SCOOP -- NAHAL TOOSI: “Rex Tillerson’s $12 million army of consultants”: “It was one of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s core goals: radically reshaping the State Department to make it leaner, cheaper and modernized to the standards of a former private-sector CEO. Now that Tillerson has been fired, the vaunted ‘Redesign’ initiative he launched faces an uncertain future, but at least one clear legacy: around $12 million dollars spent just for private consultants who in some cases charged the State Department more than $300 an hour.
“The figures, included in materials obtained by POLITICO and confirmed in part by a State Department spokesperson, have not previously been reported. Most of the money has gone to the consulting firm Deloitte as part of a pre-existing federal contract whose ceiling was lifted to $265 million, an indication of the redesign’s ambitions.
“As many as 90 consultants worked on the project, according to one document. Many of the consultants have spent extensive time at the State Department, meeting with top officials, collecting and analyzing data, creating PowerPoint presentations and leading group discussions with skeptical employees.” https://politi.co/2GA2uzc
Good Thursday morning. HECK OF A SPORTS DAY in D.C. today. Nats have their first home game at 1:05 p.m. against the New York Mets. Washington Capitals play the Nashville Predators in their second-to-last home game of the year at 7 p.m. at Capital One Center. And the Masters begins today at 3:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.
SPOTTED: Omarosa sipping a strawberry margarita at Lauriol Plaza Wednesday night.
TRUMP’S REALITY CHECK -- “Trump’s easy campaign promises run into the difficulties of reality,” by WaPo’s Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey and Phil Rucker: “An emboldened President Trump is discovering that the policies he once described as easy fixes for the nation are a lot more complicated in reality -- creating backlash among allies, frustrating supporters and threatening the pocketbooks of many farming communities that helped get him elected. Freed from the caution of former advisers, Trump has spent recent weeks returning to the gut-level basics that got him elected: tough talk on China, a promise of an immigration crackdown and an isolationist approach to national security.
“Several people who have spoken to the president say he is telling advisers that he is finally expediting the policies that got him elected and is more comfortable without a number of aides around him who were tempering his instincts. And he often cites rising poll numbers in recent weeks as a reason he should do it his own way, these people said.
“But at every front he has faced resistance from within his own coalition. Immigration hawks have been infuriated by his inability to build the border wall with funding from either Mexico or U.S. taxpayers. Many military leaders and foreign policy strategists have been alarmed by his promise to remove troops from Syria. And Republicans on Capitol Hill have protested the rising signs of a trade war with China.” https://wapo.st/2El71DC
WELCOME TO THE WHITE HOUSE -- “Kudlow tries to tame Trump’s trade war,” by Ben White and Nancy Cook: “On Day Three of Larry Kudlow’s first week at the White House, the president’s new economic adviser did exactly what he was hired to do: go on TV to calm the stock market over something his boss said. Kudlow, a former CNBC contributor and Wall Street economist who now oversees the National Economic Council, is a self-avowed advocate of free trade—but he found himself on Wednesday defending President Donald Trump’s proposed tariffs on Chinese goods.
“Kudlow’s performance on Wednesday set the stage for him to play the role in the coming months of the White House’s top economic salesman, forcing him to ‘jump right into the frying pan,’ one longtime ally said. ... With markets slipping early in the day, Kudlow went on Fox Business Network’s Varney & Co., to say the trade plans were just ‘the first proposals’ — a not-so-coded message to his former Wall Street colleagues.” https://politi.co/2q6u2WF
CLICKER -- @JoshuaGreen: “Great Bloomberg chart showing ‘Soybean Voters’ who’ll get slammed by Chinese tariffs. Won’t be pleasant for Midwest Republicans this November.” http://bit.ly/2GxCb0w
-- WSJ: “Tariff Showdown Shifts to Intense Negotiation Period,” by Josh Zumbrun: “U.S. administration officials did little to gloss over the likelihood that the trade spat had entered a period of protracted negotiations -- and more market turmoil -- and suggested the president was willing to withstand domestic pressures to achieve an improved trading relationship with Beijing. The clear signal from the White House was the U.S., while open to discussing solutions, wasn’t prepared to back down anytime soon.” https://on.wsj.com/2Hc8NKi
BEHIND THE SCENES OF THIS TOWN -- “Trump’s dinner diplomacy,” by Nancy Cook: “It turns out that President Donald Trump loves to throw a good dinner party. The president is known for his after-hours cellphone calls and his late-night cable news habit, but several times a month, he invites New York real estate pals and businessmen, conservative leaders, prominent TV journalists, former campaign aides, and lawmakers to private dinners inside the White House residence – gatherings never made public on the official White House schedule.
