limited tools we had to try to make things better, and to avoid making them worse.

North Korea tests this proposition like nothing else. Since its latest provocative missile test, thoughtful observers have pointed out that neither sanctions nor diplomacy are likely to dissuade Kim Jong Un from deploying nuclear weapons that can reach the United States, that we cannot depend on China to stop him for us, but that the alternative of a military strike on North Korea could cause a war that would lay waste to our ally South Korea. When it comes to North Korea, the phrase “there are no good options” has become a mantra.

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Though we’ve been slow to admit it, the reasons have been plain for some time. Kim Jong Un, like all totalitarian leaders, wants above all to ensure his survival. He is convinced that a nuclear strike capability is necessary to deter the United States and South Korea from threatening his regime, and to extract concessions that might prolong its life. There is nothing crazy about this conviction. And because the matter is existential for Kim, more economic pressure will not change his mind. His regime survived a famine and can risk economic hardship. What he apparently will not risk is following the example of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who gave up nuclear programs and found themselves defenseless against foreign interventions that claimed their lives.

But there is an opportunity in Kim’s obsession with survival. While he assumes the United States would not start a catastrophic war to stop his nuclear program, he also knows that were he to start that war, the U.S. would have no reason to hold back. We could, and likely would, destroy his regime. This means that even if we can’t prevent North Korea from gaining the ability to hit us or our allies, we can deter it from actually doing so, and thus have time to pursue, by means more effective than sanctions and less dangerous than war, our ultimate goal of a reunified Korea that threatens no one.

Kim is right to feel insecure. His life depends on the preservation of a regime, and of a country, that are both artificial constructs. There is no good reason for the existence of a North Korean state that is vastly poorer than its ethnically identical South Korean neighbor, other than to enable his family to rule. To hold on, the Kim regime has thus had to do more than make

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The unnecessary risk with over-the-counter drugs

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In the summer of 2006, I learned that several toddlers in Baltimore had died from the toxic effects of over-the-counter cough and cold medications. As the city’s health commissioner, I convened a group of leading pediatricians from area hospitals , who informed me that these medications had never been proven effective in young children and, in fact, had been associated with dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries across the country.

As nonprescription drugs, the over-the-counter cough and cold medications fell under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. But the agency had not updated its assessment of these medications since the 1970s, despite the fact that evidence mounted showing the drugs did not work and posed a threat. Only after we petitioned the agency to remove them from the market for young children did the FDA hold a meeting on the drugs and began the formal process for updating those drug labels. Nearly a decade later, however, the agency still has not acted.

The FDA’s failure to properly regulate such cough and cold medications illuminates a surprising fact: For all its power, the agency does not have the same tools to protect consumers from safety issues in most nonprescription products that it has for prescription drugs. That might seem surprising—since over-the-counter drugs are the most accessible medications to consumers—but it’s been an issue for years, and recent developments have shed light on how much is at stake.

For example, out of concern of possible liver failure, the agency moved to reduce the dosage of acetaminophen in prescription medications for pain—but not in over-the-counter medications. Similarly, after warning of serious respiratory risks for codeine in children, the agency announced all prescription products would come off the market; yet nonprescription products labeled for children’s use are still for sale.

This month, as Congress considers legislation to reauthorize user fees at the FDA, lawmakers have a huge opportunity to end this dangerous double standard. They should not pass it up.

Why is the FDA so slow to police the market for over-the-counter products? The agency is hamstrung by its own law, which requires it to undertake a full regulatory process—including a legal review, public comments and economic analyses—to make simple changes for most nonprescription drugs, such as updating the label with a new warning. Taking major action, such as removing over-the-counter medications from the market altogether, can take many years. As a result, the rules governing over-the-counter drugs have not kept up with science, have not effectively addressed safety issues, and have impeded innovation.

Compare that with how the agency reviews prescription drugs: The FDA can approve or reject prescription medications for marketing without issuing a separate regulation every time. The agency just needs to review the application and related data, and, when necessary, consider the advice of its public advisory committee. As a result, the FDA often makes these decisions for prescription drugs faster than any other advanced regulatory agency in the world; prescription drugs are often approved in

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Democrats launch economic agenda ahead of 2018 campaign

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is pictured.

“The number one thing that we did wrong is we didn’t tell people what we stood for,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

House and Senate leaders hope to unite their fractious party and win back the public with 'A Better Deal.'

By Heather Caygle and Elana Schor

07/24/2017 06:00 AM EDT

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate will unveil a broad economic agenda Monday, hoping to unite the disparate wings of their caucuses and win back working-class voters who fled the party last year.

The party’s messaging strategy is the culmination of months of internal meetings and polling after a disappointing 2016 election that left Democrats reeling and many complaining they had no message to offer the public other than being against President Donald Trump.

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“The number one thing that we did wrong is we didn’t tell people what we stood for,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

To fill that void, Democrats are adding pitches aimed at battling corporate overreach to an economic platform that already includes a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan and paid family leave. Party leaders are also proposing a new independent agency to oversee prescription drug prices similar to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau launched by Sen. Elizabeth Warren as well as an independent “competition advocate” that would police corporate mergers.

"We have these huge companies buying up other big companies,” Schumer said. “It hurts workers and it hurts prices.”

Democrats are launching the agenda under the slogan “A Better Deal,” which POLITICO reported earlier this month. It’s designed as a nod to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which helped usher in the modern-day Democratic Party, and also as a dig at Trump, who bills himself as the world’s greatest deal-maker.

Midterm election agendas don't necessarily have to sear themselves into voters' minds to be successful. The GOP's 1994 "Contract With America" still lingers in the popular lexicon, while Democrats’ 2006 "New Direction for America" faded quickly. But both coincided with the minority party seizing the House and Senate.

Democrats know that if they can't sell the public on the substance of the program, the label won't matter.

"I'm not sure that the name is what is going to ultimately win votes," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who helped develop the package of proposals, said in an interview.

Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and other top Democrats, including Warren, a Massachusetts liberal, and Rep. Cheri Bustos, who represents a Trump-won district in Illinois, will roll out their new agenda in Berryville, Va.

Democrats chose the predominantly white, northern Virginia area represented by Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock because it’s exactly the kind of district they need to win to take back Congress next year.

Democrats campaigned heavily in Comstock’s district and others like it last year with hopes that a Trump backlash would deliver them the Senate majority and a double digit gain in the House. They came up nearly empty-handed as Trump

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