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October 13, 2017
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The flag flies triumphantly above the building, gently fluttering in the wind, alerting people far and wide that a person of great honor and distinction is inside. No, it's not the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace — it's Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has a staffer climb up to the roof of his department's Washington headquarters and hoist up a special secretarial flag to signal that he's shown up to work for the day.

When Zinke leaves the office or travels, another employee makes the trek up to the roof to take down the flag, which features the agency's bison seal. If Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is in while Zinke is gone, he has his own special banner that goes up. Asked by The Washington Post what the point was of all this exactly, spokeswoman Heather Swift said it was "a major sign of transparency," adding that Zinke is "restoring honor and tradition to the department, whether it's flying the flag when he is in garrison or restoring traditional access to public lands."

While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a personal flag flying next to the U.S. flag at State Department headquarters at all times, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Zinke is the first interior secretary to do it, the Post reports, and not even the White House flies the presidential flag when President Trump is inside. Zinke might be a trailblazer, and others in the administration could soon emulate him — be on the lookout for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's banner, emblazoned with smoke stacks and oil-covered birds. Catherine Garcia

8:24 a.m. ET
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By the end of Donald Trump's presidential campaign last year, "drain the swamp" had become a regular chant at his rallies. A year on, though, President Trump has done little to follow through with his promises, Politico reports. "I don't think that anything's really changed," said Republican lobbyist Brian Wild. "If anything, the lobbying business is booming right now."

Before taking office, Trump proposed five major changes to lobbying rules, only one of which has been fully delivered nine months after his inauguration — "signing an executive order … that banned executive branch officials from lobbying for foreign governments and overseas political parties after they leave the administration." Other promises, including "to broaden the definition of lobbying, to ban lobbyists for foreign interests from making campaign contributions, and to lengthen the amount of time former lawmakers are banned from lobbying," have not been followed through, Politico writes.

Others say they have noticed pressure on lobbyists since Trump took office. The administration has "encouraged not only our office but other offices to proceed with 'drain the swamp' legislation," said George Cecala, the deputy chief of staff to Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.).

But even with things perhaps moving behind the scenes, it's still a good time to be a lobbyist in Washington: Spending on lobbying in 2017 was the highest since 2012, the Center for Responsive Politics found, totaling nearly $1.7 billion just in the first half of the year. Read more about why draining the swamp is an impossible task at The Week, and more about Trump's unfulfilled promises at Politico. Jeva Lange

8:05 a.m. ET
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Only 34 percent of Americans support the tax plan being promoted by President Trump and congressional Republicans while 52 percent oppose them, according to a new SSRS poll for CNN. Support depends on partisan identification — 81 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independents oppose the plan, while 70 percent of Republicans support it. Interestingly, 24 percent of respondents said they thought they and their families would be better off under the GOP tax plan, while 31 percent said they expect to be worse off and 37 percent said they would likely be the same. A recent CBS News poll found that 58 percent of Americans said the tax proposals primarily favor the wealthy.

A plurality of respondents, 38 percent, said the plan would increase the federal deficit, while only 22 percent said it would shrink it. Half of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of taxes, a new high. SRSS conducted the poll for CNN Oct. 12-15, speaking with 1,010 adults via telephone. It has a margin of sampling error of ±3.5 percentage points. Peter Weber

7:10 a.m. ET
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On Thursday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will officially roll out the health-care bill he negotiated with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), flanked by a "significant" number of Republican and Democratic cosponsors, Alexander said Wednesday. The bipartisan bill, dubbed Alexander-Murray, is expected to go nowhere for now, as President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came out against it on Wednesday. But "by the end of the year, chances are very good this agreement or something like it is law," Alexander said. Analysts agree.

Congress already has a packed December, including "funding the government and raising the debt ceiling — must-pass items that can only pass with a lot of Democratic votes, just like Alexander-Murray," says Sam Baker at Axios. "If Alexander-Murray doesn't pass before then, it's pretty easy to see Democratic leaders insisting on some form of Affordable Care Act stabilization as part of the end-of-year package. And this bill, or something close to it, is likely the best Republicans are going to get."

Wrapping up something like Alexander Murray — which guarantees two years of cost-sharing subsidies that insurance companies use to lower out-of-pocket costs for poorer customers, plus easing some coverage requirements on states — in an end-of-the-year omnibus package "would be less painful than voting on a stand-alone bill that conservatives view as a 'bailout' for insurance companies — and a vote to 'prop up' a law they've tried to dismantle for years," Politico notes. And with premiums already rising because Trump cut off the cost-sharing subsidies, or CSRs, "at some point [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and Ryan will need this," a senior GOP aide told Axios' Caitlin Owens. Peter Weber

6:03 a.m. ET

If you last tuned in to Howard Stern during his '90s "shock jock" days, the Stern who sat down with Jimmy Kimmel in Brooklyn on Wednesday might come as a surprise. "The most boring broadcasters are the ones that don't evolve, they don't change ... they don't grow up," he said. Back in his 20s and 30s, on AM/FM radio, "sex, and sex talk, and outrageousness was the thing, because you were breaking all the boundaries — it was taboo." Once he moved to satellite radio, "where you can do anything," Stern said, doing that kind of a show "would actually be, I think, a bit of a bore."

Stern showcased his quasi-maturity when he brought up disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. "This guy, it's an unbelievable story, and I said all these guys who do sexual harassment — I mean, they're freaks," he said. "This big fat guy, what does he think? He says to a woman — here's his standard move, according to all these women who've accused him — he goes, 'Listen, I'm going to get in the shower, I want you to watch me nude.' Now, I'm a man — if you saw me naked, you'd throw up. There's no girl on the planet that wants to see Harvey Weinstein naked and is gonna get aroused."

"Same with this Bill O'Reilly," the former Fox News host, Stern said. "What is it with these guys and the shower? Men don't look good in the shower." And convicted sexter Anthony Weiner, too. "The one thing women don't want to see is a guy's penis," Stern said. "They want to see you've got a job, they want to see you treat them nice." There is some mildly NSFW language, at least by the standards of '90s terrestrial radio. Watch below. Peter Weber

5:16 a.m. ET
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On Thursday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's office said it will convene a special cabinet meeting over the weekend to trigger Article 155 of the constitution, kicking off a process of reigning in Catalonia's regional autonomy. Rajoy had given Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont until 10 a.m. Thursday (local time) to clarify if the region had declared independence or not after an Oct. 1 referendum — Puigdemont had signed a declaration of independence then suspended it, asking for talks with Madrid. Puigdemont's response Thursday morning was that the regional parliament would likely approve a formal declaration of independence if Rajoy continued to "impede dialogue and continues its repression."

It isn't clear exactly what steps Rajoy's government will submit to the Senate to take partial control of Catalonia. Article 155 of the 1978 constitution has never been used before. But analysts say Madrid can't fully suspend Catalonia's autonomy but can take steps like taking control of the regional police, taking over Catalonia's finances, and calling a snap election. Peter Weber

4:25 a.m. ET
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Last week, Maryland police arrested Ronald Williams II on charges of child pornography possession and distribution, The Washington Post reported, and a senior administration officials said that Williams, 37, had been a researcher on President Trump's Commission on Election Integrity until he was abruptly fired last week. The commission's two Democratic members said Tuesday they had no idea the commission had any staff at all, other than executive director Andrew Kossack.

The two Democrats — Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and Alabama probate court Judge Alan King — told ProPublica on Tuesday they had never heard of Williams until they read of his arrest, and were concerned to learn that Williams had worked alongside fellow commissioner J. Christian Adams at the Justice Department in 2006, when Williams was an intern helping Adams prosecute a pioneering Voting Rights Act case to protect white voters. Dunlap sent the commission a letter on Tuesday expressing his frustration and requesting all communication involving commissioners dating back to February.

On Wednesday, 18 Democratic senators also sent the commission a letter demanding more information on its activities, and separately, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) sent a letter asking for a staff list and vetting criteria, noting, "If the commission's own members do not know who is working under its direction, how can the commission ensure accountability and transparency?" When the senators emailed their letters to the commission's public email address, ProPublica notes:

An automatic response email stated that the account no longer accepts public comments. Instead, commenters were directed to an "eRulmaking [sic] portal" or to submit written comments to "Mr. Ron Williams, Policy Advisor, Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity." [ProPublica]

Adams told ProPublica that Williams' "alleged behavior is appalling and incomprehensible," and "it would be hyper-partisan overreach to say that any grotesque behavior in his personal life is in any way a reflection of the vitally important work the commission is doing for the American people." Peter Weber

3:01 a.m. ET

North Korea is perhaps the most isolated nation on Earth, with few people allowed to leave and everything controlled by a dynastic ruling family apparently more focused on building nuclear weapons than assuring food security for the nation's population. BBC News spoke with four people who escaped North Korea to find out what life there was like, what they miss (friends and food, mostly), and what parts of the world they were able to view before breaking free.

"From a very early age we were brainwashed to believe Americans are Yankee wolves," one woman said. "I used to think all Americans were dangerous, yellow-eyed, and devilish." "I would imagine American and South Korean men would have this thick chest hair wrapping all around them," another women said, laughing. Less funny was the belief instilled in citizens that they would die and the country would collapse when the godlike leaders died, or the weekly "Regular Critique," where you were forced to reflect on your wrongs and report those of people you knew. You can watch and learn more below. Peter Weber

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