“Even as the president has withdrawn from the types of public events that were standard for his predecessors, he’s sustained the dinner party as a staple of presidential power – though he’s traded the high-wattage salons hosted by the Obamas for clubby interactions with people he considers peers, according to eight current and former administration officials and sources who have been to the meals. The parties, which have recently ramped up, afford Trump the chance to do something he loves – play host – a role that runs contrary to the narrative of him isolated at night in the White House.” https://politi.co/2uO3UVd
THE PRESIDENT’S ADVISERS -- “John Bolton runs into potential ethics issues before he becomes Trump’s national security advisor,” by CNBC’s Brian Schwartz: “John Bolton, who is days away from becoming President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, has been meeting with White House attorneys about possible conflicts of interest, CNBC has learned. The exact sticking points for Bolton are unclear, but ethics experts say the appearance of a possible future role for Bolton with an entity such as a political action committee could be a cause for concern for White House officials.” https://cnb.cx/2GAeuVq
THE PRUITT FILES … JUST A THOUGHT: EPA ADMINISTRATOR SCOTT PRUITT defenders keep saying that Trump won’t get rid of him because he’s following through on promises, and enacting policies that Trump likes. He’s rolled back a raft of Obama-era regulations, Well, duh. Any Republican EPA administrator can and would do the same thing. The idea that Pruitt has some unique power that others don’t isn’t reality.
-- CNN’S CRISTINA ALESCI: “EPA ethics official says he didn’t have all the facts on Pruitt’s lease”: “The Environmental Protection Agency’s top ethics watchdog clarified his earlier analysis of whether Administrator Scott Pruitt’s rental arrangement broke the federal gift rule, saying he didn’t have all the facts when evaluating the lease, according to a memo provided to CNN.
“The official also made clear that he didn’t evaluate whether Pruitt had violated other ethics rules, according to the memo obtained by the Campaign Legal Center and shared with CNN. Last week, Designated Agency Ethics Official Kevin Minoli determined that Pruitt’s rental was within federal ethics regulations regarding gifts, which despite being issued after the fact seemed to clear Pruitt of wrongdoing. His conclusion was based on the assumption that Pruitt followed the lease terms as written.
“The new document makes clear that the old opinion doesn’t cover facts that were excluded from the legal contract between Pruitt and the landlord. ‘Some have raised questions whether the actual use of the space was consistent with the terms of the lease. Evaluating those questions would have required factual information that was not before us and the Review does not address those questions,’ Minoli wrote in the memo.” https://cnn.it/2GSZ51Q
-- EMILY HOLDEN, ALEX GUILLEN and ANDREW RESTUCCIA: “Pruitt and allies launch campaign to save his job”: “EPA chief Scott Pruitt and his allies in the administration are on a mission to save his job — offering a blitz of interviews to friendly media outlets while separately accusing a former agency staffer of a cascade of damaging leaks. But the White House made it clear Wednesday that President Donald Trump is not pleased with all the negative headlines surrounding him.
“Pruitt’s challenges appeared to deepen when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — asked why Trump is ‘OK’ with the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency renting a condo from a lobbyist for $50 a night — responded that ‘the president’s not.’ ‘We’re reviewing the situation,’ she said, adding: ‘The president thinks that he’s done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front. But again, we take this seriously and we’re looking into it and we'll let you know when we finish.’
