Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for work at the Kremlin this morning. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: The drip, drip, drip of damaging Russia revelations continues, as White House efforts to change the narrative backfire.

-- CNN reported late last night that the FBI has information that indicates associates of Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Clinton's campaign: “This is partly what FBI Director James Comey was referring to when he made a bombshell announcement Monday before Congress that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. … The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings.” Three nuggets from the CNN report:

  • One law enforcement official said the information in hand suggests ‘people connected to the campaign were in contact and it appeared they were giving the thumbs up to release information when it was ready.’”
  • The FBI cannot yet prove that collusion took place, but the information suggesting collusion is now a large focus of the investigation.
  • The public attention has made it harder to prove: “One of the obstacles the sources say the FBI now faces in finding conclusive intelligence is that communications between Trump's associates and Russians have ceased in recent months given the public focus on Russia's alleged ties to the Trump campaign. Some Russian officials have also changed their methods of communications, making monitoring more difficult.”
Paul Manafort, then Trump's campaign chairman, talks to reporters at the Republican National Convention in July. (AP/Matt Rourke)

-- The White House continues trying to distance Trump from Paul Manafort, but his decades-long business associate, Rick Gates, remains entrenched at the highest rungs of the president’s political operation. Tom Hamburger reports: “Gates is one of four people leading a Trump-blessed group that defends the president’s agenda. As recently as last week, he was at the White House to meet with officials as part of that work. Through Manafort, Gates is tied to many of the same business titans from Ukraine and Russia, including Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with strong ties to [Vladimir Putin]. On Wednesday, the AP reported that Manafort had a multimillion-dollar contract with Deripaska between at least 2005 and 2009 that was aimed at helping the political interests of Putin. Gates also acknowledged a role in at least two recent, controversial deals involving separate Putin-connected oligarchs, including one other with Deripaska. Gates joined the firm in 2006. That year, the firm wooed Deripaska as a client, telling him that their goal was to set up a $200 million fund to make a series of private equity investments and acquisitions, primarily in Russia and Ukraine … Deripaska’s ties to Putin are so close that Russia’s foreign minister has asked U.S. secretary of states for more than a decade to help Deripaska secure a visa to enter the United States.” According to a 2007 report, Deripaska had been denied by the DOJ because of alleged ties to organized crime.

-- The Associated Press reports this morning that Treasury Department officials have obtained information about offshore financial transactions involving Manafort as part of a federal anti-corruption investigation into his work in Eastern Europe: “Information about Manafort’s transactions was turned over earlier this year to U.S. agents … by investigators in Cyprus at the U.S. agency’s request …  It was not immediately clear what time period was covered under the government request for information about Manafort’s financial transactions in Cyprus. Manafort was known to route financial transactions through Cyprus … In one case, the AP found that a Manafort-linked company received a $1 million payment in October 2009 from a mysterious firm through the Bank of Cyprus. The $1 million payment left the account the same day — split in two, roughly $500,000 disbursements to accounts with no obvious owner. There is nothing inherently illicit about using multiple companies as Manafort was doing. But it was unclear why he would have been involved with companies in Cyprus, known for its history of money laundering.”

DAMAGE CONTROL BACKFIRES:

-- House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R) accused U.S. spy agencies of “abusing” their surveillance powers by gathering and sharing information about Trump’s transition team – an unproven accusation that stunned observers and threatened to derail his committee’s probe of Russian interference in the presidential race. Greg Miller, Karoun Demirjian and Devlin Barrett report: Nunes, a close Trump ally and former member of his transition team, said in a press conference Wednesday that he was “alarmed” after seeing intelligence reports after the election that referenced U.S. citizens affiliated with Trump and possibly Trump himself. “What I’ve read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity — perhaps legal, but I don’t know that it’s right,” Nunes told reporters outside the White House. “I don’t know that the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read.”

“Nunes’s statements were remarkable on numerous levels,” our colleagues on the national security beat explain“He publicly discussed FISA-approved surveillance, something that Comey had refused to do before Nunes’s committee days earlier. Nunes also attributed his information to an anonymous source, after he and other members of his party have bemoaned media reports relying on unnamed people. Perhaps most significantly, Nunes went to the White House to brief the president on the details of material potentially gathered as part of his panel’s investigation into associates of the president and Russia’s interference in the campaign.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain arrives for a Republican policy meeting at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

MACK THE KNIFE:

-- Nunes’s refusal to disclose how he had obtained the documents and his unusual handling of the material which he withheld from other committee members even while rushing to present it to the White House — were interpreted by many as a sign that his discovery was engineered to help the administration. 

-- The chairman's decision to so explicitly come to Trump’s aid has undermined his credibility and raised new questions about the integrity of his investigation.

-- Some prominent Republicans are starting to say publicly that only an independent investigation will remove “the big gray cloud” that now hangs over the White House, as Nunes himself put it on Monday. John McCain described Nunes’s actions as “bizarre" last night and said it is is turning what should be a serious probe into a “political sideshow.” The Arizona senator called for either a select committee or an independent commission to investigate the matter: “No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don’t say that lightly,” McCain told Greta Van Susteren on MSNBC.

MORE BACKLASH:

-- Top Democrats said Nunes breached a legal line by publicly discussing secret intelligence work:

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the congressman’s statements "appear to reveal classified information, which is a serious concern." With regard to the substance of his claims, he added, "I have no idea what he is talking about." 

Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, accused Nunes of compromising their investigation, saying his remarks cast “quite a profound cloud over our ability to do the work.” "The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate for the White House, because he can't do both," the California congressman said. (In an MSNBC appearance later, he said there is “more than circumstantial evidence” that Trump officials colluded with Russia.)

