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White House blame game intensifies as Trump agenda stalls

With President Donald Trump’s sweeping agenda hitting the rocks as he edges toward the 100-day mark, top aides, political allies and donors are embroiled in a furious round of finger-pointing over who is at fault.

The recriminations extend far beyond the implosion of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal on Friday. Senior aides are lashing each other over their inability to stem a never-ending tide of negative stories about the president. There is second-guessing of the Republican National Committee’s efforts to mobilize Trump’s electoral coalition on behalf of his legislative priorities. At the Environmental Protection Agency, a top official quit recently amid accusations the department is failing to advance the president’s campaign promises. And one of Trump's most generous benefactors, Rebekah Mercer, has expressed frustration over the direction of the administration.

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This account of White House infighting is based on interviews with more than two dozen Trump aides, confidants and others close to his administration, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. They described a distracting and toxic atmosphere, with warring power centers blaming one another for an ever-growing list of setbacks. The dysfunction has further paralyzed an administration struggling to deliver on its blunt promises of wholesale change.

The environment, many Trump aides are convinced, has been created by the president himself — a larger-than-life figure famously loath to admit error. As Trump’s health care plan ran into problems, he found ways to divert blame — sometimes turning on his own staff.

After Gary Cohn, the chief White House economic adviser, went on Fox News Sunday this month to talk about the reform push, the media-obsessed president complained bitterly about the appearance, venting that Cohn failed to clearly sell the merits of the plan, according to three people familiar with the matter. (A White House spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, denied that Trump had expressed unhappiness and said he had been “complimentary of Gary's appearance.”)

For the new White House, nothing has been more frustrating than health care. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was one of Trump’s signature campaign promises. But the discussions surrounding the rocky weeks leading to its collapse generated an outpouring of ill will in the West Wing. Steve Bannon, Trump’s populist-minded chief strategist, privately singled out the more moderate Cohn for criticism, charging that he was too willing to make concessions to mainstream Republicans that repelled the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.

Others say the fault lies with chief of staff Reince Priebus. The former RNC chairman was elevated to his current role because he was seen as a savvy Washington operator whose Capitol Hill relationships, particularly with House Speaker Paul Ryan, would help the newcomer Trump. The health care talks, these people say, reveal the limits of his reach.

Still others pinned blame on Jared Kushner, Trump’s politically moderate son-in-law and senior adviser. As White House staffers struggled to galvanize support for the flagging health care bill, some became convinced that Kushner was working to defeat the repeal effort. Suspicions increased when Kushner invited Obamacare

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Republicans turn fire on each other

White House officials insisted Sunday that the relationship between President Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan is strong, even as Republican infighting over the failure to repeal Obamacare exploded into the open over the weekend.

After Trump urged his Twitter followers Saturday to watch Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro — who opened her show last night with six-minute plea for Speaker Paul Ryan to step down — Washington was abuzz with speculation about a Trump-Ryan rift. Trump-boosting Breitbart News, the former publication of the president’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, used the sequence of events to highlight the apparent discord.

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But White House officials later emphasized that Trump was not endorsing Ryan’s ouster.

“He is a fan of her show plain and simple,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in an email, explaining Trump’s tweet.

White House officials say Trump does not support Pirro's comments on Ryan, but was merely trying to show support for the Fox host, who has long backed Trump.

"Nothing was meant by it," said a White House aide.

Trump and Ryan spoke for an hour Saturday, and other GOP insiders said Trump has praised Ryan in private conversations since the speaker was forced to pull the American Health Care Act on Friday amid eroding support from hardline conservatives and House moderates. Trump’s top aides also took to the Sunday shows to underscore the strong relationship between the president and Ryan.

“He doesn't blame Paul Ryan,” chief of staff Reince Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He thought Paul Ryan worked really hard, enjoys his relationship with Paul Ryan, thinks that Paul Ryan is a great speaker of the House. None of that has changed.”

Asked about Trump’s call to watch Pirro’s show on Saturday, Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “I have spent more time within the last week with the president of the United States than I ever thought I would. … Never once have I seen him blame Paul Ryan. So I'm not sure what that was about last night.”

The uneasy alliance between Trump and Ryan did little to hide the increasingly acrimonious recriminations among Republicans. It’s a preview of the challenge Trump and Ryan will face as they nurse their wounds and attempt to regroup for what could be an even more divisive fight over tax reform,

Trump began Sunday with a tweet ripping the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus and their outside backers, the group of three-dozen Republicans and like-minded groups that banded together to help block the health care bill.

“Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!” he tweeted.