“An administration official called the White House’s view of the Pruitt situation ‘fluid.’ The official said Trump is hesitant to make a change at the top of the EPA, which is why he hasn’t made a decision yet. ... In an interview Wednesday with Fox News, Trump’s favorite news channel, Pruitt likened his condo rental to ‘an Airbnb situation’ and denied knowing about the raises until this week. When Fox’s Ed Henry asked him whether the rental contradicted Trump’s promise to ‘drain the swamp,’ Pruitt bristled: ‘I don’t think that that’s even remotely fair to ask that question.’” https://politi.co/2GzoFK2 ... The Fox interview https://fxn.ws/2El7XI8
-- THE DAILY BEAST’S ASAWIN SUEBSAENG and LACHLAN MARKAY: “John Kelly to Scott Pruitt: The Scandals Need to Stop”: “Is there anything else that ‘hasn’t come out’ yet, Kelly asked, according to three Trump administration sources. The chief of staff then impressed upon Pruitt that, though he has the full public confidence of President Trump for now, the flow of negative and damning stories needed to stop soon, as one source briefed on the contents of the call described.” https://thebea.st/2H9RMRd
-- WAPO’S JULIET EILPERIN and BRADY DENNIS: “After leaving $50-a-night rental, EPA’s Scott Pruitt had no fixed D.C. address for a month”: https://wapo.st/2GSp8Gz
LAS VEGAS REVIEW JOURNAL: “Ex-fiancee says Las Vegas GOP campaign adviser made her his slave,” by Ramona Giwargis: “A Las Vegas political adviser who worked on national campaigns and high-profile Nevada races sexually enslaved and battered his ex-fiancée before police responded to a domestic dispute, the woman told the Review-Journal.
“The 46-year-old woman provided copies of emails, text messages and a signed contract laying out her duties as a ‘slave in training’ to Benjamin Sparks. A Las Vegas police report shows that Sparks, who most recently worked on Republican Cresent Hardy’s campaign to win back the 4th Congressional District seat he held from 2015 to 2017, evaded police after the domestic dispute at the woman’s home on March 29. Officers determined there is ‘probable cause to arrest Sparks for domestic battery,’ and charges are pending. …
“Sparks previously served as a spokesman and high-level staffer on a number of national campaigns, including Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and the anti-recall campaign of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2012. … According to emails, documents and text messages obtained by the Review-Journal, Sparks and his ex-fiancée signed a five-page contract stating that she would be his ‘slave and property.’ Under the contract, the woman was forced to kneel and look down when she entered his presence, be nude at all times, have sexual relations with him whenever he wanted and wear a collar in private.” http://bit.ly/2GBMWuZ
THE INVESTIGATIONS ....
-- REUTERS’ SARAH LYNCH: “Judge skewers Manafort’s civil case challenging Mueller’s powers”: “A federal judge tore into all of the legal arguments that a lawyer for President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort made on Wednesday in his long-shot civil case to convince her that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has run amok and should be reined in. ‘I don’t really understand what is left of your case,’ U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said to Kevin Downing, Manafort’s attorney, after peppering him with a lengthy series of questions.” https://reut.rs/2Jn4iNE
-- CNN’S KARA SCANNELL and SHIMON PROKUPECZ: “Mueller’s team questioning Russian oligarchs”: “Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has taken the unusual step of questioning Russian oligarchs who traveled into the U.S., stopping at least one and searching his electronic devices when his private jet landed at a New York area airport, according to multiple sources familiar with the inquiry. A second Russian oligarch was stopped during a recent trip to the U.S., although it is not clear if he was searched, according to a person briefed on the matter. Mueller’s team has also made an informal voluntary document and interview request to a third Russian oligarch who has not traveled to the U.S. recently.
“The situations have one thing in common: Investigators are asking whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled cash donations directly or indirectly into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and inauguration. ... The approach to Russian oligarchs in recent weeks may reflect that Mueller's team has already obtained records or documents that it has legal jurisdiction over and can get easily, one source said, and now it’s a ‘wish list’ to see what other information they can obtain from Russians entering the U.S. or through their voluntary cooperation.” https://cnn.it/2HcqWYL
-- NYT’S MARK MAZZETTI, DAVID KIRKPATRICK, BEN PROTESS and SHARON LAFRANIERE: “Witness in Mueller Inquiry Who Advises U.A.E. Ruler Also Has Ties to Russia”: “A witness who is cooperating in the special counsel investigation, George Nader, has connections to both the Persian Gulf states and Russia and may have information that links two important strands of the inquiry together, interviews and records show. Mr. Nader’s ties to the United Arab Emirates are well documented — he is an adviser to its leader — but the extent of his links to Russia have not been previously disclosed.
“Mr. Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman, has a catalog of international connections that paved the way for numerous meetings with White House officials that have drawn the attention of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. For example, Mr. Nader used his longstanding ties to Kirill Dmitriev, the manager of a state-run Russian investment fund, to help set up a meeting in the Seychelles between Mr. Dmitriev and a Trump adviser days before Donald J. Trump took office.
“Separately, investigators have asked witnesses about a meeting Mr. Nader attended in 2017 with a New York hedge fund manager, where he was joined by Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, who at the time were both senior advisers to Mr. Trump. The investigative trail even led Mr. Mueller’s team to stop an Australian entrepreneur with ties to the U.A.E. after he landed at a Washington-area airport, according to people briefed on the matter. The investigators questioned the entrepreneur about Mr. Nader, including Mr. Nader’s relationship with Russia and his contacts with Mr. Trump’s advisers, as well as the movement of money from the U.A.E. into the United States.” https://nyti.ms/2HarHS1
HOLLYWOODLAND -- “Saudi Crown Prince Charms Haim Saban, Jonathan Nelson, Dan Senor at Private Dinner,” by the Wrap’s Sharon Waxman: “According to an individual with knowledge of the meeting, the four-hour dinner had Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud expounding on his vision of an economically diverse, culturally significant Saudi Arabia, a message he has been selling hard in a jam-packed trip to Hollywood and later in the week to Silicon Valley.
“The evening was more intimate than some of the other events this week, including those hosted by Rupert Murdoch or Brian Grazer. It took place at the crown prince’s Beverly Hills mansion, and was limited to the four men. (A fifth invitee, billionaire and Los Angeles civic philanthropist Eli Broad, fell ill and did not attend, the insider said.)” http://bit.ly/2Hcrgqr
SOMEONE FAMILIAR WITH THE DINNER told us MBS -- at the urging of Jared Kushner -- has been meeting with people who could help him identify “potential areas of quiet cooperation” between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This dinner was part of that effort.
-- IT’S FASCINATING how the U.S. media is covering MBS’s visit to the United States. He’s the autocratic head of a petrostate that has been scolded for human rights abuses. Yet, he’s being covered as if he’s a harmless yet visionary British royal. This is a guy who locked up much of the country’s upper class in a Ritz Carlton not too long ago.
TRUMP’S THURSDAY -- The president will travel to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to hold a tax reform roundtable -- this starts at 2:25 p.m. He will then return to the White House.
SUNDAY SO FAR … “FOX NEWS SUNDAY”: Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). Panel: Karl Rove, Donna Edwards, Michael Needham and Juan Williams.
FOR YOUR RADAR -- “Anticipating Trump’s next move, aides prep Iran deal pullout,” by AP’s Matt Lee and Josh Lederman: “Anticipating an unpredictable president’s next moves, U.S. officials have started actively planning for the likelihood that Donald Trump will announce next month that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. But no one knows exactly what would happen next or how Iran would respond.
“Still, with less than five weeks until President Donald Trump’s deadline, national security officials are exploring various ‘day after’ scenarios. Those include how to sell a pullout as the correct strategy, how aggressively to reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the agreement and how to deal with Iranian and European fallout from such a step, according to officials, diplomats and outside advisers to the administration.” http://bit.ly/2q61M6y
-- “Trump gets testy as national security team warns of risks of Syria withdrawal,” by CNN’s Elise Labott and Kevin Liptak: “President Donald Trump grew irritated with his top military brass and national security team on Tuesday when they advised him an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would be unwise and could not provide a timeline for when American forces could exit, people familiar with the matter said.
“In a sometimes-tense meeting of his national security team, Trump complained at length about the amount of American money being spent in the region, which he said had produced nothing for the U.S. in return, according to senior administration officials. And he continued to question why other countries in the region -- particularly the wealthy Persian Gulf nations – haven’t stepped in. Despite his annoyance and public statement to the contrary, Trump agreed to hold off on immediately pulling troops from the war-plagued nation, even after airing his displeasure with top national security officials.” https://cnn.it/2q518qa
VALLEY TALK -- “Facebook Data on 87 Million Users May Have Been Improperly Shared,” by WSJ’s Georgia Wells and John D. McKinnon: “Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that he made a ‘huge mistake’ in not focusing more on potential abuse of users’ personal information, as the social-media giant he founded revealed that data breaches were far more extensive than previously known.
“Mr. Zuckerberg’s most direct mea culpa to date came as Facebook disclosed that data from as many as 87 million of its users may have been improperly shared with an analytics firm tied to the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump, up from the 50 million previously reported. ...
“In another revelation, the company said ‘most people on Facebook’ could have had information scraped by marketers who used a feature that distributed profile data connected to users’ email addresses and phone numbers. Facebook said it has now disabled the feature. ... In [a] conference call, Mr. Zuckerberg said he erred when he dismissed the threat of fake news as ‘crazy’ shortly after the 2016 election. ‘What is clear at this point is that it was too flippant,’ Mr. Zuckerberg said.” https://on.wsj.com/2GBl8qp
-- “Oracle’s Safra Catz Raises Amazon Contract Fight With Trump,” by Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs: “Oracle Corp. chief executive Safra Catz criticized the bidding process for a huge Pentagon cloud computing contract in a private dinner with President Donald Trump on Tuesday, complaining that it seemed designed for Amazon.com Inc. to win, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump heard her out and said he wants the contract competition to be fair, but made no indication he’d interfere in the bidding.” https://bloom.bg/2q5Zrry
WHOA -- “San Francisco’s Median House Price Hits a New High: $1.6 Million,” by Bloomberg’s Noah Buhayar: “The median sale price of a house in the city soared to $1.6 million in the first quarter, an almost 24 percent jump from a year earlier, according to a new report from Paragon Real Estate Group.” https://bloom.bg/2ElgXwR
MEDIAWATCH -- “Sinclair’s Boss Responds to Criticism: ‘You Can’t Be Serious!’” by NYT’s Sydney Ember: “David D. Smith, the chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, says the media is getting his company all wrong. His remark, in a lengthy email exchange with The New York Times, came in response to renewed scrutiny of Sinclair after a video spread rapidly showing anchors at dozens of its stations across the country reciting the same speech about media bias.
“Mr. Smith defended the anchors’ segments, known as ‘must-runs,’ and likened them to the late-night shows that networks air on their local affiliates. ... Asked about the widespread criticism prompted by the Deadspin compilation, Mr. Smith expressed disbelief. ‘You cant be serious!’ he wrote. ‘Do you understand that as a practical matter every word that comes out of the mouths of network news people is scripted and approved by someone?’” https://nyti.ms/2q7SztT
-- @mattdpearce: “Sinclair TV stations have received a new ‘must-run’ Boris Epshteyn segment that was internally titled ‘MEDIA BASHING OF THE SINCLAIR BROADCASTING GROUP.’ Though this segment is mainly Boris defending himself and bashing cable/broadcast news journalists.” http://bit.ly/2H9QTrN
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK –– SAMANTHA DRAVIS, senior counsel and associate administrator of the EPA’s Office of Policy, submitted her resignation early last week, according to a source familiar with her plans. She has been planning to leave the agency for a while, but hasn’t decided exactly when she will depart. Dravis, who previously served as policy director and general counsel of the Republican Attorneys General Association, will pursue opportunities in the private sector. She did not respond to a request for comment.
ENGAGED -- Tess Glancey, deputy director of comms at the House Homeland Security Committee and Rob Crampton, a team leader at Bloomberg LP, “got engaged at lower Senate Park this Saturday and celebrated with close family and friends at the Trump Hotel afterwards. The couple met in school at Bates College in Maine.” Pics http://bit.ly/2Gzpv9p ... http://bit.ly/2Hcmx8a
WELCOME TO THE WORLD -- Garrett Marquis, founder and managing partner at Prism Group, and Ashley Marquis, deputy assistant to the president for economic affairs and NEC chief of staff, on Tuesday welcomed Grace Hickey Marquis.
BIRTHWEEK (was yesterday): Richard Starr, editor of the Weekly Standard (hat tip: Priscilla Jensen)
BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Lizzy Guyton, comms director for Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. An interesting book she’s reading: “I’m reading ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall at the recommendation of my dear friend and Scott Brown alum, Colin Reed. The book is based on the fascinating and secretive lifestyle of Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe and their superhuman running talents. McDougall weaves in the lesser known stories of ultramarathon runners across the country, which has resulted in a great motivational read for the upcoming Boston Marathon that I’m running in on April 16th.” Read her Playbook Plus Q&A: https://politi.co/2Em2DnP
BIRTHDAYS: Mary Katharine Ham … Colin Powell is 81 ... Andrew Noyes, head of comms at JUST ... David Hill, a Bush 43 Commerce and Treasury alum now a VP at JP Morgan ... Politico’s David Van Veen ... Marcy Lin ... Garrett Marquis, Prism Group founder and managing partner, is 35 (h/ts Ashley Marquis and Qianwei Zhang) ... former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler ... Dan Berman, CNN Politics Digital enterprise editor ... Josh Culling, SVP of Dezenhall Resources, is 33 ... Alexander Hart ... Melissa Shuffield ... Annie Gowen, WashPost’s India bureau chief ... Meghan Cox, partner at Lincoln Strategy Group … Jacqueline Usyk ... UAW’s Eric Heggie … Jessica Butler … Sam Lane, a producer at PBS NewsHour and a proud University of Iowa alum from Minnesota (h/t Allie Wright) ... LA Observed editor-publisher Kevin Roderick ... Eric Lewis ... Burson-Marsteller’s Thomas Gensemer (h/ts Gabe and Samson) … The Penn Program on Regulation is 7 ... Jesse Rifkin, congressional reporter at GovTrack.us ... Mikala Stubley … Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) is 74 ... former Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) is 61 ... former Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) is 62 ... Mark Linton, president of Linton Strategies ...
... Shea Snider Miller, communications director for Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) ... Greg Jackson … LCV’s Leslie Martes ... Abby Fenton … twins Luke (foreign affairs officer at State, back today from a stint at an embassy overseas) and Brian Principato (senior editor at launchsquad) are 31. “They’ll be celebrating at the same beloved bar they’ve been celebrating at for the last 5 years – Local 16” ... Jacqueline Eufrausino … Ben Rosenbaum … the Weekly Standard’s Adam Rubenstein (h/t Alice Lloyd) ... NYT senior staff editor Jillian Rayfield … Aleca Hughes ... Teri Galvez ... Steven Rosenberg, Moscow correspondent for BBC ... Scott Clifford ... Natalie Foster … Lindsay Boyd ... Jeff Young ... Andy Karsner ... Matt Gertz of Media Matters ... Erin O’Connor ... Heather Hopkins ... Alex Walters ... Melanie Babb … Edelman V.P. Lauren Barker ... Lindsy Fagerstrom ... Edward Allen ... John Diamond ... Dan Reese ... Rebecca Hanks Fisher ... Yasmeen Alamiri ... Robin Schepper ... John Zaccaro ... Liam Kerr (h/ts Teresa Vilmain)