-- The leaders of the House Oversight Committee have asked the White House to turn over all information it has related to payments that ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn received from foreign governments. (Huffington Post

-- How does this all end? “The most likely scenario for collusion [between Trump officials and Russia] seems fuzzier and less transactional than many Democrats anticipate,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes today. “A bit of conjecture: The Russians for years had influence over [Trump] because of their investments with him, and he was by nature inclined to admire [Putin] as a strongman ruler. Meanwhile, Trump had in his orbit a number of people with Moscow ties, including Manafort, who practically bleeds borscht. This is guesswork, but it might have seemed natural for Trump aides to try to milk Russian contacts for useful information about the Clinton campaign. Likewise, the Russians despised [Clinton] and would have been interested in milking American contacts … This kind of soft collusion, evolving over the course of the campaign without a clear quid pro quo, might also explain why there weren’t greater efforts to hide the Trump team’s ties to Russia, or to camouflage its softening of the Republican Party platform position toward Moscow. … The fundamental question now isn’t about Trump’s lies, or intelligence leaks, or inadvertent collection of Trump communications. Rather, the crucial question is as monumental as it is simple: Was there treason?”

Trump speaks yesterday during his meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus in the Cabinet Room. (Chip Somodevilla/EPA)

THE CREDIBILITY GAP:

-- Trump insisted that the Nunes comments vindicated his wiretapping claims during an afternoon interview with Time Magazine: “When I said wiretapping, it was in quotes. Because ‘wiretapping’ is, you know, today it is different than wire tapping. It is just a good description. But ‘wiretapping’ was in quotes. What I’m talking about is surveillance. … Nunes just had a news conference. Now probably it got obliterated by what’s happened in London. But (he) just had a news conference, and (I hear) it is one of those things. … I think this is going to be very interesting. I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right. When everyone said I wasn’t going to win the election, I said well I think I would.” (Read the full transcript here.)

“Trump argued that his claims about scandalous wiretaps by Obama had to be viewed within the context of other assertions he had made in the past, which had later come true,” Michael Scherer writes in his cover story. “He had predicted, for instance, that the sexting of [Anthony Weiner] would become a problem for [Clinton's] campaign, which it did … He had claimed that he would win the White House, when few believed him, which he did. He claimed that Britain would vote to exit the European Union—‘I took a lot of heat when I said Brexit was going to pass.’ He described Brussels as a ‘hellhole’ before a major terrorist attack there. ‘I happen to be a person that knows how life works,’ he said. Truth, in other words, takes time to ripen … [and] the more the conversation continued, the more the binary distinctions between truth and falsehood blurred, the telltale sign of a veteran and strategic misleader who knows enough to leave himself an escape route when he tosses a bomb.”

-- Not helping their cause, Trump's advisers are making clear that they see Nunes as a member of their team.

This is from an assistant to the president and the White House's director of social media:

Aligned outside groups are also raising money off Nunes's trip to the White House:

-- Jeb Bush's former communications director is one of many GOP operatives who think the Nunes gambit may backfire:

-- "Morning Joe" suggested that the CNN story last night was an orchestrated response to Nunes holding his press conference:

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

British police forensics officers work near a vehicle that crashed into the railings of the Houses of Parliament after a terror incident. (AFP/Daniel Sorabji)

-- The attacker who carried out yesterday’s deadly rampage in London was a British-born man who was previously investigated for possible extremist links but was “not part” of the current intelligence picture, Prime Minister Theresa May said this morning. Karla Adam, Rick Noack and Griff Witte report: May did not name the suspect, who was fatally shot after yesterday’s attack, but described Wednesday’s rampage as “inspired by international terrorism,” and likely waged by the suspect alone. 

  • The Islamic State-linked news site Amaq posted a statement from the group calling the attacker a “soldier” of its self-proclaimed caliphate. The militant group has often asserted ties to various attacks around the world.
  • British police arrested seven people as they investigate the attack and searched six different in pre-dawn raids. 
  • What happened? The assailant fatally stabbed a police officer outside Parliament after plowing a vehicle through a crowd of pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge -- leaving four dead and some 40 others injured. The attacker was then shot and killed by police. “The dead and injured were left scattered on some of London’s most famous streets.

-- Rex Tillerson has directed U.S. embassies to identify "populations warranting increased scrutiny" and toughen screening for visa applicants in those groups, according to secret diplomatic cables obtained by Reuters. “He has also ordered a ‘mandatory social media check’ for all applicants who have ever been present in territory controlled by the Islamic State, in what two former U.S. officials said would be a broad, labor-intensive expansion of such screening. Social media screening is now done fairly rarely by consular officials … Four cables, or memos, issued by Tillerson over the last two weeks provide insight into how the U.S. government is implementing what [Trump] has called ‘extreme vetting’ of foreigners entering the U.S. … The cables also demonstrate the administrative and logistical hurdles the White House faces in executing its vision.”

-- The Trump administration asked the Fourth Circuit to expedite its review of Trump’s travel ban executive order. DOJ attorneys also signaled that they plan to ask the appeals court to stay U.S. District Court Judge Theodore Chuang's injunction while the appeal moves forward, Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports.

-- As the Senate Judiciary Committee was hearing from witnesses for and against Neil Gorsuch this morning, his Supreme Court nomination was delivered a blow: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer just announced he would join other Democrats in filibustering the nomination, making it likely that the judge will struggle to find the support needed to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle. (More here.)

