Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) holds a town hall meeting in Hilton Head the weekend before last. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: If Mark Sanford’s “hiking trip” on the Appalachian Trail with his Argentine mistress couldn’t stop him from getting elected to Congress, it is hard to imagine how mean tweets from Donald Trump will.

Trump dispatched Mick Mulvaney to threaten the South Carolina congressman last week. “The president asked me to look you square in the eyes and to say that he hoped that you voted ‘no’ on this [health-care] bill so he could run [a primary challenger] against you in 2018,” Sanford said the OMB director told him, according to the Charleston Post and Courier.

“I’ve never had anyone, over my time in politics, put it to me as directly as that,” the former two-term governor told his local paper. "To state the obvious, I’m not a guy who responds to threats well.... It’s contrary to all that I believe in in politics." He said it also contradicts the South Carolina Republican Creed, which reads: “I will never cower before any master, save my God.

Sanford won reelection with 59 percent in his coastal district last year. Trump got 53 percent. “I mentioned this to a couple of colleagues, and they said it sounds very Godfather-ish,” Sanford added. “Their point was that this approach might work in New Jersey, but it probably doesn’t work so well in South Carolina.

-- Trump tried carrots, offering pizza parties and invitations to the White House bowling alley. Since that hasn’t worked, he’s using the stick. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that one should try to be loved and feared. “But, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved,” the Italian diplomat explained in “The Prince.”

This approach makes much less sense in America circa 2017 than it did in the Italy of 1532.

In practice, throughout the history of our republic, this has almost never been an effective way to govern. Franklin Roosevelt, vastly more popular than the current occupant of the Oval Office, went all-in during the 1938 midterms against Southern Democrats who weren’t consistently voting for New Deal programs. The ensuing debacle, in which all but one primary challenger FDR supported lost, is a cautionary tale that Trump may want to consider before he follows through on his threats to knock off members of the House Freedom Caucus if they don’t quickly fall in line.

The defiance we saw from several members of the Freedom Caucus yesterday, including Sanford, strongly suggests that Trump’s gambit will fail. Rather than cower, principled movement conservatives wore the attacks as badges of honor. They saw the threats as testaments to their courage. And they pledged to never back down. The fact that Sanford went to the Charleston paper to say Trump had threatened him reflects the degree to which these guys are not scared.

“I have zero worries about it,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told the Heritage Foundation-backed Daily Signal. “Trump’s tweets reaffirm that the Freedom Caucus is having a major impact on public policy in Congress — that the Freedom Caucus is not a force to be ignored. … If you want me to vote for a piece of legislation, either persuade me it is good for America or change it so that it is good for America.”

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), one of Trump’s earliest endorsers, said the Freedom Caucus won’t change no matter what the president does. “We’re elected as Republicans to put forth good conservative policy, and I’m on board as soon as we start doing that,” he told Roll Call. “In my district, we’re very conservative, so if he gets me out office, he’s going to get someone more conservative than me.”

“If somebody can get to the right of me in the primary, God bless him,” added Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).

-- A host of other dynamics, from redistricting to Citizens United, also make what Trump is doing much riskier than it might have been in the past.

The president cannot cut off funding to intransigents. The Koch political network has pledged to give air cover to people whom Trump attacks because they opposed last week’s bill. Groups like the Club for Growth also promise to mobilize for conservatives facing primary challenges. In the past, major donors might be afraid to cut checks to someone targeted by the president. Now, some will give because of it. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, also has a long-standing policy of supporting incumbents and could not back a primary challenger. “As long as they pay their dues, we’re gonna be there for them,” said NRCC chairman Steve Stivers.

“Trump’s own romp through the Republican primaries last year — vanquishing a raft of contenders more favored by the GOP establishment — was testament to how little control party leaders now have in channeling the passions and enthusiasm of the rank and file,” Karen Tumulty notes. “Now at the head of the party himself, and struggling to rack up some legislative achievements, Trump is fighting against some of the same forces that helped get him elected."

The president is also not coming into this from a position of strength. His approval rating is in the mid-30s, and he is belatedly going to the mat for a bill that fewer than one in five Americans support. Meanwhile, the cloud of scandal continues to hang over the White House, and continuing revelations related to Russia threaten to imperil his very hold on power. The botched attempt at damage control, spearheaded so ham-handedly by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has only made Trump’s life worse. Now his former national security adviser is seeking immunity to testify. All of this makes the bully pulpit less impressive.

The bottom line is that Trump needs the members of the Freedom Caucus more than they need him. Democrats are not going to work with the president. He has poisoned the well too much. Nancy Pelosi is an effective leader who will hold her caucus together to extract maximum concessions. If we wind up at a point when impeachment is seriously on the table, especially after expected Democratic gains in the midterms, how hard do you think the Freedom Caucus members will fight to protect a guy who went to war against them? Especially when an authentic movement conservative, Mike Pence, could replace Trump.

-- After attacking the Freedom Caucus generally yesterday morning, Trump singled out three leaders of the group last night: Reps. Mark Meadows (N.C.), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Raúl R. Labrador (Idaho).

Each of these guys won reelection with a higher percentage of the vote than Trump received in his district. Jordan won with 68 percent in his northwestern Ohio district. Trump got 64 percent. Trump pulled 63 percent in both Labrador’s and Meadows’s districts. The Idaho congressman got 68.2 percent, and the North Carolinian got 64.1 percent.

Ironically, the roughly three dozen members in the Freedom Caucus were, overall, much more loyal to Trump during the general election than the squishy moderates he’s now trying to make his bed with. Meadows stumped with him. Labrador interviewed to be interior secretary. When the “Access Hollywood” video came out last October, in which Trump boasted about being able to get away with groping women because he’s a celebrity, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman withdrew his endorsement. But Jordan went to a Toledo-area tea party meeting to explain why conservatives should stand by the GOP nominee.

