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How a secret Freedom Caucus pact brought down Obamacare repeal

Speaker Paul Ryan and House leaders had been toiling behind closed doors for weeks assembling their Obamacare repeal bill as suspicion on the far-right simmered to a boil.

So on March 6, just hours after Ryan unveiled a plan that confirmed its worst fears, the House Freedom Caucus rushed to devise a counter-strategy. The few dozen true believers knew that pressure from House leaders and President Donald Trump to fall in line would be immense, and they were intent on not getting boxed in.

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In a conference room in the Rayburn House Office Building, the group met that evening and made a secret pact. No member would commit his vote before consulting with the entire group — not even if Trump himself called to ask for an on-the-spot commitment. The idea, hatched by Freedom Caucus vice chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), was to bind them together in negotiations and ensure the White House or House leaders could not peel them off one by one.

Twenty-eight of the group's roughly three dozen members took the plunge.

Three weeks later, Republican leaders, as many as 25 votes short of passage, were forced to pull their bill from the House floor.

“This is a defining moment for our nation, but it's also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus,” said group leader Mark Meadows about a week before the doomed vote was scheduled. “I don't think there's a more critical vote for the Freedom Caucus than this."

The unpublicized pledge sowed the seeds of Friday’s collapse of the Republican Party’s seven-year campaign to replace Obamacare with its own vision of health care reform. While Trump and leadership were able to win over some Freedom Caucus members, the parties to the pact refused to budge without a green light from their peers, despite receiving one concession after another.

Their resistance — along with the objections of a handful of moderates — stymied Trump and Ryan in the first major legislative gambit between the policy expert and political novice. The Freedom Caucus stared down its own commander-in-chief and won — delivering a black eye to his early presidency and potentially damaging the rest of his agenda.

“They [were] basically saying, ‘We’re going to find all the guys who support it, and we’re all going to hold hands and be a ‘no' on something,’” said a senior Republican source. “It’s ironic because these are the guys who say, ‘I don’t turn my voting card over to leadership. I am the only guy who controls my voting card.' But then they do this stuff, where they say, ‘I can’t because my group is a no.’"

This account of the Freedom Caucus’ central role in the health care showdown is based on interviews with more than two dozen Republican legislators, White House officials and congressional aides. Time and again, they described the tortured, toxic political dynamic within the House Republican Conference — old news to those who’ve followed years of internecine battles between the far-right

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Freedom Caucus thwarts Boehner, Ryan — and now Trump

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Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows at times attempted to broker a health care deal with the White House and even extracted a few concessions. | Getty

President Donald Trump’s election was supposed to neuter the House Freedom Caucus, the band of three-dozen rabble-rousing conservatives who made their name vexing House GOP leadership and driving John Boehner into early retirement.

So much for that idea.

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On Friday, the Freedom Caucus delivered enough votes to sink Trump’s push to replace Obamacare, proving it can stymie not only another Republican speaker, but a new Republican president.

It was not supposed to be this way. Trump’s election, along with the return of Republican majorities to the House and Senate, appeared to marginalize the party’s purist wing. Republicans elected their own bomb-thrower to the presidency; the bomb-throwers in Congress were expected to have his back.

But the failed health care drive made clear that if Trump wants to deal with Congress, he has to reckon with the Freedom Caucus. As does Speaker Paul Ryan and every other member of House, many of whom were left seething by their colleagues’ inability to get to “yes” on the Obamacare replacement.

The group launched just over two years ago and has repeatedly bucked Republican leaders, forcing Boehner and then Ryan to cut deals with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

“There were people were not interested in solving the problem,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), one of the architects of the GOP health care plan, said Friday. “They win today."

Amazingly, Ryan’s old reality — a right-wing flank that tortures leadership on seemingly every big initiative — remains his new reality despite the GOP’s dominance. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) at times attempted to broker a health care deal with the White House and even extracted a few concessions. But eventually, he and his allies withheld their support, effectively killing the measure.

In a way, Meadows seemed to recognize that the group's resistance to the health care legislation represented a broader quest for meaning in the Trump era.

"Speaking candidly, this is a defining moment for our nation but it's also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus," he told reporters Monday, four days before Ryan pulled the health care bill. "And so when we look at that, I don't think there's a more critical vote for the Freedom Caucus than this."

Ryan pointed out at a press conference Friday afternoon that the caucus had enough votes to single-handedly kill the health care legislation, though slipping support from moderates also played a hand in its demise.

For now, Freedom Caucus members don’t seem interested in sending Ryan to the same fate as Boehner.

“Paul Ryan, he’s a very good man,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) “He’s an eloquent speaker. He is an excellent representative of the GOP conference as a whole, and I like the job he’s doing and I want him to stay as speaker of the House. And I’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”

But

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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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Virginia judge backs Trump on travel ban

Virginia judge backs Trump on travel ban

U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Trenga said Trump's redrafted order was different enough from his first travel ban that it should be allowed to go forward. | Getty

Key parts of revised order remain on hold due to other judges' rulings

By Josh Gerstein

03/24/17 01:07 PM EDT

Updated 03/24/17 01:47 PM EDT

A federal judge in Virginia has affirmed President Donald Trump's authority to issue his revised travel ban executive order, although key parts of the directive remain blocked due to rulings from two judges in other states.

In a ruling Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Trenga said Trump's redrafted order was different enough from his first travel ban and involved enough additional deliberation that it should be allowed to go forward despite arguments that it's simply a disguised version of the "Muslim ban" Trump repeatedly promised during the presidential campaign.

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"The substantive revisions reflected in [the second order] have reduced the probative value of the President’s statements to the point that it is no longer likely that Plaintiffs can succeed on their claim that the predominate purpose of EO-2 is to discriminate against Muslims based on their religion and that EO-2 is a pretext or a sham for that purpose," Trenga wrote in a 32-page opinion .

"In EO-2, the President has provided a detailed justification for the Order based on national security needs, and enjoining the operation of EO-2 would interfere with the President’s unique constitutional responsibilities to conduct international relations, provide for the national defense, and secure the nation," the judge added.

Trenga appeared to suggest that if he'd ruled on the first order, he would have come to a different conclusion.

"This Court is no longer faced with a facially discriminatory order coupled with contemporaneous statements suggesting discriminatory intent. And while the President and his advisors have continued to make statements following the issuance of EO-1 that have characterized or anticipated the nature of EO-2, the Court cannot conclude for the purposes of the Motion that these statements, together with the President’s past statements, have effectively disqualified him from exercising his lawful presidential authority," the judge wrote.

Federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland issued rulings last week against Trump's revised order, which puts a 90-day halt on issuance of visas to citizens of six majority-Muslim countries and suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days.

The Maryland judge ruled that Trump was barred by a non-discrimination provision in federal law from cutting off immigrant visas from specific countries. Trenga declined to go along with that conclusion.

At another point, Trenga said it was clear that the law allows Trump to stop any group of foreigners from entering the U.S. "The President has unqualified authority to bar physical entry to the United States at the border," the judge wrote.

The plaintiffs in the Virginia case, Muslim activists affiliated with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, vowed to appeal.

"Definitely, we'll be appealing it. That may even be filed today," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.

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Russia's state news service applies for White House pass

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Sputnik would be part of a rotating group of roughly 22 overseas outlets following President Donald Trump's administration. | AP Photo

The Russian state-owned news website Sputnik has applied for a White House hard pass and is seeking membership in the White House Foreign Press Group in order to become a part of pool rotations.

Sputnik, which Foreign Policy magazine described as the "BuzzFeed of propaganda," would be part of a rotating group of roughly 22 overseas outlets following President Donald Trump in his everyday interactions along with pool reporters from American print, TV, and radio outlets.

Andrew Feinberg, Sputnik’s White House correspondent, has been in talks with the WHFPG head Philip Crowther, who told POLITICO that if Feinberg and Sputnik complete the boilerplate criteria for being a member of the press group, there "shouldn't be any reason" they wouldn't join the White House press pool.

Among the criteria to become a WHFPG member is a White House-approved hard pass, membership in the White House Correspondents’ Association, and State Department verification that the network is, indeed, based in another country. Other state-sponsored outlets are part of the rotating foreign pool, including Crowther’s France 24 and China’s CCTV.

Sputnik is one of Russia’s government-funded news outlets aimed at international audiences. Launched in 2014, Sputnik has a goal of providing “alternative interpretations that are, undoubtedly, in demand around the world,” its head Dimitry Kiselyov said at the launch.

The site, which was formed by combining former wire services RIA Novosti and the Voice of Russia, has been criticized for being an unvarnished mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin. A poll on its site on Friday asked "In your opinion, does the mainstream media offer unbiased coverage of Crimea's reunification with Russia?”

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During the 2016 U.S. election, Sputnik's coverage tended to be favorable toward Trump, sometimes in a breathless way: "Secret File Confirms Trump Claim: Obama, Hillary 'Founded ISIS' to Oust Assad," proclaimed one headline. And the network once tweeted out a Trump's statement about "crooked Hillary" along with one of his favored hashtags, #CrookedHillary. The former U.S. Ambassador to Russia under Barack Obama, Michael McFaul, has even questioned whether Sputnik and the other Russian-owned news service RT should register as foreign agents. Now though, it appears as though the Russian-controlled outlets are less rooting for Trump than reveling in the chaos and division of his early presidency.

Feinberg, a former staff member for the newspaper The Hill, joined Sputink in January. He said he also reports for Broadband Census News, which he described as a telecom trade news outlet.

Feinberg said as far as he knows, he is the first Sputnik correspondent to apply for a White House hard pass in order to be a regular presence at the White House. Feinberg said the organization is also in the

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