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. The Taliban seized a strategic district in the embattled Helmand Province, as the insurgents push to increase their footprint in the desert area bordering Pakistan. For years, British and U.S. forces battled to keep Sangin district out of Taliban hands, with high casualties on all sides. Officials said there was heavy fighting overnight, and that Afghan troops have moved to a military base about a mile away. (Pamela Constable and Sayed Salahuddin)
  2. U.S. prosecutors are preparing a case that would accuse North Korea of directing an $81 million theft from Bangladesh’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last yearlinking Pyongyang to one of the biggest bank robberies in modern history. The charges would likely target Chinese middlemen who allegedly helped orchestrate the theft. (Wall Street Journal)
  3. A police officer and three others were killed in Wisconsin after a domestic dispute escalated and led to a cluster of shootings at a bank, a law firm, and an apartment complex. SWAT team officers entered into a standoff with the suspect at the apartment complex for several hours, which ended in a volley of gunfire. Authorities gave no details on the four victims or suspect but assured the public that there is “no remaining threat." (AP)
  4. A white man from Maryland who told police he traveled to New York to kill black men turned himself in on Wednesday, about 24 hours after he fatally stabbed a man he encountered on the street. “The reason why he picked New York is ’cause it’s the media capital of the world,” said William Aubry, assistant chief of the NYPD. “And he wanted to make a statement.” (Mark Berman)
  5. Survivors of the Pulse nightclub attack are suing the wife and the employer of Orlando gunman Omar Mateen for negligence, arguing that the worst shooting in modern American history could have been prevented had they acted. (Mark Berman)
  6. Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico have reached historic highs this winter, which will likely trigger a wave of intense spring storms that could affect much of the U.S. For the first time on record, they never fell below 73 degrees. (Meteorologist Jason Samenow explains why that matters.)
  7. AT&T and Johnson & Johnson both yanked their ads from running on YouTube and other Google properties, amid concerns that the search giant is not doing enough to prevent their logo from appearing next to hate speech and other offensive material. (New York Times)
  8. The new leader of India’s largest state – a hardline Hindu politician known for his anti-Muslim diatribes – has launched “anti-Romeo” police squads to question and even arrest youths suspected of cat-calling women. The squads have already earned headlines for enforcing a spate of bizarre punishments – such as forcing a group of youths to do sit-ups in a public park – and have prompted complaints from parents, who accuse officers of “moral policing.” (Annie Gowen)
Speaker Paul Ryan walks into a news conference after a House Republican closed party conference. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

PUT UP OR SHUT UP TIME IN THE HOUSE:

-- The Republican health-care overhaul faces its greatest test today, as President Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) work feverishly to persuade enough Republican lawmakers to back the measure and push it to a floor vote. Mike DeBonis, Juliet Eilperin and David Weigel have the latest on the fluid process: “Late Wednesday, the White House and House leaders were still scrambling to grow support, and signaled at the 11th hour a willingness to rework the measure to mollify conservatives. On Thursday morning House leaders postponed a 9 a.m. meeting of the entire GOP Conference, signaling that negotiations were still underway. After insisting for weeks that the changes sought by hard-right members would render the bill unable to pass the Senate, White House officials and GOP House leaders appeared to shift their thinking — and opponents agreed to keep working on a deal with the goal of holding a floor vote in the House by Thursday night.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he had taken personal calls Wednesday from Trump seeking a resolution, although he said no formal offer had been extended by the White House. “We are working very diligently tonight to try and get there,” Meadows said Wednesday.

-- The Koch political network has created a seven-figure fund to back up conservative lawmakers who vote against the bill. It will go toward paid TV, direct mail and grassroots engagement. “The bill as it stands today is Obamacare 2.0,” said James Davis, executive vice president of Freedom Partners. Leaders of the network describe this as following through on their promises to stand with champions of the causes they care about most, even if it means getting crosswise with the Speaker. “We want to make certain that lawmakers understand the policy consequences of voting for a law that keeps Obamacare intact,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity.

-- The Rules Committee adjourned at 11:35 p.m. last night after a party line vote to waive key rules of the House so that the Speaker can keep making tweaks until the last minute. The procedural move they used is known inside Congress as “martial law.” Because changes are being made, there is no updated score from the Congressional Budget Office. That means lawmakers will be forced to vote on something before they know how many people will lose coverage or what impact it will have on the deficit. (David Weigel documents some of the things Republicans are doing this week that they attacked Democrats for seven years ago.)

-- Trump has put all his chips on the table. “There is no Plan B,” Sean Spicer said with characteristic bluster during his daily briefing, describing the president as “the closer.” “There is Plan A and Plan A. We’re going to get this done.”

The president is meeting with members of the Freedom Caucus at 11:30 a.m. in the cabinet room. Vice President Pence huddled with the same members in his EEOB office less than 24 hours ago. Yesterday, Trump himself huddled with 18 House Republicans at the White House. As far as we know, those sessions only flipped one conservative from “no” to “yes”: Steve King, who is not a member of the Freedom Caucus. The Iowa congressman said he was swayed by “a firm, firm commitment” from Mitch McConnell to make the Senate vote on an amendment “to strike out the mandates that are written into Obamacare.”

-- Public support for Trump’s approach to health care continues to sink, which will make it harder for him to use the bully pulpit. A new Quinnipiac University poll, which gives the president a 37 percent approval ratings, shows that just 29 percent of Americans approve of how he’s handling this issue. 

Compare that to a CNN poll early this month and a Fox News poll that was in the field 10 days ago. That’s not a promising trajectory:

COUNTING THE VOTES:

-- The magic number today is 22. Because a Democrat will be absent from the House today, GOP leaders can afford 22 defections. A Freedom Caucus spokeswoman said yesterday afternoon that “more than 25” members of the group oppose the bill, though that was before any deal was made. (Amber Phillips is keep a running whip count for us here.)

-- The more Ryan and Trump give to the Freedom Caucus, the more problems they may have with the middle. Four GOP moderates came out against the bill yesterday: Reps. Charlie Dent (Pa.), Frank A. LoBiondo (N.J.), Daniel Donovan (N.Y.) and David Young (Iowa). Ryan met with a dozen members of the moderate Tuesday Group in his office last night to stop more bleeding. He outlined what he might give to the Freedom Caucus and asked how they’d react.