Meadows said last night that the president is “not being well served” by his advisers. “The narrative is not surprising in the White House because I think some of his advisers are suggesting that it was consensus that we pulled the rug out from underneath the president's agenda and nothing could be further from the truth," he told the Washington Examiner.

“I don't accept the premise. My guess is the American people won't accept it either,” Jordan said during the same interview. “I don't know how keeping your promise to the American people, doing what you told them you're going to do, doing what they sent you to do — how is that overplaying your hand?"

Labrador replied to POTUS on Twitter:

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who represents Grand Rapids and has already beaten back primary challenges funded by the establishment, said Trump’s approach would be “constructive in fifth grade.” “It may allow a child to get his way, but that’s not how our government works,” he said.

Another libertarian-leaning Republican, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, piled on:

The official Freedom Caucus account later pushed back in a stream of tweets:

The group’s spokeswoman added:

Mary Broecker, 76, sits at a coffee shop on Main Street in the small town where she lives. Her support for Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) is unbending, even after Trump's attacks. (Dylan T. Lovan/AP)

-- A new report suggests that the base stands with the Freedom Caucus, not Trump. The fact that the president thinks otherwise merely reflects his hubris. The Associated Press deployed five reporters to interview voters in House districts represented by members who opposed the bill, and they found that conservatives are proud of their representatives for holding firm. Take Mary Broecker, president of the Oldham County Republican Women’s Club and a strong proponent of fully repealing Obamacare. She’s a constituent of Massie’s in Kentucky. “When he came out against this bill, I thought, ‘I trust him so this must be the right way,’” the 76-year-old retired teacher said at a coffee shop in Buckner, Ky.

The AP says this kind of praise was a common refrain during interviews from Iowa to Tennessee. “In Meadows’ North Carolina district, 77-year-old Hendersonville retiree Don Lee said he voted for Trump to ‘bring Republicans together,’ but added that the president ‘needed to take some more time with this bill and try to find some unity,’” the story notes.

House Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks talks to reporters at the Capitol Hill after a meeting with Trump about health care last week. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

-- Once you use the stick, it is hard to start handing out carrots again. If the Freedom Caucus caves at this point, it will look weak.

-- Trump has become the boy who cries wolf. If he doesn’t follow through after drawing this red line, his words will seem hollow. Bluster works better in business than politics.

“By targeting individual congressmen, as Trump has now done, he runs the risk of looking pathetic if they remain unintimidated,” former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson explains in his column today. “And will he really carry this campaign beyond his Twitter feed? Have rallies in their districts? Criticize them on conservative talk radio? Raise money for their more moderate opponents? If he takes this route, then the GOP civil war will reach a new stage of bitterness, with legislative progress postponed until a core faction of the party is tweeted into submission or defeated…. And all this has come in the course of the president’s political honeymoon. What, for goodness’ sake, will the marriage be like?"

-- Notably, the president is still not trying to sell health or tax reform on its merits. He’s framing this entirely as a test of personal loyalty. You’re either with him or you’re against him. There is no gray in his worldview. Only black and white.

Peggy Noonan argues artfully in her column for Saturday’s Wall Street Journal that Trump’s mishandling of this Obamacare fight, including the latest attacks on the Freedom Caucus, shows that he really doesn’t understand who makes up his base or how to pass legislation: “A president dealing with a national issue that arouses anxieties has to take time and speak repeatedly on the plan and the goal, with the kind of specificity that encourages confidence. ‘You win the argument, then you win legislatively,’ Newt Gingrich said in an interview this week, paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher. And a president must always appear to be leading, not meekly tagging leaders within the Congress.”

The former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan relays that her friends who backed Trump last year are standing by him, and she thinks this is because they do not fully understand what being president entails. “Whenever I used to have disagreements with passionate pro-Trump people, I’d hear their arguments, weigh their logic and grievances. I realized after a while that in every conversation we always brought different experiences to the table,” Noonan writes. “I had worked in a White House. I had personally observed its deeper realities and requirements. Their sense of how a White House works came from … TV shows such as ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Scandal.’ Those are dark, cynical shows that more or less suggest anyone can be president. I don’t mean that in the nice way. Those programs don’t convey how a White House is an organism demanding of true depth, of serious people, real professionals. A president has to be a serious person too, and not only an amusing or stimulating talker, or the object of a dream.”

-- Speaking of TV distorting reality: A White House official says that the president’s threats to back challengers followed days of frustration with the amount of media attention that members of the Freedom Caucus were getting. “We are sick and tired of seeing them on TV,” the Trump person told Bob Costa. “Jim Jordan has been on every five seconds, almost as much as Adam Schiff,” a reference to the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s unhelpful and counterproductive. … Our view is: there’s nothing as clarifying as the smell of Air Force One jet fuel. So if he needs to bring in the plane and do a rally, he’s going to think about doing that.”

Justin Amash and Jim Jordan, both members of the House Freedom Caucus, leave a closed-door meeting with Paul Ryan last week. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

-- To be sure, many House Republicans share Trump’s hostility toward the Freedom Caucus. Paul Ryan said yesterday that he sympathizes with where Trump is coming from. “I understand the president’s frustration. I share his frustration,” the Speaker Said, saying that 10 percent of the conference killed the bill.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) complains that the ideological purists in the Freedom Caucus won’t take any deal, even when they get what they ask for. “They move the goal posts, and once that happens, they still refuse to play,” Kinzinger writes in an op-ed for today’s New York Times. “We are the Charlie Brown party, hoping that this time, things will be different. But time and again, the Freedom Caucus is Lucy — pulling the ball out from under us, letting us take the fall and smiling to themselves for making a splash. It's a cheap tactic, not a way to govern, and enough is enough.”

But Republican leaders have taken aim at Freedom Caucus members before. “A spate of 2015 ads purchased by the American Action Network, a nonprofit issue advocacy group with ties to House GOP leaders, targeted Jordan and two other hard-liners for opposing a Department of Homeland Security funding bill,” Mike DeBonis notes. “Those ads infuriated members of the caucus, then only months old, and spawned a confrontational relationship that culminated in John Boehner’s resignation six months later.” On the other hand, last year, an establishment-backed candidate unseated Rep. Tim Huelskamp in Kansas because he voted against the farm bill.