But Trump’s ire, apparently, wasn’t limited to the conservative rebels. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) — leader of the moderate Tuesday Group — confirmed that Trump upbraided him during a recent meeting at the White House and accused him of “destroying” the

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Trump delivers surprise to California

SACRAMENTO — California appeared destined for near-Dickensian times after Donald Trump’s election. The state had just delivered a landslide winning margin for his opponent and rapidly evolved into the beachhead of the Trump resistance. The irritable president threatened to withhold federal funding from the nation’s most populous state.

Yet in an early turn from that discord, the Trump administration has delivered on three big asks in its short time in office, approving much-needed presidential disaster declarations related to the Oroville Dam crisis and winter storms. The declarations free up what's likely to be millions of dollars in federal aid in more than a dozen California counties.

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The approvals don’t necessarily represent a thawing between the president and the state that loves to hate to him. Reconciliation on the most partisan — and consequential — issues remains out of reach. But while the federal government has historically approved a large majority of disaster and emergency declaration requests, the process is not immune from political considerations, and previous presidents have made headlines with their denials. The administration’s responsiveness to California suggests an opening in Trump’s Washington for even the most critical, heavily Democratic states.

“Nothing is all that predictable under the current administration,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said when he touched down in the nation’s capital this week for his first visit since the inauguration. “So that could be a cause for alarm, but also a cause for some optimism.”

Despite his coolness toward California, which delivered a popular vote margin of over 4 million votes for Hillary Clinton, Trump has largely sidestepped opportunities for open conflict with the state. While moving this month to roll back national vehicle emission standards, the Trump administration elected not to immediately seek revocation of a federal waiver allowing California to impose its own, stricter rules — though the administration could still do so following a move by California regulators Friday to impose even stricter state emissions standards.

In talks with Trump officials about the disaster declarations at least, the Brown administration was struck by a lack of politics in the administration's decision making, finding conversations professional and not dissimilar from other administrations.

With a fourth request pending, Brown said after meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Bob Fenton, “We feel we’re in synch with the federal emergency management team here … and I’m optimistic. I think President Trump cares about helping people in disasters.”

Like other presidents, Trump has also appeared to recognize the political opportunity in assisting states. Hours before issuing his first disaster declaration for California, in February, the president used the Oroville Dam emergency to advance his infrastructure agenda.

“The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that month. “Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair. In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the president’s vision for an overhaul of our

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Mar-a-Lago doesn’t hide its presidential seal

PALM BEACH, Fla. – President Donald Trump doesn't need to be at Mar-a-Lago for his glitzy private club to feel like the winter White House. The reminders are pretty much everywhere.

Stacked high at the front desk, just through the wrought-iron door at the main entrance, are copies of the latest issue of the seaside resort’s glossy promotional magazine, complete with a two-page photo spread celebrating the club owner’s biggest triumph yet.

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"Road to Victory,” reads the article’s headline. “Eric Trump walks us through some of the memorable moments on his father’s path to the White House."

On most weekends since Trump’s inauguration, the president and his entourage have been spotted in the club, loading up plates at the breakfast buffet, mingling with dues-paying members, turning up in photos on guests’ Facebook and Instagram feeds.

Melania Trump’s turn came Friday night. The seldom-seen first lady and her son Barron are there for spring break, and she made a brief cameo to greet a cocktail reception hosted by the county Republican party.

More than 700 Republican power brokers, fundraisers and foot soldiers paid $300 for a seat or as much as $5,000 for a table to enter the latest gala of the season inside the gold-painted Donald J. Trump Ballroom. Attendees said it was the most overtly political shindig at Mar-a-Lago since its host moved into the White House.

Away from media cameras, First Lady Melania Trump was spotted leaving a VIP reception where she posed for photographs with guests ahead of the annual Republican Party of Palm Beach County's Lincoln Day Dinner on March 24 at Mar-a-Lago Club. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Over an open bar, filet mignon and scallops, guests mostly shrugged off the collapse, just hours earlier, of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, marking Trump’s biggest loss in the early days of his presidency. “I’m trying to focus on the positive,” Adam Putnam, the Republican former Florida congressman who now runs the state’s Agriculture Commission, told POLITICO. “Maybe a better product will come out of it by not having it be quite so hasty.”

Instead, attendees celebrated their party’s dominance in Washington. Florida Gov. Rick Scott regaled the crowd with stories about his trip last month to see Trump in Washington, where they had lunch and watched “La La Land” in the White House theater. “He doesn’t eat the most healthy foods, by the way,” Scott said. A video clip from the campaign trail played on two giant overhead screens showing Trump on the stump with "Silk & Diamond,” the North Carolina sisters who gained fame thanks to their viral YouTube videos talking up the then-billionaire presidential candidate.

The night ended with a raffle. Prizes included an Apple Watch, a 14-karat gold and diamond necklace and a return ticket to the president’s club for a seafood dinner.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott arrives as President Donald Trump supporters greet guests with a sign during the annual Republican Party of Palm Beach County's Lincoln Day Dinner

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