-- Several deals have already been cut to win over lawmakers, including special goodies for Illinois and Upstate New York. GOP Rep. Daniel Donovan, who represents New York City, cited this in opposing the bill. In an op-ed for the Staten Island Advance, he said that change “gives our district short shrift.”

-- With those moderate defections, Ryan must figure out a way to get the far right of his conference. But many Freedom Caucus members have already drawn red lines that make it almost impossible to come around. Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.) said, even after changes were made to satisfy conservatives, that the bill remains “the largest Republican welfare bill in the history of the Republican Party.” Rep. Thomas Massie (Ky.), a close ally of Rand Paul, called the bill a “stinking pile of garbage” that was written by “the insurance lobby.”

-- The risk of forcing a vote: Ryan may be forcing his biggest loyalists to walk the plank for a Pyrrhic victory. If he twists arms to get this through his chamber but then it dies in the Senate, some Republicans may lose their seats in 2018 for nothing. He could be doing what Nancy Pelosi did in 2009 when she forced Democrats to vote for cap-and-trade despite all political tea leaves that said it was a bad idea.

A good illustration of this dynamic is Barbara Comstock, who represents an affluent northern Virginia district that Hillary Clinton carried and is staying mum about how she’ll vote today. She’ll almost certainly give up her vote if Ryan needs it to get across the finish line, but she also knows the ways it that could hurt her reelection hopes next year. A savvy political operative who was heavily involved in the Clinton wars of the 1990s, it is a good bet Comstock has nightmares of the commercials that could be run against her.

-- Over the past three days, there have been several damning reports about the bill that make it hard to convince those who remain undecided. Phil Bump flags three examples:

  • Most of key tax benefits goes to millionaires. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, using data from the Tax Policy Center, reports that repealing two taxes that are part of the Affordable Care Act would offer no benefit at all to people making less than $200,000 a year — and would offer the bulk of its benefits, 79 percent of the total cut, to millionaires.
  • Fewer people would have insurance under the AHCA than if Obamacare were simply repealed. The New York Times’s Margot Sanger-Katz looked at the CBO’s analysis and realized something surprising: The estimated 24 million fewer people who would have insurance under the AHCA by 2026 is actually one million people higher than if Obamacare were simply repealed.
  • Deductibles will likely increase by 60 percent. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Drew Altman calculated that average deductibles from the AHCA would be $1,550 higher than under Obamacare because people will receive smaller subsidies and therefore increasingly choose lower-cost health-care plans that have higher deductible rates.

-- Meanwhile, leading conservative intellectuals are not giving Ryan the cover he needs to change the terms of the debate:

  • “Whatever replaces Obamacare will look a lot like Obamacare,” George F. Will says in his column for this morning’s paper. “‘Mend it, don’t end it’ was President Bill Clinton’s rhetorical straddle regarding affirmative action. Republican efforts to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) look increasingly like ‘mend it, don’t end it.’”
  • “Nothing good will come of the Obamacare repeal-and-replace debate,” writes National Review Editor Rich Lowry. “If anything resembling the current bill passes and is signed into law, Republicans will spend years trying to fix it and live it down. If the bill fails, the rest of Trump's legislative agenda may sink with it.”

-- A sign of the truth-challenged times we live in. From ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein: “As the debate to repeal the law heats up in Congress, constituents are flooding their representatives with notes of support or concern, and the lawmakers are responding, sometimes with form letters that are misleading. A review of more than 200 such letters … found dozens of errors and mischaracterizations about the ACA and its proposed replacement. The legislators have cited wrong statistics, conflated health care terms and made statements that don’t stand up to verification. It’s not clear if this is intentional or if the lawmakers and their staffs don’t understand the current law or the proposals to alter it.”

-- Even if this passes the House today, the bill in its current form will be dead on arrival in the Senate. At least a dozen senators have expressed skepticism, and Trump can afford only two defections. (Sean Sullivan and Kelsey Snell have more on the state of play in the upper chamber.)

Ayana McAllister, 18, was shot and killed on Monday night. Her parents Tyreese McAllister, 47, and Anthony McAllister, 53, are pictured in their home. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

EVERY PARENT’S WORST NIGHTMARE:

-- I wrote yesterday about Ayana McAllister, an impressive teenager I interviewed last November in North Carolina who was murdered while in Northeast D.C. on her spring break. She was an innocent bystander, hanging out in a parking lot near a Metro station with friends, her college roommate and her older sister.

-- My colleagues spoke to her folks, and you should get a box of Kleenex before you read their story: “As a crisis response therapist, Tyreese McAllister has sat on the couches of many parents who have lost their children and tried to help them through the grief. Never in all those moments, she said, did she think she would be on the couch, describing a daughter taken too soon. But there she and her husband were Wednesday in their Maryland home, talking about the 18-year-old they called ‘Lollipop.’ … ‘We did everything we could to keep these kids safe,’ McAllister, 48, the director of mobile crisis and homeless outreach in the District, said of their two daughters. They paid for tutors when needed. They encouraged their daughters to join extracurricular activities. They called the parents of friends when sleepover invites came. And they loaded GPS trackers onto their girls’ cellphones. ‘I was under the illusion that protective measures were going to keep my kids safe,’ McAllister said, crying. ‘There are no protective measures.’

-- D.C. police say Ayana was watching a music video being filmed when gunfire suddenly erupted. Authorities are pleading for bystanders and the cameramen to come forward and help identify who killed her.