-- Finally, few mainstream conservative thought leaders are coming to Trump’s defense in his newest feud. Charles Krauthammer  frets in his column today that Trump will embrace Medicare-for-all to get Democrats on board. “Obamacare may turn out to be unworkable, indeed doomed, but it is having a profound effect on the zeitgeist: It is universalizing the idea of universal coverage,” Charles writes, defending the House Freedom Caucus. “Look at how sensitive and defensive Republicans have been about the possibility of people losing coverage in any Obamacare repeal. A broad national consensus is developing that health care is indeed a right. This is historically new. And it carries immense implications for the future. It suggests that we may be heading inexorably to a government-run, single-payer system. It’s what Barack Obama once admitted he would have preferred but didn’t think the country was ready for. … I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Donald Trump, reading the zeitgeist, pulls the greatest 180 since Disraeli ‘dished the Whigs’ in 1867 (by radically expanding the franchise) and joins the single-payer side. Talk about disruption? About kicking over the furniture? That would be an American Krakatoa.”

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

Michael Flynn, before he left the White House, speaks from the briefing room. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

-- Former national security adviser Michael Flynn told the FBI and congressional officials he is willing to be interviewed in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The Wall Street Journal reports: “As an adviser to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, and later one of Mr. Trump’s top aides in the White House, Mr. Flynn was privy to some of the most sensitive foreign-policy deliberations of the new administration and was directly involved in discussions about the possible lifting of sanctions on Russia imposed by the Obama administration. It wasn’t clear if Mr. Flynn had offered to talk about specific aspects of his time working for Mr. Trump, but the fact that he was seeking immunity suggested Mr. Flynn feels he may be in legal jeopardy following his brief stint as the national security adviser, one official said. He has made the offer to the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees through his lawyer but has so far found no takers …”

“Officials said the idea of immunity for Flynn — who is considered a central figure in the probes because of his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States — was a ‘non-starter,’ particularly at such an early stage of the investigations,” Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima report. “A wide-ranging grant of immunity could protect Flynn from potential future charges from the Justice Department, but Congress has the power to grant only limited ‘testimonial’ immunity, which means prosecutors cannot use witnesses’ testimony against them in any prosecution. Ultimately, it is Justice’s decision whether to grant immunity from prosecution for any underlying conduct that is discussed, or other matters that don’t come up in testimony. [Former U.S. prosecutor] Peter Zeidenberg said the Senate committee apparently did not “want to screw up a possible prosecution.” “But, he added, ‘there may be things more important than getting a prosecution of Flynn.’ Such as learning the extent of contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials. ‘That is a compelling and urgent need. A prosecution of Flynn could take several years. I wouldn’t want them to wait that long to find out what Flynn knows.’”

-- Trump this morning offered support for Flynn seeking immunity, even though in theory it could mean that his former national security adviser testifies against him down the road:

Compare that to what he tweeted last October:

WHERE THERE'S SMOKE...

-- At least three senior White House officials, including the top lawyer for the National Security Council, helped provide Devin Nunes with intelligence files that show Trump and his officials were “incidentally swept up” in foreign surveillance by U.S. agencies. The revelation directly contradicts assertions made by Nunes, and adds to growing concerns that the Trump administration is collaborating with the leader of the House Russian investigation. Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung report: “The materials unearthed by Nunes have been used to defend [Trump’s] baseless claims on Twitter that he had been wiretapped at Trump Tower under a surveillance operation ordered by [Barack Obama]. Nunes and [Sean Spicer] have repeatedly refused to answer questions about the identities of those involved in unearthing the intelligence reports … although Nunes at one point said his source was not a member of the White House staff.”

One of those involved in procuring the documents, Ezra Cohen, has close ties with Flynn and survived a recent attempt to oust him from his job at the National Security Council by appealing to Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon. After assembling reports that showed that Trump officials were mentioned or inadvertently monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies targeting foreign individuals, Cohen took the matter to the top lawyer for the National Security Council, John Eisenberg. The third White House official involved was identified as Michael Ellis, a lawyer who previously worked with Nunes on the Intelligence Committee but joined the Trump administration and reports to Eisenberg.

-- “This is a body blow for Nunes, who presented his findings last week as if they were surprising to the White House,” writes Bloomberg’s Eli Lake. "This week, he told me that his source for that information was an intelligence official, not a White House staffer. It turns out, he misled me. The New York Times reported Thursday that Nunes had two sources, and both worked for the White House. This distinction is important because it raises questions about the independence of the congressional investigation Nunes is leading, which may lead to officials at the White House. ... He briefed Trump, after holding a press conference on Capitol Hill. And as he was leaving the White House, he made sure to address the press again. But this was a show. The sources ... work for the president. They are political appointees. It strains credulity to think that Trump would need Nunes to tell him about intelligence reports discovered by people who work in the White House. … The fact that a serious investigation is being undermined by Nunes's ever-changing story is a tragedy.

-- The White House has now invited top party leaders from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to review classified materials that it said relate to the surveillance. Abby Phillip and Jenna Johnson report: “There’s a desire to make sure that both sides of the aisle as well as both chambers have that information,” Sean Spicer told reporters.

-- Sean Spicer argued Thursday that Nunes is entitled to keep his sources anonymous “because journalists do” – drawing a highly-flawed comparison between government officials and the news media. On “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s Dylan Byers explains why this is wrong: 

  • “The difference between reporters and government officials is that government officials are public servants. They work for us. We, the public, seek information from them. Not the other way around…
  • “Spicer has a habit of defending the administration by complaining about double standards between the White House and the media. It's a poor defense. The ‘you did it too!’ argument doesn't work when you lead the free world.
  • “Spicer acts like the media wants details about Nunes' sources because it cares about process more than substance. But in this case, the process is the substance. If White House officials sought to influence the Intelligence Committee, that's material.”

-- Bill Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, worked in the Reagan Administration during Iran-Contra and was Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff:

Stanford professor Mike McFaul worked as a senior official on Obama's National Security Council before he became U.S. ambassador to Russia. And he agreed with Kristol:

-- Journalists react:

-- Democrats are piling on:

SpaceX's booster rocket after a successful vertical landing in the Atlantic Ocean. (SpaceX via AP)

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. SpaceX successfully launched a used rocket, a historic achievement that CEO Elon Musk says will “revolutionize the space industry. The test from Kennedy Space Center marks the first time a rocket delivered a payload to orbit, landed and then launched again. (Christian Davenport)
  2. A pair of spacewalking NASA astronauts lost a key piece of the space station, sending a protective entrance barrier floating freely, forever, into the depths of outer space. The accident left Mission Control scrambling – but luckily, the teams were able to innovate a second protective door using materials already located at the station. (Amy B Wang)
  3. A major fire in Atlanta caused a portion of its main interstate to collapse during rush hour, crumbling dramatically into a sea of flames minutes after officers halted traffic. Thanks to their impeccable timing, no one was hurt. (Gillian Brockell)
  4. A 60-year-old State Department employee is accused of obstructing justice and concealing contacts with two Chinese foreign intelligence agents, according to newly-unsealed federal charges. For years, the department veteran -- who also held a top-secret security clearance, was showered with tens of thousands of dollars in cash and lavish gifts. (Spencer S. Hsu and Devlin Barrett)
  5. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) vetoed a Medicaid expansion bill, pitting him against his GOP-controlled state legislature. (Jose A. DelReal)
  6. North Carolina lawmakers formally passed changes to the state’s “bathroom bill,” reversing the contentious H.B. 2 legislation that has embroiled state politics and cost the state millions. Still, the new measure drew intense opposition from civil rights advocates, who said it falls short of a full repeal. (Mark Berman and Amber Phillips)
  7. Wall Street analysts said major health insurance provider Anthem is “leaning toward exiting” many Obamacare exchanges – becoming the latest in a string of major insurers who have moved to pull out from the program. (Carolyn Y. Johnson)
  8. Forty-one of the 50 counties where insurance rates rose the most since 2012 voted for Trump. (Phil Bump)

  9. Americans actually became less productive in 2016, the first time since 2009, according to new government numbers. Multifactor productivity — economist shorthand for overall man and machine efficiency — dipped 0.2 percent last year. This means that the 1.7 growth in the economy last year was entirely caused by companies hiring more people and buying more machines and software, not by improvements in technology or organization. (Jeff Guo)

  10. Emergency responders in Australia were assessing destruction caused by a recent monsoon when they stumbled upon a very unlikely victim: a massive bull shark, stranded in the middle of a Queensland highway. It served as a cautionary tale for locals not to swim immediately after the storm – and also fodder for a lot of Sharknado jokes. (HuffPost)   
  11. The captain of an American Airlines flight was praised for successfully landing an aircraft this week amid an extremely harrowing circumstance: his 58-year-old copilot died abruptly in the cockpit just minutes before landing. (Luz Lazo)
  12. The Tyrannosaurus rex has long been regarded as a fearsome carnivore whose dagger-like teeth could make prey out of nearly every other creature in the animal kingdom. But now, scientists believe the t-rex also had a sensitive side – on its snout. The 20-foot dinos reportedly rubbed them together as a critical part of their mating ritual, according to a new study. (The Guardian)
Mike Pence celebrates on the East Front of the Capitol after casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate on a bill that gives states permission to withhold funds from Planned Parenthood. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

THE TRUMP TAKEOVER:

-- Mike Pence delivered the tiebreaking vote on an antiabortion measure in the Senate on Thursday, voting to reverse an Obama-era rule that prevents states from withholding family-planning dollars from abortion providers. Paige Winfield Cunningham: “The measure, a priority for groups that oppose abortion, would give a thumbs-up to Tennessee and other conservative states to resume policies blocking Planned Parenthood clinics from getting federal funding through the Title X family-planning program. Those dollars can’t be used for abortions, but conservatives feel abortion providers shouldn’t receive any taxpayer funds.” The measure cleared the House in February and is expected to be signed into law by Trump, though his administration has yet to release a statement of intent.

-- The Senate also narrowly voted to kill an Obama-era rule that makes it easier for cities to launch retirement plans for workers who don’t have access to one through their jobs. Republicans are trying to block state and local governments from creating such programs. (Jonnelle Marte)

-- Trump is slated to sign two new executive actions today to launch a review of U.S. trade policy -- the latest in a series of measured steps that could potentially revamp U.S. engagement with the global economy. Jenna Johnson reports: “Both executive actions could serve as preludes to more severe White House decisions regarding tariffs and trade agreements, but on their own they reflect a marked softening from the heated trade jabs Trump used on the campaign trail, when he threatened to enter into trade wars with Mexico and China[:]

“The first executive action will direct the Commerce Department and a new White House trade council to ‘identify every form of trade abuse and every nonreciprocal practice that contributes to the U.S. trade deficit,’ [Wilbur Ross] told reporters Thursday. Ross said the executive action wasn’t meant to single out China or any other country, but he did mention the large gap between what the United States imports from China compared with what it exports. … Other countries that he said could be reviewed are Japan, Germany, Ireland, Vietnam, Italy, South Korea, Malaysia, India, Thailand, France, Switzerland, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Canada.  The second executive action will prompt a review of the United States' practice of what the White House says is an “under-collection” of anti-dumping and counterveiling duties.”

