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Inside Politics: Alleged Russian spy's charm offensive

Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina revamps her image while awaiting trial, President Trump's strategy in Afghanistan, Independents look for an upswing in midterms, is Trump's rally material losing its ability to change headlines, and the Democrats' 2018 income inequality spotlight—it's all on Inside Politics.

Posted: Aug 20, 2018 11:04 AM
Updated: Aug 20, 2018 11:22 AM

Here are the stories our D.C. insiders are talking about in this week's "Inside Politics" forecast, where you get a glimpse of tomorrow's headlines today.

1. Alleged Russian spy's image rehabilitation

Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina and her lawyer are attempting something of an image makeover.

Butina, who was arrested in July on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent, allegedly worked to make inroads with the NRA and other conservative groups, all with the goal of pushing Russia's agenda in the US.

Her lawyer, however, is trying to change that narrative, launching an online legal defense fund and using sympathetic photos of Butina to reframe her as an innocent student wrongly accused.

"But those very glossy photos are going to be up against a very different image," CNN's Sara Murray said, "and that's going to be her mugshot as she was booked into the Alexandria Detention Center over the weekend."

2. Questions over Trump's Afghanistan strategy

One year ago this week, President Trump unveiled his strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

But with the war now in its 17th year, and the Taliban making strategic gains throughout the war-torn country, there are mounting questions over whether or not that strategy is actually working.

Military leaders are urging the President to be patient, but they are increasingly concerned that he may decide the current plan isn't working -- and order the military to pull out of the country altogether.

"His instinct has always been to withdraw," the New York Times' Julie Davis said. "And with a $4-billion-a-year price tag just for propping up those Afghan security forces, you're starting to hear more concern in the administration that he could just follow through on that instinct."

3. Are Trump rallies losing their headline-grabbing effect?

Once upon a time, Trump campaign rallies were must-see TV, driving the news cycle for days.

But more recently the President's rallies are not having the same effect, even as he ramps up his campaign schedule

For a President who sometimes struggles with staying on script, Trump's rallies largely follow a familiar pattern -- a rehashing of election night, slams against political opponents, and criticism of the ongoing investigation into Russia meddling in the 2016 election.

But as the Wall Street Journal's Michael Bender notes, that familiarity might lose its appeal to the President, who prides himself on his ability to upend a news cycle.

"This is a President who thrives on driving a news cycle in front of large crowds," Bender said. "The question is, how long will this be a release for the President as the top networks stop carrying these rallies?"

4. Will income inequality be an important part of the Dems' 2018 playbook?

As the stock market is set to hit its longest run of growth in US history, the President is touting the strength of the American economy.

But a report from the Labor Department shows that while Wall Street is doing well, it's an entirely different story for workers.

Wages for workers have remained essentially flat since the 2008 recession, and are actually down slightly when adjusted for inflation, despite Trump's recent tax cuts.

That's bad news for Republicans running on the tax cuts' success -- and Democrats are looking to drive that message home ahead of the November midterm elections.

"Corporate America is doing great, worker wages are flat," Bloomberg's Toluse Olorunnipa said. "That's going to be a theme on the campaign trail for a number of Democrats this fall."

5. Independents look to shake up 2018

There was a political convention of sorts in Denver this weekend. It was a gathering of independents who may face long odds in their efforts but are worth watching.

Unite America is the organization, and its leaders say their goal is to provide financial and organizational support to independent candidates -- not to organize as a third party.

There are a handful of statewide candidates that have the organization's backing. But a major immediate goal is focused on lower ballot races: Unite America is targeting state legislatures with chambers that are evenly or closely divided. The idea is that electing two, three, or four independents to such chambers could provide a centrist, pragmatic swing vote on major issues.

This is hardly the first group to come forward and offer itself up as the alternative to partisanship and polarization -- and most of those past efforts have fizzled. But it is no secret that displeasure and even disgust with the major political parties runs high, so tracking support for independent candidates running with Unite America's support is one good way to judge how high -- and how willing voters are to go outside of the usual choices.

Leaders of the effort say they understand the long odds and will target their energy and resources where they believe there are openings. The executive director of the organization, Nick Troiano, was an unsuccessful independent candidate for Congress in his home state of Pennsylvania.

Here is how he characterized the Unite America effort to the Denver Post: "We're not just independent voters coming together to complain about the system. We have a real strategy, real backing and real candidates to make a tangible difference on the system."

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