-- Ayana invited her roommate at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh to come home with her for spring break. Aqueelah Brown’s shoulder was grazed by a bullet. She felt heat on her shoulder and noticed a hole in her shirt but didn’t immediately realize she was hit. Her focus was on her friend. “I just kept calling her name and waving my hand in front of her face,” the 19-year-old recalled. Yesterday, she was waiting at the McAllister home for her mother to pick her up. She realized that her mom could have received a very different call if the trajectory of the bullet had been even slightly different. “It could have been me,” she said, crying. (Read the full story from Theresa Vargas and Peter Hermann.)

-- We must not tolerate this: Ayana graduated from Largo High last year. The principal says she is the third student the school has lost to gun violence in just the past year and a half.

DAY THREE OF SCOTUS HEARING:

-- You know we're living in a crazy time when a Supreme Court confirmation hearing is not even one of the four biggest stories of the day. 

-- The Supreme Court yesterday raised the bar for educational benefits owed to millions of children with disabilities, ruling unanimously in one of the most significant special-education cases to reach the high court in decades. Their decision quoted – and rejected – a lower standard outlined by Neil Gorsuch in a prior case. (Emma Brown and Ann E. Marimow)

-- Judge Gorsuch, meanwhile, sat for the third day of his confirmation hearing, answering broad questions related to abortion rights, money in politics, and a newly-issued Supreme Court ruling on educational benefits owed to children with disabilities that reversed a decision of his appeals court. Meanwhile, Republicans began congratulating him – signaling they anticipate a successful confirmation to the high court. Ed O'Keefe, Elise Viebeck and Robert Barnes report:

Democrats spent the day pursuing a more aggressive line of questioning, hoping to draw him out on his potential independence from Trump. “You have been very much able to avoid any specificity like no one I have ever seen before,” ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, frustrated after Gorsuch rattled off a spate of seemingly noncommittal answers. Still, Gorsuch maintained it would be wrong for him to be any more candid about his potential rulings on the bench: “It’s like a campaign promise for office, it seems to me,” he said.

“Sen. Patrick Leahy questioned Gorsuch on the Constitution’s ‘emoluments clause,’ which states the president cannot accept gifts from foreign agents without approval from Congress. Given ‘ongoing litigation’ involving that clause, Gorsuch said, ‘I have to be very careful about expressing any views.’” And he pushed back when asked what “vision” he shares with President Trump: “Respectfully, none of you speaks for me,” Gorsuch said. “I am a judge. I am independent. I make up my own mind."

"At one point, Gorsuch seemed to reject a Feb. 13 comment from senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller that Trump’s actions on national security ‘will not be questioned,’ which some interpreted as a signal that Trump could ignore judicial orders. ‘You better believe I expect judicial decrees to be obeyed,’ Gorsuch said.

The hearing produced a memorable exchange between Gorsuch and Feinstein on the subject of women’s rights: “'You are pivotal in this,' she told Gorsuch, saying that the 'originalist’ interpretation of the Constitution to which he adheres has been used in the past to say that the Constitution does not cover women and gays. 'No one is looking to return us to horse-and-buggy days,'" Gorsuch responded, adding: “A good judge starts with precedent and doesn’t reinvent the wheel.”

-- Some Senate Democrats are weighing a potential deal with Republicans – seeking to extract concessions in return for allowing Gorsuch to be confirmed. Politico’s Burgess Everett reports: “The deal Democrats would be most likely to pursue … would be to allow confirmation of Gorsuch in exchange for a commitment from Republicans not to kill the filibuster for a subsequent vacancy during [Trump’s] term. The next high court opening could alter the balance of the court, and some Democrats privately argue that fight will be far more consequential than the current one. If Democrats move ahead with the plan — it’s still in the early discussion phase — it would require buy-in from some Republicans, but not necessarily Mitch McConnell or his top deputies. At least three rank-and-file GOP members would have to pledge not to vote to unilaterally change the Senate rules through a majority-only vote later in Trump’s term — the so-called nuclear option.”

Secret Service agents patrol in front of the White House. (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

THE FIRST FAMILY:

-- The Secret Service has requested an additional $60 million in funding for next year, offering what is the most precise estimate yet of escalating costs for travel and protection stemming from the “unusually complicated” style of the Trump family. Drew Harwell and Amy Brittain report: “Nearly half of the additional money, $26.8 million, would pay to protect [Trump’s] family and private home in New York’s Trump Tower … while $33 million would be spent on travel costs incurred by ‘the president, vice president and other visiting heads of state.’ The documents … reflect the costly surprise facing Secret Service agents tasked with guarding the president’s large and far-flung family, accommodating their ambitious travel schedules and fortifying the three-floor Manhattan penthouse where first lady Melania Trump and son Barron live.” Trump has also spent most of his weekends at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, while his sons have traveled to promote Trump-branded properties across the globe at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer.

-- “The Manhattan tower co-owned by the family of Jared Kushner … has been losing money for three years and faces increasing loan fees in 2017, which may explain why the family has been negotiating with Chinese insurance behemoth Anbang on new financing,” Bloomberg reports. “The fees, at 666 Fifth Avenue, kicked in last month and escalate with each payment until the loan is repaid, a 2011 refinancing agreement shows. December brings another hurdle: Interest paid on the bulk of about $1.1 billion of loans jumps to 6.35 percent, more than double what it was after the debt was refinanced in 2011. And as the city’s biggest office construction boom in a quarter century creates a glut of supply, the property’s occupancy rates are falling. Seventy percent of the building was filled as of September, filings by LNR Partners, the loan managers, show. This is well below 91 percent for the New York metro area reported at year’s end …” “It is an understatement to say this building is not doing well,” said New York real estate lawyer Joshua Stein.