-- The White House is seeking modest – but numerous — changes to NAFTA, according to a leaked draft letter, displaying a more reasonable and measured approach to trade negotiation than the dramatic changes Trump signaled on the campaign trail. Max Ehrenfreund and Damian Paletta report: “The draft letter … says, among other things, that the White House would look to strengthen cooperation under the World Trade Organization, an international group that the Trump administration had suggested in the past it might not abide by.” The draft letter also reinforces that Canada and Mexico are the United States' two largest export markets, and that the countries have “shared borders” and “shared goals, shared histories and cultures, and shared challenges.”

-- Climate change skeptic David Kreutzer resigned from his position at the EPA this week, and will return to the conservative Heritage Foundation, where he previously served as a fellow. News of his departure comes just two weeks after the resignation of David Schnare, another outspoken climate change skeptic and critic of the Obama administration. (Steven Mufson, Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin)

Katie Walsh appears at a post-election press briefing with Sean Spicer. She only lasted about two months in the White House. (Cliff Owen/AP)

WEST WING INTRIGUE:

-- White House Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh resigned, a blow for Reince Priebus internally. The press office insisted that this is not a shake-up in a background briefing for reporters. Jenna Johnson, Philip Rucker and Matea Gold report: “Walsh will work with America First Policies, one of several pro-Trump outside groups, according to her fiance, Mike Shields, a fellow Republican operative. He tweeted that Walsh had been asked by some of Trump's top advisers to provide ‘badly needed air cover for the President's agenda.’ Walsh’s move is a sign of the White House’s deepening dissatisfaction with the state of [Trump’s] allied outside operation. The advocacy group she plans to advise was rolled out back in January as a robust flanking effort that would be led by a team of former Trump campaign and transition officials. But the group has moved slowly, playing little role in Trump’s recent push to replace Obamacare.”

Jared Kushner listens to his father-in-law talk. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

NEPOTISM WATCH:

-- "I worked for Jared Kushner. He's the wrong businessman for reinventing government," by former editor-in-chief of the New York Observer Elizabeth Spiers: "The Trump administration announced this past week that Kushner would lead the newly created Office of American Innovation to ‘infuse fresh thinking’ into government institutions by utilizing the hard-won knowledge of great American business executives. The appointment was announced with a breathlessness that suggests no one has ever thought of it before, or that former great American business executives have never worked in government until now. But I worked for Kushner for 18 months as he tried to infuse a much smaller institution than the U.S. government with cost-cutting impulses from the commercial real estate world. And my experience doesn’t bode well for the Office of American Innovation. Not everything that works in the private sector is transferrable to the public sector — and even if it were, Kushner isn’t the best person to transfer it."

The kicker: “I worry that this new office will be more of the same: a vanity project, one that exists primarily to put Kushner in the same room with people he admires whom he wouldn’t have had access to before, glossing government agencies in the process with a thin veneer of what appears to be capitalism but is really just nihilistic cost-cutting designed to project the optics of efficiency."

Rex Tillerson boards his plane to Germany. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski/Getty)

INSIDE FOGGY BOTTOM:

-- “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spends his first weeks isolated from an anxious bureaucracy,” by Anne Gearan and Carol Morello: “[Rex Tillerson] takes a private elevator to his palatial office on the seventh floor of the State Department building, where sightings of him are rare on the floors below. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directlyor even make eye contact. Eight weeks into his tenure as [Trump’s] top diplomat, the former ExxonMobil chief executive is isolated, walled off from the State Department’s corps of bureaucrats in Washington and around the world. His distant management style has created growing bewilderment among foreign officials who are struggling to understand where the United States stands on key issues. It has sown mistrust among career employees at State, who swap paranoid stories about Tillerson that often turn out to be untrue. And it threatens to undermine the power and reach of the State Department, which has been targeted for a 30 percent funding cut in Trump’s budget. Many have expressed alarm that Tillerson has not fought harder for the agency he now leads.”

GOING NUCLEAR:

-- Chuck Schumer warned that it is “virtually impossible” Democrats and Republicans will reach a deal by next week to avoid the nuclear option over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Ed O’Keefe reports on his interview: “The warning came at a critical moment for Trump and lawmakers still reeling from last week’s decision to abruptly end debate on a Republican plan to rewrite health-care policy. The decision has upended the political dynamic on Capitol Hill, giving Democrats a stronger hand in upcoming debates over the federal budget, potential talks over revamping the tax code and transportation funding — all major priorities for Trump. But Democratic senators can only slow, not stop, Republicans from confirming Gorsuch, a … whose nomination has united GOP lawmakers behind Trump as nothing else so far this year.”

Senators fearful of ending long-standing traditions tried to ward off a bitter floor fight but failed to launch talks on a compromise – which Schumer doubted could be reached. “The deal would be, ‘We won’t change the rules on the next one,’ but the nuclear option is always available,” he said. “So how do you solve that?”

-- Meanwhile, two moderate Democratic senators up for reelection next year in red states defected:

IMMIGRATION:

-- The Justice Department filed an appeal notice to Hawaii’s freeze on Trump’s revised travel ban. The move means that the case will once again head to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the suspension of Trump’s first travel ban earlier this year. (Matt Zapotosky)

-- Seattle filed a legal challenge against Trump’s executive order to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities," saying it is "fatally ambiguous" and unconstitutional. (CNN)

-- "Sessions seeks greater role for Justice in immigration enforcement," by David Nakamura and Matt Zapotosky. "The Justice Department is seeking to play a more muscular role in the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement strategy, a move that is alarming immigrant rights advocates who fear Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ hard-line ideology could give Justice too much clout in determining policy. To highlight the department’s expanding role, Sessions is considering making his first trip to the southern border in mid-April to Nogales, Ariz., a busy border crossing region that features a major patrol station and already has miles of fencing and walls designed to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico." 

-- ICE officers arrested five Green Card applicants in Massachusetts when they showed up for scheduled appointments at a U.S. Citizenship office – the latest signal that immigration officers have shifted to adopt more aggressive tactics under a Trump administration. At least three of those arrested were beginning the process to become legal permanent residents. WBUR reports: Attorney Brian Doyle, whose client was arrested, said the incident captures the difficult situation for many illegal immigrants – now “forced to weigh the costs and benefits of keeping an appointment with an immigration official in light of new deportation priorities …” “Now, they're in a sort of catch-22 where, 'All right, I'm being called in for this interview. I want to have this first step approved.' If they don't show up ... USCIS just sort of assumes that they don't want to go forward with it,’ Doyle said. ‘But now, if they do show up, trying to take that first step and they're detained, it can lead to them being removed.’” His client is married to a U.S. citizen and was in the process of getting a green card when she was arrested. She remains in ICE custody and away from her three children – facing the looming threat of deportation to a country she has not seen in 15 years.

THERE'S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- Vladimir Putin denied that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, dismissing any reports of meddling as "fictional, illusory, provocations and lies” and warning against U.S.-Russian relations reaching a “point of absurdity.” "We said on numerous occasions and I reiterate that we are confident … and know for sure that opinion polls in the United States show that very many people are … friendly towards the Russian Federation, and I'd like to tell these people that we perceive and regard the United States as a great power with which we want to establish good partnership relations," Putin said during a panel moderated by CNBC. Asked more directly whether Moscow interfered in the election, Putin said: "Read my lips: No." It is his most emphatic denial on the issue since Trump took office.

-- Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio may have been targets of Russian social-media campaigns to discredit them “as recently as this past week,” an expert in Kremlin influence-peddling told the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday. From Karoun Demirjian: The news came during a rare open hearing that lawmakers billed as a “primer” on Russian influence-peddling: “This past week we observed social-media accounts discrediting … Paul Ryan,” said Clint Watts, an expert in terrorism forecasting and Russian influence operations. … [Watts] also said he believes [Rubio] ‘anecdotally suffered’ from online Russian campaigns against him during his presidential bid. The revelations widen the scope of politicians who have become the subject of Russian-backed hacking operations and online smear campaigns, allegedly a central part of a Kremlin strategy to spread propaganda in the United States and undermine its democratic institutions."

  • Election meddling is just the tip of the iceberg. Experts believe active intelligence-gathering efforts began as early as 2009, when fake, Russian-owned social-media accounts began popping up online. In 2014, they began to work on “influence campaigns” more intently, and by 2015 they had “tied hacking and influence together at the same time,” Watts said. And in 2016, they targeted more than 100 Clinton campaign staffers.
  • And they noted several deficiencies in U.S. defenses against Russian cyberattacks: A lack of a cybersecurity policy, poor defense coordination between the public and private sector, and almost no reliable government system tasked with shooting down false propaganda.
  • To spot Russian activity, they offered ominous advice: Follow the trail of money (through oligarchs), and “follow the trail of dead Russians.”
Trump greets Nikki Haley during an event celebrating Women's History Month on Wednesday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

U.S. POLICY, MEANWHILE, CONTINUES TO MOVE IN PUTIN'S DIRECTION:

-- U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the Trump administration is no longer making the removal of President Assad its main priority in Syria, a major break from existing U.S. policy that puts the president at odds with much of the Western world. Reuters reports: "You pick and choose your battles and when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out," Haley told reporters Thursday. "Do we think he's a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No," she said. "What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria."

-- Rex Tillerson put out a statement saying Assad's long-term status "will be decided by the Syrian people.”

-- Hawks on the right and human rights activists on the left were aghast:

  • John McCain said Tillerson's statement "overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered" by Assad's military, Russia's air force and Iranian-backed militias. Additionally, he noted that U.S. allies could fear a bargain with Assad and Russia "sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation.”
  • Lindsey Graham called the shift in priorities a “grave mistake,” saying that dropping the removal of Assad as an objective would be “crushing” to Syrian opposition and U.S. allies in the region. In addition, leaving Assad in power is "a great reward for Russia and Iran," Graham noted.

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

-- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will slow down settlement activity in the West Bank, moving to adopt a more muted policy out of “respect” for Trump. Ruth Eglash reports from Jerusalem: “The new policy came immediately following a cabinet decision to construct a new settlement in the West Bank for the first time in 20 years.” Netanyahu told the White House that he had no choice but to approve the new settlement, as well as a project approved before Trump took office. But moving forward, Netanyahu said, Israel will slow its activity in deference to Trump. “’This is a very friendly administration and we need to take his requests into consideration,’ … Netanyahu told ministers. He said that under the new policy, Israel would continue with some construction when permissible but only inside previously developed areas or in areas adjacent to those already developed. In addition, Israel will not allow the creation of any new illegal outposts."

-- Tillerson has traveled to Turkey, seeking to preserve Trump’s cordial relationship with Recep Erdogan despite looming policy disagreements that threaten to divide the allies. Kareem Fahim reports: "Flashes of tension during the visit left doubts about whether Tillerson had succeeded and raised new questions about the future of the U.S. relationship with the NATO ally and partner in the broader fight against the Islamic State militant group. Even before Tillerson landed, Turkish officials this week leaked to the local news media a damaging rumor about the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul that seemed timed to put pressure on the secretary’s visit. At a joint news conference … Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recited a litany of complaints, including annoyance with a U.S. plan to support Kurdish fighters in Syria. [And] Tillerson said his discussions in Turkey, which included a two-hour meeting with Erdogan, had been ‘frank.’ ...

"Erdogan has pinned 'lofty hopes' on a Trump relationship, betting the new president -- who spoke in glowing terms about Erdogan during his campaign – would prove to be a much more sympathetic partner than Obama. But Trump so far has shown no sign of deviating from his predecessor’s policies that have so angered Turkey. “Still, in the months since Trump took office, the two countries have managed to avoid any open confrontation, with Turkish officials showing optimism that the relationship could only improve. Something may have changed this week, however."

-- Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown, Dianne Feinstein and Ben Cardin penned a joint letter to several Trump administration officials, requesting they investigate Trump Organization business dealings in Azerbaijan on the possibility that it may have violated several laws. Their concerns follow a report from the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson about a now-shuttered project in Baku. “It appears that the lack of due diligence by the Trump Organization described in the article exposed President Trump and his organization to notoriously corrupt Azerbaijani oligarchs, and may also have exposed the Trump Organization to the IRGC,” the senators explain.

Desmond Spencer walks near a farm where he works a few hours a week in Beaverton, AL. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA:

-- “Disabled or just desperate? Rural Americans turn to disability as jobs dry up,” by Terrence McCoy: “The lobby at the pain-management clinic had become crowded with patients, so relatives had gone outside to their trucks to wait, and here, too, sat Desmond Spencer, smoking a 9 a.m. cigarette and watching the door. He tried stretching out his right leg … and winced. He couldn’t sit easily for long, not anymore, and so he took a sip of soda and again thought about what he should do. He hadn’t had a full-time job in a year. He was skipping meals to save money. His body didn’t work like it once had. But did all of this pain mean he was disabled? Or was he just desperate? Across large swaths of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks … For the severely disabled, this choice is, in essence, made for them. But for others, it’s murkier. Aches accumulate. Years pile up. Job prospects diminish.” 

 “’There’s a stigma about it,’ Spencer said … ‘Disabled. Disability. Drawing a check. But if you’re putting food on the table, does it matter?’ Then: ‘I could probably still work.’ But he didn’t mention the one that had been bothering him the most lately: Was he a failure?”

-- Heroin use in the U.S. has increased fivefold over the past decade, according to a major new study – and young white men are being hit the hardest. In fact, men from age 25 to 44 accounted for the highest heroin-related death rates in 2015 — a staggering 22 percent spike from the year before, per Lindsey Bever

-- A horrifying stat: In 2005, opioid deaths outnumbered murders in 27 states. In 2014, the number was 45. (Phil Bump)

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

James Comey said during an event the night before last that he has a personal Twitter and Instagram account to keep track of what people are saying online and to follow his kids. Gizmodo’s Ashley Feinberg used the clues he gave to track the accounts down. She wrote a fun piece about her sleuthing. And Comey, who uses the nome de plume Reinhold Niebuhr (the subject of his senior thesis in college), replied gamely (before raising the privacy settings on his account):

A good point:

The Wall Street Journal's Supreme Court correspondent spotted a metaphor:

Flynn's lawyer did not support Trump:

Paul Ryan's first C-SPAN appearance was as a staffer for Sam Brownback:

The governor of Maine pardoned a dog:

John Dickerson got a new title:

McDonald’s announced a major change to the Quarter Pounder yesterday: By next year, it will contain fresh -- rather than frozen -- beef patties. The announcement comes after a year of pilot tests at locations in Dallas and Tulsa. It comes in response to consumer demands for fresher ingredients. (More on the move here.) The company posted this:

Wendy’s, which advertises that it uses nonfrozen beef, trolled its rival:

A real-life Sharknado:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- The Atlantic, “The Prince of Oversight,” by McKay Coppins: “When [Trump’s] now-notorious Hollywood tape first leaked … [Jason Chaffetz] reacted to the news the way he usually does—he got himself in front of a camera, and fast. Within hours … he was on [set, going on] … about how he could no longer look his teenage daughter in the eye while supporting this candidacy. Two and a half weeks later, he announced he would vote for Trump after all. To the congressman’s detractors, the episode encapsulated all the worst traits Chaffetz is accused of: the shameless camera-mugging, the brazen partisanship, the wet-finger-in-the-air opportunism.”

In the end, he says both he and voters made the right decision. “The truth, of course, is that a world where Clinton is president right now is one that looks pretty good for Chaffetz’s career. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Chaffetz … [would have gotten] to spend the next four years basking in rapturous Fox News coverage as he led high-profile investigations into her administration. Instead, Chaffetz now finds himself saddled with the responsibility of policing his own party’s administration—rooting out conflicts of interest, exposing abuses of power, and generally causing headaches for [Trump]. It’s an awkward and unpleasant task, and one that he does not seem to savor. As one Utah politico put it to me, “Aside from Trump and Clinton, nobody’s fortunes changed more on presidential election night than Jason Chaffetz.”

-- Politico, “Democrats aim to take out Cruz in 2018,” by Burgess Everett and Heather Caygle: “The road to a Democratic Senate majority in 2018 runs through Texas — yes, Texas. Facing a grim midterm map, Democrats are desperately trying to put enough GOP-held seats in play to take advantage of [Trump’s] unpopularity and carve a credible path back to Senate control. The odds are so long that Democrats must pin their hopes on taking out Ted Cruz in the reliably conservative bastion of Texas. If Democrats can legitimately put Texas in play — still an if — it would be an important moment for the party going into the next election. Raising money for 2018 would be a lot easier if they can inspire donors with a message of potentially taking the Senate, as opposed to just stanching the bleeding. Their first ray of hope is the entry of three-term Rep. Beto O’Rourke — a 44-year-old former hard rock musician and internet entrepreneur who speaks fluent Spanish — into the race on Friday."

-- Politico Magazine, “Tomi Lahren Was Made for the Trump Era,” by Virginia Heffernan: “… In [the] blink of the eye, [Tomi] Lahren has gone from darling of conservative media to a thorn in its side. Just last month, President Trump himself called Lahren to praise her for praising him. Conservative publications like Freedom Liberty News raved about her ‘gorgeous’ selfies taken in the name of veterans … But now, in spite of fans’ hopes that Fox would snap her up, Lahren remains, as the month ends, a pepper pot without a pulpit—and one worth watching. [In] claiming that only a pro-choice position is consistent with libertarianism, she has given #nevertrump Beck a pretext to cut her loose as an infidel. There’s more here than a speed bump for a starlet. In a way, the test is less for her than the journalistic right writ large: Lahren’s departure from TheBlaze might contain clues for the future of conservative media in the age of Trump and beyond, and even for the Republican Party.”

-- Business Insider, “Time for some fame theory: Meet the eccentric liberal analyst whose unhinged tweetstorms have made him Twitter-famous,” by Maxwell Tani: “Eric Garland went to sleep on December 10 with 5,000 Twitter followers. When he woke up the next day he had 30,000 … A self-described ‘DC technocrat’ based in St. Louis, Garland runs the small consulting firm Competitive Futures, which examines economic and political situations and advises corporate clients. Although he said many of his clients are confidential, he said governments in Monaco and France, as well as companies like Energizer, paid his firm for ‘strategic analysis’ on topics like energy and housing. He boasted that his firm ‘predicted the housing crisis’ in 2008, and it provides similar insights to corporate and government clients. But since December, that hasn't been Garland's primary calling card …”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

An anti-transgender ‘Free Speech Bus’ is rolling through the East Coast, sparking protests — and a video game,” from Derek Hawkins: “Think of it as the Milo Yiannopoulos of coach vehicles. For the past week, anti-transgender activists have toured the East Coast in a big, orange ‘Free Speech Bus.’ Sponsored by the Spain-based advocacy group CitizenGo and several other conservative organizations, they’ve hopped from city to city to demonstrate against the notion that biological sex is different from gender identity. ‘Boys are boys… and always will be. Girls are girls… and always will be,’ reads a slogan emblazoned on the sides of the vehicle. ‘You can’t change sex. Respect all.’ Like Yiannopoulos — a former Breitbart News editor and right-wing agitator … the Free Speech Bus is, by all appearances, there to provoke a reaction. And it’s getting one. As [it] crawled through [one city] … protesters stood in front of it, blocking its path. At one point, someone lobbed a cup of coffee at the bus’s door …” Transgender advocates say a strong response is necessary in light of the threats the LGBT community faces regularly. “Words, in this setting, are violence,” one protester said.

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Right-wing author Ann Coulter invited to speak at UC Berkeley in April,” from the Daily Californian: “The Berkeley College Republicans and BridgeCal have invited conservative author Ann Coulter to speak on campus April 27 to cover the topic of illegal immigration. When BCR heard that BridgeCal … planned to host a speaker series on illegal immigration in the coming months, BCR proposed that BridgeCal also invite a conservative speaker to offer a contrasting biewpoint. But Caiden Nason, vice president of membership for Cal Berkeley Democrats, said [he thought] they ‘could bring someone better than Ann Coulter.’ Coulter is set to visit about three months after BCR attempted to host former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos on campus Feb. 1. UCPD was forced to cancel Yiannopoulos’ talk that night because of a violent demonstration that erupted … in protest of the event. ‘These topics are especially relevant in light of the fact that Milo Yiannopoulos … was unable to (speak) because of violent riots,’ [spokesman Naweed] Tahmas said. ‘Ms. Coulter’s visit is a crucial second test of whether or not Berkeley really is the home of the Free Speech Movement.’”

 

DAYBOOK:

At the White House: In the morning, Trump will meet with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and make an announcement with the National Association of Manufacturers. Later, Trump will meet with the Director of the National Institutes of Health and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Meanwhile, Pence will participate in a phone call with EU High Representative and Vice President Federica Mogherini before joining Trump and Condi. Later, he will participate in the National Association of Manufacturers meeting, and meet with U.S. Navy Submarine Junior Officers and their spouses.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“The reason they get immunity is because they did something wrong. If they didn’t do anything wrong, they don’t think in terms of immunity,” Donald Trump said in Wisconsin last year. “If you are not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for? Right.”

 

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

-- A very rainy, very gray Friday. Today’s Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “There’s a high chance of getting wet through the entire day. Rain looks moderate in intensity and could be heavy for some moments. Perhaps a slight let-up at times during the afternoon, although it may be heavier at that time where it is happening, if also more scattered. In the afternoon is mainly when we could also hear some thunder, although for now it seems the best odds of severe storms should stay to our south. High temperatures claw their way slowly out of raw-rainy territory — through the 50s and perhaps into the 60s if we’re lucky.”

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Exploiting women to sell hamburgers no longer works, or at least not like it used to. For a dozen years, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have been best known for their racy — and often crass — commercials featuring scantily-clad women with the occasional hamburger. The ad strategy began under former CEO Andy Puzder, who withdrew from consideration to be Labor secretary. Kate Upton, Heidi Klum, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton all starred in the coarse ads. Now that Puzder is gone, the company is changing course and going back to basics. A new ad, which will debut during the NCAA tournament this weekend, dials back the raunchiness. In it, the fictional Carl Hardee Sr. shows up to reclaim the company from his son, Carl Hardee Jr. “Take that down,” the older Hardee says, motioning to a giant portrait of Charlotte McKinney holding hamburgers against her bare bosom. The picture is replaced by a close-up of a hamburger. The ad agency that made the spot tells our Abha Bhattarai that the old commercials were not driving new business, and the chains need to change course to compete against newcomers like Shake Shack.

Watch:

Seth Meyers took a closer look last night at how the Trump/Nunes story keeps getting weirder:

Seth also imagined how Trump's meeting with the leader of China will go next weekend:

Stephen Colbert made fun of Mike Pence for not eating dinner alone with a woman who is not his wife:

The Onion also poked fun at this detail in a WaPo story from earlier in the week:

Stephen highlighted Trump's ties to Russian oligarchs:

And he celebrated North Carolina walking away from the bathroom bill:

He made a funny spoof of C-SPAN promos to show how hard it is to keep track of all the Russia developments:

Hugh Dancy, star of "The Path," made fun of "Make America Great Again" as a slogan:

"The Daily Show" looked at Ivanka getting an official government job and Trump attacking the Freedom Caucus:

In a speech at Brookings, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said picking a school should be like choosing among Uber, Lyft or a taxi:

Finally, a funny clip of Trump pushing stuff out of his personal space: