August 18, 2014

On Sunday, Ukraine's military entered the center of Luhansk, one of two rebel-held cities in Eastern Ukraine. Rebels reportedly still control parts of Luhansk, but Ukrainian forces posted photos of the Ukrainian flag flying at a city police station.

This is the latest setback for the pro-Russia separatists who declared autonomous "people's republics" in Luhansk and Donetsk, 90 miles away, in April but have been steadily losing ground over the past month. In besieged Donetsk, separatist fighters are reportedly starting to dress in civilian clothes and carousing drunkenly around at night; three senior leaders of the separatist enclaves, all Russian nationals, have resigned or left the country over the past week.

Western officials and analysts are nervous about Russia's response to the separatists' dwindling fortunes. If Russian President Vladimir Putin believes "the rebels are about to get routed, we do have a problem," Eurasia Group analyst Cliff Kupchan tells The New York Times. Moscow's purportedly humanitarian convoy of 280 trucks is still on the Russia side of the border, and Russia maintains that it is not arming the rebels.

The new separatist prime minister of Donetsk, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said in a statement that Russia was sending him reinforcements, including 150 armored vehicles and 1,200 troops who'd spent the summer training in Russia, however. "They are joining at the most crucial moment," he added. And last Thursday night, reporters for Britain's The Telegraph said they witnessed "a column of armored vehicles and military trucks" crossing from Russian into a remote area near Donetsk; they call this "the first confirmed sighting of such an incident by Western journalists."

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers met Sunday in Berlin with their French and German counterparts for talks on ending the fighting and paving the way for the Russian aid to make its way into Ukraine. "It was a difficult discussion but I believe and I hope that we made progress on some points," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Peter Weber

11:01 a.m. ET

President Trump admitted he was floored by how "complicated" the health care system is when speaking Monday at the National Governor's Association meeting at the White House. "It's an unbelievably complex subject," Trump said, while outlining the plans his administration has come up with to repeal and replace ObamaCare. "Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated."

Trump explained that his team has come up with a solution that gives states "the flexibility they need to make the end result really, really good for them." But "statutorily" and because they "have to know what the health care is going to cost," Trump explained, health care has to get sorted out before he can go ahead with his tax cut plan — though he promised that will be "major, it's going to be simple, and the whole tax plan is wonderful." "It's actually, tax cutting has never been that easy, but it's a tiny little ant compared to what we're talking about with ObamaCare," Trump said, deeming the Affordable Care Act a "failed disaster" that's "no longer affordable."

Watch an astonished Trump break down the complexities of health care below. Becca Stanek

9:46 a.m. ET

As President Trump's relationship with the media grows increasingly combative, former President George W. Bush on Monday highlighted just how important media is to democracy. When asked during an interview on NBC's Today whether he ever considered the media the enemy of the American people — a label Trump recently assigned it — Bush was quick to point out the media's merits. "We need an independent media to hold people like me to account," Bush said. "Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power."

In Trump's first month in office, he has repeatedly attacked the media, tweeting criticisms of the "failing" New York Times, deeming CNN "fake news," and accusing news outlets of making up sources. On Friday, several major media outlets were barred from entering an informal briefing with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and on Saturday, Trump announced he would not attend the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, becoming the first president to miss the dinner since former President Ronald Reagan was sidelined by an assassination attempt in 1981.

Bush, after recalling the time he tried to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin of the importance of a free press, noted the U.S. needs to take the advice it doles out. "It's kind of hard to tell others to have an independent free press when we're not willing to have one ourselves," Bush said.

Catch the interview below. Becca Stanek

9:31 a.m. ET
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In planning the federal budget proposal, President Trump is asking agencies to raise military spending, cut back on domestic programs, and not touch entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, Politico reports.

"We will be substantially upgrading all of our military, all of our military, offensive, defensive, everything. Bigger and better and stronger than ever before," Trump promised the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. "And hopefully we'll never have to use it, but nobody's going to mess with us, folks. Nobody." The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the U.S. spends more on the military than the next seven countries in the world combined.

Increases are planned specifically for defense, homeland security, intelligence, the Department of Justice, and law enforcement, an administration official told Politico. "Dollar for dollar cuts" are expected elsewhere. As for Social Security and Medicare, "don't expect to see that as part of this budget," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. "We are very focused on other aspects and that's what's very important to us." The White House is expected to send its targets to the agencies on Monday. Jeva Lange

9:20 a.m. ET
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One unifying goal for the Republican Party over the past seven years has been the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but now that the GOP controls Congress and the White House, it seems the party can't agree on what to do next. With fissures between Republican moderates and various conservative factions growing wider as GOP lawmakers return from the Presidents' Day recess, where several of them got an earful from constituents, GOP leaders have come up with a new plan, The Wall Street Journal reports: "Set a bill in motion and gamble that fellow GOP lawmakers won't dare to block it."

The new push to repeal and replace ObamaCare in three stages begins this week, premised on an acknowledgment that there is no plan that will get a comfortable majority in either chamber. Assuming no Democrats back the repeal bill, Republicans can lose two senators and 22 House members, giving really any GOP faction de facto veto power. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are going to gamble on the "now or never" gambit anyway, WSJ reports, "because their entire domestic policy agenda, including a highly prized tax overhaul, rests on the health care maneuver paying off first."

Some GOP strategists even see this high-stakes gamble as an asset, because McConnell and Ryan could hang ObamaCare on any faction that tries to block the bill. "You're a Republican, you've been running to repeal ObamaCare, they put a repeal bill in front of you," said GOP health policy adviser Doug Badger. "Are you going to be the Republican senator who prevents ObamaCare repeal from being sent to a Republican president who is willing to sign it?" A lot rests on the answer to that question, though any "replace" effort needs support from Democrats to pass. You can read more about the GOP leadership's high-wire act at The Wall Street Journal. Peter Weber

9:01 a.m. ET
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Many recent deportees and other potential immigrants along the Mexican border to the United States are having second thoughts about whether or not to attempt an illegal crossing, the Los Angeles Times reports. "It's just too hard now with [President] Trump," said Alejandro Ramos Maceda, who was deported following a traffic charge in St. Louis, leaving his wife and daughters, who are citizens, behind in the U.S. "It's just a lot harder to cross than we thought," added another potential migrant, Vicente Vargas, 15, who turned back with a group of other teenagers after considering the crossing.

While Trump's wall has yet to be constructed and the administration has not yet bolstered its Border Patrol forces, "people are psychologically traumatized," a people smuggler told the Times.

"There's just a lot of uncertainty right now," said Jesus Arturo Madrid Rosas, a representative for Grupo Beta, a Mexican organization that assists migrants. "People don't know what's going to happen. Maybe that's keeping some people back."

The thinning traffic over the border is not even entirely Trump's doing; multiple presidential administrations have improved security, from fencing to hiring more guards. In 2016, there were just 408,870 apprehensions on the southwest border, compared with 1.6 million in 2000 or 1.1 million in 2006.

But today, "Trump, the border, deportations, roundups" are "all anyone is talking about," Sheriff Tony Estrada of Arizona's Santa Cruz County told the Los Angeles Times. "You hear it in the cafes, in the restaurants, everywhere. People are scared." Read the full report here. Jeva Lange

8:19 a.m. ET

The United States' bid to host the 2026 World Cup could be lost due to President Trump's travel restrictions on seven predominately Muslim countries, indicating that the reverberations of his 2017 executive order could be felt even long after he is out of office, The New York Times reports.

"It will be part of the evaluation, and I am sure it will not help the United States to get the World Cup," said FIFA vice president Aleksander Ceferin. "If players cannot come because of political decisions, or populist decisions, then the World Cup cannot be played there. It is true for the United States, but also for all the other countries that would like to organize a World Cup."

The threat is perhaps particularly striking because the two preceeding World Cups will be held in Russia, in 2018, and Qatar, in 2022 — both hotly controversial decisions:

2026 tournament bids must be submitted by December of next year. A decision will be announced in May 2020. Jeva Lange

8:12 a.m. ET

As the rest of President Trump's White House seems to be settling into a rhythm, the communications office is overworked, under constant scrutiny from the cable-news-fanatic-in-chief, and now being hounded by Press Secretary Sean Spicer and White House lawyers trying to stop the flood of leaks that Spicer now believes is coming from his staff, White House sources tell Politico. Things came to a head last week when Spicer called an "emergency meeting," and after staffers arrived, they were told to deposit all their phones on a table to prove they had nothing to hide, Politico reports:

Spicer, who consulted with White House counsel Don McGahn before calling the meeting, was accompanied by White House lawyers in the room, according to multiple sources. There, he explicitly warned staffers that using texting apps like Confide — an encrypted and screenshot-protected messaging app that automatically deletes texts after they are sent — and Signal, another encrypted messaging system, was a violation of the Presidential Records Act, according to multiple sources in the room. ... Spicer also warned the group of more problems if news of the phone checks and the meeting about leaks was leaked to the media. [Politico]

One leak Spicer was reportedly particularly incensed about was the hiring of Michael Dubke as White House communications director, an addition designed in part to release the workload on Spicer and his staff, who often work 18-hour days. And now the staffers are worried about firings. "In general," said one senior administration official, "there is a lot of insecurity." Spicer declined to comment about the leaks. You can read more at Politico. Peter Weber

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