THE AGENDA: 

-- The Senate passed legislation that would roll back the second of two Obama-era worker safety regulations aimed at tracking and reducing workplace injuries and deaths. Kimberly Kindy reports: “Both bills, which call for the elimination of two Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, now await [Trump’s] signature. Administration officials said he plans to approve both measures. The Senate voted Wednesday along party lines, passing the second measure 50 to 48. The Republican-led effort takes aim at a new rule that gave OSHA authority to issue citations and levy fines against companies with 10 or more employees if they failed to record illnesses, injuries and deaths that dated back as far as five years. [Sen. Mitch McConnell] led the effort to kill the rule Wednesday, calling it a ‘heavy-handed regulation’ that increased ‘paperwork burdens’ for businesses while doing little to improve worker safety.”

-- Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta refrained from backing key Obama-era rules during his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday, declining to say whether he will enforce rules that would expand eligibility for overtime pay or restrict the advice given to retirement savers. Jonnelle Marte reports: “The nominee also faced questions about some of the most trying moments in his career, including his handling of political hiring that went on under his watch at the Justice Department and a controversial plea deal he cut with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein. His responses at times frustrated some Democrats on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, who are worried Acosta may not do enough to challenge the White House to make sure workers are protected.”

Several senators also pressed Acosta on how he plans to address the 21 percent budget cut to the Labor Department proposed by Trump: Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) was among those asking for details on how Acosta would treat job training programs such as Job Corps, which provides education and training to disadvantaged youths. Acosta touted the benefits of apprenticeship programs, saying he would “look for data” to measure the effectiveness of such job training programs. “The principle that needs to be used to guide the spending is ‘how successful is the program?’” he said.

-- Sonny Perdue, Trump’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, will face tense questions during his confirmation hearing today about Trump’s proposed cuts to rural assistance programs and his ethics record. Jose A. DelReal reports: “As Georgia’s governor between 2003 and 2011, Perdue frequently clashed with the Georgia State Ethics Commission and refused to place his business assets into a blind trust. He faced 13 complaints … and several fines for campaign finance violations. He has also been blasted by critics for giving comfortable government jobs to campaign donors and business partners. In 2005, Georgia state Rep. Larry O’Neal — Perdue’s longtime lawyer — introduced an amendment that made a new tax cut on land sales retroactive to sales from the previous years. Perdue saved $100,000 on taxes thanks to the measure.” He also has significant agriculture business holdings that could pose a conflict of interest if he is confirmed, including a Georgia-based grain merchandiser. If confirmed, he has vowed to turn over his business holdings to new trusts.”

-- Jay Clayton, Trump’s choice to head the SEC, is slated to appear before the Senate Banking Committee today – and could face pointed questions about some strange family holdings. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi reports: “In Clayton's absurdly baroque Form 278 financial disclosure  … he lists, under ‘other assets and income,’ a series of entries involving a company called WMB Holdings. WMB Holdings, he explains … is a Delaware-based entity that provides ‘business, financial, and representational services.’ This sounds harmless enough. But WMB, and a company called CSC – with which it appears to have a connection – is a company of a very particular type, known well to white-collar investigators. ‘It's a corporate formation company," says Jack Blum, an expert on white-collar crime and money laundering … ‘You call them up, and 20 minutes later you've got a Delaware corporation. I'm exaggerating, of course, but that's what they do.’ These firms can be used to create chains of legal entities, sometimes ending in offshore accounts, that make tracing financial transactions difficult, if not impossible.”

-- A Democratic FEC member sent a letter to Trump reiterating her request that he provide evidence for his unsubstantiated claim that “thousands” of people were bused to New Hampshire to illegally vote in the 2016 election. “Our democracy depends on the American people's faith in our elections,” said FEC member Ellen Weintraub. “Your voter-fraud allegations run the risk of undermining that faith.” Her letter comes just one month after Trump made his baseless busing remark to a group of senators. White House adviser Stephen Miller has also defended the issue as “very real” and “very serious.” (Matea Gold)

Shepard Smith in his studio. (Alex Kroke/Fox News)

THE FOURTH ESTATE:

-- “Shepard Smith, the Fox News anchorman who drives the Fox News faithful crazy,” by Paul Farhi: “Once again, Shepard Smith is doing cleanup on aisle Fox. Moments after [Trump] suggested on Friday that Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano had validated the unfounded claim that [Obama] had recruited British agents to bug Trump Tower … Smith stepped in to say otherwise. It was a rare bit of record-correcting for Fox, which enabled Napolitano to pass off his wiretapping thesis for several days ... And it was perhaps no coincidence that the correcting came from Smith, whose off-message comments about Trump have made him an apostate to the conservative Fox News orthodoxy. Smith’s persistent fact-mongering has made him persona non grata among some parts of the Fox News faithful … [who for weeks] have stormed social media with demands for Smith’s firing and boycott threats if the network doesn’t get rid of him. Two people at rival networks say Smith is a short-timer at Fox and thus is feeling free to speak his mind on air. [But] the counter-theory is that Fox has purposely loosened its leash on Smith to carve out a modicum of independence from Trump.”

-- Trump had a private dinner with Mark Halperin last week. CNNMoney’s Dylan Byers reports: “The dinner, which took place in the White House residence, came as Halperin and his co-author John Heilemann are at work on a book about Trump and the 2016 campaign. The sources also said [Trump] has given senior advisers the go-ahead to speak with Halperin for the book, a move that indicates how much Trump has come to trust the ‘Game Change’ co-author and former ABC News and Time Magazine reporter. Outside the White House, Halperin's level of access has already raised eyebrows among political reporters who believe he is too cozy with the president.”

-- “Conservative news outlets, including one with links to a top White House official, are singling out individual career government employees for criticism, suggesting in articles that certain staffers will not be sufficiently loyal to [Trump]," Politico’s Nahal Toosi and Andrew Restuccia report. "The articles — which have appeared in Breitbart News, the Conservative Review and other outlets — have alarmed veteran officials in both parties as well as current executive branch staffers. They say the stories are adding to tensions between career staffers and political appointees as they begin to implement Trump’s agenda, and they worry that the stories could inspire Trump to try purging federal agencies of perceived enemies. Washington veterans say they can’t recall similar targeting of government employees, who are required to stay apolitical and generally shun the spotlight. … Breitbart, whose former executive chairman Steve Bannon is now Trump’s chief strategist, has even published lists of workers that the president should fire.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the State Department. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

-- Tillerson delivered remarks at a two-day strategy session of the coalition to defeat the Islamic State group, telling attendees that while defeating ISIS is the "top U.S. priority" in the Middle East, other countries in the coalition “will be expected to contribute more” to stabilize Iraq and Syria once the militants are expelled. Anne Gearan and Carol Morello report: “The United States will do its part,” Tillerson said, speaking at the State Department to the more than 60 countries and international organizations in attendance. “But circumstances on the ground require more from all of you. I ask each country to examine how it can best support stabilization efforts.”

Although Trump repeatedly alluded to his “secret” plan to defeat ISIS on the campaign trail, Tillerson’s remarks suggested his strategy closely mirrors that of former president Obama. The session also signaled that the Trump administration seeks to maintain its leadership role in the sprawling diplomatic effort began by his predecessor in 2014 – and which was frequently criticized by Trump as “weak” and ineffectual. 

-- “ISIS’s killer drones are a threat, but the Pentagon is bracing to face more-advanced ‘suicide’ aircraft,” by Dan Lamothe:  “The Pentagon, concerned about the danger that small, armed drones pose to U.S. troops, is moving forward with a project that looks beyond remote-control aircraft used by the Islamic State to an even more complex problem: an aerial raid of autonomous suicide bombers. The unmanned bombers have not yet appeared in combat, but defense officials already are researching how to stop them. Laden with explosives or other dangerous materials, they would operate by crashing into U.S. troops in a combat zone and would not be as easy to detect as existing drones used by the Islamic State, because they would not rely on radio frequencies for remote controlling. Instead, they would be programmed to carry out a specific mission, making them especially hard to see coming. ‘Right now, the best way of [detection] … is by listening for that radio signal,’ [said J.C. Ledé, who oversees the Mobile Force Protection Program]. ‘Once they stop emitting that radio signal, they’re going to get a lot harder to find.’ Unmanned aircraft are now ‘sufficiently inexpensive’ that the U.S. military must anticipate some of them may be flown directly into U.S. troops or vehicles as part of an attack, he said.”

DISPATCHES FROM TRUMP’S AMERICA:

-- “The ‘Trump Troubadour’ went to 45 Trump rallies in honor of his late son. Now he feels ‘betrayed,’” by Samantha Schmidt: “The grieving father stood with his guitar and his cowboy hat in the cold, crowded lines for hours, driving to towns big and small in nearly every corner of the country. Beginning in January 2016, Kraig Moss traveled to 45 rallies, belting out songs in support of [Trump] and telling the story of his late son, Rob, who died three years ago from a heroin overdose. He stopped making his mortgage payments and sold the equipment for his construction business to stay on the campaign trail, galvanized by Trump’s promise to help young people … who struggle with drug addiction. Trump made this promise to Moss personally at a rally in Iowa in January 2016. Speaking through a microphone to the crowd, he addressed Moss directly: ‘The biggest thing we can do in honor of your son … we have to be able to stop it.’ But about two weeks ago, Moss caught his first glimpse of the Republican proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act. ‘This bill is just the absolute opposite,’ Moss told [The Post]. ‘I felt betrayed. I felt let down.’ He no longer sings songs about Trump, and he now wonders if any of his sacrifices were worth it.”

-- “New research identifies a ‘sea of despair’ among white, working-class Americans,” by Joel Achenbach and Dan Keating: “Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies, according to a study published (this morning) by two prominent economists. Anne Case and Angus Deaton garnered national headlines in 2015 when they reported that the death rate of midlife non-Hispanic white Americans had risen steadily since 1999 in contrast with the death rates of blacks, Hispanics and Europeans. Their new study extends the data by two years and shows that whatever is driving the mortality spike is not easing up. The two Princeton professors say the trend affects whites of both sexes and is happening nearly everywhere in the country.”

The two Princeton profs will present their study on Friday at the Brookings Institution. David Cutler, an economics professor at Harvard who also will be discussing the paper at Brookings, said the declining health of white, working-class Americans suggests that Republican plans to replace the Affordable Care Act are akin to bleeding a sick patient. As he put it, “Treat the fever by causing an even bigger fever.”

Two sobering charts based on data from the study, which you can read here:

-- “This is California in the era of Trump,” by Dan Zak: “Californians wake up every day delighted to be in California, and then they remember that they are also in the United States. The bougainvillea catches the rising sun in San Clemente, the sapphire tide heaves into Big Sur — and three time zones to the East, [Trump] has been up and tweeting for hours. The Resistance has taken many forms, and one form is California-shaped. At an A-list rally … Jodie Foster proclaims: ‘This is our time to resist.’ Up in Sacramento, the Democrat-controlled state Senate is trying to sandbag the White House’s aggressive immigration policies. ‘California, in many ways, is out of control,’ Trump declared … and Californians fired back with data points. The state is the world’s sixth-largest economy, ahead of France! It is a national generator of utopia (Silicon Valley) and nostalgia (Disneyland)!  The state is destiny made manifest, and the rest of the country is always trying to catch up. It is a Tomorrowland state, and Donald Trump is a Coney Island president. This is the California problem in 2017.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Donald Trump Jr. provoked outrage in London after he took aim at the city’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, who was quoted last year saying terrorism preparedness are “part and parcel” of living in a big city. In reality, Khan was urging the necessity of terrorism preparedness, but his out-of-context quote was breathlessly retweeted by the younger Trump on Wednesday as the attack was still playing out, per Isaac Stanley-Becker.

Many in London -- including Labour Party MP Wes Streeting -- rushed to Khan’s defense:

From a local reporter:

This is how the son of the fired National Security Adviser reacted:

A top Trump fundraiser, who might soon become an ambassador, took a more conciliatory tack:

Apropos of the GOP health care proposal's situation:

About right:

Lots of commentary on conservatives' push to shrink basic health coverage plans as part of the House plan:

On the speed of the process:

From the president of the liberal Center for American Progress:

This is from a New York Times White House correspondent:

From the NYT op-ed columnist:

Joe Biden meets his namesake pup, Biden, outside the Capitol yesterday (the former veep was there to celebrate the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act):

Trump met with the Congressional Black Caucus:

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Trump Wishes ‘Freedom’ To Iranians On Nowruz Holiday While Keeping Their Families Apart,” from HuffPost: “[Trump] released a statement Wednesday celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and praising Iranian immigrants ― one of the groups he is working to block from entering the United States. ‘For many years, I have greatly enjoyed wonderful friendships with Iranian-Americans, one of the most successful immigrant groups in our country’s contemporary history,’ Trump’s statement read. ‘They come from diverse religious backgrounds ― including Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Baha’i ― but all share an affection for their ancestral heritage.’ But Iran is one of six countries from which Trump seeks to ban immigration to the U.S., under an executive order released earlier this month.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Germany Deports Homegrown Terror Suspects In Landmark Case,” from the Daily Caller: “Germany moved to deport two terror suspects born in the country Wednesday in a first of its kind landmark case. The duo — a 27-year-old Algerian and a 22-year-old Nigerian — were arrested in February in connection to a ‘potentially imminent terror attack.’ Police found a gun and an Islamic State flag in their homes, but the men were never charged with any crimes. Prosecutors dropped the case due to a lack of evidence suggesting the men planned an attack. A federal court in Lower Saxony still moved ahead with a deportation order despite a legal bid to overturn it. The suspects will now be barred from the country indefinitely.” “We are sending a clear warning to all fanatics nationwide that we will not give them a centimeter of space to carry out their despicable plans,” Boris Pistorius, Lower Saxony’s Interior Minister. “They will face the full force of the law regardless of whether they were born here or not.”

 

DAYBOOK:

At the White House: Trump will meet with House Freedom Caucus members before having lunch with Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and Nelson Peltz. After, Trump will host truckers and CEOs for a meeting on healthcare.

Mike Pence will participate in a bilateral meeting with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández before joining Trump for his meeting with House Freedom Caucus members. Later, he will also attend the health care meeting with truckers and CEOs. 

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board ripped Trump for his “seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods,” specifically his unsubstantiated charge that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. “The president clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims,” the Journal wrote.

 

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

-- Sub-freezing temps to start out the morning – but we should see a considerable improvement by the afternoon. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Sunny skies and calm winds make the early-morning chill bearable. Thanks to our ever-improving sun angle, highs manage to make the upper 40s to lower 50s.”

-- The suspects accused of raping a ninth-grader at Rockville High School were among the thousands of young people who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2016 – both searching for relatives already living in America. Maria Sacchetti, Dan Morse and Arelis R. Hernández report: “Jose Montano was searching for his uncle; Henry Sanchez Milian, for his dad. Traveling separately, each was apprehended by federal border agents and targeted for deportation proceedings. But after a stint in federal custody, they were allowed to join their relatives in Maryland, two more individuals in a backlogged, secretive immigration system who would put down roots in this country long before their first day in court. A variety of U.S. government agencies have had contact with Montano and Sanchez Milian. Border agents held them first, and then, as the law requires, turned them over to an office at the Department of Health and Human Services, which sheltered them and apparently released them to their guardians in Maryland. The teens enrolled in public schools, which are required by federal law to admit them. [Now], they  have become the public face of an immigration debate raging in this country, fueled by [Trump’s] rhetoric about ‘rapists’ and ‘bad hombres.’”

-- An artist temporarily living in D.C. while assisting a well-known artist on her project was found tied up and stabbed to death in an apartment on Capitol Hill. Police attempted to assuage concerns by noting that there was no forced entry into her basement apartment – hinting that the crime may not have been random. (Peter Hermann, Lynh Bui and Michael E. Ruane)

-- A woman who was found hanging by her shoelaces from the White House fence – foiled by her footwear as she attempted to scramble over the side earlier this week – was released after a hearing in D.C. Superior Court. She had reportedly told officers she was at the White House “to speak to Trump,” giving details of her visit as they carefully worked to untangle her laces. (Keith L. Alexander)

-- A bill to ban hydraulic fracking in Maryland cleared a key environmental committee on Wednesday, allowing the measure to advance to the Senate floor just days after Gov. Larry Hogan endorsed the ban. Members of the Senate environmental committee voted 8-3 in favor of the House bill, with one of the panel’s four Republicans joining all seven Democrats. (Josh Hicks)

-- Trump will give his first commencement address as president at Liberty University, speaking at the evangelical college led by prominent supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. Falwell was one of Trump’s most vocal supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign, appearing on-air to defend him even after Trump’s lewd “Access Hollywood” comments caused many in the evangelical community to reevaluate their support. (Julie Zauzmer)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Judge Gorsuch accidentally said "bigly":

Here's a timeline of The Donald v. The Terminator:

Seth Meyers gives you "breaking nonsense" from Sean Spicer:

Stephen Colbert examines Trump's "three-bucket" health care strategy:

Here's how you train your cat to use the toilet:

Watch this guy trying to drive through a raging flood in Peru: